what “large-scale” means

Office of the ChancellorI work at headquarters for the California State University, a system that employs and/or educates half a million people, not counting the friends, families, dependents.  It’s a footprint on the order of Sasquatch.

There are a couple of hundred indisputably sovereign nations in the world.  If the CSU were one of them, then by population thirty of those nations would be smaller.  If you compared our annual budget to their GDPs as compiled by the United Nations, you get about the same ranking.  170 countries are bigger the CSU, and 30 are smaller.

So, what’s it like to work in a single building charged with running a small country?  Mostly humbling.  It can get boring, but only when you forget what’s at stake.  This kind of scale eludes comprehension.

I think this is best expressed by the questions people pose in their first year of working with us.  (I asked the same ones.)  They show how very hard it is to adapt psychically to genuine scale.

  •  “Big building.  Which floor of this is yours?”  (It all is.  Yes, really.  And the capital of Belize may take up some space, too.)
  • “We need a list of all the projects we work on, and all their acronyms.  This is out of control.”  (Yes, it is.  But you’re overseeing something more like an ecosystem than a business.)
  • “I want to know which of our universities work well and which ones don’t, in rank order.”  (We might create such a ranking but it would hide more than it would show, a little like sorting people by IQ.)

There is a balancing act here, a need to welcome the surprise and frustration of newcomers, especially the ones from outside of higher ed altogether.  Their reactions tell us how we can do better.

epistemological humiliation

But we also need somehow to educate them about the limits of statewide policy and institutional data, in a context that’s mostly interpersonal, human, and hard to count.

On several recent occasions I’ve had to do this, and I always find myself at a loss.  It’s not that we don’t believe we have a beneficial impact, just that it doesn’t always lend itself to metrics, or even confident assertions of cause and effect.

An analogy:  if enough Earthlings walk to work instead of drive, then we have reason to believe we’ll slow global warming, but we may never know how to calculate that in degrees Celsius per year.  Similarly, if more CSU employees give a rip about student success and completion than they used to, then we should see a reduction in drop-out rates.  But those rates are affected by many other things too, and so there’s a lot of blind faith involved.  A lot.

This is hard to learn, and for those of us who work here, it’s a realization that is itself subject to a limited understanding, mingled with cross-currents of defeatism, middle age, the gravitational tug of the comfort zone.  I hear myself comparing our educational institutions to complex systems like the weather, and I sound like the used-up lifers I came here eager to replace.

I don’t know if there’s an antidote for that epistemological humiliation in between cause and effect, but there is a palliative:  trust in colleagues.  From our end of the biome, about all we can do is point out problems, share solutions from other places, and remind people why they want to do well.  Then get out of the way.

It’s weird to call this work, but it sure is hard.


cybersecurity, autism, and agency

cyberspy vs. cyberspyA telling episode of Frontline on an American terrorist went into implications of the Snowden revelations on NSA surveillance of Americans. Turns out all those reams of data and metadata on our phone calls, the internet browsing histories, and the GPS locations that the feds have been gathering didn’t help anyone identify David Coleman Headley as a terrorist; instead it was useful only after the fact, to corroborate the findings of traditional police work, mostly by interviews with witnesses and confidential informants.

Closer to home, employers are telling educators that cybersecurity needs more college graduates, with more interdisciplinary thinking. To which outsiders may justifiably ask, “huh?” We thought it was all coding, hackers vs. hackers.  What gives?

I think I know what gives, when I see the Snowden story.

Central Station 001Or when I picture you sitting inside a train station, strangers sprinkled around the lobby. Someone you don’t know sits nearby and immediately strikes up a conversation with you, uninvited.

It’s a bit odd, so at this point you become alert for the socially and interpersonally inappropriate. Why is this stranger approaching you to talk?  The intentions and mental health of your new acquaintance become suddenly relevant, and something you test for. How’s the eye contact? The assumed level of familiarity? Are you getting sized up for a sales pitch?  An assault? Evangelism?  If you stand up to leave, will you be followed?

In other words, our safety and effectiveness as socially and technologically connected beings rely on intercultural, interpersonal fluency.  There’s something essentially human in our ability to recognize and respond to the telling departure from normal behavior, and this is essential to good cybersecurity.  It’s the skills you deploy when a friend’s email account is hacked and you get a fishy request for money:  it’s not the identity that’s off, but the behavior.  That gets harder to spot when it’s people you don’t know well, who may live in countries with entirely different social and cultural expectations.

As the employers are telling us, work like that takes a college degree, not just IT training.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while — that Frontline episode was almost a year ago — but was reminded of it unexpectedly last week.  I was talking to a professor at CSU Monterey Bay about what exactly we should measure to demonstrate “engaged learning,” something I am paid to wonder regularly on behalf of the state.

He said it’s in the student’s behavior after the engaging experience, in this case service learning.  He said faculty will comment on a new energy behind the student’s decision of what to major in, or of what to do after college, or even about what’s going on in other fields.  He and his colleagues sense it not as shades of development but instead as a nearly binary condition: there’s something in the student now that didn’t used to be.

That observation, of a moment of growth that’s unambiguous to people who’ve taught for a while, reminded me of the train station example above, that interpersonal knack we can develop for reading and understanding each other, for recognizing the tells of a meaningful difference.


I think fields outside of higher education and cybersecurity may be better at recognizing, naming, and counting such behavioral transitions, because they’ve been working on this longer, and I think we could learn from them.

For example, there don’t seem to be chemical or genetic markers for autism; instead the diagnosis is made entirely by observing someone’s conduct.  There’s some controversy around it and the borders are murky, but educators might benefit from similar skills.

So could everyone else.  Good observation is more vital as we get more connected, giving individuals more potential impact on the rest of us than they used to have.

I’m not arguing for a state of mutual perpetual surveillance, but think we undersestimate the extent to which we’re all in this together.  A better understanding of behavioral markers helps with cybersecurity, sure, and also for better clinical diagnoses.  But we also need it — glaringly — to identify and preempt active shooters, for example, or to get past the present limits of our criminal justice system.

And, maybe, we need it to better orient our enormous and expensive higher education machinery toward the development of personal agency and responsibility.

Image credits:  Condren RailsCollege Hill Independent

the nanny campus

sleep-deprivation-2I was never a fan of the nanny state, the public sector seeing itself as my keeper, protecting me from harming myself.  I figured if I choose not to wear my seat belt and end up a quadriplegic, then that’s on me.

A couple of things make that less clear to me than it was.

First, the public will incur real costs if I paralyze myself, starting with the ambulance that shows up to help, and continuing all the way through a lifetime of increased reliance on social services, and reduced productivity.  That is, however independent I may feel, I’m actually connected to others in webs of responsibility that are hard to shirk.  That adds to the public’s right to keep me from doing stupid self-destructive things.

Second, that illusion that I feel of autonomy and independent agency isn’t universal.  Working for universities that prioritize access and equity brings you face to face with that.  Through no fault of my own, I have had it pretty good.  I was never in foster care, have no felony convictions in my immediate family (we won’t talk about the cousins), and belong to demographic groups where people’s surface assumptions usually cut in my favor.

So it’s too easy for me to look at people who need help and assume they should help themselves, since usually I can.

This has implications for how people learn — things that we’ve been hearing about for a long time in K-12 but that only in recent years surface in higher ed.  I’m used to school boards and childhood development specialists talking about the hierarchy of needs, that we can’t expect kids to memorize multiplication tables until after they’re adequately fed, sheltered from violence, and valued as members of some group.  A century of two of free and compulsory public education, and you pick up a few things.

But only recently have I heard college and university campuses talking seriously about student issues like food security, mental health, and helping to meet expenses beyond tuition.  I know that makes us late to what others consider obvious, but I take it as a good sign:  we’re winning on the access side.  Up until just a generation ago, the people who came to college included fewer of the ones who worry about these things.

MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svgBut now they’re people are here:  as we pushed our outreach and admission out of the upper strata and deeper into the general population, we’ve also gone lower in the hierarchy of needs.

Owning up to that is a critical step, before we can bring more of our students to the self-actualization we promise.  I’m starting to think it’s prerequisite to raising our grad rates and closing our gaps.  And the only way closer to our own best aspirations.

But is there also an educational opportunity here?  That is, could we address those fundamental needs while improving learning for everyone, with wages for work-based learning at the college level, instead of just adding subsidized breakfast to lunch?  Could we add peer-to-peer support and counseling to our emerging models of peer mentoring?

Worth thinking about.  In other realms, the consolation for late adoption of a good idea is that you get to build on it.


The Mint Theater

meet-the-mint-500x281A few blocks from Broadway in New York City, at 311 West 43rd Street, you can go up two floors and back in time.

The Mint Theater is devoted to rediscovering great and forgotten plays of the 19th and early 20th century.  Sometimes the writers are familiar — Hemingway, J.M. Barrie, Tolstoy — but often they’re not, and the titles never are.  But the material is always great, well reviewed and recognized in its day, a day that has passed.

If you’re ever around you should go.  There are many reasons to love this place, and if you work in higher ed there a couple more.

First, to attend these plays is to cash in on a certain kind of learning, a broad familiarity with recent cultural history and a delight in new discoveries.  To come here is to enjoy something mostly available to people who’ve spent some time studying up, whether in formal degree programs or on their own, and who like to keep learning.

"Photo: "The New Morality" By Harold Chapin Directed by Jonathan Bank Cast:     Christian Campbell     Clemmie Evans     Michael Frederic     Kelly McCready     Brenda Meaney     Ned Noyes     Douglas Rees presented by The Mint Theater Company; Dress rehearsal photographed: Friday, August 21, 2015; 2:00 PM at Mint Theater, New York, NY; Photograph: © 2015 Richard Termine. PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine"

Second, this is serious scholarship as public service.  Plays are presented in fanatically accurate historical detail.  The programs come with interesting accounts of the text, its author, and its lasting significance — despite the intervening decades of obscurity.  One recent essay was from Yale trained dramaturgical advisor Maya Cantu; this is one of the few playbills in New York’s theater district to come with footnotes.

The upshot of all this research, scholarship, and interdisciplinary execution is an uncannily vivid look into the recent past, made the more immediate because the source material is unfamiliar, and not yet become a subculture of its own.

And although production values are high, ticket prices are about a quarter to a third of prevailing rates.  Worth going, to be glad our universities contribute to this corner of the mainstream, and to harvest your own education for the fun of it.

A Compelling Challenge in Utah

title slide

Today I addressed the 18th annual “What Is An Educated Person?” conference hosted by the Utah System of Higher Education.  You can download a copy of the presentation by clicking on the image to the right.

Like most states of the union, Utah is less ethnically diverse than California but picking up speed.  Educators have identified as the state’s “compelling challenge” the need to keep up with this new kind of demand while maintaining quality learning outcomes and respecting the traditions of faculty governance.

demographics, part 2

IMG_9845In a post a couple of months back, I pointed out that my home state of California and the whole world are on parallel actuarial tracks.  On both scales, we’re seeing a declining share of the demographic groups well served by current educational practice, and rapid growth in the populations that colleges and universities don’t serve well.  That is, more people are born every day to the ethnicities, countries, and socioeconomic strata for whom earning a degree is less likely.

In the long run this threatens not just our sense of fairness, but also our world’s economic and civic vitality, and its people’s health outcomes, happiness, and ability to get along.

Maybe it’s because I work in education, but it’s hard for me to picture a more urgent problem — especially since solutions to all the other problems we face, with climate, energy, food, and human rights, will come from people who’ve been well educated.

I wish I could say we had an answer in California, since we’ve had such a head start offering college to a diverse populace.  But in fact our answers are patchwork and provisional.  They seem to turn on contextualized learning, reconceptions of education that locate student work in real-world settings to vary the performance cues, surprise the learner, and illuminate proficiency.  You can see in a recent report that our faculty have no shortage of good ideas for making the first two years of college feel integrated and purposeful, but administratively we have very far to go; most of the time when we say learn we mean sit and listen.

My earlier post emphasized the mismatch in pacing:  global demographics are changing quickly, while our higher ed machinery is still organized to serve the old majority.

Yet I’m happy to note that the world seems at least on track to get more of its educational act together, in a few ways.

International_Islamic_University_in_Islamabad,_PakistanReason for hope #1: growing demand. Countries in the developing world are showing record interest in postsecondary education, and they keep inviting U.S. consultants to show how it’s done. Since starting this blog I’ve been to the United Arab Emirates and Kenya on such missions, and my friends are getting flown around too, often to obscure and poor countries. Those cultures have prized learning for a very long time, but it’s a new thing to make universities your marquee infrastructure project.

(I’m not alone in this particular zeal:  see a recent Smithsonian article on how a former California college administrator is leading an American university in Nigeria, and what she believes it can do.)  This makes me hopeful because the learning from such interaction is inevitably two-way.

Reason for hope #2: migration. Most observers think this century’s imbalance in birth rates will be offset by migration, so that developed countries really won’t shrink. In the words of a Rand study, we “will see increasing pressures for migration to the developed world.”  (You think?  It’s been a harrowing few weeks of evidence on that point.)

A Roland-Berger analysis concurs: “International migration will continue . . . with North America and Europe the main destinations for migrants.” But presciently, Rand singled out the U.S. as the developed country best prepared for this:

Japan, which faces the prospect of losing a quarter of its population over the next 25 years, makes little allowance for immigrants. In Europe, any liberalization of immigration policies must involve a multilateral response, and an attendant surrender of sovereignty will be opposed on national sovereignty grounds.

Furthermore, unlike in the United States, citizenship in most European countries and Japan is based on blood (ethnicity) rather than country of birth (nativity). Given the complexity of these issues and the fact that most developed countries have no history of immigration, it is instructive to look at the debate about immigration policy in the United States, where immigrants are currently responsible for about two-thirds of total population growth.

Between the lines, Rand is suggesting that we in the United States might benefit from our head start, if we can just rein in the rhetoric, and figure out how to bring in newcomers fairly, legally, and intentionally.

And combined with the global vogue for higher ed, these are signs we could eventually make up for the shortfall in the world’s production of college grads.

Syrian refugees in Hungary, in an image from The Guardian.
Syrian refugees in Hungary two days ago, in an image from The Guardian.

What do we do in the meantime? Well, the usual but for more reasons.

First, we need to close our dang gaps. Our present diverse population – especially California’s – is teaching us how to educate them, and the rest of the world is counting on us to listen and respond better. Because more are coming – by birth rate, by growing interest in college-going, by migration. And we want them all in college, and then we want them out there, with degrees, pitching in.

Second – and this is just me talking – we should support more of the half-baked ideas from our colleagues about how to embed liberal learning in unusual settings, like work. We need our students writing everywhere, and not just in freshman comp. We need them quantifying problems on internships and in their communities, not just in workbooks.

Many experiments will fail, but others will teach us how to make GE look less irrelevant, and more like what it is: the source of the expansive and versatile intellectual capacity that drives opportunity and equity.  That’s the defining feature of American higher education.

To the extent there’s truth in advertising, we seem to be what the world needs now.