• 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

Upstairs, Downstairs

Report from the the League for Innovation conference.

February 24, 2019
 
 

Sunday at the League for Innovation conference encapsulated the tensions in my job just about as well as anyone ever has, mostly without trying. It was jarring.

On Sunday it offered a track for presidents and vice presidents separate from most of the rest of the conference. (The track is only for Sunday; we’re released on our own recognizance after that.) The morning session was mostly devoted to a speaker, Doug Hall, who exhorted us to use “innovation engineering” to push our institutions forward. Drawing on the work of W. Edwards Deming, Hall argued that “94% of errors come from systems; only 6% come from employees.” He used Deming’s “red bead” exercise to demonstrate that even when people know that a task is impossible or entirely out of their control, they’ll try anyway; over time, things don’t get better and people burn out or quit.  Instead, he argued, it’s up to us to get the systems right. As he put it, verbatim, “it has to be pushed from the top down.”

Security wasn’t too tight, so after about an hour I slipped out the back to catch the presentation that some English professors from Brookdale -- Karen D’Agostino, Donna Flinn, Bettejane Bolan-Kenney, Marcia Krefetz-Levine, and Charles Mencel -- were doing on the ALP program here. The argument of the presentation was that co-requisite remediation in English shouldn’t be reserved for the students who just miss the cutoff; it can also benefit students at the very bottom of the placement score range. They even had the stats to prove it. But I was struck by their repeated mention that the adoption of ALP at Brookdale was faculty-driven, from the bottom up, and gradual.  In their estimation, that’s part of why it succeeded.

Then I returned to the admin track, where discussion was still going on about the importance of innovation coming from the top.

And I thought, there you have it.  That’s why these jobs are so hard. They’re both right.

It can be hard to see systems when you’re inside them, especially when the workload is heavy. As one speaker put it, “it’s hard to be strategic when your hair is on fire.” When you’re straining under a heavy teaching load, any sort of significant change can just look like another thing to do.  In the very short term, it’s easy to tune out those perspectives, or to refuse them when offered.

But there’s some truth to Deming’s point that most performance issues aren’t necessarily the result of having incompetent or dishonest people around.  Most of them have to do with systems, resources, or ambiguous or conflicting expectations. Leaving those systems in place will prevent large-scale improvement. Relying on bottom-up solutions to them is unrealistic; most people are busy enough doing their own work that they won’t have either the time or the access to information to learn what the systemic constraints are.  They might have a sense of what they want, but their proposals are frequently myopic (“why can’t we just…?”). And leaders have to send a tricky two-sided message: convey the urgency of improvement while also conveying confidence that it’s possible.  Confidence without urgency leads to complacency. Urgency without confidence leads to neurosis or nihilism. But two-sided messages lend themselves to multiple interpretations, making concerted large-scale action in a single direction that much harder. 

I’ve tried to express the role in the past as setting the background conditions against which people can do their best work.  I still think that’s essentially correct, although there can be border disputes around what constitutes “background.” But even that can fall a bit short when the background conditions require a substantial change.  In the absence of a palpable crisis, it can be difficult to get enough people to pay enough attention to have an informed discussion on a large scale, which leaves a series of frustrating options.

I hadn’t expected Sunday morning’s program to capture the dilemmas of this role quite so directly.  Color me impressed. On to Monday...

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