Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Quality and Profit in Higher Education Really ARE Inversely Related

One of the long-held beliefs in some corners of our society is the Free Market Faith: that introducing a profit motive (along with appropriate competition) can make anything better. Those who belong to the Free Market Faith are generally found in certain wings of the Republican party, although not all Republicans share this belief and there are plenty of Libertarians (and probably a few Democrats) who do.

In the realm of higher education, this Faith has been one of the few shreds of protection for the for-profit education sector. If it weren't for Free Market Faith folks, the for-profit college industry would be in even worse shape, seeing as how they offer a worse product at a higher price than one can get from existing universities and community colleges (h/t to Steve Greene for spotting that article for me). But there are still enough state governors and legislators who, as Faithful Adherents, want to give these poor free-market upstarts a chance.

In the realm of traditional higher education - that is, our long-standing universities and colleges that are collectively the envy of the world - there has long been a concern that for-profit means "low quality". This argument bleeds over into debates about online education, which is a separate question entirely. But because for-profits are private entities, we don't often get to look inside their books to see if there really is a trade-off between the quality of education and an institution's ability to make money.

Now, thanks to the Securities & Exchange Commission (and some excellent journalism from the Chronicle), we get to peek into at least one of these creatures' books. Some of the highlights:
In 2012 the Western Association rejected Ashford [for regional accreditation], saying the university had a high turnover of students, a vastly inadequate number of full-time faculty and student-support staff members, and inconsistent quality and rigor in its curriculum. 
Since then, however, the university has hired an accreditation insider as its president, slashed its admissions staff, and put more employees to work in areas meant to ensure students’ academic success. Those changes were enough to satisfy the Western Association, which last year awarded Ashford initial accreditation. 
But on Wednesday, financial data in the SEC filing from Bridgepoint revealed just how much the changes had affected the company’s bottom line. 
Instructional costs and services now account for more than half of the company’s expenses, compared with nearly a third in 2011. 
"In the second half of 2012, the company began to increase its instructional costs and services costs in direct response to … accreditation efforts," Bridgepoint said in its filing.
At the same time, operating profits have fallen from nearly 30 percent to less than 8 percent, Bridgepoint reported. 
And the effort to improve quality has had another price, the company said, in declining enrollments and revenue. The company brought in 20 percent less revenue in 2013, compared with 2012—a decline of nearly $200-million.
For-profits are learning what those of us in real universities have known for a long time: providing a quality education is not a cheap undertaking, and the more you cut corners the more you are likely to be stiffing your students to line your own pocketbook. Yes, universities today can be criticized for spending money on things they don't really need, or for having too many administrators, or for slowly walking away from tenure-track faculty. But for all of the arguments about "bloat" in our public universities, legislators should take a good hard look at the alternative at the other end of the spectrum: low quality, high drop-out rates, lousy outcomes, and massive student debt to pay for it all. These supposedly "lean" for-profits turn out to not be such a good bargain.

Academic Freedom in Perspective

In American higher education we have significant debates about the limits and rights inherent in our notion of "academic freedom". Rooted in the basic principle that scholars should be free to pursue the truth wherever it takes them, and to teach what their discipline requires (rather than bowing to public or, often, political pressure on this or that issue), the idea of academic freedom is fundamental to the American higher education enterprise. Hardly a week goes by when there isn't at least one story in the Chronicle about some professor or another, or some institution or another, debating the boundaries of what's appropriate and what kinds of speech are protected.

As important as those debates are, it's good to keep them in context. For the vast majority of western faculty, nearly all the time, academic freedom isn't much of an issue - even for those who study controversial subjects (evolution, global climate change, politics, etc., etc.) Hundreds of scholars (including me) signed an open letter criticizing the George W. Bush administration over the Iraq war; to the best of my knowledge, none of us suffered so much as a slap on the wrist. Contrast that to the situation in modern Russia (this from today's Insider Higher Ed):

A philosophy professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations was fired after writing an op-ed criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as akin to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, Reuters reported. The institute, which is affiliated with the foreign ministry, said it had dismissed Andrei Zubov for criticizing Russian foreign policy: "Let the inappropriate and offensive historical analogies and characterizations lay on Zubov's conscience, the leadership of MGIMO view it as impossible for A.B. Zubov to continue working at the institute,” it said in a statement.

Granted, I am no big fan of casual comparisons to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, there are some similarities between Russia's grab of Crimea and the German Anschluss with Austria - they're not the same, but there are some valid comparisons there. Whatever your take on the appropriateness of the analogy, however, it's clear that all this professor did was what American professors do all the time: disagree publicly with his government on one of the more important policy issues of the day. For that he was openly fired, without even a pretext that there is some other reason.

So the next time we are tempted to declare that the sky is falling because some American professor is abusing or being abused over academic freedom issues, remember that it could be FAR worse. And if the Moscow State Institute of International Relations calls with a job offer, you might want to think twice.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A "New Cold War"? Let's Review the Basics...

There's been a lot of talk in the media in the last few days, as the Crimea crisis works its way towards a de facto annexation by Russia, about a "new Cold War" between Russia and the US. John McCain, eager to criticize Obama on almost anything, seems positively slavering over the prospect. But what McCain wants to call a "return to Realism" is anything but, and those journalists who want to make parallels between today's geopolitics and the Cold War need to go back to school.

While there were differing theories about the Cold War and what caused it, they boiled down in the end to an argument between three camps - the Classical Realists, the Neorealists, and the Hegemonic Stability Realists. Each saw the Cold War in a slightly different light:

- For Classical Realists (e.g. Hans Morgenthau), the Cold War was a struggle between two fairly evenly matched great powers, one of which liked things they way they were (a Status Quo power) and one of which wanted to change the world in its image (an Imperialist power). For Morgenthau, the conflict was a struggle for power driven not so much by the particular ideologies (communism vs. democracy) as by the underlying motivations. The US, in Morgenthau's view, was trying to defend the world largely as it was, while the Soviet Union wanted to topple that world and replace it with something else in its own image. This was a classic "aggressor-defender" model on the world stage, and a fairly persuasive argument to folks like George Kennan who were architects of US foreign policy in the 1950s.

- Neorealists (Ken Waltz and his successors) agreed with the Classical Realists that the world was bipolar - that is, that the US and the USSR were fairly evenly matched, and that no other powers were anywhere close. But Waltz argued that, to a great extent, motive doesn't matter. You don't need one of the two bipolar superpowers to be Imperialist (or Revisionist, or whatever you want to call someone who wants to change the system); you just need for there to be two superpowers. That, in and of itself, will generate conflict largely through the Security Dilemma. Waltz' other insight was that, while this conflict flowed from the structure of the international system itself (never mind what the superpowers actually wanted, they were more or less destined to compete), a bipolar system also constrained that conflict to reasonably stable levels (i.e. no major wars). Indeed, as historian John Lewis Gaddis (a big fan of Waltz' work) latter put it, the problem was not explaining the Cold War but the "Long Peace" - how did we manage to go so long with no wars between the major powers? In Waltz' view, the Cold War was determined by the bipolar structure of the international system, which also kept it from getting too far out of hand.

- Hegemonic Stability Theorists (think Robert Gilpin) broke with both of these traditions and argued that the Cold War did not represent a period of bipolarity between two equal superpowers, but rather a competition between one Hegemonic power at the top of the heap (aka the US) and a Challenger (the USSR) which, while somewhat weaker, was trying to catch up and topple the Hegemon. This is not far off from Morgenthau's Status Quo/Imperialist categories, but Gilpin saw the power equation as more dynamic - that Hegemonic powers inevitably decline while Challengers tend to catch up and overtake them. This doesn't always happen, of course - sometimes the Challenger fails, as the USSR apparently did in 1991.

So if we want to be Realists about Russia (and, apparently, both prominent Republicans and journalists are just dying to wear that language), then the Cold War was either a bipolar struggle between two equal powers or a struggle between a hegemon and a challenger trying to unseat it. Depending on your flavor of Realism, motives either do or don't matter - take your pick.

Here's the problem - none of this applies to today's relationship with Russia. Any similarities are entirely superficial - the fundamental variables have all drastically changed. So talk of a new "Cold War" is not just premature - it's foolish. Consider:

- Today's Russia is not a superpower equal to the US. It's not even close. The Russian economy has shrunk drastically since its Soviet days, as has its military might and reach. The Russian army taking over Crimea is roughly like the US military invading Tijuana - it's right there, the locals are vastly overmatched, and there are no nearby counterbalancing powers. Morgenthau understood that power declines with distance; apparently McCain has forgotten that lesson. So recent events notwithstanding, we are not dealing with a bipolar world with power divided between the US and Russia. China and Europe are far larger things than Russia is.

- Whatever you think of Vladimir Putin's intentions, and whatever imperialist motives you want to attribute to the Russia psyche, they are not out to take over the world. At worst, Putin's Russia wants to reestablish the previous empire, which was slightly larger than Russia is now - and even that may not be in the cards. But whereas Stalin, Khrushchev, and even Brezhnev actively sought to overthrow of democracy in the West, Putin could care less about what kind of government runs Washington, London, or Berlin. He doesn't want to take over the world, just his corner of it. Which means that unlike the 1950s, there is no existential threat to the West - not that Russia has the power to pose such a threat in any case.

All of this, of course, is IR Theory 101. Russia would have to get a lot more powerful and (depending on your view) its motives would have to change drastically in order for there to be the potential of a new "Cold War". Absent those factors - which don't seem anywhere on the horizon - let's drop the silly historical comparisons and focus on what is. If you want to be a Realist in making US foreign policy, you need to deal with the real world of today.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How to Tell Your Industry Is In Trouble: Scare Tactics Disguised as "Research"

I've blogged before (here being the most recent) about the troubles of the for-profit, online education sector. The stories of closures, cutbacks, and retrenchments - not to mention investigations and legal woes - over the past year have been legion, and at some point I just stopped chronicling them. The evidence of an industry sector in crisis is pretty strong at this point.

So what does an industry in crisis do? Why, commission its own "research" and try to frighten states into backing off with their pesky investigations, that's what. We are now treated to just such a spectacle designed to "prove" how much states would have to spend if it weren't for those wonderfully civic-minded for-profits picking up the slack:
If For-Profits Vanished
One can only wonder what sort of hair-brained economic assumptions are baked into this "research" model. Given the radical decline of state support for higher education in recent years, I doubt very much that state legislatures would feel at all obligated to pony up $8.4 billion even if Phoenix and all of its ilk disappeared tomorrow. And given the marginal success rates of some institutions in the for-profit sector, it's likely that many of those 1.4 million students wouldn't go to college at all - which might not be a bad thing, especially if there are good alternatives in vocational schools and community colleges.

The fact that this "research" is funded by Phoenix's parent company and its founder's foundation, of course, rather gives the game away. No, funding does not always buy the results that you want. But given that the authors of this report seem to have gone out of their way to avoid bringing folks who might have a more objective (or even dissenting) view on board, it seems a pretty good bet that this was largely "made to order". I just hope that state legislators (including those in my own state) ignore this bit of nonsense.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Syria and the "Bosnia Dilemma"

While I and most of my intellectual kin have been having fun poring over the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea crisis (yay! Irredentism is relevant again!), there is still a very real, live, nasty shooting war going on in Syria. Efforts a month or two ago to negotiate something - even something as minor as a humanitarian aid transit agreement - have gone nowhere. As a result of the lack of progress and the sameness of the news, for most Westerners Syria has slid towards the back burner of international attention a bit.

Despite this, Barbara Walter has an excellent piece over at Political Violence @ a Glance with a very interesting suggestion for how the war in Syria might be brought to an end. Her idea, which she refers to as the "not so bad solution": give each of the main combatant groups "significant territorial autonomy". As she explains it:
This arrangement allows combatants to maintain political control over their own piece of territory as well as maintain control over their own security forces. This arrangement creates a situation where former combatants are able to enforce a peace on each other even if no third party exists to help them. The result is likely to be more willing negotiating partners and a more defensible peace.
She is almost certainly right in her diagnosis - that there is at present no negotiable solution in part because all parties still think they can win (and they have backers willing to keep feeding them money and weapons), and in larger part because nobody trusts a deal to be able to hold. Given the level of violence and the existential threats that various sides have been making towards each other, I think she's probably right - the basic need for security and the ability to trust that you won't be wiped off the map tomorrow are in short supply, and that gap needs to be filled before there can be any other kind of progress.

But as much as this may very well be the best of a bad lot of potential solutions, it seems that we've heard this tune before. In late 1995 outside powers pressured the warring factions within Bosnia - at the time the most violent and destructive conflict of its type in the world - into a deal that ended the fighting and stopped the killing largely by creating autonomous territories within a larger Bosnia. It is undeniable that many thousands of lives were saved by the Dayton Accords. It is also undeniable that, nearly 20 years on, the long-term, stable political solution they promised has not materialized. Bosnia today remains a mess, captive to the ethnic autonomous structures that enabled an end to the fighting in the first place.

People will argue - correctly - that Syria is not Bosnia. I would argue that it's worse, because the cleavages are not only ethnonationalist (Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds) but ideological as well (ISIS vs. the al-Nusra front). Nevertheless, it is possible to imagine something along the lines of what Walter is suggesting - dividing up the territory of Syria into autonomous zones so each population can have its own haven of relative safety. It may well be that the massive movements of refugees we have seen are already beginning to create that reality on the ground.

But as much as Walter may be right - this may be the only way to stop the fighting short of a LOT more death, which seems the most probably outcome - the Bosnia experience suggests a dilemma here. In the midst of crisis we often want to do whatever is necessary to end the crisis and stop the bleeding, because that means thousands if not millions of lives are saved. But the short-term fixes may make long-term stability and governance harder, not easier, and may lead to long-term suffering of different kinds - corruption, poverty, despair, and instability that might eventually lead back to war. Certainly today's Sarajevo has not made the progress that many hoped it would.

So what to do? The classical nature of a dilemma is that it has no solution. Either the crisis continues, with massive amounts of casualties in the short run, but hopefully eventually produces a stable solution from which progress is possible; or someone steps in to alter the situation in the short run so that fewer people die, but in the process condemns the country to generations of poverty and crappy governance (at best). This is a nasty choice, if choice it is at all. Barbara Walter may be right - her suggestion may be the only not-so-bad solution possible. If so, that's a terrible thing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Power, Character, and Respect: Machiavelli Is Beside the Point

Although I almost never post anything (other than blog post links) to Facebook, I posted the following to my FB timeline earlier today:
People fear power. People respect character.
Since a good chunk of my FB friends are poli sci geeks like me, I quickly got references to both Machiavelli (who obviously made this observation, more or less, long before I did) and Socrates. But as much as I still spend some of my professional life (including my last blog post) musing about politics, that wasn't really what this is about. Unlike good old Niccolo, I'm not interested in giving governments or government leaders advice on how to successfully run a country - which is good, since they're not listening to me anyway.

The context in which this observation was meant, and for which it is much more interesting, is organizational. Loosely, an organization is an entity with a bunch of folks arranged in some kind of structure (usually hierarchical) which is collectively trying to achieve some mission or set of goals. Within the organization, individuals have their own goals, motives, and incentives, giving rise to the oft-cited "organizational politics". One reason why I have had some measure of success in academic administration is that organizational politics follow many of the same laws and predictable patterns as other politics, so there is a connection between what I study and what I do.

One of the interesting challenges to leaders in organizations is the leader-follower dynamic (or, if you're an academic geek, the principal-agent problem). Leaders, of course, want to lead - meaning they want the people under them in the structure to do what they (the leaders) want. Indeed, much of what people think of as "leadership" boils down to "telling other people what to do and getting them to do it". This is a necessary function of leadership, to be sure - although the latter part (getting people to do what you want) can be tricky.

But many organizational leaders, I suspect, don't want merely to be effective in ordering others around. They also want to be respected and admired, including by the people beneath them in the organization. Part of this is ego, part of it may be a sense of efficacy - if people respect me, they are more likely to do my bidding (true).

And this is where organizations differ from, say, running a country - and why Machiavelli is beside the point in an organizational context. Because an organization, even a fairly large one, is still small enough that the relationships between individuals at different levels matters. I work in a fairly sizable university, with up to 2400 employees - faculty, staff, etc. We all work in a space that's fairly geographically limited, and in an organizational context where, while the senior leadership doesn't see everybody every day, there are opportunities for direct interaction that you don't have even in a town or municipality of similar size. The population of the town I live in is substantially smaller than the staff + student population of my university, yet I have far more interactions with people at the university (up to and including the president) than I do with the mayor or town officials of my town.

So relationships matter organizationally. And this is where leaders can get themselves in trouble. Because the higher up the food chain you are in an organization, the worse the information you get. People hate to tell leaders bad news, and they particularly hate to tell them they're wrong - because the leaders at the top have a lot of organizational power, and people are afraid of that power. So if a leader does something foolish that ticks off a lot of people, they're unlikely to hear about it or to see its effects - until the effects are so big and obvious they can't be ignored.

Unfortunately, being in an environment of mostly positive feedback all the time can cause leaders to confuse being feared with being respected. They may conclude that, since no one is criticizing them, everyone thinks they're doing a great job. This is, of course, a serious delusion that leaders have to go well out of their way to fix - if they even want to, which most of them don't.

I have heard many eloquent arguments about the importance of doing "full 360 degree" reviews of personnel, especially leaders. If you want to know how someone is doing, talk to their supervisor, talk to their peers and others on their level, and talk to the people who work for them and others beneath them in the structure - all with total anonymity and no possibility of knowledge or retribution (as much as can be credibly arranged). The benefits to such an evaluation, in terms of getting at the real truth of the matter, are obvious. I've also never seen an organization - including any of the five colleges and universities for which I've worked - do one, ever. It's hard to find a better idea so widely avoided.

I've thought of all of this recently because of a few events (the details of which I can't write about here) where I've seen people in positions of leadership do things that seem almost calculated to destroy respect. I don't think they ARE calculated - I think they are done out of ignorance. But because the people in question have power, the fear which that power generates mitigates (in the short run) the damage caused by the lack of respect.

In the long run, such people aren't doing themselves any favors. But even that is a probabilistic statement - lots of people who are not respected (and whose characters are highly suspect, if not downright despicable) nevertheless succeed in a professional arena. The fact that their organizations are probably measurably worse off for that success doesn't end up mattering much, because those losses are "opportunity losses" - things that might have been, had the leadership been better, but didn't come to pass. Being invisible, they trouble very few, least of all the leaders busy confusing fear with respect.

There's an open question on the end of all of this - given how prevalent these mistakes are, is it the case that organizational leadership selection processes are biased in favor of those who would lead by the use of fear rather than respect? Or are we simply seeing the distribution otherwise reflected in the general population - that most people, given the choice, would rather control through fear than influence through respect of character? That's a question far too large for a blog post, or even for a lifetime of research. But for myself, I know what sort of leader I would like to be if ever I am given that opportunity - and I continue to add to my stock of negative examples, gathered over a nearly 20 year career.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Russia, Ukraine, and Ethnic Partition: We're Still Right

The problem with not having much time to write these days is that other people, both smarter and faster than I am, get there first. Thus my friend and co-author Steve Saideman has already blogged about the Ukraine/Russia/Crimea situation not once but four times: here, here, here, and here. Andrew Kydd recently added an excellent piece at Political Violence @ a Glance, where some of Steve's stuff has also appeared. There's lots of other great stuff out there, too, from some very bright people who have more time to think and write than I do. So much for Nicholas Kristof's argument that political scientists aren't engaged in blogging enough on today's issues.

Despite being slow off the blocks I feel some obligation to jump in, if only because I was primarily responsible for the Russia chapter in my book with Steve on ethnic irredentism - a chapter that features the Crimea case prominently. In that chapter we argued that Russia didn't go after the Crimea in the 1990s because, while the locals were supportive of such a move, there wasn't enough of a coherent Russian identity within Russia to fashion an ethnic irredentist campaign on.

That's still true today. Putin is no Zhirinovsky. But he is clearly running Russia as a strong man, meaning that he needs both carrots and sticks to maintain the power of his regime. And this brings us back to the argument of the Bill & Steve book - that irredentist foreign policy is driven no so much by primordial nationalism as by domestic political calculations. Just as Milosevic could be a Serbian nationalist (even if he didn't believe a lot of the primordialist rhetoric he was spewing), Putin can be a Russian nationalist if it helps his domestic political cause.

Here Kydd's piece (cited above) is onto something. The main thrust of his argument is international - is Putin trying to divide Ukraine or develop a bargaining chip to control them in the future? But there's a domestic political side to this, hinted at when Kydd writes:
It ["liberating" Russian-speaking provinces like Crimea from Ukraine] would certainly send a signal that crossing Moscow is very dangerous, and it would bring direct tangible benefits by bringing home Russian territory and populations while greatly weakening the rump Ukraine. Putin, the recoverer of lost territories! Putin as Bismarck!
Irredentism is a signal not only for the future Ukrainian leadership, but for Russians at home. A lot of Western press focuses on the repressive side of Putin's regime - running politically-motivated show trials, jailing members of Pussy Riot, forcing critics into exile abroad. All of this is certainly real, but very few regimes can run on repression alone. Putin needs a base of support, preferably from a substantial majority of Russians who think he's doing a good job.

Whether "liberating" some bits of Ukraine will actually help build his base of support or not is an open question - but it seems reasonable to suspect that it will. It is certainly likely to play well in the western regions of Russia nearest Ukraine, where there are perceptions (however fallacious) of an impending Ukrainian "fascism" that will suppress the Russian-speaking population. If Putin can achieve either de facto or even de jure irredentism with a minimum of cost, the rest of Russia is unlikely to care much, generating a net positive for Putin's domestic political standing. The moment irredentism costs him serious political problems at home, I suspect he'll find a way to drop it.

Steve has wondered whether we will need to write a second edition of For Kin or Country to update the Russia chapter (assuming Columbia would actually publish such a thing). Certainly current events might warrant such an update, in that the previous outcome (no Russian irredentism) may be shifting before our eyes. But I think the underlying argument of the book is still sound. For all that Realists want to focus on the international balance of power calculations of the Russia-Ukraine relationship while ethnic Primordialists want to talk about the fundamental need for empire deep in the Russian psyche, in the end domestic politics tends to drive the bus. In that conclusion the book is still sound, even if the outcomes of particular cases change over time.