Monday, March 01, 2010

Bless Their Hearts

Although Aunt B. tries to tell us out here in internet-land that the government of Tennessee is a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing missing links, I've held out hope for the place. My Dad grew up there, Aunt B. is from there, Memphis barbecue is great; it can't be all bad.

Alas, I'm thinking now that Aunt B was right.

My Tennessee relatives tell me that by the rules of local etiquette, you're allowed to say anything awful about anyone you want, as long as you preface it with "bless his heart." For example: Bless her heart, Sarah Palin is as dumb as a stump.

Bless their hearts, the Tennessee legislature is considering a law that would waive the usual degree and experience requirements to serve as a public college or university President there, but only for people who have served ten years or more in certain roles in the Tennessee state government. While I hate to go straight to 'motive,' I can't help but think that you wouldn't pass a law like that if you didn't intend to use it.

The money quote:

State Sen. Doug Overbey, a Republican who is sponsoring an exact copy of the bill in his own chamber, echoed Maddox’s sentiments.
“I do think service in these positions for 10 years is, in some respects, equivalent to a doctorate,” Overbey said.

And Tennessee politics is, in some respects, the equivalent of professional wrestling. For the record, the only equivalent to a doctorate is a doctorate.

Leaving aside the morality of it, what does a state comptroller know about running a college?

Higher ed is different from most of the known universe. Managing people with tenure is not the same as managing in a corporate or political setting. I take it as indicative that Dwight Eisenhower was a spectacularly successful military general and a reasonably successful President of the United States, but he struggled when he tried to run Columbia University. (Alternately, Woodrow Wilson was far more successful at Princeton than in Washington.) I don't know if it's easier or harder, but it's clearly different, and the President's office is a hell of a place for a learning curve. To assume that success will simply transfer would be like assuming that Michael Jordan would be a great baseball player.

Public colleges and universities are built on a subsidy funding model in an era that's allergic to subsidy funding models. They're populated with intelligent, independently-minded introverts who aren't used to being told they're wrong (whether they are or not). They serve multiple purposes, and lack a single clear bottom line. At the community college level, you have to mind local trustees, statewide governing bodies, regional accreditors, and Federal mandates, both funded and un-. At the university level, add tech transfer, athletics, dorms, and significant numbers of international faculty and students. In the South, I assume, you don't have unions to deal with, though I can attest that if you know what you're doing, a smart union can be a real asset. (Of course, if your union leaders are spiteful idiots, you're in hell.)

When you run a company, the goal is to make a profit. When you run a campaign, the goal is to win the election. When you run an army, the goal is to defeat the enemy. When you run a university, the goal is to...?

There's a necessary level of complexity and ambiguity to the task. And that's before even addressing the unique culture of higher ed.

The only way I could see this working -- and this is a huge leap -- would be for the President to appoint a strong provost from within higher ed, and to make that person the Chief Operating Officer. Let the President be a full-time fundraiser/lobbyist/public spokesperson, and let the provost actually run everything internal. That could work, but it would take a politician with a rare ability to set aside his own ego and to cede power to somebody else. (Actually, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a 'strong provost' model catch on nationally, as Presidents become more clearly fundraisers-in-chief.) But setting ego aside tends not to be their strong suit, as a breed.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with a host of issues facing public higher education in Tennessee, but "not enough politicians running campuses" doesn't even make the list. Public higher ed shouldn't where washed-up politicians are put out to stud. It's not just another agency or company, albeit with a different product. It's an animal unto itself. Bless their hearts, they don't seem to get it at all.