Search This Blog

Oct 29, 2018

Supplying hope for the evil

It is hard to blame Trump for the synagogue shooting itself, but he is rightfully blamed for contributing to the atmosphere of hate. How did he do that, exactly? Crazy alt-right conspiracy theories have been simmering on the fringes of the society for decades. They have been isolated from the mainstream, and thus losing followers and energy. That is until Donald Trump came to power. The crazies are now hopeful and energized, because the course of history does not seem inevitable anymore. If Trump is possible, what else is possible? - Their thinking goes. It is not only what he says, but also what he is that gives them hope. The very possibility of such a man at the help of power inspires their fantastic imagination, makes them dream bolder, and act.

He is not in a hurry to discourage the sick hopes. Donald Trump has made an art form out of dog whistling. He chuckles at a suggestion that Soros should be locked up. And the Pittsburgh shooter was motivated by the wild theory that Soros is funding the migrant caravan; all of it a larger conspiracy of Jews against the Western civilization. Donald Trump struck a deal with the most evil forces out there, and now claims no responsibility for their actions. He is like Ivan Karamozov who did not physically kill his father, but was responsible for the murder. I doubt Trump had read Dostoyevsky, or any of the Faust stories. His moral compromises contribute to violence; it is just as simple as that. Failure to reject racism and xenophobia is a sin for regular people; it is a crime for those in power. If you a President, you may not flirt with evil.

Oct 22, 2018

Making an effort to trust

In his famous 1993 book Making democracy work, Robert Putnam found that a democratic society needs a certain level of trust. American politics look fractured right now, but still most people believe that after all ballots will be properly counted, and that whoever loses the elections will step down without much fuss. No one had any doubts that the new Supreme Court Justice, no matter how much disliked, will assume his seat at the court and will stay there until he retires. It is easy to take these things for granted, unless you know about a number of other countries where such assumptions do not hold. The difference is not in how smart people are, but in how much they are able to trust the institutions. This is why conspiracy theories are so corrosive to democracies: every one of them diminishes the stock of social capital that makes democracy possible.

Paradoxically, democratic systems are also designed to maintain certain level of distrust, hence the idea of checks and balances. Trust is not the only game; it is a part of the balance between suspicion and trust. Conspiratorial thinking swings the system too far towards suspicion by casting doubt not on the politicians of parties, but onto the system itself.

The same is true for smaller polities like universities. The shared governance is designed for faculty and administration to keep an eye on each other, and yet it cannot function without some level of basic mutual trust. Conspiratorial thinking is destructive here, too and it makes fair and effective governance much more difficult.

How do you know if you went too far towards conspiratorial thinking? There is a simple test: If you assume that your counterpart is either evil or stupid, you have ventured too far. I know people who are evil or stupid or both. However, here, on a public university grounds, we are very unlikely to encounter either. Therefore, if the other party does something that looks suspicious, it always pays to assume some level of competence, as well as good intentions. Now, other people can be wrong or misguided, they can fail to see some consequences or aspects of the problem – that is not only possible but common. However, “they” cannot be complete idiots, nor are they doing it out of sheer self-interest, self-aggrandizing, or any number of bad intentions. The flip side of the “evil or stupid” test is this: if you believe “they” are in error, you’re still within the limits of democratic framework. People who err can therefore be persuaded. If they are either evil, or stupid – you are probably gone off the rails. Evil should be destroyed, and stupid should be removed from power and left alone. It does not make much sense to talk to either

I know all about the hermeneutics of suspicion and the postmodernism: been there, done that. These delightful critical tools can be very helpful in uncovering deeply entrenched injustices and absurdities. They just don’t work very well in the everyday governance of an institution where most people share the same values.

Oct 15, 2018

California’s misguided regulations of higher education

Here is where California’s legislators got it wrong. The education code prohibits “supplanting” state-funded courses with self-funded continuing education courses. The intent of the regulation is clear – legislators did not want state universities to force students into more expensive self-support programs. They also do not want the state systems to reduce state offerings and start chasing easy money from commercial ventures.

However, the approach is wrong for a number of reasons. First, look at the experiences of other states, where self-funded activities of public universities are less regulated and more encouraged. Nothing like what California worries about has materialized there. Public universities desperate to sustain their revenues cannot afford to cut stateside enrollments. Even if they could financially, the strong public service ethos compels them to use the state-provided resources to help as many students as they can. They effectively regulate themselves. Higher education has become a highly competitive market, and in fact, continuing education tuition rates tend to keep close to regular state-site rates. In other words, public universities have no incentive to supplant at any appreciable scale. When a program makes sense only on the self-funded side, students do not care about the difference as long as they receive affordable quality education.

Continuing education (a.k.a. extended studies) tends to provide access to hard-to-reach populations, such as working adults, residents of remote areas, as well as those with limited physical mobility. If we have a program that works for them only, why should we offer the same program on-campus, on the state-funded basis? This seems to be a silly arbitrary requirement. Continuing Ed also tends to drive enrollments in the stateside programs as well through co-advertising effect. Students are free to chose either a traditional on-campus format, or off-campus, remote, online or hybrid models. People always know what they want.

The result of the misguided fears by California legislators is that the state’s public universities are losing the entire segment of on-line and remote location programming to private and out-of-state public institutions. Why should Arizona State consider California one of its primary market for online programming? UC and CSU are no longer monopolies, especially in the graduate and post-baccalaureate segments, so they should not be regulated as monopolies. In addition, the state-funded offerings simply cannot accommodate all eligible students. The rule actually limits access instead of safeguarding it.

The non-supplanting rule is only one example. In general, the slow wheels of CA bureaucracy make public universities very sluggish and unable to react to changing demand. However, if were to look for structural bottlenecks, the non-supplanting rule seems to be the first obvious one to remove.

The State discourages its universities from becoming more entrepreneurial, and fosters dependency on public funds. However, California is unable to fund its public higher education fully. We are still not back at the pre-Great Recession levels. The choice is very simple: you can either regulate, but then continue to fund fully, or you can limit the budget growth, but let universities make up the difference with continuing education revenues: defund or regulate, but not both; it is that simple.

Oct 8, 2018

Fall in the Central Valley

In these parts, autumn is timid and gradual. For me, it also hides within a distinct feeling of spring. In the Central Valley, summer is a harsh season to survive, with its stubborn heat, with not a drop of rain in four months. Fall brings relief of moisture and cooler days. In my northern instincts, relief connotes spring. My sense of seasons is confused, and yet delighted at its own confusion. One moment, a deciduous tree broadcasts nostalgia, evokes the memories of other, more drastic autumns elsewhere. I wonder if the tree is like me, a transplant. The next thing I see is a patch of outrageous green, happily radiating spring-like exuberance. It is just coming to life.

Both fall and spring are transitional; they call for rearrangements, for reshuffling of feelings, for switching mind’s gears. The light is different, the wind is different, the sounds take on another quality, the changing dawn and dusk creep on you. It is time for some habits and routines to be abandoned, for others to begin. I returned to writing a paper started a few weeks ago, and realize I don’t like it anymore. It will join the graveyard of abandoned projects hidden in my files under a self-deceptive folder “In progress.” It goes back decades; nothing ever comes back from it.

There is no progress in seasons, no linear time, no beginning and end. Instead, they are a set of endless cycles: sun goes up and down, up and down, up and down. Fall turns into winter, winter turns into spring, and on and on and on. The seasons make a mockery of human life, which has a distinct beginning, and an irreversible end. Someone has noticed the mockery millennia ago, and smiled back at the world. From then on, we keep smiling, counting days and summers, oddly pleased that they will go on after we end.

Oct 1, 2018

Nimble, humble, and simple: Strategic planning and the questioned wisdom of KPI

Conventional wisdom encourages one to create specific measurable outcomes or benchmarks in any strategic plan. For example, we are trying to increase the 4-year and 6-year graduation rates for our undergrads. The almost instinctive thing to do is to put some aspirational numbers. We are doing better than other colleges, but are still at 18% for a 4-year rate. So, let us put say 67% on the year 2025 cohort. However, this is pure guessing. We have no idea if there is a natural plateau in the rate of the graduation rate growth. Perhaps it will be stuck at 30% for a long time. We have no idea if there is a limit for an institution like ours, where many students are intentionally part-timers. As all educators know, in our business demography is destiny. A university that for some reason will admit more middle-class students with more family resources will see an increase the graduation rate. If it admits poorer and URM students, the rates may go down no matter what you do. If the State suffers another financial crisis and cuts funding, we will have to cut sections, and fewer students graduate on time. The aspirational numbers looks good while you are planning, because they encourage ambition and a can-do attitude. If the numbers go up, we all feel like we accomplished something – the victory always has seven mothers. If they go down (often entirely due to external causes), we feel bitter and resort to finding excuses. Failure is always an orphan. Why cannot we accept the essential unpredictability of the universe?

Here is my idea for the next strategic plan. I know it is crazy, and some will laugh at it. We already have a vision – a not-too-specific place where we want to be. There is actually a whole philosophy about not-too-specific ideals. Let us convert the vision into a short list of priorities, so we can make the resource allocation decisions. I borrowed the idea from my fellow dean Lorenzo Smith. If a project or an opportunity comes along – we question whether it fits our priorities or not. If someone is asking for money, we can do the same. It is a useful instrument that helps us to stay focused and avoid spreading too thin.

And then we will develop a list of strategies we believe work to advance our vision. For example, we believe that increasing scholarly output and presenting it in a more coherent way will help with gaining public recognition. Each year we plan a project or implement a policy that supports this specific strategy. In other words, we commit to actually working on a strategy. Every year we look back and see – have we moved the needle on all the strategies? If not, why is that? Is this a bad strategy, or we just did not do enough, or did the wrong thing?

When you write a document of any kind – a policy, a plan, a procedure – it helps to imagine what kind of life the document will actually be playing in the life of an organization. Is it something that will be filed away and forgotten? If not, who is going to be reading it? When, under which circumstances? I was thinking about the idea of the strategic plan like that, imagining its life cycle. It becomes more and more clear to me that it has to be a short document that can be pinned to my wall, for example. It has the key directions for development, but probably no or very few target numbers. It has to be revisited and revised annually, if not more often. It cannot prevent us from ceasing an unexpected opportunity that comes along on its own. It has to cause no shame or denial if it does not work as expected. It has to be nimble, humble, and simple.