I remember how powerless I felt as an undergraduate college student while studying engineering. My future, my independence, my life, was balancing on a single event, graduation. Completing my studies had always seemed like a moving target. See my earlier post (Three Men and a Truck - My 30 year journey) about my trials and tribulations involved with transferring from U of M - Ann Arbor to U of M - Dearborn.
In that sordid process, there were several courses that didn't transfer towards my engineering requirements. I ended up taking an additional semester of coursework to finish my degree. During my senior audit, I was told that I was three credits short on my humanities requirement. I just couldn't believe it. During the prior semester, I had taken debate which was categorized as humanities, or so I thought. The department had recently reclassified the course. I had used an older bulletin when originally choosing the class. After my final semester, I would have 12 credits over the necessary 124 to graduate and this advisor was telling me I would need to take a summer course in order to get my diploma?
It isn't uncommon to feel defeated in this position. The bureaucracy of a university seems daunting. Colleges, much like government utilize a bureaucratic organizational structure. Bureaucracy isn't a dirty word, although it is often used that way. Max Weber, the father of the modern bureaucracy outlined how to efficiently manage a system for mass production. When systems are needed to process consistently, a somewhat rigid structure is formulated to sort issues and to process them systematically. Unfortunately, there are situations which cannot be easily categorized. That is when we can find ourselves lost and hopeless in finding a solution to a particular problem or circumstance.
Too often we lash out in frustration at the person who's job is narrowly defined. They aren't allowed to make an exception or deviation. We desperately reach upward into the abyssmal system to find someone who can find a way to classify and process our dilemma. It can seem impossible at times to find the path to finally move forward. Bureaucracies breed the complacency, they don't necessarily attract it. Those who work in these rigid systems are instructed to comply with standards and procedures. They are often discouraged from making deviations which can then result in inconsistencies. When we are faced with insurmountable obstruction, it is important to keep calm, be reasonable, and speak to the bureaucrat with respect. Many times, that person wants to help, and may know the work-around. When they don't, or can't, and you have climbed up to the top of the pyramid, you may have to just make a stand.
There was no way I was going to take another course in order to graduate. Not only had I earned all of my engineering credit hours and then some; I had been working on a vehicle conversion competition during that final year that was taking all of my personal time. I was the project leader to convert a Chevy pickup truck to run on natural gas in competition with 23 other universities throughout North America. I had already been offered a full-time job after graduation and delayed starting until the competition was completed. This entailed an additional six weeks after graduation. A month and a half of earnings was being foregone in order to fulfill my commitment to see the project through. It was time to take my case to the top.
I scheduled a meeting with the Chancellor of the University. Blenda Wilson was the chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. She was aware of our project and knew me by name. When I asked to have a meeting with her about my course requirement issue, she scheduled it right away. She sat down with me and apologized for the inconvenience, but said the requirements were firm and I would have to take a summer class. Thank goodness that reclassified class I took the previous semester was Debate. I stated my case, discussing the credits I lost in my transfer, my extended 5th year of undergraduate studies, my involvement as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers student chapter, and leadership on the truck project.
The University had been actively using the project for press and marketing. Still, she wouldn't budge, and I had enough of battling the system. I leaned forward, looked her in the eye and said, "If you want that truck to run, I walk in April, and that is the end of it." In all honesty, I didn't know how I would have pulled off not having the truck running on purpose, but that is what I laid down in the heat of battle. Her eyes opened wide as she leaned back in surprise. She told me she would let me know what she could do by the end of the week. A few days later she came by one of my classes and asked me out into the hall. All my classmates were wondering what was going on. Ms. Wilson said to me, "Ok David, we will release the requirement, but the deal is that you have that truck running for competition." Now, there were all sorts of issues getting the truck running, but we worked through them and faired well in competition. I was motivated by insurmountable stress to hold up my end of arrangement.
When commencement finally came around, we all walked up on stage and posed with Ms. Wilson as we carried our useless diploma-less piece of stage paper. A photographer was poised to snap a photo of each graduate as they shook hands with the chancellor. I heard her say "Congratulations" and "Well done" to others in front of me. When it was my turn she took my hand with both of hers and held me still for a few moments while she said sternly, without a smile "Now, we had a deal David, you get to graduate, and that truck runs!" I smiled, winked, and said to her "It's gonna run, you have my word". Then she smiled, released my hand, and I walked my final steps as a prisoner of the University.
Later on, as a graduate student at Wayne State, I had to meet with department heads to explain particular contentions that I had. In both programs there was a difficult professor that was making things more difficult than necessary. I picked my moment and made my stand. In both cases there were so many other students with the same contention, that the professor's issues were keenly addressed. The same type of approach is necessary when dealing with government, school systems, and other bureaucratically run organizations. It is important to know which battles to take on, with whom to take them up with, and the footing you need, to make a stand when all else fails. Just make sure you do it with respect, and of course, with a wink and a smile.