Monday, June 4, 2007

UMESS: Continued: Wilson surprised

Two weeks later the headlines continue. There is chatter that Chancellor Lombardi was beloved; that he was not; that he had agreed to support Jack Wilson's plan to unify the institution and then withdrew his support. There are no real surprises until we learn that Jack Wilson was surprised by the uproar. And that surprises me. Because uproar was absolutely predictable.

According to education reporter in the Globe Marcella Bombardieri, Wilson believed that since he had been taking about unification of the system for two years and because Lombardi's support on campus was mixed that any formalization of his intentions would not cause such an uproar. In this Wilson demonstrates true misunderstanding of how academe behaves. He had only to watch the experience of Larry Summers at Harvard and the behavior of his faculty to get a glimpse of how faculty behave in the face of unwanted change.

Wilson could have expressed his intentions without much response ad infinitum. It was only when he DID something that the faculty responded and it responded swiftly. Wilson is surprised because in his mind he had been preparing the campuses for action. But all the people on the campuses heard was chatter. It didn't effect them until there was a plan. And then it was as if it was brand-new information to be reviewed and assessed on its merits. Wilson should not have been surprised, however. His communications counselors should have been able to tell him that his faculty constituency was going to react and that, as a result, news would be made. This was completely predictable. And now the faculty have made the issue about governance and not about whether UMass should be a unified system or not. Which, by the way, is the way that faculty typically stand in the way of change. It is a form of filibuster.

Individual members of the faculty will attack the process by which change has been suggested or will attack the style of the person who is charged with making the change—often it is one and the same—and the net result is NO CHANGE. Oh, eventually, some change seeps in. But there are dead bodies strewn about, lost reputations, lost jobs, settlements, and a lot of talk. Instead of the vision for UMass dominating the headlines, we have reportage of leaked emails and no comments. I wish I could say that with better communication the crisis could have been averted. Better understanding of faculty behavior might have helped. Getting buy-in from all the trustees or at least knowing which ones didn't buy-in would have helped. Getting buy-in from key faculty would have helped. Painting a positive picture of the vision that would excite the tax-paying base and making your argument in the press would have helped. But those are all elements of a strategic approach to change and have supporters few and far between on campus.

Bombardieri says at worst Wilson has lost influence over the system he is trying to unite. I think the worst is that UMass may have lost a vision that would have transformed it for the better.