Whim of Iron, Path of Hare

Have you been following the whirligig in which the University of Virginia’s president was fired and then reinstated sixteen days later? Fans of Edbiz horror shows are having a field day, but one serious issue (among many) comes to mind. This is the first time in my experience, either direct or by report, that an official “educational leader” or body of them (UVa’s Board of Visitors) ever admitted making a mistake and then immediately attempted to rectify it. Consider their actions in contrast with those of the Feds concerning No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. NCLB is a clearly failed scheme, hence the widespread waivers to its requirements. RAT is starting to show its stinky stuff too, with good teachers being fired and good programs impugned as a result of its irremediably flawed “metrics” and sanctions. Meanwhile, the lousy schools and programs stay that way[1], and no one is saying “sorry.” No one ever does, or at best the exception proves the rule.

The etiology of this organizational sickness is not hard to determine, and we can begin by looking at UVa. By all accounts the reinstated President, Teresa Sullivan, understood the way a university works and is best run. It does not work like a business because it isn’t one, and it shouldn’t be run that way. Ideas and education are not products, and teaching in many of its important fundamentals is not a process, for understanding doesn’t proceed, it occurs. Scholarship is more artisanal than industrial or bureaucratic—or is when not mediocre.

The good educational leader knows how to nudge things along and treats her school or college like the organism it is. Organic change takes time, and the governance of that change proceeds in line with the Burkean prescription for change by “insensible degrees.” This includes change in the structure of the organism as well as in its purpose and methods. If something doesn’t fly, it doesn’t fly.

The alternative “principles” are to be found in certain political systems and in many contemporary education and business organizations. Many  educators or leaders govern in accordance with these “principles” of management:

1.   Have one set of visionary and enabling principles set unilaterally by the “educational leader” or the other managers/administrators and propagated without substantive discussion.

2.   Do not admit when these principles are wrong, or permit any public admission. If disaster looms, change the principles quietly, issue waivers, or blame misguided predecessors.

3.   Propagandize, advertise, or market rather than achieve an equilibrium of quality.

4.   Do not tolerate dissensus, or what are sometimes miscalled “philosophical differences.”

5.   When a hundred flowers bloom, cut them down. Accept only approved species in approved “gardens.”

6.   Root out deviationists, I mean terminate the contracts of those with whom one has “philosophical differences.”

7.   When someone finds a problem in the approved way of doing things, get rid of her. “No man, no problem,” as one manager said after making a tough management decision.

The supposed rationale for upholding these principles is that those in charge have been proved by experience and intelligence to be capable of leading, and that their “leadership” should not be impeded by pesky qualms and second thoughts. The problem is that past experience doesn’t always fit someone to handle present problems (particularly if that experience is in business and the present problems are educational), and many “educational” leaders abandon intelligence in favor of thought-clichés. In an organization using top-down management, there is no reliable way to check the propagation of troublesome “ideas” or their rigorous enforcement. By contrast, an organization that is comfortable proceeding along open lines by insensible degrees can recognize and avoid large and fatal mistakes; and in an environment with real give-and-take, a leader can be given the advice that he or she needs.

An illustration of management along the less desirable lines given above is the incipient hare-brained stampede of educational organizations towards “on-line” education even though there are good reasons to doubt its effectiveness in place of education in situ[2]. Some of the stampeding herd hear “Harvard” and start pawing the ground with their hooves; others are on the run towards education on the cheap. The accounts I’ve read of Sullivan’s ouster suggest that some Board bison were spooked by the idea that UVa would plod like a tortoise behind its quick-footed betters and lose the race, whatever it is. All the principles of management discussed above then came into force as a singularly bad decision came down.

The good news is that the Board of Visitors reversed itself. The bad news is that it was news.

[1] Compare, for example, PISA test scores from 2001 with those most recently released. Other evidence is available too.

[2] Something that Harvard, MIT, and Stanford recognize in the status of their recently devised online offerings as not carrying credit or being associated with any programs in which a student can matriculate.

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