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Oct 31, 2009

The structure of change

The world around us is changing fast, faster than ever before. Just a few things: the State budget is heading to a cliff; a perfect storm for teacher education is brewing; the technology revolution has really started to affect education. Yet our University like most others, does not seem to be able to change. We definitely improve our programs, and the organization is improving. But all of it is happening at such a slow pace that the world seems to be hurling past us. Whatever improvements we manage to accomplish are just nibbling at the edges; they are neither revolutionary, nor profound. Universities are sitting on a large stock of human capital: some of the most educated and creative minds in the nation. Yet they seem to unable to use those minds for fostering innovation. The rate of innovation in private business world is many times higher than in higher education. We all remember the first PC's with blue screens and no mouse. Some people may remember Gopher. We now have vastly superior computers plus iPhone, Kindle, iPod, plus Google, FaceBook, Wikipedia, and many others. Even old technologies like cars manage significant improvements every few years. They are safer, more efficient, and more comfortable now than just five years ago. Yet our classrooms look and feel just like they did in 1950-s, with only slight and uncertain improvements.

Part of this is the institutional culture. Whenever a faculty committee is asked to think about a new or revised program or procedure, it meets once a month for an hour each time. It always takes a year to design a change. And because we are used to collaboration, the committee will agree on something most acceptable to all – which virtually guarantees only minor changes. I just served on two of these: we spent a great deal of time, talked a lot of smart talk, but accomplished something very modest, none of it is game-changing.

The University bureaucracy is no faster either. We revise curriculum once a year, because of the arbitrary deadline the printer imposes on us to change catalogs. Memos can sit on various administrators' desks for months and months. And not just ordinary memos – a new and promising program we designed was just recently approved, although we submitted it in March. What is more important that bringing new programs and attracting new students to this campus? Apparently, there is. We think in terms of years; the world thinks in terms of days. Universities are really pathetic where it comes to change.

Innovation, like anything else, needs a special support structure. For example, our university has nothing like an R&D unit. No one is really expected to come up with new ideas, or support new ides as a part of his or her job. There is absolutely no process for submitting new ideas – no place to send them, and no one to consider their merits. There are no incentives for individual people or groups of faculty and staff to work on innovations. Why take the risk, if you need to play it safe to get tenure? There is no chance for any of us ever get rich and famous from a brilliant idea, because the University is vigilantly egalitarian and jealously hierarchical. We need to change that and provide specific, tangible rewards for groups of entrepreneurial faculty, as well as recognition and support.

Oct 16, 2009

Empowerment and discontent

All democratic systems of governance share a paradox. If you hold strong beliefs, you will be surprised and upset when your particular view does not emerge victorious. A fallacy is at work here: if I live in a democracy, things should go my way. But this is not true, of course. Democracy is about sharing the space with other people, who may also have strong beliefs, different from yours, and whose opinion may prevail.

It is the same with faculty governance at universities, only complicated by having a specific power-sharing agreement between faculty and administration. When things are not going your way, you may think this is because the administration is usurping faculty's power. However, administrators intervene in decision-making for different reasons: sometimes, they just want to pursue larger interest of the organization, and sometimes, they interfere against one group of faculty on behalf of another group. There may also be a selfish or egotistical interest of an administrator at work. The difficulty is to figure out which is which, considering that we normally cannot read each others' minds.

Here is my story: last spring, I ventured to revise the annual evaluation guidelines, mainly because of request by different faculty to clarify certain things. I was also concerned that there seems to be a lack of reliability in our evaluations. When I proposed the revision to the whole faculty, members of the Evaluations Committee asked to take the feedback from the faculty and prepare the proposal for the vote. However, they disagreed with the entire proposal, with the exception of one clause. So far so good, no harm done, and we have always found a way to disagree without any animosity. The committee said what it felt, with best of intentions. However, I became worrying about the integrity of the process. Intuitively, it did not felt right, because the proposal was meant for the whole faculty, and yet it got considered by a very small group. I started checking with the Robert's rules, and found that yes, indeed, a pending proposal cannot be amended without the proposer's consent. That makes sense, doesn't it?

In other words, this is not about my proposal – which is, I must say, represents a fairly minor change of a very minor part of our work. The change itself does not merit much airtime. This is about the integrity of faculty governance process. We cannot decide things by consensus at all times, although we should when possible. We cannot allow some of us to have the implied veto power over our decisions, even if it is presented (and honestly thought of) as consensus-seeking. We cannot act because of "anonymous faculty concerns," because it is not clear what the concerns are and how many people have them. Short of an actual vote, we would never know that.

Of course, the conditions of the voting process itself are also important, which is why Robert's rules have all of these subsidiary motions that allow an assembly not only to make decisions, but also decide how each decision will be made. We would really be better off if everyone knew at least the basic rules. That would put us all into a more equitable position, and allow people to argue for or against certain ideas, without the democratic discontent. The dictatorship of mutually agreed rules is the only alternative to a dictatorship of individuals.

Oct 10, 2009

The First Snow

This morning, I woke up to the unmistakably different light that fills the room after a snowy night. You don't have to look down on the ground to know – it was snowing. In Western Siberia where I grew up, the first snow is a bigger deal. We have long, rainy and cold autumns, and the first snow ends it all, usually abruptly and irreversibly. Snow paints over the messy and imperfect picture of the last year, and primes the canvas for something new. The world is white like a sheet of paper waiting for a poem to be written on it. I love snow, and the first snow especially. It is nostalgic, poignant, and hopeful. We went to Boulder, and walked on Pearl Street. The leaves were caught in the early snow, still green but down on the brick pavement. They smelled like freshly pickled cucumbers, maybe because the salt on the street. We ate a little sushi and had some hot sake befitting the weather. Then we went to the Borders on 29th street; I read The New Yorker, while Svetlana browsed art books and journals.

What makes a good day, a day worth living? Is it what we are able to accomplish? Or is it what we were able to experience and to enjoy? With our jobs, there isn't really a border between work and leisure anymore. What I read in The New Yorker may show up as an idea useful for my job. At work, my experiences are often as enjoyable as today. We don't work to live anymore, nor do we live to work, I hope. The art of living well has something to do with finding pleasure and beauty in both work and leisure. I am certainly still have to master it, so don't ask me for advice on how. But some people – very few – find something enjoyable and entertaining in almost anything they do. Every day is the first snow day to them. That is what we all should try to achieve.

Oct 1, 2009

How to save UNC

We are less than two years away from the financial cliff, created by convergence of the Colorado TABOR law and the recession. While the Feds have bailed us out this year and the next year, in the year 2010/11, we can lose $14 million of our $44 million, according to President Norton. This is not a time for gradual measures or slow change. We need to learn radical thinking very fast, so we have the time to prepare.

Here is how we can make up for lost state subsidies. The most disruptive competitive strategy is to cut the cost of your commodity or service. It allows stealing many customers from your competition. If we charge students only half of current tuition, a well-publicized campaign could recruit 8000 new freshmen and transfers, who would otherwise go to other universities. It would bring about $20 million dollars.

How can we add 8000 students to the campus that can barely accommodate 12000 students? When students come to campus, they pay for the college experience as much as they pay for actual teaching services. But this can be made an optional service. We will make a deal with a special category of students (let's call them riders): you get to pay only half of regular tuition, and get your degree, under one condition: you cannot come to classes. Dozens of regular on-campus students (let's say "cameramen" and "camerawomen") will be hired to take their regular classes with digital cameras, film every class, and then upload the films on a server on the same day. The riders will organize in groups, following one of these student workers, watch every class, do all the assignments, and participate in a limited way through the Blackboard. The riders would have to be self-directed learners, but their experience would not be much different from a regular on-campus student that does not say much in class. Our faculty won't have to deal with technology at all, but will be paid extra to grade the extra assignments and answer the riders' questions. Or they will be given a choice to hire an adjunct to help with those activities. This is not exactly on-line teaching, because faculty won't need to learn new skills or redesign their courses, but not exactly face-to-face experience either. It might actually be not only cheaper, but better than a typical on-line course. We learn from observing others as much as we learn from participating in activities. The "cameramen" would also act as peer advisers to their rider group, helping to figure out classes and homework, and maybe even film an occasional homecoming or a dorm party.

If we do something like that, there is no time for pilots, or trying it small scale. We need the economy of scale – developing and testing of technological solutions, financial arrangements, and practical procedures would be expensive. The cost can only be justified by going all the way right away. We cannot have several administrative groups and Senate committees studying the issue for a few month, and different units figuring out their parts. We'd need a direct and urgent conversation with the campus community; we need a wide-spread buy-in. We also need a coordinating center with a small team of faculty, administrators and IT types entirely dedicated to the project, with adequate resources. We need a leap of faith. There is no better time for innovation that a good crisis. No crisis should be wasted.

Do I want to be doing all this running around, planning, advertising, tweaking hundreds of classes, taking the risk without knowing if it is going to work? No, I don't. However, I also don't want to have a meeting about which colleague we are going to let go, which classes will have to double in size, and how many unpaid overloads we will are going to teach. You have to decide which of the two a lesser evil – working on something new is or firing friends?