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Jul 21, 2023

When to Get an 'A' and When to Settle for a 'C'

The thing is to differentiate between two key types of tasks in our work: let's designate them as Type A tasks and Type C tasks. Type A tasks are those where striving for excellence is mission critical. These are areas where you genuinely want to outperform, not merely because of the inherent satisfaction but primarily because the institution's success hinges on these tasks. Examples of Type A tasks include real program improvement, student recruitment, and initiatives aimed at enhancing student success. These tasks directly impact the quality of education offered, the reputation of the institution, and its overall success.

Conversely, Type C tasks represent those functions where the objective is to meet the requirements without investing an enormous amount of time and effort. Essentially, you're looking to get a C grade. Think of it as compliance or box-ticking tasks such as accreditation, program review, required training, and various other regulatory compliance tasks.

Herein lies a potential pitfall: attempting to get an A in every task. On the surface, it might seem like a commendable ambition to excel in all we undertake. However, in the context of higher education administration, it can be a dangerous distraction. By devoting resources, time, and energy to strive for an A on a Type C task, you are invariably sidelining a real Type A problem that warrants that dedication.

This brings us to a widespread syndrome I call "compliance disease." This is when compliance becomes the main focus and overshadows real growth and development. It's characterized by an individual or institution deriving a sense of achievement and satisfaction from excelling in tasks that should have been merely "satisfactory."

Afflicted by the compliance disease, people often forget that these tasks were actually intended to be on the C list. Excelling in tasks that need not have been prioritized at all is not an achievement; it's a misallocation of resources.

This isn't to belittle the importance of meeting compliance requirements; it's essential to any institution's survival. Feeling relief when an accrediting body gives your institution a clean bill of health is OK. However, considering it a significant accomplishment and a source of pride distorts the balance of priorities.

The core challenge in higher education, like many fields, lies in discerning the truly important tasks from the merely urgent or mandated ones. The most important tasks often go unsaid, unlisted, and undefined. They're the tasks we instinctively know are necessary but might hesitate to undertake due to their complexity or because they don't come with a neat set of guidelines.

In essence, the key is to know when to aim for an A and when to be satisfied with a C. A strategic allocation of efforts will ensure that the critical tasks, the real Type A, receive the attention, resources, and excellence they deserve, driving meaningful growth and progress in the landscape of higher education.

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