A principle is a general tenet, a basic rule, a generalized proposition of the highest level. A policy is an organizational plan of action. A procedure is a particular set of actions. Principles exist across institutions and sectors; they emerge through complicated, almost philosophical debate. Policies exist within organizations; they are localized, developed, implemented and evaluated. Procedures are more specific still; they are followed, or not, like protocols.
An institution of higher education’s principles may, or may not, be conveyed in documents such as mission or vision statements. Policies tend to live in governance documents and handbooks. Procedures are creatures of memoranda, guides and emails.
How do they fit together? Often they do not jibe. No one has the responsibility of aligning principles, policies and procedures in academia. Nor is it part of anything we do in a regular way. In fact, is a extraordinarily important component of academic life that is rarely addressed in systematic or thoughtful way. Our organizational structures: administration over here, faculty over there, staff someplace else and the students somewhere different – do not lend themselves to holistic evaluation and realignment. No structure, no thread, no institutional lineament brings principles, policies and procedures into harmony.
Charismatic leadership can bring principles, policies and procedures together. Or sometimes a widely recognized challenge whose urgency demands brings this about – and we often only realize much later that alignment is at the root of the issue.
Four paragraphs of generalities: what does this look like? A few examples:
- How an institution handles academic integrity, from the messaging it provides entering students, to the support and guidance it gives faculty, to it processes in handling cases of cheating;
- How an institution handles technology innovations – experimentation, adoption or rejection? Through centralized structures or the preferences of individual faculty?
- How an institution handles students who do not pay their tuition in a timely fashion;
- How an institution handles students who need remedial, developmental or preparatory support.
Bringing together stakeholders and facilitating shared understanding (consensus is not necessary) on a principle is one of the more daunting tests of leadership in higher education. It is very difficult. Even the right people and the right issue in the right setting may not move forward if the timing is wrong. The temptation, too, to press ahead without the broader development is well-neigh irresistible. Sometimes expediency demands it.
Over the long-term, a college or university’s effectiveness rests in good part on its ability to establish shared understanding of principles, an awareness that principles shape policies, and a community that follows the procedures that constitute the policy. It makes a real difference, too, in how students perceive the institution and develop their own aims and goals.
Weird, isn’t it?