Monday, June 18, 2012


Strategic Whatnow?

In the wake of the mess at UVA, in which a President was pushed out by a rogue faction of a Board that felt she lacked “strategic dynamism,” those of us who follow these things have been left to wonder just what that might mean.

Apparently, it has much to do with emergency-style centralized management.  The idea seems to be that an organization in which a single maximum leader can turn on a dime can be more responsive to shifting external trends.  By this reading, President Sullivan’s primary sin would have been something like “not being mercurial enough.”

Prior to this episode, I had never heard of “strategic dynamism,” and I have to admit feeling like I didn’t miss much.  At first blush, it seems absurd.

But even granting its absurdity -- which I eagerly do -- doesn’t answer the question of its appeal, or of its best alternative.  Why would intelligent people accede to mercurial dictatorship -- what this piece in the Chronicle diagnosed as narcissism -- as the answer?

I’d guess that it’s based on a regrettable but entirely defensible sense that democratic and participatory environments don’t do cuts well.  They’re great at growth, but they buckle under the pressure of cuts.  And when cuts need to be made, it’s better to make them in the service of a single vision than just by choosing the path of least political resistance.

InsideHigherEd’s account suggests that President Sullivan’s grave sin was defending the classics and German departments from elimination.  Most of the commentary, unfortunately, centered on the choices of departments.  The real issue is the willingness to make choices.  

Over the last few decades, colleges and universities have proven quite capable of not making choices.  The default mode of handling cuts -- attrition -- has led to an increasingly adjunct faculty.  When those who are at the table reach a “compromise” that involves shifting the vast majority of the sacrifice onto those not yet at the table, an ethical violation has occurred.  

On the rare occasions when a college or university tries to take the opposite route -- close some programs to preserve others at full strength -- the political pushback is catastrophic.  Invariably, the folks who lose will claim that they “weren’t consulted,” as if they would have agreed to their own terminations.  Votes of no confidence and censure follow, and the college retreats to treating everybody just a little bit worse.  As Peter Drucker put it, culture eats strategy for lunch.

(Something similar is true in our politics.  The California death spiral is largely a function of the polity’s unwillingness to face reality.)

So I can see where a Board that sees what it considers an emergency might be attracted to a decision-making process that short-circuits internal interest-group politics.  That’s not to say that the UVA board was anything other than amateurish in what it did and how it did it; it’s just to say that I can see how it got there.

That leaves people like me in a lurch.  I reject the “mercurial narcissist” model, but I share a hard-won sense that the conflicts of interest within the existing system render genuine deliberation nearly impossible.  After all, I’m hard pressed to name a single case of a college or university making significant cuts -- entire programs, say -- in a way that was both strategic and democratic.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one.  (Readers who know of cases are invited to share them in the comments.)

“Strategic Dynamism” is a placeholder that goes where you would put an actual answer if you had one.  (Put differently, it’s a euphemism for “whatever the boss wants at the time.”)  But rejecting the answer doesn’t mean rejecting the question.  Are open and inclusive settings actually capable of making unpopular and painful decisions?  

I don't understand your confusion about this, DD. The Board is clearly advocating something like your ideal college, one with no tenured faculty so the colleges can adapt rapidly and dynamically, twisting this way and that at the slightest shift in the student winds. Not what Jefferson had in mind, but there isn't a single Jefferson in this lot.

How this makes sense when the "product" takes 4 or more years to move through the factory simply boggles the mind. Even more so if you know anything about Assessment of Learning Outcomes. Someone has to maintain continuity for that to happen.

The other part I liked is the new detail of thinking German is pointless when you are in a business concerned with banking in Europe. Wouldn't you like to know what they are saying behind your back? Nah. Stick with Chinese so you know what your new masters are telling you.

Finally, you do have to wonder what moron came up with such an oxymoron term as "strategic dynamism" in the first place: a plan that is no plan at all, just jerking your knee when one term in your spreadsheet fluctuates a bit.
Um, isn't this just a personality conflict with the rich guy?
Punditus, you mean like the personality conflict between Trotsky and Stalin?

Seriously, however, another Monday article in IHE might be more relevant to where we function at a CC. That is the one concerning a letter from a Georgia Southern prof, specifically the part about who is the most important person on campus.
I have to say (as I circle the drain in the California death spiral), the mess at UVa has left me hoping against hope that Sullivan ends up as Chancellor of the CSU. She seems just the person for the job.

Look to the "obscure" sciences like geology and physics (sigh) as the next targets once the humanities are dispatched with. I already hear rumblings.
The California death spiral is largely a function of the polity’s unwillingness to face reality.
Really? Here I thought it was the scare tactics that got a 2/3 supermajority needed to pass budgets, raise taxes, etc.. A property tax system rigged to support immortal "people" (aka corporations) who own land. Prop 13 and is subsequent propositions were sold as protecting grandma & grandpa. The interests with money got their system in place to dismantle the public services with that Trojan Horse. Hard to overturn when a supermajority is required. Facing reality is not the issue. You have to deal with the interests with $$$$. The system has been rigged to prevent dealing with reality. It is about holding a gun to the public.
CCPhysicist, as the same Anonymous Coward as the one who lashed out at yesterday's post, I really do think you're being a bit unfair to DD here.

The one thing I did appreciate about Sullivan's management style - and the thing that, based on the tales he's shared here, I think DD would appreciate as well - was the honest desire for buy-in among all of the constituents of the university. One way you can get more responsiveness from your faculty is to actually empower that faculty to make decisions with the best interest of the school in mind, instead of centralizing all of the decisions under one silo. On the budgetary side - where it really matters - that's what Sullivan was doing, and doing to genuinely positive effect. She was making headway, and given a couple of more years, I believe, would have started tackling the big issues.

I think where we all agree: institutional change cannot happen overnight. It takes time, and it takes the rank-and-file having real control over that change and empowerment to deliver real results. The error on one side is to say, if sufficient change has not happened in two years, to overhaul the institution regardless of any other facts on the ground.

But the other error - which DD has been concerned about, and which so deeply frustrates so many of us - is to leave people in place who are steadfast in the belief that what worked in 1987 is good enough for 2012, regardless of any external pressures. It's not.

Sometime between two years and twenty years, we had better figure out how to respond to the kinds of pressures that created the mess at UVa, or we're all going to be in the same mess ourselves.
It seems to me as if "strategic dynamism" is little more than a process of continual churn--managers changing their programs simply to follow the latest fad, setting up new programs or killing off old ones simply to chase after the latest twists and turns of the job market, creating and eliminating programs simply to follow the ups and downs of the stock market.

I saw a lot of this while I was working at Large Telecommunications Company. It seems that we would reorganize just about every other day, based on someone's view of what the current marketplace was like. We would add new features or kill off old ones at a moments's notice, based on what the Wall Street weenies were saying today. Responding to anticipated market trends, we would go on sudden hiring binges, followed soon after by massive layoffs when the bubble inevitably burst.

I see similar trends in education here in Large City. Suddenly, a whole bunch of schools in the area are beginning to offer culinary programs. This will inevitably lead to a massive oversupply of culinary graduates, most of which will be unable to find jobs. A similar bubble happened when a whole bunch of colleges and universities began to offer law schools, leading to the current glut of lawyers.

This continual churn is an example of one of W. Edwards Deming's seven deadly diseases--short term thinking. I suspect that the next outcome of such short-term thinking will be a massive adoption by colleges and universities of on-line education, with educators imagining that a lot of money can be saved by replacing ordinary bricks-and-mortar face-to-face teaching by a series of remotely-located websites.

A lot of colleges and universities are forgetting what their mission really is, and are confusing means with ends. Instead of creating new knowledge and educating the next generation of citizens, the goal of the university is now to raise money and to reduce costs. The educational model becomes indistinguishable from the corporate model--students become customers, faculty members become employees, and courses become commodities.
The system has been rigged to prevent dealing with reality. It is about holding a gun to the public.

And yet we in the great state of California could use propositions to change this if we chose. Heck - we tossed out a perfectly good governor in a recall for the chance to save $70 per year on our car registration fees. If there's a gun to our heads it is we who will be pulling the trigger. I only hope that changes to our term limit laws allow more Moderate Republicans to break with the party line and engage in the kind of compromise that would allow us to raise some revenue and pay for the stuff we need as a community to be safe and to grow.
Again, why are we taking this "strategic dynamism" stuff seriously? It's just a corporate buzzspeak for "pissed off the rich guy".

I will never understand the current vogue in American culture for ignoring people who at least try to tell the truth in favor of people who don't even understand that you're not supposed to lie.
The firing of Teresa Sullivan, not due to any academic considerations but because of the influence of one rich donor, was a blatant violation of academic freedom. All UVA professors have an obligation to stand up to this. They should not cooperate with the new UVA President in any way, or even speak to him.
Anonymous Coward observed:
"I think where we all agree: institutional change cannot happen overnight."

My observations were based on the premise that "we" might all agree with that, but those pushing "strategic dynamism" do not. They want under performing departments, those that do not turn a profit, gone ASAP. And, as others noted, the only way you can have the flexibility to change educational programs overnight is to be able to fire faculty on that same time scale. Not when the institution as a whole is not in financial trouble.

Now I do agree that I was a bit hard on Dean Dad, but I see the situation at UVa as a reductio absurdum of some of his proposals. Odd that it would show up at the LAST place he suggested might head down that path.
I didn't see it as particularly absurdium; UVa is pursuing very much the course he has repeatedly advocated.

I don't usually mix it up in the comments, what with the day job and all, but this is really a bit much.

For years, I've advocated long-term renewable contracts for faculty and administrators, and I still do. To reduce that to "twisting this way and that at the slightest shift in the student winds" is either stupidity or demagoguery. UVA violated the long-term contract it offered the president.

I noticed, too, that nobody answered my challenge to name a single college - just one - at which faculty were able to overcome the inherent conflict of interest and made unpopular cuts in a democratic way. Just sayin'.
Maybe higher education isn't the sort of place where "unpopular cuts" are supposed to happen well?

I thought the whole idea was to take a stable group of people who can contribute to the institution, because they don't have to be constantly and exclusively focused on their careers...
For an alternative view of the UVa situation, see this:

I was struck by this paragraph:

"I suspect that one of the reasons Sullivan was fired is that she did not recognize the problem or believed it was not urgent. And why should she? Her salary and benefits exceed half-million dollars a year, even after losing her job as President. Five UVA employees earn over $500,000, another eight earn over $400,000, another 24 earn over $300,000. Of the above only 15 of the 38 actually teach, the rest “administer.” "

Mr. Dantes, do you have any citations for that other than a right-wing blog? Because you already cited Pajamas Media, is where I'm going with this. So you don't care much about whether a statement is true or not when you repeat it.

If a big chunk of your readership, a group of people who have self-selected for affinity for you, "misinterpreted" your statements, maybe it's time to take that seriously?
Thanks for entering the discussion, DD, but you can't overlook the fact that your reason for medium term renewable contracts is to have flexibility of the sort they seek across all of UVa. Being able to change the direction of an entire university in 5 years or less is, in our world, extremely dynamic, even if it isn't based on department-level cash flow as seemed to be the idea at UVa.

I have never seen a specific proposal from you that could be described as "long term". That would only apply to rolling contracts of more than 5 years once the person has been promoted past various probationary contract levels, so the person gets at least 5 years warning of anything other than the total abolishment of a department or termination with cause. Renewable contracts, where you get maybe one year's notice at the end of each 3- or 5-year period, are not "long term".

By the way, I think our college might meet your conditions for a collegial response to budget cuts. Some of the most important proposals came from the faculty.

Finally, the oddest thing is that the push for "dynamism" at UVa came from someone whose construction business survived the depression because it was extremely conservative during the bubble rather than reacting "dynamically" to the supply-demand situation in the mid-Naughties.
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