Monday, August 10, 2015

Discussions behind closed doors that really aren't closed

Okay, you and I need to talk.  It can be in a public place.  That would be fine.  But it better not be that anyone there recognizes us.  The walls have ears, you know.  Let's go somewhere off campus, not any of the usual watering holes.  Let's find a quiet table, get some good coffee, and talk.  There's a lot we need to consider.

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It may be that to appease the Higher Education Gods, some high level administrator at Illinois needs to be thrown under the bus every now and then.  If you've read the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed over the last decade or so, you could very well come to that conclusion.  Here's the latest from this morning, on all the emails it kept secret regarding controversial University business.  Whatever else it says about our Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, she comes across as not very IT savvy.  I've been retired now for more than 5 years, but I still recall being told when I was working full time to treat email as if it were a public announcement.  There will be far less recrimination that way.

I am neither a lawyer nor a security expert and I don't want to pretend otherwise.  But I do have some sense of how things work in an academic administrative setting and so in this post I want to discuss a few behavioral issues.  I was a member of the CIO's cabinet when I was in CITES.  I left that 9 years ago.  Subsequently, I held the title of CIO of the College of Business as part of my job description.  I was part of an informal group comprised of other liked minded College CIOs who at the time didn't agree fully with the approach the then Campus CIO was taking.  So we needed to share our views and discuss what we might do about matters.  I base what I have to say primarily on those experiences.  But I was also a long time faculty member in Economics and had many closed door discussions in that context.  Anybody who has worked at a university over a long period of time will likely have their own set of similar experiences.

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1.  People learn by expressing their formative thinking.  This is just as true for campus administrators as it is for our students.  If you can't express yourself in this way, it will create a significant blockage in learning.  Sometimes introspection can offer a suitable alternative but oftentimes not, because the person simply won't have sufficient perspective.  In this latter case, formative thinking must be shared with others who are informed and have their own opinions.  The ideas are commented on and reacted to.  If there is a sensible position to be taken, this is how that position will be found, through a negotiation among the participants.

2.  When people in high level positions need to think and learn about important and sensitive matters, it is natural to want to do that behind closed doors.  One should not read into this any idea of conspiracy.  Similarly, one should not read conspiracy into the setting about trying to keep these conversations tightly held after the fact.  For consider the matter in an ongoing way.  Leaks that are painful might block the next conversation from ever getting off the ground.  So this much is normal.

3.  Now we get to the part where things get interesting.  Watergate comes to mind here.  The break in was bad.  The cover up was much worse.   Once you've reached the point where the early learning has happened and you can make sense of what is going on, a decision needs be made - fully disclose the more mature thinking and all the relevant information whether it supports that thinking or not, or only make limited disclosure or no disclosure at all.  When I was on the CIO's Cabinet he had a policy called "No Surprises," which argues for full disclosure at this point. The No Surprises label is meant to convey that the members of the community will take actions as a consequence of the information you provide.  Those actions might mitigate pernicious consequences.  Getting that information out early enough, the mitigations stand a chance to work.  If the information gets out only after a substantial lag, it is apt to seem too little too late.  Then there will be no appreciation from the community that the information was ultimately released.

4.  In other words, there is an expectation (at least in a normative sense) that those in authority will practice No Surprises.  However, there will be no expressions of gratitude that sensitive bad news was released in a timely fashion and no administrator should expect otherwise.  The announcement will be followed by antagonistic questions and criticism.  I lived through such a post announcement period back in fall 2005 when the Campus Course Management System, Illinois Compass, failed and was down for about a week.  It was an extremely stressful and unpleasant time for me.  I very much wish I never had to go through that.  But when the episode was over I still had whatever integrity I had before it started.  All the evident short term pain makes limited or no disclosure a tempting option.  But pursuing that path is a fool's errand.  It is useful to think that through fully well ahead of time, so you've already made a personal commitment to the approach you will take.  In the heat of the moment, each of us is capable of almost anything.  It is prior thinking which will get us to choose wisely here.

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In this last section I want to turn to how we should behave as individuals, in this world where even though we're told email (and Facebook messages, and texting, and...) should be treated as public messages, we tend to act as if they are private.  The point I want to make is a simple one.

Our own learning is paramount.  We need to function where we continue to learn.  If out of a perceived need for self-protection we find ourselves becoming static, in effect we've ceased to be full human beings.  There are risks attendant to any human activity.  Don't try to find the safety play if it means that your learning will essentially be blocked.

This is not meant as encouragement to refrain from exercising good judgment.  It also doesn't mean that all conversation is suitable for open exchange in the public view.  It does mean that you should consider both type I and type II errors.  If you are taking a sensible approach, some of each type likely will be observed over time.

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One can get obsessed with these issues.  Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation came out in 1974, clearly influenced by Watergate.  So we've had 40+ years to think this through from a behavioral view.  I wonder why we haven't made more progress.

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