Friday, August 24, 2012

Solving the Wrong Problem

There's a recurring joke in Scott Adams' "Dilbert" comic strips. It's the one where the pointy-haired manager thinks that every problem can be solved by reorganizing the boxes on the org chart.

Today comes a story from the University of Scranton that smells disturbingly similar:
U. of Scranton Faculty Fights Effort to Yank Department Chairs From Its Ranks
Let's take the administration at face value here. The stated goal is to "improve the academic quality" of the institution. The president proposes to solve this problem by "prevent[ing] them from feeling torn between loyalty to the administration and loyalty to their union".

As psychologists and social scientists of all stripes know, everybody has multiple loyalties. The only time these are problematic is if the groups to which we have loyalty are in conflict. What the president is, in effect, saying here is that the faculty union stands in conflict to the goal of improving academic quality.

If that is really true - if the union at Scranton opposes the goal of academic quality - then this president is up a creek. Without the faculty's cooperation, no administration can hope to achieve any significant goal. There are just too many ways for a faculty to veto, resist, or drag its heels.

On the other hand, if the faculty (including the union) and the administration agree together that improving quality is important, and can sit down and mutually negotiate a series of measures to achieve that goal, there's no more "dual loyalty" problem. It wouldn't matter where the lines on the org chart go, because the loyalties would be mutually reinforcing with respect to the goal of increasing the academic quality of the institution.

Reorganization is the lazy management approach, fueled by the illusion that greater central control on the org chart will translate into greater control over outcomes. In universities, this is a dangerous illusion. It generates lots of fights, and lots of sound and fury signifying nothing. In the end, the administration's most powerful tool - perhaps the only one that really works - is persuasion. If you can't persuade the faculty to go in the direction you'd like them to, trying to force them with sticks probably isn't going to work well. It appears that Scranton is going to find this out the hard way.

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