When Values Conflict | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Tim Burke’s latest post, “Values Before Risk Assessment,” is essential reading. Yes, it includes words like “habitus” and “neoliberal,” but you can suss out the meanings by context. The core argument gets at a tension that those of us in administration live with every single day. The tension exists in multiple forms: short term versus long term, aspiration versus budget, exploration versus efficiency. In essence, it’s about what happens when values conflict.

Burke situates his analysis in residential liberal arts colleges, so the specifics are somewhat different from my world. But the basic issues are recognizable.

I’ll give a concrete, factual example from my world. My college has taken severe cuts in state funding this year, as those dollars have been redirected elsewhere. It’s also facing the prospect of lower enrollment, although it’s closing the gap rapidly. Between the state cuts and the potential for reduced tuition revenue, it has had to eliminate some positions. That’s what happens when the vast majority of your budget is labor.

My college is also in an affluent area with a heavy majority of white people. It has identified diversification of its faculty and staff as a goal. And it’s eliminating some positions.

It isn’t as simple as that, though. Even while it’s eliminating certain positions, it’s backfilling others as people have left and, in a few cases, creating new ones. That’s normal; some tasks need doing, budget crunch or not. We eliminated one dean’s position but not all of them; myths of “administrative bloat” notwithstanding, certain work needs to get done. We eliminated some staff positions but refilled others. And yes, every single one of those decisions was the result of agonized group discussion.

The dilemma comes in how to treat the folks whose positions have been eliminated. Should they get first dibs on the roles being filled?

The argument in favor would cite the value of community. We should take care of our own. People need their jobs. The college works better when people aren’t paranoid and looking over their shoulders. Besides, people who’ve shown that they’re good employees over time are low risk. They may or may not be ideally suited for their new roles, but that’s true of new hires, too. Why risk it?

The argument against would cite the value of diversity. Shuffling around an incumbent cohort of employees doesn’t increase diversity. If anything, giving that group first dibs on open jobs pretty much ensures that diversity will remain elusive. If the only way to get a job is to already have had one for a while, then people looking to break in from the outside are out of luck. To a frustrated would-be applicant, it looks like a closed club. For an institution defined by values of openness and inclusion, that’s a tough one.

Both arguments are valid. Both are based on values we share. When budgets are better and the college is maintaining or even growing its staff, the conflict is relatively muted. But when cuts can’t be avoided, the contradiction between the two goals becomes obvious.

(Fans of American history will immediately think of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act and its relationship to affirmative action. As Jefferson Cowie notes in “Stayin’ Alive,” his history of the U.S. in the 1970s, many supporters of affirmative action believed that it could only thrive and be sustainable in a context of full employment. The legislative evisceration of Humphrey-Hawkins lay the groundwork for all manner of ugliness in subsequent decades.)

Working through conflicts like these necessarily involves budget calculations and some consideration of ways that other people may react. But it also involves decisions about which values override others. Decisions like those can’t be reduced entirely to measurable outputs. They require judgment. They’re subject to objection. Whichever way you decide, you know that the other side had some good points.

Burke’s analysis looks at decisions around residential colleges reopening. If they reopen, they may be endangering students, faculty, staff and communities. If they don’t, they may be endangering the survival of the institution (and therefore the jobs of faculty and staff, and indirectly many jobs in their communities). No matter which way you go, many people will be convinced that you’re wrong, and they’ll have plenty of arguments and allies at hand.

At moments like these, risk management is both essential and inadequate. Yes, you need to weigh carefully the downstream consequences of a line of action. But much is necessarily unknowable. At some point, you have to decide what kind of institution, or person, you want to be, and then accept the risks that come along with that.

Burke’s piece is thoughtful, honest and much smarter than I’ve been able to gloss here. It doesn’t give a final answer, but I think that’s right. It asks the right questions. I can’t give much higher praise than that.

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