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Sep 26, 2022

The conservative in me

In the higher ed, the talk of change, of innovation, of strategy, and moving forward is all you can hear. In reality all administrators worry at least as much about screwing up. Take the CSU System. The public has entrusted us with this very expensive, very sophisticated machine, essential to the State’s economy and its democracy. As President Nelsen said recently, we are the manufacturers of the middle class for the state. Imagine you are in charge of the James Webb Telescope, a 10 billion dollars piece of equipment that took decades to build and launch. Even if you take care of only a small part of it, you don’t want your part malfunctioning, right?

From a certain angle, the CSU System looks like a slow, gigantic, and bureaucratic beast. From another angle, it is one of the wonders of the world, the image of the future for the humanity. How can it take all of this very diverse population, not the elite, but regular kids, many of whom first generation in college, and give them a degree, a profession, give them hope and purpose? It is something the rest of the world needs to learn how to do.

And our telescope can be damaged easily, yes. One scandal will not kill it, but multiple ones can seriously damage its credibility, undermine public confidence, and result in decreased funding and invasive over-regulation. Any kind of bad news can come out about any university: about poor morale, labor conflicts, harassment, bias, inefficiencies, wastefulness, self-interest, poor management, and many others. Of course no one wants to be the cause of such things, - not only because it is professionally embarrassing, but because we don’t want to hurt the miracle machine.

Yes, we all talk about change and progress, and improvement. Silently, all of us are also conservatives, very much so. We won’t admit it because no one likes an overcautious bureaucrat. Yet the stakes can be high. None of us wants to make things worse on our watch. We all want to pass our little part of the telescope onto the next person in a better shape than when we found it.

Sep 18, 2022

Administrators are philosophers

They may or may not realize it, but it is true. They all have to practice some philosophy to make good decisions. Here is an example of a dilemma:

1. Some students want to take online classes, but we know (from the pandemic years) that it may not be good for them. Others want to be online and can learn just fine, while improving their access and family lives. Therefore, providing simple choice is not going to work, because choice is based on an assumption that people know what they need. If student knew what they need, they won’t be needing education.

2. There is no easy way to distinguish between the two groups. However, we can make educated guesses about groups of students and types of classes. Our guesses may be poor, but they may be better than unfettered choices of students. We actually do not know that for sure, but professors have more experience than students and should be able to make better decisions.

3. Some instructors want to teach online, but they are not good at it. Other professors want to teach online and are good at it. And yet still others do not want to teach online, but they are good at it anyway. We know this from the pandemic records. However, politically it hard to push them to teach in modality that students need, because the authority of making most curricular and pedagogical decision lies with faculty. We may be able to delegate the decision to groups of faculty members, but small group dynamics may get weird really quickly, we know that from the past experience.

OK, this was only a small subset of major factors that should be considered into the decision on how many online and f2f courses do we need to offer. The other factors include cohorted programs, where choice of modality is impractical, the institutional accreditation rules that prevent arbitrary changes of modality, the practicality of assigning instructors to classes late, after the modality is established, etc. In other words, the problem appears too complex to be solved. We can keep it unsolved for a year or two, but it needs to be solved eventually.

The only way to solve a complex problem involves an act of “zooming out,” that is trying to figure out what is this a case of? It involves getting out of the particulars and trying to find a more general perspective on the problem. Once you do something like that, you start practicing philosophy weather you know it or not. Philosophy is thinking about how you should think about complex problems.

The philosophical move of taking a broader view can be performed in hundreds of different ways. The choice depends on philosophers set of tools, knowledge of theories, and often preferences. The only way to know if you have found the right one is the result – is the solution you offer is any better than others, and better than a random guess? Regardless of the way you move, it takes time to think through. Philosophy is work; it requires some mental effort.

For example, the example I started with can be considered a case of paternalism vs. developmentalism. All educational institutions are riddled with a paradox: On one hand, schools are paternalistic; they make no sense without guiding and limiting student choices. Hence, we have constructed curriculum, and organized instruction. We want to prevent students from making major errors that could ruin their lives. At the same time, schools are developmentalist: if you want to teach students to make rational choices that are good for them, you must allow some errors to occur. Without making some wrong choices and experiencing negative consequences, students will never learn how to make their own good choices. For example, knowledge that you are not a good online student is better if it comes from your own experience, not because you were told so. If you examine closely, most of education is a balancing act between letting students make their own error and preventing them from making errors that are too large. School is a place for safer errors.

Again, I am not saying that my way of “zooming out” is the best one. I may or may not be a good philosopher, but I know the trade’s basic move. My intent was just to show how philosophy helps reframe the problem that is hard to solve otherwise. Indeed, making the philosophical move allows me to focus on a very specific aspect of the problem: taking an online class and having a bad time – is it a big error that can ruin your life, or a small one from which you can actually learn something?

In this particular case, we should probably look for some empirical evidence, and that is where social science comes in. But at least we know what to look for. And even without detailed evidence, I can make a guess that the error is probably not too large, and it can be made educational and less painful. All we need to do is offer some variety of classes with different modalities, so that students who struggle to learn online are not overwhelmed by many small failures. We should probably rule out offering classes by poor online instructors; just find a political solution for that. And finally, to make these choices educational, we should warn students before they sign up, what is involved in an online class, and help them reflect on their experience after it is done. Not all errors are educational; only those you reflected on as errors.

Sometimes solving a problem entails the correct estimation of its scale. Once you realize the problem may not be as big as you imagined, you buy some time for experimenting and seeing what happens.

Sep 11, 2022

Integrity is not always a virtue

Liz Cheney and a few other brave Republicans have been accused of betrayal. Indeed, their anti-Trump stance is likely to help Democrats in the next electoral cycle and beyond. They found out that loyalty to the party and to the ideas it stands for is not the only virtue, and that virtues often conflict. For example, loyalty to the country is stronger than loyalty to their party. Those are not pleasant or easy findings. Being called a traitor by former friends and colleagues is not an experience anyone craves. Many people strive for integrity, that is a non-contradictory, coherent set of beliefs. However, it is not always attainable.

Thirty years ago, I would not have imagined the day when I wish Russia to lose a war with one of its neighbors. And yet this is exactly my hope today. Who knew that a bloody dictator would rule the country again? Who knew that it would invade Ukraine, its closest kin? Who knew that the Grand Old Party, the party of smaller government, of free market and social conservatism would one way be hijacked by a fascist?

Many people, including me, realized a while back that Trumpism is a nascent fascist movement. Biden did the right thing, calling it out publicly. Again, he went against many conventions, against the tradition of political speech in America. I am sure he was conflicted about it. One of the biggest mistakes anyone could make is failing to notice how the world suddenly shifts. Sticking to your principles regardless of circumstances is not a sign of some virtue; it is a sign of rigidity and close-mindedness.

We are ruled not by one, but by a set of commitments and principles. Those sometimes come into a conflict with each other. Those conflicts can tear one’s self apart. The bad way of dealing with the internal conflict is to cling to one of one’s values and ignore the others. “Yes, Trump is a liar and lacks empathy, but he is good for my party, and he helps it win.” “Yes, Russia is an aggressor and a dictatorship, but it is my country, and I will support it no matter what.” Those are voices of cowardice that is trying to pass for integrity.