Saturday, June 06, 2015

University of Alaska President Search Part 1: The Cultural Conflict

The members of the Board of Regents spend countless hours of their lives reading documents and going to meetings.  They make decisions that will affect the future of Alaska in all kinds of ways.  I'm sure that all of the board members are deeply committed to helping shape the University of Alaska into a great institution.

The faculty and staff have dedicated themselves to the same goal.  Faculty have spent more time getting an education than most people.  Tenured track faculty have gone beyond a bachelors degree, beyond a masters, to get a doctorate of one sort or another.  For most that doctorate represents a full time pursuit of knowledge and skills for three to seven years.  For some more.

Students, too, have a giant stake in the quality of the University of Alaska.  While most will only be there for four to eight years (many students have families and full time jobs while they are pursuing their degrees so it takes them a little longer to graduate), the better the faculty, the smaller the class sizes, the more efficient the administration, the more they get out of the time spent on their education.

All the various constituents of the university - this includes agencies and businesses that benefit from faculty research and expertise and from a well educated work force; it includes all the businesses that university employees and students patronize;  it includes all the people who take advantage of the sports events, theater and music productions, the book store and other speaker programs - have unique perspectives on what it takes to have a great university.

The Impact Of Corporate Thinking On American Life

But the university, like all other parts of American life these days, is split into different cultures.  One of the most profound conflicts in our country and the world these days pits the notion of management and the market against traditional ways of doing things.  We see corporate fishing fleets gaining control over small local commercial and sports fishers.  Corporate agriculture putting the family farm out of business.  Corporate sports putting profit over fun, health, and sportsmanship. We watch the disappearance of personal, private doctors' offices as doctors become employees of large impersonal, health care systems.   Unique locally owned businesses - book stores, hardware stores, gardening stores, bakeries, restaurants - are going out of business in the face of national and multinational big box stores and chains.   Americans have lost lots of jobs because corporate calculators see cheaper labor and lax safety and environmental laws overseas.

There's often a good reason for this.  Larger organizations can take advantage of economies of scale.  They can bargain better prices from suppliers.  They put everything under one roof surrounded by two or three football fields of parking lot. But it comes at a cost that consumers only slowly begin to realize.  Services - like expert advice about product selection; like warm greetings from store owners who know your name and that your son's birthday is coming up and who set aside a few of his favorite cookies;  one of a kind stores; specialty products the owner takes a personal interest in - are part of the extra cost you pay at the local merchants.  We only miss these when the stores close down, often because people used them for their expertise and helpfulness, but went to the big box stores to get the product cheaper.

Banks are another example.  Bankers were part of the community and you could resolve disputes with the manager.  Now you often have to call some 800 number, navigate the virtual menu before you even talk to someone to plead for reason on a $20 late fee (on top of the interest charge).   Corporate bank employees are under heavy pressure to lower costs and sell more services to the detriment of the customer.

We even see this idea of applying the business model in what should be the least business part of society:  places of worship.

Not all local shops were terrific, especially if they were the only store of their kind in town.  Or if you weren't white.   And technology - such as internet shopping and comparison shopping on one's phone - has changed how retail works.

But the concentration on the bottom line and quarterly profits has radically changed how Americans shop, live, and work.   And that bottom line mentality which is only concerned with things that can be measured, where every employee minute is monitored, where customers get smiles before they buy, but nasty collection agencies if they are late on paying for those purchases, has spread everywhere including universities.

This corporate mentality is so pervasive, that even raising issues with it, causes some to question one's loyalty to the United States, even though free speech and exchange of ideas is the essence of what makes democracy work.

Substantive Rationality versus Instrumental Rationality

One of my graduate professors wrote a book called The New Science of Organizations, which chronicled how the original Greek notion of rationality (seeking knowledge and understanding of the bigger issues of life, to overly simplify it) gradually became replaced by a new, instrumental (sometimes called technical) rationality.  This instrumental rationality was aimed at getting things done (without questioning whether they should get done.)  Over time, the original meaning of rationality was replaced by the second meaning.  People didn't even realize what was happening - that there were, in fact, two very different concepts and that one had replaced the other in our lives.  I still have a whole box of articles written from the time of ancient Greece to the present with which Dr. Guerreiro-Ramos traced this evolution.

He argued that both rationalities had their legitimate place in human society, but that the instrumental rationality that drives much of science and business was rapidly replacing the older substantive rationality so important to understanding what's important in human life.  In fact, as the more abstract substantive rationality was used less, people thought instrumental rationality was rationality.  They began using the business model to measure everything.   Ultimately dollars became the basic evaluator of everything as this way of thinking invaded other parts of life beyond the corporation.  Courts measured the value of a life in terms of how much a person would have earned had the person not died.  So a well paid SOB's life was worth more than a modestly paid saint's.   Universities are measured the same way - by how much financial value they add to a graduate's life, not by what students learn.   Ramos argued that our lives in the non-business realm - family, play, school, hobbies, sports, spiritual activities - should be measured by other standards, things like happiness, morality, decency, wisdom.

Applying this to the university

It is precisely this conflict between the business model's use of instrumental rationality and traditional academic use of the substantive rationality model - in this case scholarship and learning and truth and even the meaning of life - that is raging around universities everywhere.   Faculty are told to be more productive, which translated first into "more students per class" which would mean less expenditure for each tuition dollar.  It assumes a large lecture model as the ideal, the larger the better.  In fact, why not just do internet courses with thousands of students?  For certain students learning certain topics, this can work.  But this model ignores the possibility that education (as opposed to training) is about self examination, about learning to think critically, about exploring the moral implications of one's actions, about learning to write and learning to recognize the legitimacy of others' knowledge.  It ignores that this kind of learning  requires an intense interaction between a student and a teacher, among students, and among a teacher and a group of students.  The value of that interaction is diluted as more students are added beyond an ideal size. You can get a certain amount from reading a book.  You learn even more from discussing it with others.

Universities are being asked to do too many things

There are lots of things problematic with large modern universities.  For one thing, we decided, as a nation, that everyone needed a college degree, because that is the ticket to earning more money over one's lifetime.  (See how that technical rationality gets into everything, making, in this case, the purpose of a college degree, earning more money?)   A degree rather than an education has become the goal of many students.   Some online schools offer those degrees,  quickly, while the student works full time.  Just send in your money.  There are good online programs that serve students who otherwise couldn't get an education.  And there are schools that essentially sell degrees.

I do think that everyone would be better off learning to do the things I listed above - gaining self knowledge, critical and ethical thinking abilities, etc. - but I  know that not everyone has the aptitude or interest to pursue traditional college level academic studies.  There are lots of other important skills that society needs, but most have been sacrificed in K-12 to focus everyone into a college (translation:  academic, STEM, etc.) track.  We don't have tracks for less academic but still important vocational education which could also be more than technical training.  They could also include self awareness, critical and ethical thinking, but in areas that involve building, growing, and creating in more tangible disciplines than in academic disciplines.  Skilled craftsmen used to have a reasonable status in life and learning one's craft well involves learning the various sciences related to it as well as the social and political and economic realms in which a craftsperson lives.  Why not use carpentry or culinary arts or music or electrical work, or health care as the focus rather than history or math or political science?  Then bring in the other fields as they relate to one's focus.  Carpenters, nurses, cooks all need to know chemistry and biology.  Understanding the humanities, ethics, history, and government are also valuable to a craftsperson making a living.   People with different aptitudes would learn what they need much more easily when it's tied to doing what they really want to do, rather than some isolated, abstract academic subject.

But we've created an educational monster that forces everyone into an academic track starting in first grade.  And if you aren't ready to read or add and subtract when the curriculum guide says you should be,  you acquire a negative label like  'slow learner' and you (and others) start seeing you as less capable than everyone else.  School becomes increasingly oppressive as you're forced to perform in areas you don't like and aren't particularly good at. 

Did you forget about the president search?

This is a long introduction to my sense that there is a significant cultural divide at the university that separates the higher administration and everyone else.  The higher in the administrative scheme, the more you are expected to talk and think in the language of technical rationality - objectives, productivity, cost per credit hour, bottom line, work measures.  And the higher you get, the greater your salary, which is exacerbated because those folks are on 12 month contracts compared to faculty who are on nine month contracts.

Faculty, particularly those with doctoral degrees, are not in teaching for the money.  The cost of tuition, the foregone earnings while they kept studying, and the modest salaries of faculty are not a rational choice for someone who values money highly.  For their educational efforts, most could earn a lot more in other careers.  Faculty teach and pursue research because they are passionate about their subject matter and/or about teaching and research.  (Of course, there are exceptions to all such generalizations.)

When I look at the list of people on the Board of Regents, I see mostly people involved in the corporate world.  People trained at school and at work to think in terms of technical rationality.  Faculty are trained to think in terms of substantive rationality.  There's a huge cultural divide.

Imagine a corporate board filled with actors, historians, and musicians, and maybe one business person.  People would say, that's preposterous, even though one could point out that corporate products and services are sold to all those people.  But in our corporate driven society, few people see anything peculiar with loading the Board of Regents with corporate vice presidents and CEOs and just one retired faculty member appointed just this year.    

This leads us to a big conflict in people's vision of what a university should be.  Everyone's goal is a better university, but they have widely different ideas of what that would look like.  And that couldn't be more apparent in the search process that the Board of Regents put together to select a new president for the University of Alaska.

I'll try to get out another post with a  detailed look at the search process to demonstrate what I mean.  I'm using this post as an introduction because I think it's important to step back and discuss some of  larger issues that put the search process into context.  To try to understand how we got here.  There are good people on all sides.  (And maybe a few not so good ones too.)  Because they see things so differently, it's easy to dismiss the other groups' views as unimportant or wrong headed.  Faculty and staff are so closely involved in teaching and research and making things run, that they often don't step back and see the larger picture.   And the board members come into their positions with special knowledge and skills that lead them to apply their specialties to the problems they see at the university.  All sides have a lot to learn about each other and from each other. 

1 comment:

  1. this is one of the best posts you've ever done. so true


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