Monday, August 13, 2012

Of Systems, Silos, and States

Cal State is refusing admission to graduate students from California; it’s only taking out-of-staters, citing the need for their sweet, sweet tuition surcharges.  

It’s ridiculous, but it’s also sane.  Cal State is being starved of funding, and it’s acting to protect itself.  That’s what independent institutions do.  If they can protect themselves while serving the public, they generally will, but if it comes down to “serve or survive,” they’ll choose to survive.  In the absence of a coherent system, the silos will do what makes sense for them.  Besides, if a silo took the ethical high road and chose suicide, it couldn’t serve in-state students, either; at least this way it can maintain its own programs, and maybe feed the local workforce a bit.

From a systems perspective, the issues California is facing are perfectly designed to rend public higher education asunder and turn it over to the for-profits.  But the state isn’t thinking in systems, and it certainly isn’t building them.  It has an old master plan -- a fairly intelligent one, actually -- but it prefers not to fund it.  So it turns the local campuses loose, and they do what they have to do to protect themselves.  In the meantime, students who can’t get classes have the option of continuing to work the drive-through window for a few more years while they wait, or of going online and signing up for a for-profit.

The irony, of course, is that a fiscally-driven “go your own way” policy actually winds up costing much more.  Students who attend for-profits consume far more financial aid than students who attend publics -- especially at the two-year level -- and less educated workers are less productive, and therefore less helpful as a tax base.  It’s a false economy.

(The issues at the City College of San Francisco are similar.  There, the basic lack of central administration has allowed the departments to go their own way; now, the college is in serious trouble with its accreditor.  A college that’s just a collection of silos isn’t viable.)

Governor Brown seems to be trying, but he’s necessarily just putting out fires at this point, and even that isn’t a sure thing.  If this Fall’s tax referendum doesn’t pass, the damage will get even worse.

There’s a dramatic leadership vacuum at the heart of the matter.  

It’s clear that the state of California lacks the ability and/or willingness to restore the status quo ante.  In the absence of a tremendous economic boom that makes everything okay, the best they can offer is to slow the decline.  This is not inspiring, and it is not sustainable.

Instead, this is the time to build, and sell, a new, coherent vision.  The late twentieth century model just isn’t cutting it anymore, and a generation of students can’t wait forever.  Get shut out of classes enough times, and the University of Phoenix starts to look pretty good.  It may be mercenary and it may be expensive, but it’s there.  It will let you in.  The only open port in a pretty bad storm can look awfully good, compared to the alternative.

Whatever else you want to say about the for-profits, they work as a system.  They have centralized leadership, and they’re clear on what they’re trying to do.  They’re significantly hampered by the need to serve two masters, but given the muddled perspective of most of the nonprofits at this point, serving only two masters doesn’t seem so bad.  

The publics don’t need top-down control; they need a single animating vision.  That vision can’t just be “restore the staffing levels of 1968.”  It needs to acknowledge the realities of Baumol’s cost disease, the desire for online courses, and the failings of the traditional model.  But more importantly, it needs to play offense.  It needs to inspire, rather than defend.  It can’t be indignant, backwards-looking, or apologetic.  It needs to be palpably better -- in terms that resonate with regular people -- than the for-profit alternative.

CIrcling the wagons, like Cal State, may briefly slow the decline.  But that’s not good enough.  It’s mistaking the tool for the task, the silo for the system.  It’s time for the next generation of leaders to step up.