In Defense of Academic Values, Part II

Note: In my last post (several weeks ago), I wrote about the “administrative coup” that had taken place at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. (I’m very happy to report that the besieged Board of Visitors did vote unanimously to reinstate ousted President Teresa Sullivan—and even more happy to report that they did so in an open meeting live-streamed over the web to an audience of more than 10,000 people.) I also wrote about how this had prompted a good bit of thinking on my part about the governance of K-12 independent schools, so this post will be my attempt to connect the two.

Although it may not appear to be so at first glance, K-12 independent schools are similar in many ways to public universities like the University of Virginia (perhaps that’s one reason why I chose to teach in independent schools). True, independent schools are much smaller and don’t have the same public mission, but they do—as I suggested in my previous post—share similar administrative and governance structures.

More importantly, though, they are “service institutions.” Unlike corporations, schools and universities are accountable first and foremost not to an external group of shareholders, but to the individuals who are moving through them at any given moment. Now, I generally hate to use industrial metaphors when discussing education, but in this case I find it irresistibly valuable. Along those lines, if education is viewed as an industry—and a school as a factory—it is as if the factory is accountable not to the shareholders, but to the widgets themselves.

From a business perspective, this makes no sense. In the eyes of a shareholder, widgets are but a means to an end—by-products of the more important profit-generating mechanism. But this metaphor illustrates a crucial point about education: namely, that schools cannot be judged by the same calculus as free enterprise. University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan makes this point eloquently in an article about Sullivan’s reinstatement:

Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.

For better or worse, I’d say that’s basically the vision for all educational institutions. (It would be nice if we K-12 educators didn’t have to worry about the hangovers, but you see my point.) In the next breath, Vaidhyanathan asks:

Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? . . . Damn right it does.

In fact, schools are “wasteful” and “inefficient” by design, and again, I happen to think this applies to independent K-12 education as well.

They are wasteful and inefficient because we are not trying to manufacture widgets. We are trying to nurture human beings, each of whom comes to the institution with his or her own view of the world. Regardless of whether we’re working with two year-olds or twenty year-olds, how can we even begin to educate without acknowledging that basic fact?

Although independent schools are not subject to the same calculations as traditional businesses, they must attract and frequently compete for students, and so they are susceptible to market pressures. The situation at Virginia provides a powerful example of what education columnist Kevin Carey calls “status anxiety.” He writes acerbically:

[W]hatever good intentions that the University of Virginia Board of Visitors may have had were quickly overwhelmed by its parochial anxieties. Apparently, they were afraid that their beloved alma mater might not be able to compete with rich private universities . . . They were worried that revenues would be used to support money-losing subjects like classics instead of recruiting “star” professors who never teach undergraduates. That the task of teaching young people might distract from the pursuit of status competition with rival universities on whose boards their fellow plutocrats sit. That the university would be forced to get by with $5 billion in the bank.

I think Carey is on to something here. Of the few vague explanations for Sullivan’s ouster given by Rector Helen Dragas, nearly all hinted at a fear of decreased “competitiveness.” If you weren’t aware that you were reading about a university, you might have gotten the impression that the U.Va. brand was losing market share.

Although competition can spark innovation in education as in other industries, we should acknowledge that an overemphasis on competition can also lead to rash decisions and a myopic focus. This is especially true when decision-makers come to feel that their institution is being “left behind.” Ironically, the “save-our-ship” choices that look so appealing in the near-term often turn out to be underwhelming—or worse, overwhelming—in retrospect.

For an example, take a look at the trajectory of classroom technology in K-12 independent schools. What started out a decade or so ago as a “cutting-edge” value-added (translation: a symbol of institutional status) has essentially become the norm nationwide. And schools that rushed into it without sufficient forethought are probably still behind, given that they likely paid little attention to how technology might reshape their school’s culture. All of this ignores the fact that technology has come to claim a considerable portion of a school’s budget, sometimes with only marginal benefits.

I don’t mean to malign educational technology. I am no Luddite, and technology in the classroom is important and quite valuable when well-integrated. (I deliberately stop short of saying it is “invaluable.” Technology certainly has value, but that value is not infinite.) My point is instead this: I suspect that schools making decisions from a position of fear or a desire to “compete” in the marketplace often pay dearly for those decisions in the long run.

To be truly effective in the long-term, everyone involved in education (board members, administrators, teachers, parents, students, alumni, etc.) needs a clear recognition that

  1. good, lasting change in education takes time.
  2. real, meaningful change in education can’t be mandated—it must be cultivated.

Don’t get me wrong: this should not be an excuse for sitting on one’s hands, but rather a plea for patience. Rather than rushing into the latest and greatest thing, schools should proceed by a structured series of checkpoints at which to assess the institution’s progress. (At Virginia, Teresa Sullivan was criticized for her tendency toward “incremental change.” What the Board should have realized is that, when it comes to education, all change is incremental. There’s a reason why college takes four years.)

Similarly, this should not be an excuse for waiting until there is complete agreement before moving forward. True consensus is admittedly rare. Rather, this recognition simply suggests a willingness to engage various constituencies in a transparent process for distilling their ideas into action, whether that comes from voting, representative committee work, etc. (At Virginia, the Board presumed to make wholesale changes to the University without consulting the faculty, students, alumni, etc.—as if such a strategy were likely to be successful without the support of the rank-and-file.)

Educational institutions would benefit from a tripartite shared governance model . What I have in mind is not a disingenuous call for “faculty input” or a spineless submission to “faculty demands,” but a genuine collaborative discourse between teaching faculty, administrators, and board members. However, this highlights the need for faculty tenure, or at least some sort of longer-term job security that will allow those educators working “where the rubber meets the road” to have a meaningful voice in school policy, whether public or private, primary or post-secondary.

I maintain that schools favoring consensus will be healthy institutions, because schools—even private schools—are not business ventures, and they should not be run as such. I’m not saying that the bottom line doesn’t matter. It obviously does. But we should not forget for a moment that it is not the only thing that matters, or even the most important.

In the end, the management style of a school’s leadership filters down to its students. What kind of message do we want to send to the next generation of leaders? That if you sit in a position of power, you needn’t bother considering the people who will be affected by your decisions? That titular authority matters far more than respect and trust?

Save perhaps a few members of the U.Va. Board of Visitors, I don’t know anyone in education who would answer those questions in the affirmative (and even they have learned their lesson, it seems). And yet there are plenty of institutions still organized in such a way as to send those very messages. Perhaps it’s time we rethink how we govern our schools.

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