Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Yaz Problem

My grandfather was a long-term baseball fan.  In the 70’s and 80’s we used to visit him and Grandma in Michigan once or twice a year, and he and I would usually spend some time watching games in the living room.  Back then, baseball on television was relatively scarce: you’d have the local team, maybe, and then the network “Game of the Week.”  One “Game of the Week” in the early 80’s featured the Red Sox.  Carl Yastrzemski was batting cleanup.  

“Yaz,” as he was known, was at the tail end of an impressive career.  In the 60’s he won the triple crown (batting average, home runs, and runs batted in), which nobody else did for decades.  He remained a fearsome power hitter well into the 70’s.

But by the early 80’s -- I’m thinking ‘83, but I could be wrong -- he wasn’t that anymore.  He was pudgy, and slow, and at the time of the game hitting about .240 with minimal power.  (For non-baseball fans, I’m saying he wasn’t good anymore.)  He had outlived his talent, yet he continued to occupy the spot in the batting order that would normally go to someone at the peak of his game.  I remember the announcers fawning all over Yaz, and being puzzled at the disconnect between what they said and what I saw.  When I asked Grandpa, he muttered something about what Yaz used to be.

The manager and the announcers were so in love with the past that they couldn’t see what fresh eyes easily could.  Yaz had hung on too long.

He wasn’t the only athlete to do that, of course.  The end of Muhammad Ali’s career wasn’t pretty.  Rickey Henderson and Steve Carlton’s careers outlived their impressive talents.  For whatever reason, it can be hard for former greats to know when it’s time to go.  For the ones in team sports, hanging on too long can actually hurt the team.  The team winds up wasting a valuable spot on a non-producer; meanwhile, there’s no room for someone new to break in.  

I think of the Yaz experience from time to time, but it came up twice this week.  The first was the strange blurb about Louis Agnese Jr., the 30-year President of the University of the Incarnate Word.  The Board there is pushing him into a mandatory leave to address “uncharacteristic behavior;” his profanity-laced response offers unintentional insight into what they may have had in mind.  The second was the story of Bard College’s finances, which are struggling mightily; its President, Leon Botstein, has held that office since 1975.  Yaz was still good then.  I was seven years old.

Administration is a very different thing from baseball, of course.  You can have mediocre eyesight and bad knees in administration, and still be effective.  In fact, the folks at Aspen found that nearly every president of an Aspen-prize winner had been in office on that campus for at least ten years.  Higher ed being higher ed, change takes time; some level of continuity of leadership allows for sustaining focus long enough to bring positive changes to fruition.

But honestly, the Yaz problem is real.  Sometimes the good ones hang on too long.

What does the Yaz problem look like in higher ed?  I’ve seen a few versions of it.

  • Loss of boundaries between the role and the person.  This can lead to inappropriate behavior, whether financial, sexual, or just general.  
  • A too-smooth homogeneity bordering on groupthink, as “awkward fits” have been either worn down or kicked out.  
  • Sporadic memory loss, increasing impulsiveness.  The quality of decisions starts to drop.
  • Applying old playbooks to new situations without knowing it.  This is the “still bat him cleanup in his 40’s” move.  Sometimes the person hasn’t changed, but the world has.  

It’s a tough problem to fix, because the people closest to the problem are often the least equipped to do anything about it.  And reputations earned in one era can linger into another, preventing accurate perception until the damage is done.

We hear a lot about succession crises in higher ed; Boards often respond by choosing presidents who have already been presidents for decades, on the assumption that a good track record is a valuable predictor.  And it can be.  But too little appreciation of the Yaz problem can lead to shutting out the next generation, and to declining before anyone realizes it’s happening.