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Bill Laramee: In my opinion

Drawing on his experience at an institution working to balance mission and economic pressures, a vice president of Berea College offers practices of discernment for leaders when making decisions.

Photo by Alan Mills
Sunrise in Berea, Ky.

May 31, 2011

On one of my work-related trips, I struck up a conversation with a young man who was a professional pilot. He was a serious-minded guy, and before long we were discussing the big issues of life. After a while, he said he noticed that whenever I said something substantive, I always added the qualifier “in my opinion.” In his opinion, he said, someone with my academic background should not qualify his remarks but should speak “with certainty.”

I explained that my degrees have provided me with more questions than answers. He said, “I’ll have to think about that.”

I thought about it, too. And I stick by my qualifier. From my experience, there are too many examples of bad habits of argumentation -- and even worse patterns of behavior -- that lurch from one opinion to another, often resulting in an “arrogant absolutism.” If I spoke with unflappable certitude, I’d fail to see my opinions as just that -- opinions, influenced by life experience, ideology, indoctrination and more.

I have reflected in recent years on what might be considered antidotes to this way of thinking and speaking. The practices below help us to see what may not be seen, to hear what may not be heard and to be more inclusive when weighing the consequences of our decisions.

I hope these antidotes are useful for people sitting as board members, deliberating as part of an administrative leadership team, participating in a faculty assembly or serving in positions of authority in any situation when decisions of consequence are being made.

Reject simplification

Complex organizations require leaders to resist the temptation to simplify or to deny complexity. Often this temptation arises from a reliance on old structures and outdated traditions and practices.

Invariably, the time comes when “that’s the way we do things” no longer gets those things done effectively. The great corruptor of effective decision making is a rushed process -- and a failure to resist the obvious answer -- because of internal or external demands.

In “The Age of the Unthinkable,” Joshua Ramo speaks about our tendency to simplify. He explains how we have arrived in an age in which the unthinkable has become the inevitable, and he urges us to see that when systems change, so also systems of thought must change.

It’s important to develop “complex adaptation” and resiliency that does not just react but also learns. As long as we are trapped in old structures, he says, we can’t adjust at the level or in the way that is essential.

Consideration of new structures might occur in the context of scenario planning, as we see how one vision of the future -- maybe even 10 years out -- helps clarify the strengths and limitations of other visions. Scenario planning can also help orient decision makers in ways that best align institutional mission, core values and budgets.

Berea College went through a scenario planning process to develop a budget that is sustainable and programs that are more adaptable and resilient. The charge of the scenario planning task force was to look beyond the financial crisis to the broader environment and to Berea’s programmatic structures.

The task force considered variables including possible new income streams, reduced operating expenditures, prioritized maintenance and green physical plant upgrades, preservation of a rainy day fund, one-time bridge expenditures and more.

Parts of the resulting scenario have been enacted, such as changing the academic calendar, increasing the size of the student body to 1,600, adjusting to a 12:1 student-faculty ratio and restructuring academic units. Other recommendations are still being reviewed by constituent groups.

The proposals and Berea President Larry Shinn personally have come under fire at times during this process. Yet in an “age of the unthinkable,” I believe the report was a call to question the familiar -- to reject the simplistic or previous patterns of thinking and planning. Thinking more holistically, comprehensively and futuristically is paramount to success if not survival.

Detect silences

Seeing or hearing what or who is omitted, ignored or downplayed in decision making is critical for understanding the ultimate impact and consequences of the decisions that are made.

It can often be the silent or silenced voices -- regrettably, often still people of color or women -- who are the most burdened with the consequences of decisions and therefore the most important to be heard. Silence does not always signify agreement; sometimes the silent are the eventual truth tellers.

In governance systems or cultures that place high value on the spoken word and thus privilege those who speak effectively in public spaces, the outcome of deliberation may appear to be consensus when in fact it may more accurately attest to fear of speaking, intimidation or lack of empowerment. The academy is especially vulnerable to such vocal power imbalances.

At Berea College, a staff forum was created to incorporate staff issues or voices that were not being heard in traditional faculty meetings. The forum attends to issues such as communication, advancement opportunities, salaries, benefits, workloads and evaluation.

No doubt there still are people who are unwilling or unable to express themselves, but the scenario planning process emphasized protecting those who might be silent yet care deeply about Berea’s venerable mission to offer tuition-free education to low-income students, primarily from Appalachia.

Any thoughtful process must accept that individuals and groups have preferences that are revealed in a process of inclusivity. Leaders should not wait for disruption or a drop in morale to finally listen to voices outside pre-existing institutional frameworks. It is important to find and listen to those voices from the outset.

Acknowledge ideology

Having a critical understanding of others’ points of view is essential for good decision making. To truly understand the impact of ideology, leaders should always ask: Who benefits? Who pays the consequences?

People with different frames of reference may work toward different ends. As Edward R. Murrow said: “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices, just recognize them.”

Berea College faced this situation six years ago, when it considered offering domestic partner benefits. The school’s administrative committee decided to recommend to the trustees that the college provide domestic partner benefits.

The decision was supported by some community members and opposed by others, and it brought to the forefront a range of conflicting ideologies and beliefs.

To help the community process the issue, the administrative committee called for an open forum in which the rules of engagement specified a rotation of speakers -- a voice for the benefits, a voice against the benefits, a voice for the benefits, and so on. The conversation allowed all points of view to be aired over a two-hour period among a crowd of more than 100 faculty and staff.

By design, it was a moment for all to be heard. (In the end, Berea became the first institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky to offer such benefits.)

Ignoring ideology allows discussions to center on the same old clichés. Instead, leaders can use the time as a teachable moment in the processes of civil discourse and the importance of staying at the table to help maintain a sense of community.

Think upstream

A few years ago in his opening convocation address to the faculty, Shinn built his talk upon Sandra Steingraber’s book “Living Downstream.”

Steingraber’s work was tied to the environment, but it’s easy to see how the idea of our activities’ effect on life downstream can be applicable in other situations.

The question Shinn posed to the faculty and staff was how to think “upstream,” so that more “focus [was placed] on our intentions and actions rather than a debate [about] our inheritance from the river and what we want to make of it.”

Three principles from the address tie nicely to our consideration of critical discernment. First is the precautionary principle. If we are aware that we’re responsible for what we put into the river, that understanding allows us to make ecological actions a positive choice.

Second is the sustainability principle. This requires us to live in a way that connects the inheritance of our children to our own use of natural resources.

Third is the principle of creative and adaptive learning. Here again, we see Ramo’s notion that “systems of thought” must change if we are to avoid shortsightedness and the consequences of such thinking.

A key component of upstream thinking and analysis is time -- seeing ourselves acting with future generations in mind.

Colleges and universities face numerous issues that should all be reviewed in the context of who is affirmed, what is rewarded, who is really welcomed, and who is most likely to succeed -- all downstream consequences of upstream decision making.

Be transparent

Often organizations and individuals work almost entirely independently of others; working in “silos” is the common metaphor. Budget allocation processes in particular are often cited as areas having minimal transparency, and recent times, of course, have put pressure on such closed systems. The importance and benefit of an open process often become clear when institutions attempt to restructure.

Transparency also equates with integrity, empowering others to know and to question. A culture of openness is critical to creating trust and helps convey respect for all.

In some ways, it is the umbrella under which all the other criteria fit. If an institution practices transparency, then the issue of simplification is addressed, voices are heard, ideology is named and discussed, and upstream thinking is considered by all.

At Berea, in an effort to be transparent and inclusive, in addition to commissioning the scenario planning process, the president himself was a “listener” at 17 meetings of over 600 members of the Berea College community, as well as more than a dozen meetings with small groups and individuals.

The vice presidents discussed potential scenarios with the staff and administrative members of their divisions, and the president came to those sessions as well. In addition, information was shared through a series of president’s reports, widely circulated emails and memos, budget presentations and forums with students.

All this work helped people embrace complexity and open their eyes to a world of possibilities. None of this is to suggest that such transitions are easy; indeed, critics of the proposal and the process argued that it was not transparent enough.

With any change people struggle; it takes time to develop a renewed sense of trust. Patience is key, of course, along with a keen sensitivity to how human nature will always add an element of surprise. Such moments require a healthy dose of courage, a sense of humor and imaginative response.

Stepping back

The above “antidotes” are important to consider in times of institutional stress, when leaders often feel under pressure to take quick action. However, the antidotes themselves need not exist in a silo marked “crisis” but can be constant resources for evaluating systems of thought.

As Parker Palmer says in “A Hidden Wholeness”: “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.”

Decision makers must be willing to step back, take their time, qualify their remarks a little more often -- then be prepared to see the unseen and hear the unheard.

I wonder if perhaps the young pilot will recall our conversation some day and find himself saying “in my opinion” more often, understanding that other opinions may be equally or even more valid. In the process, he may come to see things in places he never thought to look.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.