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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Asking the wrong folks: the media’s fatal flaw

I read an article this morning in the Raleigh News and Observer about how often the news media asks men for views on women’s issues. According to the article by Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, a study analyzed 50,000 quotes from 35 print sources and the transcripts of 11 network news programs over a six month period. The period in question was one when there were lots of women’s issues in the news, ranging from the Komen Organization’s nasty attempt to ditch Planned Parenthood to the idiot Limbaugh calling a young woman a slut because she wanted her insurance to pay for birth control.

Women evidently accounted for less than a third, or around 31% of the respondents or sources for quotes and comments on these issues. In other words, even on topics specifically concerning women men are twice as likely to be asked to comment than women. This should not be surprising to anyone. In the media woman are about 40% of news staff and 22 percent of radios staff and 37% of newspaper staff. Since women are actually a majority in America these statistics should be worrying, but they are not to most people evidently.

This, I am afraid, is yet another symptom of the growing disconnect between being informed in our current society and being dependent on sound bites to tell us what is what. I frequently encounter people in social media from all walks of life who quote things quite sincerely that bear no relation to the truth at all. They repeat them as if they were gospel because they “heard” it on the radio or on television.

I realize I am a privileged person, I have time to fact check things and I have computers and devices everywhere with me at all times. There is always an iPhone, iPad or computer within my reach , day and night. I can see or hear something that does not strike me as correct and be online looking for sources to vindicate or refute the claim within seconds. So can most of America, but they do not do it. There is a strange desire to have what we want to be true to be true rather than wanting to know what is actually true at play in our society.

If I hate Barack Obama for whatever reason I am ready to believe that universal health care is socialist, that people in countries with universal health care have people dying in droves while awaiting surgery or other medical procedures. I also believe these poor souls from these obviously inferior countries are pouring into America for health care. I guess the people who choose to believe this have not read the accounts of Americans going to India and other places overseas to get everything from dental work to heart surgery at much more reasonable prices. But then, those who have irrational hatred of the President are probably not big readers to begin with.

But, let’s get back to the women. What would possess a news reporter to ask a man what he thinks about a woman’s issue? Is it couched in sexism? Paternalim? Outdated gender roles? Or do men “experts” just have more credibility in our society than women “experts”, even on women’s issues?

I have to, of course, draw the parallel those of you who know me are probably waiting for, between sexism and racism. My first reaction to the article was actually, “Duh, welcome to my world.” Most of the commentary, oral and written, scholarly and popular media, about black people is made by white people. If it is counter intuitive to ask men about women’s issues  why is it okay to ask white people about black people’s issues? Aren’t we risking the same disconnect , lack of understanding, gaps in information?

If someone came to me and wanted to interview me about erectile dysfunction I would not feel comfy talking about how it must feel to have your little soldier unable to stand at attention. But, some men feel very comfortable expressing themselves about women’s issues from abortion to menopause to the merits or perils of wearing 4 inch heels. The same hubris is at play with both gender and race. ” I am superior because I am male/white, so I can talk about those folks with authority!”

I once had a relatively spirited argument with a priest, yes a priest, when we were out drinking together. He had just returned from East Saint Louis where he had done a several month study in the black community. He was white and a did I mention, a priest. Brother T told me ” Cookie, they accepted me totally, told me everything honestly, treated me like I was family.” Bless his heart, he actually believed it. I reminded him that according to the experts once an outlier, a person not of the community, enters a situation he/she alters the community and therefore his/her research can only partially reflect the true community.

I referred him to an article I had recently co-authored, “Researcher reflexivity through the lens of race” and gave him the example of me interviewing and interacting with a group of white men. If I came to the group it is no longer a group of white men. As a result anything I write about my experience amongst white men has to have an asterisk or footnote. This is no longer an study of how white men act when they are in a group of white men, this is now a study of how white men act when they are in a group that includes a black woman.

I am going to say this once more, if you ain’t one, you cannot write, comment or understand one like members of the in-group can. It is not possible unless you build a blind and study them unobserved.

I am pretty sure the men asked about the women’s issues were not in blinds disguised to look like parking meters, boutique store fronts or hot dog carts observing women from their hiding place.

So, if men are asked to comment on how many women there are, or share their survey results then that is fine, objective/num data know no gender. If they are asked about how women feel or should feel about something unless they heard it from a lot of women, a whole bunch of women and a diverse sample of women they should politely say ” I do not know, why don’t you go ask a woman?”

Part of the allure of us women is that we are incomprehensible. We practice it, we hone our skills and we revel in our mastery of keeping men guessing. The idea that some of them think they have figured us out is only proof that they are easier to fool than I thought.

If you want to know about women, ask women. If you want to know about blacks, ask blacks, if you want to know about Latinos, ask Latinos( and try to ask the ones from the country that you are talking about, Puerto Ricans and Cubans are not much alike) , if you want to know about Asians, ask Asians ( try to make sure they are the right folks, Japanese and Indians are kind of different).if you want to know about the LGBTQ community ask members of that community, anything else will only get you faulty data, and laughed at by the people you are commenting on.

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Retirement: Endings and beginnings!

Last week about this time I made a decision that has turned a lot of my life up on its head. I decided I need to make a change. Because I am a woman of a certain age, that means not quitting my job, but retiring. Fortunately my malaise and my tenth anniversary at my job ( April 1, 2013) both happened close enough together that nothing precipitous is required.

Those of you who know me know that I organize my life based on my Prime Directive. The PD is simple, do what makes you happy. It has served me well over the years, guiding decisions, adjusting attitudes, making demands, if the Prime Directive was kept in mind happiness would follow. It has never led me wrong and I have difficulty believing it will at this time of life.

Of course, it is daunting. My salary will effectively be cut in half, but then so will my expenses. For the past 9.5 years we have maintained two dwellings, a condo in NC and a house in Ohio. The condo will be put on the market in the fall.  The NC retirement system pays you for your vacation days you do not take, but adds the sick leave to your service. I have, by my calculation about 4.25 months of sick leave, which means I can stop working in late November.

So, money should not be a big issue. I also have some prospects, with my mother’s house still to be sold and the estate owing me about $10,000 for the funeral and other expenses.  I will, also, of course, work  when I return to Ohio. I am anxious to get back to Wilberforce. The people in NC were, with only about three exceptions, lovely to me, but this was never home. The people here are used to a way of life that I could never get used to, still steeped in a culture of privilege, unearned privilege in many cases, that is inherently both unfair and damaging to society.

I have already put out feelers for adjunct teaching jobs at a couple of colleges, which is about all I am interested in , teaching a couple of classes a week is fine with me. Having taught at all of them before and having had great evaluations  ( I was the chair of the faculty at one college) I presume they will be happy to have me back part time. But, one never knows what the future holds. When I graduated from XHS back when the earth was cooling there was no way I would have anticipated getting a PhD, being fortunate enough to be a fellow at the Library of Congress, being a director at a Research 1 university, traveling to the extent I have ( now we can hit some of those 20 odd states we have not visited!). I thought being a teacher in Xenia would be the apex of my career. It might have been if fate had not intervened and sent me down a different path.  I imagine I could still have achieved the Prime Directive teaching at Warner JHS or XHS, I enjoyed both gigs and loved my students, but it is nice to have had options.  I am  eager to get back to an academic calendar, with lovely long summers off, adjunct college teaching will provide that.

I will miss my NC friends, needless to say and the closeness of fabulous shopping, and my condo, but I love my old Ohio house and look forward to bringing her back to her former glory. I have all kinds of plans, from the construction of a walk-in closet to the scheme for restoring my garden.  I have managed to grow foxglove on my deck at the condo and I hope it takes kindly to Buckeye soil.

I will be leaving most of the things in the condo in NC. I plan on having what will amount to a liquidation sale, make me an offer and as long as it is not facetious you can buy it! I have a house full of furniture and things in Ohio, except for a few sentimental favorites  ( the sea theme in the study in NC will be transferred to the study in Ohio)  it is going to go to the highest bidder or Dorcas Thrift Shop.

So, what do I regret? I regret that I have never had a boss who is as smart as I am. That is not because I am a genius, it is because in the modern world you get to be the boss far too often because you know how to keep your mouth shut and stay out of trouble. That is not something very intelligent people do well. If it is wrong it seems that most bright people think it should be changed or not done or modified. Many people who rise, and this is unfortunately very true for people of color, are more adept at going along and protecting the status quo than they are at accomplishing much of anything. They also are frequently adept at cutting corners, bending rules and looking the other way. Although, in fairness I guess making a lot of money is an accomplishment for many. I made a lot of money in the job I am leaving, at least it felt like that to me, but I could have doubled it if I could have learned the art of pretense and accommodation.

Fortunately, I did not have to do that and for that I am grateful. But once, just once I would have loved to have had a boss who was capable of engaging with me to plan or even discuss. Instead I scared the bejesus out of most of them. They simply did not understand me. Odd, because I think I am kind of easy to understand. All you have to understand is that I was imprinted early with the idea that we all owe other human beings as much as we can give and that if something is wrong you will point it out and refuse to participate in it, even if it costs you something. My supervisors all were puzzled at my insistenc on being honest and telling them what I actually thought, even if they had asked me to. They seemed to presume that I would agree with them, tell them what they wanted to hear because they were my boss. Sorry boys and girls, my ancestors were slaves, they had to say what they did not believe to save their lives and if I do the same thing to save my paycheck any struggles they went through and sacrifices they made were obviously in vain.

If you violate your own ethics the Prime Directive goes out the window, at least is does with me. Of course, not everyone agrees on what is right and wrong. Perhaps the people I heap scorn on simply think what they are doing is right. Maybe they agree that the status quo should be protected, even if it oppresses some people or groups of people. Then I do not suppose I have the right to censure them for cowardice or toadyism. I would then just censure them for being sociopaths, or having sociopathic inclinations.

The idea that one can do wrong and prosper is against my view of the universe. Even if it seems to be happening for a while I do truly believe that Karma is a bitch;that the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine. I do not want to ever have to look at myself in the mirror and feel that I betrayed the parents, teachers and others who taught me to do what was right and damn the torpedoes!

Of course, if I end up eating cat food for dinner I may have to reexamine my position, but as long as the Friskie’s is for Agatha Christie and Bucky only I am going to be happy that I did not commit unethical or immoral acts against other human beings at least not as far as I can tell.

One door closes and another one opens. I am looking so forward to my Ohio door opening and I will softly close my NC door and say what all Southern women say when they have decided something or someone is beyond rescue, “Bless y’all’s heart!”

 

PS. A tradition in my high school was to leave things to the classes and individuals coming behind you when you were a senior. As I leave my current employment later this year I will be posting my legacies for individuals and departments, academic and administrative.  Should be a fun read! 🙂

 
 

The annoying persistence of racism: We have met the enemy and it is us!

I came to NC in 2003 to take a job that was newly created. I had broken all the rules with my career. I transitioned from high school teacher to community college administrator to community college faculty ( and chair of the faculty eventually) to research fellow at the Library of Congress to director at a Research 1 university also with an adjunct faculty appointment.. This voyage was almost unprecedented. I did not have degrees from any ivy league schools, did not have a voluminous publication record, had not written a book, had not appeared on television regularly. Nope I was just, and remain, a person who thinks education is both fun and rewarding.

I enjoyed all of my jobs and my transitions, that is until fairly recently. I suppose part of my malaise is caused by advancing age, exacerbated by the recent death of my mother, which reminds one of one’s mortality by making you realize you are next on the conveyor belt to oblivion, or whatever else may await.

In the past two years I have seen one inept and unethical boss leave, to be replaced by a woman who was incredibly unqualified, even for an interim and who came into the position believing she had just been granted primacy over everyone and everything on campus. She proceeded to offend, alienate and abuse everyone she felt she could while keeping up a facade of friendliness and good humor for those she wanted to dupe in order to keep her job and advance. She has now been, as the British would say, rendered redundant. Not, however, taking all of her mess with her.Both of these people became my boss primarily because they were able to convince the right people they were not dangerous to the status quo.  And in that they were absolutely genuine, they were not.

The new person who is now ensconced  remains to be figured out. But, there are bad signs, so I am losing my original hope for actual movement and action in social justice at my institution.Put quite frankly black folks sometimes are more interested in their own status and paychecks than in social justice for anyone. I am not sure if this is progress or regression. On the one hand one might be able to say that it is an indication that black people have “arrived” that we too can be self-serving, house slaves and drive an expensive car and live in an expensive house because our responsibility to our fellow blacks has been accomplished. Nobody can call you a ‘nigger’ in the workplace, or in pubic period,  with impunity, make you step off a sidewalk , or sit in the back of a bus. Many of the legal barriers supported by Jim Crow legislation have been struck down they might say and those black folks who are not doing well just need to work/study/try harder. Not my responsibility, I am going to get mine and keep it.

While they may not be making us sit in the back of the bus racism has not left, it has evolved. It is more subtle now, but if you know where to look the stains, blotches and stench of its presence are easy to find. Fewer than half the black males in NC graduate from high school. Black faculty represents fewer than 4% at most Research 1 universities nationwide and in NC, black infant mortality is twice as high as white infant mortality. There are only two ways you can look at these stats. Either blacks are inferior or racism is still at play. You do not have to wonder which one I espouse.

But, we cannot put this all at the feet of white folks. Where are the black people who are, at least in theory, more aware of this than anyone? Where are the protests? The letters to the editor? The mobilization of political action? I had to be talked into coming to NC because I had some stereotypical ideas about racism and the South. I am a plain spoken, some wold say uppity, black woman. I have always been confident that I know what I am talking about and I have never hesitated to make my opinions known. I have never had a reason not to . I told them all that when they were recruiting me and they promised me it would be fine. It has not been totally, but for the most part it has been.

However, what finally swayed my decision to come here was two things, the motto of the state ” To Be, Rather than to Seem” and the fact that 25% of the population is black. Here, I thought, is a state that has a motto that is very congruent with my belief all people should be themselves honestly and  without apology and in addition with that black population surely the black folks are well organized and powerful. Sounds good doesn’t it? Would have been good if either one had been true. What I found was a society wrapped in plantation mentality and not moving out of that mold anytime soon.

The first indication I got was whispered warnings from some black people when they felt I was saying too much about race and they felt  that I needed to be careful. None of them disagreed with what I was saying and some of them thanked me , privately of course, for saying it, but they did not want me to be punished for speaking out. That should have been a sign, but I put it down to personal timidity on their parts. I quickly discovered that, at least in my relatively small circle, the black people of North Carolina primarily, but not exclusively, ,  fell into two distinct categories, those who smiled at white folks at work but actually despised them and said so when whites were not present, and those who admired, emulated and wanted to be white folks.

Since neither of these positions are congruent with my philosophy, which is that there are good people in all races and bad people in all races and most people of any race fall into the former, not the latter category, I was pretty stunned by both groups. There is a lot of fear about race here. People are afraid to talk about it, and pointing out racism is viewed as a bigger sin than being a racist. Where, I asked myself, have these black people been? A quarter of the state and they still have not pushed this state towards some kind of revelatory discussion and reconciliation with race and racism—historic, institutional and personal ?

I have to say that no one has tried to treat me as less than in NC. Not much of an effort has been made thus far to shut me up. But I think that has to be tempered with the fact that they also have not made any effort to take my observations, research and commentary and do anything with it either. When I presented a paper at the American Association of University Professors two years ago which was basically an indictment of Research 1 institutions, including my own, and their ridiculous claim to want racially diverse faculties when they refuse to hire black professors, I returned to a surly campus. When I spoke to people who were not happy with my slight notoriety ( a journal picked up the paper and quoted me, somewhat inaccurately) I asked if they would like to read the paper if they had not already. I had shared it with lots of folks on campus first and asked for input. When they read it I asked them if they disagreed with my data, my analysis of the data or my conclusions. The answer was unanimously ” No!” Then, I said, you are mad because I told? That was usually met with silence which I took as admission.

You are not supposed to tell family secrets, especially when they involve racism. That and the rule that people can be revered as icons even though they spent the majority of their lives as overt racists are two things I have not been able to accept. Admiring people who have oppressed anyone is not something I am willing to do, even if they are old and rich and now pretend to be the very height of social justice advocates.

I speak up when I see someone doing something wrong, no matter who they are doing it to.

So, I am guilty it seems of not knowing my place. I thought if you shared your ideas, backed them up with data and made recommendations based on data and your perceptions that was doing what one should do. I did not know what one should do is keep one’s mouth shut, keep one’s eyes down so they do not see bigotry and abuse, agree with everyone whose title is higher than yours,  take your paycheck and make your owners……oops, superiors, happy.

When I retire I will be returning to Ohio. Not only because it is home and the grand kids are all there, but because Ohio seems to me to have a better grasp of race. True, there is racism in Ohio, always has been, but when it is called out and as clear as a bell it is usually condemned. Even more important the person doing the calling out is not viewed as violating some historic standard of behavior that entails judging something not on whether or not it is true, but whether or not it is something attention should be brought to and who it might embarrass.The attitude about race in NC is tightly wound with feelings about hierarchy. Some animals are viewed as more equal than others and it is still largely, but not exclusively, tied to race. The fact that the animals viewed as less equal seem content to occupy that niche as long as it comes with sufficient salary is what continues to astonish me.

And, in Ohio, maybe because we are fewer than 10% of the state’s population, the black people seem to remember that we are standing on the shoulders of people who were beaten, lynched and shot so that we could do better economically, educationally and socially. The idea that I escaped and am doing well and should now  turn my back on those still captured on the plantation is one I had never seen before.

So, I remain a stranger in a strange land. I have made dear friends and valued colleagues here of all races, and have some strong allies, worthy warriors in the battle for social justice, but I am, in far too many instances still a voice crying in the wilderness and my throat is getting sore.

 

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The joys of home repair/remodeling: Deliver me from workers!

Okay, so we are in the season of fixing things. We own ( with the bank, of course) two domiciles, a house in Ohio which was built in 1917 and has all of the quirks, problems and charm of any old gal well past her sell by date and a relatively new condo in Cary, NC which has its own special issues, including being about forty feet up in the air. The residences take turns giving us pleasant and unpleasant surprises.

The dishwasher in the Cary condo began to sound like a 747 lifting off, to the point where we had to turn the television up to hear the program if the dishwasher was on. We got a new one Wednesday and it is so quiet it is kind of spooky, it sounds sneaky with its gentle swoosh of water, which makes me wonder exactly what it is doing to my dishes.We had quite an experience buying the dish washer. I am old enough to remember the time when the primary problem in buying new appliances was collecting the money to buy them. Now it seems the primary problem is finding someone who wants to take your money. My husband and I went to Lowe’s near our house to purchase a new dishwasher, mainly because ours was not only making the previously mentioned dreadful noise, but it had an odor like old gym socks, which I attributed to it having a slight leak someplace and having water standing and going bad. We hung around the displays of dishwashers, reading stats and prices for fifteen minutes. Finally, realizing no one was going to help us, we began the process of selecting one. We made up our minds in about 20 minutes and I went looking for someone to tell that we had made up our minds. I found a poor hapless young employee in the paint department who assured me that although he did not know much about dishwashers he could write us up since we had selected one. It turns out he was overly optimistic. 45 minutes later we were able  to reel to the front of the store and present our bill to pay having had to suffer through several abortive attempts by the young man to write up the sale and arrange delivery, he kept hitting a button on the computer that asked when we were going to pick it up. Having  paid $139 to have it installed we had to remind him we had no intention of picking it up, that transport was , presumably, part of the deal of installation . To his credit the actual purchase proved the worst part as the dishwasher arrived when promised and was quickly and correctly installed.

We also had a new wood floor put in the Cary condo, replacing a rug that had seen much abuse from my cats. Not only did they sharpen their claws on it making the rug look, in places, as if it was trying to grow an afro, it also had been subjected to my male cat, Bucky‘s periodic attempts to make his presence known by peeing just a little. I was glad to see the back of that poor benighted rug, but now the cats act like we just sold them down the river. Bucky has taken to lying in the study under the desk where there is still carpet and eschews the living room most of the time.

Getting the floor in was a bit of an adventure. I first tried Home Depot who informed me that 1) it would cost me money for them to deign come and measure my room and give me an estimate 2) they would have to “do tests” to make certain the floor was stable ( it was made up of concrete under the rug and there was no indication that it was sinking into the downstairs neighbor’s ceiling. I think they would have told me, they were certainly testy and prompt that time my water line leaked into their precious ceiling, but I digress)  and 3) it would be $4,200 to actually pull up the carpet and lay the wood. They also gave me a laundry list of rules, regulations and things they would and would not , could and could not do.

I called a local  shop JD‘s and the owner came by, whipped out his measuring tape, carrying on a running, funny conversation the entire time, told us what needed to be done, and would be done by him, not by us and did not mention anything he could not do and promptly presented us with an estimate of $2300 for everything. Needless to say it was JD and his crwe who put down the floor on Monday. It looks great, the only problem is that after they removed the old carpet and swept they stirred up a cloud of dust of Biblical proportions that we are still fighting with. Every time I think we have conquered it I see some knickknack or electronic screen that is in dire shape. Fortunately, in my infinite wisdom ( actually  not I had bought this before we knew we were getting a new floor) I have a Living Social voucher for two hours of housecleaning. The ladies from the North Raleigh Cleaning Services will be doing some full body contact dusting this weekend.

In the Ohio house I replaced , or rather had replaced, the dining room chandelier. In a younger house this would be an easy project. In a house almost a hundred years old there  is no such thing. To begin with the pipes that provided gas to the light fixtures of yesteryear are still in place. So, the young man who installed our chandelier ( he is about 40) had never encountered such. He was puzzled and not a little afraid. I imagine he thought “gas + electricity=boom.” We had the gas in the walls and ceilings capped off years ago, but he was still very nervous as he was unscrewing the pipe so he mount the chandelier flush with the ceiling. Then there was the matter of the electricity. It seems that when he was turning it on and off to keep from having sparks fly out of his ears,he discovered our electrics, as the British would call them,were not exactly standard. There were live wires where there should not be and dead wires where they should not be dead. I wanted the chandelier on a dimmer, because we give so many romantic dinner parties you know ( sarcasm in case you do not know me) and when he went to install the dimmer switch he found a huge mess of wires. The poor dear took over three hours to install the chandelier. I have another light fixture for the foyer and I called him when I was home to tell him I needed him again. He stuttered and stammered and promised to come by, but he did not show up. I am afraid he is worried about the gas in this light fixture since its pipe is longer. I think I will stay out on the deck when he works on it if he ever screws up his courage enough to come back by.

We also are getting new windows for the upstairs at the Ohio house. I refuse to have the downstairs ones replaced because they have the old wavy glass in them that is historic. The upstairs ones were replaced with aluminum windows sometime in the past, but they are not attractive nor do they repel weather well.  The first estimate we got was exorbitant, beware men carting sample windows to demonstrate. The second man was a snake oil salesman who kept asking us questions like ” what is your utility bill.” When I told him, ( our ancient room sized furnace is very efficient) he hesitated and then asked ” would you like to make it even lower?”  I reminded him we were supposed to be talking about windows, and he scribbled a figure down on a piece of notebook paper and thrust it at me, informing me that he could finance it for me at about $25 a month. I shuddered to think how long it would take me to pay off the scribbled price at $25 a month and informed him I would be writing him a check. He seemed to be crestfallen at that point and when I told him thank you and that we would be in touch he looked like he was going to cry. ” I thought we were going to make a deal today” he whined, sounding like a four year old who had been denied a Popsicle.  I had to firmly tell him that we were simply getting estimates and exploring our options.I stopped short of telling him anyone unprofessional enough to scribble an estimate with no details on a piece of notebook paper was not going to get my business. We finally decided to ask our neighbors who had recently replaced their windows who they used and got a sane, reasonable, non-slimy person to come give us an estimate, which we went with.

I truly cannot decide whether I like having people work on my house or not. I think I am glad that Wayne is retired and can be there and I can just walk into the splendor of the new whatever and be spared the drama,the angst the tension, the questions and the pronouncements. Of course, having work done on your house is like having work done on your car, the craftsman always finds something else you could do. Depending on his/her level of professionalism this can take the guise of a sales pitch or a piece of information. Being born contrary I am much more likely to have you do something if you kind of imply you do not want to do it yourself but feel it should be done.

Next quest is to get the vines off the Ohio house that are threatening to turn it into a two story plant holder. I cannot wait to hear what kind of dialog that inspires in the souls brave enough to come give us an estimate for tackling that job! Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Listen up leaders: Narrow information streams are deadly

I have had the good fortune to work at several different organizations in several different roles. True, all were linked to education in some way, I was either a professor, teacher, instructor, etc., or an administrator. I also had a major in organizational behavior in my doctoral program, but I learned most of what I know about how things work from observation and involvement. One thing I have learned and do sincerely hope other people who consider themselves leaders learn is that in order to be effective and lead well you have to listen to people, particularly people farther down the food chain so to speak. Institutions are made up of people. People are complex and interesting creatures with varied outlooks, perspectives , biases and values. Only listening to certain people gives you a cramped, inaccurate view of what is going on.

One institution I worked at had a scandal. One of the higher executives than myself came to me asking for advice on how to handle it. My first reaction was to tell her that it was above my pay grade to give her advice. When I say she was higher than me she probably makes three times as much money as I do and supervises, at least theoretically, about 500 people.  I have a dotted line to one person and a graduate assistant, period. But, there was a racial component to the scandal and since I have been the black whisperer at every job I have had as an adult it was logical that she should ask me I guess.

I gave her a very sage piece of advice if I do say so myself. I told her she had to listen to more people. No matter what the scandal, no matter what the impropriety, no matter if it becomes public or stays on the down-low, all kinds of people know about it. And they could and would tell you, their leader, about it if you would only do two things; create an ethical atmosphere where everyone considers it their duty to report an impropriety and ask them questions periodically.

At many institutions telling on someone who is doing something wrong is frequently frowned upon more than the person committing the wrong. Another scandal, at yet another of my institutions ( they were not all fraught with scandal, but stuff happens everywhere!) a staff member was using racial slurs against people she supervised. When this was shared with his boss he chose to do nothing about it, his rationale was never discussed with me or anyone else that I know of. Someone took it upon him or herself to send a letter, anonymously, to his boss and outline the offense.

His boss evidently reamed him a new one and the person was eventually fired. The middle man, the boss who did not take action, complained to me, not that his employee was using racial slurs, but that someone was writing letters sharing that information with other people. In other words his concern was not the verbal abuse of subordinates by someone he was supposed to supervise, but the fact that someone was airing the dirty laundry. I asked him if he did not realize that if he had fired the culprit to begin with there would have been no need for anyone to rat him out, and that if he had been fired when he should have been ( according to employment policy at the institution, not according to me) he could have stuck out his chest and declared his own wise and just handling of the issue. No, he wanted it kept quiet, but it was not. It was widely known in the organization, several people told me about it and expressed their dismay that nothing was being done. If he had listened to more people he would have realized he could not contain the issue and would have acted decisively instead of being pushed into a corner when his own boss found out.

What many leaders do not seem to realize is that virtually nothing is secret in any organization short of the CIA. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. What some people call gossip some people, like me, call networking. Networking includes sharing information, sometimes insider information, and it is a great boon to those who want to know what is actually happening, not what you hope is happening or trust is happening.

Now, effective networking has several requirements. You have different levels of trust with different people. Your A list people can and will tell you anything and vice versa. You are very lucky if you can establish an A list of four or five people. They will keep your secrets to the grave and you will do the same for them.  I have about seven. The B list people are those you tell a little, but will tell you a lot. These are the gems and are usually made up of secretaries and people who work in environments where they are basically invisible.

Simply chatting with people is very illuminating. Folks tell you all kinds of things. I know where so many bodies are buried at various institutions that I could probably get a license as a funeral director. When things are weighing on a person’s mind simply having coffee with them and being interested will get you all kinds of info.

Our leaders tend to have constricted information streams. They only talk to certain people, only listen to certain people. This is a dreadful and foolish mistake.You know the old saying by Bossidy about Boston society “And this is good old Boston, The home of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots And the Cabots talk only to God. ” On many college campuses the chairs talk only to the deans, the deans talk only to the president and the president talks only to God ( or the Board of Trustees which may believe they are gods).

But, the chairs and the deans and the president and vice-presidents do not talk to people who actually know what is going on, who are actually aware of the petty rivalries, intrigues and misconducts that might blow up some day into a public scandal, at which time the leadership will wring their hands, shake their heads, find a few scapegoats to throw under the bus and swear 1) I had no idea 2) we have put policies in place so it will never happen again 3) it is not my fault.

Yes it is your fault. You get paid big bucks to run whatever institution you are in charge of. That means knowing what is going on, picking people who are ethical and most of all not acting like Evilene in the Wiz by constantly making it known you do not want nobody to bring you no bad news. Telling on people should not be frowned upon if there is something to tell. It should be encouraged and rewarded. True, you will have to talk to people more and talk to more people, heaven forfend. I mean I can only imagine how trying it would be to have to exchange pleasantries with someone who is not in your same socio-economic class, but some of those peasants may be able to save your bacon, if you act like you respect and value them. Conversely they might start writing anonymous letters if you do not.

So open up those information streams. The people you have charged with making everything all right are probably going to report, when asked, that everything is all right. To do any less would be to admit they were  not able to handle what you are trusting them and paying them to handle.

Get out of your office and walk around and talk to people. Copy Ed Koch and do not be afraid to ask anyone ” How and I doing?” Some of them might be honest enough to  tell you and save you having to learn about it from a newspaper reporter.