Monthly Archive: August 2022

Being @ a Small College

I have often remarked to others that I value being at a small college, and identify as an advocate for such institutions. Heck, when I ran for the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors, which explicitly asks that one not speak only from one’s personal perspective but instead from and on behalf of the entire community, I “campaigned” partially on being able to look through the lens of a smaller institution. There are way more small institutions (sub 5000 FTE students) than large ones, so I was trying to speak to a lot of community members. But what does it really mean to be at a small institution? Well, a lot, actually.

There is scale, and economies thereof. In any department, be it IT, student affairs, marketing and communications, etc., there are simply fewer people doing the same number of jobs. In IT, for example, we have the same burden for information security and privacy as a much larger institution, yet we (at CalArts), do not have a full-time, in-house information security officer, much less an entire department dedicated to security. So we have to get creative and share the burden across multiple staff and use other resources such as “virtual” Chief Information Security Officer (vCISO) services from third party firms, share CISOs between institutions, and/or layer multiple services on top of each other for maximum protection.

We are also very thin in a lot of areas. I do not have the luxury of enough staff to run a 24/7 shop, even for our most critical of systems. We monitor them 24/7 and we act on the alerts we get, sure, but people do need to sleep, and sometimes I’m only 1 deep on a knowledge worker. Sometimes that alert isn’t seen for 8-10 hours, no matter how efficient we are at using instant communication tools. We mitigate this through efforts to shift to the cloud (so someone else is managing our systems), for example, but we’ve run into budget challenges there, to name just one obstacle. At larger institutions, you might have a whole team of people responsible for monitoring the data center, rather than just software (that can easily become out of date as systems change) that are there 24/7 to alert others of issues.

Similar challenges exist for other departments, of course. It’s not just us in IT working at a small institution. Many departments are 1 person deep at best, and several of those are in fact doing 1.5-2 jobs each. If even one person retires or resigns, the impact is disproportionate (many things keep me up at night, and staff retention is one of them, both because I want to know the team is happy, and because it’s so hard to weather the departure of any one of them).

A nice thing about a small college is that most people know each other. I joke that here at CalArts, someone need only say “George” in a sentence and I can figure out which person they mean based purely on context (which is actually only a slight exaggeration). But this can backfire, too. Support requests go to individuals instead of our ticketing system, for instance. Or “personal favors” are asked that break policy that we work so hard to develop and enforce. Sometimes it goes the other way – I find myself wanting to bend my own policy sometimes to help someone that I’ve come to know personally, too.

Another nice/not so nice thing is being involved in day to day operations. On the one hand, I feel I have a good pulse on what is going on in the department. I work hard not to micromanage so I don’t get into the weeds but I know what products we use for what, the general status of upgrades/updates to those solutions, etc. I can answer questions from others (esp. other VPs) effectively. Also, there are few things I haven’t seen before, and seen from the inner workings. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all and I’m definitely not saying that I addressed all those matters the right way the first (or even second) time around, but few things truly surprise me these days. That’s good. The downside is that every single day I get pulled into the tactical and away from the strategic. Sometimes it tires me out and I don’t even want to get into the strategic. I’m just worn out on the day-to-day struggle. Every fire we have to put out leaves me less able to figure out how to avoid ignition in the first place.

These are just some examples. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here. My original goal was to answer for myself the question “what does it mean to be from a small institution?” But then I should I’d share a bit. Would love to hear some other examples.

When Culture Eats Breakfast…

The management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” I think it’s pretty self-explanatory but the gist is that no matter how well you plan out strategy, if it conflicts with culture, then the latter will win out. You have to consider culture when considering strategy.

Now, an obvious question, and the one I ponder today, is what happens when culture runs counter to your needed goals (which is more immediate than long-term strategy, obviously). The long-term answer is to continually tweak culture through messaging, signaling, language, actions, etc., until it allows for the goals to be met. But what if you’re in the moment and find the two butting heads?

I’d like to point out that this example is not about CalArts. It’s something inspired by conversations I’ve had with others, many at different institutions, and debated back and forth with those people.

For example, let’s say you have a policy, borne out of immediate necessity, that recommends but doesn’t require that people do X. Fill in the blank with whatever practice you wish. It’s a recommendation, not a requirement. You do allow, in your policy, for certain parties to make it an ad hoc requirement in certain settings, but you do not put any teeth behind it. You don’t enforce, and provide no recourse for those that need/want enforcement (you can insert various questions about squeaky wheels, minority opinions portraying themselves as majorities, whatever, here, if you wish, but please permit me to continue).

One option is to put some teeth behind it, but at a monetary cost (hiring staff, building out procedures, possibly investing in new technology to manage complaints, etc.) but, and this is the kicker, it runs counter to culture. The other, more sensitive option, is to stick to not enforcing things because your environment is not aligned with one that involves calling others out, getting people in trouble, etc. The culture is that it’s a free and expressive space without people pointing fingers or accusing each other of things, so tactics (in this case) and certainly strategy is “eaten for breakfast.”

So what does one do? Do you anger many by creating an environment contrary to long-standing culture because of an urgent situation? Do you frustrate and perhaps anger a different population by offering a policy with no enforcement (which is, as a colleague at another institution said, consequently just a suggestion)?

I don’t have an answer, though I’d love one of the 0 people that will read this to make a suggestion. Again, the long-term answer is clearer. Stronger (but not insensitive) central administration that is supportive of but does give way to (what will become) previous culture. Messaging that we do some things for the larger purpose to bettering this or that, followed up by action to that effect (this has worked for us in IT as we slowly shift the perception towards needing to pay more attention to information security). I’m sure there are many other tactics that I am not thinking of even if I wrote 3 more paragraphs about them. But if you’re faced with the short-term, here and now conflict, what might you do?