Monday, March 01, 2010


Bless Their Hearts

Although Aunt B. tries to tell us out here in internet-land that the government of Tennessee is a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing missing links, I've held out hope for the place. My Dad grew up there, Aunt B. is from there, Memphis barbecue is great; it can't be all bad.

Alas, I'm thinking now that Aunt B was right.

My Tennessee relatives tell me that by the rules of local etiquette, you're allowed to say anything awful about anyone you want, as long as you preface it with "bless his heart." For example: Bless her heart, Sarah Palin is as dumb as a stump.

Bless their hearts, the Tennessee legislature is considering a law that would waive the usual degree and experience requirements to serve as a public college or university President there, but only for people who have served ten years or more in certain roles in the Tennessee state government. While I hate to go straight to 'motive,' I can't help but think that you wouldn't pass a law like that if you didn't intend to use it.

The money quote:

State Sen. Doug Overbey, a Republican who is sponsoring an exact copy of the bill in his own chamber, echoed Maddox’s sentiments.
“I do think service in these positions for 10 years is, in some respects, equivalent to a doctorate,” Overbey said.

And Tennessee politics is, in some respects, the equivalent of professional wrestling. For the record, the only equivalent to a doctorate is a doctorate.

Leaving aside the morality of it, what does a state comptroller know about running a college?

Higher ed is different from most of the known universe. Managing people with tenure is not the same as managing in a corporate or political setting. I take it as indicative that Dwight Eisenhower was a spectacularly successful military general and a reasonably successful President of the United States, but he struggled when he tried to run Columbia University. (Alternately, Woodrow Wilson was far more successful at Princeton than in Washington.) I don't know if it's easier or harder, but it's clearly different, and the President's office is a hell of a place for a learning curve. To assume that success will simply transfer would be like assuming that Michael Jordan would be a great baseball player.

Public colleges and universities are built on a subsidy funding model in an era that's allergic to subsidy funding models. They're populated with intelligent, independently-minded introverts who aren't used to being told they're wrong (whether they are or not). They serve multiple purposes, and lack a single clear bottom line. At the community college level, you have to mind local trustees, statewide governing bodies, regional accreditors, and Federal mandates, both funded and un-. At the university level, add tech transfer, athletics, dorms, and significant numbers of international faculty and students. In the South, I assume, you don't have unions to deal with, though I can attest that if you know what you're doing, a smart union can be a real asset. (Of course, if your union leaders are spiteful idiots, you're in hell.)

When you run a company, the goal is to make a profit. When you run a campaign, the goal is to win the election. When you run an army, the goal is to defeat the enemy. When you run a university, the goal is to...?

There's a necessary level of complexity and ambiguity to the task. And that's before even addressing the unique culture of higher ed.

The only way I could see this working -- and this is a huge leap -- would be for the President to appoint a strong provost from within higher ed, and to make that person the Chief Operating Officer. Let the President be a full-time fundraiser/lobbyist/public spokesperson, and let the provost actually run everything internal. That could work, but it would take a politician with a rare ability to set aside his own ego and to cede power to somebody else. (Actually, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a 'strong provost' model catch on nationally, as Presidents become more clearly fundraisers-in-chief.) But setting ego aside tends not to be their strong suit, as a breed.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with a host of issues facing public higher education in Tennessee, but "not enough politicians running campuses" doesn't even make the list. Public higher ed shouldn't where washed-up politicians are put out to stud. It's not just another agency or company, albeit with a different product. It's an animal unto itself. Bless their hearts, they don't seem to get it at all.

Your comment that "When you run a company, the goal is to make a profit. When you run a campaign, the goal is to win the election. When you run an army, the goal is to defeat the enemy. When you run a university, the goal is to...?" reminds me of Plato's Ion, where Socrates confronts the idiot Ion on the road and explains to him that he doesn't have any art when he interprets Homer.

Ion likens himself to a general on the basis of his experience as an interpreter of Homer. Socrates asks him whether he should have run the last (or the current) war, and Ion is tempted to answer yes.

You seem to reduce the experience of others, while retaining complexity for yourself. Are you so sure that generals are not confronted by complex tasks when they go to war? Or business people? Or anyone? I think that everyone believes they hold a 'special' place in the universe, not just academics.

Socrates' point out in the dialog that Ion's position in the world is not fully realized (or realized at all), and that, as satisfying as his metaphysical reasons are to OTHERS, they leave him an empty vessel as an individual thinker. This breaks the macrocosm-microcosm logic of Protagoras, who as you recall said that "man is the measure of all things." Ion is the measure of man insofar as he repeats the words of the gods (which pass from above, through the muses, through Homer, through Ion, to the sheepy people who came to watch their sheepy plays), but he cannot explain the reasons why that should be.

Logic and reason (the stuff of criticism in Socrates' mind, if not in the modern mind) trump metaphysics, which leaves everyone satisfied but leaves the individual a lump of mental goo, who is used by the muses to pass their message along to the people, but whom wiser people (like Socrates himself) need to figure out, because they can't figure things out for themselves.

That's not an enviable position to be in (and for the record not one which I would assign to you). But I think you can do better.
I grew up in TN so I feel free to speak to the embarrassment this brings. Simply unimaginable!

There is a real schism in the country that does not include the "haves" and the "have nots" but rather the "ruling class" and "the rest of us poor suckers." Claiming that 10 years in the state assembly is equivalent to a doctorate is a remarkable insult and so ignorant as to barely deserve rebuttal. While it is true that lying, cheating and doubletalk are necessary skills in government, they do not serve the long term needs of academia.
It's not simply a matter of whether experience in another field might or might not be applicable or useful in higher ed. One can't discount the lack of credibility such a provost would have among the faculty.

And as someone who grew up in Alabama, and whose family is from TN and GA, I remember "bless your heart" all too well. It is delightfully absent in Midwest-speak.
That an elected body feels comfortable about blatantly bending the rules for their pet candidate is depressing.

That said, "Public higher ed shouldn't be where washed-up politicians are put out to stud" should be made into a needlepoint sampler. I'd put that in my powder room.
Which ever washed up pol ends up as president, the University of Tennessee will have a bang-up basketball team, and might make some progress in conference football. Given the athletic expectations, 10 years of experience in state political office is sufficient experience to bring about the desired outcome.

I am sure that some outstanding faculty will be available at fire sale prices.
Your analogy with Michael Jordan is more appropriate if you relate his skills on the basketball court to those in the front office, not another sport. As it stands, another fair comparison would be to assume that if one has a PhD in the fine arts, that they could hack it in the hard sciences. (And we all know that is not true.)

As far as the requirement that one hold a PhD for this position and substituting experience... in the real world, many positions will do exactly that -- or vice versa, substitute education for experience.

Furthermore, I'm not convinced that one must hold a PhD to run a university -- many, many top positions at many companies require business and political skills, not the knowledge to make the company's widgets. And in this current economic climate at public universities nationwide, I can definitely see the need for people who know how to navigate the complex political waters. I'd rather have an ex-politician who knows how to work the system, than an introverted physics PhD.

None of that, however, excuses the likelihood that the TN legislature is likely creating this for their own selfish purposes, rather than the benefit of the electorate.
See WVU's recent history for an example of the potential havoc such a mix between politics and higher ed. can bring.
And I thought that a colleges and universities existed to create and chare knowledge.

Silly, silly me.
Apart from whether or not a person who hasn't previously worked in a university might be capable of managing one well--I'd posit the best answer is a "probably not, with many possible exceptions"--the real question is how the faculty will react to this leader who isn't "one of us." Or perhaps I'm thinking of this as the "real problem" because I'm at the New School, where our non-academic president has been--er, what's the nice way to say this--a source of continual contestation since about 90 seconds after he arrived. Some of it has been problems with management style, fit between his ideology and the prevailing faculty and student ideologies, etc, etc, etc. But I don't think you can discount the fact that you've got a faculty full of PhDs, including a big, well-organized adjunct union, muttering to themselves, "This yutz? What's he doing as my boss?"

Academics aren't just highly independent and difficult to work with; we're also insufferably elitist. Now, I think we're generally elitist for a reason, but that really needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about how to manage us.

Yeah, they're stupid and this isn't a power play.

Yeesh, I hope nobody posting here has their Ph.D. in Poli Sci. Or their BA, for that matter.
I don't agree with PunditusMaximus too often, but I do this time, and yes, I do have a Ph.D. in political science.

FWIW, here in North Carolina we've had some experience with this lately. The shenanigans at NC State were a perfect example of the downside DD writes about--sinecure jobs for politicians and their familes. On the other hand, Erskine Bowles (former Chief of Staff to President Clinton) has, by all I hear in my corner of the UNC system, done a decent job as President of the UNC system.

People here appreciate his presence because he's a politician--he knows how to work the state legistlature so our funding cuts haven't been bad (at least not like some places) and the State Assembly isn't trying to muck around in how we teach (like they have previously). Not all his initiatives are popular--some profs don't like the way he wants to add some form of community service to P&T guidelines--but generally he knows his job and does it.

And places I've been the president's job is to get money, and the provost's job is to use it. A glad-handing politician president teaming up with an experienced academic Dean cum Provost doesn't sound so bad, prima facie.
I think that DD's point about the goal of a university compared to the goals of a company, a campaign, and an army is worth considering. I haven't been in an army or a campaign, but the diffuse message of higher ed compared to a company was the first thing that struck me when I moved from Large Company to Public University. Both have complexities, but in a company those complexities ultimately channel to a goal of the company making money. In higher ed there is no single outcome like that. "Making our students succeed" is part of it, but it wasn't/isn't #1 in the tenure/promotion process at the R1 where I research/teach/serve.
Rubashov: "A glad-handing politician president teaming up with an experienced academic Dean cum Provost doesn't sound so bad, prima facie."

I'd bet that the goals of this proposal were to (a) strengthen partisan political control of universities and colleges, (b) loot them for partisan purposes and (c) provide nifty retirement spots for politicians.

Anonymous: "many, many top positions at many companies require business and political skills, not the knowledge to make the company's widgets. "

Yes, but when somebody is put in as CEO in a company, with zero knowledge of the industry, one might not expect success.
I salute the leaders of Tennessee for taking a bold step backward. They clearly have studied Alabama's recent 2-year college history (Google "Roy Johnson Alabama").

I have seen examples work where the Pres. is the front man, and the (insert Provost-type title here) leads the management team. But that's the exception. Over time, that Provost either becomes a President, or moves to another state.
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