Thursday, May 31, 2012

We Made the Bed; Now We Are All In It Together

There's an old folk saying: you made your bed, now you lie in it. The United States, and the rest of the world, now find ourselves very much in this situation with regards to the growing crisis in Syria.

Things have clearly gotten out of hand, as this latest news demonstrates. The Annan Plan was at most a speed bump, already crossed by both sides, and it's fairly clear that pieces of paper and declarations aren't going to constrain the actions of either Assad or the Syrian opposition forces arrayed against him. It's a civil war, or about to become so (depending on your definition), which can only end in victory for one side or prolonged bloody stalemate that eventually brings both to the bargaining table.

In the meantime, as the civilian death toll rises the rest of the world wrings its hands and tries to decide whether to intervene or not. Concerns about Syria becoming a proxy conflict for much of the region are real, although so long as the conflict actually stays within Syria (and maybe Lebanon) I suspect that everybody else is basically OK with that. The pressure in the West is mostly humanitarian - a variant on the Peter Parker problem ("With great power comes great responsibility"). Or, as it might be most basically expressed, "how can we stand by with all those innocent people dying?"

The problem is that the current phase of the international dance involves the US (and some Western allies) trying to use the UN system to fashion some kind of international collective action. That's a great idea, except that we already broke the UN system for that purpose, and we can't just put it back together by fiat now because it happens to suit us. Here's a good quote from the above article:
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations warned that unless the Security Council acts swiftly to pressure Syria to end its crackdown on opposition, countries may act outside of the world body.
This kind of warning is at best worthless, and at worst hypocritical. What has the US done the last two times (Iraq, Lybia) it decided it needed to use force to alter a country's internal politics? Did we ask for the Security Council's OK? Notice that these two cases came under two different presidents of different parties - a point not lost on the rest of the world, even if we insist that there are somehow radical differences between our political factions.

The US has already made it clear that it will act unilaterally when it thinks it is in its interest to do so. Realists will cheer this as clear-headed thinking, and there's certainly an argument to be made there. But you can't have it both ways. If the US is free to do what it wants, when it wants, then the notion of the UN Charter as a voluntary set of restrictions on freedom of action is dead. What the US claims as its right, everyone else will too. The rest of the world doesn't buy the "we're the world's only superpower, so we get to do things no one else does" argument.

So in the case of Syria, waltzing around the UN is simply a waste of time. Even if the Obama administration wants to restore the UN Security Council system to credibility, it's too late - that system is dead, with the last few nails driven in the coffin by its own actions in Libya. And since we've remade the world in the Realist image, the only questions now are: what is in US interest? What do we have the capability to do? What will other powerful players likely do in response, and what is the approximate balance of power surrounding this issue? Hopefully, US policymakers - having abandoned many of the structures set up after World War II - can at least think through this much before rushing into unwise actions.

Tribalism Trumps Judgment

A piece of an NPR story about the presidential election this morning caught my ear as I was driving to work. You can read a full transcript of the story here. The particular bit that got my attention was this:

"Democrats [are] very optimistic about the country's future, even though they're not as optimistic that every individual has it in their power to get ahead," he says. "Republicans believe in that aspect of the American dream — that hard work will pay off — but they're very skeptical about the way the country is headed as a whole." 
Dimock says that divide began when Obama took office, with Republicans becoming very downbeat about the direction of the country. [Emphasis added]

Dimock in this case is Peter Dimock, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center. I've not been able to lay my hands on the underlying numbers, but I'm guessing that the Republicans he's talking about here represent 30% to maybe 40% of the US population, and that the downbeat view is a majority but not universal position within that segment.

That this would be true should hardly surprise us - but it should bother us. Contrary to the way we construct our news narratives, the fate of the nation turns on forces far larger than who happens to be in the White House at any given moment. The economic downturn which still dogs the country started well before Obama's election, and may survive him to yet a third presidency.

Moreover, for all the hyperventilating on the campaign trail there have been very few massive shifts in US policy over the last three years. Even the major initiative of the Obama presidency, "Obamacare", is still largely theoretical, its implementation put off into the future. To the extent that the US may be headed in either a more positive or more negative direction, the impact of the election of a particular president hasn't had much tangible effect.

So why would a majority of self-identified Republicans have decided at the start of 2009 that the country is now going to hell in a hand basket? Simply put, because tribal identity trumps evidence, judgement, or facts nearly every time. If you identify yourself strongly enough as a Republican, and if the Republican party (the tribal elders) are all saying that the election of Obama means the end of Western Civilization, then by golly that's what you're going to see.

Democrats, of course, are guilty of the same thing. At the moment they are optimistic about the future, because Their Guy is in the White House. If Romney wins later this year, expect a downward shift in their opinions come January, regardless of what's actually happening in the world.

For anyone who identifies with the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment - Reason, Evidence, the Scientific Method - this kind of "thinking" is appalling. It amounts to rank superstition, or at best an allegiance to a vaguely-defined (but very powerful) secular religiosity. It is the mantra of the Dittohead (to pick on one self-identified example): "If Rush says it, I believe it."

As much as we want to project the Democrat/Republican, Left/Right divide onto everything in public life, this one strikes me as much more important: the Tribalists versus the Rationalists. Do we believe that truth is whatever authorities tell us  (even if we think they are authorities of our own choosing), or do we believe that reason and evidence should guide our judgments about the world? Are we children of the Enlightenment or of the Middle Ages that preceded it? That's a distinction that matters a great deal more in terms of what kind of public life we are going to get - but it's one that nobody (not even the Pew Center) pays any attention to.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Do Elections Really Determine the Fate of Nations?

There's a lot of talk these days about the upcoming re-run of the elections in Greece. The general tenor of the discussion (here's a good example from today's Reuters feed) is that Greece stands on a knife's edge. If the anti-bailout parties win the election, Greece will exit the Euro and chaos will ensue. If the pro-bailout parties win, the deal they struck with the rest of Europe will be saved, Greece will remain in the Euro, and all will be well.

Given how close the vote is likely to be, that's a lot of outcome to attribute to a small fraction of the population. If the winning margin between pro- and anti- forces is 1%, does the fate of the whole country hinge on that 1%? I don't think so - at least, not in this case.

The problem, at heart, is not what the Greek government will do. The problem is what the Greek people will do. In this case, the population is clearly evenly split - about half are virulently opposed to the European bailout (and, in particular, to the austerity measures that go with it), while the other half are willing to put up with austerity if it means they get bailed out and stay in the Euro zone.

Let's say that the pro-bailout forces (New Democracy and Pasok) win by the slimmest of margins, and manage to put together a bare-majority government (the best they can possibly hope for). What will the other 49.9% of the population who voted against austerity do?

Given that many of them regard the European-imposed austerity measures as externally imposed and wholly illegitimate, they will resist. Some will demonstrate, even riot, damaging economic activity and lowering government tax revenues. Some will yank their money out of Greek banks, further weakening an already under-capitalized banking sector. Some will go on strike - more economic slowdown, fewer taxes. And some will simply refuse to pay their taxes, further lowering government revenue and increasing the cost to the government of collecting the revenue it gets.

All in all, the anti-bailout/anti-austerity part of the population is likely to do all sorts of things that will serious damage Greece's government finances. This will likely put Greece in default of its obligations under the bailout agreements, forcing Europe to either give them the money anyway (unlikely, given the mood of the German public) or cancel the bailout (which is what Syriza and the anti-bailout forces want).

So the problem here is not the elections. The problem is that there is a large enough bloc of the Greek population - whether it is 49% or 51% is immaterial - that can effectively veto Greece's side of the bargain. Given the level of political feeling in Greece right now, it is unlikely that a New Democracy-led government will be able to bring any significant number of these people around to cooperate with the Germany-funded austerity plan.

Greece is likely to be a laboratory over the next few months for an important principle of democracy: elections are a way of measuring the "will of the people", but they are not the only way. The people still retain their right to direct action, and they will exercise it. Elections are just a tool - and a subordinate one at that. It will be interesting to see what the birthplace of democracy does, and whether a deal that requires the cooperation of more Greeks than are willing to cooperate stands any real chance of success.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What is Good Government (or Good Administration) Anyway?

My friend Steve Saideman has been posting a lot about the protests in Quebec, and about how the really important issue there is good governance, not tuition hikes. His stuff is really good, and if you have any interest in that stream of events, go read his string of posts on the subject.

His repeated return to the Good Governance theme, and its connection to universities in Quebec, has gotten me thinking again about what "good governance" (or, perhaps, "good administration") looks like inside a university. Since I'm part of the "governance" structure but still feel affinity with the faculty, I often wonder what kind of governance we should be striving for. Heaven knows that in my faculty career, I've seen more than my share of lousy administration; so what does the alternative look like?

The obviously wrong answer is, "one that makes everybody happy". Anybody who has spent any time at all in academia - or, indeed, any other organization bigger than two or three people - knows that making everybody happy all the time just isn't possible. Sometimes, the outcome has to go the other way; sometimes, your preferences are noted but they don't carry the day.

The larger the organization and the broader the range of views (and the wider the variance in the distance between those views and reality), the less and less common ground there is that absolutely everybody will agree on. Most universities manage this by operating as more or less loose conglomerations, giving smaller units (departments, colleges) a fair amount of local control. But that only goes so far. Sometimes, there are decisions that affect everybody, and upon which people don't agree.

In general, most people don't pay attention to governance (or administration) until it impinges on them in some fashion - either by interfering with something they want to do, or by doing something they don't approve of. That is, so long as I'm getting what I want, I don't pay too much attention to what the government/administration does.

That is to say, most people are interested primarily in the outcomes of governance - do I get to do what I want, are my streets paved (and not collapsing in sinkholes), are my students getting funded, do I get the classroom space I need. Process only becomes an issue when the outcomes are different from my preferences.

Because of this, thinking about the process of governance (or administration) is often a foreign concept. Some years ago, I was head of an advisory board for a nonprofit organization. The administrative head of that organization drew this distinction clearly, and clearly and publicly labelled himself an "outcomes person". He didn't care about the process, so long as the outcome was to his liking. That caused a few problems with other folks in the organization, because process often includes things like "fairness" and how we treat other people.

The students in Quebec seem to have a similar problem. They don't care about the process (especially the violence-prone among them) or who it hurts, they just want the outcome that they want. Since they can't get what they want through a civil process, they lash out. That's an understandable strategy in 1970s Soweto, where the government is repressive and not going to listen to you no matter what. In modern Quebec? It may be inept, but there is a functioning civil society there.

If good governance or good administration isn't about delivering the outcomes everybody wants (because that's not possible), what is it? It is, simply, paying attention to the process and guarding the principles on which the process is founded. Is the system fair? Does everybody who deserves a voice have one? Are decisions being made by the people who have the authority to make them? Is the system transparent and open, so that everybody understands what the rules are?

In my experience, adhering to these things does not make everybody happy - although it does help a lot to ameliorate the concerns of reasonable people. My office still gets tons of outcome-based demands, usually based on some variant of "my situation is unique, so this rule shouldn't apply to me". Sometimes the answer is still no, and sometimes those folks go away unhappy.

That's OK, as long as we're fair and reasonable and consistent and open about what we do. In the long run, that doesn't seem like much to ask for - although in the short run, when people focus on the immediate outcome, it's easy to lose sight of. But as my friend Steve has pointed out time and again, if you screw up the process, in the long run you'll get horrible outcomes anyway.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lowering the Bar in Afghanistan

This week NATO has been holding a high-profile summit in Chicago. Usually, NATO meetings don't get a lot of attention in the US press, in part because they're often in Europe and in part because they often talk about things like interoperability and peacekeeping protocols in the Balkans that Americans don't care much about. For most Americans, NATO is just background noise most of the time.

But because the Afghan war is a NATO affair, and because this is an election year in which Americans are looking to see if Obama fulfills his promises with regards to that war, this year's summit suddenly looks important. Chicago is, of course, always a great place for protesters (1968, anyone?), which only adds to the drama.

All NATO countries agree that they need to "end" the war, within a reasonably short time frame - specifically, by 2014. So they have a plan to accomplish that goal - a plan largely driven (as usual) by the various members' domestic political and economic situations rather than the war itself. That domestic politics are driving foreign policy should surprise nobody - they almost always do.

But this particular plan, despite the high-minded rhetoric, isn't a plan to end the war at all. It's a plan to try to arrange conditions under which NATO countries can leave with a minimum of embarrassment. At the end of 2013, the conflict itself won't be over and the fighting will still be going on - we just won't be doing the fighting anymore.

Ending the war means ending the conflict - which at root means taking away either the motivation or the capability of the various anti-Karzai government forces to continue to fight. Motivation can only be addressed by reaching a settlement acceptable to all of the factions within Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the various warlords and drug lords populating the countryside. Whether a power-sharing arrangement exists (even in theory) that could satisfy all of those parties simultaneously is an open question, but the fact that there has been very little serious effort to pursue one - combined with the fairly extreme demands of some parts of the Taliban - suggests that this road is blocked. So much, then, for resolving the conflict by negotiated settlement.

The only other choice is to take away the capabilities of the anti-Karzai forces. But this, too, is a strategy with a poor track record. The US and its NATO allies have been there in force for 10 years - recently, with a "surge" of extra forces. Despite concerted and significant efforts, there has been little progress in ending the war by beating the other side(s) into submission. The Soviets, with much less regard for human life than we have, tried for 10 years to do the same in the 1980s and failed. Military force can probably prevent a Taliban victory, but it cannot take away the Taliban's ability to continue to fight.

So what is the goal of this new plan? To have Afghan government forces capable of continuing the fight on their own by the end of 2013. I haven't seen the word used yet, but this feels an awful lot like "Vietnamization" redux. We've acknowledged that the war is essentially stalemated - neither side can escalate to victory at an acceptable cost. But the stalemate doesn't hurt either side enough to want to make painful compromises - either that, or some (or all) sides don't believe negotiations would produce a solution.

Either way, the Obama administration is in as untenable a position as the Nixon administration was in 1972. The American public wants out - not to the point that hundreds of thousands have marched on Washington yet, but the political and fiscal constraints are significant. Continuing the war promises no hope of changing anything for the next 10 years. But there's no way in the near term (or even the medium term) to produce an outcome significantly different from the status quo.

So the only rational strategy is cut your losses and leave, papering over the departure with words about "peace with honor" or "a plan to responsibly wind down the war". If Obama wins a second term, he may face a Saigon 1975 moment if the Taliban overrun Kabul and reassert control over the center of the country. Or that point may come later - if at all. The country may just limp along through another 10 or 20 years of internecine civil war, while continuing to serve as a base for drug lords and potential terrorists.

I don't have much criticism for what NATO is trying to do right now - they're in a difficult (if not impossible) solution. As much as we wanted to believe in 2001 that we could remake Afghanistan so that it never again be a haven for terrorists, that may be beyond our reach - a desperate hope generated from the grief and shock of 9/11. What we have gotten instead is yet another lesson in the limits of power.

Just don't call it "ending the war" or "conflict resolution". If we're honest, we'll call it what it is - leaving.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Leaders Should Be More Ears and Less Mouth

This is a set of thoughts that's been coming together in my head for a week or so, in response to a bunch of disparate things I've both read and written. It started consciously with my post on Obama's "gay marriage" interview, but draws on things rattling in the back of my mind for some time.

Being an administrator in higher education, I get a lot of variations on the faculty question: what the heck are administrators good for, anyway? There's a lot of talk about "leadership", but the fear among many faculty (and I still think of myself as part of the faculty tribe, even if I draw my paycheck from elsewhere) is that universities spend a lot of money on administrators in exchange for - nothing, or sometimes worse than nothing.

So I think it's reasonable to ask administrators about what this "leadership" thing is that they (we?) like to talk so much about. What's the value proposition here? What are we getting for our money?

For some administrators (including some I have worked for in the past), "leadership" means "I'm in charge, do what I say." That this is a vapidly stupid sentiment does not keep some of these folks from thinking it, and even on occasion expressing it. Obviously, that's the wrong path.

We have done a good job of teaching our students that "leadership" isn't about holding a position (another myth sometimes held by bad administrators - think Cartman's "Respect my authoritah!"). We've taught them that leadership is about getting things done. I went to an awards ceremony for students last night, packed with energetic undergrads who have perfected the art of "leading" clubs and organizations by actually getting them to do things - no mean feat.

But in administrative positions, there's only so much we can actually do ourselves. In the mid-levels of administration (the place where I spend my days), my ability to actually do things is limited both by the scope conditions around my authority (which are considerable) and the time I have at my disposal (which is no more than anyone else has). Getting things done is indeed part of leadership - but if we're just doing things that faculty could (and should) do themselves, we're not leading, we're usurping.

In the political context, I suggested in my blog on Obama's interview that one of the most important things a leader can do is lead conversations, so that we (the group, the nation) can understand what it is that we want/need/desire.

This is particularly true, I think, in universities. It is true that, in many ways, the faculty is the university. And it's certainly true that the university can't offer programs, or market itself, in ways that aren't tied to the real and authentic strengths, abilities, and passions of its faculty. But what exactly is that "authentic self"? That's a conversation that individual faculty have views, opinions, and thoughts on - but who collects those views and knits them together into a coherent whole? Faculty don't usually have the time (or, often, the inclination) to do so.

That, I think, is one of the keys to real academic leadership: listening to the faculty (and the students and staff - because they, too, are important parts of the university community) and reflecting back what is heard. I tell faculty in meetings all the time: what I think is irrelevant. I'm not The Decider. I'm the one who has to put into action what the university decides. So I first have to listen to the university in all its cacophony - an act which is sometimes maddening, but never boring.

To me, the best leaders are those who listen (and the worst ones are those who never listen - I've seen my share of those). If you want to be a leader in this business, I think adopting the motto "More Ears, Less Mouth" is a good way to start.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I Now Understand Why My Predecessor Was a Harda**

When I first took my present position, it was a step into "full" administration. I oversee, among other things, the admissions process for over 60 different graduate programs. All of these programs' admissions standards have to meet certain minimums, which are set by the faculty themselves. We don't write the rules, we just enforce them.

But defending these standards is very much a full-time job, because every day we get an appeal from an applicant or (more problematic) a faculty member calling for this or that exception to this or that rule. Everybody's case is "special", although we see enough cases (over 6000 applications per year) to know that very few of them are genuinely special or unique.

We try to be reasonable. We try to listen to the faculty in the program, to understand the concerns and the issues, to be rationally responsive to their arguments. In other words, we try to be exactly the kind of administration that faculty are constantly saying they want.

Unfortunately, that's often insufficient. When we respond with, "Interesting - let me think about that," we often get an angry response from the faculty member to the effect of, "how dare you to not accede to my demand right now!" It seems that the faculty collectively want us to be reasonable, but individually aren't willing to reciprocate.

Then there's the precedent problem. No matter how much you think a given student's situation is unique (see above), every exception carves out a little loophole that others can follow. And they will absolutely try to do so - the student grapevine is by far the most efficient means of communication on almost any campus. Grant one student an exception, and ten more will show up next week demanding the same thing.

This is why I begin to understand why my predecessor in this job was a hard-liner. At some point, it's easier to put up a sign that says "No!" to everybody and be done with it.

What the faculty don't see is how much of a human toll this takes, especially on the staff who are usually the front-line bearers of the pulling and hauling. On the one hand, they are charged by their bosses with maintaining a set of rules - rules that supposedly are written by the faculty. On the other hand are a small army of angry faculty and students demanding exceptions to those rules, and taking it out on front-line staff when they don't get their way.

Faculty would do well to understand this dynamic the next time they think that staff and mid-level administration aren't sufficiently deferential to "faculty authority". Faculty constantly undermine their own authority by putting staff in untenable positions, and by treating them like machines (or worse, like personal servants). Smart faculty understand this - my good friend Steve Saideman pointed this out in his own blog a few weeks ago. But as anyone who understands psychology knows, you need at least 10 smart profs to overcome the damage done by every one dumb one - and the ratio isn't usually that good.

So if you are a faculty member - or, indeed, an employee in any kind of a large organization - remember to treat the people around you at all levels well. Whatever they do is apparently important enough for the organization to pay them to do it. Assume that their ability to do it well affects your job too. Assume they are human beings with a finite tolerance for abuse, cajoling, and your neediness. And in particular, correct your colleagues when you see them behaving badly - because their bad behavior is making it harder for you, too. The more you and your colleagues can keep this in mind, the better you are likely to find the service gets.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Rise of Partisan (Tribal) Politics: Follow the Money!

Research published in this month's edition of American Politics Research has shown a new dimension to something a lot of people have suspected for some time: the increasing polarization of American electoral politics. Looking at political campaign contributions, the authors show that the proportion of donors who are ideologically motivated increases sharply starting in 2002 - roughly the point where internet fund-raising gains traction.

Interestingly, the authors also try to get at the chicken-and-egg problem of what changed first: the polarization of Washington, increasing ideological identities among voters, or the rise of "ideological money"? As their title suggests, it's not the money, or even the voters: it's Washington. There is an empirical argument to be made here that an increase in partisanship in Washington has driven both a more polarized electorate (I would argue, by driving non-ideological voters away, but that's not covered in this article) and by attracting more ideologically-charged money, which in turn leads to more tribally shrill election communications.

It's not hard to imagine the timeline behind all of this. The late 1990s saw a partisan attack on a sitting President for no purpose other than to "get the other side". The fishing expedition that led to President Clinton's impeachment and ultimate exoneration in the Senate was founded in nothing other than the desire of a group of tribal Republicans who simply couldn't stand the Clintons, or Democrats in general for that matter.

From that debacle, it's a short leap to the contested election of 2000, the rapid destruction of post-9/11 bipartisan unity, and the ongoing and increasingly vicious (and irrelevant) "culture wars" that are used as rallying flags for our political tribes. Even relatively minor issues that otherwise foster agreement - the current spat over student loan interest rates comes to mind - become battlegrounds for our political tribesmen in Washington.

The big picture, apparently, is that Washington is driving the politics of the nation rather than the other way around. Regardless of which your favorite party is, this should strike us all as fundamentally wrong. It reduces citizenship to the level of the sports fan: we root for our team, we buy their t-shirts and bumper stickers, we are happy when they win and sad when they lose. We're not participants; we're spectators.

Offhand, I can't think of an obvious way out. If what we need is to get our "leaders" and "representatives" in Washington to shut up for a while and listen to us, rather than telling us what to think (and what to think about), voting is a pointless exercise. If the research by Raja and Wiltse is correct, candidates who want to break out of the tribal mold are going to have a hard time raising money, and are going to be outspent by tribalists like Indiana's Richard Mourdock who can raise money from like-minded people all across the country. Lacking easy solutions, I have only this observation: this isn't the way it's supposed to work.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Legislators and Higher Education: A Dangerous Mix

Today's Chronicle has a story about the Illinois state legislature, which is considering a bill that would dictate the hiring practices of public universities in Illinois:
Illinois Bill Would Ban Use of Search Firms in Hiring at Public Universities
As a faculty member, I have long had suspicions about the use of 'consultants' on expensive contracts written by the administration. I've seen plenty such projects produce little or nothing of value, often at great expense to the university or college. On the other hand the administration in question usually wasn't producing anything of value either, so the outcome wasn't very surprising. But they can be a terrible waste of money that could be much better put to other purposes.

In the realm of searches for administrative positions, however, I think the story is more complex. If you are lucky enough to have a really good internal candidate or two - people you know would be a great fit for the job - then the sensible thing is to forego not only a search firm but an external search entirely. Do the search internally, hire your best internal person, and be done with it. You get a great dean/provost/what have you, and it costs you very little.

I watched a university fail at this several years ago. They had an absolutely outstanding internal candidate - recipient of Teacher of the Year, an internationally recognized scholar in his field, and he had been doing a terrific job as Interim Dean for a year already. For petty internal political reasons, the university decided to do an external search, wasting time and money flying in inferior outside candidates. In the end, they hired the internal guy anyway - but forcing the search open had by then put him on the radar of search firms. Two years later he was hired away by another search firm, and the university lost him. The moral of the story: if you have really good internal talent, keep it.

The problem comes when universities don't have really strong internal candidates - which, more often than not, they don't. Despite the image of academic administration as the defining case for the Peter Principle ("Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, administrate."), it is in fact hard to find people who are really good administrators.

The demand for people who really know how to lead an academic institution far exceeds the supply. On the other hand, there is no lack of mediocre administrators who think they can do the job, but who will in fact largely just take up space. Mixed in with that are a few who will do active and real harm. So the challenge of searching for a new administrator in any position of significance is how to avoid those people and find one of the few good ones.

This is where search firms can in fact be of very real value. I recently watched two simultaneous searches for dean positions. One employed a search firm, the other did not. The candidates from the consultant-led search were all strong, and the college in question ended up with someone who has a good chance to really move the institution forward.

The other search, with no consultant, led to on-campus interviews with four different candidates, one internal and three external. One or two of these were unsuitable even on paper, and none of them were strong enough to attract the support of either the faculty or the administration. The search crashed, and will now have to be redone. The college in question spent thousands of dollars, and hundreds of staff and faculty hours, in exchange for nothing.

This is where the interference of legislatures can be really dangerous. It's easy to point to situations where using a search firm is a terrible idea, and other cases where they are worth every penny they're paid. But legislators only know solutions in black and white. In this case, a mandate to forbid all use of search firms is likely to cause as many problems as it solves.

It's also a great way for the legislature to say to the administrators of the state's public universities, we don't trust you to do your jobs well. Given that the legislators in question have never met most of these people and have only the vaguest idea what they do, this is simply insulting - which is not going to make it easier to hire good administrators into Illinois institutions either.

Here's hoping that the broader legislature in Illinois chooses to sit this one out. Management with a sledgehammer from 500 miles way is never a good idea, however politically appealing it may seem.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why the President's Interview on Gay Marriage Shouldn't Matter

Like the President himself, I am a bit late in responding to the issue of the President's "evolution" interview on the topic of gay marriage and marriage equality. In my case, that's not because my thoughts have been "evolving," it just took me a while to find time to write them down.

From the outset, let me say that I'm perfectly happy that the President said what he said. I've been in favor of marriage equality for years, have family and friends in committed same-sex relationships, and haven't found an argument against marriage equality yet that doesn't boil down to "because my interpretation of the Bible (Koran/what have you) says so". Since we haven't yet repealed the First Amendment, I don't see how you can square being an American under our current rules with wanting to impose your particular religious views on everybody else. Obviously, some North Carolinians disagree - but then, I knew that already.

I'm also not going to take the President to task for being "late" with his announcement. If I had a nickel for every "it's about time" comment/meme/tweet/blog post I ran across last week, I would at least be able to take myself out to a nice dinner. Obama has been attacked from some parts of the Left for this being "too little, too late". Others inclined to agree with the President in a more charitable fashion simply said, "Yay! This is a big deal!" and were happy about it. I think both are, in an important way, wrong.

Ever since Teddy Roosevelt, we've become accustomed to Presidents using the office as the "Bully Pulpit" - a chance to preach to the masses. Whether this works or not is an empirical question; there's a lot of evidence to suggest that, especially on divisive issues of social policy where the parties have already taken sides, it doesn't move a lot of minds. But I think Presidents have the same free speech rights as the rest of us - if he wants to air his opinion, he's welcome to do so.

It's our reaction to those opinions that bothers me a bit. I don't mean whether we agree or disagree with them - Obama knew long before he opened his mouth who would agree and who would disagree, because the pollsters had already told him. What bothers me is the weight that we attach to these Presidential Pronouncements. The way this took over not only the media cycle (which corporations control) but the social media sphere (which we control) last week indicated that, whether you agreed or disagreed, everybody thought that the President's comments were a Really Big Deal.

And this is where we've got it backwards. If you want to live in a country where you wait for the Supreme Leader to issue an opinion, and then line up behind that, there are plenty of other places on earth. And for those on the Republican side thundering about Obama's "War on Marriage" - if you spend all that energy complaining about how government has become "too big and powerful", why are you lending his words the power of credibility? If you really thought that the government was "too much in Americans' lives," you wouldn't argue with him - you'd say (with some truth) that his opinion is largely irrelevant, and that the people themselves decide issues of this magnitude. The Right is feeding the power of the President even as they complain about it.

See, we've managed to reverse the horse and the cart in our democracy. Our "leaders" are leaders only insofar as they are supposed to understand, absorb, and reflect the will of the people. Yes, sometimes leaders can "lean forward" on particular issues - although the elected ones almost always do so only when they know which way the momentum is going. In this case, 20 years of polling data tell you all that you need to know - Americans are moving increasingly towards tolerance of same-sex relationships, including granting them the rights of marriage. What the Screaming Right is doing is fighting a rear-guard action which they have no hope of winning. Obama knows this, and so he's hardly sticking his neck out here.

Real "leadership" is in fact doing exactly this. Mitt Romney's claims to the contrary, the country doesn't need a CEO - somebody to boss us around and tell us what to do. We had a shot at that over 200 years ago when we tried to make George Washington king - which he wisely declined. What we need are leaders who can listen to us and help us have the conversations that we can't organize on our own. If gay marriage is eventually legalized across the country - as I suspect it will be - it won't be because this or any other President said so. It will be because we the American people said so, in sufficient numbers to lay real claim to being the Will of the People. If some churches or individuals don't want to recognize those marriages on moral or theological grounds, that will be their right - just as some (an increasingly dwindling number) have refused to recognize inter-racial marriages.

For all those who would criticize the President, therefore, I think we're missing the point. This isn't his call - and to his credit, he never said it was. This is our call. If a TV interview spurs the conversation among us ordinary Americans, then the President has done his job. But he - who has practically zero power to actually legalize or illegalize gay marriage - isn't the center here. We are. Maybe, even in an election year, we should pay less attention to what the President says and listen to each other a little more.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Cost of Higher Education Is Hidden In Corners You Don't Expect

I’ve written before about some of the forces driving the growth in higher education administration. While it’s easy for some faculty to assume nefarious motives, the fact is that a lot of the growth of administration – which also contributes to the growth in tuition cost – is the result of factors beyond universities’ control.

I ran into another one of these factors yesterday, in an area we don't usually think about as a major driver of college costs. We have been working in our office with a graduate student who is just finishing up his Master’s degree. He specializes in Student Affairs in Higher Education. I’ve known for some months that he was on the job market; I had even written a letter of support for him. I had a chance to catch up with him and learn about the job he’s landed at a small private college not too far down the road. He’s a bright guy and a hard worker; I’m sure he’ll do well.

Because his primary area of specialty is Student Activities, our conversation turned to comparisons in that area. I pointed out that 20 years ago at my alma mater, there were no “student activities staff”. Students organized (or semi-organized) their own activities, by and large. If you wanted to form a group and get funding from the college, the process was fairly easy and straightforward – fill out a form or two, slap together a budget, pitch your case to the student government that controlled the purse strings (not much staff involvement there, either), and off you go.

I participated in several organizations and activities in college, for the most part run entirely by students. I don’t even know if the staff were aware of what we were doing. Case in point: at some point around my sophomore year, somebody started a tradition (calling it an “organization” would be stretching the term) called “Nearly Naked Nighttime Frisbee” or Triple-N F. Basically, a group varying in size between 5 and 20 would go out nearly every Wednesday night at midnight and toss a Frisbee around, wearing as little as possible, regardless of the weather. It was goofy, and fun, and probably slightly risky (especially at -10 degrees, which it sometimes was), but that’s what college was for.

I learned from my departing graduate student that today’s landscape has fundamentally shifted. Most colleges and universities are deathly afraid of lawsuits and bad press, and so they don’t want to have any activities that aren’t sanctioned and supervised by the institution. There’s also been a resurgence in recent years of the old in loco parentis notion, egged on by sometimes-overprotective parents whose demands for “accountability” from their children’s college borders on micromanagement.

If all activities have to be sanctioned and vetted and supervised, that takes staff. And paperwork. And more staff to handle the paperwork. As both economists and physicists remind us, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So there has been an explosion of student activities staff. Even my own alma mater now has a Vice President for Campus Life, an Office of Student Life with a Director, and an Assistant Director of Student Involvement – and I think they’re hiring another student activities person. That’s 3-4 people, where 20 years ago there were either none or maybe one.

Why do colleges hire all of these folks? The fear of lawsuits and bad press may be somewhat overstated, but it’s rooted in reality. And the pressure from parents is real. It certainly isn’t because students are any more devious, sneaky, or dumb than they were 20 years ago. I don’t think there’s been an explosion of student talent for getting into trouble that would justify an arms race in student life staff.

We hear lots of people, especially parents and politicians, complain about the cost of higher education. What we need is a clearer set of ideas about where those costs come from. In the last decade or two, the demands on colleges and universities have gone up exponentially. When those demands are made by the people who pay the bills (parents and governments), we can hardly be surprised that the costs rise on a similar curve.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Victory for the Tribalists

A particularly partisan Republican has won a primary challenge that nobody thought possible just a few months ago:
Richard Mourdock topples veteran Richard Lugar
I watched Lugar for a number of years when I lived in Indy, and met him (briefly) twice. One of my star students was on his staff for a time. I was surprised, given his age and condition, when Lugar announced that he wanted to run again - I had thought for sure he would have called it quits by now.

But whatever Lugar's shortcomings or positions, he was less tribal than many. He came to the Senate in a more bipartisan age, shortly before a Republican (Reagan) moved into the White House and constantly reminded his staff, "Remember, boys ... those folks in Congress may be opponents, but they're not enemies." Battles there were, of course - the two American political tribes have been entrenching themselves for generations - but there was still some room for compromise and reason back in the 1970s and 1980s. That room has been vanishingly small and shrinking in recent years.

Some may say that it's a sad day when a politician can win an election for arguing that there is "too much bipartisanship" in Washington. That might be a reasonable campaign position if, by that, you meant that the two parties had between them carved up the system and left everyone else out. But in Mourdock's case, he meant it on a more tribal level: too much working with "them", not enough seeking absolute victory for "us".

But I think the real lesson here is how much the political system has been abandoned by a great many Americans. Indiana is an open-primary state, meaning that on primary day you can show up and ask for whichever ballot you want - you don't register "as" a Republican, or Democrat, or anything else. So there are relatively few barriers here - people who ordinarily vote Democrat, or who are independents, or anyone else, could vote in this race.

In fact, about 650,000 votes were cast - which sounds like a lot until you notice that, according to Federal data, there are 4.9 million voting-age people in Indiana. Meaning that this race attracted the attention of about 13% of the Indiana electorate. And in an open-primary state independents, Libertarians, and Democrats could all have come out to vote if they wanted to - there were precious few races other than Republican ones worth voting for.

So which 13% is going to vote? The ones with the strongest tribal feelings, of course. The lower the turnout, the more that identity politics (in the sense of the party tribes) matters. Which is why parties tend to spend so much time and effort suppressing voter turnout.

One could say, of course, that this is just a primary - and that maybe Democrats didn't vote for Lugar (or even voted for Mourdock) because they think their party is more likely to win the general election for this Senate seat now. While that may be the outcome, voting studies that have tried to prove the existence of such "strategic voting" have found precious little evidence of it.

So here's the Gordian knot to be split: the fewer people vote, the more tribally partisan the system becomes. But the more tribal the system becomes, the less responsive the tribes become to ordinary people, and they less they want to vote. This system serves the parties' interests just fine - but leaves the rest of us out in the cold.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Avengers: Why Comic Books Aren't Just for Kids

Like most of my geek-minded sisters and brothers, I went to see "The Avengers" this past weekend. It was big and loud and tons of fun, as only a big-budget movie written by Joss Whedon can be. Among fans, it's clear that the folks doing these Marvel movies have gotten it right. It's a Golden Age of Geekdom.

But there is a sense among non-geek/non-comic book fans that those of us who indulge in this stuff are a little Peter Pan-ish - holding on to a last bit of childhood, refusing to quite grow up. This is the air that hangs over a great many geekish things, from comic book movies to game conventions to computer games to sci fi books. For those not of the tribe all of this can seem a little childish, which often feeds a sense of confusion when something like "Avengers" comes along that is wildly popular. I mean, haven't we outgrown all of this yet?

I know plenty of very intelligent adults, of course, who would disagree. Two of my friends have posted excellent articles recently - one that draws lessons from the Avengers story about managing groups, the other that points out all of the excellent illustrations in the movie of Principal-Agent Theory. Clearly there's something more here than explosions, attractive actors, and witty dialogue.

And while I admire my friend Steve's ability to use popular culture to illustrate political science theories, I think his observations about principals and agents actually tap into something deeper. There is a common thread among movies, books, video games, and other stories about "big conflicts" - a fundamental narrative that we tell over and over and over. Sometimes it involves superheroes, sometimes cowboys, sometimes aliens, sometimes soldiers. But the root narrative is always there, because it reflects one of the fundamental questions of the human condition.

What is this fundamental story? To call it "good guys and bad guys" is too simple, although it is that. What separates the good from the bad nearly always includes command structure - the principal-agent problem. The "bad guys" are always led by a single leader, an overlord who has absolute control over his minions. In "The Avengers" this is made obvious from the very beginning, in which the bad guy demonstrates the power to magically turn people to his side - a form of mental domination that erases all free will. This is one of those fundamental hallmarks of the bad guys - they seek (and usually obtain, to some degree) domination over the will of others.

The good guys, on the other hand, don't work this way. Among the Avengers, the group argue with each other. Their personalities clash, they disagree, they get in each other's way, they even fight. They talk back to authority figures (Nick Fury) and distrust them (with good reason). Up and down the chain of command, there are breakdowns and disagreements (think Nick Fury with a rocket-launcher). They're messy and chaotic.

And that's the whole point. The reason we tell stories like this is not that the good guys win out over the bad guys. With precious few exceptions we ALL think we're the good guys, and unless you have a deeply-rooted martyr complex we all want to win out over our enemies.

We tell these stories because we want reassurance that the oldest way of solving the problem of social order - to impose it from above with ruthless power that crushes freedom and individuality with cruelty, oppression and fear - is not the only way. Stories like the Avengers help us work through one of the thorniest problems of human existence: how do individual freedom and social order co-exist? Nearly all of the grand narratives and deep thought systems, from philosophy to theology to literature, grapple with this question.

So to those who think that comic books are just for kids, and adults who read them should just grow up: this really is serious literature. Underneath all the explosions and cool superpowers, these are stories about the fundamental questions of humanity. And if we're lucky, some of the many people who go see this movie will come out thinking a little bit harder about teamwork and order and freedom.

Of course, the snappy dialogue and cool special effects don't hurt. If we're going to think deep thoughts about philosophy, why not have fun at the same time?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Political Tribes and Public Universities

Having written about tribalism in American politics yesterday, I wake up this morning to see a stark example right next door: public universities in Michigan.

According to today's Chronicle of Higher Education, state legislators in Michigan inserted a provision into the state's education budget that would cut state funds to any public university that has connections with, or whose students or activities are supportive of, a certain political labor/management dispute in the restaurant sector. The measure hasn't become law yet, but it is part of the current education budget being debated by the Michigan House of Representatives.

The immediate fear within academia, and justifiably so, is the potential for this measure to crush academic freedom. If the state legislature can withhold funds because some small minority of students, faculty or staff in Lansing or Ann Arbor are involved in something that legislators of one party or the other don't like, we may as well abandon public funding of universities now. I guarantee that there are student activities, classroom materials and teaching, and lines of research at any large university that Republicans or Democrats would find objectionable. If you laid every activity of the university bare to the world, tribalists in both parties would find plenty to get mad about.

While I agree that this represents a grave threat to academic freedom (and is, therefore, likely to be eliminated from the final bill), the more disturbing message is the kind of politics this represents. The political dispute in question - organized labor protests against a local restaurant chain in Dearborn - is tiny. In terms of its impact on the overall wellbeing of the people of Michigan, it barely registers on the radar. Ford in Detroit could hold a bake sale and raise more money than is at stake in this little spat.

But because it engages the dogmas of both American political tribes, and because the core members of those tribes are sworn to try to wipe their enemies off the map, this suddenly becomes an issue of central concern - central enough to write a law threatening state funding to the University of Michigan (42,000 students), Michigan State (47,000 students), and the other state universities. UM and MSU alone are worth billions of dollars of economic impact to their communities and their state every year. The return on investment of the public dollars that goes to these universities is sizable, and in today's economy critical.

The fact that a few tribalists are willing to throw all of that away over a minor, largely symbolic zero-sum conflict is not surprising. What IS surprising - or at least disturbing - is that such yahoos get elected and re-elected to state legislators. Anybody willing to argue in public, "I would rather have my tribe be right even if it costs the state billions of dollars and makes us a backwater for education and research," should be disqualified from public office - not by law, but by the voters themselves.

And there is where we face the stark reality of tribal politics: it's our own darned fault. Democracy doesn't deliver great government; it delivers the government we deserve. If enough people join the tribes, and care more about their side winning and crushing the other side over the common interests of the community, that's what we'll get. Right now, those people are a majority (a fairly health majority) of our country. And they will use anything they can get their hands on - our taxes, our universities, our schools, our law enforcement systems, our fire departments, our libraries - to fight their petty squabbles and try to beat each other into the dust. Here's hoping that, at least for the moment, Michigan's great universities can be spared.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tribalism and American Politics

Those who have known me for a while know that my patience with, and interest in, American party politics over the years has gone from average (whatever that is) to low to near-zero. I think that George Washington was right when he warned in his Farewell Address (emphasis added):

All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests. 
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

This being an election year, we're being bombarded with a greater-than-average dose of faction. With apologies for its liberal use of profanity, an author at does a good job of summarizing "5 Ways to Spot a Political B.S. Story". His style is a little different from late 18th century English, but he's making much the same point.

Some years ago I started studying ethnic politics, particularly ethnic conflict. I did this with the usual unexamined American bias - that hard-core identity conflict is something that "those people over there" have to deal with. America, I was raised to believe, is The Melting Pot (or, if you prefer the analogy, the Tossed Salad). Yes, we have racial tensions - but not nearly to the level of an Iraq or an India.

But the more I studied ethnic politics, the more I realized that ethnic groups are largely invented constructs (yes, I'm a Constructivist, albeit a 'slow' one - it takes time to build these things). The identities we choose may or may not be conscious, but they are pretty arbitrary once you scratch the surface a little. Who's "in" and who's "out" is a function not of nature, but of decisions. Bosnia broke up because people chose to emphasize their differences (religion) over their similarities (language). Germany reunited because they made a different choice to the same question.

So what does this have to do with American political parties? After all, we don't have "ethnic" parties in the US - a point of some pride to many Americans. But what I came to realize some time ago - the point that the Cracked author also makes - is that our political parties have become ethnic groups in themselves. Tribalism didn't make our political parties; our two-party system made tribes.

Consider the point: on any given issue, there is a sizable minority (30%? 35%?) that will agree with absolutely anything that comes out of President Obama's mouth. And there is an equally sizable group - maybe larger - that will disagree with the President no matter what he says. The GOP could run a soap dish against Obama and pull at least 30% of the vote; the Democrats could counter with a chipmunk and it would probably be a close race.

These tribes are also more hereditary than you'd think. The greatest single predictor of an American's party affiliation is the party affiliation of her mother, followed by that of her father. It's not universal, but it's pretty strong. And the fact that those 30%+ factions don't seem to be shrinking (and may be growing) suggests that, like stable ethnic groups, Democrats and Republicans have learned how to reproduce themselves.

The Cracked article makes the important point that media coverage of politics (whether otherwise "biased" or not) plays to these groups, because they are the most reliable customers and media is a business. While this is an important point, to me there's an underlying reality: what about the rest of us?

If 60 - 70% of the country is already tied up in tribal politics, and if the tribes both control the mechanics of government and command all the media attention, what about the remaining 30 - 40%? There probably isn't a unified "tribe" there - you've got everything from disaffected Ron Paul libertarians to Rockafeller Republicans who left the party long ago (or were cast out as heretics) to Jerry Brown leftists. It's true that voters from this group have the greatest impact on the election, because you already know how the tribes are going to vote. But voting rates among true independents are also lower than for tribalists in part because, when you don't like either party, who do you vote for? This is one reason (among many) why third-party bids inevitably flounder.

The system has been stumbling along like this for some decades, getting slowly and gradually more polarized without producing any major disruptions. It's certainly true that polarization is more extreme today than it was 30 years ago; Ronald Reagan, patron saint of conservatives, wasn't nearly as conservative as his modern would-be successors. But so far, the machinery basically rolls along.

I'm not very good at predicting the future, so I can't say for certain that this path will lead to this or that end - though it's hard to see it leading to many good ones. Certainly, the spirit of national will and unity that George Washington spoke of so eloquently has largely disappeared. And I fear what might happen if we were faced with a truly national crisis that demanded unity of purpose. For a brief time, we thought that 9/11 might rekindle such purpose. We were wrong.

In the meantime, what I might most wish for is a smaller favor: that the tribalists among us stop pretending that they are independent actors who have "thought through the issues" and arrived at the reasonable and rational conclusion that their chosen party just happens to always be right. We're used to putting this veneer of reason on top of our political discourse, but over time it has changed from veneer to fig leaf to hypocrisy. Let's at least call a spade a spade: we have created our own tribes in this country. If you belong to one, don't pretend that you don't. And if you really don't belong - well, there's not going to be a lot of room for you in the national conversation for the next several months. Maybe that's why so many of us watch Jon Stewart...