Sunday, May 13, 2012

Less of the Same

This may be a little “inside baseball,” but here goes.  I’ll have to be a little vague just to protect the people involved.

In my state, as in many, there’s a move afoot at the state level to impose greater “accountability” throughout public higher education, but especially on community colleges.  (In the words of Spider-Man’s uncle, “with small appropriations come great responsibility.”  No, wait...)  A few legislators heard a few anecdotes, and bad ideas are starting to snowball.

Predictably, a countermove is also afoot, with some folks trying to develop a voluntary alternative that would have many of the same effects.  The idea is to beat the legislature to the punch, in the name of maintaining some level of control.

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of this strategy.

That’s not because I have great faith in the wisdom of the legislature.  The fact that we’re having these conversations in the first place is a sign that the legislature’s willingness to make rules based on apocryphal anecdote knows little bounds.  (“I know someone who knows someone whose nephew...”)  Its weird willingness, almost eagerness, to extrapolate from unsubstantiated trivia does not inspire confidence.

But there’s something really unsatisfying about trying to preempt bad ideas with just-barely-less-bad ones, justifying them on the grounds that they’re self-inflicted.  It may or may not work in the very short term, but it gives bad ideas political momentum and cover.  Over time, it shifts the political center towards bad ideas.  “Yes, we agree with every bad thing you say about us, but how about if we agree to get tough on ourselves and feel really, really bad about it?”  By agreeing to the spurious charge, even if insincerely, we’d give it political legitimacy.  I just don’t think that sniveling cowardice is a viable long-term position.

At some point, it seems like the right move is to confront the issues directly.  

There’s some risk involved in doing that, of course.  We could lose, a terrible idea could be enacted, and we’d have to live with it.  But if the preemptive compromise involves giving up most of what we care about anyway, the marginal downside strikes me as small.  And the possible upside is enormous.

Community colleges have nothing to apologize for.  You don’t like high unemployment?  An educated workforce might help.  You don’t like high student loan burdens?  Low tuition is always handy.  You don’t like palatial dorms with climbing walls, or scandal-ridden football teams?  No problem here.  

More to the point, if we’re going to improve in significant ways without significant infusions of money -- a tall order in the best of times -- we’ll need the freedom to experiment.  That means avoiding any sort of external mandate, whether legislated or “voluntary,” in favor of room to move.  Mandates that come with enormous piles of cash might be worthwhile, depending on the specifics, but if the funding is shrinking, I really don’t want to hear it.  “Less of the same” is not a serious answer.

Some fights are worth it.  It’s time to put those anecdotes on the table and hit back with truth.