• Getting to Green

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

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When stability becomes stasis

I was speaking recently with the dean of faculty at a small US polytechnic. Toward the end of the conversation, he mentioned that he was planning on giving up his job sometime next year. I asked why, knowing that (1) his hardest battles were now behind him, and (2) he couldn't yet afford to retire -- certainly not given current financial market conditions. His answer: "Well, I've been there about 15 years. When you've been in the same spot for fifteen years, it's time to move on."

April 6, 2009
 

I was speaking recently with the dean of faculty at a small US polytechnic. Toward the end of the conversation, he mentioned that he was planning on giving up his job sometime next year. I asked why, knowing that (1) his hardest battles were now behind him, and (2) he couldn't yet afford to retire -- certainly not given current financial market conditions. His answer: "Well, I've been there about 15 years. When you've been in the same spot for fifteen years, it's time to move on."

In many ways, he's right. In fifteen years, you've probably done pretty much what you know how to do for an institution. Or, put it this way -- if you haven't managed to get it done in fifteen years, the odds are pretty good that you never will. Part of that generalization relates to the pace of change in your industry -- in some high-tech fields, fifteen years is way too long. At the same time, if you're in a field where the customers (students) constantly change and the material pretty much never does, maybe there's no great rush. (A number of my elementary school teachers had been at it for probably thirty years, but they hadn't yet lost any steps. At least, not that I could ever figure out.)

In the campus sustainability field, the jury's still out. Making Greenback sustainable is going to take decades, so a long-term perspective is certainly in order. And the state of knowledge -- the state of the practice even more than the state of the art -- is constantly advancing. In a real sense, I have a new job every year. Sometimes, every week.

So what's my concern with stability or "time in grade"?

I've noticed, at Greenback as on other campuses, that a lot of the administrative staff -- business administration, student administration, only slightly less so in academic administration -- have never worked anyplace other than Greenback. In many cases, it seems that they started at Greenback as students, got some sort of experience as work-studies, then got hired on full-time (if, initially, on a temporary basis) soon after they graduated. Not only have they never worked anyplace else, they've never really known anyplace else.

Oh, there are exceptions. Some of the student affairs folk got their degrees elsewhere, worked there for a couple of years, then moved to Greenback twenty-some years ago and never left. Lower-level staff folks sometimes got hired first, then became students on a part-time basis. And there are a few who got degrees elsewhere, got hired onto campus pretty much as they might have gotten hired into an insurance company or a marketing department, and then went back to grad school once they discovered that they didn't have to pay for it.

But the basic rule seems to be: once at Greenback, ever at Greenback.

Now, there's nothing wrong with having stable employment. And there's nothing wrong with employee loyalty. But there is a disadvantage to having too much stability, too much loyalty. If the only way you know something can be done is "the way we've always done it here", and the same exact thing is true of virtually all your co-workers, then "the Greenback way" becomes sacrosanct and any suggestion of change is alien, if not apostasy.

In the sustainability field, change is what we do (or at least attempt). Greenback fundamentalism is not a help. Sometimes I wish for a little more staff turnover.

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