A number of years ago I left a university where I had served for 15 years to take a position as the chief academic officer at a different school. Not long after I had started at this new place, some faculty and others darkly wisecracked about the “bags o' money” that resided under my desk. I heard this quip frequently enough that I have to admit that I did take a peek once. Nothing there but three paperclips, an old pencil, and a multigenerational family of fluffy dust bunnies.
I called maintenance.
Despite my disappointment, I have to admit that one of the nice things about this particular school was its solid endowment, and the fact that I did indeed have a decent sum of funds to distribute to students and faculty to meet relevant expenses. Virtually all of the funds were restricted, though, meaning their usage was predetermined by the donor for such purposes as student study abroad trips or professional development for faculty.
The burning question, then, was how to disperse these funds equitably while assuring that they would be put to their best use. Some faculty committees existed for just this objective, but they had been given control of only specific funds. A few gifts were controlled by school deans, who reported to me. The bulk came under no one’s jurisdiction in particular and therefore defaulted to my authority.
You may be thinking, “Well golly, Jim, that sounds like a good problem to have, big bags o' money under the desk,” but I found the situation most uncomfortable and not just because I value legroom. I did not want to be in the position of playing Solomon with gift funds—deciding who would receive them and who would go wanting, having to divvy up moneys, split the occasional baby, and undoubtedly tick everyone off. As unlikely as it seems, I just did not want moneybags under my desk, howsoever metaphorically.
The whole moneybags rumor stemmed from one of my predecessors who was known to dispense funds directly without going through the committees. To be clear, I am not implying that there was something illegal or even untoward about his practices. Both he and I were well within our rights to dole out the funds as we saw fit so long as we adhered to any restrictions the donors had imposed. Still, I did not like the potential inequity of such a practice, nor did I enjoy the responsibility of making such calls.
My predecessor, though, reportedly had few such compunctions. I am sure he had the best intentions, but what necessarily resulted was a perception of arbitrariness among the faculty that gave me the willies. Some faculty complained that only a select few had ever benefited from my predecessor’s largess. Whatever the reality, the mere perception of a specific in-group necessitates the conjuring of a corresponding out-group and fosters the growth of resentment. Moneybags, as it turns out, make a great fertilizer for sprouting suspicion and dissent.
The fact was that a few people were simply not shy about requesting funds, not that there is anything wrong with that. Others, though, were more reluctant to do so or not aware that funds were accessible upon request. I also learned that some of this second group habitually covered work expenses out-of-pocket, which was absolutely unacceptable.
I chose instead to avoid the appearance of inequity and aspired to see to it that the committees that already existed to distribute money fairly had access to most of the gift and endowed funds available to faculty and students. The moneybags under my desk were officially empty.
The problem with this scheme, though, was that it introduced a threat of equal but opposite potential, the unwelcome boogyman of bureaucratic decision-making. Instead of informally pitching requests to the chief academic officer, all faculty and students would now have to formally apply to the committees. They would have to fill out forms, mind deadlines, and earn approval. Plus, even after navigating all this seeming red tape, they still might not receive funds. The natural result: those who had previously had ready access to the erstwhile bags o' money were displeased by my decision while everyone else was chary of the new process.
Worse still, these funding committees had a fabled history of being too tight with the money, perhaps to counterbalance my predecessor’s relatively loose approach. They had demanded detailed applications and enforced deadlines without compromise, which did not always reflect the reality of student and faculty needs. They also had a reputation for rejecting requests on fairly flimsy grounds and with a hint of personal bias. One thing was clear. The prevailing mindset on the committees assumed that their charge was to “save money” by finding reasons not to approve applications.
I worked with the committees to assure that the application process was not onerous. My attitude, one I probably shared with my predecessor, Dr. Moneybags, was that the funds were donated for a reason, and it was our job to see that they were spent wisely and to great effect in support of the university’s mission. I made sure the committee members knew that spending the money unwisely or not spending it at all were two outcomes to be avoided. Donors donate because they want to see their money do good, not because they want to have it simply roll over to the next year. For additional clarity on this point, read the Parable of the Talents, a basic primer on philanthropic expectations.
It did not take long for the committees to get their acts together and change their mindsets. Faculty and students who needed funding for travel, study, equipment, books, and so on were able to access what was available while the committees balanced oversight and equity with minimized friction. Committee members made decisions strictly on the merits of the applications and did not penalize for petty errors. We had to have deadlines, but we also had provisions for retroactive decisions where necessary. The default position shifted so that the committees understood their charge was to distribute funds, not to horde them. In other words, I convinced them to always start with yes, one of my core principles.
The Lesson of Emptied Moneybags: The Arbitrary Is the True Enemy
In the process, I learned something about the nature of arbitrary decision-making. Lurking on the extreme edges of the old system were two enemies of equity. On one side, was my predecessor’s reputed predilection for handing out funds pretty much upon request with scant discernment. On the other was an overly bureaucratized committee system that did not allow for uncertainty.
I came to embrace a truth that has guided my building of processes and systems ever since. Higher ed, like most industries, is rife with laments about the unwarranted impositions of bureaucracy, and rightly so. Bloated bureaucracies, with their proscriptive and prescriptive unreason--the proverbial red tape--can be oppressive.
Nonetheless, I learned that the enemy of efficiency is not bureaucracy, per se. Nor is the enemy the executive officer who directs activities with few checks (even while cutting a few checks). The true enemy of efficiency is the arbitrariness that invariably accompanies extremes of overly bureaucratized or overly capricious administration. No matter the size of the organization, the governance system needs to be carefully calibrated to be both benign and helpful in order to eliminate the inequity and arbitrariness of both extreme bureaucracy and extreme capriciousness. The task of a system-builder and leader is to find that sweet spot in the middle, build upon it, and maintain it.
Having control of bags o' money may sound swell, and it really is, but relinquishing control to a rational process is even sweller.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.