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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?

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