my latest adventure in university service

Things have been busy. I’ve been doing some proprietary stuff at work that I dare not blog about at this stage and it’s been engaging, almost overwhelming in its scope. Over the past few weeks, however, my time has been increasingly occupied with a type of university-wide strategic planning/prioritization exercise that has been enlightening, to say the least. So perhaps it’s time to talk about it here.

My boss’s boss volunteered me for this extracurricular project. Then out of the clear blue, I got further volunteered to become a team leader. No biggie, I thought, I’ve supervised mission-wide strategic planning for the largest normal embassy overseas (Embassy Cairo) and the largest new-style super embassy (Embassy Baghdad), not to mention heading up the whole Near East Affairs bureau’s Washington effort from a former perch as Regional and Multilateral Affairs office director, so this relatively small university exercise should be a piece of cake. Well, academia is slightly different from diplomacia, I was to learn.

We got our team assignments. First mistake. I referred to a department dean as Dr. Not cool. Second mistake. Somehow, the second director’s name fell off the email request for a site visit of a two director-headed unit. You’d think the co-director would simply cc her colleague. But noooo. So when I tried to clean it up I got slightly slammed. Still no biggie. As my navy colleague would say, I’ve been called worser names by better men. We eventually worked out a schedule for all our team’s site visits, which of course needed to be completed by the end of the month. Again, no biggie. We scheduled a couple on one day and a one on the second day. Then there was the unscheduled AC outage in a week when temperatures were averaging above 90F. Not like 125F dry heat in Baghdad, but humid Washington swamp heat. My office got shut down, but I didn’t get the vacation everybody else got because there was work for this exercise to do. So I moved everything home and kept on pushing.

The fun part was actually making the site visits, learning about other departments and programs on campus. I learned that an HBCU is intimately tied to the community that serves as its host in ways that non-HBCU’s may not be. Whether private or state supported, the linkage is undeniable. Academic programs pop up, spring up like weeds in response to observed needs of the community. And if the community is fractured and silo’d, the college/university that serves it reflects those fractures and siloes in its constitution. There is a lot more to say on this. Later, perhaps.

Across the board there were issues with funding shortfalls and consequent staffing reductions, all the while service requirements increased at a steady tick. I already knew that you can’t do more with less, you can only do less with less, but my Gawd these folks are heroic! They find ways to keep the wheels turning, working longer hours, working weekends, finding ways. And they never forget the community, extending their services out beyond the campus on, in effect, unfunded mandates, while operating on a shoestring budget. The dedication of faculty and staff at HBCU’s is nothing short of phenomenal.

Not gonna mention facilities issues here. But suffice it to say many building are approaching the century mark and need major repairs and restorations for which there is, again, insufficient funding.

In the final round, each team met with other teams doing similar units (some not so similar ones). Each team made its summary presentation, then fielded questions from the other teams. By the end of the third day, we had crossed paths with some teams several times and came to know their thinking on basic issues affecting university life. Of course, there were complaints about the testing instrument, the rubrics from which we developed scoring metrics. Instruments are never perfect, I found myself chiming in, quietly, secretly reflecting on my prior experiences.

My team concluded that the fact that we knew little about the programs we were assessing gave us some degree of objectivity, but that objectivity had a very short half-life once we began comparing the programs to our own, and once we decided that we really had an appreciation for the work that was being accomplished. My team came up with a standard set of questions to gauge the level of information sharing across programs, across departments, and university-wide. The librarian in me ate that up! We discovered that just a small measure of information sharing could result in so much more efficiency and at such small cost.

It’s the first time this university has every attempted a university-wide type of assessment. We look forward to the resulting report, and hopefully a few of us will be around when this happens again five years from now.

p.s. But let this be a cautionary tale: Part One; Part Two; Part Three. And this too.

Author: Raymond Maxwell

https://raymmaxx.wordpress.com/ Librarian, archivist, retired foreign service officer and Navy veteran.

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