I accidentally went too high up on the chain of command. Help me apologize!
May 24, 2007 6:12 PM   Subscribe

I accidentally went too high up on the chain of command. Help me apologize!

I am part of a student organization on a university campus that puts on a highly publicized and popular event. Our organization, which is sponsored by the university as well as the student body, has a very rocky relationship with the student senate. Just this year they have cut 15% of our budget. Every year, around this time, the student senate conducts interviews for various positions, and I got a reliable tip letting me know that there was going to be what could be compared to a hostile takeover of our unit.

After much deliberation about what to do with this information, I finally decided that our organization shouldn't put up with this and that I cared too much about this event to let this go unnoticed. I sent off an email to my "boss" who is the graduating chair from this passing year, to our University adviser, and to a campus administrator who I've been led to believe to be a strong supporter of our program.

Unfortunately, after being chewed out (though in a supportive manner) by the chair, the vice chair, and our adviser, I realize now that it this was no longer true. Apparently there has been some falling out with this administrator who is, incidentally, VERY high up. They've asked me to write a letter of apology to the administrator, as they fear potentially large-scale fallout coming.

Though I still stand strongly by my viewpoints, I fully plan on doing so, as I now realize the mistake I've made. I should have taken more tactful venues to voice my concerns because sending this email as an official member of the board of directors reflects poorly on our organization. How should I go about apologizing?
posted by mwang1028 to Human Relations (24 answers total)
Write a letter that says, more or less, "Though I still stand strongly by my viewpoints, I fully plan on doing so, as I now realize the mistake I've made. I should have taken more tactful venues to voice my concerns because sending this email as an official member of the board of directors reflects poorly on our organization."

I think you're pretty much there. Just swallow down the bigger lumps of pride and write an honest letter devoid of any non-apology dodges or weasel words.
posted by cortex at 6:24 PM on May 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Write a letter. Clearly state that you apologize for your actions, take full responsibility, and have learned from your mistake. Print the letter on nice paper. Sign it. Put it in an envelope and deliver it to the administrator's secretary. Be polite to the secretary.
posted by yohko at 6:27 PM on May 24, 2007

Respectfully, I don't know if I agree that "I still think I was right but I realize you disagree" is the message you want to convey, and that's what I personally read between the lines in the quoted passage. Assuming this is somewhat in alignment with the message you do want to convey, you might try something like this:

Dear So and So:

In follow up to my last correspondence regarding Our Student Organization, I would like to take an opportunity to convey some additional thoughts. As a staunch supporter of Our Student Organization, I reacted strongly to recent events in what I felt to be sincere and zealous representation of the Organization's interests. Having taken an opportunity to reflect further on this subject, I realize that my letter to you was an inappropriate trespass on your valuable time and resources. In future, I plan to conduct any Organization activities in which I'm privileged to participate with a courteous understanding of the proper protocols and with respect for the wide range of duties for which University Administrators in your position are responsible.

I appreciate your time and consideration, and look forward to the opportunity to work with you again in the future. Please feel welcome to contact me at (phone) or (email) if you have any questions or concerns, or if you wish to discuss this matter in further detail


Your Name Here

My point primarily is that you want to kiss a little butt yet be graceful at the same time. It's both wise and legitimate to point out that, at the time, you felt you were doing the right thing. When you send your letter to the Administrator, I do concur that you ought to print it on nice paper, sign it and mail it. I further advise that you blind copy each individual who gave you a dressing down for the incident, with a short note that conveys "I appreciate your taking the time to counsel me with respect to this matter, and have responded accordingly. Thank you, again, for your ongoing courtesy".

I believe that if you respond accordingly, conveying these thoughts (but certainly according to your own words and expressions, within your comfort level) you may hope to in some measure regain the professional respect of these individuals. It's hard to write a letter like this, but the long-term good it could do by getting these people to respect you and listen to you in future is hopefully worth it.
posted by bunnycup at 6:57 PM on May 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

I got a reliable tip letting me know that there was going to be what could be compared to a hostile takeover of our unit.

I don't understand this, but I don't think has any bearing on what I have to say.

At some point to which you weren't privvy, and I would also include the other directors too, your chair and adviser had a falling out with the admin.

Should you have gone through the chair and adviser to air your opinions? I don't know your setup, but it seems like a Yes. But that you were of the opinion that the admin was "a strong supporter of our program" you had no idea of the politics they all mightve been playing. And it seems to me that they're now playing the same game with you. In your position I would resist. But I gather you also like being a part of this group so, in my mind, it's important you stand your ground and protect it.

If things are as rocky as they sound, I would get the rest of the directors in for an informal conference to discuss this issue, and include the chair and adviser. Because it sounds to me that this was not your fault.

Find out the facts before laying yourself on someone else's altar.

If, at the end of the day, you have to write that letter, then take the advice given above.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 7:01 PM on May 24, 2007

Consider this: university politics is one of the least important things you'll ever do in your entire life.

I know it seems important to you now. But really, it isn't. Students don't care (except for those directly involved). The school doesn't care, because it knows it can just "wait out" any troublesome students. It doesn't make any difference - does anyone really care whether the Afro-Jewish League gets a pizza party or the Chinese Harmonica Club gets new harmonicas? No. No one cares. It doesn't go on your permanent record.

You sound like you walked into someone else's political machinations. It happens. You've learned a lesson about what can happen when you get stick your neck into someone else's scheming. This lesson is the only useful takeaway from the whole situation, and hopefully you've already learned it.

The administrator doesn't give a shit what you wrote to him/her. Whatever actions the administrator will take have nothing to do with a student's letter or lack of letter. And if the worst thing you've done is advocate for a program that you think is important, there's nothing to apologize for.
posted by jellicle at 7:13 PM on May 24, 2007 [8 favorites]

Unfortunately, after being chewed out (though in a supportive manner) by the chair, the vice chair, and our adviser, I realize now that it this was no longer true. Apparently there has been some falling out with this administrator who is, incidentally, VERY high up. They've asked me to write a letter of apology to the administrator, as they fear potentially large-scale fallout coming.

This sounds to me a lot like the time I wrote to one of our software suppliers to say "listen, you have this retarded function, if you change it all our lives will be better", and brought down a shitstorm on myself as various "integrators", "consultants" and IT personnel lined up to chew me out for breaching protocol. What this meant was by skipping the middle man I had exposed their low utility, and cost them money.

The bug got fixed in the next update. We didn't have to pay the consultants for their costly kludge. The users were delighted; the IT people stayed pissed.

I think the same is happening to you. The middle people don't like being cut out, because controlling information flow is what they do -- it's often all they do. Making you apologise is a way of getting you back in line. Before you do, make sure you actually had the effect they say you did. Make sure you're not being played.
posted by bonaldi at 7:15 PM on May 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

As a former student politician, I say:

Why apologize? It's better to be notorious.

I doubt your actions are going to cause any problems whatsoever.

And who or what exactly is a "higher up"? In student politics (or in politics in general) "higher ups" are the people with the loudest voices, the best public speaking skills and the best community-building abilities. So why can't you be a "higher up"?
posted by KokuRyu at 7:23 PM on May 24, 2007

I am also a little confused as to what is going on, perhaps you could provide some detail. I realize that university politics are usually even more asinine than any other types of politics but it looks like the following happened:

- You rely on the student senate for both funding and for "various positions", what are those? Are we talking about the chair, vice-chair, adviser? As in those would be replaced with someone who aligns more with the student senate and presumably not your views?

- You voiced your opinion to the chair, vice chair, adviser and administrator who apparently is above all them. For whatever reason the administrator no longer aligns with the first three and is angry that you're angry that the student senate is pulling your support? It looks to me that the chair, vice chair and adviser are putting their own positions above your cause and your event. Your anger reflects badly on them.

I found a lot of university politics involved being a kiss ass and doing whatever the higher ups wanted with very little autonomy. If you are looking to write an apology letter and put it behind you, perhaps bunnycup is the best advice. Otherwise, it looks to me (without other information) that you are being caught in the middle of some politics being played up at a higher level. You may have disrupted a power move or something and it has made other people mad. I would not write a letter until you want to reflect on where you want you relationships with everyone to be and how much you care about this. To me, it looks like all you did was voice some concern, and without other applicable information I think an apology looks silly and looks to be covering other people's skin and not yours.
posted by geoff. at 7:24 PM on May 24, 2007

I would start off by saying that a university's primary function is to learn. Then introduce some public historical mistakes brought on by misinformation. Then add that a mistake sometimes come from over-anxious people and those people actually meant well.
Then you can bring up your convictions to the event, organization, university etc. and, that if it was true, your mistake would have merit. Then you can point out the mistake you made by trusting information which was not confirmed just as the public historical mistakes that have taken place- then add that, in the university tradition of learning, you got to learn a valuable lesson early on and give them thanks for understanding and providing you yet another opportunity to learn something while attending the great diverse university you go to.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:28 PM on May 24, 2007

"I'm sorry you didn't like what I said."
posted by rhizome at 7:35 PM on May 24, 2007

Don't apologize.

You did the right thing based on the information you had. It didn't work out. Sometimes, that's the way things go. But don't make yourself look wishy-washy after the fact.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:41 PM on May 24, 2007

Don't apologize unless your letter was somehow wanting in civility.

If you used foul language, threatened the administrator or other students, exaggerated or lied outright, were disrespectful, or impugned the motives or abilities of the administrator or other people in your letter - or anything you wrote might have somehow been interpreted that way - you need to make that right, right away. The way to do that is to apologize.

If, on the other hand, you politely expressed your opinion to the campus administrator, you were appropriate to do so. You must never apologize for this. Such an apology serves no purpose except to show that you lack strength of character.

Better have a private chat with the chair of your group before you write anything. Find out exactly what part of your letter was troublesome and find out exactly what he thinks you ought to do to make it right. If he's asking you to recant an opinion that you expressed, you'll have to decide whether or not to do that. But honestly, knowing college kids, I doubt that's the issue. My guess is that you did something offensive, probably without realizing it.

Make sure you know what the issue is before you try to make it right, or you'll end up making it worse.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:17 PM on May 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Simply apologize.

Your methods were wrong. So even if your message was right, you are still wrong.

Apologize and don't mention your reasoning.

The person you pissed off doesn't want to hear you justify your actions and it only increases the risk of causing even more trouble.

If you truly want to get things done and create change, you need good working relationships. To risk those relationships to make a "stand on principle", is grandstanding and ego driven.
posted by Argyle at 8:18 PM on May 24, 2007

You're a student, and you wrote a (respectful, articulate, yes?) letter to an administrator advocating a particular position. I have a hard time understanding what you should apologize for. If you weren't respectful, apologize profusely and sincerely. If you weren't articulate, shame on you. If you're at a University that doesn't tolerate studennt communication with administrators, no matter their position, then good for you for challenging that.
posted by theora55 at 8:43 PM on May 24, 2007

First of all, I think jellicle has the right overall take on this--no matter _what_ happens in the end, in the long run, once you're out of school, this is _not_ a big deal. It's almost a perfect example of what actually should happen in your environment, like a dry run of what the professional world can be like. In a few years, it'll feel like a relatively painless lesson in being more careful and diplomatic, but where you didn't have to learn the lesson at the risk of derailing your career somewhere.

That being said, I would only make a real point of apologizing if it was going to make a material difference for the people you care about on this issue. I wouldn't apologize out of pure contrition, because folks like ikkyu2 and KokoRyu are right on that front. But if you've really caused some grief for people who are important to you, and you think you could help undo some of that, then some kind of letter is totally appropriate. Like other people have said--keep it simple, and make it clear that you were motivated by your passion. If they're faculty or educational administrators and they don't accept _that_, then f@%* 'em...they're a lost cause.
posted by LairBob at 8:53 PM on May 24, 2007

I am in the camp of don't apologize, this will make you seem weak (unless of course, you were vulgar or threatening as expressed above). If you have come across as violently unstable or abusive though, an apology may be your only ticket from expulsion - if that is what happens, you need to beg for mercy and probably deserve whatever happens to you.

If you stopped short of violent, unstable, abusive behviour consider that most mature people understand that when you are dealing with University students you are dealing with a rather noisy and dramatic group - the administrator probably doesn't care, and if he/she does about the worst thing they could probably do is get you alienated from the student ruling class. If it comes to that, forced retirement from student politics is not so harsh and in the grander scheme of things "rank and file student" is not such a bad thing to be. The likely reaction from the admin will be something along the lines of "thanks for letting me know", and the admin will worry about something more important. A powerful admin is not likely to feel threatened by anything someone in your position can do or say. Chances are the admin will be in that position until retirement and in five years nobody at the University will remember you - don't lose your sense of your proportion.

Given that the scenario I laid out is the most likely, don't mention this again and hope the admin forgets you exist.
posted by Deep Dish at 8:56 PM on May 24, 2007

Everyone else is right. Don't fret about this. Any student group professing to have a chain of command is either the ROTC or way too serious about itself. Get over it, and if any of the others involved in the situation say anything, tell them to do the same.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:52 PM on May 24, 2007

The apology is just a formal message of submission, like a wolf rolling over onto its back to show weakness. Everyone knows full well that you haven't changed your mind or anything; prostrating yourself is the whole point. So the apology doesn't need to be long or complex, and you don't need to try and explain yourself; just be short and sweet. The administrator is just going to say "Oh, how cute" and delete the message anyway.

But as other people said, only apologize if you feel like others are likely to suffer your consequences, or maybe if you're planning on going into politics or management and need the experience. Otherwise, it's all bullshit anyway, so fuck these people. Spend your time more productively, like playing solitaire or taking a dump or something.
posted by equalpants at 12:27 AM on May 25, 2007

Two things: were you fairly civil in your e-mail, and id you claim only to represent yourself (regardless of your position), as opposed to the organization you work for? If the answer to both questions is yes, then the only thing you have to worry about is whatever political fallout you might suffer from the people inside your organization. Since the people who apparently chewed you out were supportive, I'm guessing there won't be any fallout. Consider it a lesson learned and forget about it.

If you did claim to speak for the whole organization, bad move. Never do that unless you've been asked to. But that's relatively easy to solve as well: send the administrator an e-mail reiterating that contrary to your last e-mail, you speak only for yourself, and that he/she should consider your first e-mail a message from a concerned student. Very likely the administrator won't care very much either way, but it could shield your organization a bit from whatever retribution that administrator may have had in store (which is probably none, but you never know).

If you were uncivil, well, you probably wouldn't have asked this question in the first place. But if you were, arrange some way to appear at the administrator's office and eat your hat at the earliest convenience.

Totally agree with everyone who says university politics is a) petty and b) irrelevant once you leave. For whatever reason, student government attracts all sorts of weird characters—rule-lovers, control freaks, blind loyalists, what have you. You can be the other, much rarer kind of person who gets involved in student politics: the unexciting, extremely competent person that only speaks up when they feel strongly about something that's important to them. You know, the person people point to and say "that one's alright, that one's got some integrity." You're doing a pretty good job of it so far, illusory faux-pas nothwithstanding.
posted by chrominance at 12:38 AM on May 25, 2007

As other people have mentioned :

Don't apologize for what you said.

Just apologize for who you chose to say it to and the process you chose to use. Although he probally wont read your letter to the full extent, make sure you justify how you recognize what you did was inappropriate.
posted by psyward at 3:07 AM on May 25, 2007

Go talk to the Administrator- I'm surprised no one has suggested this already. Writing an apologia is what you do in the business world, where the stakes are generally quite tangible, but college is the time to take a stand for what you believe, no matter how unpopular or potentially ridiculous.

If you really care about this issue, there shouldn't be anything you've put in writing that you're not willing to say in person. Don't approach this discussion with the goal of convincing the Administrator, but of hearing him/her out and getting a better understanding of the situation. It may be the case that your organization is really kind of screwed up in ways that you don't know; if this is the case, you've demonstrated to a VIP that you know how to play ball.

And what everyone else said about this being unbelievably unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
posted by mkultra at 8:18 AM on May 25, 2007

Didn't Henry Kissinger once say "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small"?
posted by knapah at 2:51 PM on May 25, 2007

You've mangled that quote, knapah; in its original form I've seen it attributed to Wallace Sayre.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:32 AM on May 26, 2007

Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.-- Wallace Sayre

Took me a while to find it, but there you go ikkyu2.
posted by knapah at 9:09 AM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

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