How to Avoid a Retreat from Quality

By Albert Schorsch, III


Copyright, 2001, Albert Schorsch, III

With the present drop in consumer spending and a parallel drop in tax revenues, a number of states across the US now turn to their universities like piggy banks for cash through rescission of earlier committed funding.

This situation presents a number of challenges to an engaged, urban university in its quest to maintain and to advance a high standard of public service.  Present rescission and future funding reduction threaten to curtail future star faculty hiring, for some a metaphor for the advances of a university.  But while dramatic hires, like riches, are nicer to have than not, the absence of a metaphor does not necessarily deflate a standard of performance.  Star faculty hires, for example, seem to have little immediate influence on undergraduate student retention.  Program cohesion and retention of key human assets, however, do sometimes require sacrificing to attract high talent even in the leanest of times.

One key to the maintenance of quality in an organization is the determined continuance of improvement.  This sounds as flatly commonsensical as "Do good and avoid evil," in itself a deceptively simple dictum.  But while common sense is essential, it is not enough.   Science, a method for refuting common sense or clearly demonstrating its limits, is also necessary for successful management in crisis.  We must have a method that uses our common sense, but then surpasses its limits in order to succeed.  In other words, we each need a systematic way to regularly learn how we are wrong, which we inevitably are.

So here is a method:  Determined leadership must demonstrate improvement, and make it visible, obvious, common, and continuous.  The visible and obvious qualities of this method are readily understood.  But the common and continuous qualities require engagement, listening, and quick self-correction based upon new information.  In an engaged university, a never-ending series of physical and systems improvements, even of a modest nature, demonstrate that someone is thinking ahead for the welfare of the students and employees.   Beyond these "easy" improvements, continuous improvements in working conditions, course content, community engagement, and stress reduction in work and study strengthen the creativity and cohesion of an institution of higher education.  To accomplish these within the context of reduced resources requires cleverness and creativity, which must be encouraged by leadership.  This, in other words, is no time to kill the messengers, who tell us how to improve.  The science of self-correction requires listening.

The end of the sugar daddy thus shouldn't mean the end of responsible husbandry of resources.  The lack of the new forces us to do what we should have been doing all along: take better care of the old.  Buildings now should be kept cleaner than ever.  Phone calls and messages should be responded to more quickly.  Admissions applications should be processed with dispatch, as should purchases and payments.  Office hours and commitments to students should be more regularly kept.  As the shrinking tide lowers all boats, those institutions which can build cohesion with innovations in humanity are the ones which will thrive.

Thus, a related key to quality is to do well what doesn't cost anything:  to listen better to one another and to take seriously each other's suggestions and contributions.  This again requires leadership, which establishes the right tone of mutual respect and teamwork and focuses these toward a new end.

Only having re-established teamwork, can we then reorder priorities to conform with what can be accomplished well in the near and long term given the resources at hand, and given those future resources that can be generated by cleverness.

Universities are generally indeed run by clever, able people.  Universities fail not because the people weren't able, but because they had the wrong priorities.  Leadership, meaning having a useful vision and the ability to bring others to put it into practice, really does matter.

A campus has rats, not because we don't know how or don't want to get rid of rats, but because getting rid of rats is not a priority.  The president of a university does not show up to celebrate when a university gets rid of rats, but when, for example, someone gives something of significance to a university, because that is a priority for a president.

We must figure out a way to get rid of the rats without the president having to show up, or without the dean having to make the call.  This means that more messengers who tell us where the rats are must survive, and thrive.    Those who presently engage in chasing rats away on a daily basis shouldn't take this innovation personally.

In a government organization, if a function does not have a budget, a person assigned to the task, and a calendar under which to perform the task, the task is not usually completed.   It is useful to identify which functions are "orphan" functions in this sense, and to, with absolute determination and forever, move more and more essential functions into the list of those which have budgets, responsible persons, and fixed performance dates, not to mention standards of performance.    A billion dollar organization cannot systematically improve otherwise.  Our students and employees have a right to expect quality in everything we do, and by reducing orphan functions, we can eventually provide it.

In the present climate, however, many essential functions will remain orphan functions for perhaps a generation.  How we perform these orphan functions, while continuously reducing their number, will determine the strength and cohesion of our organization.  Useless vainglory, meaning congratulating ourselves for things which we haven't really accomplished--a fixture in academic life--militates against the harsh creativity necessary to manage the orphan functions.  Vainglory is something we can ill afford, even in the best of times.   While it is true that honey draws more flies than vinegar, it is not flies that we want.  Now and again, vinegar is a tonic.

Modern governance to a great extent involves managing the press or the buzz around us by our conversing each day with the slave in the mirror.  The workday cycle of this version of leadership thus conforms with media deadlines and news hours, a long day indeed.  This management of the buzz is one step removed from managing our environment, or what we really should be managing.  But, as one of our professors who recently left UIC recently wrote, the long-term success of an organization is determined by whether it establishes the conditions for the ordinary people within it to succeed.  I like to put it that I don't succeed as a leader by working eighteen hour days, but by getting everyone else around me to work eight hour days.  (All right, it does take me ten hours right now to do that).

Relative to a board of trustees and an executive official and a legislature, a state university has one messenger, its president or chancellor.  Relative to almost everything else, the more messengers that are heard within a university, the more that university can accomplish.  If the messengers do now speak, and are heard--with a bit of providence--we can together weather almost any crisis.

Copyright, 2001, Albert Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved