In which Michael Rizzo explains the problem with higher education (and partisanship, and government at large). Excerpt below, but read the whole thing.
Higher education shares some of the same problems that plague non-profits. Non-profits have many “owners.” It is unlikely that the interests of parents, students, alumni, faculty, local communities, competitors, employers, vendors, and politicians are in harmony. It is asking a lot of a board of directors to align those many interests, particularly when they have interests of their own. In contrast, for-profit stakeholders have myriad interests, but the lure of profits and the need to avoid losses form a powerful glue that binds them together. Absent such glue, all we have are vague mission statements.
Universities are aware of this, of course. Two commonly proposed “solutions” end up making things worse. First, in an effort to maximize something, schools focus on burnishing their reputations—which are inherently unmeasurable and depend on others’ perceptions. Second, many groups (all with their own interests) are given a “seat at the table” in crafting important decisions.
Paradoxically, working on your reputation promotes actions that degrade the reputation of the higher education system as a whole. When our peers invest in green elephants, so do we, because “all schools like us have a Solar-Dok.” When our peers inflate grades, so do we.
In the zero-sum game to “be the best” among our peers, we are drawn into the trap of arms races—for facilities, athletic program victories, mission creep administrative overhead, and more. But there can only be five schools in the top five, and this remains true whether we all have climbing walls in our athletic facilities or not.
These races persist because there is comfort in doing “what all good schools do,” without having to evaluate whether such programs make schools better.
And there are other pressures to conform, such as the accreditation process. Our university is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. This means that Adelphi, Hofstra, St. Johns and Seton Hall, Penn State—competitors of ours—each have a say in whether we remain accredited.
How would such institutions view proposed research programs and curriculum changes that are risky, innovative, and out-of-the-box? And how would such institutions feel about questioning some of our green elephants, since we, too, have a seat at their accreditation table?
Americans would be uncomfortable if the major agri-businesses were responsible for ascertaining what foods were healthy and safe, or if investment banks determined the quality and safety of financial instruments. Yet we see exactly that in higher education.
Ha, as if major agri-business does not already dictate food safety policy. In 2009 Obama appointed a former Monsanto executive and lobbyist as ’senior adviser’ to the FDA. Said Monsanto executive is now “deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA.” LOL at anyone concerned about GMO voting for Obama.
When outputs are hard to measure, as learning outcomes are, and when accountability is hard to enforce, there is great protection in “everyone else is doing it.” Mere effort is seen as evidence of progress, and any failures to achieve goals can be deflected by arguing that “there is a tough balancing act.”
With vagueness preferred over precision, and with important decisions made by many stakeholders, none typically having sole authority, a likely outcome is to serve a lowest common denominator. That is the easy way to build support for programs, especially when third parties pay a large portion of the bill.