Decision time? Or would that set a precedent?
Some weeks ago at a dinner I was sitting next to a management consultant who specialised in organisational behaviour. He told me that he had only once, ever, done a project for a university, and he had sworn he would never do that again: university decision-making, he concluded, was simply too bizarre to be open to rational advice. Furthermore, he had felt that 70 per cent of those he had involved in his review were clearly focused on one thing only: to stop whatever it was he was likely to propose and, in order to ensure that outcome, to discredit him early on ‘as a precaution’. The remaining 30 per cent didn’t care much one way or another.
But he also observed that for any suggestion he made there were, always, two responses. Administrators would object that the proposed step would ‘set a precedent’, and would say this as if it were an absolutely conclusive objection; while academics would say that the suggestion was ‘the thin edge of the wedge’.
The moment my dinner companion said these things I was immediately reminded of the wonderful book, Microcosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making, and the last century has been kind to it: it is as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century. The main theme of the book is that university processes are all focused on stopping decision-making, particularly where a decision is likely to produce change. Therefore a number of standard objections can be predicted whenever a decision is proposed. Chief amongst these are:
- The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
- The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
- Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.
I suspect we have all been at meetings at which one or more of these arguments have been employed. But when my consultant dinner companion concluded that universities were ‘impossible places’ because they were ‘full of people driven by cynicism wanting to stop change’, was he right? No, I don’t think he was. Yes, these arguments do get aired and people wanting to introduce innovative change can have a hard time; but the real reason is that too often university decision-making is too obscure, too slow, and not transparent enough, and these arguments are a defence mechanism used in organisations where communication is not what it should be. Clearly we need to be better than that; but I also think that many universities have stepped beyond this state, and while Cornford’s book should be compulsory reading, I don’t believe that what it describes is how our universities inevitably must be.
Perhaps we should all review how we do our decision-making. I intend to.