Sunday, May 17, 2009

Proper channels

Earlier this week, I spent a workday morning sending detailed e-mails to all the students who (a) fell below our grade point average threshold for retention this semester, and (b) were close enough to the threshold to achieve it this summer via retaking a failed class for grade forgiveness or accumulating a few more hours of A work.

This kind of administrative work is fraught with danger. You have to communicate clearly and precisely. And when students come to you pleading for an exception, you have to walk a fine line between policy-for-policy's-sake and anything-you-want-just-go-away-please.

There are a million reasons for making any decision. When there are rules, you have to decide to whom they apply and under what circumstances. When there are no rules, you have to decide whether that means complete freedom or the necessity to make analogies with the spirit of other rules. And when there is a person involved asking for mercy or petitioning for special treatment, you are further confronted with the human being with all her complexity and moral standing.

When it gets most frustrating, I remember something my boss told me not long ago. We've just endured an extended series of scandals at our university -- presidents advocating for their own bonuses in the names of their underlings, scholarships handed out with no criteria, money collected for one purpose but diverted to another, laws governing maximum salary circumvented.

Everybody hates bureaucracy, my boss said. But the definition of corruption is not going through the designated and appropriate process for making a decision. Impersonal processes serve the purpose of making the criteria for decision transparent, and of not treating people differently based on differences that don't matter (like who a student's parents are, or how squeaky the wheel is).

So when I have bad news for a student, or when I feel inclined to make a decision just because I'm tired of being hassled, I pause a moment to give thanks that I represent a bureaucracy. It's a service to all the people out there who didn't need to ask for an exception.

1 comment:

Doc Thelma said...

I can relate, having delivered more than my fair share of bad news to students and faculty. It is paradoxical that in the long run, sometimes the kindness policies are the ones that are the least flexible.