Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Small Decision to Make

There was a shake up in one of our programs around campus recently. The English department plays a big part in the program, but it's all voluntary. No single person has to participate, and there's a trade off as far as work load.

There was a big report about this program last year, and it showed that the program wasn't working well. At least that's what we heard, and that's why, presumably, the program was shaken up and got a new boss. Time for a change!

The new boss decided to send out a sort of contract thingy, which those of us who want to participate need to fill out, checking all the boxes of special things we agree to do, and signing it. Among the things are extra meetings (which have been worse than useless every time I've been), extra paperwork, and a program syllabus (which wasn't included). Basically, the contract thingy put in a bunch of new work rules about doing what's been done and a little more and asks us to sign on.

As you can imagine, we English department folks had lots to say about this, and so we invited the new boss over for a chat before anyone signs.

We had our chat. We asked about the useless but required meetings. Are they going to change? Will they be less useless? Are they really important to this program (or just someone else's add on)? We asked about the syllabus.

And the new boss? Had never actually asked anyone about the meetings, or if they're useful or important. Had never even thought about it. Nope, it was there before, and just got put in again. Same for most of the other stuff. Apparently, when you're the new boss, you don't need to actually talk to the people who do the work before instituting new work rules, you just do what's been done before.

Turns out, the new boss had never participated in this program before, had never gone to any of the endless, useless meetings, had never done the work.

If you were the new boss, wouldn't looking at the negative report from before make you want to change what was done, rather than hold onto them without question? Isn't that the idea of reports?

Do you ever want to ask a new administrative person about qualifications for the job? I know I do.

Want to guess this person's primary qualifications?

The new boss explained that in the report, when the English department data is separated out, we actually do a really good job. So why, we asked, did you send us this insulting, stupid contract? The new boss explained that pointing fingers at people who aren't doing the job doesn't seem like a good idea; it would be bad for morale. So, the new boss concluded, we English department folks can just cross out the contract stuff and sign the paper to say that we want to participate.

The unwillingness to tell people who are screwing up that they're screwing up seems like a sort of cowardice and bad management.

And bad management is a problem, especially right now, because we're going through a whole "transparent" evaluation process with an eye to making strategic cuts rather than across the board cuts. That means some programs will disappear, maybe some departments. So shouldn't we all have access to this data so that it's part of the evaluation process? (We're all supposed to be honest about our shortcomings as well as our strengths in this process.) Shouldn't departments with bad outcomes have to report them? Shouldn't we be able to use this data to show that we're doing a good job?

I think the new boss is trying to do a good job. Let's say I'm willing to assume the new boss is a person of good will. But, the whole contract thing tells me that the new boss is also less thoughtful and more authoritarian than I'd like. And the cowardice and bad management doesn't make me happy, either. On the other hand, there's a workload balance thing, and I do think the program can be really positive for our students (and, our goals have been largely achieved in our department).

So the question I'm struggling with is, do I participate next year?


  1. I think you do have an instance of bad management -- and one that is very common in academia. This situation seems icky in two ways... first, they don't want to actually confront the folks who aren't doing the job, so why will the contract be enforced? Second, making exceptions to the contract sends the message that the contract can be avoided -- and, if the contract was a valid thing, why allow anybody to avoid it?

    Also, since the new boss didn't even think about why the program was in trouble in the first place, and instead decided to put problematic parts of the program into the contract -- tells me you may have trouble with them.

    I'd have to think about the educational value of the program and balance out the increased hassle factor to see if it is worthwhile.

  2. a problem with opting out is that it sounds like the program will lose both some laboring oars AND the kind of constructive feedback that might help it succeed.

    on the other hand, mr. new-in-charge doesn't seem very open to a real reasessment of the program, or to recognizing the negative impact of imposing additional burdens without addressing underlying problems. your descripton reminds me of a nightmarish reorganization at my former job, which multiplied the useless meetings and busy paperwork without addressing some core problems, and ultimately accellerated the loss of experienced staff. including me.

    professors won't flee the academy because a voluntary program is doing poorly; instead, the program will fail. presumably, people think the program could be useful, so that that wouldn't be a great outcome. is it possible to propose some concrete, constructive steps to improve things?

  3. Blogger ate my comment yesterday. I vote NO. The program may or may not fail, but you don't owe your time to the program. And the new boss shows a lot of signs of unpromising signs of leadership. You've got better uses for your time. Swing back in a year if the program seems to be better.