WARNING: Authority Will Become Explosive When Challenged
There’s an article at Vox.com with the headline, “Colleges say campuses can reopen safely. Student and faculty aren’t convinced,” and it reminded of something I witnessed over thirty years ago. I used to manage a bookstore at a community college that didn’t have enough enrollment to fill all the classroom space available. Consequently, a portion of the college’s decaying lower campus was leased as classrooms to a local high school district that had the opposite problem of a student population overflowing beyond the capacity of its schools. In addition to a few hundred high school students, the college’s lower campus also hosted a day care center, an underused cafeteria, a few minor administrative offices, and the bookstore where I worked.
One Spring day, everyone from the lower campus – college employees, high school students, and daycare children and staff — were evacuated to the parking lot due to a bomb threat. To be honest, this wasn’t that serious a threat since it was finals week for the high school students (finals for the college came a few weeks later). Still, the fire department spent a couple hours searching the lower campus where the “bomb” was supposedly located before declaring it safe.
All of that is background and context. What stays in my mind is an incident I witnessed in the parking lot.
About half an hour into the evacuation, the building and playground for the day care center search was finished, and the fire department moved on to search other buildings and trailers. One of the college’s assistant VPs then told the head of the day care center to move the children from the parking lot back to the day care center which was located on the edge of the lower campus next to the parking lot.
She politely (and sensibly) declined to do so, and he would have hit the ceiling if he hadn’t been standing in an open air parking lot. His fragile administrative male ego was threatened by this woman’s commitment to the safety of the children in her care. He “directed” (“directed” being a key managerial verb when writing up an employee for insubordination) her to follow his order, and she bravely refused.
A couple things to keep in mind.
When Dr. Fragile Administrative Male Ego (Dr. FAME for short) gave this order, the fire department was still searching the building where the bookstore and other offices were located. This building stood snugly along the edge of the playground and had yet to receive the all clear. Think of the keen judgement in play that lead Dr. FAME to order employees and children back into an area right next to a building being searched for a bomb.
The other aspect of this incident worth noting was that at no time during this incident, did Dr. FAME suggest or show any willingness on his part to go with the children himself to the day care facilities. He was ordering this women to risk her life and the lives of the children and her employees while he safely stayed in the parking lot to… I don’t know, “supervise” or something.
The incident ended with Dr. FAME loudly threatening to write her up and stomping off to pout when she continued to refuse. No bomb was found, and we all returned to our workplaces a couple hours later.
I’d like to share a little background about Dr. Fame. The bulk of his administrative career had been spent at another community college in the district where his incompetence, stupidity, and conflicts with staff and faculty were so obvious and egregious, that the district leaders took swift and decisive action to… transfer him to my campus.
This was this was standard operating procedure for dealing with incompetent administrators in the district. Some mediocrities spent decades failing sideways to other campuses before safely retiring with a cushy pension, leaving a wide swath of poorly run campuses and bungled leadership in their wake. I consider the select class of college deans, assistant deans, vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, and presidents that belong to this sideways failure club — never fired and unassailable from consequences. I also think of the quality and nature of their leadership and decision-making skills.
And the fact that people like them are probably the ones insisting that their college or university will be safe to reopen.