Friday, June 29, 2012

Why the Coverage of the Health Care Law is Nonsense

Yesterday's news cycle was, of course, totally dominated by the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act. It was fun, in a way, to watch the ebbs and flows - to see people's reactions on Facebook, to watch CNN screw up the story in the first 30 seconds. Some are happy, some are sad. Those predicting doom and the end of Western Civilization are wrong, as such people always are.

But here's the thing: pretty much all of the coverage of yesterday, and into today, is flat-out useless. As a nation, we are consumed with every question except the one we should be asking.

I will concede the point that, to lawyers and people with an interest in Constitutional jurisprudence, the part of the media blitz devoted to dissecting the decision itself was interesting. To those folks out there who actually have the expertise and interest to follow that sort of thing - a very small slice of the American population, some of them my friends - have at it. I've no doubt that amongst the hullabaloo of yesterday some interesting stuff emerged.

For the rest of us, however, everything that we have heard might as well have been broadcast in Swahili. Those stories that weren't devoted to the legal theories were focused on the politics: how does this affect the Presidential race, what will this do in Congressional races, how are Democrats and Republicans reacting. At hastily-arranged (but widely broadcast) news conferences John Boehner vowed to "fight on", while Nancy Pelosi declared victory. Across the nation, every local media outlet turned to its local reps and Senators, every one of whom responded in ways entirely predictable and scripted.

None of this matters to anybody whose career isn't actually in politics. Again, we're talking about a very small slice of the American population here.

What really matters to the rest of us is simple: what does this law actually do? How will it affect our lives? Will it make us better or worse off as a country? I get that there are winners and losers - every change creates winners and losers. Some segments of society will pay more, some will pay less. Some will get greater benefits, others will get fewer. That's the nature of change. But the two questions we really care about are,  what will this do to me and will we be better or worse off as a nation?

I'm sure that somewhere out there in the vast media wasteland, somebody spent 5 minutes aimlessly cogitating on this. But on the whole, if you listen to the media coverage you would think that the careers of a few hundreds of politicians were the most important thing in the world, instead of the welfare, health and prosperity of 300 million Americans. Worse still, to a certain extent we inflict this same nonsense on ourselves, at least if my casual viewing of the social media streams is any indication. We followed right along with the CNN/Fox/NPR herd.

I don't, of course, expect this to change. The hard truth is that almost nobody really knows what the law will do, except in a few specific instances - barring insurance companies from blocking coverage for preexisting conditions, for example. It's fascinating to me that, according to most polls, the law itself taken as a whole is unpopular even as the few concrete things about it that people actually know are widely approved of. It's a triumph of the takeover of Tribal Perception. We are all quite ready to pass judgment on something we have spent hardly 30 seconds' thought actually considering.

We expect this from our politicians, whose well-paying jobs (have you seen their health care coverage, or their retirement benefits?) depend on continuing the Kabuki theater that is tribal American politics. But it appears that we, or some segment of us, have decided to treat the health care debate the way we treat the Super Bowl: as an occasion for cheering on Our Team, and for determining our feelings (and our perceptions) on the basis of whether our Team "won" or "lost".

I think - or, at least, I hope - that there are folks out there who really don't care about this nonsense, and who would desperately like to know more about this law and how it will affect their lives and the community and society they live in. Those of us in this group, of course, are pretty much abandoned. Politicians will not pander to us, because we don't care. And CNN, the NY Times, Fox, and NPR are not going to go get the information we want and bring it to us, because Horse Race Reporting is cheaper, easier, and far more profitable.

Is there a "silent majority" (to borrow Nixon's phrase) here? I doubt it, although voting behavior suggests there may be (even Presidential elections only pull about 50% of the electorate). But the ability of that segment to actually influence things will continue to be near zero, until and unless a common interest emerges to both unite people and pull them to action. Until then, back to the Super Bowl!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

UVa Aftermath: Founding of a New Republic?

The Chronicle has a pretty good story about one of the major effects the Teresa Sullivan affair has had on the UVa campus: the sudden awareness of the power of the faculty:

UVa's Faculty Leaders Gain New Power After President Is Reinstated

The only thing I would quibble with here is the word "new". In point of fact, the "newfound" power which the UVa faculty new finds itself wielding was there all along. Despite administrators' and boards' occasional protests to the contrary, the faculty really are the university - as I wrote yesterday:
[I]n the end, the faculty win, because administrations don't educate students - faculty do.
I say this as an academic administrator who has spent most of his adult life as a faculty member. Unionized or not, tenured or not, faculty are tremendously powerful on any campus, because they produce the primary "good" for which people are willing to pay money.

This is not to say that other things that universities do - research, community service, "co-curricular" programming - are not important. But none of those enterprises could sustain themselves on the basic market principle of people being willing to pay for them. Some research could come close on the basis of grants, but research usually demands a steady supply of student workers - and what brings the students there? The promise of being educated.

So why do faculty so often feel powerless? Because power is not a commodity that you are simply handed, as someone might deposit money in your bank account. Power (that is, influence over outcomes) comes about only through action. Abilities, capabilities, leverage - these are all simply the antecedents to power. If you actually want to have an impact on the outcomes that matter to you, you have to use these things.

So why don't faculty use their leverage more often and more effectively? For two reasons. First, because it is difficult for any large group to use its leverage collectively. It's particularly hard for faculty - the problem my friend Steve Saideman referred to recently as "herding cats, dogs and birds" - because academic training is fundamentally about dissent and argument, not about consensus-building and agreement. The challenge for any polity is how to discern "the will of the people"; the challenge for faculty is how to do so in the face of an essentially argumentative and individualist culture.

The second reason rests in the psychology of perception. Simply put, faculty act powerless because they think they are. The visible symbols of "being in charge" rest in the hands of the administration - begin the spokesperson for the university, chairing or running important bodies, talking to important people. It's the same dynamic that makes people think that the President of the United States is far more powerful than Congress - because he looks more powerful. Many administrations play on this, and send subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages that they are "in charge" and the faculty are "merely employees". A great many faculty internalize this message, and it shapes what they are willing to do or to try.

At UVa, the firing of Teresa Sullivan blew both of these obstacles aside. The faculty had an immediate and obvious common interest - no need for lengthy debates and deliberations to determine what they wanted, it was obvious from the beginning. And the immediacy and severity of the crisis shattered the inertia of perception, and demanded that faculty do something. As the president of UVa's Faculty Senate put it, "We didn't know we could do all this." Usually, that's enough to keep a faculty body from trying. The nature of the crisis demanded that they try anyway, even as they expected to fail.

In this case, the Chronicle article has gotten the lesson about right: faculty are a lot more powerful than they think they are. That doesn't mean that they can win every battle or control every outcome - power is not absolute in any situation. And it doesn't remove the difficulty of organizing around common interests and agreeing on what they want. But it may be that the UVa case will teach some faculty to stop thinking of themselves as powerless. At least at UVa itself, they have now learned their lesson well - hopefully they can use it to build a stronger, better university.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Craziness from Michigan

A while ago I wrote about a story involving Michigan legislators targeting universities for political reasons. Lost in the kerfuffle over Teresa Sullivan's firing a couple of weeks ago was another tidbit from Michigan about state legislators meddling in minor university matters they don't understand.
Michigan State U. Says Controversial Insurance Mandate Affected Few Students
The meat of the issue is here:
The state budget, recently passed by the Legislature, bars Michigan State from mandating health insurance if the institution is to qualify for a small increase in state appropriations
There are a couple of notable points here. First, the state budget specifically targeted MSU on this, even though universities across the state (and across the country) have similar policies. So much for Equal Protection Under the Law. Second, it turns out that the "problem" wasn't much of a problem at all:
In the past, about 85 percent of students arrived on the campus already insured, said Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State. And after the university helped most of the uninsured find coverage, only about 600 students were left without insurance
So the "crisis" that demanded state legislative action affected only 600 students out of over 47,000 - a little more than 1% of the student population. And MSU's sin? Signing those students up for health insurance and then charging them $1500 a year for it.

So why would a state legislature write specific language into its budget to punish a specific university for doing something that universities across the land do?
Michigan State was singled out for its insurance mandate because one of the 600 students who was billed for insurance was the son of a lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Farrington, a Republican. His son had insurance but had not informed the university. Representative Farrington was instrumental in placing the restriction on Michigan State's insurance requirement, according to several sources.
The son of a state lawmaker makes a paperwork error - his mistake - and has an insurance plan added to his bill. Rather than simply correct the mistake, the father decides to rewrite the state budget to tell the university what to do for all students.

If this kind of shoot-from-the-hip-while-blindfolded legislating is a frequent occurrence in the Michigan state legislature - and there's evidence that it is - the state's universities may have a rough time of it in the coming years. Perhaps the voters of Michigan can find a few more representatives willing to think, to learn, and to deliberate - things they teach in universities - before they try to impose their will on the world.

Concluding the UVA Saga: Return of the Jedi (President)

As many who read this blog undoubtedly already know, Teresa Sullivan was reinstated as president of the University of Virginia yesterday by a unanimous vote of its governing board, including from the board chair who had engineered her ouster in the first place. As has been true over the past few weeks, there will be plenty of commentary on these latest events - mine is only one voice in a large chorus. Nevertheless, a couple of thoughts:

First, I would disagree with one phrase in the Chronicle's opening paragraph (linked above): that Sullivan's reinstatement is an "improbable comeback tale". I think that this outcome was not only probable but entirely predictable. The damage that was done by Sullivan's firing was vast. Prominent faculty were leaving, alumni were upset (and therefore less likely to give $$), students were protesting. Had the decision been upheld, recruiting students, faculty, and alumni dollars would have been much more difficult for the foreseeable future - and these things are the lifeblood of any university. Finally, the political ambitions of the board members themselves could not survive this debacle. If the board's Rector, Helen Dragas, wants to go on to bigger and better things, being known as the woman who trashed UVA was not going to get her there. In social science lingo, reinstatement was overdetermined - too many forces pushing for it, not enough pushing the other way.

The second and more important observation has to do with the argument that this case has rekindled about the nature of higher education. Even in retreat, Ms. Dragas has continued to insist that "the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be." She insists that the only mistake here was process, not substance - that "we did the right thing, the wrong way."

This suggests that Ms. Dragas continues to cling to a delusional fantasy about higher education: that if you are bold and "radical" enough, you can remake universities like Jack Welch remade corporations, changing their fundamental direction and strategy in a short period of time. (Of course, one of the things Welch did to GE was get it involved deeply in financial services....) There continue to be those who think that universities really should be "run like corporations", that they should be agile and nimble and strategically dynamic and all those other great buzzwords that people in the business world love to sling around.

This fantasy rests on two errors. The first is that radical transformation of a business's direction is a good way of doing business. The history of successful business suggests otherwise. Ford has been around for nearly 100 years doing the same thing today that they did at their founding: making cars. Apple computer, the world's most valuable brand, makes innovative technology products with the same focus today as they did in the early 1980s.

Yes, some companies do remake themselves in fundamental ways - usually quite rarely, and often to uncertain effect. In the last decade a number of airlines went from running planes and flying people around to being commodity speculators - because they thought that the "new strategic environment" demanded it. That hasn't worked out very well for many of them.

The second mistake is in believing that rapid transformation of a large university is possible, and that the lever to do so is replacing the president. As my friend Steve Saideman pointed out, universities are a lot more like aircraft carriers than sailboats - turning quickly isn't a function of motivation but of physics. Anyone who understands how a university works - how education is "produced" - will understand this intuitively.

The primary "producers" of education are faculty - people who have taken the time and the trouble to become experts in their fields. Unless you can come up with a way to educate students that doesn't involve expertise - and nobody yet has - you have to run an organization that can recruit these experts and keep them happy. You can appoint anybody you like as president of a university, but if that president tries to lead where the faculty don't want to go the result will be a parade of one. Presidents can do a lot of damage to a university in the process of trying to drag an unwilling faculty over a cliff (or to a different pasture), and they may whine and complain a lot about how "stubborn" and "unreasonable" the faculty are. But in the end, the faculty win, because administrations don't educate students - faculty do.

This, by the way, has been an argument that faux-business types have used against tenure for years. But tenure isn't really the issue here. Yes, faculty without tenure can be fired if they don't cooperate with some new "strategic direction", whereas tenured faculty have more immediate security. But as the UVA debacle shows, if you tick the faculty off the ones you lose first are the tenured faculty with stellar records - your superstars. And everyone, tenured and untenured alike, can and will vote with their feet. If the faculty perceive an institution as being badly-run, many of them will find a way to go elsewhere - and in any competitive labor market, it's always the best and the brightest who are most likely to leave, because they have the most opportunities.

So describing the UVA mess as another instance of a "debate" between two somehow equal and opposite sides is simply misleading. What Sullivan's rapid firing and reinstatement demonstrate instead is what happens when delusional ideas run into reality. Smart university leaders and boards of trustees would do well to learn this lesson.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Is the NATO Alliance Good or Bad for Turkey?

I don't usually wander into NATO issues or questions about alliance politics - my friend & colleague Steve Saideman has probably forgotten more about NATO and its workings than I will ever know. Nevertheless, recent events regarding Turkey and Syria raise some interesting questions.

Turkey, of course, sits right next to Syria and its now year-long civil war. Along with Israel, Turkey is far and away the most powerful military force in the immediate vicinity; outside of the US, Turkey has the largest army in NATO. Turkey has a strong and significant interest in how the Syrian civil war turns out, for a host of reasons (not least among them the potential for some outcomes to cause further problems for Turkey's Kurdish minority - making this another "glass houses" problem. See Steve's first book, Ties That Divide, for more on that subject).

Now we see that a Turkish air force plane has been shot down off the Syrian coast by Syrian air defenses, and that Syrian military officials are defecting to Turkey. These are obvious mechanisms to pull Turkey into the conflict, providing an immediate set of excuses on top of Turkey's broader interests.

But what complicates all of this is that Turkey is a member of NATO. As such, Turkey has obligations to the organization, but can also make demands on it. At the far end of the latter is Article V, the collective defense clause - if Syria were to launch a serious attack on Turkey the rest of NATO (including the US, which is woven throughout NATO's capabilities) is obliged to come to Turkey's defense.

On the other hand, as a NATO member Turkey can't fashion a unilateral response to the Syrian crisis and its immediate problems - the military defections and the downing of its plane. Anything that Turkey does could end up dragging the rest of NATO into an escalating fight. Turkey is obviously wise to ask for a NATO meeting, but it really has no choice - its hands are tied.

All of this raises a very interesting question: is NATO a good or a bad thing for Turkey? On the one hand, Article V provides an enormous guarantee for core Turkish security - nobody in the region (Iran, Syria, Iraq, even Russia) can credibly threaten to attack Turkey proper for fear of an overwhelming response from the preeminent military force on the planet. On the other hand, Turkey's ability to adapt its policy to regional issues - even really serious ones like a civil war on its own border - is severely hampered by its membership in the organization. Turkey has, in essence, traded flexibility for security. In the current circumstances, I wonder if the Turkish government isn't asking how good a bargain that is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Small Voice in the Chorus on UVA

I'm late getting on this bandwagon - I blame the fact that most of what I own is in boxes, and has only recently been delivered to my new home in Ohio. That's knocked a lot of my schedule off kilter. Figures that while I'm moving, the most public higher education governance scandal in years comes along. Given my proclivity for talking about academic governance, I feel the need to say something.

For those not familiar with this mess, the short form is that a very popular and apparently quite effective president at the University of Virginia was fired overnight and without warning by the governing board of the institution. When asked for a reason the Board largely failed to provide one that makes any sense, which has led to both speculation and a great deal of journalistic digging. The latest narrative in the Chronicle is chasing the possibility that this involved a small group of Board members who wanted to drive UVA towards online education. I've no doubt that more details will emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Unfortunately, much of what I want to say has already been said. My friend Steve Saideman has an excellent piece on his blog, which makes points I wish I had made before he did. He is right in pointing out that universities are much more like aircraft carriers than sailboats - anybody who thinks that you can change course quickly simply doesn't know what they're talking about.

To these and other excellent pieces out there (check out here and here), I would add only two other observations:

1) Among the many sins committed by the Board of Visitors in this case, communications is one of the most important. Yes, it appears that the substance of what was done - firing a good president on a whim - was sheer stupidity. But the failure to apparently anticipate the need to explain that decision in public, and the failure to plan a communications strategy ahead of time, raise this from the level of mere mundane stupidity to idiocy of the highest order. If you can't think at least one step ahead to your crisis communications plan, you have no business holding a leadership position of any kind. To my mind, the bumbling, stumbling incoherence which has been the Board's public response disqualifies the lot of them from running anything more complex than a bake sale.

2) There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of conversation about how this is a prime example of the dangers of applying "business models" to higher education. Slate had a good piece that touched on this, but there has been a lot within the higher ed world on this question. This is predictable, because the "business vs. higher education" meme has been around for decades - it's a well-worn path with well-worn arguments on all sides. Personally, I think it's time to move beyond the combative debate to a more constructive conversation, but that's a topic for another day.

The more important point here is that this case is not really about business vs. higher education. That's because while the Board of Visitors people who threw this grenade may have thought they were motivated by "good business practice", what they have done would be bad in ANY industry. Solid businesses that are well-run for the long term don't read a couple of articles in the press (articles they don't really understand) and suddenly fire their CEOs. This isn't how good corporations behave, it's how the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert behaves (and Scott Adams has made this exact joke numerous times).

So what we're seeing here isn't really a case study for why ideas from the corporate sector have no place in higher education. It's an illustration of how bad corporate ideas should't be applied to universities. The lesson is, "don't do stupid things." But that, one would hope, is a sufficiently obvious point for most folks. Although perhaps not to the "leadership" of the Virginia Board of Visitors.

The Church in Public and the Question of Violence

This being an election year the media is particularly sensitive to political controversies everywhere, especially those that might have some tie to the election. We've been treated several times this year to stories about marriage equality and the right, or lack thereof, of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Obama's long-championed healthcare legislation has also been under great scrutiny, with a major Supreme Court case and arguments about religious freedom and birth control just a few of the many threads in that discussion.

These are not the only issues, of course - poll after poll shows that jobs and the economy are the #1 issue on Americans' minds - but they are great media fodder, because the people who care about them tend to get very excited and say all sorts of fun things. They are red-meat issues to certain segments of the population, and excited people tend to spend more (directly or indirectly) in ways that benefit media outlets.

But my point today isn't about media behavior, most of which is pretty mundane and predictable. What sparked this post starts with an observation and ends with a question. The observation is this: in the public arena, on any issues of national prominence or policy, the only place that the church has been visible this year is on these hot-button issues like marriage and health care.

By "the church" in this case I mean not any particular denomination, but the bulk of organized Western Christianity. It is undoubtedly true that some denominations (Catholics, Baptists) have a greater ability to command attention in the media than others (who pays attention to Quakers?) But there are a great many denominations that can and do say things in public, and that usually get at least some attention for doing so. Those churches that have chosen to do so have poured a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy into speaking on a few issues related to health care and homosexuality.

One question might be, why aren't churches talking more about issues people care about - that is, jobs and the economy? While this is a tempting criticism, there's an obvious answer: churches aren't (or aren't supposed to be) running for office. They have no particular mandate to speak on election-related issues, or to conform their agendas to election-related polls. My guess is that most churches stay out of economic issues because they don't have a consensus understanding on them, and because their own members have a diversity of views. Theology provides no clear guide to whether we should bail out the auto industry or lower interest rates.

But there are other moral issues that churches are not addressing, and I very much wonder why. Despite differences on particular issues like abortion, all churches agree that issues of life and death are fundamental moral questions about which their various theologies have something to say. And over the last dozen years or so, pretty much all churches have been silent on one of the most consequential life-and-death questions of our time: war and the use of violent force.

There have certainly been plenty of opportunities to say something in this arena. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the recent political controversy over drone strikes and "targeted killings", even to questions of individual self-defense raised by battles over gun laws and the Trayvon Martin case - there has been no shortage of events to use as springboards for commentary on when violence is or is not acceptable. Yet churches have been silent.

Is this because theology has nothing to say about violence and the use of force? That cannot be - some denominations (not much noted, like the Amish) have made non-violence a central tenet of their faith, while in past decades Catholic church encyclicals on nuclear weapons and war played a significant role in policy debates. Certainly any church (and there are many) which takes a stand on the "sanctity of life" as a theological issue should care about the death of innocent civilians in war. Yet the churches with the loudest megaphones - which have often championed exactly those "sanctity of life" issues - have said nothing.

More likely, the reason is simple politics. Churches, like most organizations and groups, pick their battles on tactical grounds. In particular, churches have very, very rarely wanted to pick a fight with the State - churches that do tend to find themselves outlawed or thrown out of the country (why are there so many Amish in the US, but not in Switzerland where they were founded? Refusal to participate in the military defense of the country was considered treasonous.) "Controversial" issues like abortion, or health care, or gay marriage, are questions which do not challenge the fundamental core of State authority, and are therefore safe playgrounds on which to pontificate. It's easy to work up a high dudgeon in public over whether religious hospitals have to allow their employees access to birth control, because no one powerful is threatened.

This, of course, is a terrible shame (if not a terrible irony) for a movement that likes to think of itself as being transformational and "in but not of the world". In the broadest sense, it only confirms what churches will themselves (usually) admit - that they are human institutions, prone to the same sins and weaknesses as fallen humanity in general.

However regrettable on a grand scale, I find the churches' silence on questions of violence and the use of force personally frustrating. Violence in the US alone kills thousands more every year than al Qaeda ever has or will, and wars fought by the US military abroad have killed hundreds of thousands (mostly civilians) over the past decade or more. If I want to be a faithful Christian, how do I respond to these realities? What guidance does the church - any church - have in response to such questions?

In the face of ongoing silence, I will have to find my own answers while the religious leaders of the day entertain themselves on other, safer questions.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Two-Level Games in Real Life

Our students sometimes complain that the stuff we teach them about is too theoretical, too abstract, or too esoteric to be useful in "real life". We face a constant challenge in getting them to see the connection between the "airy-fairy theoretical stuff" and the headlines in the newspapers and on TV.

Every once in a while, however, a really great case comes along that almost perfectly illustrates the theory we're trying to get across. For those of us who have tried to get across the somewhat abstract notion of the "two-level game", Greece is right now providing that perfect example. If I had a European politics class (which I don't - I'm not nearly enough of a European expert to pull that off), I would love to game this out.

Greece, of course, just went through an election to try to fix the last election that failed to produce a viable government. This latest round seems to have solved that problem, only to have handed the likely new government a potentially insoluble problem: how to strike a bargain with its own population such that Greeks don't shut down the country with protests, fail to pay their taxes, or any number of other things they could do, while simultaneously reaching a deal with the rest of Europe (primarily, Germany and the EU central bureaucracy) on some kind of budget-saving austerity program.

As I've pointed out before, there may not be a solution to this problem. Germany and the international bankers may demand more pain than the Greek population (or a sufficient minority of it) is willing to bear. I heard one analysis this afternoon suggest that Greece's exit from the Euro is all but assured, simply because the chances of Greece voting (at the ballot box or in their daily behavior) over and over again to support austerity is extremely unlikely.

The new Greek government will find out soon enough how very real this "theory" is. These next few months should prove an excellent case study - although I doubt that the Greeks, or many Europeans for that matter, will appreciate the lesson.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Temptations of Anger and the Challenge of Peace

I wrote a few days ago on the problem of Fear and its effect in disrupting peace. At root, that article was about a very basic question: what contributes to, or destroys, peace? And what can we do about it?

I suggested at the time that Fear is a disruptor of peace, but not necessarily the only one. As this question continues to rattle around in my skull, another possible answer has climbed to the surface: Anger.

That anger should disturb my peace is no surprise. The physiological effects of anger are well-known - it increases heart rate and respiration, floods the system with adrenaline, all the usual stuff. With Fear, both sides of the fight-or-flight reflex are in play - in fear, I may run away or I may lash out. In Anger, I am far more likely to lash out, which makes Anger more likely to disrupt not only my peace but the peace of others around me.

So why do we get angry? For all sorts of reasons, but I think there are a couple of broad categories. Most important, and perhaps most common: we get angry when things don't go our way, when something happens or someone does something that doesn't meet our expectations of how things are supposed to go.

A lot of this can be little stuff. Someone cuts you off in traffic, slowing your journey by a few seconds. The store is out of the product you made a side trip to pick up. Someone at work made a different choice than the one you wanted, or committed a thoughtless act that requires you to do something different from what your plans were.

Usually, we think that the anger from these little things is momentary - we get irritated, we get over it, we move on. And on the surface that is true. But there is an underlying, subtler set of effects. The adrenaline stays in the body for a while - sometimes for significant periods of time, especially with repeated prompting. A part of the mind ponders the slight or insult a little longer than we are conscious of. The spirit is diverted to a darker mood. And all of this makes it just a little more likely that we will react with anger to the next minor incident.

So what do we do? In every such response, there are two components. There is the external act or circumstance, and there is my expectation about that circumstance. Anger consists of my putting the two together and reacting to the discrepancy. In rare cases, I may be able to influence those external circumstances, and that may be a good approach. But in all cases, I can control my own expectations.

This is one reason, I suspect, why monastic orders have fostered a discipline of asceticism across history and around the world. It may be as much about learning to control and set expectations as it is about conforming to a particular set of material standards.

Those of us who are not monks, whoever, can still control our expectations. Most of us, most of the time, don't do so consciously - like much of the rest of what we do, our expectations of the world around us run on autopilot. There's nothing wrong with that - it allows us to be efficient and concentrate on stuff that really needs our concentration. But if we have habits of expectation - that we will always arrive at work within 20 minutes, that certain products will always be available on demand, that other people in our lives will always act in a certain way or speak in a certain tone of voice - those habits can get us in trouble when things go differently.

It should be noted that there are expectations that are consciously thought of and defended - indeed, that should be. Anger is not always an inappropriate response. It is, I think, the appropriate response in the face of genuine, malevolent evil. Like the protagonist in C.S. Lewis' Perelandra, if we find ourselves faced with real evil then anger - even the use of force - may be the best response. But for most of us, most of the time, those encounters are extremely rare. Being cut off in traffic isn't evil, just inconsiderate (or maybe just thoughtless). So anger should be saved for those rare instances where it is the right response.

Beyond those few encounters, I think there's another lesson here in how I can provide more peace in my own life - by better managing and controlling my expectations. The fewer demands I make on the world around me, the more I cultivate conscious perspective on what's important and what can be flexible, the less angry I am likely to be. This doesn't mean that I won't be disappointed, or that I necessarily settle for mediocrity or bad outcomes. But it does go some way towards putting me in better control of my response to those outcomes. And like reducing fear, reducing anger is likely to produce more peace.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Petty Temptations of Power

I've written before about the tendencies of state legislators to meddle in the affairs of universities they don't understand. Now comes this story from Michigan about the state legislature giving a little bit more money to universities (a 3% increase over last year's allocation, which was itself down some 14% from previous years) and marrying that tiny carrot with a series of sticks designed to prod those eggheads into doing what politicians want them to do:

Michigan Lawmakers Attach Strings to State Higher-Education Spending

There are all sorts of goodies in here, in typical legislative sausage-making fashion: everybody with a voice (or, more likely, lobbying dollars) gets to add their favorite ingredient. But the real poison pill is near the end:

The most far-reaching restriction bars the institutions from having a relationship with nonprofit "worker centers" that protest against a Michigan business, a provision supported by the Michigan Restaurant Association, after the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan picketed and sued a restaurant it accused of mistreating workers. At the time, a graduate student in social work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor was completing a field assignment with the group.
A single graduate student does a field assignment with an organization that somebody doesn't like - an organization exercising its First Amendment and legal rights - and legislators decide to slap a ban on all public universities in the state? Keep in mind that field assignments are for studying things. Will the distinguished gentlemen of the Michigan state legislature now be telling social work students - or anthropologists, or physicists - what they should or shouldn't be studying in their fields? Apparently so.

This is petty politics at its worst. Yes, it's a violation of academic freedom - not that politicians have the slightest idea what that is, or any respect for the concept. But more importantly, this is third world tribalism. It's the same kind of politics that leads the African dictator to give government jobs to his family and friends, or withhold contracts from people who are of a different tribe or clan. It's the political logic that says, "you are different from me - I will take everything I can away from you - I will keep myself and all I can reach 'pure' from your difference."

If the legislature and, ultimately, the voters of Michigan drive their university system down this road they will get what they deserve. I will shed a tear or two for the University of Michigan and Michigan State (not too many - I am an OSU alum, after all), because those have been great research universities. But their ability to remain so, especially in any field that has any political controversy attached to it, will be radically attenuated.

This suggests, at its core, a failure of pluralistic democratic politics. If every arena of difference becomes a life-or-death struggle, where the winner takes everything and the loser gets nothing, we will have failed as a society. Hopefully some in Michigan can get in touch with the better angels of their nature before they travel too far down the road of tribal division.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Roots of Peace and the Problem of Fear

I spend a lot of my time thinking about war, conflict, and how conflicts are resolved. Somebody (I think it might have been J. David Singer) at a conference years ago said that if you scratch conflict scholars a little, you find peaceniks not far below the surface. Basically, we study what we do because we think that conflict (or, at least, certain forms of it like violent conflict) is bad, and we'd like to find better ways of dealing with it.

Because there is so much conflict in the world, those of us in the business don't want for things to study. There's plenty to keep us busy, and probably always will be. What we don't always do very well, however, is think about peace, beyond a vague sense that peace is the absence of active conflict.

A part of the problem here is that "peace," as a state in which you and I are not fighting, makes my peace dependent on what you do. And there is undoubtedly some truth to that. There are plenty of actors in the world who can disrupt an otherwise-peaceful situation by unilateral action - gunning down worshipers in a mosque, blowing up Catholic schoolchildren, or setting off a truck bomb in front of a daycare building. In that sense, we are all dependent on each other for peace.

But the danger in making my peace dependent on what you do is that I blame my lack of peace on you. My not having peace becomes your fault, which means that I don't have to examine myself or what I am doing or thinking or feeling. It becomes an excuse to externalize everything, especially the blame.

So here's a thought that occurred to me this morning, as I've been rattling around ideas about conflict and justifications for using force. What is my role in creating peace? What does it mean for me to be in a peaceful state? I think one of the roots - maybe the root, maybe one of several - is the absence of fear.

We often think of war and peace, or conflict and peace, as opposites. But as many have pointed out, conflict is ubiquitous and inevitable. It is how we deal with conflict that matters. Do we escalate to violence? To we lash out to hurt the other side? Or do we deal with the conflict constructively to find mutual solutions? That's a dichotomy that's pretty universal across the negotiation literature.

What determines the choice we make? In large part, the presence or absence of fear. If I am afraid of the other, I will likely decide that a mutual solution is not possible. In fear, I feel the need to lash out. The strong support among Americans for retaliation after 9/11 was not because we were angry or filled with hatred for al Qaeda - it was because we were afraid. Hatred, C.S. Lewis reminds us, is "the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear."

The scholarly literature on conflict is replete with the same logic - although we don't often frame it that way. What's at the root of the conflict spiral, the arms race, the security dilemma? Fear of the other. What drives enemy images, demonization of the other side, escalation of our perceptions of the other? Fear. Anarchy, the realists might say, is a problem precisely because in the absence of a central authority we are all afraid of one another.

The corollary to all of this is at the same time simple and very hard. If I want peace, I need to cultivate fearlessness. I need to find ways to become less fearful. Where I cannot change the world around me - and usually I can't - I need to do what I can within myself to conquer, subdue, and eliminate fear.

How to do that? That's a subject for another day - probably, for a lifetime. But for today, it is a beginning simply to know that the more I fear, the less peace I will have.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Athletics, Academics, and Student Success: Which Comes First?

I have long been uneasy with college sports, especially NCAA Division I "big money" sports (primarily football and basketball). I taught at a Div I school for a bit years ago, and it seemed to me then that the "student-athletes" weren't getting an education so much as playing in a minor league that happened to be located on a college campus. Those that make it big often leave before they finish their degree - to take one example, Ben Roethlisberger never finished at Miami of Ohio, a school that prides itself on academic excellence. And those that don't make the pro draft - which is a lot of college players - have long had degree-completion rates well below the national average.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about how the system of college sports is broken, and there are lots of ideas floating around about how to fix it - spin the sports off into "real" professional minor leagues, allow the players to be paid for their time, there is no shortage of possible fixes. I'm not qualified to express judgement on most of these solutions, except to agree with the general consensus that the system is pretty well busted.

That said, many universities do deserve credit in one area: putting serious resources into the academic success of their athletes. The "Forrest Gump" image - the "student" who is radically academically unqualified but who gets passed through on underwater basket weaving and "gut" courses because they're good for the team - stings in higher ed. When there are accusations of going academically soft on athletes, they are taken very seriously, if for no other reason than good PR.

So universities have started getting serious about helping their student-athletes actually succeed in real classes. Today's Chronicle has an article on the subject, which now leads some to ask: if the athletes are getting all this support from "learning specialists", why not the rest of our students? Do student-athletes deserve more support and a better chance at success than your average non-scholarship, non-athletic student?

It's a fair question, especially in an era of tight university budgets and pressure on public universities to increase their graduation rates. My own university, now launching a major student success initiative, is looking at this closely. While we are a Division I school, we don't have a football team, our basketball team makes the NCAA tournament about once in a generation, and our sports programs are generally not seen as revenue-generators to a significant degree. Nevertheless, our athletics department has achieved a remarkable success: it was announced yesterday that for nearly eight years running, the average GPA of student-athletes on our campus has been over 3.0, well above the campus average.

So the folks leading the charge on broader student success are naturally asking, what are we doing with athletes that we could or should be doing with everybody? As I listened to the announcement, I couldn't help wondering if maybe we are (at least in part) putting the cart before the horse. Maybe it's not the case that student-athletes at our school succeed academically because we work hard to give them extra help (though there certainly is some of that). Maybe their academic success comes from the fact that they're student-athletes.

This is a novel concept - we're used to that image of the "dumb jock" who couldn't get into college any other way except that he's good at a sport. But at universities like mine, with no football and largely non-revenue sports, we don't need to recruit those students. Yes, we will go out and get students who are good soccer players, good softball players, good baseball or volleyball players. Few of them will come to us because they envision a pro career, just as many of our students who are good at playing in a marching band won't go on to become professional musicians. So some of our correlation between athletics and academic success is just a lack of the selection bias problem that may plague some of the "big time" schools.

But I think there's another cause to the correlation, one that runs from athletics to success. These students have had to take the time to become genuinely good at their sports - good enough to play on a Division I team, even to get recruited to it. That takes discipline. Moreover, they've gotten to that level not because they think they're going to make a career out of it, but simply for the love of the game. That takes inner motivation - the desire to do something for its own sake.

As any college professor will tell you, discipline and motivation will go a long way towards success in the classroom. Without discipline, even intellectually gifted students become bored and do sub-par work. Without motivation, students at all levels won't put in the effort.

Student-athletes have already proved, in one arena, that they possess these traits in greater measure than the rest of the population. Sports is not the only way to do this, of course - this is why colleges love to recruit students who have become really good at something, almost anything really - music, poetry, art, dance, public speaking, organizing service projects, you name it. These students have what it takes to succeed.

So while it's good to focus resources on academically underprepared athletes, they already have a leg up on many of their non-athletic peers - the students who didn't really pursue anything in high school, who went to college because it was expected or because it seemed like the thing to do, or because they like the idea of a four (or five, or six) year party. Given their predilections, getting athletes to succeed is relatively easy. It's reaching some of the rest of our students that's going to be the real challenge.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Really Small Stakes

Henry Kissinger is reported to have said, "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." For those of us in academia, there's always been something viscerally right about this - most of us have seen plenty of conflicts where the costs (to participants and bystanders alike) far outweigh the significance of the issues. People in higher education may not be unique in their ability to focus myopically on things to the exclusion of any reasonable perspective, but surely we have become some of the world's best.

In that vein, I present the following story as yet another exhibit in the long-running saga of stupid fights that didn't need to be picked. I leave it without further comment, though your thoughts (as always) appreciated!

Administrator Hatches Plan to Deal With Pesky Student Reporters

Friday, June 1, 2012

Higher Ed Search Firms & the Legislative Process: An Update

A few weeks back I wrote about a story involving proposed legislation in Illinois that would ban the use of search firms in public universities. At the time I argued that this was a bad idea, and a good example of legislators trying to legislate something they don't understand. (I should have pointed out that these were the same Illinois legislators who may have been handing out university scholarships as political favors for years, but that's a different story).

Today we have an update on the search firm story from the Chronicle. Apparently, cooler heads have prevailed, and a total ban has been softened to a need to justify the use of a particular search firm at levels below president. In itself, this seems like a reasonable compromise, one that I would guess will find support in the Illinois legislature while the universities breathe a sigh of relief.

However, the resulting legislation may not change current behavior much - if at all. The devil, they say, is always in the details. In this case, the key paragraph from the Chronicle story is here (emphasis added):
The amended bill, which passed the Illinois House of Representatives and the State Senate this week, would allow universities to contract with search firms to help fill presidential vacancies, but it would limit their use in other cases. Before employing outside consultants to aid in nonpresidential searches, a university and its board of trustees would have to "demonstrate a justifiable need for guidance from an individual or firm with specific expertise in the field of the hiring." The bill would require the state's public institutions to enact policies that define the criteria for when hiring a search firm is necessary.
The first piece seems reasonable - universities will have to demonstrate the need for a particular search firm in a given instance. But the key questions are: to whom do they need to make that argument, and on what basis? The second question is answered in the last sentence - the universities themselves get to "enact policies" (read: write the rules) that determine when a search firm is "necessary".

If I have to justify that something is necessary, but I get to define what "necessary" means, I am very likely to draw my definition to closely match what I already want to do (it all depends on what the definition of "is" is...). And this is exactly what Illinois universities are likely to do. Universities in general are very change-resistant, and have become masters of writing policies and procedures and white papers and such that essentially justify what they are already doing, put into whatever language has political favor at the moment.

My guess is that the answer to the "to whom" question will be some Illinois education bureaucracy, where people with better things to do with their time will be sent long, complex documents explaining why a given search must have a search firm and how the envisioned search carefully adheres to that university's policy on such searches. And since bureaucrats generally have neither the authority nor the inclination to pick a fight with universities by overruling their decisions, these documents are likely to get a cursory look, a quick stamp of approval, and be filed in a filing cabinet somewhere, never again to be looked at - except perhaps by an auditor 15 years from now.

Do I know for certain that this will be the outcome of this particular law? Of course not - there's always the outside chance of real and lasting change. But in this case Illinois legislators are up against the combined weight of resistance of all of the state's public universities, from which most of said legislators got their degrees in the first place. Odds are that this bill will move behavior only at the margin - if at all.

Whether that's a good or a bad thing I'll leave to others to debate. But if there's one lesson here, it's that legislatures need to understand the very real limits of their power to effect change from outside the academy. In the end, this may end up being a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.