Monday, September 12, 2011

The Comma

By Jane M. La Barbera, CAE
Managing Director, Association of American Law Schools

During a particularly rough period of months when an individual was conducting a daily campaign against us because he did not like an action that the association was taking, I received a call from a former President of the Association, now a President of a university. He asked me how I was doing and I told him the candid truth.   His response was that it was all about the “comma.”  It was something his insightful son had expressed to him. 

The university president had only been his job three weeks when he was being criticized for a particular issue that had occurred long before he arrived. His son commented that the comma adds to your name a designation that you represent an institution including all its history before and during the time that you are in the position.  Your name alone means little to the outside world. The comma gives you wonderful experiences and it also allows others to critically assess your work and that of the association.

Think of the people you have met and the places you have been because of your position; e.g., talking to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning author; being a guest at the exquisite US consulate on the Arno in Florence on a sparkling beautiful evening; and meeting the Australian Governor General at her grand estate in Canberra.  For the same reasons that you have access to people and places that you would not normally have without the comma after your name, you are celebrated and assessed based on the association that you represent.

What does all this mean?  The comma reminds us that we are ordinary individuals who find ourselves with the privilege of representing institutions.   It means that while our members may express their unhappiness with us, they can also be overly complimentary because we can impact the trajectory of careers. We remind ourselves to take the compliments and the critical comments with a grain of salt.  Would we be treated the same if we did not have the comma?  No, we would not.

On the other hand, we are at risk for our jobs for making decisions that can make us appear brilliant or idiotic.  It is the risk of decision-making, which makes failure and success only separated by a thread of difference. The comma gives us great privilege; and it gives us a richer, but, riskier life. It reminds us of the importance of humility because but for that comma, we would not be seen as representing this important institution in both its failings and in its honors.

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