1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 If listening is one key component of the work of leading transformative change, there’s a parallel requirement for forthright communication: sharing what you know as openly and plainly as you can. Healthy coalitions require mutual understanding, and that mutual understanding must be built upon a shared knowledge base. Developing that shared knowledge base is one of the key responsibilities of a leader seeking to create transformative change within an institution, beginning with transparency as a guiding principle.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Transparency, however, is easily misunderstood. As I am using it here, transparency refers to a willingness to share the process behind decision-making, as well as the information that goes into and supports the process. Transparency is a commitment to opening up an otherwise black-boxed operation to the understanding, and ideally participation, of a much broader range of members of the organization. Transparency allows for a deeper — and most importantly, shared — understanding of how the decision-making process works and why the conclusions that result have been reached.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Transparency does not, however, provide leaders with grounds for abdicating their responsibility for making hard choices, nor does it shift that responsibility onto the shoulders of the collective. Transparency might ideally allow consensus to be built, but such consensus shouldn’t be its goal. Consensus sounds like a great thing from the perspective of a leader working to get everyone on board with a plan, but it often functions by squelching or ignoring dissent. What real transparency should work toward is providing everyone with the same evidence on which decisions are based, so that different interpretations of that evidence can be surfaced and considered. Ultimately, however, the decision-making authority still rests with those authorized, and responsibility for its outcomes must rest there as well.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Transparency also doesn’t mean that every single piece of information will be shared publicly. Some confidential information cannot be shared at all. Some sensitive information might be shared with a trusted representative body rather than with the organization as a whole. There are good reasons why some information might have this kind of restricted distribution — but transparency does require a careful consideration and communication of the reasons for such restriction.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Finally, if transparency doesn’t mean giving over control of all decision-making to everyone within an organization, but rather making the walls around decision-making processes see-through, it creates a responsibility for leaders to give everyone insight into the ways that they go about making decisions. It asks leaders, having presented issues and evidence and other factors constraining decision-making to the collective for their input and discussion, to follow through by explaining the decisions that they’ve made, especially where those decisions contradict the input that’s been given.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 I’ve had the privilege over the last several years of working in a college whose dean, Christopher P. Long, has made a commitment to transparency, and who has acted upon that commitment in a wide range of ways. One of the most transformative, I believe, has to do with budgeting. Budgets, perhaps needless to say, number among the most fraught aspects of any organization. This is perhaps especially true for universities and other highly complex non-profits. On the one hand, there are rarely sufficient resources available to meet all of the institution’s needs. On the other the process of deciding who gets what is determined by processes that are designed to create conflict: allocations too often involve what feel like shady back-room deals, and even where they don’t — where there’s a clear formula that everyone knows about and adheres to — that formula drives units into open competition for majors and enrollments. These processes so thoroughly undermine any kind of solidarity or even cooperation across units that one might reasonably wonder whether that’s their goal.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Given these circumstances, the processes of open-book management that I mentioned a few chapters back can be transformative for a business.1 They could be similarly transformative in higher education. In fact, they might lead to the development of new values-oriented collective budgeting models, models that neither contribute to the calcification of the status quo nor turn university finances into a re-enactment of the Hunger Games.2 The kinds of transparency I’m advocating for here can help ameliorate the worst aspects of current budget models, but the real work of carving out a better path at the institutional level remains to be done. My institution has not — or at least not yet — been subject to the worst of so-called “responsibility center management” budgeting processes; we’ve instead used an incremental model that doesn’t rely quite so heavily on unit revenue production in determining allocations. It’s not a perfect model, by any means; incremental budgeting tends to preserve existing inequities and can make it difficult to invest in new initiatives. In our case, new initiatives have been supported at the provostial and deanly levels through a small “tax” on all unit budgets, which provides a fund that the university or the college can distribute according to their priorities. The process for obtaining new allocations, however, is usually arcane: chairs make requests of the dean for new lines and other forms of strategic investment, and those requests disappear into a black box of sorts, with a result emerging that may or may not come with much in the way of explanation.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In Spring 2019, Dean Long asked the college to approach the process differently. All the chairs of departments and directors of programs were asked to develop their priorities for college investment in accordance with a values-based rubric, making the case for the ways that their requests would help the unit, and in turn the college, better meet its collective goals. Those requests were then shared among all the chairs and directors, enabling everyone to see the needs that exist across the college, but also providing opportunities for units to collaborate with one another in thinking about how to fill those needs. The entire group then met to discuss the college’s values and priorities, and rated the requests based on them.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 It was a messy process, and at times an uncomfortable one, as many of us found it hard to rank the needs of our colleagues when all are so pressing. That discomfort, however, was at least part of the point, as the process asked all of us to understand viscerally the kinds of difficult choices that always have to be made in processes such as these. In the end, the decision-making moment remained with Dean Long, but allowing those who lead the units within the college to participate in and genuinely advise on the process leading up to those decisions produced both a deeper recognition of the complexity of the choices that have to be made and a deeper trust in the reasoning behind the decisions.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 It was also crucial that this open process was implemented during a relatively good year, budget-wise, when there were strategic investments to be made. Spring 2020 was an entirely different thing, as COVID-19 led us into what gave every appearance of being a disastrous budget year. In response to the call from the upper administration to make significant budget cuts, Dean Long convened a group of task forces to advise him, in a similar manner to the year before, on ways to make the required cuts while maintaining the college’s values. Those task forces, like most such groups in organizational life, were largely advisory rather than authoritative, and the knowledge that no one was going to be happy with the outcome made their work that much harder. There were moments at which several of us grumbled (and I will admit that I am guilty of such grumbling) that it would be easier if the hard choices were made by those paid to do so. But including all the unit leaders in this process allowed the college to avoid much of the suspicion and infighting that hard times too often produce.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 And the process worked to avoid such fragmentation in no small part because the dean continued to show up. Throughout Summer 2020, chairs and directors had a weekly call — not an email, and not a webinar, but an open conversation — in which Dean Long shared with us what he knew, let us know what he didn’t know, and did his best to answer the questions that were percolating up from our colleagues. His willingness to hear us, his acknowledgment of the difficulties we were all facing, and his determination to maintain an open dialogue, were crucial to maintaining the trust that he’d built in better times.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 There are limits to what such transparency can accomplish. It’s unlikely that everyone will be happy with the decisions being made, no matter how open the process has been. Moreover, while a collaborative process such as the one our dean employed did a lot to foster strong relationships among the unit leaders who were directly involved, it relied on those chairs and directors creating similarly open channels for communication within their units to stave off the inevitable conviction among faculty and staff that they were going to be hung out to dry. Anyone who has worked on a university campus will understand me when I say that there is zero chance of getting the entirety of the workforce on board with any administrator’s initiative, but units within the college that had well-established cultures of open and transparent communication were able to weather the crisis and work together toward the best possible outcomes.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 Transparency won’t make everyone happy with every decision, but it will allow everyone insight into the ways that decisions have been made, it can help everyone understand the higher-level goals and limitations that constrain and encourage choices, and it can build trust. Without transparency, none of that is possible.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1
  • Which processes within your unit generate the greatest suspicion and complaint? How might those processes be made more transparent, such that the principles and data that guide them are better understood?
  • What kinds of information within your area of influence might help avoid misunderstandings and ill-will if they were more generally shared? How might you go about sharing them? 

  1. 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  2. See Stack, The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company.
  3. On the gory underside of university budgeting, see Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.
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