TITLE: Agile Policy Development
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: June 09, 2007 10:28 PM
I felt my agile tendencies come through yesterday.
First of all, let me say that by and large I am a rule
follower. If a rule exists, I like for it to be applied,
and applied consistently. Because I tend to follow rules
without much question, even when the rule is inconvenient,
it often disturbs me to learn that someone else has gotten
out of the rule, either because they asked for an
exception or because the relevant authority chose not
to enforce the rule when it was skirted. This tendency
is almost certainly a direct result of my upbringing.
That said, I also know that some rules simply get in the
way of getting things done.
Now for a story. Several years ago, we had a particular
student in our undergraduate program. His work habits
weren't very good, and his grades showed that. Before
finishing his coursework, he left school and got a job.
Fast forward a few years. Perhaps the student has grown
up, but whatever the reason he is ready to finish his
degree. He comes back to school part time and does well.
He completes the coursework for his degree but comes up
a bit short of the graduation requirements, due to the
grades he earned during his first stint as a student.
(The rule in question is rather picayune, but, hey ,it
was written by faculty.)
The students asks if the department will consider waiving
the rule in question. His request doesn't seem like some
students' requests, which are often demands masquerading
as questions, or which presume that the department really
should say yes. This request seems sincere and not to
presume that the department owes him anything. If we say
no, he will re-take another course in the fall and try to
satisfy the requirement. However, a waiver would enable
him to move on professionally with a sense of closure.
Now, I am a rule follower, but... A colleague expressed
well how I felt about this case: There is reason that we
have this rule, but this case isn't that reason.
Part of my job is to hear and decide on such requests, but
I prefer not to make such decisions without input from the
whole faculty. So I make it a practice to poll faculty
whenever new requests come in. The purpose isn't to take
a vote that decides for me but rather to get a sense of
what the group thinks. I get to hear pros and cons, maybe
learn to think about the request in a way I hadn't considered
before. I still have to make the decision, but I do so in
a state of greater knowledge -- and a state of transparency.
I'm also willing to bow to a consensus that differs from my
instinct, unless there is a really good reason not to.
Faculty responses rolled in, without a consensus. More
agreed with the idea of granting the request than disagreed,
and a few offered suggestions for resolving the issue in
another way. One person suggested that we should not waive
the requirement without having a much more detailed policy
in place. The more detailed policy would address the many
dimensions of the case. His proposal was quite complete
and well thought out. But it seemed like overkill.
This is a one-off case. We haven't had a case like this
in my memory, and I don't expect that we'll have many
like it in the future. Perhaps students don't ask for
this kind of waiver because they don't expect it to be
granted, but I think it's simpler than that: there aren't
many students in this situation. It seems unnecessary
and perhaps even detrimental for us to specify rules that
govern all possible combinations of features when we don't
know the specifics of future cases yet -- and may never
face them at all. In the realm of the policy, this feels
like a prototypical case of
If we see a second case (soon), we will at least have reason
to believe that the effort designing a detailed exception
policy will be worth it for both faculty and students.
There is one other fact that makes this increasingly unlikely
as time passes: the particular set of requirements under
discussion is no longer in effect, and applies only to
students who began their CS majors under an older catalog
that has been superseded. In any case, I'd like to give
us the opportunity to learn from the next request before
we try to get a detailed policy just right.
I do like to create policy where it is useful, such as for
recurring decisions and for decisions that involve
well-understood criteria. An example of this sort of policy
is a set of guidelines for awarding a scholarship each year.
I also think policy helps when it eliminate ambiguity that
makes peoples' lives harder. An example here is a set of
guidelines for faculty applying for and being awarded a
course release for scholarly work. Without such a policy,
the process looks like a free-for-all and is prone to
unfairness, or appearance of the same; the result would
be an inefficient market of projects that would hurt the
faculty's collective work.
Otherwise, I think that policy works best when it
reflects practice, rather than
prescribing practice. This reminds me of a
discussion that America's founding fathers had in creating
the U.S. Constitution, which I mentioned in an
on Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things.
Ultimately, I trust my judgment and the judgment of my
colleagues. In situations where I don't think we know
enough to define good rules, I'd rather encourage a
conversation that helps us reach a reasonable decision in
light of current facts. When the conversation turns from
giving value to wasting time, then a policy is in order.
To me that is better at forecasting a policy for experiences
we've not had and then facing the prospect of tinkering at
its edges to get it right later. That creates just the
sort of uncertainty, both in the folks applying the policy
and in the folks to whom the policy applies, that a good
policy should eliminate.
Trusting judgment means trusting people. I'm comfortable
with that, even as a law-and-order kind of guy.