A TRUE Tale with three morals
Years ago, when I was a university dean, I was given the additional job of overseeing our study abroad program. How I ended up saddled with this extra duty is fodder for another day, but my only compensation, aside from the warm-and-fuzzies gained from knowing that my efforts enhanced student learning, was the fact that I got to travel to a few cool places.
One May, we sent 36 students and faculty to South Africa for five weeks. We were very familiar with this trip and its ins outs, and I had twice traveled there myself, once with students. This time I delayed my departure to handle some business stateside, but I planned to join them mid-trip. The second day of the excursion, a phone call awakened me with the horrific news that our travelers had been highjacked at gunpoint on a bus and robbed. They were now all safe and sound, but they had been in real danger.
To compound the situation, one of the students texted home to tell mom, and mom then contacted the media for whatever reason. Since one of the faculty chaperones on the trip was the recently retired police commissioner of Baltimore, media interest was piqued, and so we were off to the races.
I won’t distract you with the details, but I convened with a group of university vice presidents to decide what was next, and we agreed it was best to bring everyone home.
None of these vice presidents had any experience with study abroad, and some of them had never been abroad themselves. In fact, I am pretty sure, one had never even been on plane. Their inexperience confounded their ability to assess and anticipate distance, geography, logistics, and the basic protocols of international travel. Study abroad professionals typically visit student destinations in advance to preempt just this sort of disorder. Since as a mere dean I was the lowest-ranked person in the room, my perspective was dismissed out of hand despite my personal knowledge of the travel conditions, the topography, the people, and the local challenges. Thus, arrogance and power, as always, proved a noxious combination and hampered our ability to reach conclusions and communicate clearly. As a result, we missed several opportunities to resolve the matter expeditiously, alleviate parent fears, and manage the media.
Since the press had taken an interest in the story, the VP for communications, the only VP who was not using this crisis as an opportunity to posture and preen, arranged a press conference with the four local television stations for the next day and tapped me as the university’s spokesperson, a job I neither sought nor had any training for. Even as we worked to extract our travelers, television reporters and news crews arrived on campus and lined up their equipment in a designated area.
While all this was going on, we were having trouble making arrangements for our travelers to get from Pretoria to the Johannesburg airport in part because of the VPs’ antics. Their stupidity peaked with someone’s suggestion that the Pretoria police should use their vans to transport our travelers and all their luggage to Johannesburg. “I looked it up. It’s only 30 miles,” this VP boasted, the one who had never flown. I had to counter that in my experience, the police in any country are generally not willing to commit their vehicles and officers to transport tourists unless it’s to the pokey. He, in his infinite arrogance, was not convinced.
No matter how much I explained that the trip leader was at the police station armed with only a flip phone and had no access to email, they would not relent in their anger at him. They were looking for someone to hang, and he would do nicely. (I don’t hesitate to point out that he is Black and they are all White.)
They also were furious that he had not already secured a bus to get everyone to the airport at a moment’s notice. I pointed out that even in the U.S. he would have been hard-pressed to have arranged a bus so quickly and to have it wait on-call. I also explained that, although the Tambo airport was only thirty miles away, it is a large and difficult airport to navigate, that it often had long lines, and that clearance to fly to the States included individual pat-downs of every passenger by security. All this delay would have to be factored into the timing of any departing flight.
The VPs were having none of it. One of them speculated that given the special circumstances, the airline would certainly suspend security checks! I just cannot make this stuff up. The three kept hammering away as I tried to reason with them and protect the trip leader. Our words grew heated. At one point, one of the VPs, the one who was afraid of flying, yelled, “You sound defensive!” To this day, I do not know how I refrained from yelling back, “And you are being highly offensive, you ignorant racist jackass!” Anyway, that’s what went screaming through my mind.
All the while, through the window I could see the camera crews outside adjusting their equipment. They were almost ready for me. The VP for communications came to the office door several times to get me ready, but the other VPs shooed her away. Eventually I realized that the only way for me to get out of this was to let the bully VPs take it out on the Black employee in South Africa. As we called his cell by speakerphone, I anticipated that they would rip right into him when he answered. Instead, they all looked at me. Cowards. They expected me to do their filthy work.
I greeted him and then sternly but without raising my voice, chided him for neither magically arranging for a bus to appear nor somehow commandeering all the police vans and drivers in the city of Pretoria. He and I were friends, and he knew me well enough to read my tone and put on a show of indignity to make it sound good. The VPs were satisfied, or at least that is how I read their smug expressions. That deplorable task out of the way, I was free to go talk to the media now without any preparation.
Later on, when I was done with the press, I called the trip leader to apologize for my earlier sternness. He knew the players and had grasped the situation but appreciated my call nonetheless.
I tell this story as an example of the peculiar propensity to point fingers overwhelming the need to solve problems. We had to resolve a crisis, a real crisis. “Crisis,” by the way, is a word I never use lightly because it is deployed far too readily to describe even routine challenges. With the additional strain of the press breathing down our necks, having three VPs chew me out and then compel me to chew out my colleague (from 8,000 miles away) was not a good use of our time or energy. Even if he had screwed up (and he most certainly did not) or I had screwed up (nor did I), there was no reason to indulge in this little power play cum game of gotcha. I suspect much of this nonsense was because I was chosen to be the spokesperson and not them—pathetic jealousy. Also, they were all veteran bullies and could not pass up an opportunity. The remainder of their motivation, though, seemed nakedly racial to me.
Whatever their excuses, it was unreasonable to point fingers when a problem was at hand. On rare occasions, assessing blame may be necessary to solve the problem, but, almost always, doing so is a massive distraction. Furthermore, I have often found that, after the dust has settled, the need to assign blame becomes blunted anyway.
In this case, the immediate stakes were particularly high. Not only did we have to get our travelers home, but if these arrogant VPs had been successful in rattling me, I may have flubbed the press conference and created a new mess. Perhaps that was their goal all along, to set me up for failure. If so, they blew it.
Fortunately, the press conference went fine—almost. For the broadcast, one TV station juxtaposed my statements with contrary claims from a lying secret source whose voice was electronically distorted (cannot make it up!), but I was later able to correct the record during a post-return press conference. The journalistic malpractice on display was astonishing. We eventually got everyone home safely albeit several days later than necessary due to delays spawned by finger-pointing tantrums. As for the bullying VPs who ambushed me, they just crawled back under their bridges to troll another day.
Moral 1: The more you are pointing fingers, the less you are solving problems.
Solve problems first. Point fingers later--and then only if doing so serves some useful purpose.
Moral 2: Just because you have a big title does not make you the expert.
If you think that is the case, you are dead wrong.
Moral 3: Avoid the press if you can.
The press, like the troll, is not likely to be your friend.
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.