On Monday I had the chance to talk to state senator Carol Liu about the CSU’s work on student success. I’m in Sacramento once or twice a month, but don’t normally hang out at the capitol; it was fun. I think most public servants are committed to civic welfare, and sincerely want to learn enough about what the rest of us are up. My meeting confirmed that impression.
What came as a surprise was a comment from the senator’s chief of staff, Suzanne Reed. She pointed out that good policy is usually about setting clear goals and then getting out of the way; the people who do the work know how to go about it. I agreed, but didn’t expect to hear that from a legislator.
In higher ed such perspective is practically a given. For us, expertise has always resided among the rank and file, the front-line educators engaged in real teaching and scholarship. We have a tradition of shared governance that, however strained and abused by people in positions like mine, survives to keep colleges and universities responsive to changes in learning, society, and knowledge.
So I’m used to declarations of bottom-up management. But here was someone who wasn’t expected to say it, yet apparently meant it anyway. It made me wonder whether the world is coming around to a more emancipated understanding of power, an awareness – with appropriate nudging over the years from Jefferson, the Populists, and the internet – that the best org chart is often the flattest.
By coincidence, there was a lecture that evening at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica that argued exactly the opposite. The former executive director of the World Bank, Moisés Naím, is touring in support of a book called The End of Power, in which he worries, at least a little bit, that the erosion of authority comes with a price.
Yeah, we have fewer people living today under tyrannical regimes. CEOs are held on a shorter leash. The Vatican ain’t what it used to be. But for the same reason, groups of people now find it harder to act collectively for the common good, and pressing social ills go unaddressed.
I know what he means: as a resident of both the U.S. and its most populous state, I’ve been struck by the growing ineffectiveness of our political systems. Naím calls this emerging condition of perpetual gridlock a “vetocracy.”
The upshot is that today’s political states can rarely solve their problems – they can’t sustain the mandate they would need, as support materializes and then dissolves at the speed of Facebook. Nor can they get the traction to join coalitions, at a time when few of the world’s problems can be solved solo.
It was a thought-provoking but frustrating lecture.
Even in California, a state that could be the poster child for “vetocracy,” I think we can pull together to influence our shared future. Yeah, it’s harder than it was for Genghis Khan, or even Leonid Brezhnev. But we can still do it, and so help me, higher ed can help. We have the tradition and skillset of consensus-building that is emerging as the only way left to get things done. And we have at least the means, if not always the vision, to teach the next generation of citizens to see beyond their narrow and fleeting self-interest.
There is indeed such a thing as bottom-up leadership. Whoever can do that will find there’s still enough power to go around.