(Basílica Santa María del Mar, Barcelona. Photo: E. Mayock)
“Process.” This word rarely motivates and often stultifies, but we know that the steps we take in big decisions matter in both the short and long term. How we make decisions matters as much as the decisions themselves. When we make decisions, we are showing that we have gathered as much information as possible, have included as many people as possible, have followed guidelines, and have attempted to effect the best outcome for the most people. We should also be showing that we respect people’s work and ideas, that these form a part of how we operate together in the workplace, that no final decision supersedes our respect for each other’s work.
An on-campus adjudication process determines that an alum who sexually harasses undergraduate work-study employees still gets to move freely around campus, just not in the one building where he has harassed. This leaves the undergraduate students wary of where they can be on campus, feeling less than safe because the harasser can be anywhere. The alumnus has more freedom to move where he wishes than the currently enrolled students.
A high-school student brings a loaded gun onto campus—before Parkland but after every other school shooting since Columbine. The administration takes care of the incident and informs the staff and faculty that they have done so. They neglect to tell parents, who receive four different kinds of alerts when a little snow falls, when the wind blows, when there’s a Longaberger bingo session scheduled for a Friday night at school, and when armed bank robbers are in the area. When they realize that parents are dismayed that they were not informed, the administrators write a letter to the parents, which they post on the website but whose presence on the website they neglect to announce.
An administrator calls people into his office and repeatedly raises his voice with and at them in the hour-long discussion. The meeting room door is wide open. Twelve yards down the hall sits a work-study student, by herself, possibly wondering if she will soon have to be alone with the violent-voiced person. Hours later, the people called to the meeting receive odd, half-insistent, half-regretful e-mails from the violent-voiced person.
A lengthy strategic planning process involves hundreds of faculty members, whose well-intentioned ideas and carefully crafted proposals are to be voted upon by a committee who will implement the one, best shining idea. After hundreds of labor hours executed by numerous workers, the idea the committee voted fifth-best becomes the darling of the administration and the other proposals are returned to the dust heap of institutional great ideas. The fifth-best is a great idea, too; it is just not the one elected through the established process.
A university fails to meet accreditation standards and does major acrobatics to get back in line. Most of the new policies restore the university to curricular policies held several years before. The new policies are now the old policies, which had been criticized as antiquated and “meat and potatoes.”
A university requires its faculty members to attend monthly meetings, where quorum is rarely reached. Faculty members choose not to go to the required meetings. Faculty governance seems almost an ironic, romantic notion, as faculty members vote “yea” when the administration wants them to and “nay” when the administration wants them to, and then hurry home to complete all the tasks not completed in the busy day capped by a futile faculty meeting. Nevertheless, these faculty members do appear in droves at an optional meeting whose ostensible purpose is to question process. Thoughtful administrators show up at this meeting, too, but remain silent on the issues because corporate administrations require “team players” who will toe tacit and spoken party lines, who will hesitate to reveal in public enlightened debate and dialectical differences of opinion. I understand the silence, for those who do beg to differ are shown the door in a variety of creative ways.
A department’s temporary faculty, who together have contributed multiple decades-worth of work, are excised from the department. They are all women. Other department members find out about the decision months after the temporary members. The department is told to make do.
Faculty governance used to tell us that elected committees matter, that national searches for big posts are the norm, that tenure is not supposed to be an automatic gift, that curricular decisions should be in the students’ best interest. Faculty governance used to communicate that conversations and processes surrounding diversity matter, that they are rich, varied, textured, difficult, and that they lead to hard-won decisions that satisfy the greatest number of thinking people.
We can think of process as a column that requires a strong base, or plinth, upon which will rise the vertical piece (the process in motion), to be topped by the capital (the end result). If the base is lacking core elements (e.g. goals/objectives; timeline; people involved; task list) and clear communication, then the vertical piece will not develop well. People will be afraid to stand near or under the column. The final touch of the capital will seem improbable, and maybe even dangerous. Building upon the faulty base and justifying such construction lend themselves to absurd conversations based on absurd processes.
I recommend this decalogue on process:
- Develop a set of questions. Share them broadly with all individuals and groups who might be impacted by the final outcome of the process. Revise questions appropriately according to good feedback given in this step.
- Develop goals and objectives from the questions posed in Step 1. Share them broadly with all individuals and groups who might be impacted by the final outcome of the process. Revise goals and objectives appropriately according to good feedback given in this step.
- Determine who will be involved in the process and justify the selection. Share this information, including the justification, broadly.
- Write rules to guide the process.
- Create a reasonable timeline and task list.
- Communicate clearly and broadly everything you have done so far.
- Follow your rules. If something occurs that impedes clean adhesion to the rules, share this fact broadly, and then reset the course transparently. Do not break the rules of the process without making clear why you have done so.
- Follow your timeline and task list.
- Communicate clearly and broadly everything you have done so far.
- Announce the results. Evaluate the process. Celebrate hard work, good communication, and transparency.
As you can see from the decalogue, much of the work for a good process takes place at the base. Solid construction in the base establishes clarity and trust and motivates more good work.