Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Data and Debate

Bonnie Stewart made a statement on Twitter yesterday that made me sit up.  She wrote that big data inherently undermines shared governance, placing more power in the hands of administration.  

If that’s true -- and I don’t believe that it has to be -- then higher education has a serious problem.

The statement stopped me short because it’s easy enough to describe the conditions under which that happens.  Statistics show that program A works and program B doesn’t.  But program B has a loud and aggressive constituency, and program A doesn’t.  There’s enough money to fund either, but not both.  Who wins?

In that scenario -- any experienced administrator has been through it -- you have a choice.  Do you go with the politically easy choice, or the one with truth on its side?  How much political pushback are you willing or able to endure to do what needs to be done?

In the abstract, it’s easy to criticize that scenario as oversimplified.  What do you mean by “works”?  Are the goals themselves legitimate?  What about when the data are flawed, or ambiguous, or cherry-picked?  What about the things the data can’t (or don’t) capture?

But in actual cases, those larger issues are often less relevant than one might expect.  Defining the conflicts away through epistemological caveats may score debating points, but it doesn’t lead to making an actual decision.  It leads to postponing, possibly forever.  Sometimes, postponing really isn’t an option.  Or it amounts to making a decision in itself, favoring the currently favored over alternatives.  This is the flip side of the idea that data is a cudgel for administrators to use.  

(One of the habits of mind I had to learn, when I moved from faculty to administration, was accepting the reality of limited or conflicting information and making decisions anyway.  If you wait for the dust to settle, you will wait forever.  That’s especially true in settings in which some people kick up dust deliberately, precisely to prevent decisions from happening.  You’ll even see that in job ads for administrative positions -- language like “must be capable of working with ambiguity” pops up for a reason.)

If we replace the word “data” with the word “facts,” the problem is clear.  Does shared governance require a fact-free environment to thrive?  If it does, what does that imply about shared governance?  (Or, as Stephen Colbert puts it in a different context, “reality has a liberal bias.”)

Yes, people can use inside information to get what they want.  They also use bluster, and emotion, and force, and all sorts of other things.  If we ban information, but leave bluster, emotion, and force intact, I don’t see the decisions getting any better.

The issues aren’t confined to data, or to information generally.  State and Federal governments are taking much more active -- some would say intrusive -- roles in academic decisions than they have in the recent past.  Those mandates don’t come with the option of local nullification.  In those contexts, decisions that were once well within the purview of shared governance are now shared with the public at large, with the public having the final say.  

My sense of it is that the meaning of “shared governance” is much murkier than it used to be.  How does it work when a faculty is majority adjunct?  How does it work when a state hands down a mandate?  How much sense does it make to divorce shared governance from budgeting, when so many curricular and policy decisions have budgetary impacts?  (For those keeping score at home, I had the same question about the political thought of Hannah Arendt.  If you separate “the economic” from “the political,” you’re left with a pretty thin concept of “the political.”) nThe external constraints on colleges are far greater than they’ve been, and increasing, and often not really subject to internal veto.  

Last Spring I saw a presentation by a community college from Michigan about “Data Day,” during which they take over a classroom and put up posters with key data points on every wall, along with sheets for comments.  The idea is to bring a common base of information for discussion.  Yes, the selection and framing of the data is non-neutral; that’s inevitable.  But I like the idea of educating the discussion before getting to the conflictual part.  Here’s the mandate, here are the facts as we know them; now what should we do?  Skipping those first two steps isn’t a sign of respect for shared governance; it’s a passive-aggressive way of destroying it.

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