Trying to administer a student affairs portfolio in the middle of a pandemic feels a bit like being Barney Miller on Moonbase Aplha. Both Space 1999, which features the moonbase, and Barney Miller, I now realize, were important formative childhood influences for me. As a full-on, unapologetic Gen Xer, television was a crucial part of my childhood. It is in the current circumstances that I feel the full impact of what those television shows taught me, how they interact in my mind, and how they guide my work today.
On British science fiction series Space 1999, a bunch of scientists, pilots, and administrators (all three of which I’ve become, perhaps not by coincidence) find themselves trapped on a moonbase, cast out of earth’s orbit, and left to their own devices for good. Because of the folly of man, a common theme in stories that appeal to me, the occupants of the moonbase involuntarily embark on an endless voyage on a ship with no steering, no brakes, and no return.
A pandemic lockdown is a bit like an earthbound version of the Alphan’s journey. They are faced with existential threats, abandoned in the cold gloom of outer space, having to rely only on their ingenuity, discipline, and the materials at hand. They’re not quite sure why, but they have to keep things running. They have to prioritize. They have to decide what to stop doing, and what new things to do. In a new environment, using a frame of reference they have barely started to explore, they have to decide on a moment’s notice what makes sense and what doesn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong.
As a kid, that appealed to me at a very deep level. In the pandemic, trapped at home, working remotely, with the knowledge that whatever comes next is not a return to any sort of normal, but a voyage into a new reality, it feels like foreshadowing.
While Space 1999 was clearly a strong influence on the way I think about things now, another television show, deeper under the surface of my daily consciousness, played a much stronger role in preparing me for my current job: Barney Miller. When it comes to helping students, faculty and staff find solutions to problems they think are unsolvable, or to problems they don’t even know they have, the lessons learned watching the hapless Captain Miller come back to me forcefully, sandwiched between fits of laughter and bouts of despair.
Barney Miller was a police captain who nearly failed, every week, to keep an inner city New York police precinct from completely falling apart. He had a staff of detectives, each with their very real strengths and very real peculiarities, a dingy office pool with broken down furniture inherited from the days of Elliot Ness, a holding cell, his apparently inexhaustible reserves of calm, a rulebook called the law, and his willingness to find creative solutions to problems on which everyone else had given up a long time ago.
The show was built around the holding cell. Each week, it would host one or more detainee, each with a puzzling, even baffling, unique, and usually poignant story. They had problems that were real to them, and that affected their lives. There was the time-travelling stock broker, the dueling Shakespeare in the Park actors, and many even stranger ones.
No matter what the holding cell threw at him, week after week, the stoic Captain Miller took it all in stride. He tried to see conflicts from the perspectives of all those involved. He tried to explain all perspectives to all protagonists. To each thorny problem, he tried to find a solution that would not only meet with the (sometimes reluctant) approval of all sides, but one that was administratively workable and generated the fewest additional problems. When no easy or pleasant solution was available, he broke the bad news in person, and he explained why it had to be bad.
Those are the real lessons that I try (and regularly fail) to apply every day. See things from various points of view. Make sure everyone understands other people’s perspectives. Tell them the bad news yourself, and make sure they understand it, even if they don’t like it. Work ostensibly within the established structure, but covertly and unobtrusively subvert it whenever necessary (which is usually). No matter what happens, stay calmer than everyone else and above all, keep your voice down. The first one to raise their voice loses the game.
Thanks, Barn. And thanks, Alphans. You’ve met, in my 70s childlike imagination, in the middle of a 21st century pandemic lockdown. And what a meeting it is.