Sunday, October 26, 2014


The Bossypants Conundrum

In this, as in so many things, we can learn from Tina Fey.

There’s a passage in Bossypants that got relatively little attention, but that stood out for me.  It was in her SNL years.  She wrote a sketch set in a restaurant and noticed, in rehearsal, that some of the prop people had drawn Osama bin Laden on a tablecloth.  (It’s something like that; I neglected to highlight the passage at the time.)  She asked them why, and they replied that they thought it would be funny.  She objected that it was distracting, and that it interfered with the direction of the sketch.  She made them remove it.

For a single vision to work, other visions had to be sacrificed.  

Following the tech industry as I do, much the same is true there.  Apple is rightly celebrated for bringing remarkable and groundbreaking products to market, and Steve Jobs was revered as one of the great creative minds of our age.  But the creative products it produces are only possible because of a remarkably repressive production regime.  Cupertino may be home to a host of “creatives,” but Foxconn assembly lines are not known for being warm and fuzzy.  (A few years ago, Foxconn responded to a spate of workers committing suicide by leaping from the roof of the factory by...installing nets to catch jumpers.  I am not making that up.) Tightly controlled production makes design innovation possible.  

Higher education is starting to experience that tension, but it rarely names the problem.

In many ways, higher education’s mode of production is still artisanal.  Each professor sets her own standards for grading, selects her own materials, and to a significant extent reigns supreme in the classroom.  The apprentice-journeyman-master structure of grad school makes some sense in the context of an artisanal model.  The artisanal model has its own dogma, in which academic freedom and shared governance are supposed to ensure that the artisans are substantially left alone.  As with any working dogma, it has its own internal contradictions -- shared governance can work against the autonomy of dissenters, for example, which is why dysfunctional department meetings are endemic to the industry -- but it has held up for long enough that some people think it’s natural.

Over time, the economic limitations of the artisanal model led to a wave of unionization based on the industrial model.  Unionization had clear benefits, although it introduced a whole new set of tensions.  For example, the artisanal ideal that every professor is a special snowflake sits uneasily alongside payscales determined solely by seniority.  “Master” status relies on being somehow special; collective bargaining relies on solidarity.  And the boundaries between curricular decisions, which are subject to shared governance, and economic decisions, which are subject to collective bargaining, aren’t always clear.  Is program elimination curricular or economic?  (The correct answer is “yes.”)  Still, to the extent that the unionization drive reinforced the artisanal ideal of faculty being substantially left alone, most of the contradictions could be contained.

Now a new logic is emerging, and it’s bringing new tensions.  State governments, often following initiatives from national foundations, are starting to look more intentionally at community and state colleges as branches of state workforce development systems.  In so doing, they’re working to shift the locus of decision-making from the campus, where shared governance remains the preferred method of decision-making, to the state.  Instead of deferring to faculty, whether individually or collectively, they’re looking at student behavior and employer preference as guiding factors.  Student behavior -- discerned through data analytics, or Big Data -- increasingly trumps faculty preference.  And employer preference, rather than faculty judgment, is increasingly dispositive.

In a sense, the latest shift is from a producer-centered model to a consumer-centered one.  (That’s true whether you construe the student or the employer as the consumer.)  Colleges are increasingly referred to as “pipelines.”  In states with strongly centralized systems of governance, the shift is relatively straightforward; in states like my own, the tension between home rule and statewide coherence is palpable.  Seen in that light, the move in Massachusetts a few years ago to shift appointing authority for Board chairs from the Boards themselves to the Governor makes sense.  If colleges are to function as organs of the state, they need to be accountable to the state.  The tensions on campus between local preferences and state demands are mediated by administrators, whose jobs are becoming exponentially more complex.

If you like, of course, you can construe the latest shift as simply an expansion of “shared governance” to include the body politic.  As long as state governments are elected, there’s an argument to be made that subjecting colleges to legislatures is, in fact, more democratic than deferring to a self-perpetuating priesthood.  Expertise and democracy have never been entirely comfortable together, and public higher education is no exception.

In a sense, the for-profits were ahead of their time.  They got to ‘centralization’ and a consumer-centered model before everyone else, and in many cases, followed the logic of those models to their logical conclusions.  Faculty whose professional expectations reflect a blend of the artisanal and industrial models regard the new direction with skepticism and some hostility, and it’s easy to see why.  (Of course, for-profits’ governance was by shareholders, rather than citizens, which brings an entirely different set of issues.)

The latest model has its own contradictions, naturally.  Too strong a focus on getting students through a pipeline can lead to grade inflation and a general lowering of standards, which would defeat the purpose.  Part of the reason that so many highly-qualified people are willing to teach for very little money -- adjuncts most obviously, but junior full-timers, too -- is that they enjoy the autonomy the role has historically allowed.  To the extent that the new model chips away at that autonomy, it slowly corrodes its own economic underpinnings.  (How many students go to grad school with the dream of eventually teaching at DeVry?  I’ve never met one.)  And employer preferences are often more complex than policymakers imagine.  Anyone who has attended as many Employer Advisory Board meetings as I have can tell you that the “soft skills” that politicians often deride usually make it to the top of employers’ wish lists.  The stereotype of “hard” employment skills being opposed to “soft” academic skills is factually incorrect, but that nuance is often lost in translation.  The model is still new enough that it’s not clear whether the contradictions will be containable.

I offer this historical sketch not to advocate one vision over another, but to try to get a handle on some recurring issues.  Last week the Chronicle reported on a simmering conflict in Minnesota, in which a statewide faculty union objects to the Chancellor’s strategic plan on the grounds that they weren’t included in writing it.  They don’t take issue with the contents of the plan as much as the process of making it.  From a short-term, pragmatic perspective, that can seem silly; if you don’t object to the content, what’s the issue?  But to the extent that the process stokes simmering anxieties about a shift in the locus of power, it makes sense.  Giving up home rule feels like a loss, even if the statewide policies enabled by giving it up are unobjectionable.  

In the case of Tina Fey’s sketch, the resolution was quick and clear; she made the call, the sketch went on as written, end of story.  In the case of higher education, I see the resolution, if any, being gradual, uneven, and sometimes jarring.  But we’re smart people, generally.  Hegel famously noted that freedom is the insight into necessity.  I’m hopeful that some insight into necessity will allow us to stop being buffeted by external forces, and to discern ways forward that preserve the best of what we do even as the world changes around us.

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