Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world. I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses. You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm. Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues. A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them.

A recent exchange on a faculty listserv made an analogy between the university of today and the auto industry of the 1970s; a business historian colleague reflected on the damage done to it by financial people who had never put a nut on a bolt. She was worried about the kind of attention we have already been receiving from business management types, like the increasingly failure-prone laying-on-of-the-hands of Bain and Company at Berkeley, entirely devoted to cost-cutting but called “Operational Excellence” – perhaps because the words, and ideas, of quality and excellence appear nowhere in the program after the title.

I think that analogy has some weight: the American automobile industry by the mid-60s was a comfortable, hierarchical, isolated world whose effectively tenured management was the sole judge of its membership. For example, at the ‘platoon leader’ GM, one duty of every executive was to drive his superior to the airport whenever the latter went on a trip. With a new GM car appropriate to their level delivered every year, these people never bought a car, nor drove a competitor’s car (they were required to rent only GM cars on travel), nor had a car repaired. As a result, they made the same lousy cars year after year, cars that did only one thing well (the easiest thing, accelerating really fast in a straight line), stupefied three generations of Americans with leaded gas, and didn’t last very long. Disruptive presences from outside were squashed like bugs (Fuller, Cord, Tucker, Deming…). The big three bosses divided the market like gentlemen over golf at Grosse Pointe , divided the profits with the union, and never had an unpleasant day until…the energy crisis, Ralph Nader, failed financial efforts to make things the way they were “with no actual heavy lifting by us”, pollution regulations, and the invasion of good, cheap foreign cars blew up the whole system. The humiliation of GM having to partner with Toyota in Fremont to learn how to survive in a world it used to rule must have been a truly wondrous moment.

The auto industry didn’t pay three decades of very painful dues merely because it was damaged by outsiders who didn’t understand it, though that was part of it: actually it went through purgatory mostly because of its own dogged refusal to recognize that its comfortable culture was unsuited to a world that was changing around it, and its hostility to outsiders. We’re in a very similar situation. The university industry, wonderful as it is, is not a delicate, perfect blossom needing only a steady flow of water and fertilizer, but an enormously valuable and productive enterprise that is also in a fair amount of trouble. The analogies to the car industry of forty years ago are several, and sobering.

For a start, our costs have been going up faster than inflation for decades, and about all we can figure out to do about it is whine about Baumol’s disease, assert our unique and ineffable intrinsic merit and exclusive right to judge it, and demand more funding. If our value created were keeping up, this would be tolerable to the society that we work for, but I don’t think it is.

We make two main ‘products’, of an abstract sort, namely educated citizens and knowledge through research. But we pay almost no attention to the production process for the first. There is no quality assurance program for teaching that a Toyota middle manager would recognize, none: we almost never watch each other work, we talk about how we do it even less, and we delegate to students the little bit of consequential evaluation that goes into promotions and raises, in a process shown by research to measure comfort and not learning. We are failing spectacularly to explain to voters, or demonstrate to increasingly careerist and anxious students, what a liberal education means to a society and to an individual. I have to spend a significant part of every semester undermining the conviction among my students that flattering my ego will pay off in grades; where did they learn that? For the most part, we are teaching students how to be the second-smartest person in a room with one person who knows the truth, but no-one in the big world pays for that skill: you get paid to be good at finding new truths, and making other people smart. That reactionary slough of old-fashioned thinking, Google, has rudely done actual research and discovered that the grades we give have nothing to do with our alums’ ability to create value for them. The nerve!

Research quality assurance, our celebrated peer review publication process, at least invokes collegial attention and debate over process. Probably for that reason, it isn’t as broken as our pedagogy, but it is starting to take on some serious water. We treat producers (ourselves) as customers (always dangerous), mistreat uncomfortable players who threaten to upend doctrinal applecarts , and even our core epistemological conventions are starting to look frayed around the edges, as (for example) rude people are starting to ask whether clinical trials and randomized experiments are what they appear to be in a selection process tilted towards surprising first results and against replication studies, while overvaluing statistical significance relative to effect size. The enterprise is staffed on the shop floor by graduate students for whom the old deal (be trod underfoot at low pay for a few years to get a PhD and you can be a professor) no longer delivers, an unstable state of affairs. The range of intellectual skills represented by the faculty of every department known to me has shrunk, along with the number of people who care enough about the average scholarly paper to actually read it. Physics and economics are distorted by mathematics envy, physics envy drives design and construction out of the engineering curriculum (and our shiny new bridge is full of scary defects before it even opens). Howard Gardner identifies eight kinds of intelligence; we operate exclusively on about three.

Even tenure, to which we cleave at least putatively on grounds of academic freedom, doesn’t seem to work right: not a single colleague whom I knew before and after became more adventurous, courageous, and risk-taking after getting tenure than before (probably including me). The most striking way in which we become hidebound, despite the freedom our tenure allows, is in making new appointments, where we assiduously and increasingly cleave to the intersection (not the union and certainly not anything beyond our own limits) of our own skills and methodological chops and hire people who make us look good as we are, rather than people who will push us to grow. Groups that are the sole gatekeepers of their own membership follow a known, inevitable trajectory: the dimensions of excellence that count gradually collapse so that new appointments certify the excellence of current members. One may wonder whether this system maximizes value creation, especially as stable comfort is always toxic to innovation and growth.

I have no idea whether you will put any of this adaptive work before us. Serious people who mean well will surely explain to you that it’s either too hard or doesn’t really need doing anyway, at least not now! Or both. Your lieutenants will exaggerate the risks of anything you try, and caution you to keep your powder dry and conserve your capital. The idea that the worst thing you can lose is your job will float in the air. You certainly can’t do this work for us, and we are not better people than you managed at DHS or in Arizona: expect lots of pushback, grousing, and resistance. If you try to get us to attack all of it at once you will surely sink without a trace (and we will go mad). But if you don’t push us hard on our real problems, past our comfort zone, we will be in terrible trouble. Just as protection from competition was nearly fatal to the auto business, protection from a changing environment will be very bad for us. Please break up some furniture and open some windows; the work you need to do is inside and the function you need to perform is called leadership.

Very truly yours,

Michael O’Hare

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.