Friday, April 20, 2007

Negative Synergy

As some readers know, I receive a briefing at about 6:15 AM each morning on all AU events requiring audio and visual support. Virtually all events do require such support. As the end of spring semester the number of events swells. There are the ‘normal’ films, meetings, religious services, and club events. The campus is thronged with prospects (and their parents) who are visiting AU to consider enrolling and recently admitted students (often with their parents, too) who are making up their minds whether or not to attend.

Many organizations are having events of one sort or another to bid farewell to seniors and graduate students who have completed their degrees. Organizations (including the Center for Teaching Excellence) have end of year celebrations. This year, AU is also conducting major searches for a new President, University Librarian, and Executive Director of Housing and Dining Services. Candidates are on campus for a day or more meeting with different constituencies.

This is also the time in the semester when academic work is most intense. The typical undergraduate is completing five classes, each with a final paper or project and, most typically, final examinations. Honors students have “capstone” projects and a day-long event to present them. MA students are defending their theses, doctoral students, their dissertations.

For undergraduate students especially, end-of-spring-semester time-management challenges are daunting. Each year, I am amazed at how well they manage. But I wonder if there might not be a better way. There are so many events, scheduled by different constituencies – academic, social, campus life, etc. that, especially for seniors, the period culminating in commencement is often more stressful than joyful. There is little no time to fully celebrate – and savor - completing one of life’s most important threshold experiences.

Synergy is a process where the whole is somehow than the sum of interacting parts. Dictionaries list “antagonism” as the opposite of synergy, but I prefer “negative synergy:” a process where the whole is somehow less that the sum of interacting parts.

I like to think that American University’s leaders (of whom I am one) could craft a pre-commencement process not characterized by negative synergy. We did this when we reduced the duration of our commencement event from three and a half to about two hours. Five years ago, I performed similar surgery on our pre-fall semester orientation for new faculty colleagues. But I am not optimistic about pre-commencement. There are simply too many stakeholders, each with laudable\ legitimate claims on students’ time, who want a piece of the action.

Thus it is students, themselves, who must choose, previewing other important life choices (between work and family, for example) that will soon await them. They must decide, for themselves, what is most important and what is less so and focus their energies on what is most important.


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