Friday, September 21, 2007


Projects, Promises, and Bank Shots

There's a great pair of posts up over at Bardiac's dealing with frustration over repeated overpromising (and selective guru loyalty) by administration. They're worth checking out.

Via Evil HR Lady, I found a nifty post on mandatory diversity training, and why companies (and colleges) keep doing it even though it has never been shown to work.

The common thread, I think, is that much of what administration deals with has to be dealt with indirectly. When you look at an indirect measure literally, it looks asinine or even insane. (Sometimes, of course, it is.) But some of it makes sense when seen as prevention of some other disaster.

As the post on diversity training explains well, the point of diversity training isn't to sensitize employees to diversity. Anybody with any teaching experience at all can tell you that herding a hundred people into an auditorium for mandatory consciousness-raising for ninety minutes won't work. It's terrible pedagogy, and virtually designed to fail; it's also insulting. If the point of the workshops were to change attitudes and/or behavior, those would be valid objections. But that's not the point of the workshops. The point of the workshops is to be able to answer a legal complaint alleging bias with “we take these issues seriously. See, we run mandatory workshops on them for all employees!” It's about defusing potential liability.

(Admittedly, this implies a shockingly low opinion of the judicial system. But that's another post altogether.)

If deposed, a manager can say “we provide x number of hours of training.” As with credit hours, what gets measured is seat time. Changed behavior and/or attitudes are devilishly hard to quantify, but seat time is remarkably easy. If somebody alleges, say, racism, and can prove some kind of different treatment at something (which is sort of like proving that the sun rose in the East), the burden shifts to the college to show that it isn't racist. (The presumption of innocence is remarkably weak in this area of the law.) You can't prove a negative, so the college has to use proxy measures. (Quick – prove you're not thinking about a polar bear!) Seat time in diversity seminars counts as a proxy measure. If the discrimination laws were more intelligently written and enforced – say, dispense with the requirement to prove a negative -- we could dispense with these Potemkin rituals. But they aren't, so we can't. If we did, we'd lose every case, whether it had any merit or not.

Bardiac's case is a little worse. In that case, the administration promises every so often that it will tie resources to outcomes assessment. It doesn't – that's a stupid, because unkeepable, promise to make – and over time, the faculty figure out that getting caught up in this year's guru isn't worth it.

In that case, I'd say her administration is doing a lousy job of conveying the point of outcomes assessment. It's also making promises it should know it won't be able to keep, which is a great way to burn credibility. (In a tenure-based setting with an enrollment-driven budget, most resource decisions are dictated by circumstance. Discretionary money is maddeningly rare.)

The point of outcomes assessment is twofold: to help students become more successful, and to prevent the NCLB/standardization movement from taking hold in higher ed. It's sort of like the PG/PG-13/R movie ratings system – by voluntarily adopting its own rating system, the movie industry is able to argue that legislated systems (which could be far more restrictive) aren't necessary. If we can develop a reasonably passable internally-generated assessment system, the argument goes, we could avoid having to administer, say, the GRE to every senior.

I'm no more a fan of the 'guru of the month' movement than Bardiac is. A smarter administration than hers would stick to a single style over time, and refrain from making promises it can't keep. Anybody with any social science background can tell you that you don't need to assess every single student to assess the success of a curriculum. Do representative samples; keep data over time; look at the macro trends. And for goodness' sake, don't burn out your best people over this. But to the extent that we can report, with some level of truth, that we're systematically identifying areas of weakness and trying to do something about them, we can (I hope) head off boneheaded standardized testing.

One of the habits of mind I've had to learn while deaning is what pool players call the 'bank shot.' Unfortunately, many managers either don't understand the bank shot and mistake the expedient for the point, or can't communicate it in a way that faculty will understand or respect. (Worse: in the case of the diversity training, if we communicated clearly that the workshop wasn't to be taken literally, we'd defeat its usefulness as a proxy. So we play dumb.) So faculty get herded into auditoriums to hear highly-paid consultants tell them not to be racist, or less-highly-paid administrators make promises that nobody expects to be kept, and wonder why otherwise-intelligent people suddenly drop fifty IQ points when we move into administration. We don't (at least some of us); we're just playing a different game. In my perfect world, most of these measures wouldn't be necessary. But unilateral disarmament doesn't bring peace, and ignoring legal or political dangers doesn't make them go away. I don't like sensitivity training either. But I dislike even more the possible consequences of not doing it.

DD this was great.

It's important for those of us who aren't admin to be reminded that you're goals and motivations are substantially different than ours.

Sometimes dumb is just dumb but your hand is forced.
This argument sounds eerily familiar to those made a few weeks ago with regard to student drinking/hazing incidents.

The goal being not to reduce or eliminate certain behaviors, but in the event of a worst-case scenario, for the institution to avoid liability by being able to show they have the usual preventative, but less than effective, measures in place.
Boy, I'm feeling really lucky after having read your post and Bardiac's posts. See, at our institution we have outcomes assessment that is tied to incentives. And it works for us.

The faculty of a particular department come up with a plan to assess their content area (the assessment committee helps if requested). They conduct their assessment. GenEd is done by everyone who teaches a GenEd course. The prof chooses ONE of a list of competencies/goals to assess for each class taught. Thus writing is assessed by the folks teaching the writing intensive courses.

And now for resource allocation. To encourage real assessment that actually gives the department useful information on holes in student learning (and not the "well we have to do assessment so we'll set the bar at six inches off the ground so everyone can jump it" kind), the Assessment Committee awards funding to address issues discovered through outcomes assessment. Students not getting an abstract concept that's difficult to visualize? Let's get some simulation software to help them grasp it. Next year, see how they're doing on that outcome and see if the intervention has helped. I can provide other examples if anyone wants them.

The way we've approached it is to have faculty in charge of their own assessments rather than prescribing one particular system or method or guru. The administration has also scrounged a little bit of money to encourage and reward outcomes assessment with meat. Honestly, it really doesn't take that much money, and you can probably find external funding to take care of it to see if it works at your institution.
That 'you can't prove a negative' thing is not that simple. I live in a system where we had it until last year as you want to have it: The person discriminated against had to prove the point.

Rather hard, because he/she only has his/her own data. The company has data from all employees but didn't have to make them public in court. Since the company was always able to find a justification for this one person's treatment, discrimination was NEVER proven. Certainly, everything can be carried too far, but to me, it makes sense to put the higher burden of proof on the people who actually have access to the data.

In a way, I think you are just too optimistic: You seem to assume that reasonable people wouldn't want to discriminate. I think this wonderfully enlightened attitude comes from a few decades of court decisions that enforced a certain learning. At my previous institution, even these incredibly stupid awareness classes would have told some people some really surprising news.
How much less expensive would higher education be if we could eliminate costs that everyone agrees are pointless? How many more persons could we educate? How much more discretionary money might there be to work with?
I agree that a large part of diversity training is to avoid legal liability, but it also provides better legal grounds for discipline. Firing or demoting someone is much easier, as well as less subject to legal challenge, if you can point to clear prior instructions that were disregarded.

So the net effect is that it helps defuse lawsuits not just from the discriminatee but also from the discriminator.
Last Anon -- That's a great point. There's something to be said for taking a principled stand in public, even if you know its effect on behavior is likely to be fleeting at best. At least you've gone on the record.

KS -- yup, we spend resources on CYA maneuvers. I'd rather not, but it's cheaper than spending them on legal judgments or settlements.

Schlupp -- that cuts both ways. I've been falsely accused of racism, so I've had to prove a negative. (Amazingly, I succeeded.) There's a principle in (most of) the legal system to the effect that it's better to let the occasional criminal go free than to convict the innocent. Although that principle has fallen out of fashion of late, I still think there's something to it.

MountainLaurel -- that sounds good, though I can imagine my folks gaming the system pretty badly. There's a basic conflict of interest any time you tie material incentives to the grades professors give themselves. Some of mine would quickly figure out that they could cry wolf every year, and hog all the goodies.

Of course, Bardiac's point about class sizes -- if they really wanted to improve student writing, they'd cut class sizes in half -- remains true.

First anon -- yes, but. It's easy to condemn symbolic actions if you know what the Really Effective Actions would have been. Do you have the final solution to racism? I don't, and I don't know anybody who does. (The same applies to student drinking, btw.) Since nobody really knows how to solve these issues, symbolism is all we have. I'd rather go to a trial-and-error system, myself, but the liability issues there are prohibitive.
Indeed racism, student drinking and a whole host of other problems are difficult issues. I certainly don't have the final solution to racism, however it increasingly strikes me that those who are either in positions of authority and/or who have responsibility for addressing a given problem, are quite often not the ones directly and most adversely affected by a problem, so they have the luxury of throwing their hands in the air, pointing to the symbolic and claiming that to be the best or most viable solution, when it perhaps what it actually is, is the best one they are able to see from their perspective. Thus "shielded" from the real and painful consequences of that problem there is less incentive or motivation to develop or implement different or creative solutions to them.

It is interesting how quickly perspective and therefore understanding, and finally motivation and subsequent action can change when someone unexpectedly falls victim to a problem (e.g. so-called reverse discrimination, homelessness through fire or natural disaster, bureacratic snafus, etc.) that they begin to think and behave differently than they might otherwise have. For example, identity theft is a huge and growing problem in this country. Privacy advocates urged stronger measures be taken to compel corporations to take more care in securing data in their systems or to notify customers when there had been a breach that put their information at risk. However such measures were pretty much gutted by the time they got through Congress. I do recall an incident however that exposed the personal information of Congress members and all of a sudden strong legislation was introduced by a member of congress thus exposed.

Now, I am not advocating that the symbolic be thrown out without having something better to replace it. Neither am I suggesting that a system of trial and error would be more effective. What I am saying is we should always be searching for ways to improve upon what we are currently doing rather than just settling (Jim Collins discusses this in "Good to Great"). We often assume that substantial change involves involves a complete overhaul when perhaps it is someting at the margins that needs tweaking or a particular point in the process that is at issue. But without the will to even examine, there is no way.
Hi Dean Dad,

I can't find the original post as it seems to have moved.

However, It strikes me that it woudl be interesting to run the Harvard IAT on participants before and answer and see if diversity training reduced or increased bias.

I suspect some training, if it focusses on negative associations may increase unconscious bias, while trying to raise awareness of conscious bias.

Potentially, watching an inspirational movie about successful minority athletes may end up improving actual diversity outcomes more than the conventional training does.
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