Monday, November 07, 2005


Though I’m not any kind of libertarian, I have to admit making some very libertarian sounds whenever I hear about the ‘legacy’ airlines and their inability to compete with ‘low-cost rivals.’ Isn’t that called competition? If you get beaten by a ‘low-cost rival,’ isn’t that another way of saying that you’re not productive enough? Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work?

I’ve heard that Southwest (one of the low-cost airlines) is as heavily unionized as any of the legacy carriers, so unionization isn’t the issue. Productivity is.

In academia, ‘legacies’ are unimpressive kids who get admitted to selective colleges because their parents were. It’s sort of affirmative action for underachieving rich white people.

In IT, ‘legacy systems’ are old systems that still work, that need to be worked with while changing over to new systems. ‘Migrating’ from one system to another is always, always, always a nightmare.

The common denominator is the dead hand of the past weighing down the present. Whether that dead hand takes the form of unproductive uses of labor, as in the airlines, stupid admissions decisions, or the evolution of IT, in every case the legacy is a burden.

Higher ed has major legacy costs.

As a community college, the question of who to admit is moot – we take everybody. So we dodge that bullet. But our IT systems are constantly changing, and we can’t just wipe the slate clean and start over. Tenure decisions we made back in the 1970's are still with us now. Strange work rules in the union contracts have crusted over with layers of expectation over the years, so they survive despite nobody quite being able to explain them. Curricular choices made thirty years ago dictated hiring patterns twenty-five years ago, which dictate curricular choices now.

The Supreme Court’s arrogant and morally wrong decision to make tenure a lifetime entitlement, rather than have it expire at the normal retirement age as the AAUP originally intended, ups the ante on legacy costs for us.

We pay the legacy costs of a senior faculty by not hiring very many junior faculty, except as adjuncts. This, in the name of protecting the workers.

The ridiculous architectural choices of public sector schools in the 1960's are biting us now, as (unspeakably ugly) squat brick buildings start to fail. (Why, oh why, did educated people in snowy and rainy climes agree to flat roofs? Why? Was ‘gravity’ too abstract a concept?) Wiring, phone networks, power: all dreary subjects, all costing us WAY more than they should as the result of decisions made long ago, in very different contexts.

A startup college could be much more efficient, even if the caliber of management were no better, simply by virtue of the legacy costs it would be spared. The buildings could be designed for energy efficiency and computer use (and the roofs for intelligent drainage!). Nobody would have tenure yet, and a system based on long-term contracts from the get-go could avoid the harrowing abuses to which tenure is subject. Curricular decisions could be based on current patterns, with hiring decisions made accordingly. The IT systems could start with a blank slate. The library could be fully wired from the beginning. Parking could be allotted based on the number of cars people actually use.

Most private-sector companies are younger than most public colleges. (That’s the upside of the constant churn of a competitive economy.) Let us purge some of our legacy costs, and we could be much more productive, too. Until then, we just do what there is to be done.