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Nov 23, 2020

It is time to shrink

In a conversation with one of my chairs, I suddenly realized that the best thing I can do for her right now would be to take less of her time – with anything, really, including most of this conversation. These are not normal times. Not one of the old set of tasks have been deleted, and yet a number of new tasks and challenges appeared. Faculty, chairs are under a lot of stress. Yet parts of the university act as if nothing has happened. They insist on providing support. They schedule trainings and workshops, events, and programs, consultations, improvements, audits and meetings. I have been mildly irritated by all those people, until I realized I am probably one of them. This realization, I must report, did not reduce the irritation.

We all are support units – deans and plumbers, librarians and VP’s, accountants and residential assistants. The magic happens in the classroom (virtual or physical) and few other places where students learn and experience life. The rest of the machinery has only one function – to support. Yet the way it works is that the supporters do not always ask the supported what kind а help do they need and when do they need it. In fact, in many cases those who support have formal authority over those supported. Or they may believe they do. Faculty and department chairs have the bulk of the non-optional work. Classes must have instructors, schedules must be built, grades must be entered and degrees awarded. And none of it is easy under the circumstances. Yet the rest of the campus gets antsy, too. All those support units are trying to be more helpful, do something right now to help. Moreover, they all have their plans, procedures, accountability measures. However, too much help is a very real thing. Helping take time from those being helped.

University administrators are not good at shrinking. Shrinking it goes against all of our mythology of leadership and management. A leader has to be large, visibly present, and affecting good change! In time of crisis, the leader has to be there in the front lines, giving comfort, encouragement, solving problems, and generally leading the troops. Well, all that makes too much noise, and takes too much time. Especially at the point where people more or less know what to do; they just need to be left alone to do it.

I have been deleting a lot of stuff that I was supposed to forward to my faculty, chairs, and staff. Another request to please be present at a webinar, a new exciting opportunity, and sometimes even a demand for information – these kinds of things can wait. Even the legally required training can wait. If you have to do something every five years, it can wait another year or two. When are you are doing anything involving other people, please think about it twice. Not now, at the end of our first ever virtual semester. Not when a good half of my colleagues experience one or another family crisis, with relatives getting sick. Not when their virtually schooled children drive the parents nuts. The rest of the campus needs to learn how to shrink. Sometimes the best thing you can do to others is to remove yourself from their lives.

Nov 9, 2020

American Education: The party of choice and the party of resources

Betsy DeVos has been a staunch advocate of the “party of choice” in American education. It believes that giving parents choice will lead to more innovation, and spur competition among all schools, making all education more competitive and more successful overall. Not only Republicans, but distinguished Democrats have been the supporters of this party in the past. The “party of resources” believes that improvement of K-12 education is possible with more resources, better paid and better trained teachers allocated to traditional public schools. Joe Biden’s pre-election platform sits squarely in the domain of the “resource party.” Both of these parties support accountability.

Why did the Democratic Centrists seem to abandon their support for the party of choice in education? For a trumpist, it is evidence of the Left wing taking over the Democratic Party. However, the answer is much simpler. With time passed since the Clinton administration, we have much more evidence. Effectiveness of charter school is still a matter of considerable debate (see a decent review in Wikipedia.) However, the debate is really about the margins. The revolutionizing effect of deregulation ma y people expected did not happen. I don’t think anyone disputes that now. Yes, some urban charter schools can be SLIGHTLY better than traditional public schools. However, the seem to increase racial segregation, and may actually hurt certain groups of kids more than help them. Again, these negative effects are also not very large. The overall outcome of the debate is very, very boring: charter schools do about as well as traditional public schools.

This is one of the few examples where social science may actually have made a real impact on policy. At least, there is a visible shift within the Democratic establishment. Thanks to numerous educational researches who conducted hundreds of studies that made this shift possible. Those of who enter into doctoral programs in education, should know this.

Nov 2, 2020

Depolarization of America

Tomorrow night, or a few days later, half of this country will be celebrating, while the other half will be fuming. In close elections, turn-out is king, and therefore both parties engage in the “vote or die” theatrics. Both imply that the world as we know it will end if their side loses. Republicans promise that Biden will turn USA into USSR, complete with the Gulag and shortage of toilet paper. Democrats say that four more years of Trump will turn the US into Republic of Gilead, complete with burning down the White House, and hanging “deviants” from lighting poles. None of this is true, of course. Everyone should go out and vote, but we also need to look at the morning of November 4, or whenever all the votes will be tallied.

There is no moral equivalency. In an irrational and self-destructing impulse, the Republican party has succumbed to the allure of an immoral populist demagogue. Democrats bear a much lesser responsibility for the advanced polarization. This is not about evenly allocating the blame; I am worried about what is to happen next. The truth is that the electoral defeat will not make the other side disappear. And while enormous treasure and efforts were spent on polarizing this country, almost no one is thinking of any effective strategies to de-polarize it. How do you actually come down from the high fever?

Excessive polarization undermines the political institutions that both sides of the conflict theoretically need to preserve. In practice though, the parties use the pro-institution agenda for partisan purposes. For example, Republicans object to the undue influence of unelected top officials (the so-called Deep State theory), perpetually suspect voter fraud, and resent the liberal bias of mass media outlets. Democrats, in turn, resent the accusation. In their view, the conspiracy theories undermine the trust in democracy itself. Democrats point at voter suppression techniques. They also accuse Republican of failure to distance themselves from White nationalism. Both sides do it for the sake of democracy. It is easy to see how such a tug of war can destabilize the institutions. Any political institution is as strong as public trust in it.

It is not clear where the de-polarization agenda would come from. Hopefully the winner, whichever it is, will have enough sense to work on it after the victory. It is tempting to use temporary dominance to completely destroy the opposition, but such a strategy only leads to further polarization. At the minimum, someone has to articulate the common interests: reducing the vitriolic rhetoric, developing a bipartisan plan for strengthening the institutions, reforming both the social media and mainstream mass media, rooting out conspiracy theory mongers from the acceptable public discourse. A lot of things had slipped backwards and need to be restored. The traditional barrier between opinion and news operations had been eroding in both Fox and CNN. Despite the meek efforts to control it, social media remain a vehicle for paranoia-induced theories.

Biden seems to understand this, and has sounded some conciliar tones even before the elections. I just hope he has plans that do not end with his victory speech. Trump, however, is another matter. His whole strategy is built on mobilization through polarization. The depolarization process will probably be postponed for four more years if he wins. Again, I don’t think it would mean the death of democracy. The US has a robust set of institutions other than the presidency.

The core of the de-polarization strategy is NOT in trying to convert each other. It is in emphasizing the common interests, strengthening the democratic institutions, and toning down the rhetoric of mutual political annihilation.