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May 28, 2019

The optimism bias and starting a university from scratch

Apparently, bad planning is in our genes. According to this Freakonomics show, we humans have an inherent optimism bias, and a related bias of bad planning. We tend to underestimate how much time and effort any project takes, and grossly underestimate the transactional cost of teamwork. So we optimistically plan all these projects, and then have to work evenings and weekends to try to see them completed. We also get frustrated that someone dropped the ball, did not follow up, or is late with his or her portion of the project. In many case, it is because we underinvest in communications among team members.

The Academia is similar to all other organizations, but also different. We have here the annual, Big Project: classes, grades, progress toward degree, and graduations. The Big Project runs smoothly, because it repeats almost exactly every year, just like the Church Liturgical Cycle. On the other hand, it is so massive, it takes most of our resources and waking hours – just to make sure it runs as planned. Any kinds of improvements to the Big Project, any one-time smaller projects often misfire, exactly because the organization has little capacity outside of the Big Project, and because we can take no risk on it – the Big Project must happen no matter what. We are not like a software company that is used to churning through regular new products. We are not like a construction company that has a beginning and an end to any construction project. We are more like farmers – 99% of all effort is spelled out in advance – we saw, we cultivate, we harvest; year after year, for decades.

Another big difference – in education, innovation within its core activity – teaching and learning – is very limited. It is a whole long argument that I will spell out one day; it has to do with the Baumol’s Cost Disease. The short version is that we will not see large gains in productivity of learning and teaching any time soon. However, we have tremendous marginal areas where much за possible innovation has not happened yet. For example, we have so many advisers and staff members, because our students and faculty cannot get though most processes in self-service mode. All those processes are way too complicated, and very poorly designed. In theory, it should be very easy to figure out which courses you need to take when. It should take seconds to ask for money and complete a travel reimbursement claim.

Yet just because information technologies are available in theory does not mean they can be implemented and integrated easily. Universities are patchworks of old, disjointed improvements that do not talk to each other. Banner and PeopleSoft were tremendous steps forward to integrate at least the most basic university functions. Everything else is kind of bolted on them, haphazardly. We still have hundreds of students run around the campus having their change-of-major paper forms signed by three people. It is not anyone’s fault; this is simply because we have the Big Project to take care of.

So the problem is that we under-invest in the trivia of small improvements. Or perhaps the size and complexity of a large university makes true improvements unattainable? I wish I knew the answer to that.

I would love to start a brand-new university from scratch, with some capable software architects. I know several people tried. However, they completely misunderstood the task. The task is not to mess with the core function – students meeting their professor for a conversation. It is to strip down everything else that gets in the way; literally everything – the scheduling, the registrar, the athletics, the grounds, the physical plant, the buildings, the deans and their assistants, the Academic Affairs division… All of it is really meant to help the essential human project of teaching and learning, of relating. The Intelligent Cloud should handle all that, or most of it. In 2016, Sac State had only 686 full-time faculty (and about 1000 part-times), and 1,290 full-time staff. As you can see, the helpers outnumber the helped. And most of us on the staff side wage the battle with disorganization, all day and every day. On good days, I believe it is winnable, but then again, it may be the optimist bias speaking.

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