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Nov 21, 2009

Scarcity and decision-making

It is easy to be a leader in the times of abundance; it is less fun in the times of scarcity. For example, when we had few faculty members, there were plenty of classes to go around – for anyone who wanted an overload, or a summer class, or a convenient schedule. There was enough left for adjunct faculty, who provide an essential safety network for us without any meaningful commitments from us (I am not sure if everyone understands what an important part of our operations these people are). Of course, the abundance of opportunities created scarcity of people – we did not really have enough to serve on committees, to oversee classes, to pay close attention to curriculum. Now we have more people which is wonderful, but fewer classes. That brings an essential problem of all human groups: how do you divide goodies when we don't have enough for everyone?

It is my job to manage this process, somehow. What I really don't want to happen is for me to become a ruler who bestows favors to a few, at the expense of many. That would be an awful deal for everyone, including the few and the many. This is why we designed a set of rules, which are about as specific as can be expected. They can never cover all the circumstances, however, and are by necessity quite flexible. The Charter gives the Director much power in assigning classes. (The same could be found in the BOT policy manual: deans and directors are expected to play a large role in assigning work). This was something the initial Charter committee clearly understood, and that is what the faculty members voted for. It was clear to everyone that dividing up the goodies cannot be a matter of simple democratic voting. It does not work like that, because of the issues such as competency are involved. Those cannot be discussed publically without a lot of people being hurt. It is also impractical to subject hundreds of small decisions to the democratic deliberations.

OK, I am stuck with these powers I don't really want. I wish a computer could just do that, but no algorithm has been invented for these kinds of things. What can serve as system of checks and balances? What I figured out over the years is this: if I am asked how a decision was made, I have to have a rational explanation, consistent with the rules spelled out in the Charter. It does not matter that I am actually very rarely asked; it is simply an application of the defensibility criterion, a way of talking to myself, if you like. Can a reasonable person listen to my explanation, and if not agree, at least find it reasonable?

My colleagues vary to a great degree in what and how they are asking. Some will go to a great length to negotiate a two-day a week schedule, classes at only certain times, and maximum allowable overloads. Others are so shy, they never ask for anything, so I have to pry out of them what it is they want. Some will insist on seniority rights, even though they are not in the Charter. Others will argue fiercely for what they perceive is the best interest of their program or area. It is all good – I always say yes and will not question the reasons as long as the request does not conflict with someone else's interests. My practice is to try to follow the rules, to have a good story to back up a decision, to look for compromises, and never bring the conflicting parties face-to-face. I wish those little decisions could be transparent, but they cannot be: these stories are both exceedingly boring and potentially hurtful. What a paradox, but it is true.

Is this working? I think so, but then again, maybe I am wrong; please let me know if it does not work for you. Should we develop a more formal process? Should there be a committee overseeing staffing? We still have very few conflicts like that, which is quite surprising. We still have a lot of options in comparison to other institutions; we still were not force to make many hard choices. The situation of true scarcity may or may not confront us, but it is a good idea to think ahead – how would we handle it if it arises?

Nov 14, 2009

A week’s worth of life

I looked through my calendar, and ransacked my memory, with a single question in mind – was it worth it? Which portion of the week did I spend doing something good, which portion did I enjoy, and which was wasted or drudgery? Ah, I wish there was a calculus of life, and the minutes and hours were easy to separate into the good and bad baskets.

For example, on Monday, I spent an hour training Early Childhood students how to pass the PLACE test. Was it good? I enjoyed helping these students very much, because this is something they need, and I was actually able to help a little. But then, the test itself seems to be ill-conceived, and hardly meaningful. So, in the grander scheme of things, both the students, and I probably wasted our time. But then again, is watching a movie, or hiking a waste of one's life? If you go so far as to say something like that, what is life itself, if not enjoyable waste of time?

Then there are completely wasteful activities, which irritate us all, for they are neither enjoyable nor useful to anyone in particular. For example, we submitted all required paperwork for our new position in Colorado Springs, but someone from a higher office wanted me to submit the organizational chart of our School, with all the position numbers listed. Not just a list of faculty – they have that – no, an organization chart. As a result, I have to spend maybe another hour or two fishing for this information, playing with graphics, etc. – all of this, I am pretty sure, for no particular reason, just because someone has the power to require me to do so. But then again, maybe that person had a good reason to ask, and I just fail to imagine the reason? It's like that every time. We never know fully the value or significance of our actions, although we can certainly guess. But this impossibility of full knowledge is both frustrating, and what makes life so delicious.

It is about to snow. Svetlana and I have bought some food, some plum wine, and are going to hunker down, and survive the winter. She's buying some cookies, and I sit in the car and watch snowflakes fall down from the sky.

Snow falls, snow falls;
To the white stars in a blizzard
The geranium flowers reach
Beyond the window sash.

Snow falls, and all's in tumult
All around, the world takes flight:
The back door's unstable staircase
And a crossroads in the night.

Snow falls, snow falls,
as though it's not flakes
but in a patched coat
the sky descends to earth.

As though it is like a fool
From the uppermost landing
Stealthily, playing hide and seek,
The sky descends from the attic.

Because life does not wait,
Before you know it, it's Yuletide.
But a short span,
And look, there's the new year.

Snow falls, extremely thick    
And in synch, with the same steps,
In that tempo, with that sloth*
Or with that same quickness,
Time passes, perhaps?

Perhaps, year after year,
People follow how snow falls
Or like words in a poem,
Perhaps time passes...

Snow falls, snow falls,
Snow falls, and all is tumult:
A whitened pedestrian,
Surprised plants,
The turn of an intersection...

Boris Pasternak, 1957, not sure whose translation

Nov 6, 2009


Sometime in the middle of this week, it suddenly became clear to me that I feel very tired. Not sure why this is the case; maybe because I did not get a real vacation for longer than a week in about 15 years? Maybe it is this weird virus that is going around? Not flu, but something like that. Does not make you very sick, but makes you tired?

I then realized that many people around me are in the same position – they look a bit tired, sound somewhat overworked. Not to mention that a lot of people are actually sick with all kinds of flus, colds, and bronchitis. Honestly, I felt some remorse for my endless pushes to do more, to do it better, and faster. There were several push-backs, when different people either told me to bug off, or to slow down, or to leave them alone. Sometimes, it was told directly (which I always appreciate), and sometimes indirectly (which is OK, too, but make sure I get the message, because I don't always get it). But something was going on for the last couple of months – maybe the solar flares, maybe the virus – which made many of us just tired. It also does not help when the economy collapses, and all you hear is bad news. Even though it is somewhet becoming better, people we know and don't know have a lot of troubles.

We came a long way since the Fall of 2006. We did a lot of changes, revisions, improvements, reorganizations. And it was always fun and not overwhelming – not to me anyway. Maybe we just hit a wall in terms of how much and how fast people can do and what level of change they can tolerate? But if it is true, how do you slow down? Our students can't wait: classes, curriculum revision, scheduling, reporting calendars are all going as usual. The relentless machinery of the university life is still churning its wheels. There are e-mails to answer, papers to grade, books to write.

But let's just agree to find some time for ourselves. Take a weekend as weekend – no work. Postpone a project that can be postponed. Take it easy for a while, will ya? I will try to do the same. For the next month, I therefore ban all e-mails marked as High Importance, with the goddamned red exclamation mark! There is nothing that important.