Sunday, June 17, 2018

Other Industries

Josh Kim really nailed it with his post last week about differences between other industries and higher education.  At a family gathering, he noticed that people who work outside of higher education are free of the existential dread for the sector that we’ve come to consider normal.  If anything, the dread is probably even more pronounced in the community college sector than in the Dartmouths of the world.

The key difference is the future.  Is the future looking up?

In many industries, it clearly is.  We keep hearing about the economic recovery, and employers struggling to find good people.  That’s true in nearly every other industry than our own. You know how some industries like to say they’re recession-proof?  We’re recovery-proof. We manage to ramp up austerity even in the face of economic expansion.

(To be fair, enrollments in this sector tend to be economically counter-cyclical.  So yes, we’re recovery-proof, but we’re uncommonly strong in recessions.)

The difference makes a difference in people’s outlook.

In rapidly growing industries, the prospect of a given job going away isn’t a cause for panic.  In fact, turnover is relatively common, and moving from job to job is considered normal. That’s one reason that highly populated cities are thriving in the new economy.  If plenty of companies in the same industry are located in the same place, then workers can switch companies without having to move. All that growth creates opportunity, and all that turnover does, too.  So while a given job might be notably less secure than a tenured position, the prospect of its going away is much less scary; it’s understood that other opportunities are there for the taking.

Higher ed is the polar opposite.  The market is decidedly national, so most of the time, switching employers involves moving.  Low turnover protects incumbents, but from the perspective of a newbie, it’s a form of opportunity hoarding.  The relative lack of opportunity raises the premium on stability where it can exist. Much of the institutional risk from which one select group is spared is dumped onto another group we call “adjuncts.”  

So if someone becomes discontented in a private sector position, the best option is often “exit” for another position.  If someone becomes discontented in a tenured position, the best option is often “voice.” Multiply that by entire institutions over decades, and you get a very different working environment.

I saw the difference in my time at DeVry.  I got there during a growth spurt, and got to experience several years of working in an optimistic, if chaotic, setting.  A few years later, the market turned, and I saw the culture shift from “what if we tried x?” to “don’t you dare try anything.”  Instead of looking at what might be gained from a given change, people started looking more at what might be lost from it. When I moved to the community college world, the latter perspective dominated, and still does.

The frustrating part of our world is that the entirely understandable cultural reactions to decline actually make it worse.  If change represents threat, then the urge for safety leads to attacking change. But if the long-term trend is downward, change is the only hope.  “Let’s lock in decline” is both understandable and insane; it’s a form of slow-motion suicide.

The challenge for leadership, from whatever official position, is to break the self-reinforcing cycle of cynicism while there’s still time.  That’s a challenge on a good day, made worse by a relative lack of free resources for short-term incentives. But if it works -- no small ‘if’ -- it offers the possibility of coming to work each day in a setting that asks “why not?” instead of “why?”  

I’ve worked in both, and “why not?” is a lot more fun.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college culture turn itself around in a positive way?  If so, how?