Monday, October 28, 2013

Hofstadter's Bees

Richard Hofstadter, the great American political historian, famously said that third parties in America are like bees: they sting once, and then they die.  As far as third parties go, he was basically correct -- the last one to really take off was the Republican party, which filled the void left by the collapse of the Whigs.  It’s been a while.  But many of the parties that “failed” actually shifted the terms of discussion within the major parties, leaving a larger policy impact than their brief organizational lives would lead you to expect.  The bee may have died, but its stinger left a lasting imprint.

The demise of Ivy Bridge, a highly touted effort at disruptive innovation, reminded me of Hofstadter’s line.  And it suggests something that incumbents should take seriously.

You can read the details here.  But the short version is that a thirtysomething who knew nothing about community colleges except that “the U.S. system of community colleges is completely dysfunctional” decided to compete with them, only to crash and burn when the success rates he wanted proved more difficult, and more expensive, than he had thought.  Which nearly anybody who works at a community college could have told him, had he bothered to ask.

It’s easy, and tempting, to chuckle at the hubris of yet another investor who doesn’t bother doing his due diligence about an incredibly complicated sector because, hey, he’s smart and went to college.  What more could it possibly take?

But that would be the wrong lesson.  

Major parties survive, in part, by adapting.  (They also game the system, and benefit from first-past-the-post elections, but those are separate issues.)  They get caught off-guard from time to time by a third party or other candidate who makes hay of a previously neglected or suppressed issue, but over time, they shift to capture its appeal (or the appeal of opposing it).  They survive by understanding that when significant challenges keep coming from the same quarters, it would be self-defeating not to ask why.

Ivy Bridge’s failure is one lesson, but its plausibility is another.

Higher education carries the blessing, and the curse, of some uniquely high barriers to entry.  That’s one reason that academic jobs are as scarce as they are.  In most industries, all (or sometimes more than all) job growth comes from companies in their first few years of existence.  Since public higher education at this point consists almost exclusively of colleges older than that, the market would be “mature” even without other factors intruding.  Add the pyramid-scheme nature of graduate education, and you have a serious misalignment of supply and demand.  That misalignment enables the shift to adjuncts.  In allocating full-time positions among the various departments that want them, one factor that counts against a department is the relative ease of finding adjuncts to cover classes.  Supply depresses demand.  

But ultimately, the adjunct imbalance is a symptom, not a cause.  It’s a symptom of an industry in its “mature” phase.  That’s the stage at which existing arrangements are most vulnerable, because they’ve lost the sense of the possibility of something different.  

For my money, the best hope for positive change comes from neither wishing the future away nor assuming that some investor somewhere who knows not what he does will produce the answer out of whole cloth.  It comes from people within the system -- who therefore know what the issues are -- having the room to move, to experiment.  That’s why I’m much more impressed with SNHU’s College for America, or Western Governors’ University, than I am with the latest investor-driven startup.  SNHU and WGU both have the powerful combination of experience and a wilingness to try something drastic and new.  That’s how you survive, and thrive, as the world shifts around you.  You harness the talent and experience of good people in the system, and you create a setting in which they can do new things.  Google does that, Apple used to do that, and a few leaders in higher education do that.  That’s the angle to take.

Ivy Bridge turned out to be one of Hofstadter’s bees.  That’s fine by me, but let’s not miss the lesson of its sting.  The rest of us have some innovating to do.