Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Brief Observation About the National Discussion, as Reflected in Facebook

Today has been an interesting day to watch my Facebook feed. The two Supreme Court cases announced this morning set off a great deal of discussion. Nearly all of it was from my more left-leaning friends (which are, let's face it, most of my friends). Many of these folks are actually moderates who are also very smart about the law, and could see the legal handwriting on the wall for DOMA and Prop 8 (the latter being a decision described as "narrow", but which I think was actually quite important for other reasons).

Interestingly, I have seen almost nothing posted to FB all day from people who likely disagree with these rulings. Some of these folks, too, are my friends, and many of them are both sincere and thoughtful people. Many wrestle genuinely with issues of the definition and boundaries of marriage. And a few are just unabashedly opposed to gay marriage in any form.

Why make this observation? In moments like this, when there is - at least for the moment - a clear winner and a clear loser in a national debate, my Facebook feed suggests that the winners rejoice and those on the losing side fall quiet. Yes, Michelle Bachman, Glenn Beck, and others took to the airwaves to proclaim the end of Western Civilization for the 10th time in the past few weeks - but we expect that from people who make their living by expounding sensationalist views (never forget - they get paid to say those things). Normal, ordinary, real people who disapprove of gay marriage have been, at least in my limited internet window, remarkably quiet.

I think there's something important in that. It's too easy, when you're on the winning side, to gloat - to carry your joy in victory a little over the edge. But the folks who argued the other way are people, too. Many of them are good and kind, they want the best for their families and their communities, and they worry about a range of things - most of them day-to-day things that we all worry about. They are not "them", they are "us" - they just happen to have a different view on this particular issue.

Assuming that the trajectory of this particular issue continues - and I see no reason why it won't - folks who are sincerely opposed to same-sex marriage will have some adjusting to do, just as folks who opposed interracial marriage had to accommodate a different reality. If we're sincere about tolerance, positive relations, and love in our communities, we should help them as gently and kindly as we can. Because tomorrow we may find ourselves in the same situation, and hope for the same kindness from them.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sometimes, Power Resides Outside of Washington

I was struck by this article in last weeks' Chronicle of Higher Education:
Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change
There are a lot of easy narratives to fit this into: status quo-defending professors vs. an upstart innovator, arguments about "outcomes-based" vs. "process-oriented" teaching, and so on. The debate about what's the best way for students to learn science is an important one, and I will leave it to those who are best suited to conduct it.

As usual, I'm drawn to the intersection between higher education and politics. The part of the article that struck me was this:
In 2010, while at British Columbia, he got a visit from another Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, U.S. energy secretary under Mr. Obama. Mr. Chu urged Mr. Wieman to join the White House science office. Mr. Chu suggested that Mr. Wieman could do a lot more to improve undergraduate science education from Washington than from Vancouver, Mr. Wieman says. (emphasis added)
This is a typical notion - that if you want to really get something done, you need to go where the "action" is, the center of power: Washington. Steven Chu's suggestion to Wieman was, in terms of conventional wisdom, entirely unremarkable.

The rest of the article goes on to talk about some of the mechanisms that have prevented Wieman's ideas and research on science pedagogy from gaining widespread traction once he took Chu up on his offer. Many would tell that story to say, despite his position as a science advisor to the White House. I want to suggest that the failure of Wieman's ideas to be adopted more widely and quickly is because of that position.

Over the past 60 years (some might argue for the past 100), we have seen an increasing centralization of power and authority, both in the Federal government in general and in the executive branch in particular. There are certainly instances in which this was a good thing; the Civil Rights Movement would have struggled for far longer if not for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which overrode the express wishes of a number of states (largely in the South), and for the willingness of the Federal Executive to intervene with military force to protect school integration in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama.

But that centralization has its downsides. In every debate in which the Federal government decides to tip the scales, there are winners and losers. Since every issue creates different cleavages, the chances of being on the losing end of the stick approach near-certainty over time. Eventually, everyone has been ticked off by the government at some point - a phenomenon long ago uncovered by John Mueller, among others.

The past two administrations (Bush and Obama) have exacerbated this phenomena. Each administration was deeply and abidingly disappointing to partisans of the other party, with the further ordered impact that many liberals ticked off by Bush have not been restored to full faith in the government by Obama (the recent revelations about NSA spying being a case in point).

In this context, the phrase "I'm from the government, I'm here to help" has become more ironic and maligned than ever. It is difficult to find folks these days who have faith in both the motives and the capacity of government to do good things - but much easier to find instances in which people fear government intrusion into areas it may not belong.

This is especially true when it comes to fields of expertise. In the case of the article above, science faculty are supposed to be experts in how to teach science to college students (whether they actually are experts or not is another question). Nobody who fancies himself an expert in something likes outsiders telling him what to do - especially when that outsider is wearing the badge of the Federal government, and therefore the implicit threat of funding withheld.

There are other things contributing to the reluctance to change, of course - fear of change itself, fear of MOOCs and online learning, fear that universities are being undermined by market forces, fear of anti-intellectualism, and so on. But the fact remains that in the current climate, anybody trying to induce widespread change may be better off doing so from outside the government than from within it.

How could such change come about? If the object is to get people (in this case, tenured faculty) to change their habits and try something new, the answer has to be through persuasion. You cannot force these folks to teach differently, you have to persuade them that it's a good idea. And persuasion is inherently a relational tool that comes only through conversation. That conversation is much more effective in an environment where there are no threats, even implicit ones, in the air.

In this sense, it's possible that Wiemer may well have effected more change had he stayed anchored in Vancouver. From that position, armed with his research, he would have been harmless - and therefore may have had an easier time engaging in the necessary conversations. Give some TED talks; hold symposia; travel from university to university spreading ideas and debating skeptics. That takes resources, it's true - but relatively modest ones, easily procured by a Nobel Prize winner.

As long as we accept the logic that "if you want anything done, you have to go through Washington," a great deal less will get done that could be otherwise. In this day and age, change may not always require power - in fact, power may inhibit change. Let's instead fashion our own power and change our own world, rather than waiting for Washington's broken system to do it for us.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Centralized Office?

One of the great questions about how to run a university revolves around the degree of centralization. Universities and colleges are constantly struggling with whether to centralize functions, offices, and decision-making, or to distribute these things out to smaller units (colleges, divisions, departments, etc.)

In my experience, faculty tend to be strong proponents of decentralization. The idea of a "central" anything tends to raise suspicion among the ranks of professors, who mutter darkly about what the "Evil Empire" of administrators will do if they get too much power (and yes, I have a friend in administration who keeps a Darth Vader mask in her office).

I've often wondered why this opposition is so consistent, given that centralization is like most tools - useful for some things, not useful for others. I have come to a conclusion that the problem with support for centralizing things lies in the fact that we (faculty and administration both) don't understand that "centralization" can mean two entirely different things.

We can call these things "centralized control" and "centralized coordination". When most faculty hear that something is being centralized or consolidated, they assume the former - that the new model or office or what have you will centralize decision-making about things they care about. In simple terms, somebody else is going to make decisions that affect faculty without giving the faculty any say (or, frequently, any warning) as to what those decisions are.

This is a legitimate fear backed by years of examples and experience. I have worked at an institution with offices that behaved very much like this. In one example, all decisions about office space - from where offices would be to what furniture could be in them to what color the walls would be painted - were made by one central planning unit. Because this central office did not have any academics in it, nor did it know anything about what other units (academic or otherwise) around campus do, nor did it bother to consult with any of those units when designing the space they would work in, the results were often sub-optimal (to be polite about it). This central office for planning space was both reviled and feared, and very ineffective by any metric.

But "central" doesn't have to mean this kind of Orwellian dystopia. The alternative is centralized coordination. Central coordination means just that - one central point which is tasked, not with making the decisions but with getting the job done as well as possible. And if you want a job - a project, a new initiative, a technology - done right, it needs to be supported by everybody who will be involved. In the popular business vernacular, you need "buy-in" from the "key stakeholders" - and the fact that these have become derisive terms of irony speaks volumes about our failure as organizations to actually practice what we preach.

But real central coordination, with real buy-in, is possible. It just takes a different mindset at the center: one that takes its central task to be getting everybody on the same page. The most powerful tool for doing so is, and always has been, persuasion - a combination of attention to incentives (what's in it for me?) and common values (what's our collective mission? Why do we do what we do?) Central coordination looks very little like the exercise of power, because the person at the center doesn't actually make very many decisions - he or she helps the community make decisions for itself. In doing so, everyone understands not only what the decision is but why it was made and why it is the best option of the moment - in other words, "buy-in".

I remain baffled as to why central coordination isn't more prevalent than it is. Its results are clearly superior, and it far more popular with the people across a university actually doing the work. The only explanation I can think of is that it's hard. Central decision-making is easy: you sit in your office and dictate. Central coordination has a very herding-cats quality. But in the end, it's vastly more effective.

It does not, of course, appeal to those who want to be "in charge" - who like to be "the Decider". Those folks (and I have known too many in higher education administration) are generally far less effective, although what they do looks like "leadership" to the uninformed (think of Scott Adam's warning: "Don't Step in the Leadership"). And the more of those get put into positions of authority, the more faculty and other "key stakeholders" around campus turn against the idea of centralizing anything at all, preferring to be left alone in the wilderness rather than dictated to by a strongman (or woman).

In the end, most universities limp along with some combination of these: some of their "leaders" will be central decision-makers and some will be coordinators. As there doesn't seem to be any systematic incentive to select the latter over the former, I suspect that will continue to be the case. But for those who really want to "unleash their university's potential" (or some similar, bombastic-sounding phrase): find the coordinators and put them in charge. You'll be surprised how much they can accomplish.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Power of Terrorism Isn't In the Terrorists

Terrorism, and responses to it, have been back in the news lately. Revelations of NSA data-gathering, fresh memories of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the winding down of US involvement in Afghanistan have all combined to put "The War on Terror" back on the radar screen, even if we don't use that term very much anymore.

A couple of days ago, I blogged about what I regard as one of the key questions - not "how much privacy are we giving up?" but "how much security are we getting for it?" The good folks at the Dayton Business Journal were nice enough to republish it as a guest blog column, which has probably expanded the readership significantly. No angry emails or eggs on my window yet, though.

That post sparked a discussion, unsurprisingly, about the balance between how much to "spend" (in dollars or privacy or what have you) in fighting terrorism and what it's "worth". That discussion made me realize that I had stopped a level short in my previous thinking - and that one reason for disagreements about counterterrorism measures is that people can fundamentally disagree about the "value" of terrorism.

In that earlier column, I wrote this:
We don't comb through emails or phone calls for evidence that people are going to commit murder, or sell drugs, or rob banks, or any number of other illegal and harmful activities. And our political system is unable to put even the mildest controls on firearms. So why do we accept this "logic" when it comes to terrorism?
It's easy to point out that we apply different standards to things that are roughly equal in objective facts. Many (not all, but many) Americans are willing to put up with measures to prevent deaths by terrorism that they wouldn't agree to in preventing other kinds of deaths - even other violent deaths. From an economists' point of view, of course, this is crazy - but then, most of the world looks crazy to economists.

What I didn't ask in that previous column is, why? What is there about terrorist violence that makes it weigh more heavily - makes it "worth more" in our cost/benefit calculations? There is no objective answer, of course - different people can and do assign different values to such things. A friend of mine suggested a logic I hadn't considered before:
Terrorism isn't like car accidents - it's an attack on the state and the communityI don't see it as a cost-benefit calculation like bike helmet laws - it's not about the death toll, it's about sovereignty. (emphasis added)
There is, of course, no way of making an appeal to facts to support this argument - it's an argument about values. In particular, it's an argument based on the proposition that the intent or motive behind the violence alters its value, aside from how much damage it causes or to whom.

Violence has long carried symbolic meaning apart from its practical value. It is precisely that point that terrorism is designed to exploit. Terrorist groups lack the ability to cause enough damage to matter in practical military or security terms. Assuming that most terrorist groups have a political goal - change US foreign policy, or bring down the US government, or something similar - they just don't have the firepower to accomplish that by attacking the thing they want to change.

So they attack symbolically and emotionally important targets, either out of a sense of frustration and catharsis (not expecting to really "win" but feeling better because they "struck back"), or in hopes of inducing a disproportionate counter-reaction that advances their cause. In 1957 Eric Frank Russell wrote the novel Wasp in which he elucidated exactly this theory of how terrorism works:

“In given conditions, action and reaction can be ridiculously out of proportion … One can obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort … Let’s consider [an] auto smash-up…. The driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face…. The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the wasp’s size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. … Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap.”
Here's the thing about the power of terrorism and terrorists: it has almost nothing to do with them, and almost everything to do with us. The objectively small amounts of damage terrorists cause loom large in large part because we assign weight to them far in excess of their actual size. In short, terrorists have power because we give it to them.

Now, I readily grant that not all death is equal in meaning. Some death (say, from old age at 95 or 100) is regrettable but expected - even a marker of something to celebrate. Other deaths (say, traffic accidents) are tragic, and so we look for ways to prevent more while recognizing that the world is an inherently dangerous place. Death by intentional violence is in a different category - in cases where one human dies at the hand of another, the malice of the act matters and changes its meaning.

But from my point of view, death by violence is equally tragic whether it's at the hands of a Muslim bomber or a South Chicago gang member. The presence of political motives (or, more often, vague political rationalizations - were the Boston Bombers really trying to accomplish something?) is, for me, vastly overshadowed by the fact that some people were willing, even eager, to kill others. That, to me, is the greatest tragedy.

There isn't really a prescription at the end of this so much as an observation. Terrorists and the violence they commit have exactly as much power as we give them. If we impute greater meaning to violence done by Muslims acting in small groups than we do to violence done by racist or homophobic whites or urban gang members in similar numbers, then of course we will be willing to expend more resources on preventing the former than on the latter. That is, collectively, our choice to make. I hope we can extend our national conversation to this level, rather than relying on sound bites and loud politicians to define those choices for us.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Turkish Protests and the Fundamental Question of Governance

Until recently, I haven't been following the events in Turkey very closely. I have several Turkish academic friends who have posted lots of good stuff to Facebook - much of it, unfortunately, in Turkish - which has given me a general sense that things are bad, probably worse than the slimmed-down story carried in standard American news outlets. My guess is that most of my fellow Americans aren't paying much attention either, although the longer things go on the more people may take notice.

I should also point out that I am not at all an expert in Turkish politics, nor am I Turkish myself, nor have I ever been to Turkey. But, as my friend Steve Saideman is fond of saying, why should this stop me?

In truth, I don't have any great insight into the particular conflict going on in Istanbul, nor do I have solutions or advice to offer to either the protestors or Prime Minister Erdogan. But a dimension of the conflict as it has unfolded has struck me as important - indeed, as essentially fundamental to the question of how societies govern themselves and what democracy is or should be.

The core of the conflict, as it initially began, revolved around a plan to alter (or demolish) a park in central Istanbul to make way for different kind of public space. Having never been to Istanbul, I'm in no position to say whether this was a good or a bad plan. But some Turks appear to have thought it a very bad one, and undertook nonviolent resistance tactics (e.g. occupying the park) as a means to stop the government's plan, at least until there could be a broader dialogue about it.

From this initial conflict - protesters vs. the government over the fate of Gezi Park - has grown a much larger fight between the central government and opposition groups more generally. As E. E. Schattschneider pointed out some 50 years ago, the key to winning a fight is controlling what the fight is about, because that determines who else gets involved. The original band of protesters has been very effective at getting a wide range of others involved in their fight, such that the protest expanded beyond the park itself to neighboring Taksim Square.

The government's response - personified in Prime Minister Erdogan - has been, essentially, to order the protesters to stop protesting and to employ force to drive them away. In justifying this response, Erdogan and other Turkish officials have referred to the protesters as "riff-raff", "marginal", and even "terrorists". A representative summary from a recent Reuters news article reads this way:
Erdogan argues that the broader mass of people are at best the unwitting tools of political extremists and terrorists and points to his 50 percent vote in the last of three successive electoral victories for his political authority.
However much the government might like to frame the protesters as "marginal" - and however much they may or may not not represent the majority of opinion in Turkey - the fact remains that they are Turkish citizens. One of the fundamental insights of modern democratic systems - as distinct from simple majoritarian rule - is that everyone gets a voice. In the end, not everyone will win - in this case, maybe 75% of the country really does want the park to be remodeled - but everyone gets to say their piece. And the end result, in any representative republic, is supposed to be the best approximation of the will of the people as a whole as can be achieved.

Many people lament the inefficiency of democratic institutions, but inefficiency is the price for this kind of inclusiveness. It takes time to let voices be heard, to consider all points of view, and to weigh and sift those views into something like a "national view". In some cases, shortcuts are taken where decisions need to be made quickly. And in most cases, over time the will to really do the hard work of listening and weighing and sifting declines (but that's a story for another day).

Rather than take the radically democratic approach of stepping back, framing the question, and inviting everyone in to a dialogue, the Erdogan government has chosen the other major alternative: make a decision and use force to make people accept it. That this is fundamentally undemocratic is obvious. But this is also what many countries do, much of the time. Even within the United States, there is an increasing tendency for various political factions - on the left and the right alike - to advocate for forcing their solutions on everyone else, without listening to the views of the other sides. Turkey is not so different from us, as participants from Kent State and Zucotti Park will tell us.

Perhaps this will all be resolved soon in Turkey. Perhaps the Erdogan government will find a way to back down and participate in an open national dialogue. Absent that, I think that the Turkish government is kissing away its chances of being admitted to the European Union within the next generation or two. A warning sign of this came from the German Foreign Minister:
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday the Turkish government was sending the wrong signal at home and abroad with its reaction to protests, describing pictures from Taksim square as disturbing.
"We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation, in the spirit of European values, and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue," Westerwelle said in a statement.
The temptation to use force - to believe in the rightness of our cause and to hammer that belief home on the unwilling and the unconvinced - has been the dark side of human politics for thousands of years. A few hundred years ago, drawing on a few ideas far older but largely untested, some folks decided that maybe this really is a bad idea, and that maybe the best way to govern is by restraint and dialogue, however messy and imperfect that may be.

Despite a widespread sense that "Democracy Won the Cold War" and is the only real governance game in town, it seems that backsliding is all too easy. Today it is Turkey's turn to teach this lesson; tomorrow, perhaps, it will be ours again. But if we really believe in the basic choice of democracy - rule by consent rather than rule by force - we need to keep learning it, over and over.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Someone Else Sees the Online Education Bubble

I've been blogging for a while (here and here and here, among others) about the problems with the for-profit online higher education sector, and how it shows classic signs of a popping bubble. I remain firmly convinced that this is the case.

Now, apparently, after cheer-leading the "transformative" nature of online education for years, someone at Forbes has finally figured this out as well. I don't necessarily agree with all of his reasoning, but the basic notion - that college is about more than a narrowly-defined "education" in terms of mastering facts and skills, but is an experience - is sound. The money quote:
There’s no college-education ‘bubble’ forming simply because teens go to college with an eye on a fun four years, after which they hope the school they attend will open doors for a good job. Online education only offers learning that the markets don’t desire, and because it does, its presumed merits are greatly oversold. There’s your ‘bubble.’
I'll leave my readers (all three of you) to read the rest.

The NSA, Spying, and the Important Question We Aren't Asking

There's a lot of conversation going around about the NSA and recent revelations regarding the US government's massive collection of data, both domestic and foreign. There is speculation about the leaker (Edward Snowdon, apparently a Booz Allen employee), about the nature of the data being gathered (metadata on phone calls through Verizon, plus various other sorts of things that may or may not be foreign in origin), and about the legality and constitutionality of these efforts.

Many have pointed out that this is hardly a new Obama administration thing, that the Bush administration did many of the same things under the PATRIOT Act - which, although this disappoints some liberals, has helped take some of the partisan sting out of things.

These are all good and important questions (except the partisanship thing, which is silliness as usual). And to some degree, this has revived a much larger question: how much privacy are we willing to give up in exchange for security? That's an age-old question of governance critical to any age.

What I find missing from the conversation, however, is the other half of that question. We are focused on the how much privacy are we willing to give up part. What we're not talking about - at least, I haven't seen it yet - is how much security do we get, or even how much security should we expect.

What we're talking about, of course, is security from terrorist attacks. Protecting Americans from terrorist attacks is a legitimate concern of government, just as protecting us from foreign invasion or local crime are. But because terrorism is fundamentally asymmetric, you have to spend massive amounts to get small increases in protection - and even then, it's not perfect. It's never going to be perfect.

A case in point is the Boston Marathon bombing just a few weeks ago. This attack was carried out by what appear to be a pair of rank amateurs. It is almost certain that they used email, cell phones, and other communications before and during their attack. Yet the existing surveillance apparatus - as massive as it apparently is - was not enough to stop two young guys with no experience from blowing up bombs that killed three and injured more than 250.* The net which the NSA and others have cast isn't foolproof.

And this is very much the point. We can spend billions upon billions of dollars, and disaffected 20-somethings will still be able to blow up bombs in public places. We're not going to get perfect security from terrorism - and in the broader context, terrorism is one of the least of dangers in our society anyway (well behind alcohol-induced car accidents, murders, suicides, industrial accidents - there's a host of things that kill more Americans).

So in order to answer the question about how much privacy we're willing to give up in exchange for security, we have to decide how much security do we expect? If the answer is "a reasonable amount, but we know it's never going to be perfect", then the massive data-gathering the government is engaged in is probably a significant overreach. We could obtain the same result with far less effort, and far more privacy.

The problem, of course, is that politicians don't do rational calculations - because we don't let them. Any politician can be vilified, anytime something goes wrong, for "not having done enough". Michael Dukakis was raked over the coals - and ultimately lost his bid for the White House - in part because one criminal was paroled and went on to commit a crime.

Real-world reality dictates that we accept some level of vulnerability, and some number of deaths, just as we accept a certain level of car accidents, homicides, and other things (all of which kill more of us than terrorists do). How many accidental gun deaths committed by children have occurred in the last month?

But political reality - on the singular issue of terrorism (but not road accidents, or gun violence) - says to the politician, you must leave no stone unturned, no action untaken. You must be able to say, "we did everything we possibly could."

As usual, this is not the fault of our politicians - it's our own fault. We don't apply this logic to other arenas in life, else we would be driving on roads with 25 mph speed limits everywhere (imagine the lives we would save!) We don't comb through emails or phone calls for evidence that people are going to commit murder, or sell drugs, or rob banks, or any number of other illegal and harmful activities. And our political system is unable to put even the mildest controls on firearms. So why do we accept this "logic" when it comes to terrorism?

The government will stop this sort of massive spying when politicians are punished for overreaching on privacy but NOT punished every time there is a terrorist incident somewhere. Until then, they will continue to respond to the incentives we give them. And as long as we fail to ask questions about the security side and focus only on privacy, our privacy will continue to erode - without improving our security one bit.

* I am discounting out of hand the argument, made on the fringes, that the Boston explosions were a "false flag" attack planted by the government. There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that this is the case, and no obvious motive or outcome for having done so.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The State of our Politics, Part 21

I have blogged before (a lot - too many to link here, look for stuff with the label of "Tribalism") about instances in which politics have turned into an argument not over ideas, but over identities. Republicans support Republican things because they're Republican; Democrats do likewise for Democratic things. Politics of this sort resembles Dr. Seuss' Star-Bellied Sneeches, or sometimes the Drazi Green-and-Purple conflict from Babylon 5.

State legislatures seem to be particularly prone to this form of madness. This gets especially obvious when they try to micro-manage things that have no purpose other than symbolism. In Wisconsin, they seem to be going through just such an episode:
Legislators target UW-Madison and investigative journalism center
It's getting to the point where there's just not much more to say about this kind of thing. Why would legislators think that this kind effort is even worth their time? Are there really no more pressing issues in the State of Wisconsin then where a particular center puts its offices? There may be more to this than childish retribution for some imagined slights, but I frankly doubt it.

The irony - since this particular instance seems to be emanating from the Republican side of the aisle - is that Republicans are constantly calling for government to behave more like a business: strategic, hard-nosed, focused on results. This sort of nonsense is none of those things, and any business that spent much time on such frivolities would soon find itself out of business. But I gave up asking for politicians to actually listen to themselves a long time ago.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Higher Education as a "Business": We Can't Have It Both Ways

This story in this morning's Inside Higher Ed caught my eye:
Facing Deficit, Ivy Tech May Eliminate Campuses
I worked in Indianapolis from 1999 through 2006, which covers some of the period mentioned in this article. During that time, Ivy Tech expanded enormously and was very much the "toast of the town". Politicians of both parties, business leaders, civil notables - everybody had something good to say about the Ivy Tech system and the wonderful things it was doing for the Indiana economy.

It turns out that all of that great good work came at a price: Ivy Tech was running at a loss. Their business model was a typical one for public higher education in the past: collect tuition below the cost of providing the education, with the difference made up by state subsidy dollars.

This arrangement reflected an historical compromise understanding: that higher education is both a private good (in that it helps the individual better their career and make more money personally) and a public good (in that it creates a better-educated and more skilled workforce, driving economic development). The partial-subsidy model, in which the cost of education is shared by the student and the taxpayers, reflects this balance.

But as I've blogged about before, this compromise has been eroding for some time in favor of a private-good-only approach. This news item from Ivy Tech is just the latest (and one of the most dramatic) instance of what this really means. One implication, of course, is that community college is about to get more expensive in Indiana - and it will now be out of reach for many who were served by those 20 closing campuses who cannot afford the time & money to travel to another one.

For all the concern on Capitol Hill about "hollowing out" the nation's military, we hear very little about the ongoing forces hollowing out the nation's higher education system - and with it, our economic prospects. If Time would stop running cover articles that assume a private-goods perspective (picked up by politicians with ideological axes to grind), it would help move us forward. We need to find a way to have this conversation free from the dogmas currently tearing us apart. Where are Nelson Rockefeller and the Chamber of Commerce when you need them?