Wednesday, October 21, 2015

When we can't afford to make mistakes

Pity poor Hocking College: the tiny two-year school has long served a neglected population in the heart of rural Appalachian Ohio, but recent problems have sparked some really bad press. An article in Inside Higher Ed today provides an overview of problems starting in 2008, when an investigation revealed theft of college funds that led to the resignation of several administrators. The numbers tell a bleak story: "Last year, facing a $4.4 million deficit, the college laid off 36 employees, and the president was forced to resign. Enrollment has fallen 38 percent since 2010."

What to do? Start a football program. Considering how football is worshiped in rural Ohio, this looks like a great way to attract students, but new controversy arose when one of the players turned out to be Trent Mays, "a former high school football player who was convicted in 2013 of raping a 16-year-old girl." (Remember the famous Steubenville rape case? This is the guy.)

He was convicted as a juvenile and served his time and by all accounts he seems to have turned his life around, but this has not stopped students from fearing for their safety; however, yet more missteps have exacerbated the situation. Suppose you're a student who wants to file a complaint against a player on the football team; who ya gonna call? The campus police? Oh wait, the chief of police is also the head football coach. How about complaining to the VP for Student Affairs? Oh wait, he's also the athletic director. Conflict of interest, anyone?

Just when you think it can't get any worse, you read that the college's official spokesman is being investigated for misrepresenting the results of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault and for trying to silence complaining students. Oh, and that spokesman also serves as announcer at college football games.

When you're dancing so close to the edge, you really can't afford a misstep. That's what I kept thinking as I read this article, and it's a sentiment repeated frequently on my own campus. And it's true! However, I fear the results of that kind of thinking.

I was raised to believe that every small misstep would lead to certain doom, and through the years I've repeatedly heard myself express the same message: We can't afford to make mistakes. One little error and we're off the edge of the cliff. Better play it safe.

And while this approach has helped us skirt a few cliff edges, it can't prevent the kinds of disasters that come out of the blue, like dishonest contractors, 100-year floods, and cancer. Sometimes we suffer from other people's mistakes, and sometimes we suffer because suffering happens.

In addition, the "can't afford to make mistakes" mentality may lead to a fear of risk, a paralysis in the face of important decisions. Lately, as my campus tackles its own difficulties, I keep hearing the same cliche: "When you're in a hole, stop digging." Which is great advice, but that doesn't mean we ought to cower in a fetal position at the bottom of the hole with our eyes shut and our hands over our heads. To get out of the hole, we have to be up and doing--and that may mean taking risks. If we're dancing on the edge of disaster, the solution isn't necessarily to stop dancing but to move a little farther from the edge of the cliff.

I admire Hocking College for having the courage to try something new, adding not just football but archery, cheerleading, and basketball (both men's and women's teams). If their execution of the athletics program has resulted in a whole new range of problems, they'll have to prove their mettle by finding new solutions. Or not. Either way, they'll have taken a step, and if it leads over the cliff, at least they'll go down still dancing.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. And while your campus may be in turmoil of sorts (budgets, under enrollment, program elimination, layoffs, etc.) it's important to look at the period as a time of opportunity rather than a period of duck and cover. Let's assume you have a good college with good national rankings. Maybe those rankings are what's wrong. The rankings look at colleges that toe the line academically, that are better than other schools in the traditional ways that colleges operates. But those rankings may not be getting you the results you want. Reimagination, reinvention, creative thinking, new ways of creating success have to be figured out, and figured out sooner rather than later. Fear has to be turned into determination. If digging a hole straight down isn't working, then start digging horizontally in hopes of finding gold. If what you have doesn't work, then you are doing something wrong. Fix it through being invigorated rather than timid.

Bev said...

"A time of opportunity"--yes. That doesn't make it any less painful.