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Aug 28, 2022

The school energy

After a couple of years of dashed hopes and the zoom-fog, we are finally back. I will let you in on a secret; all educators know it, but most of other people do not. We have an endless source of power that makes education tick no matter what. If you gather many young people for a peaceful and productive purpose, they exude a special form of energy. Let’s call it the school energy. It is especially abundant and palpable this year, although it is always there, and always more visible at the start of a school year. To be completely honest, many of us in the teaching profession get a bit addicted to it; it is one of the main reasons we do what we do.

The way it works is a mystery. Get together hundreds of young people, with their own hopes, anxieties, peculiarities, their passions, the capacity to love, dreams and ambitions. Make it clear they will be learning something. I am not sure if they are just happy to see each other, and the learning part is a good excuse to do it. But it works. The ingredients are: young people, a school of some sort, the first day of the school year. Mix quickly, and you get a boost of energy, both invisible, and unmistakable. Consume with caution.

Speaking at orientations for future educators, I always struggle to convey this little trade secret we have. How do I tell them, it is not all hard work and sacrifice? Teaching can also be an immensely pleasurable experience if you know how to look. There is nothing as hopeful and optimistic as a crowd of young bodies and minds who came to make their – and your – lives better. You can watch future by watching a Sci-Fi flick with starships, or you can come to one of the new school year events. The latter is a much more joyful activity. You drink this energy of the young freely, without taking anything away from them. To the contrary, you help them get where they want to go. That is the paradox of the school energy – the more you take it, the more is left for others to take. Take this, the first law of thermodynamics.

Aug 22, 2022

Dispatch from a very slowly sinking Titanic

As the fog of COVID pandemic recedes, we can take a good look at the road ahead of us. Before pumping the gas pedal, we should probably take a better look at where we are going from here. It does not hurt to remember that our mission as an institution is not to survive, but to advance certain priorities the public entrusted us to focus on. But that is easy, for our mission does not change much. The more difficult part is to imagine the specific mid-range goals. They have to be ambitious enough to motivate us, and yet realistic enough to maintain focus. Calibrating the mid-range goals is actually a non-trivial task. Organizational eyes tend to be far- sighted: we can see far fairly well, but the next few years look a bit fuzzy. Or rather, they look exactly the same as now; the movement, the subtle shifts in the needed direction is what’s hard to imagine.

As I noted before, higher ed is very good at re-enacting the annual cycle. I know that classes will be scheduled, rooms assigned, students registered, plus or minus a few glitches. Students will be taught, assessed, grades assigned, and diplomas duly issued. I feel no anxiety about the new school year or semester starting and ending. What we are not very good at is change. It is precisely because we are so good at routines. The organization is built to reproduce itself, to enact the same motions, according to the same rules. Wanting to change something involves making the procedures of self-replication less efficient. Improvement requires disruption. This is not just a paradox that sounds good; no, this is literally how things go. The ratio of disruption/progress could be different, but it is never zero. Even if you want to do the simplest act of improvement – abolish some procedure entirely, for example – it needs resources to explain to people what not to do anymore. You need time to figure out any unintended consequences of the change. The time must come from somewhere. Spending time on non-routine things is disruptive.

We are contemplating a way to reduce the teaching load for all faculty who want to do more scholarship to 9-9 level. This looks like both an ambitious and a realistic idea for, say a 5-year horizon. However, it has a massive disruptive potential. We need to find reliable revenues to support it, we need to find someone to teach all the sections without the loss in quality. There is a complicated question about who and how will get it, what criteria to use, how to not destroy incentives for applying for campus-wide resources. The one issue I spent a lot of time on is whether we can use our off-campus revenues to cover this cost. Once we figure out the basic questions, someone has to put together the process, the paper trail, and other supporting mechanisms. We need to estimate the increased burden on our staff and on lecturers. Someone needs to understand the potential for internal resentment and conflict. One you take in the scope of the project, an inevitable question pops up – do we have to do it?

Do you now see why it is so easy to just play defense, to just keep doing what we have been doing? There is no risk in just paying more attention to the routine, to reduce glitches, to spend more time going around and strengthening relationships, and cheering people up. Unlike private businesses, we are not under a constant threat from competition ready to eat us up after the first wrong move. And yet, we have long-term challenges. The higher ed is shrinking; only some of it is related to demographics. Students of color are losing ground on campuses. Our costs rise faster than the public is willing to tolerate. Like global warming, this is a very slow, almost imperceptible sinking. The responsible thing would be to try to change, to adapt. Yet our DNA is set up to reproduce. That’s what I am worried about. We can start the academic year just fine; that is not the issue.

Aug 6, 2022

What’s wrong with Russians?

That is the question I get from some of my friends, in one form or another. Why would a country reject opportunities for a democratic, peaceful development and chose totalitarianism twice within a century, and both times with disastrous consequences for themselves and for their neighbors? It would be easier to say “yes,” and produce some esoteric stuff about the mentality, culture, or deficiencies of the mysterious Russian soul. I can give you ten of these theories right off the top of my head. BS is too easy.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is nothing special about Russians. In other world, all their failings are common to all other peoples. People who now singing praises to Putin’s war are not very different from people who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. An attentive observer will notice the same breed of paranoia, the same toxic mythology, and the same xenophobia. Similarly, the urban educated and liberal class looks the same in Moscow or in Sacramento. Russians had demonstrated their ability to create a robust civil society, and grassroot democracy, and a modern economy, just like everyone else, before it was wiped out in the last 15 years or so. The only difference is a fragile framework of institutions and traditions that the US has, and Russia does not.

Instead of speculating, let us look at two very similar neighbors, Russia, and Ukraine. The history of both nations is very similar, and so is their respective culture, demographics, and the economics. Both countries came out of the Soviet slumber with a very similar set of challenges and assets. Both struggled with building democratic institutions and confronting massive corruption, while trying to modernize. Both countries inherited powerful secret services and weak court systems. The only difference is oil and natural gas. The natural resources put enormous money to the disposal of one small group of Russian corrupt officials. In political science, this is a classic example of the rentier state. In Ukraine, none of the oligarchic group was rich and powerful enough to monopolize power. While such groups fought with each other, there was enough room for a relatively free press, a civil society, and some democratic institutions to survive. Ukrainians are rightfully proud of two anti-corruption revolutions they staged to defend their fledgling democracy. With all due respect, they had not been dealing with an oppression apparatus as rich and as powerful as the Russian Federation. Belarus is an outlier, for it did not have many natural resources. However, its dictatorship emerged almost immediately from the Soviet system, and can be considered a simple continuation of it. In this sense, it is closer to Central Asian states that to Russia and Ukraine.

One policy lesson for the global democratic coalition is this: do not help enrich dictators. The resource-fueled wealth is going to be used against their own people, and in many cases, against neighbors. Putin’s Russia is an unintended consequence of the global trade. So was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and ayatollahs’ Iran. Examples from the Middle East and Africa abound. The West made China powerful through unlimited trade and technology exchange, and we still do not know the consequences of this approach. The pattern is the same: a dictator needs to use the resources to stay in power forever. Staying in power often needs a small victorious war to whip up the patriotic frenzy. Poor dictators oppress their own people. Rich dictators go to war with others.

The other lesson is that the institutions need protection. They cannot be taken for granted. The fact that a demagogue like Donald Trump had been elected president and attempted a coup d’état is a warning bell. The fact that George Bush started an unnecessary Iraq war on false pretenses is another warning bell we failed to do anything about. The presidential power to wage war must be legally limited. The weaponization of social media must be contained. Let’s not look too deep; the lessons are specific, and pragmatic solutions must be found. There is nothing wrong with us.