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Nov 30, 2018

The unrealistic expectations of perfection

If you want to be constantly disappointed, expect perfection from people, or from yourself. Human beings, on average are messy, slow, prone to forgetting, misunderstanding each other, not nearly smart enough for the projects they undertake, and in general woefully ineffective. Human beings make mistakes all the time. Everyone know that, of course. Now, when humans get together in complex organizations, how do you think they do: better than individuals, worse, or about the same?

It is actually an interesting question. Any organization devotes much of its resources to compensating for weaknesses of its prime element, us. Organizations put in place procedures where people and machines check and recheck what people do, guide their work with policies and procedures, analyze the workflows, and ensure compliance with various rules. Every time I sign a paper in my office – it is to have one more pair of eyes to check if half dozen people before me did not miss something. That is what bureaucracies are: they are tools to prevent and correct human imperfections. So you would expect organizations do fewer errors than an average human being would.

Actually, no, because all this machinery to prevent human errors creates a new layer of opportunities for errors. For example, quality control procedures can slow down processes, and lend to failure through slowness. A rule that is meant to correct human error encounters a case that does not fit it, and makes a mistake by trying to do the right thing. Organizations are not perfect either. If you start digging, you will find evidence of some mess everywhere. Policies and procedures routinely contradict each other; some are routinely ignored or misunderstood. Some organizational aspects are over-regulated while others under-regulated. No one can keep track of all that is going on; the division of labor creates certain blind spots to larger systemic problems. And remember, the basic elements of the organization are still the same species of intelligent apes, who continue to err, sometimes multiplying several small errors into one giant screw-up. In my estimation, a large-size organization does a little worse than its typical member in terms of errors. Of course, good ones can be a bit better, and bad ones, accordingly, a little worse.

Funny, people who work in different industries tend to ascribe the institutional messiness to their own segment or even to their individual institutions (especially if they work there all their lives and have little opportunities to compare). A friend told me about the absurd world of a large (and actually very successful) corporation marveling at how this bag of screw-ups can actually function. Another friend is convinced that only universities can be that bad. People from different levels of government will blame the government on organizational discord. The military has its own brand of self-deprecating jokes about the stupidity of military organizations. The “well-oiled machine” is a fantasy; it does not exist anywhere where an organization is large enough.

This does not mean we have to take all imperfections as fait accompli. There are always ways to improve, to streamline, and to simplify. Just don’t get mad. You should not get mad at a dog for its inability to talk, should you? In the same logic, do not get mad at an organization that is confusing, messy, and imperfect. That is the nature of the beast, not just its flaw. A good strategy is to be patient and persistent, fix what you can, and not lose sight of the mission.

Nov 26, 2018

Campus closures to come

Northern and coastal universities have adopted to an occasional snowstorm or hurricane closures. Sac State never closes, but it did just fine with the smoke emergency. However, not one university is prepared for a possible longer closure; let us say for three weeks or more. Such closures could happen because of a bad flue pandemic (which is bound to happen), a longer natural disaster like a volcano or an earthquake, or another disaster with significant damage to campus. To get a taste of such a thing, read about the Katrina’s impact on Tulane University. The difficulty is to keep students on track, and let them get needed academic credit. Just imagine an impact of massive tuition refunds on the university finances, and the impact of a lost semester on tens of thousands of students.

The main problem is that not all instructors are capable of teaching out their courses in an online environment. Although the technology for it exists, is tried and ubiquitous, most higher ed. faculty would have a great difficulty to adjusting to on-line teaching. The easiest thing would be to create some sort of a crash-course on online teaching that can be quickly accessed. Just a list of student assignments and assessments that could substitute f2f equivalents would be helpful. Faculty members are smart, and they will figure it out with a little help.

The issue of access and equity is also very important. Universities should focus on providing emergency access to internet and to computers for the neediest students. We have hundreds of laptops in various classes and carts, but have no procedure for quickly loaning them to students. Universities could stockpile some portable routers or they can buy access to a larger network, like Xfinity. We could have agreements with public libraries and shopping malls to lend internet access to students during prolonged closures. All of this could take time and effort.

Educational organizations in general invest very little in emergency preparedness, which is understandable. How do you justify spending precious time and resources on something that is so rare, and may never happen at all? This is one of those rare occasions where having a large system like CSU may help. Each campus alone cannot do it, but the System may need to spend some time and resources in drafting a prolonged campus closure plan. Even a plan of actions for a university administration is better than nothing.

Nov 5, 2018

University is a kibbutz

I like when people come to me with an idea or a solution to a problem: here is what’s wrong and here is what we should do. I like it less when people come with the first part of the pair: here is what is really wrong, end of sentence. The implied second part is – “and it is your job to figure out a solution.” This second approach makes some sense where the problem might be new, and I may not be aware of it. At least they are giving me some new information. That is totally fine and welcome. Sometimes though folks bring to me the same issue repeatedly, and we both know a good solution escapes us. The reluctance to engage in the next step – into finding solutions – always strikes me as childish and egocentric, especially in the university setting.

Universities embrace shared governance, where faculty and staff will have a say in most decision-making. It is very difficult to draw a line between those who lead and those led. One has to learn to be in both positions. It is not like in business, where material interests of top managers and employees might be vastly different. On campuses, managers do not really get stock options, and there are no dividends. When people disagree, it is most likely because they have different opinions about reaching the same goal. It is really, really difficult to operate here without some level of trust in the other side’s benevolence and competence.

Do you get these obsessive thoughts about someone else around you doing the wrong thing, doing it all wrong, wrong, wrong, and the need to tell everyone how wrong, wrong, wrong these people are? Well, perhaps less coffee and a little more meditation can put the restless mind to ease. If you really want to help run this place, see the complexity, consider all sides, and start working on some practical solutions. Be ready to pull your weight implementing them. Get obsessed about solutions; this is a good kind of obsession. Because any university is a collective enterprise, like a kibbutz or a collective farm. There is no one omnipotent up there, who just does not want to listen. It is just us, and limits of our own imagination.