Tim Burke’s recent meditation on the limits of “dialogue” in organizational decision-making is well worth the read. Reading between the lines a bit, he seems to be responding to some frustrated protestors at Swarthmore, where he works. But the interest of the piece goes beyond whatever particulars he had in mind when he wrote it. It’s more about the difficulty of having what most of us would recognize as honest, substantive, consequential conversations in an environment in which people have (and must have) asymmetric information, understandings of “rules of the game” vary widely, and some folks are all too quick to weaponize any nuance on the “other side” against them. Instead, frustrated by what feels like a lack of agency, some folks resort to the all-purpose veto, regardless of the merits of what’s up for discussion at the time.
Yes, yes, yes. And it explains a persistent question, and a persistent frustration.
Anyone in a management role for a while has had the experience of knowing a key piece of information that couldn’t be shared, but if it could, would change others’ view of what you’re doing. “If you knew what I know” can seem condescending, but sometimes it’s simply true. “How could you possibly…?” sometimes has an answer, but you’re not at liberty to divulge it. That’s usually when the complaints about “transparency” start. The reason that Prof. X got a preferable schedule is that she’s suffering from medical condition Y, but I can’t tell you that. Or, there’s legal action surrounding issue Z, so I can’t go near it. Or, we’re still figuring out the implications of newly-passed Law Q, and until we do, I really can’t get into it.
At least those are relatively straightforward. The more common case is the indeterminacy inherent in “waiting for the dust to settle.” “Can we replace so-and-so if he retires this year?” Maybe; it depends on what happens with enrollment. That’s a frustrating answer, but an honest one. “What will you do if…?” often leads to a variation on “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” which can be dismissive or can be wise. A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a professor who argued strongly, and justifiably, that his department needs a new colleague. He wanted a commitment that it would be first on the list. I like him and his discipline, but I couldn’t do that, because, well, it depends. With the repeal of a mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty in 1994, colleges’ ability to plan was compromised. That may not have mattered much when enrollments were climbing, but when they’re falling, it’s a real issue. Depending on who leaves when, any “list” — there isn’t actually a running list — gets shuffled. Cutting by attrition is bumpy when you don’t control attrition.
The most satisfying conversations I’ve had with folks on campus about contentious issues have usually been one-on-one, or in small groups. In those settings, when you have time to flesh things out, it’s often possible to fill in information gaps or correct misperceptions enough to construct an intelligible context for what’s happening. Rumor mills can be remarkably creative; working backwards from a rumor to the truth can take time and patience.
Metaphors of colleges as polities, and of employees as citizens, are much more problematic than we tend to admit. Citizens aren’t chosen, and can’t be fired. When we moved to Freehold, the existing citizens of Freehold weren’t allowed to vote on whether we could. It wasn’t up to them. And any healthy polity requires a third estate, which is notably lacking as far as internal campus matters go. (Student newspapers have a different mission.) Unions were never meant to be mediating; they advocate for a side. The lack of mediating institutions often means that there’s little to no quality control on the information that circulates. There’s no editor to spike stories that are thinly sourced or based on hearsay or misunderstanding. People who like drama trade in them; people who don’t care for drama tune out, ceding the field to those who do. As Michael Lewis’s recent podcast series noted, there’s no referee.
Yet we persist. I keep writing in part because I keep clinging to the hope that providing fuller context will elevate the discussion. That gesture feels increasingly countercultural, but it’s grounded in both hope and respect. Respect for colleagues, both on campus and off, who are capable of rising above trolling. And hope that enough of us, each listening to others and contributing where they can, will slowly get a better handle on our reality.
That doesn’t answer my colleague’s question about his department. It can’t. But in addressing why it can’t, maybe it can defuse some of the more conspiratorial theories flying around. That’s not dialogue in the fullest sense, but it might clear out some underbrush to make room for some. I’ll take that.