Thursday, March 20, 2008

A schlub* in a business school


You can readily guess what I’ve been wondering about by taking my latest poll at the top in the sidebar to the right. I’m somewhat surprised that nobody in the edublog arena has written about the current financial crisis and its implications for learning --- the direct implications regarding the total failure of group think we’ve now witnessed, not the indirect consequence that many families of current and potential future students have seen their personal wealth decline and so may be less willing to attend (or to pay tuition). But really, it’s not intelligence that’s at issue. It’s responsibility, as David Brooks’ most recent column makes abundantly clear. There’s been a massive failing of individual responsibility. One wonders why.

I also wonder, as one not typically swept up by the herd, about how strong a force “everyone else is doing it” can be. What about doing the right thing? Doesn’t that serve as a counterweight? And, if not, is this a merely a timeless human failing. (A couple of nights ago I watched The Illusionist, where every character in the movie and I as well drew the conclusion that Crown Prince Leopold had murdered his bride to be Sophie out of jealousy because she was in love with the magician Eisenheim, only to learn in the last minute or two of the film that there was no murder at all; the entire thing was staged to get Leopold out of the way. In fact he committed suicide because his predicament formed by the perception of others was so dire.) Or is the situation worse now in this land of plenty because we expect in our material existence the good things in life – Brooks mentions Corian countertops as exemplar – irrespective of whether we have the means to pay for them, where there was no such expectation in our parents’ generation because they knew what it was like to be poor and took steps to prevent that from happening again.

I’m particularly sensitive to this question having now worked in the College of Business as an administrator for the past 18 months or so and getting a sense of the culture here in a way that I never had as a regular faculty member when the Econ department was part of the College of Business, because then I was oblivious to these concerns. But they matter to me now. So in the rest of this post I’m going to work through the conundrums.

The first part is deconstructing what responsibility means. There’s the type of responsibility that is obligation, the type that parents nag their teenage children about – clean up your room, put your dishes in the dishwasher, do you homework before you start playing video games, that sort of thing. I was never very good at that and I’m not all that sanguine that education/indoctrination can get very far here. Our state requires every University employee to take ethics training each year and while there is a lot of monitoring so the training gets completed in some way, shape, or form, the training fails from an educational view for these very reasons. Next, there is responsibility to oneself, a form of enlightened self-interest – the gas tank is getting low and tomorrow the forecast is for it to be really cold outside so I better fill up tonight on my way home rather than wait till tomorrow though I have enough gas to wait till then. This has a better chance of working because the incentives are right, though some people are better than others seeing how through choice of their actions today they can make their lot in life better today and tomorrow. But then there is the social form of responsibility, where the beneficiaries are others and the imperative is the golden rule, not enlightened self-interest. These three need not be mutually exclusive, but I take them to cover in entirety what we mean by responsibility.

It would be an interesting study to find out how many of those bankers and others who work at financial intermediaries that offered those ridiculous mortgages to subprime customers also attend Church on a regular basis. My conjecture is that many people don’t make the connections between their work lives and their Church participation so you’d find a significant number who did both. But here I don’t want to focus on what won’t work in generating a sense of responsibility. I want to talk about what has a fighting chance and to do so I want to take a detour for a bit and talk about myself and the golden rule and then use that as a launch point to talk about Business education.

Regular readers of this blog will note that I have a point of view on a variety of matters and I go to some lengths to articulate that. The point of view in turn stems from those things I value, those things I’m curious about, the experiences I’ve had, and how I can tie these together. In this way the point of view is mine, it’s individualistic, it’s not a product of the herd though some particular technologies or ideas I find interesting may very well have come from the recommendations of others. To elaborate further and to make the title of my post clear, one of the things I value is to be physically comfortable and as unconstricted by my environment as possible so I can focus my thinking elsewhere. Particular examples include that I favor SAS shoes and will wear them in cases where others will wear dress shoes and I don’t wear a tie and rarely wear a sports coat; I prefer sweaters. As a faculty member, this is no big deal at all. As an Associate Dean in a Business School, it makes me an outlier. In this and in many other matters that are work related, I’ve come to trust my own judgment first. On other matters I will definitely seek input from a variety of others, but I will retain the choice for myself whenever that is possible.

To the extent that I adhere to the Golden Rule in my work, it stems from an abiding value of collegiality and a personal desire to promote collegiality wherever possible. It is also why I find in my own work that it is much easier to manage horizontal relationships than vertical ones – I have no problem criticizing a colleague for making an argument I don’t agree with, it’s part of the give and take, but I find it much harder to critique a subordinate for their work done in a way that doesn’t meet my expectations because it is much harder to make that work both ways. I understand that this notion of collegiality that we prize so much in academe doesn’t necessarily survive when going outside. This is most relevant to us during procurement. In the process of trying to get you to buy their merchandize, vendors are apt to tell you what you want to hear ahead of the sale irrespective of the truth of the matter and then once the sale has been completed these same vendors quite likely will change their tune and be indifferent to how you react to what was purchased. The potential to be a repeat customer partially mitigates this problem but not entirely. Relationships with vendors have to be cautious for that reason; they can’t be fully collegial. But that is because of caveat emptor. If contrary to fact vendors were fully collegial, I’d be delighted and be collegial back to them.

There are certain books I read while I was in college that I should probably read again, because they didn’t have much meaning for me at the time, but would have much more meaning for me now. I probably won’t get around to it, but I should. One of those books is The Organization Man by William Whyte. While I may be summarizing inaccurately because I read it in 1972-73 and haven’t discussed it since, I believe the book is mainly about how those who work for a large corporation surrender their own point of view to a large extent and instead conform to the perspective of their organization. I can’t recall whether it was in the book or in the class discussion around the book, but I know we talked about working for IBM, which in the early 70’s had a definite image to keep up. And I believe the finding was that many of these folks ended up feeling empty and disillusioned, but by the time they had come to this reckoning they didn’t have a way to reshape their work lives into something more meaningful for themselves.

Business school education has much that encourages conformity in it; attire is but one small piece of a collection of common practices that are meant to define the business professional. Some of these practices no doubt promote efficiency – hustle is seemingly valued more than in other disciplines and to me that appears to be a good thing. But there is a risk that with conformity the individual perspective is lost.

The problem is exacerbated because, as I’ve learned recently from our Dean for the undergraduate Honors Program, most of the students really don’t understand Business Education as an intellectual endeavor before they arrive on Campus. They desperately want to get into our college, as a gateway to a good job and high future income. But they are willing to treat their entire education as instrumental to that and the prestige that goes with it. Therefore they are less likely to be self-critical of the education as they are getting it, and here I’m talking about the subject matter, not class size or the facilities where the courses are held, things they are willing to criticize. (This also explains why there seems to be rampant cheating in Business Schools. The instrumental view of education encourages that.) Hence it is more likely that they will repress their own perspective in their learning and go with what they think is expected of them. When I was entering college I was equally clueless about the education I would be receiving (and of course the education I would be making for my own). But I was far less mercenary in my outlook and consequently my point of view developed fairly strongly, even then.

Our college teaches the obligatory course on ethics and we have a new Center for Professional Responsibility that is developing a variety of programs aimed as a counterforce for the good. The efforts are laudable. But I’m skeptical about the likely consequences because the underlying issue of conformity is not being addressed and so much if not all of this will end up as responsibility as obligation rather than responsibility that stems from personal and deeply held values and hence responsibility that is an embrace of the golden rule.

And while the issue is most acute in Business Schools, it really is a matter to concern the entire campus and all of Higher Ed. The hyperinflation in tuition over the last 30 years or so has made college education less accessible to those of modest income – many have commented on that. But it has also encouraged the mercenary tendencies of those who do attend and you simply can’t have it both ways. The more mercenary the students the less they will be self-critical about their own education while they are getting it. It is partly for that reason that I was critical of the focus at ELI on Collective Intelligence. There may be intellectual benefits from social networking that are profound. But there is also a need to develop a strong sense of the individual mind, to have it speak for oneself only. Responsibility will emerge from that, not from the collective.

The issue is how to do that. It won’t do to have other rules to obey to replace the ones that currently exist – all students should wear SAS shoes, for example. That’s just creating a different standard to which they should conform. Somehow we need to create a grades-don’t-matter environment where the decisions that students make have clear consequences on others and where the students can readily see those consequences, then reflect on them and on their own choices. This would let them learn the lesson for themselves, not to please others. But I don’t know how to do this in the current environment. All I can conclude is that it seems more likely to happen in a co-curricular setting than in actual courses. Yet even then it seems more likely that students will learn the opposite lesson to what we want – everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? This is a tough one to crack.

Let me close with the following observation. I’m not sure how many others in Higher Ed would make the connection between conformity and (lack of) personal responsibility. But if there were agreement on that, then it could serve as a basis to discuss potential solutions, not that they’d be easy but at least we’d know what we’re looking for. As it is, we’re not that far along.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice Post
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