The Vision Thing

We’re having a “visioning exercise” here at Swarthmore this fall. I couldn’t attend an early gathering for this purpose, and I’m teaching during the next one. This might be just as well, as I’m having to fight back a certain amount of skepticism about the effort even as I feel that the people who’ve organized this deserve a chance to achieve whatever goals they had in mind. I’ve been a part of past strategic planning and we did some of our own work through meeting with groups of various sizes and trying to find out what their “visions” for Swarthmore might be. I found those efforts to be a moderately useful way to tackle a very difficult problem, which is to get various members of an institutional community to have a meaningful conversation about their aspirations for the short and medium-term future of the organization.

I suppose my mild discomfort is with the proposition that we need a consultant to accomplish this aim. Faculty at a wide range of academic institutions tend to be skeptical about consultants on campus. With some reason. I’ve been in more than ten conversations over the last decade with consultants brought on campus for various reasons. One of them was an unmitigated disaster, from my point of view. A few have been revelatory or profoundly useful. Most of have been the equivalent of slipping into lukewarm bathwater: not uncomfortable, not desired, a kind of neutral and inoffensive experience that nevertheless feels like it’s a missed opportunity.

It is too easy for faculty to slip into automatic, knee-jerk negativity about consultants. So I want to think carefully about when I might (and have) found them useful as a part of deliberation or administration in my career.

1. When the consultants have deep knowledge about an issue that has high-stakes implications for academia, where that issue is both technically specific and outside the experience of most or all faculty and existing staff, and yet where there are meaningful decisions to be made that have broad philosophical implications that everyone is qualified to evaluate. There’s no point to hiring a consultant to tell you about an issue that is so technical that no one listening can develop a meaningful understanding of it during a series of short visits. If such an issue is important, you have to hire a permanent administrator who can deal with it. If such an issue is trivial, you ignore it or hire a short-term contractor to deal with it out of sight and mind. If you’re bringing in someone to talk with the community, there has to be something for them to decide upon (eventually).

2. When the community or some proportion of it is openly and unambiguously incapable of making decisions about its future, and acknowledges as much. The classic situation is when an academic department is in “receivership” because of hostility between two or more factions within the department. At that point, someone who is completely outside the situation and who is seen as having no stakes whatsoever in its resolution is tremendously useful. In general, a consultant who is trying to mediate existing disputes can be very helpful. But this takes having concrete disputes that most parties confess have become intractable–you can’t mediate invisible, passive-aggressive disputes, because you can’t even be sure they exist and because the parties to the dispute may contest whether they are in fact involved.

3. When the consultant is using a method to study the campus and its community that by nature is hard to use if you’re an insider. I think primarily this means that if you decide you need an ethnographic examination of your own community, you look for a consultancy that can do that. More generally, any time there’s some thought that your own community is too insular, too prideful, too self-regarding, too limited in its understanding of the big picture, you might legitimately want a consultant to come in. But note that in this case the role of a consultant is more confrontational or even antagonistic: you’re hiring someone to tell you truths that you might not want to hear. This is generally not what consultants do, because they’re usually trying to be soothing and friendly and to not get the people who hired them into trouble by stirring up a hornet’s nest. In a way, you’d need some degree of internal consensus about a need for an “intervention” of some kind for this to work–some agreement that there is an understanding that is possible that is beyond the grasp of people in the community, for some reason. Your consultants would need a skill set and a set of methods suited to this sort of delivery of potentially unwelcome news. I feel as if this the hardest kind of consultancy to buy in the present market, but maybe the kind that most possible buyers could use most.

4. When hiring the consultant is a bridge to some later group of contractors or partners that you know you’re going to need but don’t presently have any relationship to. Maybe you need a new building, maybe you’re going to create a totally new academic program, maybe you’re going to invest in a completely new infrastructure of some kind. You need the consultant even if you know the technical issues because that’s how you build new collaborative relationships with people who will eventually be service providers or who will recommend service providers to you. This is almost consultant as matchmaker.

5. When many people agree there are “unknown unknowns” surrounding the strategic situation that an institution is facing. Probing for issues that neither the institution nor the consultant are accustomed to thinking about, trying to find opportunities that would never occur in the course of everyday thinking about the current situation.

I have a modest problem is when consultancy is used to defer responsibility for a decision that administrators and faculty already know they want to make, or when a consultancy is a deliberate red flag waved at some bulls, a distraction. I understand the managerial realpolitik involved here, and if faculty were totally honest about it, they’d probably admit that they have their own ways of shifting responsibility or distracting critics when they make decisions within their own units and departments. This is a minor and basically petty feeling on my part: there are good, pragmatic reasons to pay for a service that provides some protective cover when facing a decision, as long as the consultant doesn’t end up producing something so inauthentic or generic that it ends up being a provocation in its own right.

I have a bigger problem with consultancy being used as a substitute for something an institutional community should be doing on its own. Then it becomes something like an ill-fitting prosthesis being used to avoid undergoing the painful ordeal of physical therapy. A community of intelligent, well-meaning people with a good deal of communicative alignment and shared professional and cultural norms should be able to find a way to talk, think and decide collectively. If a small institution of faculty, staff, students and associated publics need continuous assistance to accomplish those basic functions, then that’s a fairly grim prognosis for the possibility of larger communities and groups that have very great degrees of difference within them being able to do the same.

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1 Response to The Vision Thing

  1. Jane says:

    I don’t know, I generally think that collective decision making is hard (and probably impossible for large, heterogenous, communities) beyond the tyranny of majoritanism. Has it been your experience that this is not the case? And if it is hard, then I think it is batter that management recognizes this and seeks professional assistance than to replace analysis with the wish that this were easy. I am at an institution that is trying to do this (establish clear institutional goals) in-house and I wish desperately that the process were being run by someone who had done this before.

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