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The Paradox of [Hysterical] Accountability

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill “Skip” Powers
April 23, 2018

Recently, a graduate student accused me of being “bias” and “hysterical.” Shocked? Sure! Face it, words can sometimes sting a bit. True? You be the judge. In a decade of teaching, graduate-level students have used many adjectives to describe my style — though many of those were not closely related to the spewing hyperbole from this student. With pride, I hold all my students accountable to the same measure — high expectation to excel, grow and foster critical thinking skills. Often, the interaction turns to professional and collegial contacts that transcends the classroom. At least that is what I believe accounts for the thousands of LinkedIn contacts I have amassed.

As I pondered the back and forth and examined the events that elicited such a strong and visceral accusatory tirade from this student – I tried to feel what this student must be feeling. The few adjectives that came to mind: frustrated; anxious; passionate; confident; betrayed; vulnerable. Frustrated with the workload perhaps? Anxious about the mountains of reading and research each week? Passionately determined to not be excised from the program? Betrayed that the plethora of excuses for missed work had run its course? Vulnerable by the thought of failing a course? Then it occurred to me: it was a fear of accountability (being held accountable).

Accountability is something rarely discussed outside of a sound bite on the twenty-four-seven news cycle. A simple Google search about accountability in government spans the gamut from Opioid Commission to Border Security and Immigration to Special Prosecutors and Russian collusion. When did accountability move from being a noun: the condition of being accountable; to a caustic adjective akin to a flaming spear and war of words such as “bias” and “hysterical?”

Alexander Hamilton spoke at length about accountability in Federalist 70. His words implore members to exercise “good [accountable] behavior” in office. Alas, he speaks to the waging words and differing of opinions that occurs when discussion and debate are the order of the day. Herein, Hamilton spoke of the outcome of differing opinions: “dissension” and warned of “communities being split into irreconcilable factions” — likely resulting in a war of words versus accountability. Note to leaders: use Twitter sparingly. I digress.

Are the words and lamentations of Hamilton all around us? Have we lost the ability to hold accountable our peers, our constituencies, our communities and our student’s sans irreconcilable factions and the hyperbolic war of words? The more vexing question, is how to embrace the era of accountability and move towards what former Maine Senator Olympia J. Snowe called for in her departure from Congress, “less polarity?”

Accountability and polarity. How do we foster a culture that heeds the Hamiltonian warning of faction and dissension and the war of words by a disgruntled Millennial student and cultivate approaches that promote trust, transparency, and demonstrate adroit accountable leadership? Dr. Barry Johnson captures this in the Polarity Management Map – whereby the leader leverages the best of “old-thinking” with “new-thinking” principles and move from negative to positive continuums. Think about this? This can be used in administrative capacities, board-rooms, and yes, even the classroom.

Donald Kettl, in his book “The Transformation of Governance” eloquently speaks to this issue of administrative accountability as a “capacity conundrum.” The devolution of accountability, as a result of a more globalized/connected society, undermines traditional norms of leadership and hierarchy (I doubt Kettl and Hamilton had this discussion at a Happy Hour but wouldn’t that have been a great conversation to eavesdrop?) and require commitment to understanding that accountability is and must be, the expectation. The graduate classroom is not off the hook! Administration and policy programs must too, evolve and adjust to and demand accountable behavior(s).

In retrospect, the confrontation with an irate student made me realize that this issue is broader and sadly more indicative of the society we lead, manage, work, live and interact. The continuum must become more about leadership and accountability and clarity and trust and less about the confusing chaos and stagnating tyrannical politics (war of words).

Today, I implore us all to renew the commitment to accountability. I proudly don the moniker of “hysterical” with pride in my renewal. Preparing the minds of tomorrow for the challenges they will face is often tough — but enormously rewarding. A mentor once wrote, “…when we connect with others, we become better” – polarity cannot exist when we connect. Tyranny, nay, hysteria, loses its luster when its replaced with leadership – beginning with accountability.


Author: Bill “Skip” Powers, PhD is an author, lecturer, Air Force Veteran and Senior Advisor with 25 years’ experience in federal government. Focus areas include emergency management, human capital, continuity, resiliency, and grants management. [email protected]

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2 Responses to The Paradox of [Hysterical] Accountability

  1. Bill P. Reply

    October 22, 2018 at 6:44 am

    Robert – thank you for the comment.

    Of course I am transparent with my students and outline expectations at the beginning of the course and pride myself on being about the most accessible Professor they’ll ever encounter – providing my cell numbers in addition to office hours. The fact a student PAYS for a course only guarantees them a seat in the class. The overwhelming expectation/assumption that “payment = grade” is a farce that I will not support. Working full-time and going to school is a choice. Relaxing standards is not how we prepare students for challenges outside of the classroom (surely, you agree). Most students are quite accountable and demonstrate mastery of skill and critical thinking. Those who try to manipulate the system and use any and all excuses (as mentioned in this article) are those that must truly evaluate their professional and academic goals. Finally, theory is the stanchion of practical application, Robert. This is the charge of graduate learning, right? The coalesce of the theoretical with the practical to expand knowledge? ~Skip

  2. Robert L. Morrison Reply

    April 24, 2018 at 6:47 am

    If I were having this problem, I would tell all students at the beginning of the semester that I would be willing to meet with them before or after class to discuss any problems they may have with myself or the curriculum. Many graduates students to pay for their tuition have to work, and it is very difficult to balance this with a full class load.

    If there is not a good reason for his/her problem with you, then continue on with your teaching.

    I am not a PhD but have recognized that is good to challenge the thinking of everyone to solve problems in the workplace. Theory is nice but practical issues also are very important to prepare everyone for the outside work skills.

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