Wednesday, July 21, 2004

collaborative management?

I’ve just returned from a brief paternity leave, tired, pale, and happy.  The Girl is a much mellower baby than her brother was, for which we are already grateful.
My employer has recently engaged in a search for a high-level administrator, and I’ve been in on some of the interviews.  Without giving anything away about anyone, I was struck by the applicant etiquette that seems to have emerged.
Everybody has a collaborative management style, whatever that means.  (From what I can see, it means whatever the applicant says it means.)  Everybody is committed to diversity, which, in my mind, is sort of like being committed to gravity.  Everybody is committed to exploiting the opportunities made available by technology, whether through online courses, online courses, or online courses.  Everybody avoids micromanagement, consults with relevant stakeholders, gets involved with the community, eats their vegetables, flosses daily, and helps old ladies across the street.
Of course, the sameness of each of these categories renders them useless as screening mechanisms.
The most annoying repetition, though, is that everybody has the same new brilliant idea.  “Let’s be proactive in forming partnerships with private industry.” 
Well, let’s just stop and think about that.
The surface-level appeal is obvious.  As the bank robber Willie Sutton put it, “that’s where the money is.”  As decades of Republican rule have hollowed out the great mid-century achievements of the public sector, any public institution will be chronically starved for resources.  Higher ed takes it especially hard, since most voters seem okay with the idea that tuition should be proportionately higher than it was when they were students, and because education is, by definition, labor-intensive (and therefore uniquely impervious to productivity gains).  Since loose money is to be found only in the corporate world, strapped institutions should look there.
Or not.  In my time in the for-profit sector of higher ed, where the corporate ethos was accepted without question, I noticed some real shortcomings of the “let’s ask employers what they want” school of curriculum development.
The first, and most obvious, is that most employers have absolutely no idea what they want.  Five years ago, most of the private sector would have been happy to see every college in America convert to a computer training school.  Now, IT workers are a dime a dozen, and many of the employers my old school used to ask for advice no longer even exist.  Corporations have extremely short time-horizons, and, when asked, they reflect that. 
More significantly, a company that may be very good at designing buildings, or making cars, or bundling mutual funds isn’t necessarily very good at designing curricula.  Education is not simply a matter of presenting information; anyone who has taught can testify that what you say and what students hear can be vastly different.  Figuring out how to reach students is a skill in itself. (This is why I regard most efforts at “character education” as simply embarrassing.  They tend to adopt a Platonist pedagogy – to know the good is to do the good.  That Socrates got himself condemned to death by an angry city suggests limits to this strategy.  Socrates was a legendary teacher, foundational to Western thought, and even he had to drink the Kool-Aid.)
Most importantly, though, the interests of the employers are not the interests of the students.  Employers want more students in high-demand fields so they can lower the salaries.  By expanding whatever program tickles the Fortune 500’s fancy that year, we are complicit in watering down the life prospects of the more dedicated students.
A firm wants inputs it can use.  It doesn’t give two hoots about inputs that other firms can use, except in the very broadest (read: irrelevant) sense.  Hamburger University, at McDonald’s is built on this model – it generates managers for McDonald’s.  McDonald’s has no interest in employees’ portability to other firms, and rightly so.  When we track students into narrow, career-specific fields, we make them more vulnerable to the vagaries of a given industry (and, sometimes, a given company).  Employers like that, and they should.  Educators shouldn’t.
If we truly care about educating our students, we should give them the tools to, at the very least, chart their own paths.  That is not necessarily an argument for all philosophy, all the time – too much abstraction is as bad as too little – but it is an argument for maintaining a robust distinction between education (which we do) and training (which employers do).  Only by building the ability to compare, critically, different kinds of industries, companies, cultures, and the like, can students hope to be the ‘self-managers’ who can actually do well in a mercenary economy. 
And that’s only the economic argument.  Add the broader political argument – one of the purposes of higher education is to produce citizens capable of participating in a functioning democracy.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but workplaces (with rare exceptions) aren’t democracies.  Knowing how to take orders, shmooze bosses, and the rest is all fine and good, but at some point, today’s students will be tomorrow’s voters (or not, which may be even worse).  Employers, again, don’t give two hoots about this, and there’s no reason they should, but we should.  If that means including some history or politics in a program of study, rather than the umpteenth course on business communications, so be it.
Someone with political literacy might look at the “let’s beg for corporate money” model as a Trojan horse – the more money public colleges can raise from the private sector, the easier it is for legislatures to simply cut our appropriations.  Those cuts can fund tax cuts for corporations, from whom we can beg for some back, if we remake ourselves in their image.  It’s a losing strategy, long-term.  Better to stake a stronger public claim, to assert our own, independent mission, and to negotiate, when at all, from strength.
I don’t know if that counts as “collaborative,” or even “new,” but I think it’s right.