• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Thoughts on ‘Broken,’ Part 2: What’s the Solution?

Preventing bureaucracy from destroying human moments.

October 4, 2022

Yesterday’s post outlined Paul LeBlanc’s critique, in Broken, of the way that many institutions of care allow operational concerns to obscure the point of the work. If the point of the work is love, is there a way to scale that up?

He doesn’t say this in as many words, but the answer comes down to … kinda.

Although it isn’t the blockbuster answer that would have made for a tidy conclusion, it has the virtue of being true. Even better, he offers a few concrete examples of how it might work.

One method is through recognizing the role of relationships in human-to-human work. LeBlanc offers a few examples of moments in his own leadership experience when he realized that he needed to stop and listen to feedback from frustrated employees. I winced in recognition at the times he heard them connect the dots in ways he knew weren’t accurate but held his tongue to let them be heard. Been there. It’s not easy. But the greater good of showing respect for people’s perspectives—even if those perspectives reflect mistaken understandings—is often worth it.

I was surprised, too, at the moment he mentioned apologizing in public to an employee he had inadvertently slighted. College presidents don’t usually do that. But it would be a better world if more did.

His definition of lifting people up struck a chord, too: it’s getting them to the point where you can trust them to do the right thing and do it well when nobody’s looking. Yes, yes, yes. I remember the moment of pride when I was at Holyoke and the deans kicked me out of my own meeting. We were working on a tricky issue—I honestly don’t remember what it was—and had a breakthrough. At that point, they didn’t need me anymore; they knew what to do and just had to do it. They decided at that point that they could handle it themselves, so they sent me on my way. I took it as a triumph. They had emerged as leaders.

Some of the barriers are more structural. LeBlanc writes approvingly of public benefit corporations, which are for-profit companies with social good written into their charters. The idea is to get away from a monomaniacal focus on short-term financial results. I’ll admit being less convinced that public benefit corporations will succeed than he is, but the diagnosis is certainly correct.

Short-term financial optimization often involves squeezing the more human moments out of interactions. For some really routine interactions, that’s fine; I’d rather have ATMs in the world than have to walk up to a teller during regular bank hours whenever I need cash. But in more sensitive situations, human interaction can make the difference. The under-the-breath comment while walking out the door is often the most important part of the medical exam, and the vaguely incongruous expression on a student’s face during a conversation can be the key to a breakthrough. When interactions are measured by quantity rather than quality, those moments can fall away.

(Unapologetic parental brag: The Boy works in a free clinic at UVA. Usually when he interviews patients before they see the doctor, he’s taking notes electronically. Recently he saw a patient whom he realized had just been through something horrible. He closed the laptop and gave her his full attention, at length, going back later to do the notes. I couldn’t be prouder.)

At some level, fixing institutions requires fixing the conditions to which they have to respond. Chronic austerity doesn’t bring out the best behavior. There’s no kind and thoughtful way to lay someone off. If we want humane institutions, they need to be made possible. That’s a much larger political conversation, but a necessary one.

LeBlanc never quite answers the objection to favoritism, the idea that impersonal processes function, in part, to prevent discrimination. I wish he had. But with that concern noted, this is a thoughtful, disturbing, candid, necessary book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for days. I can’t offer much higher praise than that.

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