Bargaining with the Provost

Academic decision-making, however much derided, has something to teach Washington, writes Michael Fischer.

September 1, 2011

Always excited by conflict, media commentators have recently been riveted by the even more dramatic spectacle of impasse, more specifically, the ever-proliferating standoffs between adversaries who refuse to budge: players and owners in the NBA and NFL at odds and triggering lockouts in both leagues; the legislature and the governor in Minnesota holding their ground and shutting down state services; and Republicans and Democrats in Washington failing to agree on anything.

These stalemates – and others I could cite — are challenging the reputation of colleges and universities as unrivaled paragons of inaction. In fact, at its most dysfunctional – in the grip of a filibuster, say, or tangled up in arcane rules – the stalled, quarreling U.S. Senate can make the Faculty Senate look like a SWAT team.

I want here to look at what universities can learn from legislative paralysis, particularly the gridlock stymieing Washington. I start from the assumption that universities, more than most organizations, emphasize achieving consensus in decisions. At times, many of us in academe take pride in our commitment to consensus-based decision making, aligning it with such positive values as involving people in the decisions that affect them and favoring persuasion over coercion. At other times, however, even the most forceful advocates of consensus-based decision-making, among whom I count myself, get impatient. Our frustration leads to familiar complaints about herding cats, never getting another accomplished, and enduring interminable meetings that only complicate problems instead of resolving them.

Our commitment to consensus waxes and wanes for many reasons but primarily because we are ambivalent about compromise. Compromise is almost always essential to achieving consensus in higher education. A proposed major change in a university – for example, a revision in the academic calendar or curriculum – typically attracts a core of supporters and an equally vocal group of naysayers. Between these extremes lies a not yet committed, more or less curious group, sometimes a majority of faculty members, who need to be brought along if the proposal is going to succeed. I say "succeed" rather than "pass" because without sufficient support, even a proposal approved by the majority can still be sabotaged or at least stalled. Tenured faculty opponents of the change can continue their dissent with impunity. Lukewarm faculty members can maintain their disengagement, refusing to staff key committees that may be necessary to implementing the change. Although unanimity is neither essential nor realistic, sufficient consensus, not just a majority vote, is crucial.

Measuring "sufficient consensus" is a judgment call administrative and faculty leaders must make before moving on. Familiar marketplace metaphors often guide our reasoning. The "buy-in" of the uncommitted results from "selling" them something. It can be something tangibly in their self-interest – e.g., the curricular change might lower teaching loads – but often in colleges and universities, carrots are as hard to come by as sticks, especially now, when budgetary pressures are increasing class size, freezing salaries, and whittling away travel support. Rewarding cooperation becomes as problematic as punishing intransigence. Buy-in accordingly comes from allowing the initially disaffected to leave their mark on the proposal that results: offering amendments, rewriting sections, raising objections to be dealt with later, all with the ultimate goal of achieving broad "ownership."

The difficulty of reaching this goal is compounded not only by the paucity of material incentives in universities but by a culture that justifiably affirms the intellectual independence and creativity of its members and has difficulty mustering enthusiasm for anything that sounds written by a committee. Absent fiscal exigency, ending a campus discussion of a contentious issue thus becomes as difficult as starting one.

Some critics have used the slow pace of decision making in universities against them -- as evidence, for example, that universities need to be run more efficiently, like businesses, or that tenure allows professors to remain narcissistic, irresponsible adolescents who never learn to work with others. Fans of for-profit higher education, where CEO’s need not wait for a faculty committee to review anything, like to talk about the glacial pace of deliberation in traditional higher education.

But insulting professors and universities deflects attention from the even slower progress of national legislative decision making, where much more is at stake and deadlines loom ineffectually, like warning signs no one reads. At this level, suspicion of compromise has given way to hostility, with President Obama the target, contributing to the national legislative gridlock. It is striking how criticisms of Obama from the left and the right consistently disparage compromise. From the point of view of Frank Rich, Paul Krugman and other liberal columnists, Obama is a disappointing centrist who caves in too readily to his adversaries. From the point of view of Tea Party Republicans, however, he is a steamrolling socialist who must be resisted at every turn, not appeased in any way.

Either way, compromise gets stigmatized: as something the president engages in too readily or as a trap his right-wing adversaries must avoid. The only resolution of their differences that these ideological opponents can imagine is somehow tilting the balance of power in their favor: a game-changing election that will finally allow their side to get something definitive done. The game being changed or ended is the process of debate and negotiation across differences, which few are confident will lead to a better outcome than their own initial position. We are left with paralysis, short-term fixes, posturing for one’s allies, and endless searches for opportunities to weaken the other party.

Here is one example among many of liberal columnists’ wanting to toughen up Obama’s resolve by curtailing what they see as his penchant for compromise: in his June 10, 2011 New York Times opinion piece, Joe Nocera expressed disappointment with Obama’s failure to nominate consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren to direct the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Seemingly cowed by Republication opposition to Warren, "the president's response has been to dither" and search in vain for a compromise candidate. For Nocera, the root of the problem is that Obama is "a president who sees himself as a consensus-seeker. His first instinct is to try to cut a deal." Nocera admits that "there are certainly times when compromise is the right approach." But he goes on to say "this is not one of those times." Obama should finally do the right, not the most expedient, thing: nominate Warren and engage in the partisan fight that would result. Taking a firm stand would "redound nicely to the president’s advantage" by repairing his credibility as a leader in the eyes of the American people, even if Warren would end up not being confirmed.

Much as I concur with the political position of Nocela, it is hard for me to see how acting on his advice would break the impasse that frustrates him. This stalemate results from Republican intransigence, which Nocera is asking Obama to emulate by refusing to budge on certain key points. Fighting fire with fire – responding to one non-negotiable demand with another – is always tempting when stuck in a disagreement. But exchanging ultimatums only exacerbates the standoff one is trying to move beyond, like talking louder in a noisy restaurant. That isn’t to say that Obama should give in to every demand. It is to say that the root of the problem is not his preference for negotiating with his political opponents but their refusal to meet him half way.

Two recent books – Avisha Margalit’s On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (2010) and Robert Mnookin’s Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight (2010) (the source of my title) – shed new light on the rejection of negotiation and the compromises that negotiation inevitably occasions. Margalit and Mnookin see the give-and-take of negotiation as essential to democratic political life and most relationships, from friendship and marriage to business partnerships. Openness to compromise signals respect for other points of view, trust in someone else’s word, and willingness to cooperate and work things out for the good of the relationship or community.

Nevertheless, despite their predilection for compromise, Margalit and Mnookin agree that in certain extreme situations "bargaining with the devil" should be rejected. In identifying these situations, they set the bar high. For Margalit, we should never enter into discussions where the outcome is likely "to establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation, that is, a regime that does not treat humans as humans." Mnookin similarly allows for rare occasions when personal moral objections to engaging in any kind of a dialogue with an adversary can override pragmatic considerations. For both writers, one refusal to negotiate meets these strict conditions: Churchill’s decision not to negotiate with Hitler would qualify.

I seem to have strayed far afield from the Republicans’ refusal to bend in their negotiations with Obama. But keep in mind the association of Obama with Hitler on numerous right-wing websites, not to mention Glenn Beck’s notorious injunction to read Mein Kampf as a guide to Obama’s policies. I am not suggesting that Republican senators and representatives see Hitler in Obama and recoil. I am saying that an undertow of fanaticism keeps them from moving beyond their all-or-nothing demands. "Fanaticism" is the conservative commentator David Brooks’s word for the Republicans’ disdain for "the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms," their willingness to sacrifice everything to the “idol” of their ideological position ("The Mother of All No-Brainers," New York Times, July 4, 2011).

Mnookin offers the following safeguard against fanaticism: always discuss key decisions regarding negotiation with people who see things differently. The need to seek out other opinions is especially important for leaders whose decisions affect others. Gut feelings need to be exposed to public debate even, or maybe especially, when we are sure we are right.

The absence of debate with people who hold different views sustains the fanaticism and demonization that are fracturing national political discussions. Numerous commentators have pointed out how gerrymandered House districts insure the reelection of incumbents or expose them to primary challenges only from candidates to their right or left. In addition, the electronic media foster what Cass Sunstein has called "enclave extremism" and "cyberpolarization": individuals coming together electronically to ratify and compound one another’s biases, suspicious of outsiders and sheltered from opposing views, even ones that claim the backing of empirical evidence and fact. The logical conclusion of this insularity is Sarah Palin’s acolytes rushing to Wikipedia, not to verify her account of Paul Revere but to rewrite what contradicts it, bringing every recalcitrant source of information into her orbit.

This narrow mindedness is antithetical to everything we teach and value in academe. But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should remember that self-serving dogmatism is where our own ambivalence toward negotiation and compromise can take us when it goes too far and fuels categorical rejection of bargaining with whoever we are tempted to see as the devils in our everyday professional lives: the colleague we can never agree with, the department chair who seems always to say no, the senior administrator whose every word sounds false.

Giving up on dialogue with these individuals, denying them the possibility of change with totalizing words like "never," "always," and "every," inspires dreams of escape and revenge that make us susceptible to much the same self-pity and bitterness that motivate Palin. For some faculty members, the blanket refusal of negotiation results in opting out of university service, seeing the classroom or the study as a refuge from an otherwise hostile institution, the only places where they feel vindicated and whole. For administrators, thoroughgoing disenchantment with negotiation can lead to staying cloistered with like-minded supporters, bypassing consultative processes, and issuing edicts from on high, chiding whoever dares to dissent.

I am particularly concerned here with college and university leaders, who bear a special responsibility for counteracting these forms of withdrawal and the myopia they can promote. As Mnookin suggests, leaders need to set the example of seeking out opposing views and striking the right balance between empathy (understanding someone else’s needs and perspective) and assertiveness (clearly articulating one’s own point of view), between patience and prodding.

Listening is especially important to fostering constructive conversations. When people feel unheard, they clam up or shout. It is hard to listen to someone else when we ourselves feel unacknowledged, when we are stewing over our own bottled up thoughts and feelings instead of expressing them to a responsive audience. The best university leaders show how we all can move from monologues – venting to friends, lecturing to subordinates, complaining to a spouse or partner – into learning conversations with the very people we want to avoid.

"Learning conversations" comes from the Harvard Negotiation Project, in particular the influential book Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most (1999). The Harvard project assumes that when we are caught up in a conflict and anticipate confronting the person or group we are at odds with, we fear at best a difficult conversation or at worst a shouting match. We feel defensive, anxious, and unsure how to proceed, like students the first day of a challenging class. Our most appealing options seem to be fight (marshalling arguments, zeroing in on the vulnerabilities of our adversaries) or flight (escaping to our comfort zone).

The Harvard project aims at moving us past attacking or retreating and toward seeing disagreement not as a zero-sum power struggle but as an opportunity for mutual enlightenment. If this growth toward engagement were easy, there would be no need for the many books, seminars, and workshops that promote it. Well aware of the obstacles in our way, the Harvard project nevertheless encourages us to create a community strengthened not by lockstep agreement but by edifying debate.

If by bargaining we mean the learning conversations celebrated by the Harvard project – not the bickering and showboating that pass for debate in our national politics – then we should be bargaining with the provost, the Faculty Senate, and our colleagues every chance we get. A healthy culture of collaborative decision-making should characterize universities as much as effective teaching and exciting research, especially now, when confidence in negotiation and compromise is crumbling in other institutions. A healthy culture of collaborative decision-making means not only getting things expeditiously accomplished, but also creating educational opportunities each step of the way. The open-endedness of university discussions, their characteristic lack of fiscal urgency, encourages us to make the process as meaningful as the anticipated outcome.

The absence of economic incentives for engaging in these discussions – more harshly, the fact that they take time and do not pay – can lend credence to the cynical adage that academic debates are so vicious because there is so little stake. But it can also mean that individuals join in these discussions for the best of reasons: for the relationships they enable, the insights they provide, and the changes they bring about along the way and in the end.

We have become accustomed to assessing universities by their graduation rates, student learning outcomes, and other quantitative measures. I have been suggesting that this is what great universities sound like: lively conversations outside as well as inside the classroom, informed by new ideas and energized by respectful disagreement and widespread participation.


Michael Fischer is vice president for faculty and student affairs at Trinity University, in Texas.


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