Monday, June 13, 2011

Fidelity in transition

» With apologies and an admiring nod to Lawrence Lessig, Fidelity in Translation, 71 Tex. L. Rev. 1165 (1993). «

Bureaucracy is the bane of modern life, in all of its organizational manifestations. From this reality academia offer no escape. But there are lessons to be learned from things that universities, governments, and for-profit businesses have in common.

Academia, government, and private enterprise all offer variations on the theme of leadership and turnover. Because of their unique susceptibility to transitional disruption, startup companies and family-owned enterprises arguably have the most to gain from business succession planning. At the opposite end of the scale, Fortune 500 companies and the federal government also take care to anticipate and choreograph internal changes in personnel.

Passing the batonAcademic institutions devote considerable energy (and with justification) making their best-laid plans in the event top-level managers resign, retire, or die. As I have discovered in my scholarly work on disaster law, preparing for these obvious contingencies is tantamount to the Maginot Line of academic succession planning. Preparing for an associate dean's departure rarely draws the same degree of advance planning, though quite arguably it should.

The job of the associate dean, after all, requires more detailed operational knowledge of an institution. This is especially true of the office of academic affairs, the function most often assigned to an associate dean. The associate dean is to the dean as the university provost is to the president. Hardly anyone aspires to the office; it is a bureaucratic soul that dreams someday of being an associate dean or a provost. The job is largely thankless, and the usual forms of compensation — a modest emolument, coupled with a slightly lighter teaching schedule — are barely commensurate, if at all, to the extra work.

To top it off, the pool of potential candidates is typically smaller. Decanal pools, in practice, can be quite deep. By contrast, associate deans are almost always drawn from the ranks of incumbent faculty. Though I have no empirical evidence to back this assumption, I do believe that turnover among associate deans exceeds that of deans.

In all settings, from business to academia and other nonprofit environments, best managerial practices demand anticipating the dull, the boring, the thoroughly unsexy. Taking care, more often than not, means thinking about ordinary places, ordinary things, and ordinary events — and then having the discipline to follow through.


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