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Sep 27, 2023

Editable memories

We often think of our memories as personal artifacts, treasures of the mind that belong solely to us. Yet, the emotional hues of these memories are far from permanent; they're like watercolors exposed to rain, susceptible to the elements of time and circumstance. The idea that we own our past, emotionally speaking, is a comforting illusion. Our memories are not fixed landmarks but shifting landscapes, continually reshaped by the winds of subsequent events.

We had a family vacation in Maui, a paradise where the ocean's embrace felt like the world's gentlest lullaby. The next day after we left, the disaster struck, and Maui was engulfed in flames. Those flames seemed to leap back in time, scorching the edges of that once-idyllic memory. Similarly, in 1981, Svetlana and I went on our honeymoon trip to the Ukrainian part of her extended family. A journey through cities and villages that felt like a part of our story, now feels like a voyage through ghosts. Lviv, Kyiv, Rivno – all these and other places we know and love have been damaged by Russian rockets.  The emotional texture of that experience has been irrevocably altered.

If our memories can be so easily rewritten, do we ever truly own them? Perhaps our past is not really ours but is shared with the ever-flowing river of time, which can erode the cliffs of our most cherished memories and deposit sediments of sorrow or bitterness.

Yet, there is a flip side to this emotional malleability. Just as memories can be tarnished, they can also be polished, enhanced by subsequent experiences that cast them in a new light. A strained relationship with a parent might find redemption in the wisdom of later years, adding layers of complexity and even gratitude to earlier memories of conflict.

In this sense, the fluidity of memory is not just a vulnerability; it is also a form of grace. It allows for the possibility of growth, of change, of new interpretations that can enrich our understanding of ourselves and our history. While we may not have complete ownership of our past, we do have a say in how we integrate it into our present and future.

And here lies the paradox: the same mechanism that allows our good memories to be tainted also grants us the ability to forget, to move past trauma, to dissolve our nightmares. The emotional component of memory is a double-edged sword; it can both wound and heal. It's as if our minds have built-in checks and balances, a way to ensure that while we may suffer, we also have the tools to recover, to rewrite our own stories in ways that allow us to continue, to endure.

Sep 15, 2023

Beyond Lobbying: The Case for Efficiency Audits in Higher Education

In the constant cycle of budget cuts in higher education, divisions within a university often turn to internal advocacy. They argue, "Do not cut from us; cut from them." University leadership, lacking detailed knowledge of each division's operations, usually sides with the most convincing argument. This is a flawed approach. In my 38 years in higher education, I have read about but never seen an efficiency audit conducted. It is high time we change that.

An efficiency audit is a systematic examination of how well a company or organization is using its resources to achieve its goals. It can also be called a performance audit or profitability audit (in private sector). Efficiency audits offer a more objective, data-informed way to assess resource use across an institution. They are not just about identifying cuts; they are about optimizing what you have. Auditors dig deep, examining course offerings, facility usage, and workflows. For example, an audit might reveal that some units are still stuck in the age of manual data entry, a process ripe for automation. The solution? Training staff to use advanced technologies, thereby streamlining operations.

Another common finding could be staffing imbalances. Perhaps two low-paid positions could be gradually combined into one higher-paid, more efficient role. Or maybe the audit will uncover courses with low enrollment that are resource hogs. The solution could be as drastic as pruning the mission and reversing mission creep, or as straightforward as abandoning non-essential programming.

The point is, these are data-informed decisions. They are not influenced by internal lobbying or colorful PowerPoint presentations. An efficiency audit provides the kind of comprehensive insights that university leadership needs to make informed decisions, particularly when budgets are tight.

So, the next time budget cuts are on the horizon and divisions start crafting their "Don't cut us" narratives, consider a different approach. An efficiency audit might not solve all financial challenges, but it can offer a roadmap for smarter, more equitable decisions. The knowledge that all divisions have undergone the same rigorous, external audit process can also relieve the suspicion that others are not trying hard enough. In an educational landscape where every dollar and decision counts, that's not just efficient; it's essential.

Sep 11, 2023

The vicious complexity and the cost of figuring things out

 The ever-increasing cost of figuring things out in higher education is a dilemma that warrants serious attention. First, let's establish the thesis: the complexity of administrative and regulatory frameworks in higher education is escalating to a point where it is becoming a burden rather than a facilitator of educational goals. This complexity is not just a nuisance; it has real costs—financial, intellectual, and emotional.

Take, for instance, the proliferation of managerial positions within universities. These roles are often created to navigate the labyrinthine regulations, audits, and compliance procedures that have become part and parcel of higher education. While these positions may be necessary to some extent, their multiplication signals a troubling trend: the increasing difficulty of "figuring things out."

Next, consider the example of financial aid for future teachers. Government bodies and NGOs aim to support more students entering the teaching profession. Each organization introduces its own program, complete with unique rules and requirements. The State Department of Labor adds another layer by offering apprenticeship money, which comes with its own set of unfamiliar conditions. The result? A bewildering array of options that are difficult for anyone to navigate. The irony here is palpable: funds meant to facilitate education end up creating a complex puzzle that few can solve.

This complexity extends beyond financial aid. Accounting rules, human resources processes, purchasing protocols, and even travel and bursar procedures have become increasingly intricate. Academic Affairs is not immune; it too adds layers of complexity that require specialized staff to decipher. The question then arises: who benefits from this complexity?

Here's the paradox. Managers and administrators, the very people who often create these complex systems, are also the ones who benefit from explaining them. They build a maze and then charge for the map. This raises ethical and practical concerns. Is the primary function of these roles to facilitate education, or have they become self-perpetuating entities that exist primarily to decode the complexity they helped create?

I've been in this field for over three decades, and I've seen the landscape change dramatically. I've found myself, despite my experience and intelligence, staring at documents, trying to make sense of their content. If someone like me struggles, what does that say about the system?

So, who is in charge of simplifying things? Ideally, it should be a collective effort. Universities, regulatory bodies, and government agencies need to recognize the toll that complexity takes on educational objectives. Simplification doesn't mean a lack of rigor or accountability; it means creating systems that are transparent, navigable, and aligned with the core mission of education.

In conclusion, the cost of figuring things out is escalating, and unless there is a concerted effort to simplify the administrative and regulatory landscape, the very purpose of higher education risks being undermined. The time for action is now; otherwise, we risk drowning in a sea of vicious complexity that serves no one well.

Sep 7, 2023

Doing it well does not make it good

The allure of pride in one's work is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it serves as the fuel for professional growth, pushing individuals to refine their skills, innovate, and build expertise. On the other hand, this very pride can become a veil, obscuring the larger, often flawed, institutional frameworks within which we operate. The paradox here is that the better we become at our jobs, the more likely we are to overlook the systemic errors that may underlie our tasks. 

First, let's consider the positive aspects of taking pride in one's work. When faced with institutional inefficiencies or poorly conceived programs, a dedicated worker often rises to the occasion. They learn the ropes, find shortcuts, and even develop a certain finesse for navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy. Over time, this expertise becomes a source of professional pride. The worker has managed to turn lemons into lemonade, so to speak, and there's a certain satisfaction in that. 

However, herein lies the dilemma. This pride can act as a smokescreen, preventing us from questioning the very foundations of the work we are engaged in. Take, for example, the state accreditation of teacher preparation programs. While educators and administrators may become adept at navigating the complexities of this process, their expertise can blind them to the fact that the entire endeavor may be flawed or unnecessary. The focus shifts from "Is this the right thing to do?" to "How well can I do this?"

Next, let's delve into the psychology of this phenomenon. When we invest time and effort into mastering a particular task or process, we experience what psychologists call "sunk cost fallacy." We become emotionally invested in our work, making it increasingly difficult to entertain the idea that the whole endeavor might be misguided. The better we get at something, the less likely we are to question its value. Our pride in our work becomes a cognitive blind spot, making us unwitting accomplices in perpetuating systemic inefficiencies or errors.

Moreover, institutions themselves are often resistant to change. Once a program or strategy is in place, it gains a momentum of its own. People who excel within these frameworks are lauded, further entrenching the status quo. In such an environment, questioning the system can be seen as a form of heresy, a threat to collective pride and shared accomplishments.

So, what's the way out of this conundrum? The key lies in maintaining a critical perspective, even as we strive for excellence in our work. We must learn to separate our professional pride from the tasks we are assigned. Being good at something doesn't necessarily make it good. We should cultivate the habit of stepping back and examining the larger context of our work, asking ourselves whether the programs or strategies we are so adept at implementing are serving their intended purpose or if they need to be reevaluated.

In conclusion, while pride in one's work is an admirable quality that can drive personal and professional growth, it can also serve as a barrier to critical thinking and systemic change. The challenge, then, is to balance our pursuit of excellence with a healthy dose of skepticism, to ensure that our hard work is not just perpetuating mistakes but is directed toward meaningful, constructive ends.

Sep 1, 2023

The Economics of Complaining: Balancing Due Process and Administrative Efficiency

The administrative dilemma surrounding the economics of complaining is complex. On one hand, there is a moral and ethical imperative to allow students, staff, and faculty to voice their grievances. On the other hand, there is the potential for the complaint mechanism to be weaponized, leading to a flood of complaints that can overwhelm the system. This creates a quasi-economic mechanism where the "cost" of complaining must be carefully calibrated.

First, let's consider the basic principles of due process. Due process is a legal concept that ensures fair treatment through the normal judicial system, especially as a citizen's entitlement. In the context of educational institutions, due process means that every complaint must be investigated thoroughly, impartially, and within a reasonable time frame. This is essential for maintaining the integrity of the institution and for ensuring that justice is served.

Next, we must address the cost of complaining. Instituting a cost, such as requiring written grievances or mandating a multi-step review process, serves as a filter. If the cost is too high, it deters legitimate complaints, thereby perpetuating a culture of silence and entrenching bad behavior. Conversely, if the cost is too low, the system becomes inundated with complaints, many of which may be frivolous or vindictive. This not only strains administrative resources but also risks overshadowing serious issues that require immediate attention.

The George Floyd era brought about a significant shift in this dynamic. In an effort to combat racial microaggressions and low-level hostilities, many institutions lowered the barriers to complaining. While well-intentioned, this policy change was not thoroughly considered. The result has been a surge in complaints, without a corresponding decrease in microaggressions. Moreover, it has created false expectations that all grievances will be addressed, leading to disillusionment and mistrust.

So, what is the solution? We should return to the principles of due process and consider raising the cost of complaining through a multi-level review. This doesn't mean making it prohibitively difficult to file a complaint, but rather instituting a balanced process that deters frivolous complaints while encouraging legitimate ones. For example, a preliminary review could filter out complaints that don't meet a certain criterion, followed by a more thorough investigation for those that do.

In conclusion, the economics of complaining in educational institutions presents a paradox. While it is crucial to have an open channel for grievances, the system must also protect itself from becoming a tool for vendettas or from being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of complaints. Striking this balance requires a nuanced approach that respects the principles of due process. Best intentions are not enough to create a working policy and solve the underlying problem.