Foundations Matter

When we moved to Austin in 2012 and started house hunting, as most people do, we had a specific list of items we wanted. I wanted to be able to get to the university without getting on either I-35 or Mopac and we needed a yard that would be big enough to support four dogs, three of whom were large. These were not particularly compatible aspirations but we found something that worked for us. Great location, a design that worked well for us, wonderful windows into a large backyard. We had found the perfect house. We knew it had had foundation work, but all was supposed to be well. It was not.

We spent much of the four years we lived there chasing after various problems most of which led back to the original foundation problems. (The fact that the previous owner had put all of the deadbolts in upside down, while a nuisance, had nothing to do with the foundation, but probably should have told us something.) Our house was a literal example of the importance of a good foundation, but a foundation is critical in so many other situations.

Years ago when I worked in the Dean of Students Office, UT Austin grew unexpectedly from 48,000 to 50,000 students. Two thousand additional students on a campus that size doesn’t seem like it would cause much havoc, but it did. We were prepared for 48,000 students, but we didn’t have enough seats in introductory classes for all the new students. I got a call from a student who was desperate for help. He had an art class and a PE class and couldn’t find an open class for any course that filled any University requirement. I got him to someone more appropriate to help, but I don’t know what they were able to do. We didn’t have enough entry-level classes.

The next year though we had learned from the year before. We monitored enrollment every day and opened sections as needed. The Office of the Provost built the foundations of a system that was flexible enough to manage the ups and downs of enrollment.

I used to work with a housing director who always wanted capacity at 105%. To do this he took study rooms offline and made them ‘overflow’, but that overtaxed the system. It was the wrong foundation on which to build the system because like the class management system I mentioned above, it couldn’t flex when we had a surprising influx of students. There was no way to manage the overflow since all the spaces to do this were already full. I prefer a system that is based on something more like 97% occupancy, because it gives us options such as open rooms to assign to students who really can’t live together or empty spaces for unexpected increases, and it leaves study space in the residential communities which is something I consider important.

We spend a fair amount of time talking about systems, policies, and clear procedures without really understanding they are the basis of good programs. In my experience though, we spend less time talking about ideas that underly those policies and procedures – the foundational ideas that support all we are trying to do. We often forget to be sure we have common agreements and understandings about everything from the practical to the philosophical. What are the important ideas that underly the decisions we make? What are the values and goals that provide a solid foundation to the work we do? Do you and your colleagues have a deep understanding of foundational principles regarding all of the work you do?

We often assume that everyone shares the same foundational ideas, principles, and values in our activities and forget to spend time discussing them, bringing them into our daily work or inviting new colleagues into those shared ideals. Foundations aren’t exciting, but they are essential to our daily work. When they fail, we spend all our time fixing the results of that failure. Like so many parts of our work, engaging together on our foundational principles takes time. And it often feels as if we are being pulled from our ‘real work’, the tasks on our to-do lists. But a strong foundation actually saves time day after day as we can spend our energy on the good parts of our work rather than on patching all the cracks caused by misunderstandings about those foundations.

When was the last time you and your colleagues discussed your foundations? Maybe it’s time.

Take care,


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