Being the dean #3

The dean is action-orientated. Solutions are key to the dean. While exploring solutions may take time, we need to focus on how we reach a goal best. This demands a sensible measure and a transparent procedure, and a clear recognition of futile tasks.

Universities are just as any form of organisations build on the constant exchange between people that are goal orientated, and people that are process orientated. While a certain diligence is key in creating solutions, many processes are endless, depending on the people involved. Therefore, it is key to me to find the right balance between these two extremes, the sheer endless maelstroem of admin trying to eat our time, and the head in the cloud professor who “just wants to work”. I feel for both groups. I think we have to learn where our strength are (mine is not in filing out forms), and have to cope with the weaknesses (again not filling out forms). While this is trivial fortune cookie wisdom, much of the frictions we have in daily academia are still rooted in this simple fact. I think it is very easy to process a problem endlessly, while it is quite hard to make the first step towards a solution.

On the other hand it is clear that creativity needs time, and also needs repeated failure. Well, maybe it does not need failure, but it may certainly build on it. I might now continue telling you how we need speed, or creativity, or creativity, or speed. I have however a different take on this. I think engaging in action-orientation takes experience, yet also depends on your mindset. Lets start with the latter-the mindset. I think while some people seem to be born for reflection, some others are born for reflection. Some people seem to tick more top-down, while others are more bottom-up. Where these two clash, there is often tension, yet also moving forward. Experience is more tricky. I think people tend to become more effective over time, building experience. This is very helpful, yet can also create a disharmony between experienced and in-experienced people.

When people become very experienced, they seem to accumulate knowledge on such an epic scale, that they create action almost by reflex. This is actually the time, when it is most pleasant to be the dean. Working with these fast-thinkers is an extreme privilege, and a great pleasure. I learn a lot, and hope to become more efficient myself. I can highly recommend to lower ranks to observe experienced thinkers and build enough trust in themselves to just observe how these fast tinkers create action. To me this is one of the core levers in how we can move academia forward. Let’s build experience to empower fast thinkers, or at least let’s try to learn how we can create action.

Derek Parfit, a relevant individual

Derek Parfit died on 1st January 2017. He was one of the supreme moral philosophers of our time. I am struck on how the absence of a person that just like me did not believe in a convincing definition of personal identity can make me so profoundly sad.

He made a deep impression with his claim on the non-existince of individuals in one of his first papers, and his first book “Reasons and persons”. Here, he claimed that we are indeed networks of our experiences and actions, yet there is no convincing definition of a personal identity. While he agreed that as a construct we have to assume in our daily life that we are separate from others, he gained at some point in his life the insight that it is indeed the network of interactions that defines us. In addition, experience alters us, making us today a different constructed individual as compared to tomorrow. Lastly, it left an impression that he presented several thought experiments that prove that we cannot be convincingly defined. The most famous example is the transportation of a person from Earth to Mars. In the process the original person on Earth is destroyed, and a facsimile is created on Mars. Did the person travel? And more importantly, what if the “original person” on Earth is not destroyed? Are there two same individuals? I consider it to be highly convincing that the construct of personal identity does not really exist.

Naturally, we all have constructed roles in society, and cannot completely uncouple ourselves from these roles. Based on the numerous obituaries about Derek it seems that he was trying to uncouple from himself. He bought the same clothes several times to not think about what to wear. He seems to have had the same drinking bottle for years to an end. And while there are uncountable description of his friendliness, there are also indications that he did not mind meeting a person anew repeatedly, while the person tried to explain that they encountered each other before. He also went through great length to have his photos -he was an avid photographer- developed and later altered by computers, as normal processing did not match the colours or amount of electric poles he considered to be correct in his reality.

Derek Parfit was also unique in academia as he only wrote two books. His second book -On what matters- was circulated for years to an end in the community, and hundreds of people commented on it before publication. Much of the text of volume 2 are reviews of his text, on which he replied as well within the book. Such a model of reviewed books published on a less than decadal frequency is next to non-existent in academia by now. However the impact of his books is incredible, and I agree that it is quite impressive and pleasing to read his account to create a holistic ethics. While this is of course all still philosophy, to me the strong point about his books is how much these can guide daily action and reflection. To me, Derek is almost like one of the core thinkers that can advise us how to live and act. For me as a sustainability scientist, it is remarkable how Dereks work includes the necessary ethics for sustainability. His work is so integrative, that it does not even rely on sustainability of other constructs, but is way more holistic.

Most consolidating to me are his accounts of the future. He dismissed pessimists, and I agree with him that the good that might happen in the future may outweigh all previous bad. He also dismissed the necessity of suffering. He was also widely critical of utilitarian standards, arguing that a large slightly happy population does not equal a small very happy population. To me he thus opened a door to question our underlying thought models which future we want to achieve, and which frameworks help us to achieve this future. He called that one of the three integrating principles guiding our action should be the question what makes an outcome go best. Looking at his triple theory:

An act is wrong if and only if, or just when, such acts are disallowed by some principle that is
1) one of the principles whose being universal laws would make things go best,
2) one of the only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will….
3) a principle that no one could reasonably reject.

it is already demanding discussion to define reasonable understandings and rationality. The core question to me is how we understand what makes an outcome go best. We have to overcome ignorance, and in the process would overcome many wrong actions, suffering and not-good experiences. However making an outcome go best is a complex reflective excercise. His third volume shall gives more information in how he can actively apply this, and will answer even more question on normative and psychological reasons. I hope that the fourth volume can be at least partly published, as here he promised to be even more concrete on how we should act in daily life.

I personally decided that after consulting Derek last book once again, will make the triple theory as the guiding principle of my action for a few months, and assume that I cannot reverse using the triple theory as guiding principle. While I am aware of the loftiness and ambition that this experiment has, I want to make my daily actions reflected based on Dereks thoughts and ideas. I would be glad that since I agree with so much of his claims, that his insights might continue in me, and the network of experiences that “continues even though the direct relations between his present experiences and future experience is discontinued through his death” (his words) will go on. I can only encourage others to read Dereks work. He once wrote: “What matters now the most is that we avoid ending human history.” If humankind would engage more in his thoughts, and try to apply them then his claim might even more and faster become a reality, that: “Even if the past has been in itself bad, the future may be good, and this goodness may outweigh the badness of the past”.

Being the dean #2 – creating a vision

Since this year I am the dean. Building on books I read about academic deans and my own observation, I wrote a manifesto on how I want to approach my deanship. Within this blog entry, I discuss #2 from this manifesto.

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“The dean tries to jointly create a vision for the faculty. Integrating the different ideas of professors and other faculty, as well as our colleagues both within and outside of Leuphana demands recognition of the bigger picture, as well as being able to compromise. Please help the dean to create this vision.”

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We are a faculty of more than 250 people, with more than 30 professors. We are diverse. We have sustainability as a joined goal. Naturally, we have different ideas, strategies and approaches to academia. I see this as our joined strength. We are also linked within the University, and also to colleagues outside of Leuphana. What are now the key steps to create a vision? Is is even possible to create a vision? Our former chancellor Helmut Schmidt famously claimed that “he who has vision should go see doctor”. While it is true that we should not waste our resources thriving for some unachievable vision, I think one key aspect of vision is to push beyond our imagination, regardless of initial limitations. To achieve this, recognition of diversity is pivotal. By combining different entities, such as knowledge domains, methods, approaches, frameworks etc. may enable us to create something novel. This demands a proper setting, enabling exchange and multiplication of the different faculty. Surely this poses key challenge, as it requires initial investments and lots of diplomacy.

This is one of the key goals of me being the dean. Bringing together diversity and excellence is a great challenge, but it is also very rewarding. The group of people at the Faculty is not only diverse, but also large. Diplomacy and efficiency in creating exchange is one of my key goals.  However, creating linkages demands knowledge. This can be knowledge of the rest of the faculty, but also includes knowledge of people outside of the faculty. One key goal of the dean is then to try and integrate all these different types of knowledge.  Creating a coherent and novel picture out of this knowledge is then -potentially- a vision.

Here, another vital step is necessary to be noted. Creating a vision should not be restricted to foresight. While it is vital to envision potential future trajectories, I consider it even more important to understand a goal -even a soft goal- that you want to target. We need to create visions not only by foresight, but also by a clear and bold anticipation of what we want to achieve.

Therefore, the dean needs to be able to communicate this vision and make it a participatory exercise of the faculty, university and other players. I am glad to help integrate this vision out of the coherent canon of knowledge and goals that unites us all.

Being the dean – six months on..

In the first blog post, I will reflect about the past six months, that is about the past six months as being the dean of the faculty of sustainability. After some thinking and recent events I wrote down 10 rules that I consider relevant to me. You might wonder now, why you should read them? Are you a dean? Even if not, the following might be of relevance for you. Stay tuned.

“1) The dean works on the coherent triangle of management of the faculty, research in the faculty and teaching of the faculty, together with the other deans.”

Management

Many consider that management is the central theme of being the dean. It is simply boring admin, and why would a true researcher or teacher (do these still exists?) bother at all. Well, it is admin, I will not fool you here, but maybe we can change the admin. I learned a lot about admin tricks during the last 6 months, but more importantly, I altered the mode of admin surrounding me. How I did that you ask? First, I observed for 2-3 months. During this time, only emergency changes were made, beside that I sticked quite to the structured I found.

After 2-3 months, I increasingly asked people, what they would change. Then I took the ratio and rational out of the intel, and started implementing changes. It was actually fun, not only for me, but only (I hope) for others. Fact is, that most people want responsibility and trust. I think it is vital to help people reach their peak, and through the efforts of my tremendous surrounding, I actually feel I get closer to my own peak. Admin is actually much much much better than its reputation. I think people do not consider the time to reflect. If baffled by admin and procedures, it is I learned best to take a step back and look at the whole picture. With some context, I believe to have learned that hardly anyone is harmful, and no one is evil in admin. People are just overworked, and misunderstood. Structured and solution-orientated criticism is what’s working best.

Research

Leuphana University is a tremendous place, I think. We have some truly inspiring research happening, and it is among the duties of the dean to aid the creation of a coherent and bold research narrative. This is really fun, since it is a true team effort. There are so many inspiring and fascinating researchers at our faculty and university and beyond, and it is very nice to be kind one of the central hubs in this structure. I surely still have my own interests and research (I hope), but creating ties between an array of people is challenging yet fun. What I think is even more fascinating is the mode we can have as a dynamic and thriving faculty. Whenever a new research call comes in, we are prepared, and as a team can consider the best options to approach a potential project. In addition, we build on a tremendous experience from the wider University, especially from the leaders of the University.

Teaching

The reason why I started at Leuphana to begin with was because a position with teaching seemed more attractive as compared to a pure research position. Still, teaching seems somewhat to play a minor role in today’s academia. I think this is wrong, and as the dean I can often add to discussion and strategic planning of the teaching program. Just as with research, we have a great portfolio of people, and designing and improving such cutting edge programs (no kidding) as ours is surely fun. Also, the exchange with the student representatives as a dean is a real pleasure, as you get great feedback that you can implement. Most importantly, sustainability is a surely dynamic field, and parts of our programs are more than dynamic. What is tricky though is quality. Before I always said that I want to forget all bad info on specific courses and lectures. Now I have to implement this, and this is surely a continuous process. What to do with mediocre teaching? I myself have a course that just has not ripened into a digestible form (yet!). This takes time and clear strategic planning. Being the dean is also to work with people on a longer time scale, and build trust. This can lead to lasting and sustainable change is my current hypotheses.

The team

The greatest part of being the dean is being a team. There are two vice deans, one on teaching, and one on research. In addition, there is the former dean, who is now designated advisor to the president on sustainability. The four of us make a sure great team. What I like best is the speed of our communication. Our telephone calls, meetings, slack chats and whatever mean of communication we use are among the densest I ever participated in. All this really brought team work for me to the next level.