Friday, November 25, 2005

Decision Making and Consensus Building

We are struggling to make a decision. What has been put forward, as reasons for and against the move, has been speculative. We seem to be thinking that more information will lead us to a better decision, and I would be the last person to dispute the relative truth in that idea. But there’s more to change than just making a decision. I started to think that if we examined some of the actual processes involved in decision-making and implementation, we might find some useful insights. The following three points are paraphrases from Jeffery Pffeffer’s book, Managing with Power. Pfeffer teaches organizational behavior at Stanford, and Shimer grads will find his insights extraordinarily useful for figuring out what to DO with what Shimer has given us, and even better, how to go about doing it.

1. A decision by itself changes nothing. A decision will not put itself into effect. How would this decision to move be implemented? Who would be required to do what? Who’s anticipating the risks and managing the consequences? An organization like Shimer survives, not by mere acquiescence to decisions, but by active, willing, even joyous participation. It won’t be enough for students and alumni to “let it happen.” Most new students come to Shimer through word of mouth, from alumni and current students. What motivates our passion for our alma mater? Although I recognize that we have differing motivations, I would submit that it is our strong attachment to the identity of the college that sustains our passion for it. Ah, but which identity? Shimer has so many. Here are just a few:

a. The place where anyone is welcome, no matter what their academic background. The place where anyone can have a second chance, based solely on their own commitment to doing the work and participating in the discourse.

b. One of the last bastions of radical political empowerment. Not so much for leaning radically to the left or right, as for it’s anti-leaning orientation altogether. After graduating from Shimer, one of the things that cannot be taken from you is your knowledge that you are not powerless. Those who attempt to manipulate you do so at their own risk. You have absorbed the lineage of every argument that might be thrown at you, and waded through the muck of their strengths and weaknesses. You have been through the Boot Camp of bullshit and collaboration.

c. The “Great Books College of the Midwest.” Ah, the noble academic pedigree. The venerable Hutchins, the shared inquiry, the dialogical methodology, ‘the great conversation’, the purely astonishing percentage of our alumnus who go on to receive graduate degrees (despite the fact that many of them would never have been described as ‘academic’ types before arriving at Shimer).

d. The Community. The sense of belonging, of being in a wholly safe space that allows you to condense so purely into the essence of what you are. And who can say of what this community is constructed? The shared experience, inquiry and curriculum; the aforementioned political empowerment, and the conviction that we are all getting ‘free’ together; the shared consumption of coffee at 3am; the enormous amount of work and effort and dedication that we invest in the institution and in each other; our charming, (or as some would have it, dilapidated) campus in one of the strangest outposts on the frontier of Chicagoland; the tight-knit (some would say incestuous) social environment where we live virtually without secrets for four intense years of our life.

What makes Shimer? The curriculum? The environment? The size? The collaborative process? Maybe all of it together. Maybe just our will to believe in it. Perhaps where we disagree is not so much a point of particular facts in a rational configuration, but in what we identify with in our Shimer experience. It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that it is primarily those who identify with the community and the political empowerment aspects of Shimer who are the most concerned about the move. This makes a great deal of sense when you reflect that these are the aspects of Shimer’s identity that are most at risk in the move. How much could we lose and still be Shimer? If we were reduced to only “The Great Books College of the Midwest” would it be enough? Would it be enough to command the loyalty and passion of the alumnus? Enough to attract new students? Enough to create those purely Shimer types of people who are so distinctive that we can almost recognize each other on sight? I hope so, but I’m not sure. For me, I can imagine a worse case scenario than Shimer ceasing to exist. My true nightmare is that Shimer becomes just an ok place to read Aristotle. Let’s be honest, there are nicer places to read Aristotle.

2. At the moment a decision is made, we cannot possibly know whether it is good or bad. Decision quality, when measured by results, can only be known as the consequences of the decision become known. From Daniel Shiner’s post on this blog:

a. Move to IIT: Best case: Shimer maintains identity, draws significant numbers of new students, becomes everything it aspires to be in 5-10 years. Worst case: Shimer loses current students, loses identity, attracts few new students, and disappears.
b. Stay in Waukegan: Best case: Shimer maintains identity, somehow figures out how to attract more new students, becomes everything it aspires to be in 5-10 years. Worst case: Shimer student body steadily declines, buildings deteriorate from lack of money to fix & repair, and Shimer disappears.
c. As Daniel points out, this doesn’t really help much. We don’t know. Logically, we can’t know.

3. We almost invariably spend more time living with the consequences of our decisions than we do in making them. Rather than spending inordinate amounts of time and effort in the decision-making process, it would seem at least as useful to spend time implementing decisions and dealing with their ramifications. This is a leadership issue. Good leaders are skilled in managing the consequences of their decisions. Perhaps the leadership of Shimer College will be skilled in managing the consequences of this move. Perhaps they will not. Do we know? No. We choose to believe in their skill, or we choose not to. But Shimer is different from most other institutions. It is different in a variety of ways, but the one which is applicable in this instance is that students and alumni are far more crucial to the survival of the institution than they might be at a more regular company or college. The decision to move cannot be implemented successfully without a significant number of people getting on board and committing to it. Good leadership, in this case, is consensus building. Having the power to make the decision is irrelevant (tragically irrelevant, given what the price of failure would be). Having the skill and the credibility and the passion to get everyone focused on a common cause is the whole game.

Do we have enough consensus to implement this move? Can we build it? These are questions we have a good chance of answering. If the answer is no…

Would it be naïve to believe that those who have always supported the institution, in money and time and prospective students, will go on supporting the college wherever it is located? Maybe. Maybe not. I am not in favor of the move (like you didn’t notice). But I am sympathetic to those who want the advantages that the move might bring. However, I see no reason that consensus could not be created toward gaining those advantages in Waukegan, rather than through becoming a tenant of IIT.

I agree with danbooks comment below that we should cease speaking of this as if the college were facing imminent death. I don’t believe it either. I will not believe it.

Sarah Kimmel
Class of '96


dansbooks said...

Hi Sarah--Thanks for your comments; I find them very thoughtful and interesting. Just as a note, "dansbooks" is me, Dan Shiner. I just have difficulty posting correctly in terms of user name/my name. But maybe it doesn't matter.

I'm struggling with the ramifications of a possible move, as I suspect we all are. I recently wrote down some not totally formed thoughts, to wit, that in the past, when Shimer had real life-and-death crises (and this, for all its importance, is NOT one of them), we always had two choices: The one promulgated by the professionals, the experts, the authority (meaning the Board and top staff); and the one believed in by many of the students and faculty. Twice in my tenure at Shimer (1973 and 1977) it was clear to all the professionals, the authorities, those in the know, that the only possibility was for Shimer to close. Students (me among them) and faculty felt otherwise. We were told that was because we were naive, we didn't understand what the situation really was. We were patronized and, to some extent, ridiculed.

But we were right and they were wrong. Balance sheets and income statements and financial projections simply lost out to dedication, raw emotion, and hard work.

I swore then, and I reiterate now, that I will never discount the power of an idea to change reality.

Which does not mean I oppose moving to IIT. (Nor does it mean I support it). What it means is that, when all the logical arguments are promulgated, I will always remember that there are arguments where logic is irrelevant. And they may be the most important ones of all.

But the Board in the early 1970's, with virtually no students, faculty, or alumni, is not the Board now. This Board is steeped in Shimer College. This Board did not join to bolster their resumes or impress their social circle. They joined because they truly believe in Shimer College. Almost all of us attended Shimer, or are current students or faculty. That's a big difference--and a very important one--from when I was a student.

Whatever the ultimate decision on relocating, my fervent hope is that when the decision is made, everyone at Shimer will pull together and every constituency will dedicate themselves to a better, stronger, and more vibrant Shimer College.

Please keep the conversation going.

D. R. Koukal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
D. R. Koukal said...

Sarah, thanks for your words on the importance of consensus-building. Without it, the College is doomed to a factionalism that will destroy it. May we hope that someone with the necessary skills steps forward very quickly!