The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Column: Decision-making process of College President explained

One of the facts of life at colleges and universities is that many resist the idea that their institutions need to be managed or administered. And, of course, individuals resist or disagree with specific decisions that are made by other individuals—whether the president, a dean, or a department chair. This opposition is frequently stated as opposition to “the administration.”

But of course there is no simple thing or entity that is “the administration.” Nor are administrators or decision-makers monolithic in their thinking or their actions. Usually decisions are the result of a calculus of competing suggestions, needs and plans that span broad areas of a college but generally have a primary focus in one area.

The president is the most likely person to see and experience the multiple perspectives and demands of competing groups or individuals in an institution.

Alumni usually write to the president. Faculty express themselves directly in their institutions of governance and also individually to the president or even the members of the Board of Trustees. Students speak through SGA but also individually. Staff also speaks directly to the president either by e-mailing me or by stopping me as I walk around. And neighbors, community residents and other “outsiders” feel free to comment to the president and others.

The hard part of being the president is weighing and melding together these many different voices, which offer varying opinions on issues frequently without the full context or understanding of what others believe or claim or demand.

But there is no way around this difficulty and the alternatives (not seeking or listening to conflicting and competing advice) are even worse than having to assess and act on them.

In making an overall decision when presented with varying inputs it is important that the president have a consistent sense of what he or she thinks the primary bases for making a decision should be.

At Grinnell I think there is a consistent and strong sense of identity that is encapsulated in our official documents, our core values and the strategic plan. It is true that these documents frequently speak at a high level of generality but they are a starting point and a framework for making decisions. When I am thinking about a decision I think about how the decision fits into these documents. Sometimes a person will light onto one feature of one of these documents and say that I MUST decide in a particular way due to that one factor. But of course there are multiple factors and considerations and they frequently tug against each other.

It is also important in considering an important decision—unless it is a confidential matter like tenure or promotion—to have a process of giving some public notice that the matter is under consideration so as to elicit comments from those who may have wisdom on the subject but are not disposed to raise their voices without some invitation to speak. Having said that, it is also important to decide matters in some reasonable frame of time. Matters that drag on a very long time do not get easier and such delaying, if pervasive, can contribute to a sense of institutional inertia.

I am not naïve enough to think that you should support what the president or some other decision maker does but I do believe that colleges and universities need to be managed and that making thoughtful decisions is something we can all contribute to by speaking up, giving advice and thinking about the perspectives of others in evaluating a decision.

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