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Dec 20, 2021

Vision, mission, and other sacred nonsense

Few management concepts in academia are subject to such wide-spread misuse as mission and vision statements. Every university has a page with its mission and vision (and sometimes value) statements, buried somewhere deep, because they are so embarrassing. Why would otherwise smart people publish uninspiring clichés is a genuine mystery I will try to solve.

Mission statements only make sense when they are different from each other. Such statements should describe what this university does and does not do, with respect to other universities. The mission statement defines a niche. Clearly, Harvard College educates the elites, while Sac State educates the masses. Their mission includes a lot of cutting-edge research, while ours is focused on quality teaching. Their freshmen come well-prepared, while ours often need a lot of help. Curiously, people refer to “our mission” in conversations, in this exact sense. But they NEVER refer to the official mission statement, and I bet most of them do not know what it says. Similarly, “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” No kidding, it could be a mission of any university on the planet; what’s so special about Harvard? Why don’t we just say what we really think?

Vision is also meant to be a pragmatic tool. For example, if you are a residential campus in the region where young population declines, you need to make some choices. For example, you can bet on reaching out to non-traditional population through online or off-campus programming. Or you can learn to be a smaller university. Or else, you can specialize in something, become a niche school, market like crazy, and recruit students from a wider demographic area. Or you can attract international students. Picking one of these strategies constitutes a vision.

Another example: if you live in a state that continues do cut public subsidy to its higher education, you should diversify your revenue stream somehow. If you are losing to local competition, well, there should be a realistic answer to that. That is what a vision supposed to be – some idea where you are going if you want to survive. It can actually be a very useful tool, allowing an institution to focus its priorities, rather than trying to be everything to everyone, and pursue all strategies at the same time (which in the end equals to not having any strategy at all). But why does it have to be some tasteless, pompous nonsense, like this one: “So-and-so University will create an accessible and equitable undergraduate student experience, both inside and outside the classroom, that empowers all students to learn, develop purpose and passion, and grow as individuals to achieve their goals?” How’s this a vision? Can you envision it, can you literally imagine it?

One reason is the way these statements are written. There is always a committee that will word-smith to include everyone’s opinion. Consensus is always bland, boring, and verbose. Committees will include words not because they are brilliant, but because, well, Joe has to be given a token on respect, since he is a member of the committee. The bigger the committee, the more words per sentence. No one edits those statements for clarity, no one critiques them, or seriously tries to improve them. University presidents don’t feel like alienating their faculty by questioning such statements. Not one of the committee members would put anything like that in their own academic paper fearing ridicule for bad writing and lack of originality. But it passes for something profound as a piece of collective writing.

The other reason is the believe that strategy is a sacred text. By its very nature, sacred writing tends to be non-pragmatic, dense, and haughty. That is an unfortunate assumption that guarantees failure every time. The sacred speech requiring taboos, preventing us from clearly communicating our intent. Harvard cannot say “The most capable students in the world;” that would be non-egalitarian. Sac State cannot say “First generation, diverse students most of whom were denied an opportunity to attend a great high school.” That would also be non-egalitarian. Those are taboo words in the context of a sacred text. They do not belong in a mission or vision statements, which condemn such statements to impotence.

Mission and vision statements are simple pragmatic tools for planning purposes. If you thought a hammer was a sacred object, it would probably look pretty. A hammer would have pearl incrustations, and a golden head. It would not be ever used for such mundane purposes as driving nails. You need your mission statement to work because it prevents you from mission creep. You need your vision statement to work because it allows you to implement a strategy. You don’t want them to hang on your wall, pretty, but useless.

Dec 11, 2021

Solidarity versus identity

I encourage most people, including student call me by my first name. I am an older and bearded gentleman in a Dean’s office, so I want to be more approachable. However, I am well aware that faculty of color, and younger women do get confused for students, or for support staff, and therefore need to insist that people call them Dr. So-and-so. The question is: should I give up on the approachability thing, and ask people to refer to me as Dr. out of solidarity with those who may struggle with recognition? In fact, in the presence of student, I try to address faculty as Drs. But should I do it always? Keep in mind, strangers will not know, am I simply being a pompous prick, or sending a message of solidarity with women and faculty of color.

Here is another example: A friend of mine always refers to his wife as “partner,” avoiding the disclosure of his dominant form of sexuality. The non-disclosure is a message of solidarity with gay people, not an attempt to pass for a gay person. Of course, in any conversation, that identity will still be somehow disclosed later through pronouns, or other details. The total message is then more complex: being in solidarity with an oppressed group, I still ultimately highlighting my dominant status. In other words, I draw MORE, not less attention to my superiority.

Let’s keep going. Should I state my pronouns? It is a more complicated case, where I don’t know the answer, just searching for one. The thing is, my gender does not define me; it is not even among the top 10 categories that I would use to describe myself. I don’t want to be defined by my gender, even if other people do. I can hear an objection – “Yes, because as a cisgender man, you have the luxury to ignore your gender identity, just like a White person has a luxury to bypass race in self-identification. By ignoring it, you perpetuate the power imbalances, assert your dominance. Do it anyway out of solidarity with those for whom pronouns are important.” Yes, all true, but by flaunting the “he/him” label, don’t I reinforce the dominance, don’t I make it more visible? In a group, where everyone discloses their pronouns, don’t we minoritize those people who may have different gender identities? For many people, their ethnic or racial identity is much more important that their gender. By forcing the gender identity forward, don’t we deny those people the right to define their identities the way they see fit? Putting my pronouns forward, I am encouraging other people to do the same. Well, I am not so sure I want to. Many people do not want to disclose to the whole world how they think of themselves in terms of gender, and about its linguistic representation. Some people do not want to be referred by any pronouns whatsoever. Do they also deserve solidarity?

Using my own identity to express solidarity with other people’s identities is just sometimes self-contradictory. There is an inherent tension between authenticity of self-disclosure and using the self-disclosure for another aim. By inserting the message of solidarity, into my identity statement, I also obscure some of my authentic self.

My point is simple – this all is far from simple. I think we should keep looking for delicate ways of declaring our solidarity with historically disadvantaged groups. But we cannot be simple-minded or crude about it. Some messages of solidarity offend more than support. Recognizing and affirming others’ identities is a search for the right conventions, and it has not been completed. Those who rage against “political correctness” do not want to even start that journey. Those who think they have already completed the journey are too self-righteous.

Dec 6, 2021

The end of the average student

This is really a part II of the previous blog.

Despite all the rhetoric, large organizations like universities have a hard time dealing with differences. The only way to make hundreds of policies and procedure work is to achieve a consistent application. Every time a student or a faculty has unique circumstances, someone has to review them, make a decision, and manually record it somewhere. With 30,000 students, you want to minimize the number of unique cases for obvious reasons. This simple reason trains our minds into imagining an average student, someone for whom the standard procedure is intended to work. Human concepts in general are consequences of our practice. We create a concept that allows us to reduce variety. For example, “fish” is such an abstract concept, for there are many varieties of organisms that breathe oxygen dissolved in water. But many of them could be caught and eaten in similar ways, hence the need for the shortcut. However, if you live in the area where the puffer fish can kill you if eaten, the diversity of fish species becomes very relevant. Consequently, the concept of fish become less relevant.

Suddenly, we realized that some of our students value personal contact more than convenience, while others do the opposite. Some want the online teaching to be over for good, while others prefer most of it still going on. I have to say most of our minds fight the newly found distinction. We stubbornly try to invent a situation good for the average student, who does not exist anymore.

We briefly considered offering specific f2f and online schedules to students and found out relatively quickly that our system is not set up to do that. We already sort students by major, class, and identify several categories that need help with building their schedules. Adding another large attribute (virtual preferences) would through the scheduling and registration system into the nightmare of massive manual processing. However, for students it is very important – to get a lease here in Sacramento, or continue living, say, in Stockton, and only occasionally driving here for a specific reason. Those are consequential decisions, but we cannot yet accommodate for them.

It is not like we did not see it coming; we certainly did. Yet knowing of a problem is not the same as solving it. For a while we thought a perfect solution would be to make every course section to be both f2f and online, by using the split modality. I was hoping for something like this to emerge for at least ten years. Unfortunately, the technology is not there yet, and I wish some startup would take this problem on.  While in theory it works, the split modality imposes an extreme cognitive load on the instructor. A few people can do it, but most will have a hard time. As we know from theory, a high initial barrier of learning the innovation makes wide-spread adoption unlikely.

However, the average student disappeared, and we sooner or later need to address it.