Monday, July 23, 2012

More 'Advice' for Higher Education from the Peanut Gallery

There have always been plenty of outsiders willing to tell universities and colleges how they should run themselves. In recent years, some of this unsolicited advice has been based on legitimate grounds - rising debt levels among students, lower-than-expected graduation rates, questionable practices (especially in the for-profit sector), and scandals of various sorts have all contributed to the notion that something is wrong in higher education. And there is no shortage of suggested diagnoses for what that is.

Unfortunately, into that field have wandered various folks who don't really know what they're talking about, and whose advice isn't worth much. Today's Chronicle brings a story of just such an example: a report put out by two "financial consulting" firms about how a great many universities are on a "financially unsustainable" path.

As a side note - to make things interesting, one of these "consulting" firms is Mitt Romney's former haunt, Bain & Company. That doesn't really have any bearing on this particular report, but it's likely to heighten awareness of the story - and skew how people tend to see it. My dislike of the report has nothing to do with Romney, and everything to do with their approach itself.

The fundamental problem with the "analysis" done by these firms is their timeframe. They look at some 1700 public and private institutions specifically in the arena from 2005 to 2010 - in which fall some of the wildest fluctuations in endowment value, enrollment, state support, and revenue in living memory. Only a great idiot - or somebody with an axe to grind - would take this rather narrow time-frame of years (five years is the blink of an eye to a university) and attempt to make a trend-line argument about an "unsustainable path".

Then there is the broader global reality about outcomes and who has credibility to give advice to whom. University bankruptcies and closures are stunningly rare, even in recent years, and most universities have been around for decades - many for a century or more. What's the average lifespan of companies that Bain "advises"? Historically speaking, universities have been the model of "financial sustainability", as measured by how long they actually stick around as solvent institutions. Find me another industry with this many players (1700+), most of which last for decades or centuries.

Finally, they toss into their argument the old bugaboo about rising administrative costs. Yes, admin costs at universities have gone up. Bain blames boards and presidents, who need to "put their foot down" on rising administrative costs. As I've written before (here, here, and here), the forces that drive increasing administrative costs are complex and varied - and many of them are outside the control of universities. To argue that all a president or board need do is "put their foot down" is to display stunning ignorance about the industry - the kind of ignorance that should disqualify your "advice" from being seriously considered.

Higher education does indeed need some serious reform. There are significant problems, and past success (as the financial sector likes to say) may not indicate future results. But "advice" from consulting firms with questionable track records, and little discernible knowledge about how universities really work, is not going to help. Here's hoping that this "report" goes on the shelf quickly, there to be ignored in favor of serious conversation.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, and Penn State

By now, a tremendous amount has been written in the wake of the Louis Freeh report about Penn State's handing (or mishandling) of Jerry Sandusky. You can read the whole thing, and see Freeh's announcement at the release of the report, here. If you have any interest in higher education, you should probably read at least the summary - though it's not a pleasant story.

Follow-on stories about Paterno negotiating a sweeter retirement package - even while the Grand Jury investigations as going on - have only added more questions. One wag at Reuters even pointed out still more questions - like, does Penn State really have its own private jet?

All of this is interesting, and fun in a sort of watching-a-train-wreck kind of way. For people inclined to root against Penn State, there's a certain amount of schadenfreude going around. And by now, it's pretty clear that the cover-up by Paterno, Spanier, and two VPs at Penn State was pretty despicable.

Cover-up stories are hardly new. The Catholic Church is going through a large, slow-moving wave of similar issues (covering up crimes similar to Sandusky's, no less). Police departments (notably in New York and Los Angelis) have gone through periods of "blue wall" cover-ups in which wrongdoing by individuals within the organization was shielded from outside investigations. So the narrative here is pretty easy to construct.

A number of folks - including my friend & colleague, Steve Saideman - have pointed out that this particular cover-up represents the pinnacle of perversion of the university: the sports "tail" wagging the university "dog". This is certainly true - big-time college sports have become a serious problem at larger universities, imposing both economic and institutional (and, sometimes, moral and ethical) costs. Frankly, I'd like to seen them tossed off campus to survive on their own.

One question that occurred to me, interested as I am particularly in the higher education angle: why sports? What is it about sports as an activity that seems to attract this kind of questionable behavior? Scandals involving sex, money, and cover-ups at universities, to a substantial degree if not almost entirely, seem to emanate from this one area.

Universities engage in all sorts of activities, of course, that have greater or lesser degrees of attachment to their central mission of creating (research) and distributing (teaching) knowledge. The value of sports as an educational enterprise has always been suspect - but so are a lot of things that universities do. Extracurricular clubs and activities and campus-sponsored organizations and resources abound, many of which have only the most tenuous connection to educating students.

But scandals don't come from the Asian Student Association or the campus radio station or even ("Animal House" stereotypes aside) from Greek organizations most of the time. Hazing is certainly an issue (see Florida A&M - where the line between "marching band" and sports was thin if not altogether missing), and that sometimes leads to cover-up behavior. But usually not for long, especially when somebody dies or is seriously injured. I haven't done systematic research, but I'm willing to guess that sports are responsible for the vast majority of serious scandals, and cover-ups of same, involving universities.

It's tempting to blame the money, and many do. There is a LOT of money in NCAA Division I football and basketball - with much of the actual profit going to small numbers of individuals (coaches, league heads, bowl promoters). But (as usual) I think that the better explanation is cultural.

Sports, like most human activities, develops its own sub-culture. In order to build an effective team out of disparate individuals, all sorts of techniques are used to bind the loyalty of the players to the group - in some cases, techniques not that different from those militaries use. Fans, too, are encouraged to tie themselves to the larger whole - witness the use of the term "nation" in sports ("Red Sox Nation", "Buckeye Nation" and so on).

One of the psychological side-effects of in-group loyalty is a tendency to overlook flaws in the group, or in its members. Fifty years ago Fritz Heider was writing his Psychology of Interpersonal Relations and discovering how, if you really like somebody, you see their good points and don't see their bad ones. The stronger the emotion, the more you rearrange your perceptions to fit. Love (or hate) something passionately enough, and you will become delusional - you will see things that aren't there and fail to see things that are.

To me, this is why money and greed are less-good explanations for the kind of scandalous behavior we see in the world of sports. There are lots of ways to get money; a greedy person may love money passionately, but at some point rationality will kick in and they'll seek a better way to acquire it. But sports loyalties, built and developed over time, are deeper, more emotional, less rational. They appeal to our underlying tribal instincts.

The thing about tribal loyalties is that they are very much a two-edged sword. Loyalty to the group can inspire heroic behavior, and produce tremendous results from a group of otherwise-disparate individuals. We watch sports in part because of those inspiring moments when people transcend what we thought humans were capable of.

But tribal loyalty can also bring out the worst in us. Individually and on our own, few of us can be truly horrible for sustained periods - and those that are, are usually caught and stopped or punished. But in groups, where the terrible behavior of the few becomes protected by the blindness of the many, it can flourish. Worse still, as Stanley Milgram, Henri Tajfel, and others have pointed out, groups can make us far worse than the sum of our parts - can inspire us, through the pressure of loyalty, to do terrible things.

There is no escaping the dark side of sports. Certainly, there should be regulations, better accountability, and systems put in place to mitigate these effects. There is absolutely no excuse either for what Sandusky did, or for the failure of Penn State officials to do anything about it for over a decade. But in our zeal to reform, we should not expect to ever conquer this problem completely. With its emphasis on loyalty and identity, sports will always generate bad behaviors or the willingness to tolerate them. The sooner universities realize this, the sooner we can have a serious conversation about the costs as well as the benefits of sports programs, and what to do with them in the future.

Let's Call a Spade a Spade

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, a proposal has surfaced in the Big Ten Conference to give the league itself the power to fire coaches. There's a legal argument to be made here that this is nonsense - that no university can allow an outside, private entity power to fire its employees. I can only imagine how many contracts and labor laws, union or otherwise, this would violate. From the standpoint of university governance, it's a terrible idea.

But it does point to an underlying truth - one that universities might be better off if they would just recognize. The major collegiate sports leagues - the Big 10, SEC, Pac-10, ACC, and the rest - function essentially like professional sports leagues. They set rules, they arrange schedules, they determine membership, and they're run largely by a collection of their owners university presidents. Structurally and functionally, there's not a lot of difference between the Big 10 and, say, Major League Baseball - the only significant exception being that MLB has a license to act as a monopoly.

People inside higher education have known for years that top-tier NCAA Division I sports programs in football and basketball (and, to a lesser extent, baseball) are essentially professional minor leagues that don't pay their players. They trade on the built-in loyalty of fan bases (alumni), they sign big TV contracts and pay coaches big bucks, they even have some degree of player mobility (though without the structure of free-agency rules). They feed directly into the professional major leagues of their respective sports, which which they have close relationships.

If the Big 10 wants the ability to fire coaches, fine. Take the football and basketball programs out of the universities and set up a professional league. The league would be free to hire students as employees, paying them their tuition, fees, books, and even a salary. It could set rules and structures, and hire and fire coaches at will. 

Get all of this mess off the university's books, and call it what it is - professional sports. Instantly, all of the NCAA recruiting "scandals" disappear - because universities get out of the business of recruiting professional athletes. When we stop pretending that the players are amateurs, we can treat them like adults - let them have agents, let them shop their services around to the highest bidder. In the process, universities can stop subsidizing this nonsense - let the revenues raised by the sport pay for the activities of it. 

None of this is going to happen, of course. University presidents and would-be presidents have too much pride and prestige at stake in "their" teams. There's too much fear of alumni abandoning the institution and taking their donor dollars elsewhere - though I suspect that alumni would adjust, and a for-profit sports enterprise doesn't need donations, does it? In short, there are too many people in positions of power who are profiting hugely from the status quo. 

Which is a shame, because big-time "college" sports has far more downside than upside for universities. Maybe if a few more university presidents get fired (and, we can only hope, indicted and convicted), we'll see some real change.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Where the Ivory Tower Meets Reality

As a political scientist, I've always had an interest in things that governments are also interested in. My interests and theirs don't overlap completely - there is much that political scientists do that people in government couldn't care less about - but in general, people in my field study things that are the province of governments. That's what we do.

So the culmination of this story should be of some interest - and serve as a warning - to me and my colleagues:
Boston College Must Release Records in IRA Oral-History Case, Appeals Court Says
In this case, researchers at BC have been studying something I too have studied - the Northern Ireland conflict. And they have done so using methods that friends of mine have also used - talking to actual participants to that conflict about what they did and why they did it. What the US courts have said is clear: if a government wants your research notes and data, your promises of confidentiality to those people don't mean squat.

I've been aware of this case, and I can't say that I'm surprised with the outcome. Rare indeed is the circumstance where some other value is permitted to trump a government claim that this or that is necessary for "state security". Even in this case, where the investigations are of past activity, the logic still holds.

This case reminds us of an important lesson for researchers who care about stuff governments care about (including political scientists but also sociologists, psychologists, and all sorts of other social scientists). The words from the ruling cited in the Chronicle article are telling:
"The choice to investigate criminal activity belongs to the government and is not subject to veto by academic researchers" 
The line drawn here seems clear enough - "criminal activity". But as historians and political scientists both know, governments can and have defined a broad range of behavior as "criminal activity". If someone decides to study homosexuality in Uganda (where homosexuality has been outlawed) can that government demand that the researchers turn over their records, and get the US courts to enforce that order, so it can hunt down gays and prosecute them?

I suspect (of course) that there's a political element here - that US courts are much more likely to rule in favor of a government we like (Britain) over an issue we agree with them on (terrorism) than side with a government we have a much less cozy relationship with (Uganda) over an issue we disagree about (homosexuality). Which suggests (again, no surprise) that researchers in the United States need to be careful about researching things that might run afoul of American interests as perceived by the US government.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising. The freedom granted by governments (and the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, you only get freedom two ways - it is granted to you by the government, or you wrest it from the government through the use of power) has always been constrained by "state interests". As academics, we like to believe that there are higher values - and if you don't mind going to jail on occasion, you can press that view. Just don't expect "academic freedom" to be high on the priority list of those in power.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I Thought Politicians Were Supposed to Understand Politics?

An interesting and surprising bit of news today:
Virginia’s Governor Reappoints Rector of UVa Board
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Helen Dragas has been unfairly vilified; that she isn't really an ogre with horns; and that she really does have the best interests of UVa at heart. It is nevertheless publicly-confirmed knowledge that:

• She engineered the ouster of the president of UVa on extremely short notice, using a series of one-on-one meetings so that no one would know what was happening ahead of time.
• She did so without first developing any kind of a communications plan - not even a set of coherent bullet points - to deal with the inevitable questions that would follow.
• She and a few others on the Board of Visitors took this action on the basis of a casual and largely faulty reading of a few articles in the business and higher education press, as was documented in a series of emails uncovered by various journalists.
• The manner in which the ouster was conducted caused UVa's regional accreditor to raise serious questions about its compliance with accreditation standards.

To put Dragas' reappointment in terms of her motives entirely misses the point. What is entirely open to question is her competence. In the events of the past few weeks we did not see an effective leader - we saw someone with precious little idea of what she is doing. Failure at this level usually gets you fired, not reappointed.

Moreover, the bonfires of burning bridges in these past few weeks are big enough to contribute to the heat wave currently sweeping the eastern seaboard. How well, exactly, is Dragas going to work with a reinstated President Sullivan? How seriously is the faculty - now demonstrated to have significant power - going to take a Board still being run by the same person who caused this problem in the first place? Will Bill Wulf, the famous computer scientist, come back to the faculty knowing that Dragas is still at the helm?

You would think that a seasoned politician like Governor McDonnell would understand these things. Even if Dragas really isn't at fault, and really is much better than she comes across in this sad set of events, she is mortally wounded as a leader at UVa. Sometimes, you just have to accept the consequences and fall on your sword.

Apparently, the good governor does not have the sense to see any of this. And so it is likely that Moody's prediction of additional governance conflicts at research universities will get a boost from the same people who started this mess in the first place.

Business vs. Academia: An Interesting View from the Dark Side

In the wake of the Teresa Sullivan firing/rehiring debacle at UVa, much has been said about an old debate in academia: the applicability, or lack thereof, of models from the business world to higher education. I have made a few comments on this topic myself in recent days; today I bring an interesting note from the "dark side" (that is, the business world).

The note stems from a short comment issued by Moody's Investor Service, picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Moody's, of course, is one of the famous (or infamous) "ratings agencies" that exist to evaluate businesses with regard to their creditworthiness and general financial health. If you are of the view that business is a dirty, filthy, corrupting environment and that higher education should stay as far away as possible from it, then Moody's is something like the belly of the beast.

In that regard, the brief comment (less than 4 pages, much of it graphs and graphics) they have published is worth reading (see the link above). I don't agree with everything in it, and I have no doubt that their habit of putting the credit rating of every university they mention in parentheses will likely give some of my faculty friends the willies, but they come to a very interesting conclusion. In surveying the mess that was the UVa scandal, they write that

the clash between the president and some members of the University of Virginia board highlights the stabilizing effects of the counter-intuitive “shared governance” model still in place at leading US universities. Under this model, which is dramatically different from top-down corporate governance models as well as electorally-driven government models, the tenured faculty, and to a lesser extent the alumni, students and donors, have a powerful role to play in major university decision-making. 

They go on to point out that there is a problem between governance models at public universities, where boards are generally appointed by the state government, and funding models in which the state gives less and less money to those same universities. Moody's expects this disjuncture to create more conflicts in the coming years - an entirely reasonable prediction. But their report also suggests that even the ultimate bean-counters see real value in a model in which faculty have power "even to the extent of quickly blocking a strategic decision of the governing board".

I don't expect faculty groups to start inviting Moody's execs to their cocktail parties anytime soon. But this brief comment from the world of bean-counting accountancy suggests that there may be more common ground between business and academia than we had suspected - if we take the opportunity to listen.