Political vs. Merit-Based Change

A recent article in The Economist, “The World is Going to University” (28 March 2015), said:

“More generally, universities should be able to show that they have taught their students to think critically.”

That is what each professor does (or think they do), one student at a time, when they give assignments and evaluate homework and test results. I have previously mentioned that teaching critical thinking can be greatly improved through the use of structured problem-solving processes. In addition to the Scientific Method, but there are useful derivatives such as A3 reports, root cause analysis, Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, and kaizen that most faculty can use as well.

But, what if universities were able to concretely show that students’ critical thinking skills improved dramatically from between their first and last semester? While that result would blunt criticism, would it have any real-world impact? After all, we find that the real world in which our students graduate into often does not actually want or appreciate good critical thinking skills. Critical thinking skills will languish unused wherever workers are unable to speak truth to their bosses.

The people who seek to reform higher education often ask questions such as: “How much are we spending and how many degrees are we getting?” That is evidence of a failure to think critically about cause-and-effect (think of a fishbone diagram and the many causes that contribute to an effect such as low graduation rates). Is that lack of critical thinking our failure as teachers? Perhaps so, but it is also a failure of the student to apply what they learned in school. (K-16, plus graduate school).

Another question higher education reformers like to ask is: “Why does funding for students always increase? Where is the economy of scale?” Well-educated higher education reformers should know how to do research and find out the domains where “economies of scale” apply and where they don’t. That would change the conversation to considerably for both educational reformers, higher education administrators, and faculty.

Educational reformers also like to apply economic incentives to achieve desired outcomes, while largely (or completely) ignoring likely negative or unintended consequences. Giving public colleges and universities funds based upon academic outcomes (graduation rates) is demonstrative of extremely poor critical thinking skills. Likewise, student loans or funding of academic departments tied to the job market presupposes that employers will readily hire graduates. This is another example of poor critical thinking for which there is an empirical evidence. We have seen in recent times that corporations flush with cash prefer not to hire new employees, which are a cost to the business, and instead prefer to satisfy the interests of shareholders. Many also correlate student success with getting a job upon graduation, wherein employment is subject to the whims of profit-seeking employers. Are laid-off employees reflective of student failure, perhaps for which educational institutions should be held accountable?

So what can be done?

Another recent article, “The Real Value of Higher Education,” by Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina System, presents a poor defense of higher education. In it, he says:

“There is far less talk about academic quality and excellence and more about operational efficiency.”

Why is that? It’s because university leadership thinks academic quality and excellence is fine as-is, despite evidence that it is not (1, 2), thus leaving operational efficiency as the only avenue to improve university finances.

“How can our institutions of higher education operate more efficiently without sacrificing the quality of education we offer?”

Many an educated person has been stumped by this basic problem. The quality-efficiency trade-off exists in conventional management, but it does not exist in Lean management. Therefore, adopt Lean management to improve both educational quality and operating performance (as well as other parameters).

“…but at what point will efficiency begin to erode the excellence of the educational opportunities we offer?”

At no point, if you practice Lean management correctly. First of all, educational opportunities that universities offer are not as excellent as university leaders think they are. There is enormous room for improving teaching and educational excellence. But first, university presidents have to recognize the decline in public funding for higher education, competition for enrollment, etc., means that the market has changed from sellers’ to buyers.’ Simply put, public universities cannot continue to be led and managed as if it is a sellers’ market when the actual market they face is a buyers’ market. Only then can they control their own destiny.

In addition, it is my hope that public university administrators will wise up and focus their fundraising efforts on businesses in their state that have received big tax breaks and low- and no-costs loans from the state. Spend less time in the State house and follow the money.

Change will happen whether one likes it or not. It can be thrust upon us by political processes motivated by interests that are different than to create an educated society in support of our democracy. Or, we can change in ways that are merit-based and improve our role in creating an educated society. If we cannot improve ourselves, others will try to do it for us.

Faculty, however, are sure to be an obstacle. So we have to ask questions such as: “What is the relationship between academic freedom – freedom of inquiry (within one’s area of specialization) without fear of reprisal – and more effective utilization of resources?” Answer: None. So, faculty, please don’t even bring it up.

We must ask: “What is the role of shared governance?” Rather then reacting to administrators who are, in turn, reacting to political processes (and whose actions faculty will resist because political processes are not merit-based), faculty can take the lead on shared governance by improving academic processes and pressure university leaders to improve administrative processes via Lean management.

Competition (buyers’ market) not only makes change inevitable; it makes change a requirement. This, in turn, requires an ability of administrators and faculty to reduce the time from when the need for change is recognized to when it is acted upon. Defending against change is not a moral duty among academics, it is a moral failing.

Today’s students want two things: an educational experience that is better than what their parents had and at prices their parents paid (inflation adjusted or less). Faculty can give that to students by proactively making changes based on the merit of our ideas, rather than being forced to accept change based on illogical political ideas from others.

Another article in The Economist, “America: A Flagging Model” (28 March 2015), said:

“The country that has given the world so many ideas about how to run higher education could do with some new ones itself.”

Indeed. Click here and here for lots of great new ideas from America.

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