“Why Rules Matter,” Gary A. Olson’s “First Person” essay in the Chronicle this morning, surveys the comical sense of “rules for thee but none for me” that operates all too often on college campuses. I’ll never forget standing in the registrar’s office early one spring semester and overhearing a professor who still hadn’t turned in fall grades explain that, 1) anyone who turned in grades by the deadline was guilty of pedagogical fraud, and 2) she’d wanted to have a relaxing holiday with her friends and family. Pure class.
It is not that compassion and flexibility are bad; it is that in violating rules and deadlines, other people might be injured or disadvantaged. A veteran provost I know is fond of saying that a good administrator must be a rule monger, otherwise you invite chaos and injustice. She tells stories of faculty senates or administrative officers creating a rule, and then promptly violating it when that proved convenient. “I would constantly have to remind them that they themselves created the rule, and usually for a good purpose, but they couldn’t simply disregard it,” she told me. “It is as if some people believe that ‘academic freedom’ somehow means that they are free from the constraints of rules and deadlines or that rules are for others, not them.”
What I particularly enjoy–and by “enjoy,” mean, “want to drive a spike through my eye when it happens”–is that all too frequently the rule-breaking isn’t just tolerated, but *celebrated* as an example of good service to students, faculty, or staff. It’s a particularly nice rhetorical maneuver, because if you point out that, not only was the rule enacted for a reason, and not only did the affected person have plenty of time and notice to comply with the rule, but that breaking the rule potentially screws those people who *did* comply with the rule—then all of a sudden *you’re* the jerk who doesn’t care about student success. Recently someone on my campus singled out for praise an act of routine rule-breaking–or, I guess, exception-granting, even though it directly contributes to system crashes during registration.
While it’s true that not all academic deadlines are mission-critical, outright contempt for the rules, or the belief that they don’t apply to us, is toxic.