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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Differing economies
June 2, 2010 - 9:15pm

The recent Memorial Day holiday was more than welcome. In truth, that's the case most years. Given that the last previous administrative holiday was in mid-January (faculty get Good Friday off -- staff don't), it had been a while between long weekends. Also given that the period right after Commencement is the time a whole lot of facilities projects kick off at Greenback, planning and preparation activities get pretty intense from mid-April through mid-May.

None of this is new for 2010. For the past several years, I've found myself pretty much played out by the time Memorial Day arrives. Truth be told, I find myself more exhausted at this time of the year than do most of the people on campus with whom I interact. (Not that they're not often ready for a holiday, too, you understand!)

But this year, I think I might have a useful insight into a root of my problem. Part of my challenge, working to get Greenback U towards its dual goals of being more operationally sustainable and more sustainably educational, is reconciling two competing economies -- one academic and one administrative.

Presuming that the purpose of an economy is to maximize value derived from available resources, then on the facilities-administrative side of my job the governing (least available) resource is the familiar one measured in dollars. Cost considerations pretty much rule. There can be exceptions (if I'm fast on my feet), but the rule remains. My projects compete against other projects for available dollars, and their success or failure will be measured primarily in the same terms.

When I'm interacting with students (and, to a lesser extent faculty), however, the nature of the competition changes. Dollar constraints still exist, of course. But efforts to get a project moving forward -- the competition against other opportunities, other projects -- aren't ruled by financial considerations. The governing (least available) resource becomes not dollars, but attention. If enough students are paying positive attention to a project proposal, it's likely to garner support and eventually go forward. Same with enough faculty members, or the right few academic administrators. And the success or failure of the project will likely also be gauged in attention terms. Were enough people aware of (whatever)? Did enough folks participate? Was it the topic of discussion on campus for a brief period afterward? Do people remember it? Would we feel good about doing something similar again?

In a very real sense, then, working across the academic-administrative boundary means reconciling a dollar economy to an attention economy. As the academic year winds down, the supply of available attention certainly decreases. As the intense facility projects period which is "summer vacation" nears, competition for the last remaining capital dollars definitely goes up. Both sets of constraints become more binding, decisions within each economy are more difficult to achieve, and reconciling the two becomes something of a nightmare.

Even if this "two-economies" thing is true, though, I'm not sure it leads to any practicable tactic or strategem for making April and May less stressful. Is it a useful insight, or just an insight? Or -- heaven forfend! -- is it just the illusory ravings of an over-tired mind?

Oh, well, at least it's not that long until the 4th of July!


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