Friday, June 13, 2014

The Myth of Administrative Capability and "Hard Choices"

I ran across this story in today's higher education press, which caught my eye:
Female provost is accused of repeatedly touching her male colleagues
I was initially intrigued since this turns the usual sexual-harassment dynamic on its head. We are apparently progressive enough now that it's just as OK for women to harass men as it is for men to harass women (which is to say, not).

Actually, that turns out to be the least interesting part of the story. Slightly more interesting is that this particular administrator, hired to be provost at Montana State University-Northern, had left her previous position under a cloud after stirring up trouble there. That, too, is not much of a surprise although it's a sad story. Senior-level search processes seem incapable of figuring out that the reason why a given candidate is on the market may also be a reason why you don't want to hire them. I once worked for a provost hired after having reportedly been ousted from a previous position (and under circumstances that were, at the least, obviously suspicious). It didn't go well.

So I could turn this into an appeal for universities to do their darned homework on senior candidates and stop hiring other people's problems. But by itself that, too, would be old news.

What really interested me in the story linked above was not that MSU-Northern had hired a bad apple, which they probably shouldn't have. It's that both the provost's lawyer and (more importantly) the university's senior administration defended their hiring decision on the grounds that really good administrators often piss people off. Here are a couple of good quotes from the article:
Kevin McRae, a spokesman for the Montana State University system, said it’s not unusual to hire administrators who have “distinguished themselves with tough decision-making in the past."
“Through the advent of Google, just about any time a recruitment is done, people can come to us with controversies,” McRae said.
Templeton’s lawyer said provosts make hard choices and people naturally don’t like someone who comes in and makes hard decisions.
I've heard this "tough decision-maker" defense before. It is, of course, patent nonsense: there is no necessary correlation between having to make sometimes difficult trade-off decisions and alienating people. What matters is how the decisions are made and what the relationship is between those making those decisions and those being affected by them. Genuinely good administrators do this all the time - they make tough calls in an inclusive and transparent way, and although people sometimes don't like the outcome they don't turn on the administrator who led the process.

I call this the "hard-ass school of administration". It's a theory propounded by people who don't actually have any political or diplomatic skills, or any desire to share control with others, as an excuse for bad behavior. Or, as in this case, it's often brought up to justify past bad decisions, a sort of CYA exercise. The statement that since "the advent of Google" everyone is dogged by controversy is ridiculous on its face.

Tragedies occur when universities only find out about these power-hungry tendencies after the hire is made. If you're on a campus doing a senior administrative search, demand transparency and accountability. Research the candidates thoroughly. Be fair about it - I have colleagues whose past is deemed "controversial" even though a thorough examination shows they did nothing wrong. Don't jump to conclusions either way - research, and research, and research, until you get as close to the truth as you can. And don't take the "tough decision-maker" argument at face value.

In other words, we should apply the same diligence to our administrative search processes that we do to our academic careers. Shame that there are universities that can't seem to make that connection.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Another Look at Administrative Bloat in Higher Ed

I've written various pieces before (see here, here, and here) about the real issues of cost in higher education, and how the public debates seem to miss the point in their desire to hawk one ideological view or another. A lot of things drive up the cost of higher ed. One of my favorite bogey men is the story of "administrative bloat".

Now, on its surface "administrative bloat" is real insofar as universities and colleges today employ a lot more non-instructional staff than they did in past years.  Some of this is technology driven - 50 years ago universities didn't have IT departments with groups of computer programmers. Faculty like to believe that administrative bloat is a fundamental product of administrative motivations - that administrations (assumed in subtext to be greedy and selfish) will grow and metastasize in much the same way that Thomas Piketty argues capitalism produces inequality. There are certainly cases of this kind of "frivolous bloat", although it is not as common as some of the faculty hawks believe.

Often unnoticed in these discussions is a third force driving administrative bloat: mandates from the outside world. Some of these mandates are from the marketplace - parents and students want universities with certain kinds of amenities and services (how many schools, for example, have done away with their Career Center in this job-focused age?) And some of those mandates come from the government.

It is into this category that a story in today's Chronicle titled "Why Colleges Are on the Hook for Sexual Assault" falls. The meaning and mandate of the Federal Title IX statute has been expanded significantly in the decades since it was founded, and recently especially in the realm of rape and sexual assault. Universities now find themselves essentially having to set up professional criminal justice systems, with top-quality capabilities to investigate, handle due process, and render verdicts which will stand up to both legal and public scrutiny. In other words, universities now need their own court systems.

This is a series of tasks which universities are ill-suited to do. Even a decent-sized institution like my employer only has a handful of people on campus who have anything resembling professional competence in these areas. To do this and do it right, the university would have to hire a number of people, some of them pretty highly-paid professionals with experience and credentials. In other words, more bloat.

The price of not doing this for any university is twofold. If a student has a bad experience and blames the institution for it, that school may find itself the subject of a Federal investigation - never a good thing. Moreover, the bad press generated will almost certainly drive students away, which in today's lean times can be catastrophic. So anybody not moving in this direction is gambling with the future of the university.

Most of us agree that sexual assault is a terrible thing and needs to be stamped out. I don't object in the slightest to building improved systems to treat victims better and, hopefully, reduce the incidence of rape and assault. But we have to understand that there is a cost to doing so, and that cost is being imposed on universities - which will mean, ultimately, higher tuition and all the rest of it. Somebody has to pay, and the broader public (through their state legislatures) has long since decided that it isn't going to be the taxpayers. So students are, in essence, being told to fund their own solution to the problem. And there will be a few more highly-paid administrators on every campus for faculty to complain about.

Another University Shooting: What Does It Mean?

Another week, another seemingly senseless shooting in a public place. This week's entry took place at Seattle Pacific University; you can find news all over the net. The first version of the news story I found was here.

What interested me about this story was not the particular details, which are in some ways depressingly familiar but in some ways inspiring. I am tempted to use this case, once again, to add to the mountain of evidence that Wayne LaPierre was wrong in his infamous formulation that, "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." I've blogged before on this point, and will leave it here only by pointing out that the "bad guy with a gun" was stopped in this case by a good guy with a can of pepper spray and the will to act. Courage and perceptiveness are the first and most important weapons, without which nothing else matters.

But what really interested me about the story was this quote given in the aftermath of the shooting:
"The actions of the subject in this case do not define Seattle Pacific University nor the city of Seattle," Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh said. "The actions of the students and staff on site, those are the things that define Seattle Pacific University."
This is why we spend so much time talking about violence and why the subjects of guns, murder, and the like are so prominent in our public conversations. Violence isn't just about the damage that it causes. While significant, there are lots of other things that cause similar amounts of damage. Nearly as many people died in Hurricane Katrina as died on 9/11; which one has gotten more attention?

We give violence the attention that it gets because of what it says about who we are. When somebody kills others, whether it be with a gun, a knife, or a plane, that act says something about both the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s). And how we respond to that act also says something about us. What it says, of course, is in dispute. We argue about it all the time. It is a, if not the, central question of our lives: who are we?

Recently a friend re-posted an op-ed piece from late 2012, after the Sandy Hook shootings, titled "Our Moloch". In it the author makes a strong argument, not about the tactics or the laws surrounding guns, but about the kind of identity that has been constructed around what might be termed the "gun rights movement". Whether you agree or disagree with his portrait, he is pointing to the right question. It's not about the guns. It's about us.

In times of crisis we look for meanings that uplift. That's why firefighters were so revered in the wake of 9/11 - because of the self-sacrifice they made to try to save other's lives, that noblest and most blessed of pursuits. That's what Assistant Police Chief McDonagh is invoking here. We are not the guy who pulled the trigger on innocent people. We are the guy who jumped on him, who disabled him and took him to the ground, who saved lives. That's who we want to be.

I've blogged a lot before (search the site on the "Use of Force" label; here's one of my favorites) about the intersection of violence and ideas. I think that one problem we have is that people spend both too much and not enough time thinking about violence and its relationship to who we are. We allow Hollywood fantasies about violence to shape our understandings of what it's useful for and how it works (just as we do about sex). At the same time, we don't spend enough effort thinking about who we want to be and where we want violence to fit into that picture. The extremists who carry assault weapons into Target and Home Depot have become a caricature, a grotesque parody of what we would regard as a good and civilized life.

So as we mark another senseless shooting in the headlines (alongside the many hundreds of senseless shootings that go unremarked because they are done in "those parts of town" among "those people") let's try just a little bit more to think. Not about the details of gun control, or the political clout of the NRA, or the best tactics for self-defense. Let's think instead about who we are and who we want to be. And let's talk about that together. Because in the end, that's the only question that really matters.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Women, Culture, and Self-Defense: What does #Yesallwomen mean for the self-defense community?

There has been a growing conversation on the internet surrounding issues of rape, sexual assault, and how we should deal with these things both legally and culturally. I say "growing" in the sense that the conversation has been taking up more bandwidth lately - driven both by more stories of sexual assault coming out into the open and by ongoing efforts to get institutions, especially colleges and universities, to do something about it. But it is also a "growing" conversation in the sense that it is getting more sophisticated, with more points of view being circulated. I think that this is a good thing, although like all important conversations it is uncomfortable and heated at times.

I wrote a blog post a year and a half ago in response to one of the early public stories of a rape survivor, this one at Amherst College. At the time, I tried to make what I thought was a somewhat novel argument: that the issue was fundamentally cultural and would require cultural solutions, and that men needed to be a big part of those solutions since the people creating the problem are overwhelmingly men. I summarized a lot of these ideas this way:
I applaud and support the conversations, public and private, that women are having about appropriate boundaries, respecting themselves, and being smart in self-protection. What we need along side those are men's conversations: what is appropriate sexual behavior? What does "respect" mean? What other kinds of attitudes and expectations do we carry around that, let loose in the atmosphere, encourage some men to push (and, ultimately, violate) those boundaries? And when guys do violate those boundaries, what do we do about it? (The answer to that last, historically, as been "nothing". That needs to stop.)
That post remains one of my most-read posts of all time. I guess it touched a nerve somewhere.

Fast forward 18 months - in fits and starts I appear to be getting my wish. The other day I read this excellent article on the Daily Beast calling out Nerd Culture and the kinds of narratives it creates that contribute to an "entitlement mentality" on the part of guys - just the sort of narrative that can lead to assaults. Yes, the UCSB killer is an extreme manifestation of that attitude - but the difference may be more one of quantity than of kind.

And since so much of our modern conversation is in Twitterspeak, we now have a pair of competing hashtags: #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen. The former appears to be a rearguard defense by some men who feel ... unjustly accused? tarred with the wrong brush? ... by a conversation that talks about men as the source of the problem. I actually anticipated that reaction in my 2012 post, so I guess I don't find it that surprising. Regardless, the former hashtag spawned the latter, the best discussion of which I found here (I'll leave aside the question of whether the title is appropriate or not; the article is an excellent one).

So far as I can tell, much of the point of #Yesallwomen is an insistence that women want to be treated decently as human beings, by all men. It is an effort to put the onus back on men to change their behavior so that women can enjoy the kind of basic personal security that most men take for granted. And though I used somewhat different language in my earlier article, I wholeheartedly agree.

But while I support the drive to get men to both behave better and to better police each other's behavior, this raises an interesting question for me from another facet of my life: what should happen to the cottage industry of self-defense training courses for women? I've blogged on this subject before, including here (also one of my most-read posts) and here (my highest hit count of all time). I have been supportive of good self-defense training and practice, and have even offered such courses myself from time to time.

So am I barking up the wrong tree? In light of #Yesallwomen and the focus on changing men's behavior, should we be talking at all about women learning to defend themselves against assault? I am sure that some in the #Yesallwomen camp would accuse me and others who teach self-defense of contributing to the problem by focusing on women, rather than men, as the source of the solution.

But as much as I support the argument that the best solution is to change male culture and behavior, I don't buy the notion that giving women self-defense tools makes matters worse. I agree that women shouldn't have to fend off a guy by yelling at him, much less by well-aimed punches and kicks. But so long as there are men who behave badly - and that will be true for some time - I think women are better off having those tools than not.

Moreover, there is a spillover effect from physical training to mental attitude and ability. There are a lot of variations on this theme in the martial arts world; here are two, from very different practitioner/teachers:

The point here is simple: when you gain confidence in your ability to defend yourself physically, that confidence works backwards to all stages of human interaction. The skill to strike, or throw, or disarm, or lock, is not just the ability to do that one thing. It also carries within it the ability to say "no", the ability to draw boundaries, the ability to walk away from a situation long before there is any need to engage in combat.

As I have argued before, this kind of ability doesn't come from taking an afternoon workshop or two. It comes from long and disciplined study. What art you study matters far less than making it a part of your life. But even a little exposure can have a significant impact on confidence and the ability to exert social control, set boundaries, and say "no" at a much earlier point.

So I believe there is still a place in the discussion for the martial arts and a focus on self-defense. Not all women will choose to make this a part of their own solution - although I think many more should consider it. But until we reach the day when #Notallmen becomes #Nomenatall, I will continue to teach and encourage women (and men) to learn to defend themselves, in body, mind, and spirit.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Irony, Hypocrisy, and the Debate About Guns

A friend of mine coined a saying some years ago: it's a good thing irony is so damned funny, because there is so much of it.

This meme, and variations on it, has been making the internet rounds of late (and, possibly, for quite some time):

The sentiment behind this is quite reasonable, even insightful. For those who are wondering (since the meme doesn't say) Jeremiah 17:9 reads:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?
This is a point that many in the NRA and others supportive of gun rights have been making for years. The more popular phrasing is, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people", but I like this one better because it actually points to something of importance: what is in the hearts (and minds) of people leads to violence.

What makes this ironic (and hypocritical) is that many of those in the Tribe of Gun Rights who promulgate this notion have been active contributors to the poisoning of people's hearts with respect to violence. These are in many cases the very same folks (indeed, I found this meme on the very same FB feed) as those who glorify the use of retributive violence. I've written about this before (here and here, among others). Here is perhaps one of the more egregious examples, which you can find on Snopes (it's been circulated in a variety of forms for years):


March 5th, 2009

Last Thursday night round midnight, a woman in Houston, Texas was arrested, jailed, and charged with manslaughter for shooting a man 6 timesin the back as he was running away with her purse.

The following Monday morning, the woman was called in front of the arraignment judge, sworn in, and asked to explain her actions.

The woman replied, "I was standing at the corner bus stop for about15 minutes, waiting for the bus to take me home after work. I am a waitress at a local cafe. I was there alone, so I had my right hand on my pistol, that was in my purse, that was hung over my left shoulder.

"All of a sudden I was being spun around hard to my left. As I caught my balance, I saw a man running away from me with my purse.

I looked down at my right hand and I saw that my fingers were wrapped tightly around my pistol. The next thing I remember is saying out loud, 'No way punk! Your not stealing my pay check and tips.' I raised my right hand, pointed my pistol at the man running away from me with my purse, and squeezed the trigger of my pistol six times!"

When asked by the arraignment judge, "Why did You shoot the man six times?" the woman replied under oath, "Because, when I pulled the trigger of my pistol the seventh time, it only went click."

The woman was acquitted of all charges. And she was back at work, at the cafe, the next day!

You cannot circulate stories like this one and then claim that the "real problem" is people's hearts (the story, by the way, is false). This story tells a simple fable: money (specifically, my money) is worth more than a human life (especially if that life belongs to a "punk", something less than human). Anybody who believes that has a very selective reading, at best, of the Bible. Cain killed Abel, by some interpretations, because Abel was wealthier and had been more successful than Cain.

If gun rights supporters want to live by the first meme (the real problem is human hearts), they should be doing something to heal those hearts - to appeal to the "better angels of our nature", to borrow Lincoln's phrase - rather than steeping themselves in the glory of violence. I know that expecting consistency, especially on the internet, is tilting at windmills. But folks within the gun rights community should at least try to rein in the more violence-accepting of their brethren, if they expect anybody else to take them seriously.

The Strange Case of Saskatchewan: A Cautionary Tale in Higher Education Administration

Most of us, even higher education geeks, don't pay much attention to the University of Saskatchewan. It's not a big name in the North American higher education landscape (neither is my employer), though I'm sure it's a fine institution.

This past week, however, the U of S has gotten a LOT of press, all of it bad. I made reference to the story in another blog post over at RelationsInternational, but hadn't written about the case much. Yesterday and today there have been interesting updates: yesterday the provost at the university resigned his position, while today we learn that the president of the university has been fired by its Board of Governors.

To recap: a dean speaks out in public against a restructuring plan which his president was promulgating, concerned that it could threaten the accreditation of his school and that the plan had been developed with little outside input and was being forced down people's throats. The dean has previously been warned by the provost and the president not to do so, but did anyway. The dean was fired, initially from both the deanship and from his tenured faculty position; the latter was given back a day or two later after a firestorm of protest over the rules of tenure. Controversy and bad press ensues, and within days the provost resigns his administrative position and the president is fired by the Board.

My friend & co-author Steve Saideman has already blogged about all of this (he writes faster than I do), from the angle of defense of tenure and academic freedom. In a previous post he had made another good point: if you can't take some public disagreement from faculty (and deans), you shouldn't be an administrator.

I want to expand on that last point, because it is actually one of the central questions facing any university administration: how centralized and secretive should our decision-making be? There is, on the whole, a fundamental tradeoff between breadth of inclusion and transparency on the one hand, and speed, efficiency, and getting exactly what you want on the other. All senior university administrators (presidents and provosts primarily) face this reality, and most of them will favor the latter (speed & efficiency) over the former (inclusion & transparency) most of the time.

I will confess that I have never served a university at that level, and so do not have the authority to speak to this question that, say, a retired president might. However, I have served under a number of administrations at varying levels, some of which I have been very close to (organizationally speaking). I've seen this decision play itself out a number of times, and I've seen presidents come down on both sides. I draw two conclusions from my observations:

1) Transparency & Inclusion Should Be First Choice

In the end, transparency always wins in higher education. Universities are large, complex organizations with lots of people who work together, communicate with each other, and form relationships. The root culture involves the open sharing of information - that's what teaching and research are about. So trying to keep a decision secret almost never works. In the end, even if nothing is ever officially acknowledged, people know what "really went on". You may as well be transparent up front and get your critics sitting at the same table, because they're going to be engaged either with you or behind your back. Yes, there may be circumstances where you can't do this - but they should be rare, and you should know why, which leads to my second conclusion:

2) Many Administrations Choose the Efficiency & Speed Route for the Wrong Reasons

The argument for narrowing the circle of decision-making and refusing to deal up front with potential objections is always that this is more "businesslike" and "efficient" - meaning, it's faster. Presidents and provost often present sweeping new changes with the warning that "we need to do something now!" But despite these Chicken Little warnings, the sky usually isn't really falling. Healthy, robust universities do not go bankrupt overnight. Those few that die off take years and years to do so, and their demise can usually be predicted far in the future. In my experience, when senior administrators say "we must do something now!", what they really seem to mean is, "I need quick results". Provosts looking to become presidents want to build a resume; presidents are often either looking for the next presidency or thinking about their "legacy". All of these things operate on a much shorter time frame (2-3 years) than is either healthy or necessary for an institution - but it's great for their careers.

It is possible to square this circle - to make decisions that are both reasonably efficient and inclusive & transparent. But doing so takes a lot of skill in negotiation and persuasion, as well as a healthy dose of humility and a willingness to give up some control over the final outcome. This combination is, in my experience, extremely rare among administrators. I recently wrote a blog post about why people might want to become administrators, and some of those motives select against these very characteristics. At the very least, it's luck-of-the-draw where the odds aren't that great to begin with (how many people do you know in the general population that fit this mold?)

So in the case of the University of Saskatchewan - as my friend Steve points out, "tenure wins", at least with respect to the particular dean in question. But the bigger victory here is in favor of more open, inclusive, and transparent decision-making. If a few more presidents get tossed out for coming up with sweeping plans in their office and then trying to force-feed them to their campuses, perhaps the rest will think twice.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Commencement Speakers, Polarization, and the Terrible Price of Moral Certainty

There have been a rash of high-profile commencement speaker incidents this year. Conde Rice withdrew from Rutgers, Haverford's invitation of former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has been called into question, and now IMF Managing Director Christine Legard has pulled out of speaking at Smith College. It's getting to the point where choosing a commencement speaker has become one of the hardest things a college has to do.

Common to all of these cases were small, well-organized, loud campaigns by students and faculty against the speaker in question. Each of these campaigns was built around a central moral claim, communicated with the kind of vigor that only the Righteous (or self-righteous) can muster. Some examples from these various cases:

From the petition against Ms. Legard speaking at Smith:

"By selecting Ms. Lagarde as the commencement speaker we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class. Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against. By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF."
From a faculty petition calling for Dr. Rice's withdrawal from Rutgers:
Dr. Rice "played a prominent role in his administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the existence of links between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime," and that "the lies thus promoted led to the second Iraq war, which caused the death of over 100,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of millions of others."
And from a letter from faculty and students calling on Haverford to disinvite Birgeneau from their commencement:
"As a community standing in solidarity with nonviolent protesters across the country, we are extremely uncomfortable honoring you," a group of 50 Haverford students and professors wrote to Birgeneau. "To do so would be a disservice to those nonviolent protesters who were beaten and whose actions you dismissed as 'unfortunate,' as if they brought the abuse upon themselves."
In each case, faculty and students are making statements about values - both the symbolic values attached to a particular individual and the espoused values of the institution. In each case, the complainants are concerned that their institution will be "tainted" by honoring and listening to someone who has done things that differ from (what they perceive to be) the institution's espoused values.

This strikes me as an extremely slippery slope at best, and a thinly veiled way to attack people you don't like at worst. I have my own feelings about each of the individuals named above and the things they have done in their careers. But for me and a small group of like-minded individuals (in each case, the petition or letter originated from about 50 people, which at a college or university is a very small group) to impose our views on the rest of the institution strikes me as simply indefensible. I know intelligent, reasonable people who would disagree with the arguments made above - these are things about which reasonable people can in fact disagree.

And that is very much a part of the problem here. By resorting to internet-fueled, social media-spread controversy, and in some cases threats of unsightly pickets and protests, these groups are essentially imposing a minority veto on the rest of the institution. They are exercising power which, even in an ideal democratically deliberative community, they have no right to. They are shouting down voices they disagree with on a simple premise: we're right and you're wrong.

This kind of logic fails a second test as well: it attempts to equate absolute moral principles with live human beings. This is nearly always a recipe for disaster, because very few humans fit neatly into our absolutist boxes. Ironically, it was the commencement speaker at my own graduation many years ago who pointed this out - so eloquently that I still remember his speech today. He told two stories - one of a Nazi SS officer who amidst all the terrible things he did as part of the SS saved a Jewish family in Northern Italy in the midst of the war, the other of Dwight Eisenhower who despite all the noble and heroic things he did ordered the public hanging execution of an orphaned American soldier as an example to American troops not to desert their posts. The punch line was clear: terrible people sometimes do good things, and good people sometimes do terrible things. The real moral world of human beings is far more complex than you think it is.

This is the point that these petition-writers, despite their advanced educations, have apparently missed. Christine Legard does not equate to the IMF, nor does Condelezza Rice equal the Iraq War - even if those things were morally unambiguous, which they are not. In the drive for moral purity and certitude, some folks seem compelled to insulate themselves from anything tainted with what they regard as morally corrupted. By that logic, they will soon find themselves alone in a room talking to themselves - hardly the kind of "liberal education" these institutions are supposed to champion.