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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.

Involuntarily committed
August 7, 2008 - 9:24am

Greenback U. wants to get sustainable. So we've got a Sustainability Committee. They're supposed to come up with a Sustainability Policy. I guess they're committed to coming up with the policy -- after all, that's what "committee" means, right? That which (or who) is committed.

If so, it doesn't show. The committee's been in place for over a year, with nary a policy (much less anything substantial) to show for it. They meet irregularly, they don't publish minutes, and attendance is hit-or-miss. If those are signs of commitment, I must be Queen of the May.

Notice, I said "they". I'm not on the committee. In fact, no staff member with any real involvement in sustainability efforts is on the committee. The only administrators on the committee are Deans, Directors, and above. The other members are faculty, emeriti, and a token student. In the for-profit organizations for which I've worked over the years, that wouldn't matter, because the committee would have staff to do its legwork -- this committee has none. Or the members of the committee would take action items back to their respective offices, and get their regular staff to do the legwork and prepare materials for the next meeting -- I've never known this to happen at Greenback. In fact, I've rarely seen anything I'd recognize as an "action item".

If the Sustainability Committee were the only such case, it wouldn't matter much. Formal policy development at Greenback kind of reminds me of what the late Allan Sherman said about directing his first film -- something about watching to see what people were going to do anyway, and then publicly telling them to do that. Those of us who want to get something done have learned that the absence of a policy merely creates useful degrees of freedom. If it makes sense, we try to find a way to do it. After all, nobody told us not to!

But the situation is worse than that, even within the topic area of campus sustainability. We don't just have one committee, we have a number of committees. In addition to the Sustainability Committee, we have a steering committee, an action committee, an action council, a couple of coalitions, and a partridge in a pair tree. As nearly as I can tell, none of them talks to any of the others past the level of coordinating who's going to take which table at which campus event. If, for instance, the steering committee is providing steering inputs to the action committee (wouldn't that make sense?), it certainly doesn't show.

Not only do these committees rarely speak to each other, they rarely speak to (or with) the sustainability (or other administrative) staff. That's not entirely a bad thing (be careful what you wish for!), but it's certainly another source of inefficiency. Operating largely within their respective silos (or vacuums), these groups often end up working at cross purposes. And when they do ask for input from the working folks, it's often to get them out of a hole they dug entirely for themselves (at the last possible minute, regardless of whatever else we may need to be doing).

A Libertarian friend of mine once told me to be glad I don't get all the government I pay for. Maybe it's similar with campus governance. Maybe an amorphous committee structure is the worst possible system except for all the alternatives. But now I'm told that a new Sustainability Curriculum Committee (or maybe "Task Force") is going to be created. Twelve or fifteen faculty members, all of them from different departments and schools within Greenback, most of them of long service to the institution (and, thus, minimal familiarity/concern with what's going on at other schools), none of them truly empowered to speak for their supposed constituencies.

I can hardly wait. Even if they strain mightily, I'll be happy with a mouse. In a couple of years.

Meanwhile, back to work.


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