Friday, October 12, 2007

What do you want your institution to look like?

I'm taking part in a series of conversations we're having entitled "Risk-Taking in the Academy." Our institution is going through a change in leadership. We have a new provost. We're searching for a new president. So, the idea was to have some discussions about what that might mean for us in the context of taking risks. There have been three of these and they are attended by a variety of people--plenty of faculty, but also staff from many different areas.

Yesterday's conversation was about two different models for an institution--the pyramid and the flock. We discussed the characteristics of both models and basically tried to draw analogies between the two models and an institution. Some pretty obvious characteristics were mentioned for each. For the pyramid, hierarchy, solidity, impenetrable. For the flock, fluid, adaptable. Although I definitely bristled against the idea of a pyramid serving as the model for our institution, I didn't think the flock worked perfectly either.

At one point, while we were comparing the models and elaborating on how the applied or didn't to our institution, a faculty member described how he imagined the pyramid model. He said he imagined he was in one of those boxes that made up the pyramid, running around doing his own thing, not able to move from one box to another but perfectly content because he didn't have to worry about what was going on in the other boxes. I said I didn't want to be in his pyramid. If I can't move around more than that, I'll be completely frustrated. Afterwards, we talked about this more and he said that he can go into his classroom and just do his thing and not have to think about institutional goals or even what and how the person in the next room is teaching. Someone pointed out that his teaching is in the service of the institutional goals so whether he's thinking about that or not, it's part of what he does. I told him to try being a staff member sometime. We can't not think about institutional goals. That's kind of all we do. We have to think about internal and external pressures on us to change. I explained that simultaneously I have to look at trends in technology and determine how they're going to affect the institution and respond to internal pressures to add services or keep services. And that it's a very complex dance that way. And he said, yeah, you don't have a classroom where you can be protected from that.

The whole conversation, both the discussion as a whole and the brief side conversation I had at the end were really fascinating and they certainly revealed to me a lot about how people position themselves within an institution and what they think an institution should be for them. I think these conversations can go a long way in helping people to understand where different people are coming from, what they think their role is within the institution.