Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Access to Power

Here's one of those questions on which my intuitions pull in opposing directions.

How important is it for us in academia to have informal access to folks in positions of authority? And if informal access to people in power is a good thing--either for the people who get the access or those in the positions of authority, then how important is it that the access be fair, especially given that people in positions of authority have very real, burdensome demands on their time?

Here are some reasons to support informal access:
1. In organizations and communities with democratic elements, informal meetings across levels of hierarchy strengthens the impression of equality.
2. Those in power can lose touch with "regular folks," and formal means of access deliver messages that are funneled along only certain lines, often adversarial ones. Say there is some sort of structural problem that could lead to a grievance, isn't it much better for someone in a position of power to hear about the potential problem before it becomes serious? Plus, informal access is more likely to create positive relationships rather than adversarial relationships.
3. If people in a community or organization feel close to figures of authority, perhaps they are more likely to be supportive of the community or organization in general.

But here's the concern. Genuinely informal, causal, social interactions are more likely to happen in social circles that are coincident with the leader's own social milieu, but that can serve to entrench the interests of that social milieu while doing nothing to create access for others.

Here are some examples, and I'm genuinely conflicted about most of these:

1. The dean's office runs a series of breakfasts. They are open for anyone on faculty or staff to stop by and chat or share ideas and problems. However, they take place while some people are teaching and are always held at the same time.

2. A provost holds frequent private parties at his home. Invitations are offered liberally and generously. But there is a group of regular invitees, and these become known around campus as the provost's inner circle.

3. A provost with a very busy schedule creatively schedules his downtime as a chance for students, faculty, or staff to chat with him informally. This regular 3-mile running event is called "Pace the Provost." He has a 20:34 5K time.

4. A dean holds informal "meeting hours" at a local pub, after hours. Some untenured faculty make it their business to attend, figuring that sharing beers with the dean is a form of insurance.

What do you think of these cases?
I don't see a problem with #1. Presumably if the dean's office is reaching out, they'd be open to individuals setting up meetings. #2 is slightly more problematic. However, public figures still have private lives. And it seems to me like a provost is actually rather removed from decisions that will affect faculty members as individuals (except for tenure decisions).

#3 raises a different problem. On the one hand, it's very creative, and, as a runner myself, it sounds fun. But then, it creates access for certain people (runners, more likely men than women) and not others (if you're fat or blew out your knees, too bad).

#4 creates the most conflict between my intuitions. On the one hand, extending business conversations in more comfortable surroundings sounds absolutely unobjectionable. On the other hand, of these 4 situations, this one seems the most likely to result in someone receiving favorable treatment--not as a result of conscious favoritism, necessarily, but as a result of having had the chance to develop regular old familiarity and trust.

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