Monday, February 13, 2017

Searching for a vision

Some may believe that politics is the most human of all arts, but it is wrong. Primates do a lot of politicking; they form coalitions, and orchestrate coup d’états. Those behaviors are normal, and they probably become more intensive when resources are scarce (let’s say, drought or budget cuts). However, faced with a common external threat, chimps tend to act as a unified force.

The Academia is one of many primate habitats, and every single institution I know has its share of internal politics, which by necessity includes factions. After all, one cannot advance one’s interests and agenda without friends. So, coalitions naturally form and engage in various levels of competition. The acceptable levels of factional struggle are such that it does not take away too much time and effort from doing the work for our students, and moving forward as an institution. I know this is a vague definition, but it does the job. We have a given set of time and intellectual resources. How they are expanded matters. If too much is dedicated to internal politics, the task of development is threatened. In the most severe cases, even the routine maintenance of operations could suffer, but it is a rare case.

A new dean’s worst mistake is to get immediately entangled into the micro-politics by simply joining one of the coalitions, and letting it become the sole source of support and information. And let’s keep in mind, such a move is very tempting, for if you want to advance any kind of agenda, you should have people to rely on. So it works in the short run, but in the long run, the move is self-defeating, for it leaves the structural arrangements unchanged. Machiavelli had plenty to say about that. In his time, excessive internal struggle meant losing wars to neighbors. In our times, it means stagnation, and eventual loss of competitiveness. Authority based on trying to be objective and even-handed, fair to all factions, is slower, but ultimately, it is more stable and productive. The first rule of conduct – I cannot belong to any faction, but will try to listen and understand everyone. The basic English common law principle is to hear to the both sides, while trying to be impartial. It is perhaps one of the best ideas ever; it was designed to contain our natural tendency to color all information depending on whether it comes from a friend of from a foe.

Dean’s conduct is important, but not critical. The most important is to have a common vision, a big goal for all of us. If we get it, the micro-politics will be kept in check; they never become destructive, or take too much of anyone’s time. They still exist, but can even be a positive force where all factions find niches, and compete on how much they contribute to the common good. That is not just theory; I have seen this happen, and it works. We don’t have to be all friends. In fact, I find the utopian images of human brotherhood dangerous and ultimately destructive. I like the pragmatic, good-enough, yet inspired communities. We tend to share the same values, and that is the 80% of the way to flourishing.

To convert shared values into a vision is not an easy or fast project. There are some fascinating things to know about how visions cannot be too precise, and have to stay a little blurred. I even wrote a paper about that a couple of years ago. The term “vision” evokes the use of visual imagery; it cannot be limited to words. It is a mental picture of the not-so-distant future where we all want to be.

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