The Paradox of Incremental Perfection

[excerpted from  How Strategic Planning Encourages Academic Capitalism is forthcoming in Sheila Slaughter (Editor), Barrett Jay Taylor (Editor), Higher Education, Stratification, and Workforce Development: Competitive Advantage in Europe, the US, and Canada, Springer

For almost 40 years, institutions of higher education have been writing business plans – sometimes called strategic plans or, more pretentiously, academic plans. By anticipating future needs and resources, planning supposedly prevents dire outcomes, such as a too-tight budget or even bankruptcy. Its organizational logic sees colleges and universities as complex corporate systems which may flourish by participating in a continuous feedback loop: assess resources and needs, set realistic goals, change to meet them, assess outcomes, set higher realistic goals, change, plan …ad infinitum. Purportedly, this cycle facilitates long-term success.

These cycles of strategic plans are akin to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. In one version of Zeno’s paradox, one shoots an arrow. In a nano-instant, it covers one half the distance to the target, and in the next nano-instant, it covers one-half of that half. Logically, the arrow can never reach its target, because it will always have to fly through one half of an infinitely smaller distance. Similarly a university’s series of strategic plans can never achieve perfection. No matter how many iterations of goals it sets and meets, it can never reach its ultimate target. In part, that failure occurs because it is always changing its target. In part, it happens, because there are only so many places at the top of the academic heap. One hundred universities cannot occupy the top twenty rungs of a ladder. Business plans embody the paradox of incremental perfection. (I am told that mathematicians have found a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes, but they do not seem to have informed the planners as yet.)

Business plans designed to promote a university’s well-being share some unfortunate characteristics with both corporate plans and military plans. They may make sense for the institution, but not the individual. The military estimates acceptable rates of death and injury as it plans a battle; to the planners, those who will die are nameless and faceless ciphers. Similarly, calculating who is worth saving, an insurance company must decide whether it wishes to pay for expensive treatments to restore the health of, say, a white, 60 year-old, male bus driver with a rare disease. In the same way, a university that wants to serve working-class students may raise its tuition to make ends meet, but by doing so, it may drive those very students to attend community college. At issue is the distinction between the “sticker price” and the “net price” (cost after receipt of a scholarship). When universities raise the sticker price, they try to control the net price for scholarship students. However, unaware of this distinction, many students avoid applying to schools that they believe to charge more than they can afford.

In each of these cases, the institutional strategy for thinking and behaving — the organizational logic—is paradoxical: to survive in the long term an organization plans for the short term. The reasoning implies that when you add a series of short-term units, you necessarily produce an anticipated long-term result. However, even as top administrators expand some programs and eliminate others by trying to calculate their institution’s needs and resources, they know that many relevant factors cannot be measured. By default, the administrators adopt the motto, when one cannot measure what one needs to know, one learns to need what one can measure.  (I do not use the term “leaders,” because I refuse to submit to the logical implication that the faculty are therefore “followers”.)

Since the turn of this century, top administrators have hoped that measuring and planning will enable their institution to make “strategic cuts,” while simultaneously serving their constituents. They want to be able to claim that the monies they have earned (through such items as tuition and faculty research) and the donations they have received (from both the state and philanthropists) are dollars well-spent. The problem they face is that each time they propose a method of either saving money or transferring wealth from one department to another, departments search for a way to undermine the cuts. Sometimes they unite with other departments and even deans to devise an anti-planning plan.

Paradoxically, a successful faculty campaign has woeful consequences for the future, because top administrators seem to interpret faculty resistance to mean that they must find a way to anticipate and so destabilize the faculty’s likely response. The paradox of incremental perfection works to “disestablish” the professors, for successful faculty opposition encourages top administrators to seek a better way to impose its will on them.

One university where I did research used a four-step process involving both internal and external personnel. (When a method of assessment uses faculty experts or experts in a discipline, I speak of “internal reviews.” When a method does not use such experts, but instead outsources assessment, I use the term external reviews.)

Here’s the progression:

  1. Internal Review 1: In the late 1980s, the provost requested academic departments to write self-evaluations, to be interviewed by mutually selected visitors (outsiders), and to discuss the outsiders’ advice. The provost visited every department to discuss the outsiders’ report and see whether a department could agree to changes.
  2. Internal Review 2: Beginning in the late 1990sand culminating in 2003, a vice provost and the deans required academic departments to write a self-evaluation, to be assessed by mutually selected visitors (outsiders), and to comment on the visitors’ report. With the provost’s office, the chair of the department was then to negotiate a memorandum of understanding about changes to be made.

Several years later, that vice provost declared that the assessments were without value, because almost every academic unit claimed it could become one of the top 20 departments in its discipline.

  1. External Review 1: In 2008, with the assistance of the deans, the provost appointed an internal committee to evaluate every academic department using a series of measures, including consultant-designed metrics that the provost has previously identified.

Some deans objected and some found ways to refute committee recommendations.

  1. External Review 2: In 2013, with the assistance of the deans, the provost appointed a planning committee to suggest the goals of a new strategic plan, but the provost hired an outside firm to evaluate academic departments and hired additional staff to implement the outside firm’s recommendations.

Step 4 is still in process.

Ultimately the paradox of incremental perfection undermines long-term achievements. To accomplish the next business plan and the one after that, the top administrators successively deprofessionalize the faculty. Not only does the professorial voice diminish as the top administrators climb from one short-term plan to the next, but since administrators are hiring more adjuncts and professors of the practice to save money, there are fewer and fewer full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty around to raise their voices in dissent. Although the rare faculty senate includes adjuncts among its members, by and large adjunctification accomplishes both short-term savings and the long-term transformation of higher education into a venue where administrators reign.

Designing plans to save both their institution and higher education itself, these administrators devalue the faculty whom they want to create both the knowledge and the thirst for knowledge that higher education supposedly imparts. They do not mean to do so. Top administrators are mostly former faculty who understand and often share academic values. But as C. Wright Mills once wrote, “Caught in the everyday milieux of their ordinary lives, ordinary men [and women] …often carry out series of apparently rational actions without any idea of the ends they serve…“

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Incremental Perfection

  1. Very insightful observations. Additionally, the finish of the Mills quote is also true: “. . and there is the increasing suspicion that those at the top as well–like Tolstoy’s generals–only pretend they know.”

  2. Sounds very interesting and probably correct. I wonder if any of the contributors to this collection are contingent faculty since part of the title is stratification and workforce development. I could not find a table of contents online yet.

    • Sorry. I can’t find my copy of the table of contents sent when I signed onto this project. I do remember at least one chapter on contingent labor, but I don’t recall who wrote that or other chapters. I’m really bad at remembering names. I think an electronic version of the book will be out this calendar year.

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