I 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.
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.