Advice to Students
The President's File
To function in an institution, you need to understand institutions. To fully understand institutions, you need to see them from the top, where the option of making them different actually exists. What should an institution be like, as a locale for mental activity? How could that condition be brought about, or improved? Such questions may be profitable to ponder. Those without administrative ambition may still find it helpful to understand institutional thinking, the better to criticize it when it departs from sound principles.
- 129. Don't overestimate your mandate. The rhetoric of hiring is a rhetoric of self-congratulation. What people mostly want, rhetoric notwithstanding, is the same thing over again. The boat not rocking. The boat tied securely at the wharf. If you want more, you will have to lobby for it. Above as well as below.
- 130. Don't misconstrue your position. Your job is appointive, but your success must be elective (Mencius 5A5). This does not make the appointing body irrelevant, it merely makes it insufficient.
- 131. Don't intrude your own persona. Nobody cares what you are like. Everybody cares what they are going to be like, under your direction.
- 132. Do develop the institution's persona. And don't polarize the institution's persona. It should not be something with which only some people, or some opinions, can feel comfortable. It should be one in which everybody can see reflected their higher ambitions, their finer sensibilities, their cautious best hopes for the future. That is where the universality of "university" comes in.
- 133. The empty space is the space that supports the other spaces. A view, a prospect, a bit of pond, a spot of garden in an entryway, civilize the setting and stimulate thought. The ground you step on is not the only part of the ground you use (Jwangdz 26:7). Inspiration is part of the support system. Don't cram it out of being.
- 134. Campus signs, like all campus publications and pronouncements, should consider those who are encountering them for the first time, and need the information they contain. They shouldn't be judged as reminder notation, or as sculpture.
- 135. The shed in which urgent work was done in some now distant war is evocative of the past, but not emblematic for the present. Some continuities are best situated in institutional memory. An institution should not be a museum of itself.
136. Growth is always wayward, but a controlling intelligence can confer a sense of purpose. Don't do architecture with a view to winning prizes from architects. Art is fine for a foyer, where it can be updated without trauma, but bad as a building, where it will loom obsolescent forever. Buildings shouldn't be sited so they look like they are parked in some truck stop. Paths between them should tend more toward the avenue than the alley. If it's worth having, it's worth investing with dignity. Don't have the troops begin every day with the reminder: I am stuck in a sloppy fifty-seventh rate institution, where nobody is in charge, aesthetically or otherwise, and none of the water fountains work.
- 137. Institutional structures arise for substantive purposes, but evolve toward having themselves as their own clientele. Be sure that policies generated at the mid level serve an institutional purpose above, and facilitate the work of the institution below. Penalize officiousness. Dismantle information screens. There should be no official function that only one person ("Terribly sorry, but Evelyn is not in this afternoon") is capable of performing.
- 138. If the people who want to talk to you can't reach you, you are losing touch. If you are saying things to people and they aren't responding, you are losing contact. If you lose both touch and contact, you don't exist administratively, and the institution is running on autopilot. Don't run the institution on autopilot (Gwandz 16).
- 139. Let the system work for you, but don't let it replace you. Delegate, but hold accountable. Remember that the best accountancy is a visit, and the best visit is an unexpected visit.
- 140. There are people in the administration who are responsible for making things work, making things grow, making things intellectually and physically habitable. Read the final year's worth of memos from the last three people who left for jobs at other campuses. They will identify spots of resistance to making things work better, or grow faster, or be more habitable. Eliminate the spots of resistance. Ask why it took three resignations to draw your attention to them. Keep an eye out for the fourth spot of resistance. Try to get ahead of the process of decline.
- 141. Don't let your irritation get the better of your self-interest. Don't let your self-interest get the better of the institutional interest (Analects 13:17).
- 142. Don't say, Procedures were followed. It's bad enough that your decision was wrong. Don't go on to volunteer the information that your decision structures are also faulty. If you make a mistake, fix it. The real error is not to correct the error (Analects 15:30).
- 143. Don't routinely intervene in disputes at a lower level. Your main role in disputes is to foster the tradition that they are conducted in civil form, and end in constructive possibilities (Analects 12:13). This is the general rule. Be alert for the occasional exception to the general rule.
- 144. Don't be excessively worried about the popularity of your policies. The best reaction is when the good approve, and the bad complain (Analects 13:24).
- 145. Don't lie, but don't needlessly unbosom. If your crusading reporters are headlining every campus rape on the web site, you need to rebalance. Don't neglect, but don't mendaciously overstate. If your puff artists are booming every research result as a world breakthrough on the web site, you need to recalibrate. Keep your promises with the public. Don't get the institution a reputation for fizzling (cold fusion). Get it a reputation for delivering. Steadiness wins. It wins because it keeps on winning.
- 146. Don't rely on the News Office to give the campus a tone. Rely on the campus to feed the News Office stuff that already has the right tone. Review department column inches annually with the department leadership, and request a better plan for next year. If the better plan needs a little judicious help to get it to happen, well, surely that is discussible.
- 147. Don't gimmick. The logo cannot give the campus instant recognition. The campus, over time, may give the logo iconic power. North Overshoe Cow College plus an elegant logo is merely a little more absurd than North Overshoe Cow College without an elegant logo.
- 148. Don't edspeak. Learn to talk to scholars in the language of evidence, and to the public in terms of truth. The public is no fool, and no moral cretin either. If you have a crisis, show the stature requisite to the scale of the crisis. If you are involved with the public conscience, it is better to walk in the right direction than to be dragged (Joanne V Creighton).
- 149. What sort of research frontier do different fields have? Is it in fads or fundamentals? Where will the big results be coming in, ten years from now? Euclidean geometry is invaluable in the curriculum, but it is not where anything new is happening. It needs to be taught, but not pursued. Math department staffing should reflect this reality. So, mutatis mutandis, should everybody's staffing.
- 150. Rather than get more people, support fewer people better. Overpeopling transforms every fiscal crisis into a personnel crisis. And crisis or no crisis, which environment would attract a bright candidate: (a) twelve colleagues and squalor, or (b) eight colleagues, departmental stability, an up-to-date library, teaching assistants, free parking, and unlimited paper for the copier? How big was the Göttingen department, when it dominated world mathematics? Right.
- 151. Don't forget cost effectiveness. If you can't build a particle accelerator, buy a gross of pencils and hire a number theorist. Or two gross of pencils and a New Testament philologist. These results don't bring in federal funds, but they can contribute beyond their cost to institutional prestige.
- 152. What's not being done that could be done? And what opportunities should be left strictly alone? Think in the open spaces of the flowchart, but not always positively. And be alert to recognize when you have reached equilibrium in a given category. Hold steady at that level. As Churchill said, When you have got a thing where you want it, the best plan is to leave it where it is (Dau/Dv Jing 44).
- 153. Every institution inhabits a zone within which people of means see it as a natural repository for gifts and bequests. Lunch with its leading members. Be on terms of collaboration with its Chamber of Commerce. Be its citizen, if you hope to be its beneficiary.
- 154. Endowed chairs are nice, unless: (a) they inhibit future institutional flexibility, and they will; or (b) they create dissension within the department, and they will; or (c) they have names like The Albert Spencer Ditherington III and Mabel Thompson "Gimlet" Ditherington and Their Dog Fluffy Distinguished Service Professor of 16th Century Gaelic Literature. The name of the chair should not be longer than the name of the person who sits in it, and the name of the person who sits in it may be Eve Jones. If your choice is between poor and ridiculous, remember that poor can always be cured with money. Ridiculous is terminal.
- 155. Don't sell pieces of the institution. It can only be done once (T Boone Pickens), and once done, it looks trashy. 4.23 feet of corridor with a plaque to a graduating class. A bit of lawn with a sign for the local pizzeria. Visitors will think they have wandered into some oversponsored stock car race. Students will get the sense that the world is clogged, with nothing to expand into, or make a mark in. Leave some air for future generations to breathe.
- 156. Seed money is poison money. The sprout is subsidized, but you are stuck with the tree. Grow your own tree. Get help, if you can, to nourish the forest.
- 157. There is such a thing as too ambitious (Syracuse math department, 1946). If you can't hold it, don't undertake it. Brief institutional exhilaration costs too much in long-term institutional despondency.
- 158. There is such a thing as too mediocre. When you find yourself beginning sentences with "We're only" (Parkinson), you will know you have lost your usefulness to the institutional future.
- 159. Transforming an institution isn't always grateful to the institution (Rattle at Birmingham). Sometimes the best thing to do with the current generation is to bury it (Butler at Columbia). If you embark on such an actuarial strategy, be sure you have the patience. Be sure you have the genes. Breathe deeply. Take daily walks. Speak kindly to small children you encounter during the walks. It plays well in Peoria.
- 160. Some events have windows, moments that are briefly favorable for their occurrence. Be a student of the larger situation, the environing structure, the mind of the public. Watch for times when results are possible, and times when resources are gettable. Be ready to seize the moments when those times coincide. They are your chance at a place in history.
We come back at the end to the questions that also govern intellect: what's worth doing, how best to do it. To the basics: honor, vision, courage. And to the realization that we are not doing this - our research, our institution building - for ourselves. It's for others.
12 Aug 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Methodology Page