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.
But 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.