Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Years After Iraq: Top-Down Leadership

The decision to bring "democracy" to Iraq displayed a deep and obvious contempt for democracy itself. George W. Bush considered the decision to begin a war his personal prerogative, and both the political establishment and the media establishment treated it that way. The war was inevitable; the decision had already been made. Not supporting the war was treated as foolish (because futile) and unpatriotic (because patriotism was defined as supporting the President's decisions). James Fallows has a reconstruction of how the Bush Administration moved toward the war without any concern about Congressional approval, and John Judis recalls what it was like to be one of the few journalists asking real questions about the war (h/t Historiann). They're sobering reads. Imposing democracy when you think of democratic process as an inconvenient hindrance was never going to work. And refusing to let the Maximum Leader be gainsaid on the important decisions is a great way to make Maximum Mistakes.

George W. Bush was ceded powers that George Washington himself did not want or believe he should have. The Constitution entrusts the power to declare war to Congress. That isn't simply because few of Washington's successors have Washington's military judgment. It's because it's a mistake to rely on any single man's judgment for something as serious as declaring war. That, the Framers, insisted, should never be an executive decision.

Ten years after the debacle in Iraq War began, our country is still gripped by a cult of executive leadership, the fantasy that a single unchallenged leader makes the best decisions. We glorify CEOs and imagine them as succeeding best when they are sole decision-makers. People talk wistfully about business stars as political candidates, "running" the government the way they are imagined "running" their business. And, as I've blogged about my own industry, there is a cult of CEO-style university governance, reducing the normal checks and balances to rubber stamps. The thinking is that shared, deliberative decision making is just a pain, that things go better when the process is simple and one person is empowered to make all the decisions. It is the Myth of the Efficient Dictator.

But history establishes that this is bunk. Dictators make decisions efficiently. But they also make bad decisions efficiently, and since no one can talk them out of their mistakes, the consequences can be absolute disaster.

You can't find a national leader with better military sense than Napoleon. But empowering Napoleon to make all the decisions ultimately leads to crushing military defeat. Napoleon's very real successes eventually convinced him he was invincible, and that conviction made his destruction inevitable. And since no one could tell the Emperor that invading Russia was a bad idea, everyone had to go along.

We narrate history as the story of brilliant individual leaders. But the actual record shows autocratic regimes doing very poorly, both on their own account and when pitted against societies with a broader distribution of decision making. Democracies are not always right, and free debate does not always produce the best answer; nothing always produces the best answer. But a democracy has the chance to draw upon the intelligence of many, many minds. A dictatorship can never be smarter than the dictator. An FDR with a recalcitrant Congress to keep happy turns out to be a better war leader than a Hitler who cannot be contradicted by his subordinates. In fact, an FDR with a Congress to keep happy might even be a better leader than and FDR without one.

And if you really want to appreciate the glories of Efficient Dictatorship, contemplate the Pyramids. A wonderful achievement by unquestioned kings who commanded armies of slaves and were worshiped as gods. Those pyramids are what is left of their regime, because those projects bankrupted Egypt's Old Kingdom: a huge slice of the GDP went into building every Pharaoh's big geometry-project tomb.

The dirty secret about fascism is that the trains don't actually run on time. You're just not allowed to say that they're late. And by the time that train goes off the rails, it's too late to say anything.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why Faculty Governance? (Teresa Sullivan and U.Va. Redux)

On Thursday, the American Association of University Professors, a national faculty union, released its report on last summer's debacle at the University of Virginia, where, if you recall, the Board of Visitors fired the UVa's President, Teresa A. Sullivan, only two years into Sullivan's term, without even holding a meeting about the firing first. After a major outcry from faculty, alumni, students, and donors, three metric tons of bad press for the University, and serious egg on the faces of the Board and its Rector, Helen Dragas, Sullivan got her job back.

It's never been clear what Dragas and the Board were thinking, and the team who wrote the report concludes that, after much careful study and hours of personal interviews, they have no idea what Dragas and the Board could have been thinking:

The breakdown in governance at the University of
Virginia documented here was only partly a result of
structural failure; indeed, the board ignored its own
recently adopted guidelines on presidential evaluation.
In much greater measure it was a failure by those
charged with institutional oversight to understand the
institution over which they presided and to engage
with the administration and the faculty in an effort
to be well informed. It was a failure of judgment and,
alas, of common sense.

Even so, Dragas and company have defenders. After all, such people say, doesn't the Board have the right to fire whoever it wants, for whatever reason? Why should the faculty think they have a say?

Because no one knows enough to govern a modern university on their own. Not the trustees. Not the administration. Not the faculty. Nobody. No one person or group is actually capable of understanding the whole enterprise. That's not metaphor or metaphysics. I'm talking about adequate minimal comprehension.

Since no one has a grasp on the whole picture, universities have evolved a system called shared governance, which involves multiple parties collaborating and filling different management roles. Part of this involves faculty governance, which means letting the faculty, as a group, take the lead in decisions about the actual educational nuts and bolts. This is not something that should be done because it's a tradition, or because it's been done this way before. This is something that needs to be done to keep the university working well on a practical, day-to-day level.

The academic side of the university is dedicated to specialized knowledge, in dozens of separate branches. And the level of specialized expertise involved in teaching these subjects (not to mention in conducting original research) is so high that it takes another expert to evaluate whether it's done being properly or not. I don't mean that professors are smarter than other people, or above being judged by them. I mean that even a professor in one field is out of her or his depth when dealing with another field. I am a professor. I have no idea what should be going on in the chemistry department, or the economics department, or the sociology department, except that those departments should be teaching chemistry, sociology, and economics. What that means, exactly, I have to leave to my colleagues in those departments.

And when I say "don't know enough," I mean don't know enough on a practical, nuts and bolts level. I'm not talking about lacking some subtle philosophical appreciation for the subject matter. I'm talking about not knowing how subjects other than my own should be taught, or even knowing how to tell if they're being taught well or poorly. How much chemistry should students learn in each course? How many courses do they need? In what order? Which courses should be required for every single chemistry major, and which should be electives? Beats me. All I know is that our students should learn at least as much as students learn at other places and that nothing should explode.

Could I learn enough about chemistry to know how a good degree program is structured? Yes, but it would take me about ten years, and at the end of that time I would be a trained professional chemist. Same thing for sociology, economics, engineering, philosophy, and every other field that the university teaches. So neither I nor anybody else is ever going to know enough to really know what's going on in more than one or maybe two departments.

I also don't know enough to evaluate a job candidate in any field but my own. If I go over to the History or Philosophy Department, neither so far from my own, and listen to a job applicant give a talk about her research, I'm going to be able to follow the content of the talk. But I'm not going to be able to tell if the speaker is doing something really new or recycling someone else's ideas from ten years back. I'm not going to be able to know if their methods are cutting-edge or square, reliable or unsound. I'm going to have to rely on experts.

Does this mean that you just let every department in a university do whatever it wants? No. Of course not. It does mean that you let them take the lead in making the decisions that require their specific expertise. You need them, most of all, to take the lead in decisions about curriculum and learning outcomes, because they know a particular set of things that you don't. You don't free them from all oversight; the faculty-committee system, which is often criticized as unwieldy, is basically a way to try to subordinate individual faculty agendas to wider professional norms. (I don't get to decide that classes I happen to want to teach should be required. A committee that I sometimes serve on works out what courses the students need.) And you keep your faculty honest by consulting with faculty from outside your own university, through peer review, periodic department review by visitors, regional and national accrediting agencies.

Should faculty decide everything? My answer, as a faculty member myself, is: obviously not. There does need to be a set of full-time administrators, who take the lead in questions of scheduling, budget allocation, and so on. There also needs to be an outside board of trustees charged with the overall health, particularly the fiscal health, of the university. (These boards evolved first at private universities as overseers of the university's endowment. At Virginia, they're essentially a bunch of political donors to the state governor.) In a healthy university, these three groups (faculty, administration, and board) each take the lead in their own natural sphere, each listen to the others, and each solicit input from other groups, especially students and alumni.

When one group starts to take over another's proper tasks, the place starts to run badly. For example, if the administration runs wild without the board noticing, they start to run up excessive debt for things like building projects, or to spend too much of the annual return from endowment funds. If the board micromanages the administration, suddenly nothing gets done.

And when faculty governance breaks down, and the administration or board begins to ignore the faculty's advice about things the faculty knows, the bad results don't become visible outside the university right away. But by the time those mistakes become apparent to everybody, they take years to undo. Managers who ignore faculty input can make serious personnel mistakes; one common example is attempting to identify "star" faculty but picking the wrong stars, overpaying people whose careers never really pan out and driving away other people who become very successful somewhere else. By the time you notice you've done that, it's too late. Professor Kind-of-a-Big-Deal has already locked in a salary well over his market value and the Star-Who-Got-Away isn't coming back. That's simply bad management. But much worse are the mistakes that affect the students.

If a university neglects, or worse overrides, its faculty's advice about how to teach their subjects, the students don't get taught as well. You won't notice it in this year's graduating seniors; most of their education is already finished. But over a few years you start to see more students struggling in their advanced classes, either because the lower-level classes no longer fully prepare them or because the way the major is organized no longer builds the skills they need. That turns into higher failure rates, lower graduation rates, and longer time-to-degree. A really top-down administration can paper over the problem by forcing lower standards and more grade inflation. But graduating ill-prepared students is the worst thing any college can do, either for the students or itself. If you're turning out too many chemistry BSs who can't hack a graduate program in chemistry, or too many English BAs who flunk the state teacher-licensing test, or too many graduates that employers regret hiring, your school will get a reputation that hurts all of your graduates, talented or not.

And by the time that happens, it takes at least ten years to fix. Your graduating seniors have already been educated in your broken system; even if you fixed that system in a single day (and you can't), the first students to get the full benefit will be the ones who start next year. And you have to count on it taking at least five years for people to start noticing that you're turning out better-prepared alumni; bad reputations are hard to overcome. The only efficient way to fix a major curricular mistake is not to make that mistake in the first place. And the only reliable way to avoid such mistakes is to listen to the advice of people who teach these subjects for a living. Faculty governance isn't a professional perk. It's indispensable professional advice.

At Viriginia, things degenerated to the point where Dragas, a short-term political appointee, was trying to micromanage what got taught in freshman comp. That isn't wrong because it's a violation of academic tradition. It's wrong because it's a violation of common sense. Dragas was ignoring the people who actually oversee freshman comp and enforce appropriate standards as part of their job, and Dragas herself has no idea how to teach that subject. If you're on the Board of Trustees for a hospital, you don't walk into the operating room and start telling the surgeons where to cut. If you're on the board of a computer hardware company, you don't go into the engineers' workspace and tell them to change the motherboard design. If you did, you could not expect good results. The same bad results emerge when a university ignores its faculty's professional advice. It just takes longer to see the bleeding.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cooking in Rome: Soda Bans and the Illusion of Choice

A judge has overruled Mayor Bloomberg's soda ban, calling it "arbitrary and capricious." So New York City's ban on large sugary beverages, meaning more than 16 oz. servings, is basically dead. This is a big win for Big Gulp Libertarianism, which derided the government soda ban as Nanny State tyranny, taking away individual's freedom to make their own rational choices. But you know what else is arbitrary, capricious, and erodes individual freedom of choice? Marketing. Every food package you will ever encounter was designed to limit the exercise of your free will. Selling someone else a 64-ounce cola may be a rational individual decision. But buying a 64-ounce cola is not quite an act of unfettered free choice.

I spent a month or so last summer living in Rome, which meant cooking and shopping in Rome (a great pleasure) and becoming that timeless figure of comedy, the Americano nel supermercato. That meant everything I bought in a bag, packet, or can came in a smaller bag, packet, or can than I'm used to. A can of tuna, say, was a little more than half the size of an American tuna can (80 grams instead of 140+). And within 24 hours of getting off the plane, I had adjusted to thinking of that as a standard can of tuna. When I flew back to the United States and walked into an American supermarket, I switched back. But I didn't constantly open a second can of tuna in Rome so that it would be the size of a "real" can. There's no such thing as a "real" size for a can of tuna. I just worked with the set of units I was given, like everyone does. It's not that I decided I wanted exactly 80 grams of fish. But by the same token, I don't "want" exactly 142 grams of fish at a time when I'm in America. That's just the size the can comes in, and so when I open a can I try to use the amount of tuna that's in it. I didn't decide that I wanted this or that amount.

Opponents of the Bloomberg ban say that people will just order two (or four) 16-ounce sodas to get around the ban. The judge says the same thing. In fact it seems like such common sense that it's a joke: how ridiculous not to expect people to buy two sodas instead!

Please. No one was going to do that. That is not how the world works at all.

No one just naturally decides on their own that they want 32 or 64 ounces of soda. You don't go into the 7-11 and think, "Man, I need 64 ounces of something cold, 'cause there isn't nearly enough pressure on my bladder." The idea of buying something that size has to be suggested to you, and the suggestion has to be framed so the decision feels natural. If there were no 64-ounce sodas on sale, you wouldn't think the 16-ounce soda looked inadequately small. It wouldn't even occur to you.

Seriously: before people started buying Big Gulps, were customers buying two or three sodas at a time because the available sizes did not satisfy their thirst? Does anyone actually believe that the super-sized drinks were created to respond to customer demand? If you do, I have some shares of Lehman Brothers to sell you. Those sizes were invented to create customer demand. It's better for the seller to sell larger amounts of the (cheap and government-subsidized) sugar water, so they created a set of packaging choices where 16 ounces went from "extra-large" to "medium" or "small." And they frame super-sizing your drink as a bargain. Bingo! Illusion of choice. You get to experience 7-11's corporate strategy as your natural exercise of free will.

If you're not willing to believe that, let me point out a basic fact. There are professional stage magicians all over this country who can "read your mind" by identifying the number/playing card/primary color/etc. that you think of when they ask you. They don't do this with trick decks of cards: it still works with numbers, colors, and so on. They do the trick by choosing the number or color for you. This is so easy that a non-trivial number of people make a living doing it. You never know they choose for you. You experience it as your own choice. But the trick, called the "force," works effectively and reliably. If you ever want to ruin a magic show, just write down the second number that comes into your head after the magician asks you to write down the first number that comes into your head. The first number that comes into your head is the one the magician picked for you. (But if you ever ruin a magic show, you are using your knowledge for evil and I disown you.)

We like to think of a magician's force as just something that happens on stage in Vegas. But it happens all the time. We all fall for the Jedi mind trick every day, and when someone points it out to us we angrily insist that it was our own idea all along: those are not the droids we were looking for! It's simply too uncomfortable to think that many of the ideas that seem to appear independently in our head have actually been placed there by others as we happened by. If we're that easily suggestible, what about our free will? Science's answer seems to be: what about your free will, sunshine? Where did you see it last?

If you want to strike a blow for the freedom of human self-determination, fighting the soda ban is a sucker's game. All you're fighting for there is the right of corporate entities to manipulate your behavior, and your personal right to be their sucker. If what you're interested in, however, is fighting to preserve your illusion of self-determination, your right not to notice that your free will isn't 100% free or 100% yours, then you go right ahead and fight that evil nanny state, brother. But don't expect the rest of us to hail you as a champion of liberty. You're perfectly free to delude yourself. Enjoy your visit to New York.

cross-posted from Dagblog