Op - Ed, Opinion

VSU’s library decision: many unforced errors

By Liz DiMarco Weinmann

Editor’s note: Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: lizdimarcoweinmann.com. 

Pop quiz:  The story behind the Vermont State University administration’s decision to eliminate all but a few select print materials from its libraries, in favor of digitizing most content, is an example of which literary genre: 

A) flawed fable;

B) mind-boggling mystery; 

C) chaotic comedy of errors; 

D) all of the above.   

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer because there are plenty of plot-holes in the administration’s story, and way too much “spin” – i.e., an ill-disguised attempt to substantiate a pre-ordained decision the VSU administration claims resulted from a student survey.

Having spent most of my career orchestrating strategic plans and marketing campaigns that were highly dependent on market research, I’ve seen, heard, and yes, even manufactured, my own share of spin.   When pressed, even the most benevolent PhDs who run the market research departments of major corporations will cheerfully acknowledge that their main responsibility in survey design, implementation, analysis and interpretation, is to deliver the results expected by those paying for the research.

Considering my professional experiences, and therefore skepticism, regarding most market research, and the numerous books and articles I’ve read about spin, I made sure to read as many opinions as possible regarding the print-vs.-online controversy — those advocating all-digital, and those championing the retention of print. The massive amount of content about these issues could convince Sisyphus that pushing that boulder uphill for all eternity is a far better fate than sifting through all the arguments in hopes of reaching an unbiased conclusion.

The VSU library issue is not just a brouhaha taking place in dusty faculty lounges. The decision smacks of malice aforethought, motivated solely by cost cutting, rather than preserving or creating value. It is a cautionary tale that relates to what we all choose to learn through reading — why we read, how we read, and where and when we are able to read.

So, as Dorothy Parker might urge, please excuse my dust, because how VSU handled this decision can indeed affect what poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life,” in her beautiful poem, The Summer Day.

To make clear, I am not engaged in any way with VSU, so what I am aware of is what several of Castleton University’s most knowledgeable scholars have communicated in various media.  They have asserted the following: the survey’s design and content were biased; the survey’s delivery and timing were flawed; therefore, the survey’s interpretation is also flawed.

Most important, the way the administration communicated its subsequent decision to digitize the libraries is a textbook case study of how not to spin trends or influence people.

With apologies to Ms. Barrett Browning, let me not only count the ways they committed these unforced errors, but also offer the following recommendations, for how they might avoid similar errors in the future:

1)  VSU administrators need to recognize that their particular area of scholarship does not deem them automatic experts in forging difficult leadership decisions.   Management journals are full of cautionary tales about leaders who were technical experts in their arcane fields, but who refused to engage professionals with experience and expertise more relevant to the task at hand. 

2)  VSU’s administrators should consider forming a task force that includes university scholars with proven experience and expertise in business strategy.  A few examples: 

If VSU administrators had engaged its finance professors for advice about computing and analyzing the specific expected financial return on investment regarding the library decision, then they might have been able to understand and communicate that information in a more credible way.

If VSU administrators had engaged associate professor of political science Rich Clark, who according to his bio, “…has conducted well over a hundred surveys throughout his career, in almost every conceivable mode…,” they might have produced a more believable rationale for their library decision.  Professor Clark’s background includes a three-year stint with Roper Research, the world’s largest public opinion data archive, and extensive experience and expertise in sampling methodology, survey development, data weighting, and data analysis.

A consultation with Professor Michael Talbott might have yielded valuable counsel about messaging, cultivating media allies and handling difficult questions.  Professor Talbott, who holds a PhD from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, teaches courses such as media, social activism and political action, as well as media writing. He is also an influential Rutland City alderman. 

3) In the immortal words of Arthur Miller, attention must be paid.  In VSU’s case, the persons responsible and accountable for the library survey ignored the age-old caution that the devil is in the data.  They measured the wrong information, which led to stakeholders’ assertions that the administrators manipulated the data in order to substantiate their pre-ordained decisions.  

4)  Dismissing the reality of competition — especially since some students are threatening to transfer — is never wise. While tuition is not the only revenue stream a university needs, accreditation officials as well as the funding community could look unfavorably on VSU’s situation.   

5)  Universities should never believe the administration is more important than faculty, program staff, students, alumni, legislators, media, and the community itself. The one-size-fits-all, top-down, omniscient mentality, strategy and messaging that VSU has deployed, is out of sync with contemporary teaching and practices in effective organizational culture. They need to listen more, acknowledge challenges, and use every opportunity to engage and communicate proactively and credibly with the media.   

For a closing call-to-action that VSU’s administration officials should consider, following are a few lines paraphrased from Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day:  

Tell us, what else could you have done? 

While everything dies at last, and too soon. 

Tell us, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life…as leaders. 

If it’s too much to expect that VSU’s leaders will deliver a happily-ever-after for this cautionary tale, perhaps they could craft a more equitable story, one that involves proactive collaboration, genuine empathy, and sincere respect for all concerned.

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