There’s a little management technique gaining some traction called the “Listening Tour”. In the US, over the past eighteen months, new Presidents at Carnegie Mellon and James Madison have used this to inaugurate their terms. At Princeton, new President (and erstwhile Provost) Chris Eisgruber decided to embark on an entire “Year of Listening”, though why he needs a whole year when he’s been provost for the past nine is unclear. Here at home, the pioneer of this is new Dalhousie President Richard Florizone, who began his term with “100 Days of Listening”.
It’s easy enough to see why listening tours are all the rage these days. They combine a need in collegial organizations for Presidents to at least be seen to be inclusive in determining directions, with a certain management philosophy about the need for new leaders to size up their organizations’ strengths and weaknesses quickly in order to make big strategic decisions. Michael Watkins’ book, The First 90 Days, is the most prominent of these; in Dal’s case they seem to have thrown in an extra 10 days to come up with something more Rooseveltian.
I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to the outcomes of the American listening tours, but the Dal one is interesting because Florizone has – unusually – gone and penned quite a lengthy document about his experience, which you can find here.
Now, listening tours at universities are all going to sound pretty similar: everyone wants to be more prestigious, be good at research and teaching (no choosing!), be more collegial, yadda yadda, all of which Florizone duly conveys. On the basis of his listening, he makes some useful observations and commitments to improve Dal’s less-than-stellar reputation within the Halifax community, and its inclusiveness of the province’s African and Mik’Maq communities. (He is also – I think – a little too credulous about Dal’s research strength, but leave that aside for now.)
But Florizone also manages to slip some interesting data into his document – stuff he hasn’t so much heard as discovered via some intensive work with his institutional research shop. Those are the most interesting bits of the document because they more directly reflect his thoughts: his observation that Dal has more programs per undergraduate student than any other U15 school, that its retention rates aren’t very good, that the pension plan’s still a bit of a mess, and that weak government financing and the demands of an aging infrastructure mean cost reductions are clearly going to be the order of the day. Again, nothing shocking there, but Florizone has done a nice job of folding some unpleasant realities into a “report on consultations”, in order to put them on the institution’s agenda.
Bernard Shapiro once said that University Presidents could either come in as Gorbachev or Deng. The first type told everyone that everything had to change, which tended to raise opposition and nothing would get done. The second type told everyone everything was going to be the same, but then managed to change everything anyway. By the looks of it, Florizone is going Chinese on this one.