collective inaction

bored skeletonWhy is work in the public sector so hard?

I usually like my job but lately the pervasive torpor has been wearing on me.  Maybe that’s just because it’s summer and I’d rather be playing outside with my friends, but I think it’s more than that.

Three cases of inertia feel especially oppressive:

Action research.  Over the past several weeks I’ve lost a couple of internal disagreements over whether to encourage outsiders to help us turn our institutional data into actionable research.  For example, we might learn from information we already collect that some academic programs aren’t contributing what they claim, or that a couple of demographic groups are ill-served by the transfer apparatus I manage.

Maybe naively, I would welcome help like this, even if it embarrassed the CSU.  Because we’re a big target, and vulnerable to legislative fiat, that embarrassment could do long-term harm.  I get that, but I don’t care.  I still want to know how we’re doing.

But no dice.  It will be a while before research like that is as available as I’d like it to be.  It sucks to be outvoted, and it sucks worse to be outvoted by fear.

Money.  Over the past month, in two different settings, I’ve seen that our poverty of the past five or six years wasn’t all bad.  We made some good use of the great recession in California, notwithstanding all the pain it caused.  Public higher ed used the discipline of scarcity to effect some overdue reforms, and to get real about our priorities – not just in the CSU but also in the UC, and maybe most visibly, in the community colleges.

But extrinsically motivated discipline is unreliable.  Now it looks like the money’s back, and I am not optimistic about the uses it will go to.  I’m proud of a recent $17.2 million Request For Proposals that the chancellor’s office published to our 23 campuses, and even prouder of the responses we got, pitching engaged learning, high-impact practices, and savvy uses of technology.  But that’s been the exception.  An awful lot of the rest of the money we’re getting back looks to me like it will go to mere backfill.  Habit simply takes less energy than reinventing ourselves.  And forget intrinsic discipline.

IT infrastructure.  This is the biggy, and to be fair it’s hardly unique to the public sector.  But it is worse here.  I can’t think of a single IT project connected to my work that didn’t begin before the recession.  That’s right:  in a world where something as miraculous as a smartphone has a nine-month product cycle, we can’t seem to deploy something as banal as a database in under a decade.

So, money,  data, research, all circling the drain.

Now, I get it that our kind of scale, and the challenges the CSU faces in terms of the students we serve and the rapidly evolving world we prepare them for, will stymie momentum.  Some patience is in order.

Sac State studentsBut these failings – of agility, of nerve, of impetus – have real consequences.  Dysfunctional higher ed saps a state’s economy and civic life, and it hits the children of the uneducated, too, compounding over time.  Just thinking about it makes me queasy.

And then, after the nausea passes, it’s worth asking why we’re so very screwed up.

One reason it’s hard for me to tell:  I like pretty much all of the people I work with at the system office.  Honest.  I hardly have the corner around here on the urge to do good work.  But something goes wrong when groups of us get together and try to make things happen.

In the long scheme of things this is counter-intuitive to me.  We evolved to cooperate, to thrive in packs and languish in solitude.  In most cases groups are hugely more effective than individuals, and we’ve seen the internet push that point to extremes, within our own lifetimes.

So why can’t giant public systems work better?  It feels like there’s a tipping point, past which collective action is just too difficult, or too abstract for the urgency to register.

Certainly, it doesn’t seem to help when you take away the profit motive.  We all work hard, but the cost-benefit ratio of risk-taking, of seeking disproportionate value, is thrown out of whack when you get paid for keeping your head down.

If we were in school districts, I’d say the state-sanctioned monopoly is to blame, and we should go to vouchers.  But higher ed has vouchers:  that’s how federal financial aid works.  And in postsecondary, they hardly led to a nimble public sector; if anything they just extended mediocrity into the privates.

There’s a solution here somewhere, a way to align a society’s money and managerial chops to its stake in an educated populace.

But we have not found it.

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5 thoughts on “collective inaction

  1. Thanks for another thought provoking post, Ken. So here’s a question back to you: which systems, to your mind, are overcoming the challenges and successfully innovating (particularly in the undergrad learning arena)?

    I’ve been very curious about the University of Georgia system– they were early partners in AASCU’s Global Challenges initiative, and Kennesaw State in particular has some really interesting programs and achievements to its credit. But I’m sure you know other shining lights in the fog–what are they, and what can we learn from them?

    1. Good question, and an answer with mixed implications. The ones I see doing cool stuff — and my view isn’t comprehensive — are in little states. North Dakota, Utah, and maybe Idaho (whose work I know the least of these three) are all mustering coordinated, statewide approaches to higher ed, faculty-driven and learning centered. I think size matters: they can all meet in a room without waiting for a system office to get its act together. (In North Dakota that advantage is especially vivid, given their chancellor’s recent flame-out.)
      A notch up in size, and maybe even benefiting from central coordination, is Massachusetts, led by commissioner Richard Freeland. The work is early, but he and his staff impress me — as you say, especially in terms of innovation in undergraduate learning.
      Thanks for stopping by, and for the tip about Georgia.

  2. In the literature on school reform (K-12) I’ve read about various continuua that characterize “stuck” vs. “moving” schools (can’t recall the author of this piece right now but could find the source with a bit of digging). Moving schools, for example, tend to be problem finding rather than problem hiding. Your not caring about the embarrassment factor suggests that you want to work in a problem finding environment while you are working in a problem hiding one.

    Moving schools also welcome outsiders (e.g., critical friends) who can promote thoughtful dialogue and strategic planning. Your desire for external research to shed light on murky areas (e.g., differential effects of transfer processes) goes against the grain of the culture of “stuck” schools. It is also important to note that moving schools value their own leaders and experts. Stuck schools tend to shut down those insiders, too, and so miss internal opportunities for growth.

    I teach a graduate course titled “Leadership in Literacy” as part of our reading specialist program, and the core outcome of the course is to help my students develop their capacity to do whatever they can in whichever type of school they find themselves. First, they have to assess the type of institution; next, they have to develop strategies to break the inertia. A very good starting point is to identify and nurture insiders who want to see things change. This is the role of leadership. It is also a role that I don’t see fulfilled well in the CSU.

    Starting with insiders does not mean shunning outsiders. But it does mean that the initial focus probably should not be out on the big wide world, looking for saviors who have seen the light and can lead us out of the darkness. It may very well be true that the University of Georgia partnered with outsiders in an initiative, but what made this institution become a moving school probably was not the specific initiative. Rather, it was an internal change that permitted and even welcomed outsiders who could help find problems and seek solutions.

    Sarason’s book from the 1990s titled The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform documents the decades-old phenomenon of an American school system entrenched in what everybody knows to be ineffective, even brutal practices. Year after year reformers are chewed up and spit out like Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Nurse Ratched continues to crank the combine, the fortunates thrive, the unfortunates suffer. Not every reformer ends up lobotomized, but the continuous shunning and conflict wears them down. I hear a bit of this wearing down in your post. I feel some of it myself.

    No quick fixes, no easy answers. But the CSU seems to be an unusually hard nut to crack. The answers, if there are any, are on the inside, not the outside. The impetus to find the answers has to start at the top.

    By the way, the up-coming issue of the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies (JTLPS) has two professional reflective pieces, one by Nancy Shulock, one by Brice Harris, that speak to the question of outside vs. inside change processes. Check them out. And hang in there.

    1. And this, sir, is why I write here. Thank you for the pointers, reflections, and moral support. I’ll look up these references, especially the Shulock and Harris pieces.
      At the same time, I think the moving-vs.-stuck framework reveals only a narrow slice of the failings here. Most of my colleagues DO want to identify problems, and DO seek a healthy balance of insider vs. outsider provocateurs. It’s exactly why I usually like the work. In other words, although at the moment I’m getting chewed up in the combine, I couldn’t tell you whose hand is on the crank.
      I think the failing is organizational — structures rather than people. Get enough of us together and by definition there’s more perspective and knowledge in the room, but lately that heightened awareness is stultifying. It’s as if the incentives and priorities are arranged wrong, and cancel each other out.

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