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Nov 30, 2007

Relational disorder and the question of power

Writing these blogs made me so transparent, there is no mystery anymore. Those who read them probably know already how I think and what I worry about. However, there is a whole set of things that cannot be disclosed, that will never make it to these blogs, other than in abstract and metaphoric form. Those are, of course, problems related to other people.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a professional development workshop for School Directors, entitled “Things that keep you awake at night.” What transpired from the conversation is the common concern about faculty. Specifically, when someone’s behavior negatively affect students, programs, and other faculty, and we have very limited range of options to address the situation. The frustration comes from the very nature of our position: it is our job to make sure the environment is good, and people - 
all people - are comfortable: students, staff, and faculty. Because we are the lower-level managers, we receive all the complaints. None of the school directors believe everything we hear. All agreed that one should always listen to all sides of a dispute. These old tried techniques work well, and most of conflicts can be resolved with time and patience and with a little bit of luck. All human cultures have developed some mechanisms of forgiving and forgetting, otherwise no social life would have been possible. Thank god for holidays, breaks, parties, and other things that help us forgive and forget.

However, each of us had some cases where complaints are numerous, credible, and persistent. They seem to be rooted in certain personality traits rather than from miscommunication, specific conflict, or differences of opinion. We all have troubling and troubled individuals who seem to invite conflict, complaints and resentment. None of these people realize they have a problem; they always place the blame in others, no matter how numerous those others are. The power of denial is a tremendous force; people sometimes come up with a completely irrational, far-fetched version of reality just to avoid acknowledging “I have a problem.” Unfortunately, in an academic setting, we have little power to protect other people, especially students, from individuals with the relational disorder. Once someone is tenured, supposedly to protect one’s academic freedom, it becomes very difficult not only to let one go, but also to effect any changes in behavior.

At least some of my colleagues believe that the solution is in more power; wouldn’t it be nice if we could fire someone who is clearly a trouble. I don’t think so. I don’t like to have power, and dislike exercising it. There is a risk in having power concentrated in someone’s hand, both for others, and for those who are given power. It is an old tradition among Russians, which originates in the Orthodox theology, to treat power with suspicion, and try to avoid it as something spiritually corrupting. In my view, the collective power of faculty should be sufficient to solve problems such as relational disorder. However, I would like to comment on a systemic problem: all the good news are openly shared, and people tend to know about each other’s achievements. The bad news, however, accumulate in my file folders. Complaints are dealt with discretely. I am happy to share some of the bad news with the Dean, but he is in the same position: there is no way to make the bad news public, for the obvious reasons. However, faculty have a lot of say in peer evaluation but they basically operate without inadequate information. Some of it, of course, gets through the rumor mill, but that’s just it, the rumor.

Because of this curious mismatch in information flow and decision-making power, administrators sometimes look like the bad guys. They make a decision that, given equal access to information, everyone else would have made exactly the same way. However, because others did not have the same information, they may see the decision as unjust or frivolous, or worse, motivated by personal likes or dislikes. The power balance between faculty and administrators is needed, in part, precisely because of the difference in information to which they have access. However, for it to work well there should be some initial trust on both sides. When I learn of someone’s decision which I consider to be erroneous, I must first assume that the person who made it is not an idiot and not evil. Most likely, she or he know something I don’t. This does not prevent me from questioning, and demanding clear answers, but the initial hypothesis to be proven or disproven should be exactly this: something I don’t know has led to the decision I do not understand.

Nov 16, 2007

Thinking with Ursa

A significant portion of my week was spent working on curriculum changes. It is an interesting work, actually, because a lot of it deals with imagination. When you set curriculum as described in catalogue, you have to imagine all possible implications such changes may have. For example, we have found a few bugs that created problems in this registration session; none of these were on our radar screen last year when we introduced the changes. For example, we added a certain prerequisite because program faculty who teach it believe the course should be taken later in the program. We missed of course that it is mathematically impossible for students to fit the specific course so late in the program, because of other requirements. So, they all need to be manually cleared, which is exactly the problem we were trying to solve in the first place. Here is another example: some courses had Provisional admission to a program prerequisite. However, some students went directly to Full admission, and skipped the provisional. In any person’s mind, full supersedes provisional, but computer read these two as separate codes, so it wont’ let fully admitted people to do what provisionally admitted can. We failed to think like a computer, and in a contemporary organization, such a skill is a must.

It is funny how we talk about Ursa (our registration software). She is really a person, but then she is a very peculiar one, with her own logic, her own quirks and obscure rules. We say “Ursa thinks they have not met the requirements,” or “Ursa read this course on their transcripts, and she cannot read the attribute after that.” Ursa has its own logic, so we need to learn to think like Ursa. We wonder how to make Ursa understand something, how to translate our point into Ursa’s logic. YOU cannot argue with her, but you can trick her into doing what we want, only if you understand the way she thinks.

It is all about imagination. We consider possible implications of our curricular changes for students, programs, faculty. It is all but impossible to anticipate all consequences of a change, but we need to see at least the major ones. My wonderful curriculum team, Vicky and Karon, and I take one change, one specific adjustment, and then we basically let our imaginations run. How is it going to affect A, B, and C? What about past and the future? Let’s imagine those students two years from now? What about all these special circumstances we know about? In a way, it is like writing a fiction story, where circumstances are imagined, but they need to have some level of plausibility to them. I guess other people would call it modeling. It is an interesting intellectual and creative challenge though. It requires contextual knowledge of the multiple programs. Funny how computers themselves are not capable of doing such imaginative work. Computers relieved us from a lot of tedious work, but it seems like there is even more demand for human brains that can connect seemingly unrelated dots, and imagine real-life scenarios. Human brains can pick on subtle patters that computer completely ignore, and their owners actually enjoy doing it.

Nov 9, 2007

Junior high politics

Junior high politics can be brutal. Adolescents discover the world of relationships, and engage in it with enthusiasm of zealots. One essential feature of human relationships is their selectiveness. Being a friend with certain people means you’re not friends with other people. If you are friends with everyone, this removes any meaning from the concept of friendship and renders it empty.

Of course, by definition, adolescents have not yet established long-term relationships; they are trying it out. So, there is the constant sense of being unsure. The affiliations and alliances change, shift, they fail and are reestablished, and consequently, not much trust exists among adolescent friends. And because power comes with the quantity and quality of friends one has, the constant fears of betrayal are only heightened.

What comes with mistrust and insecurity? It is constant demands to prove loyalty, and to dispel suspicion. For example, if Lucy your best friend, and Sarah is your worst enemy, Lucy may not be friendly with Sarah, even in passing, even briefly. And if she is, she has some explaining to do. This is about the appearance of friendliness. However, if Lucy openly suggests that she would like to be friends with both you and Sarah, well, that is an open invitation to break the friendship.

Adults develop a lot more sophisticated understanding of relationships. First, they will learn the shades and gradations of friendship, and will develop a repertoire or f relationships that is much richer than friend/enemy dichotomy. Second, they will realize that no relationship is truly inclusive, even the most intimate ones like marriage: spouses must still have their own friends, and a whole range of other working and personal relationships. Healthy relationships of all kinds require certain amount of trust and predictability. Adults also learn to calibrate their assessment of relationships. Someone who disagrees with you, or who even has lost temper with you, is not necessarily your enemy or dislikes you. We learn this one way or another, to a different degree.

This is how things normally work. However, when adults experience certain traumatic, dysfunctional communities, they sometimes revert to junior high level of politics. This has little to do with individuals, or their maturity. It’s just the lack of trust that comes from past experiences. If you do not believe the relationship you develop with someone is safe, you will be scrutinizing the other person’s behavior for signs of betrayal. You will interpret her or his friendliness with your enemies as a worrisome sign.

Whoever is in the position of leadership has to be careful treading the relational waters. She needs a support group, those people who most close to her in outlook, and just simply people she draws emotional support from. However the leader cannot engage in junior high politics. He cannot ensure the support of his base by alienating the others. The temptation to anoint friends and enemies is great, especially if there is some genuine dispute within the group, and especially if the leaders feels he has the majority’s support. Nothing unifies your base group as a defined enemy, the others. Nothing brings people closer than a warm discussion about shortcomings of those not currently present. But that is exactly the strategy that would erode trust and plunge the whole group into junior high politics. This has to do with power asymmetry. Although in an academic setting administrators’ power is severely limited by faculty governance, faculty and administrators still have different kinds of powers to balance each other. It all goes wrong when an administrator or a faculty member attempt to tilt that balance by augmenting their powers by personal relations.

Social systems are powerful, but not all-powerful. Systemic problems can nudge a person towards reverting to junior-high politics, but we all have the choice to remain adults.