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July 16, 2013 12:44 PM An Open Letter to Janet Napolitano

By Michael O'Hare

Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world. I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses. You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm. Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues. A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them.

A recent exchange on a faculty listserv made an analogy between the university of today and the auto industry of the 1970s; a business historian colleague reflected on the damage done to it by financial people who had never put a nut on a bolt. She was worried about the kind of attention we have already been receiving from business management types, like the increasingly failure-prone laying-on-of-the-hands of Bain and Company at Berkeley, entirely devoted to cost-cutting but called “Operational Excellence” – perhaps because the words, and ideas, of quality and excellence appear nowhere in the program after the title.

I think that analogy has some weight: the American automobile industry by the mid-60s was a comfortable, hierarchical, isolated world whose effectively tenured management was the sole judge of its membership. For example, at the ‘platoon leader’ GM, one duty of every executive was to drive his superior to the airport whenever the latter went on a trip. With a new GM car appropriate to their level delivered every year, these people never bought a car, nor drove a competitor’s car (they were required to rent only GM cars on travel), nor had a car repaired. As a result, they made the same lousy cars year after year, cars that did only one thing well (the easiest thing, accelerating really fast in a straight line), stupefied three generations of Americans with leaded gas, and didn’t last very long. Disruptive presences from outside were squashed like bugs (Fuller, Cord, Tucker, Deming…). The big three bosses divided the market like gentlemen over golf at Grosse Pointe , divided the profits with the union, and never had an unpleasant day until…the energy crisis, Ralph Nader, failed financial efforts to make things the way they were “with no actual heavy lifting by us”, pollution regulations, and the invasion of good, cheap foreign cars blew up the whole system. The humiliation of GM having to partner with Toyota in Fremont to learn how to survive in a world it used to rule must have been a truly wondrous moment.

The auto industry didn’t pay three decades of very painful dues merely because it was damaged by outsiders who didn’t understand it, though that was part of it: actually it went through purgatory mostly because of its own dogged refusal to recognize that its comfortable culture was unsuited to a world that was changing around it, and its hostility to outsiders. We’re in a very similar situation. The university industry, wonderful as it is, is not a delicate, perfect blossom needing only a steady flow of water and fertilizer, but an enormously valuable and productive enterprise that is also in a fair amount of trouble. The analogies to the car industry of forty years ago are several, and sobering.

For a start, our costs have been going up faster than inflation for decades, and about all we can figure out to do about it is whine about Baumol’s disease, assert our unique and ineffable intrinsic merit and exclusive right to judge it, and demand more funding. If our value created were keeping up, this would be tolerable to the society that we work for, but I don’t think it is.

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.