Dear SPS Faculty,
We are living in times of upheaval and ambiguity and we all have different levels of tolerance for uncertainty. In the 1960s-70s, Geert Hofstede, a Professor of Social Psychology in the Netherlands, analyzed a large data set of IBM employees from offices around the world, to see how culture influences values in the workplace. He developed dimensions of culture that are set up as continua with extremes of each dimension at either end of the spectrum. One of these dimensions is uncertainty avoidance, which I think is particularly relevant for us at this time.
The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?
There are so many unknowns we are dealing with now, one on top of the other, that it may feel as though the bottom is falling out from under us. There is the COVID-19 virus and how much we do not know about it, whether we will catch it, what will happen to us if we do and how will this affect our health, family, livelihood? There is the unknown of how we will be teaching in the fall, whether it is online or on campus, or some creative combination? And there is the civil unrest shaking our country about racism, race relations, discrimination, police/community relations, police brutality, and more, causing us to question everything about our foundations, principles, practices, existence and how we even conduct education and learning. If it is causing you to question the very principles and beliefs of how you teach, how you conduct your admissions process, how you communicate with students, how you select faculty, how you connect with alumni, that is a lot of questioning and uncertainty.
There is a threshold we each have as to how much ambiguity we can handle well, how much we can just manage, and that tipping point when we can no longer effectively handle the uncertainty, the not knowing. It is a good time to take stock of where you are on that ambiguity continuum and what you are comfortable letting happen, willing to defer to others and where you need to take action and exert control back into your life. Then explore the types of action you can take individually, with others, and where you need more support. It is a great time for exploration and questioning and while none of it is easy or comfortable, it is where we are in these times.