12/27/2012 11:33 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Remember That Precedent Matters

Whenever the president of a college or university makes a decision (whenever anyone in any organization makes a decision), s/he needs to remember the consequences of that decision will be around for a very long time. More important, the president must understand the institution will have to live with those consequences long after s/he departs the scene. That is precedent at work.

At colleges in particular, especially small colleges where everyone knows everyone else, there is a tendency to make decisions on an ad hoc basis. Don't do so; never decide personnel matters on the basis of personality. If one does, one opens a Pandora's Box to legal problems. Sure it is important, especially in a small operation, for people to get along with one another. Just because someone is pleasant, though, is hardly a reason to keep that person at the college.

In one instance, recommendations about an individual came to me that I couldn't accept. The person had been hired with very specific obligations to fulfill. Even though he failed to meet those obligations, obligations that were clearly spelled out in contractual form, his supervisor lobbied on the person's behalf.

"He is a nice person"; "he has a family"; "he will, I am sure, do what he had agreed to do," even if what was agreed to should have been done one, two or three years earlier. Almost verbatim, those were the words uttered in support of the individual.

I listened, but I didn't accept the recommendation. I couldn't. Had I done so, the institution would almost certainly have found itself in court. Why? Because the next person who was terminated when contractual obligations were not met would have been able to cite the case as precedent, and the college would have dealt itself a losing legal hand.

Maybe it is the lawyer in me. One must remember, though, decisions cannot/must not be made on the basis of personality. A president needs to be sensitive to others, and, absent an illegal or immoral act, s/he certainly should be willing to give someone a second chance. However, first and foremost, a president must protect the institution -- and the best way to do so is to be consistent. Precedent does matter!