These randomly scheduled missives will opine on a variety of topics, mostly intended to be germane to design, construction, capital program management, and other related issues.

For shorter trips through the countryside, take a look at our blog, also called Notes from the Road.
Notes from the Road

January 2016

I Want To Take You Higher

Sly Stone, I’m certain, had something else in mind when he wrote his song. My take, to be sure, is very different. What is it that makes working in higher education unlike other settings?

I have touched on this before in the newsletter Back to School?. There, I talked about the appropriate survival and coping skills of facility managers. Now, I want to examine what makes this environment unique, especially as it concerns non-academics working in the setting.


Higher EducationThere are various forms of honesty. At most colleges and universities, people take pride in adherence to intellectual honesty, where

  • One's personal beliefs do not interfere with the pursuit of truth
  • Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted
  • Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and
  • References, or earlier work, are acknowledged
    (Credit to Wikipedia)

This doesn’t mean that intellectual dishonesty is nonexistent – It’s just fairly uncommon.

There is, however, another form of dishonesty that’s virtually unheard of: legal. Unlike some of my encounters with scurrilous developers and contractors, I have yet to see an instance where there were intentional and planned attempts to circumvent the law. These people are the epitome of integrity. It’s a joy and a wonder.


Perhaps it stems from the inbred intellectual curiosity of people drawn to an academic setting, but it seems that no issue is too small or too obvious to accept without challenge or debate. Paint it white you may say. Well, what shade of white? Ivory, cream, Navaho, or pure. What gloss? Eggshell, satin, semi, or flat. What will be the long term effects? How will other react to the choice. Will parents like it?

which one?Now, just imagine how the debate might go with more complex issues. What factors need to be considered? How are the factors weighted? Who’s doing the analysis. Do the analysts have the proper credentials? With multiple potential goals, how are priorities established? Will conclusions be tested with second or even third opinions?

I have seen simple A/B choices drag on for months, sometimes years. Nothing, it seems at times, moves quickly. Is this analysis paralysis or admirable thoroughness? There’s no obvious answer. Perhaps more study is needed. LOL


Akin to the analytical approach is the prevalent desire to be inclusive in any decision-making process. Committees are formed, task forces are assembled, constituents are identified, users and providers are named, and all are consulted in some fashion – or so it seems.

The rigor of the approach is, in many respects, admirable; but not soothing to an impatient person. Unintended exclusion can have unintended consequences.


“You didn’t ask my opinion. Let me tell you what I want.” At a well-known university, my co-workers and I would often say that had we been given a nickel for each time we heard that phrase, we would be independently wealthy.

Roadblock?I think this attitude flows as a consequence of the prevalent culture of consensus-building. When someone, particularly an academic, believes their opinion has not been properly solicited, there is often little hesitation to set up the proverbial roadblock until there is satisfactory validation of the decision. Add the time that it may take to do this to the analytical approach, and you can see why the time to act on many needs is often longer than ever anticipated.

My mother had an adage: “I want doesn’t always get.” Clearly she did not have a career in academia.


Deans, Chair-people, Nobel-laureate scientists, and Ph.D.’s didn’t just fall to earth like rain. In our larger population, they are uncommon. Not so, in higher education. They are everywhere, and they are uniformly dedicated and smart. Blessed with superior intellect and extraordinary knowledge, they are unquestionably a very elite group.

SuperiorityThere is, however, an occasional downside. Some, after a lifetime of being praised for their acumen, become inclined to extend their self-assurance into areas where they may have limited real expertise – sometimes with laughable consequences. The astrophysicist who may speculate as to what is required to rebuild a boiler. The classics professor who may advise on physical plant zone management. Appropriate responses from people who serve this group often require patience and careful choice of inoffensive words. Proceed with caution.

Bottom-up Governance

In commercial settings, it’s not uncommon to see strong executive leadership which steers the organization in an intended direction. Supporters are enabled, while opposers are often shown the door. “Get on board or get out of the way” is a saying that may work in an “at will” work environment. Not so much in higher education.

Doubters and critics are protected by both academic tradition and various forms of job protection. However, presidents, provosts, and other high level people serve at the collective will of a very diverse community. When significant components of this group merge to dissent or even simply withdraw cooperation, the removal or departure of the leaders is usually not far off.

It should come as no real surprise that major policy or practice shifts don’t come easily to such an organization. The ships of higher education states change course slowly.

Us vs. Them Attitude

Us vs. ThemAcademics as a group are similar to many others – uncertain of the motives and competencies of those who arrive with what may be perceived as a different bias or background. A slight “fear of the unknown” seems routine.

Those of us in service to a higher education organization may have to work for some time before we are seen as having adopted and embodied the prevailing ethos. Once again, caution prevails.


Smart people seem funnier than average folk. Inclined to observation and discovery of irony, they are regularly insightful and quick-witted. They typically enjoy situations of healthy repartee, and pity the person unable to relate. Fortunately, the banter rarely distracts from what may be the principal agendae. Just try to keep up.

How to Relate?

Cultural Anthropology – the study of cultural variation – is not reserved for academics alone. Effective support of the goals of higher education can only be achieved when you acquire some skills of an anthropologist, however deliberately or unintentionally. Additionally, the most successful enablers of the academic mission of higher education are those who have gained the trust of those they serve.

Appreciate all the good things: Honesty, inclusion, and positive ambitions.

Accept the idiosyncrasies and foibles: Analysis and caution. Consider them part of the charm – part of the package of what is honestly a search for the “greater good” for all affected.


Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:

November 2015  “Moderating in all Things?”
July 2015  “Alphabet City”
May 2015  “Acey Trey Trey Trey?”
January 2015  “Nature or Nurture?”
August 2014  “Acey Trey Trey?”
June 2014  “The Seven Deadly Sins”
March 2014  “Thar She Blows!”
November 2013  “Giving Thanks”
September 2013  “Back to School?”
June 2013  “What Time is It?”
March 2013  “Acey Deucey?”
January 2013  “A Swamp Full of Alligators”
October 2012  “Plan to Live Forever, Part Deux”
July 2012  “A Midsummer Dream”
May 2012  “Are you Virtually Working?”
March 2012  “Your Huddled Masses”
January 2012  “Observing Observations”
October 2011  “I Want What I Want”
August 2011  “A Beach Read”
May 2011  “NeoLuddite or Technophile?”
March 2011  “Do Your Silos Leak?”
January 2011  “Plan to Live Forever!”
November 2010  “May I Have A Plan, Master?”
September 2010  “How do we choose?”
July 2010  “Good People Behaving Badly”
May 2010  “LEED: LEADing or Dead Weight?”
March 2010  “Why does it cost so much?”
January 2010 “Design/Builders show us your softer side.”
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”

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