For What It's Worth

We shouldn’t send bureaucrats and accountants to manage our wars. When we do (as happened in Iraq and even Vietnam), disaster follows. Military victory comes at the hands of those who know how to fight. Those who rise through military ranks learn, in addition, the needs and possibilities of their organizations. They neither place unrealistic demands on them nor expect them to be other than what they are. They know them, inside and out. They understand that military organizations don’t match others, that the skills needed for leading them to success are neither those of government nor of business.

The same is true, as anyone with any sense should know, of leadership of educational institutions. Fostering learning requires specialized skills, as unique to schools and universities as comparable skills are to armies and navies. These skills aren’t gained simply by going to college or, for the military, serving a tour in the service. They require decades of dedication and development within the organizations, not simply observation from without or experience in a single, lower-level capacity.

Yet it is outsiders who control our educational institutions. Educational decision-making is never dominated by people with real experience of the nuts-and-bolts of education but by people who have attained prominence through success with money or government. Their own success, and the national tendency to see education in corporatist terms, has led them to believe ‘people like them’ are best suited to solve whatever problems are imagined for American education—just as their counterparts have long felt they can run war better than the generals and admirals.

Now, one of the things that drives me crazy about academics is their insistence that things aren’t worth saying unless they are ‘new.’ All of us know that what I’ve written above is so obvious and so often reiterated that it has come to the point of being trite, or cliché. Yet the University of Iowa and the University of North Carolina system have both recently appointed non-educators to top leadership positions. Howls of outrage over blatantly political or corporatist selections have led boards of trustees not to change their ways but to make their selection processes secret.

One result of this, as we’re seeing just about everywhere, is a move toward factory models of education, ‘outcomes’ oriented systems imposed from above. Another is institutional operation on the related assumption that faculty and students are replaceable parts, no differences between those in the roles. The increased reliance on contingent and adjunct faculty—after all, they are cheaper—is one result. Another is a disregard for diversity.

Unlike what one finds in corporate environments where unity of vision and goal is encouraged and even laudable, diversity has become a major component of the success of American educational institutions as they have developed over the past century. One of the strengths of our system of higher education is the diversity of approaches to teaching among the faculty—a fact reinforced by a system in which students can take courses from as many as 40 different professors during their undergraduate career. There are many more, from other types of diversity.

Promoting diversity, though, is tough. Difference is uncomfortable and it takes work to negotiate it—and most people would rather stay with the comfortable and easy. When people from environments where diversity isn’t quite so central and essential take over educational institutions, they tend to push it aside. Not only is it difficult, but diversity has never been that important to them.

I don’t know much about the situation at the University of Missouri, though I am learning quickly. What I do see, however, and what should be obvious to everyone, is that Timothy Wolfe, who resigned yesterday as its president, was never suited for a job in education. He is a manager, not an educator, and has no understanding of the necessities of an institution of higher education—such as diversity.

The type of unrest seen at the University of Missouri is only going to become more common—as long as leadership searches—especially secret ones—continue to ignore the necessity of finding candidates with real and deep experience on campuses. Successful candidates need to show a commitment to diversity of all types and to a governance model that includes both faculty and students. Wolfe, if he had had real experience with these necessary components of American higher education, would not have painted himself into a corner he couldn’t get out of—and wouldn’t have damaged the institution he ran by needlessly imposing on it the preconceptions of corporatist models.

4 thoughts on “For What It's Worth

  1. I have no problems with an outcomes-based strategy, but one must be careful to determine with specificity what these outcomes are. In many cases (and I am sure I will be getting a big thumbs up from many on this list) outcomes can not be assessed with purely quantifiable data. As much as we wish our students to acquire appropriate skills and knowledge, we are also looking to instill within them a larger picture desire to value and apply their education as they move through life. I also agree that one cannot simply apply corporate models in an environment where the the product, the design, and the client are so entangled with each other, and return on investment cannot be evaluated in a quarterly report.

    • Agreed!

      What I mean by ‘outcomes’ is simply the reductive numbers-based strategy we see too often, these days. The word has been hijacked, as has ‘testing.’ Testing itself is a necessary part of teaching, but testing has become a different type of assessment than that useful to teachers in the hands of so-called education reformers.

  2. “Promoting diversity, though, is tough. ”

    These are the latest statistics concerning the State of Missouri population, from the US Census Bureau:

    83.5% White
    11.8% Black
    4.0% Hispanic
    1.9% Asian

    These are the latest statistics concerning the University of Missouri, Columbia student body:

    79% White
    8% Black
    3% Hispanic
    2% Asian

    While the numbers do not match up perfectly, they seem to be reflective of the state’s demographics. So my question is, based upon these numbers, is the University of Missouri diverse? At least in terms of what we legislatively define as diverse, it seems they are.

    Obviously the issues they currently face seem to relate to inter-racial relations- but I would say that is a topic separate from diversity. Biology has defined diversity as two components: a) the number of “kinds” in a system and b) the relative abundance of each “kind”. It looks as though the University of Missouri has done a pretty good job of representing the state’s diversity among its student body.

    I would argue, however, that race and gender should be used as components of diversity for human populations, and not the entire pie. What we are missing is the diversity of human experience. Because, when we apply ACTs, SATs, GREs and GPAs as our recruiting standards, we exclude an enormous quantity of human experience from our university populations.

    That’s what makes the promotion of diversity difficult, and I would argue currently impossible, on our university campuses.

    • Diversity includes people of different abilities and backgrounds and even a certain hesitation to place people within categories. What just is an African-American? A white American?

      You are right, race and gender are only two components of diversity. Diversity even includes disagreement. In fact, the ability to disagree in safety should be seen as one of the core components of diversity, at least on campus.

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