Wednesday, October 10, 2012


For once, I’m not going to pick on California.  

Connecticut’s new centralized higher education system office has apparently been making either offers or threats -- there’s some dispute, and I have no inside information on it -- to community college presidents.  As I understand it, the legislature passed a law last year limiting remedial coursework to a single semester.  Apparently, some campuses have balked, so the system office has let the presidents know that if they feel unable to comply, they are welcome to leave.  

I’m less interested in the semantics of the offer/threat or in the law about remediation than I am in the way the presidents are being treated.

Whether they’re being threatened or simply offered a graceful exit, it’s pretty clear that the central state authority sees them less as leaders of individual campuses than as branch office managers of a statewide chain.  In the eyes of the central board, the job of the president is to carry out statewide mandates.  

That’s at odds with the way that people on campus tend to see presidents, and probably at odds with the way many presidents see themselves.  It’s not the job they thought they had signed up for; that shift, I’m guessing, is behind the offers to leave.  Whether you want to call the severance offers parachutes or planks strikes me as a secondary concern.

Underlying that conflict, I think, is a disagreement about either power -- if you like your theories dark -- or innovation, if you prefer them lighter.  Do you get more innovation with a bunch of relatively independent actors trying different things, or do you get more with a single authority in the middle calling the shots?  If the statewide goal is, say, to increase the number of college graduates, are you likelier to achieve that goal through centralization or decentralization?

My own theory, for what it’s worth, is that the job of the central authority is to be utterly clear about goals, but to be agnostic on means.  The mission should be set centrally, but the individual campuses need the room to experiment with ways to fulfill it.  

Let’s say that the state sets a goal of more college graduates.  Fair enough; Connecticut can’t compete on natural resources, sunny climate, or cheap land, so it might as well compete on quality of workforce.  There are certainly worse ideas.

If the central office sets methods as well as goals, then only one method will be tried.  That’s fine, if they get the right one the first time, but it’s reducing the epistemological harvest.  (“Epistemological Harvest” would be a great name for a band.  But I digress.)  Having different campuses try different approaches at the same time, all towards the same general goal, offers a much more wide-ranging set of data.  The old “laboratories of democracy” model offers a much better opportunity to discern what works.

More fundamentally, though, it’s hard to get the best out of creative and intelligent people when giving them orders.  That’s true of faculty, and it’s true of presidents.  Both do their best work when they have a sense of the overall direction, some actual resources, and enough autonomy to be able to make judgment calls as needed.  If presidents are reduced to martinets -- and seen accordingly by their faculty -- they won’t be as effective as they could be.

I don’t deny the direction-setting role of the legislature, and therefore of the central office.  If the state decides that it wants more transfers to UConn, or more welders, or more exclusivity, that’s its call to make.  Someone who just can’t abide the mission should, in fact, be asked to leave.  But it’s one thing to set a goal, and quite another to dictate how to get there.  

My guess is that they’d get much better results by being a lot less directive.  If a given campus fails continuously and refuses to change, then sure, have at it.  But the state has a tremendous resource in the organized intelligence of its campuses.  Reducing them to the single intelligence of one office is a serious mistake.