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Feb 4, 2011

Defensible rules: A short story in emails

Here is an epistolary short story;  it is a series of quite recent emails, slightly abbreviated. The exchange is between me and two people from another institution.  
C., “Thesis and Dissertation Specialist” to a doctoral student: Your request [to schedule a proposal hearing] was faxed Friday night at 5:37 pm.  At this point, since it’s within one week, we cannot process it without an emailed explanation from your advisor as to why it must take place without the two weeks requirement, and at that point, I will get a decision from Dr. W. [Dean of Graduate School].
Sasha to C.: S. and I are co-chairs, and we forgot to file the written portion form on time. I do not remember what the rationale for the two weeks gap was in the first place, so it is hard to argue why there has to be an exception.
C. to Sasha: It is Graduate School Policy to turn in the forms at least 2 weeks prior to the Exam/Defense. When in doubt, turn in the form, even if the written comp results have not been turned in yet.  Her request should have been turned in by January 18 at the latest, but preferably earlier. Her written comps arrived on the 18th.  Per the Request to Schedule a Doctoral Examination form “This form must be turned into the Graduate School at least two weeks prior to the Exam/Defense. The deadline is Thursday at noon. Exceptions to this rule must be accompanied by an explanation of the late request and will be considered on a case by case basis. No exam/defense will be allowed with less than one week prior notice.”  We are unable to approve the request for February 1. Please reschedule and submit another date allowing the 2 weeks notice. 
Sasha to C.: A citation from the rule book is not a rationale. What was the rationale for the initial rule?
C. to Sasha: The Graduate School policies are the foundation of our school, and were set for years before I started here, so I’m not aware of the original rationale. Deadlines are in place to allow everyone time to get through all of the required processes and maintain high quality in our work. We appreciate  your efforts to help us maintain our high standards of education at [the university].
Sasha to C.: The origins are probably going to the age when things needed to be mailed, or delivered through a courier service. But in any case, holding on to policies without understanding their rationale is not the best way of maintaining the high standards, don’t you think?
C. to Sasha: Neither is ignoring policies. We have made changes where we feel they are necessary to keep up with the digital era. Deadlines are still necessary to maintain order. Please have her reschedule and get the forms turned in in a timely manner.
Sasha to C.: I would not feel comfortable enforcing a rule intent of which I do not understand. I consider it to be my ethical responsibility to know why I am telling “yes” or “no” to someone for whom it is an important decision. That is what makes me a professional and a public servant. Otherwise, it all becomes a game of power without any tangible benefits for the students or for the general public.
C. to Sasha: I am saying no because you and the student did not meet the policy deadline. I do understand the meaning of a two-week deadline and the policies which I am enforcing. I do not know why our forefathers chose to write the rules the way they did, but I respect that they did so with the student’s best interest in mind. I understand that when I came into the graduate school 5 years ago, I helped clean up those policies and clarify them to fit not only the traditional student but the off-campus community as well. It is my responsibility to make sure the faculty and students follow the stated rules, policies and procedures. I’m sorry if you don’t like that.
Sasha to C.: It’s not that I don’t like your answer; it’s the fact that you don’t have one that bothers me. You’re not saying “I don’t know, but will find out for you.” The message is quite different – that we are supposed to trust every rule without questioning it. I am sorry, I grew up in a country where you were supposed to tell on your neighbors to the authorities – and most people did not, because they have questioned the rule, and obedience without questioning just rubs me the wrong way. This is not about [the doctoral student’s] proposal.
Dr. W, the Graduate Dean to Sasha: I understand that it must feel like we just sit around and come up with silly policies, but honestly we don’t. The rationale that guides this decision is that oral comps, dissertation proposals and dissertation defenses are to be open to the public and the policy indicates that they must be announced twice during the two weeks prior to the date of the event.  The student missed the deadline.  All we are asking is that the comps be moved one week later so it can be publicized as required.
Sasha to Dr. W.: To be honest, I knew that. I was just bugged to no end that she would not know the rationale and be perfectly comfortable enforcing the rule. And she had the audacity to tell me to basically get lost and stop asking questions. She did not say – I am terribly sorry, I don’t know the rationale, but will find it for you. No, it was like – rules are rules, get along with the program. This is no way to talk to a faculty member, hope she will get it one day.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I wonder: if I become an administrator, will I still get to be a philosopher of education, or at least a gadfly in the system? This post is very reassuring along those lines. thanks.