Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Big Wigs, Hard Times

Another Item in the Roxie's World series, Excellence Without Money: Hard Times in Higher Ed

Notes on Administrative Communication During the Budget Crisis

Kathryn Masterson has an interesting new article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on how university presidents have been handling the challenge of communicating to their campuses during Great Depression 2.0. Masterson examines presidential rhetoric and talks to several presidents, including Penn State’s Graham Spanier, Emory’s James W. Wagner, and Arizona State’s Michael M. Crow. She culls from her study a list of 12 tips or strategies for communication aimed at preserving administrative credibility, sustaining morale, and avoiding the spread of misinformation in a period of anxiety and uncertainty. Some of the tips seem contradictory – “Avoid doom and gloom” in your communication is followed closely by “Don’t soft-pedal the circumstances” – but different situations and institutions call for different strategies, of course.

Unfortunately, Masterson’s article is only available to subscribers of the Chronicle, so for the benefit of the many starving grad students and furloughed faculty who can no longer afford such luxuries, Roxie’s World has generated its own list of communications tips for the top dogs on campus – and it’s totally free! Print out a few copies. Laminate ‘em and give one to your favorite beleaguered big wig as a holiday gift, even if all the holiday parties have been canceled this year to prove how serious we are about cutting costs on campus. (What? Moose shrieked. No holiday party! That means no crab dip, dammit! I don’t want to live in a world without crab dip!)

Most importantly, add to the list in comments, kids. We are counting on your snarky wisdom, good sense, and free labor to help get us up to a full dozen – or more! What’s your advice? What should administrators say and how should they say it as they endeavor to guide their campuses through the budget calamities of fiscal 2010 and toward the predicted apocalypses of fiscal 2011?

Here’s what we came up with:

1. Don’t get caught in a big fat whopper of a public lie. Don’t say, “The budget made me do this,” when it’s clear you are making personnel and administrative changes that are largely unrelated to money. You’re in charge. You are paid to make tough decisions. Lying about why you are making them will cost you credibility and poison the air of your institution.

2. If you are going to “lean on” your institution’s strategic plan, as Masterson suggests many presidents are in their public statements, make sure you are not eviscerating key parts of it in your actions or proposals. If, for example, your strategic plan declares that your university’s rise to greatness has gone hand-in-hand with and been accelerated by the increasing diversity of its community and its intellectual work, then it’s probably not a good idea to start chopping away at offices and programs most visibly associated with promoting diversity. Just sayin’. Some people actually read those plans, you know. (NB: This example is absolutely, 100% hypothetical. My typist made it up out of her extremely limited imagination. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to any real situation in any actual university anywhere near Roxie's World. Swear to dog, peeps. Srsly.)

3. Try not to sound just flat-out delusional. Faculty and students have had it with the happy talk they incessantly hear from high-level administrators. Excellence without money is a joke, people, not a vision statement!

4. Don’t tell heartwarming stories about your housekeeper’s daughter struggling to become the first member of her family to graduate from college as a way to demonstrate your profound sensitivity to the economic struggles of the humbler members of the university community. Such gestures only underscore your class privilege and remind people that you probably make more than anyone on campus who isn’t coaching a sports team.

5. Do not, under any circumstances, get all misty-eyed talking about how the university is a “family” and we all have to stick together and take care of each other in order to get through the crisis. Sure, we’d like to encourage compassion and a sense of shared suffering and common purpose, but bear in mind that families, unlike universities, don’t charge tuition, pay salaries, or, you know, furlough people when times are tough. It’s a flawed, even specious, analogy, and you should avoid it at all costs, especially if you are white, male, heterosexual, and over the age of 50. You are not the pater universitatis, and we are not your docile, dependent children. Deal with it.

6. Same goes for the hackneyed metaphor of “storms,” perfect or otherwise. The crisis in public higher education is not an act of god or nature. It is the result of decades of underfunding connected to the neoliberal shrinking of the state and the disappearance of a rhetoric and a politics based on the notion of public goods and values in the United States. To call it a storm is to deflect attention from the actors and the actions, individual and collective, that have brought us to this place. You are, or ought to be, an educator first and foremost. If every crisis is a teachable moment, you should seize upon this one to do some teaching on the history and origins of the funding crisis rather than mouthing mindless clichés that only obscure what is really going on.

7. When you get challenged – and you will, because times have changed, people are scared, and a lot of folks on campus see administrators as the enemy these days – don’t go all hard-a$$ on everybody or box yourself into a position you can’t easily adjust when circumstances require it. It appears, for example, that the strike by graduate employees at the University of Illinois a couple of weeks ago occurred because administrators foolishly dug in their heels and refused to put assurances that there would be no change in the policy on tuition waivers into writing. The graduate assistants rightly insisted that the guarantee be put on paper and won after a well-organized one-day strike that a more flexible administration would have sensibly and easily avoided.

8. Before you open your mouth, try to imagine what UC system president Mark Yudof would say – and then say exactly the opposite. No, really. Especially if you are the president of a Carnegie I institution, it’s probably good to try to avoid sounding aggressively anti-intellectual, brutally insensitive, and brazenly cynical all at the same time. Unless you happen to like the idea of buildings throughout your university system being occupied by angry students calling for your head. In which case, here are some fine examples (via) of Leadership à la Yudof. Good luck to you, dude -- and to those whom you, um, lead.

(Photo Credit: Jason Madara, New York Times)

(Excellence Without Money: One, two, three, four, five, six.)

1 comment:

  1. BRILLIANT, Rox. And one suggestion I will add is that administrators might declare that their own salaries not just be hit with furloughs but be cut in order to save money. Imagine an administrator suggesting that, and saying that would be necessary for improving education! Heck, some savvy undergrads on my campus tell me they could just agree to a cap of $200K or so and most of the cuts we're experiencing wouldn't be necessary. Imagine touting the pleasures of learning and saying that a life of learning and inspiring young citizens to learn is good for our COMMONWEALTH.

    "Excellence without money" IS a joke, not a vision statement, and all of this cutting sounds particularly absurd coming from the mouths of those who became administrators because they like the additional pay and the lack of pressure to do research. Just sayin'. . . .

    Even when my family didn't like what I was doing, disapproved in fact, they didn't furlough me. So you're right on about the family rhetoric too, Rox.

    I'll fall over in a dead faint when I hear that an administrator has recommended his or her own pay cut in order to address budget shortfalls. . . .


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