Dr Clarendon, an expert on the Management of Decline, provides a more light-hearted account of John’s views on the state of Oxford University.
Good morning, and welcome to my first lecture on the Management of Decline. I know that most of you are here only because Professor Whizzbang’s course on e-commerce is oversubscribed. But I think you will find it interesting, especially since most of my case-studies will be drawn directly from the experience of colleagues here at Isis University.
By now you should all have copies of the set text: Don’t Rock the Boat: Diaries of a Dead Don. Dr Clarendon begins his exposition with that memorable account of the boat race of xxx, when the oarsmen maintained perfect rhythm and harmony as the water level rose, abandoning it only when the boat finally sank. That image should be an inspiration to us all. If you have problems, then internal dissension, or any precipitate action will only make matters worse.
The subject of today’s lecture is ” How to avoid making
Clarendon was proud that he made only two decisions in his life. At the age of eighteen he accepted a scholarship at St Jude’s rather than an exhibition at St Henry’s and, forty-five years later, he took the early retirement terms offered under USS. He explains that any attempt to make decisions is an invitation to internal dissension and always runs the risk of precipitate action. His techniques of avoiding decision – the eight oars of indecision – will serve you well in reaching the safe haven of early retirement, the objective of everyone in a declining organisation.
Deferral and referral will be indispensable tools of your trade. You should practice phrases such as ‘That has been a rigorous and illuminating discussion. Perhaps we should reflect and consider the matter further at our next meeting’. Since you can usually expect that only about half the Committee will turn up to any particular meeting, the debate can be reprised with a different cast of characters on the following occasion and pursued to the same outcome.
And referral is a safe bet. With literally hundreds of committees to choose from, you can always find one that might be consulted. ‘Perhaps we should find out what the Circumlocution Committee thinks’. But be parsimonious with referral. You will want to hold the possibility of future referrals in reserve. And if you are too promiscuous in your consultations you might deprive yourself of another powerful tool of procrastination: objection to process and procedure.
Try something like ‘Although I don’t necessarily object in principle to this suggestion, I think the way in which it has been brought forward is most unfortunate’. I do not think I encountered a single person in Oxford who was openly opposed to the establishment of a business school: but I encountered dozens of objections to the procedure used to establish one. Procedural objections are much more powerful than substantive ones. Focusing on procedure enables you to bring together all objecting parties – even ones with contradictory aims. And procedural objections cannot be satisfactorily answered by reference to the actual merits of the proposal. Debate on procedure allows lengthy, and essentially irrelevant, debate, which is what you hope to achieve.
Once procedural obstacles are exhausted, you might draw attention to the wider picture. As in ‘I don’t think we can resolve the salary issue now, without reference to the wider picture (of academic salaries generally, the future structure of university funding, or the prospect that global warming might submerge the institution before it reaches a conclusion.) Since it is safe to assume that the wider picture will never be clarified in a relevant timescale, this amounts to indefinite deferral.
But all these techniques are relatively crude. The central skill of the manager of decline is to ensure that no issue involving real choice is ever brought up in the first place. You should declare yourself an advocate of ‘building consensus’, which means in practice that nothing which might lead to dissension is ever discussed. Obviously this precludes budgeting, resource planning, strategy and policy formation, and quality control – since all these things involve contested choices. But declining organisations do without budgeting, planning and quality control. That is one of the reasons they are declining.
The most subtle techniques are ambiguity and precedent. Ambiguity involves appearing to make a decision while leaving different parties with different impressions of what that decision was. As in aaa and bbb. These formulations don’t resolve anything, of course, but they do maintain an appearance of agreement until the issue is raised again. With greater acrimony, because both parties believe they have been let down. But you can reasonably hope that will be a problem only for your successors. And who knows: in the meantime, something might turn up.
Ambiguity goes hand in hand with precedent. You can often avoid decision by asserting that the outcome is determined by a decision that was made some time ago. This leads to a vicious circle. Once in the grip of precedent, no one dare make a new decision lest it might have unforeseeable implications in future discussions of quite different matters.
On this subject and others, I recommend the subsidiary reading for this
course. Professor Whizzbang’s lectures are full of references to Wired
and the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, but we specialists in
decline still find the classics relevant. Francis Cornford’s
Microcosmographica Academica is a hundred years old, but its guidance for
the young academic politician is as pertinent today as ever. We will
always be grateful to Cornford for the Principle of the Dangerous
Precedent. ” Every public action which is not customary, either is
wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that
nothing should ever be done for the first time.”
If all else fails, try denial. This works best if your procedures are
sufficiently opaque that no-one really knows whether a decision has been
made or not. Coopers and Lybrand observed of quite another institution,
the University of Oxford: “in many cases, University decisions are
specifically made at all, they just emerge and it is often difficult to
tell at which point a discussion became a decision”. I know that
comment caused Dr Clarendon great satisfaction. If you can sustain such uncertainty, you are always in a position to refute any suggestion that a decision has been made, and restart the argument.
Deferral, referral: procedural objection, the wider picture, and
evasion: ambiguity, precedent, and denial: the eight oars of
indecision. Although Dr Clarendon is sadly missed, his thought lives
on. The Master of St Jude’s gave a fitting epitaph at his memorial
service, quoting Dorothy Parker “When they told me Dr Clarendon was
dead, I asked ‘how could anyone tell?’ That phrase was so characteristic
of Dr Clarendon. I heard it often when I asked what had been decided at
the many meetings Dr Clarendon chaired.”
A Rhodes Scholar from some George W. Bush voting state came up at the end
of this lecture in brash mid western style. ‘Say Prof, you guys run the
institution this way and you’re setting up a business school to teach us
management. You’ve got to be kidding.” I was able to reassure
him. We were kidding, only kidding.