It’s not you, it’s me

Clif Carey :: Friday, May 22nd, 2009

I spent 12 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), at various times as the University Architect and as the Campus Architect. (There’s a bigger difference than you’d think between those two; much bigger than I ever thought). While in those seats, I had responsibility for the securing design services more than 75 projects or commissions. The projects were of various shapes and sizes, from a $120M stadium renovation to a residence hall that needed sprinklering to meet a state-mandated timeline. Like almost anything else we do in our lives, the projects that were more important (and believe me, at the UIUC each project is #1 to that particular faculty) or more expensive, received increased attention. Sometimes from sources you’d just as soon had turned their radar off.

My point in all this is to acknowledge that during my tenure there, the UIUC took seriously the effort involved in responding to the RFPs we issued. We appreciated the money we caused to be spent and always tried to be fair. And so, at the end of a selection process, the phoning to tell the “non-selecteds” of their fate was the least favorite part of my job. Not only for the obvious reason – I took no joy in telling people their efforts were going unrewarded – but because there wasn’t always a quantifiably good reason for someone finishing second (or even third). Sometimes, not often, there would be no other reason than “feel” for selecting one firm over another. Those were the most difficult to decide; those decisions were the most difficult to convey. It was always because firms were good at interviewing. With more at stake (i.e. the more expensive projects and the higher fees) firms were able to justify greater efforts to secure the work. And those efforts showed up in spades in the interviews, making a selection all the more difficult and subjective.

In Seinfeld, George Costanza claimed to have invented the “It’s not you, it’s me” line. And I suppose one could chalk that up to another of his many lies. But there were times when that was true at UIUC. The difference between two firms came down to the tiniest things, sometimes to something more nuanced than real. And the resulting conversation with that non-selected firm, trying to explain how they missed, became almost impossible. In those cases, it wasn’t them at all, it was us.

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Friday, May 22nd, 2009 Clif's Notes on Higher Education

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