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On Naming Names

Naming names.jpgThe most-often voiced criticism of Dartblog is that this space criticizes people by name. We point out professional shortcomings and often term people unfit for their positions, rather than limiting our posts to taking issue with specific decisions and policies. Why?

The answer is one of professional management. Not all people are equally competent; some are flat out not able to do their jobs. How to know that? Well, each time you disagree with administrators’ policy choices in different areas, you are doing something beyond disagreement: you are also adding to your understanding of their overall capacity to fulfill their responsibilities. Over time, you come to a conclusion on that issue.

The deeper point is that when you analyze various decisions made by administrators like Jim Wright, Carol Folt, Adam Keller, Charlotte Johnson, Jim Kim, Sylvia Spears, Barry Scherr, etc., you are only looking at a fraction of the choices that they make every day. Perhaps on occasion pressure can oblige them to change their mind on a specific matter of policy, but for the most part, their incompetence goes unobserved. However, the tip of the iceberg almost always describes the overall nature of the iceberg.

Which leads to the management choice. Should those people remain in their jobs, or be shifted elsewhere, or simply be asked to leave their posts? That is the more significant question. It is one that any sports coach faces when putting together a team; the same issue confronts a faculty tenure committee. Is a person up to the job or not? If not, the decision should be clear.

My father once told me that if people describe themselves as being a business manager, ask them how many people they have fired. If the answer is none, then they are really only big-institution bureaucrats, not leaders intent on managing a high-performance enterprise.

If there is no discipline in an organization to weed out people who can’t do their job well, then large bureaucracies like Dartmouth become afflicted with the sclerosis that is well described in The Peter Principle:

The Peter Principle is a management theory which suggests that organizations risk filling management roles with people who are incompetent if they promote those who are performing well at their current role, rather than those who have proven abilities at the intended role… people will tend to be promoted until they reach their “position of incompetence”.

We should add that at the College people can often rise above their level of incompetence, when hiring is made for reasons other than professional achievement.

The corollary to Professor Peter’s description is that when people populate important jobs that they are incapable of fulfilling, senior management seeks to shore them up by hiring additional support for them in the form of extra staff and outside consultants. Sound familiar? In this way, a bureaucracy metastasizes.

America’s large corporations faced this state of affairs in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many had had things so easy for so many years that they felt immune from competitive pressures. Immense bloat was the result. Some of these companies died of their own obesity (think of the major airlines of the era: Pan Am, Eastern, Continental, TWA); others were restructured beyond recognition (the large auto, steel, and rubber companies); and some managed to slim down when faced with imminent death (IBM and GE are the best examples).

The only way for an institution like Dartmouth to lose debilitating fat is to go on a diet: people who are incompetent and inefficient must be fired; forceful, experienced managers should be hired; and a new institutional culture that celebrates rigor and economy must be fostered at all levels. The alternative is to muddle onward with ever more staff, higher tuition, dropping applications and a declining ranking.

To implement this kind of strategy, one needs to identify the people who can’t do their jobs. That’s why I name names. Anything less than such honesty is a formula for the kind of waste that is drowning the College today.

Addendum: In my own businesses it has been a long time since we let go of someone who was not up to speed. The members of our senior management group recognize that each and every one of them is competent and hard working. Such an observation generates an ésprit de corps that lifts everyone to a higher level; the obverse is an organization where slackers make the increasingly few diligent members of the staff feel like chumps.

Addendum: A faculty member writes in:

Let me say that I am less worried about the benefits, etc, paid to the workers than I am about the inability of Dartmouth to fire incompetent workers. This is true of staff but also of adjunct faculty, etc. Adjuncts teach quite a bit — sometimes they are the spouse of a tenure track faculty member, sometimes a local person who can teach a subject that is not covered by regular faculty.

These adjuncts are never reviewed — no one evaluates their teaching, they are not required to publish or attend professional meetings, they have no committee work. True, they are paid less than regular faculty, but they have fewer responsibilities. Dartmouth needs adjuncts because faculty who receive a research leave (often announced in late spring) need a quick replacement to teach essential courses. And some adjuncts have proven quite popular with students (though popularity is not a way to judge teaching effectiveness).

Like everyone else, adjuncts want job security, which means that many are given de facto tenure — 3- or 5-year contracts — without going through the evaluation process required of tenure-track faculty. This adds to the heavy load we already have of tenured faculty who do not publish.

Dartmouth is heavy with people who can’t be fired but who are not excelling at their jobs — ditto for staff and also deans of students (who proliferate, and many of whom are viewed by faculty and students as utterly incompetent). After a year or two, it’s very hard to fire someone, whether adjunct faculty, secretary, or staff. Incompetence leads to more hirings to do the work required — AND THIS IS A HUGE WASTE OF MONEY.

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