Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dreams, Luck and Too Many Cooks: American Higher Education

Is Facebook a tool, or a distraction? Millions of people would disagree with me on this, because I would vote, “It is a distraction - generally a waste of time.” My productivity is cut into by every minute I spend examining my Wall.

But what is productivity? Which activities are worthwhile? Which are a waste of time and money? If you check to see how people vote with their time and money, you can only come to one conclusion: there is no universal agreement on this issue. What productivity is depends on the kind of life you aim at having. Excepting those who are pathologically envious, people tend to dismiss as “wrong,” or more accommodatingly, “not right for them,” the competing alternatives others have chosen.

What about organizations? Which is more productive? One that focuses only on making PCV sewer pipes, or a typical college or university? There is no easy, if any, answer to this question. The university, unlike the PCV pipe producer is multifunction. There is no one basis of evaluation for it.

Much more important, since the PCV factory is focused on one narrow outcome, it is easier for its management to prioritize activities and respond to market pressures than it would be at a college or university. Colleges and universities, due to accidents of history, contain within themselves a pluralism of competing goals and missions. Power is seldom held by one faction, not even by the trustees. And variations in the market provoke not only much face-saving ceremony, but a variety of internal myths and behavior that maintain internal harmony: just listen to faculty members chortle, chuckle or giggle at a president’s or trustee’s very lame jokes as they consume a tuition’s worth of food and drink at an annual welcome-to-new-staff party.

Just trying, no doubt, to help out American higher education, ACTA has jumped on the bandwagon of worrying about undergraduates who take longer than four years to complete their degree. But, why should anyone want to rush through college if they can afford to take a longer, more leisurely time to do it? And if they can’t afford it, why isn’t that the issue?

To examine these and other strongly related issues further, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education: 
school organization as instrument and expression

--- EGR