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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.

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