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Jul 30, 2018

What do deans do in the summer?

Summer has a different rhythm, and a different feel than the rest of the year. With faculty and students gone, it is a smaller group of people to interact with (AD’s, chairs and staff), and a different set of issues to weed through. During the year, our meetings are hurried for we need to make many decisions quickly. Summer is time for deeper, less hurried conversations. We try to think bigger and longer, debate lessons learned last year, and identify priorities for the next one. It is a different kind of work, and is as important as putting out fires during the year.

We plan the annual cycle of events, trying to think what is too much, and what is just right for us to handle. Summer is the time to ask hard questions – OK, we thought «A» was a great idea last year, we tried it. What’s the real return on investment? The difficult question is of course whether you let «A» live and grow, or to cut your losses and move our attention and resources onto something else. For example, we have done two cycles of the ReinventEd competition. The results are mixed: On one hand, we have a relatively small number of submissions, and did not produce a big PR splash yet; it costs us both money and staff time. On the other hand, the quality of projects submitted to us is actually quite high, and we are helping the grassroots innovators we intended to reach. If you think these are easy decisions, think again. Uncertainties abound.

One of the most important things to do is to plan for new projects. Just to give you some examples: The College has been asked to lower the cost of instruction, normally calculated as student-faculty ratio. Because we have so many professional programs with extensive field experiences, we are the most expensive college in the university in terms of the cost of instruction per FTES. Another example: after significant, time-consuming work on integrated teacher education programs (ITEPs), we see clearly a need for a universal configuration of our credentials programs into something that can overlap with undergraduate programs. Yet our credentials programs evolved as post-bac option and we cannot copy other states’ undergraduate credentials models for a long number of reasons.

We have several such dilemmas that need to be addressed through a multi-stage collective effort. The best-case scenario is when we are able to delegate a whole project to another group of people. For example, our faculty are remarkably creative and organized where it comes to academic program development. We are getting there in terms of recruitment. For things that are too big or too complex, we usually create a google doc and start meetings, organizing our thoughts and plans in some sorts of lists of issues and later plans of action. Google docs are an ideal instrument for collaborative project management, because they solved the version control issue. However, the most difficult and gratifying part if to turn a problem into a solution, and a solution into action. Technologies do not help here. What helps is the knowledge of the reality of our organization, and the managerial imagination. It is the ability to imagine how things can go wrong, and how they can go right; a form of collective art that we are long time away from actually mastering.

It is still a major challenge to keep multiple projects going at the same time, without dropping the ball on any of them. So, along with planning events and projects, we also need to plan how do we track them.

That’s what deans and other administrative types do in the Summer. And yes, there is also moving, renovations, workload adjustments, the never-ending procedure clean-up, and other minutia of Summer. Oh, I also have written a paper called The Baumol’s Cost Disease and the Trinitarian Pedagogy over two weekends.

Jul 2, 2018

Technology and democracy

Not much of a secret, NSA and FBI both have a technology that allows tracking cell phones even if they are turned off. According to Washington Post, it was one of the major contributors to eliminating Al Qaida leadership in Iraq. The Russian security services have that, as well, which helped them to win the second Chechen war. Again, I am not disclosing any state secrets here; the press have written about it extensively. And yet we were unable to find anyone in the law enforcement community who would agree to help us to use the technology to find a missing teenager. Moreover, all of them denied the very existence of such a technology, which was somewhat surprising to me.

I understand that just because one unit somewhere in the FBI can use it, does not mean that every officer has access to it. This is not how it works. Ok, I get it, national security and all that. The question I have is very simple – who gets to decide which technology can be used only to kill terrorists, but not to find a missing child? In a democratic society, who gets to say which is less important? While the very existence of it can be plausibly denied, yes, I’d buy an argument that it not for civilian use. Now everyone who can read knows it exists, since at least 2013, although there were similar reports much earlier, right after Bob Woodward disclosed that there was some “secret weapon” in use in Iraq. The tech itself exists since 2004 or so.

This is not a new question. Many technologies have been first developed for military use, and only then became available for civilian use. GPS is just one of many examples. The Internet is, arguably, another. As far as I know, the conversion process has always been driven by private industry, trying to make a buck. Now, in this case, there is no private industry that would be plausibly benefiting from the technology. Law enforcement does not operate like a business, although I am sure they would love to have a tool like that. I think the government has to step in, the legislative branch specifically. Otherwise, in such cases technology transfer may not happen for a long time, simply because no driver on the civilian side. Parents of missing teenagers are not a huge political force, unfortunately. The military are using public funds to develop all these new technologies, and we all should benefit from them as soon as it is practically possible.