Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Reverse Not Invented Here Syndrome

I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.
Groucho Marx
We're going through something of a sea change at Illinois. After more than a decade of hiring our top-level leaders from outside the university, we appear to be on a promote-from-within binge.  First, Robert Easter is now President Elect of the entire University of Illinois System.  Easter had been Head of the Department of Animal Sciences, then Dean of the College of ACES, then Interim Provost, after which Interim Chancellor, a brief stint as Interim Vice Chancellor for Research, and now this. I can't say about the first two positions on the list, but I really believe he did not aspire to any of the subsequent positions.  Duty called.  Bob did his duty.  This makes for the ideal in the new Illinois leadership.

Second, we appear at the last stages of filling the Provost position.  Two of the three candidates are internal, something I find extraordinary given our recent history.  I believe it marks recognition that Illinois has a culture that demands consultative leadership and makes life miserable, for the faculty and the leader too, when the leader opts for an imperial approach.   It appears more natural in producing consultative leadership to select leaders who are already long timers at Illinois and who have risen from the ranks of the faculty.  They understand what it means to lead in this manner, in large part because they know how it feels to be treated as a colleague.

Given the truth of the above, it makes sense to remark that we should be thinking now not just about the next Provost but also the one after that and maybe the one after that too.  From where will these people emerge?

In a College there are many Department Heads but only one Dean.   On Campus there are many Deans but only one Provost.  In this straightforward hierarchical structure there are the seeds of competition to achieve advancement, sometimes competition of the cutthroat variety.  What can encourage a more collaborative approach, motivated more by a sense of obligation than a desire for personal advancement?  

When I attended the Frye Leadership Institute in 2003, which was aimed at grooming the next generation of Campus CIOs and Librarians, we learned that to move up you had to move out.  The proposition was clearly true then.  I'm less sure it's true now, at least at a place like Illinois.  I asked myself recently, which of the Deans whom I knew in the late 1990s have moved out to become leaders on other campuses?  Having done so, does that make them more attractive as candidate leaders here, when such a leadership position next opens?  This otherwise excellent piece from Inside Higher Ed about the Hogan Presidency notes that one of the other candidates for the job had been David Daniel, President at the University of Texas - Dallas.  The piece failed to observe, however, that Daniel had previously been Dean of the College of Engineering.

It may be that we need to groom some faculty who are rather far along in their academic careers, distinguished in what they do, with no personal need to become administrators to culminate their life work, and encourage the move to administration as a matter of personal responsibility.  Among such faculty many will find little aptitude or inclination for administrative work.  The few who are better disposed can view the administrative work as a capstone to their other successes.  These people would seem to be the likely future Provost candidates.  They will require a few stepping stones along the way in order to get there.

* * * * *

Yesterday I attended the Presentation and Q and A session with Ruth Watkins, current Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Provost Candidate.  I thought her session went very well.  Her tone in discussion, human warmth in providing a few personal anecdotes, and responsiveness  to the questions were all excellent.  She's been conversant with the issues for a long time and as a consequence of that and her native talent she exudes competence on the issues that will concern the next Provost.  I give her high marks for all of that.

On one significant point, however, I don't believe she was sufficiently forward thinking and gave what I view to be a conceptually flawed answer.  In the spirit of collegiality I will try to describe the underlying economics and then suggest the necessary solution, which is opposite to what Ruth said yesterday.  

For the economics, the best thing is to read a little about what Robert Frank has been arguing or listen to him describe the difference between competition a la Adam Smith, where advocates invoke the invisible hand, and competition a la Charles Darwin, where Smithian competition remains possible, but where a different type of competition may end up instead, harming the species, making extinction more likely. Frank argues that the latter occurs when a mutation increases the likelihood of winning intra-species competition (the mutation improves relative performance) but where the same mutation makes the possessor of the trait more vulnerable to inter-species competition (the mutation lowers absolute performance vis-a-vis predators).

Taking that as a first principle, let's in addition note that as income inequality in the society as a whole has increased, the incomes of the "professional class" have increased as well.   Much of what the professional class produce is either directly consumed by the rich or indirectly financed by the rich.  (In economics jargon, the products of the professional class are "superior goods.")   The upshot is that there is now much greater separation in income between professionals and the median than there was 30 years ago.   This is perhaps the primary reason for the hyperinflation in cost in in Higher Education, particularly at R1 Universities.  For the genus, R1 and the species, Higher Ed, self-preservation will be found in slowing down or even reversing the hyperinflation.  However, for improving in the relative competition across peer institutions, the generation of more revenue for the particular institution obviously has value.   So, it is my opinion, that Higher Ed is in exactly the circumstance that Frank discusses with regard to the pernicious consequences of competition that improves relative performance only.   In describing his type of competition, Frank then argues that we need regulation of some sort to lessen the impact of head to head competition.

In the answer to some questions yesterday about relative priorities across disciplines on Campus, Ruth said that instead of worrying about how to split the pie we should aim to grow the pie by looking at some non-traditional sources of revenue.  In my opinion, this is a win-the-relative-competition approach and it is a correct response in that context.  However, to the extent that this requires revenue growth in excess of the income growth for the economy as a whole, it is problematic because the outcome will not be stable.  Each R1 will have to play the same game.  From where will all that revenue arise?  Further, to the extent we become dependent on the revenue growth, when that revenue growth dries up there will be fracture.  We should understand that as the probable consequence since we've been through it already, quite recently in fact.

I wrote about this a while back in a post, Lessons for Higher Ed from the NBA, where I discussed the need for a salary cap or some other like mechanism for creating a ceiling on personnel spending in Higher Ed.  This would need to be applied system-wide, viewing Higher Ed as a whole as the system.  If only one institution does this while the rest do not, the institution is committing suicide.  It's better faculty will leave.  Only if all like institutions do this can there be less relative competition across institutions, and then more emphasis can be put in place into cost control.

This is not a message that many faculty will want to hear.  Revenue growth sounds nice (threats to academic independence were raised yesterday when the source is corporate funding, but nobody talked about the revenue growth itself as an issue).  A related issue is how to discuss the need for controls in the interim before the right sort of regulations get put into place.  I don't know the answer to either of these.   The only thing that seems obvious to me is that it would certainly help if other Campus leaders took up the question.  I should add that we need similar sort of regulation regarding new capital spending.  It is not just personnel spending that needs to be kept under control.

I don't recall from yesterday that there was a single question or comment about the Provost's job as it relates to the functioning at peer institutions.  Moving forward, I believe that has to be a much bigger part of the Provost's portfolio than it currently is.   Reaching a system of effective controls seems to me like a hugely pressing issue.  As I noted in my prior post, the CIC seems like an excellent place to start the conversation.

* * * * *

I want to change gears in this section and talk about what Campus priorities should be for undergraduate education.  To do so, I will take ideas from Maslow's Toward a Psychology of Being.  Here is a a very abbreviated review of the approach.

Students should be encouraged toward self-actualization via peak experiences, defined as episodes of effortless concentration.  The environment College provides should be designed to encourage students in that direction.  Preferably, some of that comes through the courses the students take and in this way the students learn about themselves intellectually, their inclinations and their aptitudes.  Subsequently, that might lead to a research opportunity with a faculty member that also provides elements of peak experience.

Maslow argues, however, that satisfying safety needs trumps the realization of growth needs (self-actualization).  So if a student feels insecure the response will be to seek safety in some way and doing that can block growth. 

The Campus provides a great variety of opportunities for student growth.  The hypothesis advanced here is that while some significant number of students do take advantage of these opportunities, many other students do not.  An incomplete list of reasons is given below.   At issue then is whether the Campus needs to devote more effort in the direction of making for a safe intellectual environment for students, perhaps at the cost of reducing some of the opportunities for growth.

The primary questions we should be asking about satisfying the safety needs of students are these:  If students learn, in good part, by giving voice to their own thinking, do they have a safe place where they can communicate their ideas to others?  Given that environment, do students indeed give voice to their own thinking?  If they do speak their mind on a regular basis, do they connect doing so with their own learning?

Some Reasons Why Students Choose Safety Over Growth

  • Shyness/introversion - students don't ask questions in class for fear of looking the fool.  They don't attend office hours for the same reason.
  • Acculturation - this is similar to the previous one but here the causal emphasis is on the impact of the first year experience, where students are mainly in large lecture courses and develop habits of passivity.
  • Fear of failure - students are diligent but somewhat dull in their in their studies.  They take insufficient intellectual risks and don't receive proper encouragement to try things they may not be good at or to investigate views contrary to their own beliefs.
  • Inadequate preparation - the students went to a high school that had fewer resources so they are at a disadvantage relative to peers who are from wealthy suburban communities.  Alternatively, those resources were available but the student was in under-achiever mode at the time and now has to play catch up.
  • Minority students - the students simply feel uncomfortable in the Campus setting but are perfectly relaxed with their friends and with instructors and graduate students of their own ethnicity/culture.  

There is a related issue regarding alienation in the student population, perhaps reflected best through the excessive drinking of some students.   The argument is that if school is not sufficiently nurturing, providing an appropriate mix of growth opportunities and safe environments for that, there is a tendency to reject the authority that school represents because that authority appears irresponsible.  Students then either tune out entirely or become angry about their circumstance.  Tied to the this is the view of College as a passport to a good job.  The passport function can co-exist with the growth and safety functions, but if students tend to regard College via the passport function only (increasing tuition all else equal encourages that view) then alienation is a probable consequence.

The above can be recast along the lines of whether the Campus should be taking a democratic approach to undergraduate education (e.g., target the 50th percentile of student, however that is measured) or take a meritocratic approach (e.g., target the 90th percentile).   Cast this way, there is an ethical question about how to define the campus mission.   Is it sufficient to simply provide the opportunity?  Or does the responsibility extend to making success the likely outcome?  In this sense, programs like Discovery classes are in the former category, while programs like CHP or James Scholars are in the latter. 

As a business case rather than cast ethically, it is easier to make the meritocratic argument in a low tuition setting - more responsibility on the student to seek out the available opportunities is then a necessary piece of keeping the cost of their education modest.  Likewise, it is easier to make the democratic argument for students paying full freight out-of-state tuition, if they don't otherwise qualify for special attention for meritocratic reasons.  The institution holds a larger burden to help the student learn when the student pays big bucks in tuition.   

Both the ethics and the business case that buttress the mission for undergraduate education need to be discussed and debated. 

* * * * *

Let me close by trying to connect the dots.   There is change going on at Illinois in how it regards excellence in its leadership.  There is change going on in all of Higher Ed, due to changes in the global economy, the financial crisis of the last few years, and a changing role of State Governments in financing that education.  Those first two changes necessitate a third, in reconsidering the undergraduate mission.

Our sense of value and excellence is usually tied to norms we have regarded as true in the past.  We must look again at those norms, either reaffirm them, or assert new alternatives.  A major part of the job of the Provost is to lead that examination.

My own opinion on this matter, I suspect this too will be unpopular with faculty, is that we need to move toward the democratic approach, primarily for ethical reasons.  In turn, that will create significant changes in the role of instructors.  The faculty too must see their work as teachers from the vantage of obligation.  Duty is calling.

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