Blog Post

How To Compromise, Customize, Organize

I think the conversation happened during my first or maybe second week in my job as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies but it changed everything about how I did my job, how I came to think about the collective actions on the Web, and how I think about real-world political process versus ideals and ideology.  Of course, the person on the other end of that conversation was our President at the time, Nannerl Keohane, one of the wisest, shrewdest, and most principled people I have ever been privileged to work with.   


I'd come out of a meeting on something or other I cared passionately about.  I forget now what it was.  But I was furious.   One of my colleagues that day (we'll call him Oscar) had thrown up every imaginable objection and roadblock.   People who had agreed with me when we went into the meeting were getting cold feet, they were throwing in the towel, they were compromising right and left.   It looked like we were going to lose.  Provost John Strohbehn (my boss) caught the look in Nan's eye and tabled the discussion until our next meeting.   People started gathering their things together to leave.  I said something fearsome and forthright about "selling out."  I said this new arrangement wasn't a compromise but treachery.  Something suave like that.  I stomped out of the meeting and back to my office.  


I'd never been an administrator before Nan asked me to take this new position as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies.  My turf was to be the entire university--all the professional schools as well as the College of Arts and Sciences and the undergraduate Trinity College too.  My basic job description was innovation.  Duke had never had a full-time administrator in this position before and, to our knowledge, no other university did at that time, although several have added them.  The job required working with faculty from all over the university and learning the goals, values, special systems, disciplinary prejudices, methods, and languages of my colleagues all over the university in order that we could do a lot of amazing things together--from rewriting tenure rules for interdisciplinary scholars to creating new programs, building incredible new buildings, supporting dazzling new kinds of scholarship and fellowships.  As I walk around campus and see how much changed and think about how lucky I was to have had a hand in it, I still feel enormous pride.   But after that disillusioning meeting during my first week, I was about ready to throw in the administrative towel.


Nan wasn't the kind of boss who came in and schmoozed in your office.  Even a week or two into the job, I was aware of that.  So I was surprised when I looked up and she was there.   She could tell I was both furious and discouraged.   She sat down at the table in my office and, instead of asking how her newest administrator was doing asked, "When's your next meeting with Oscar?"   I consulted the little index card on which my assistant would print all my meetings for each day, typically six to sixteen separate meetings a day, and said, "At 1 o'clock."  She let that sink in.   "What's that meeting about?" she asked after a long pause.   I told her that I was hoping Oscar and I might be able to work on a new fee schedule for a scholarship program I was working on with Melinda Gates, a unique and important scholarship for undergradutes from high need backgrounds who would be intellectual leaders on campus, in a program combined with graduate, and professional school students also on fellowships.  It was her first philanthropic project (it was not yet the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and it was my first big project and I had just learned that it was so innovative that there was not a single model anywhere in the U.S. for it, scholarship rules were tightly regulated, they usually separated undergrads and grad students, and it would take some really clever, difficult thinking to make it work.  I needed Oscar.  He was a smart man who understood the mechanics of these things, all the red tape, the ins and outs.   I didn't.  We had different points of view on some things and shared similar points of view on others.    And I'd just publicly denounced him for selling out, as if he were some kind of villain.  That was unfair; it was his job to make lots of different things work together all the time, several times a day.  He just didn't happen to agree with me on whatever that project was that I've long since forgotten.


Nan let my comment about needing Oscar's help sink in too.   She left another one of those big pauses.  I realized that the first thing i'd do when I went into the 1 o'clock meeting was apologize to Oscar.  I told that to Nan.   Her response, "This is what administration is, Cathy."   She said there is always a 1 o'clock meeting.  And if you denounce someone as a traitor at the ten o'clock meeting--no matter how passionately you feel about an issue--you can hardly ask him a few hours later to help you on something else you feel passionately about.  Things that do not seem connected when you are on the outside of a situation often have these kinds of contingencies inside because of the key people involved.   It's not that you have to sell out or always give in.   There were so many incredible, really unbelievable victories during that eight years (the Gates's University Scholars Program exists and is thriving, thank you!).  But sometimes your allies who are working with you on a project have no idea why suddenly you have become "weak."  They want you to crush your opponents, not realizing that, within a given institution, an opponent on one issue is exactly the ally you need on something else equally or even more important.  There are consequences to compromising in a specific situation.  There are also consequences to not compromising.  Sometimes being combatative or holding the line in one area means you will lose an even more important battle later.  That's how a collective process within a given institutional setting works.  That was a hard lesson for someone of my forthright disposition to learn. 


It's all a web of interconnected issues, with humans whose roles overlap in unparallel and asymmetrical fashion--a bit like Twitter, actually.   You can follow people who don't follow you and so forth, but you have to be aware of how you speak and act when relationships are both asymmetrical and important and when there will always, at 1 o'clock, be another key meeting, another key issue.


"This is what administration is, Cathy."   Beliefs and principles, ideology and ideas, operate at one level.  Making programs, making things work, making reform, making innovation happen all operate at a far more contingent, mutually dependent level.   It's hard to understand that most of the time.  My eight years as the equivalent of an R and D (research and development) person at Duke made me far more aware of that difference.  Sometimes, I forgot that lesson and lost it.  Sometimes I was lucky enough that people forgave me; in at least a few times (I can remember these clearly) I lost much bigger and more important battles because I made an intemperate remark about something else.   And most times, I did remember to hold my tongue and to think of ways to compromise that would still yield a result I could be proud of.  That's not easy for someone as headstrong as I am, but when I believed in the outcome, I was willing to, well, stuff it. 


Sometimes, as an administrator, I really felt nostalgic for the days of being a faculty member without this leadership role, when I could be smug and contemptuous of "administrators."   It's lots easier to be furious and to be able to accuse people of "selling out" and of being "traitors" than to be knuckling it out with Oscar, whoever Oscar may be in a given situation.   Sometimes it feels so good to be contemptuous of other motives and not have to question one's own.   But contempt is not a great way to make change happen and, in the end, disrespect or even power maneuvering (when you are in a position of power) undermines future possibilities for change where you may need that person's vote or cooperation or point of view.   If you have only a single issue to fight for, it's fine to stomp and accuse and ride the highest of horses.  If you have a complex agenda, it will kill everything else to make that kind of accusation against a colleague.

In any case, there is a certain kind of clear, powerful, evocative, and important vision and battle cry you need for organizing and motivating people to action.   There are also key and important principles that it is crucial to remember in the speeches when it's time to cut the ribbon and, give thanks to the hard work of dozens of people who made it possible to open an amazing new center or program or building. Those principles are real.  And when they become something real, it is a victory like nothing else.   Even if it is not everything one may have originally aspired to and hoped for: to see something real and positive exist where nothing did before is  miraculous.  So much is stacked against any kind of change.


Change is hard and takes incredibly hard work, and, from my point of view, it is disillusiioning work sometimes. I loved my eight years as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and I've loved the three years since without those kinds of responsibilities and demands.  But I can't forget the lessons of those years.  It's not easy to keep your eyes on the prize sometimes, especially when the prize is being whittled away by someone who is convinced that there is another, better solution.  There always seems to be another meeting at 1 o'clock where you need Oscar's help. Or to repeat the lesson from the best person in the business:  "This is what administration is."








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