College Guide


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

By Michael O'Hare

We make two main ‘products’, of an abstract sort, namely educated citizens and knowledge through research. But we pay almost no attention to the production process for the first. There is no quality assurance program for teaching that a Toyota middle manager would recognize, none: we almost never watch each other work, we talk about how we do it even less, and we delegate to students the little bit of consequential evaluation that goes into promotions and raises, in a process shown by research to measure comfort and not learning. We are failing spectacularly to explain to voters, or demonstrate to increasingly careerist and anxious students, what a liberal education means to a society and to an individual. I have to spend a significant part of every semester undermining the conviction among my students that flattering my ego will pay off in grades; where did they learn that? For the most part, we are teaching students how to be the second-smartest person in a room with one person who knows the truth, but no-one in the big world pays for that skill: you get paid to be good at finding new truths, and making other people smart. That reactionary slough of old-fashioned thinking, Google, has rudely done actual research and discovered that the grades we give have nothing to do with our alums’ ability to create value for them. The nerve!

Research quality assurance, our celebrated peer review publication process, at least invokes collegial attention and debate over process. Probably for that reason, it isn’t as broken as our pedagogy, but it is starting to take on some serious water. We treat producers (ourselves) as customers (always dangerous), mistreat uncomfortable players who threaten to upend doctrinal applecarts , and even our core epistemological conventions are starting to look frayed around the edges, as (for example) rude people are starting to ask whether clinical trials and randomized experiments are what they appear to be in a selection process tilted towards surprising first results and against replication studies, while overvaluing statistical significance relative to effect size. The enterprise is staffed on the shop floor by graduate students for whom the old deal (be trod underfoot at low pay for a few years to get a PhD and you can be a professor) no longer delivers, an unstable state of affairs. The range of intellectual skills represented by the faculty of every department known to me has shrunk, along with the number of people who care enough about the average scholarly paper to actually read it. Physics and economics are distorted by mathematics envy, physics envy drives design and construction out of the engineering curriculum (and our shiny new bridge is full of scary defects before it even opens). Howard Gardner identifies eight kinds of intelligence; we operate exclusively on about three.

Even tenure, to which we cleave at least putatively on grounds of academic freedom, doesn’t seem to work right: not a single colleague whom I knew before and after became more adventurous, courageous, and risk-taking after getting tenure than before (probably including me). The most striking way in which we become hidebound, despite the freedom our tenure allows, is in making new appointments, where we assiduously and increasingly cleave to the intersection (not the union and certainly not anything beyond our own limits) of our own skills and methodological chops and hire people who make us look good as we are, rather than people who will push us to grow. Groups that are the sole gatekeepers of their own membership follow a known, inevitable trajectory: the dimensions of excellence that count gradually collapse so that new appointments certify the excellence of current members. One may wonder whether this system maximizes value creation, especially as stable comfort is always toxic to innovation and growth.

I have no idea whether you will put any of this adaptive work before us. Serious people who mean well will surely explain to you that it’s either too hard or doesn’t really need doing anyway, at least not now! Or both. Your lieutenants will exaggerate the risks of anything you try, and caution you to keep your powder dry and conserve your capital. The idea that the worst thing you can lose is your job will float in the air. You certainly can’t do this work for us, and we are not better people than you managed at DHS or in Arizona: expect lots of pushback, grousing, and resistance. If you try to get us to attack all of it at once you will surely sink without a trace (and we will go mad). But if you don’t push us hard on our real problems, past our comfort zone, we will be in terrible trouble. Just as protection from competition was nearly fatal to the auto business, protection from a changing environment will be very bad for us. Please break up some furniture and open some windows; the work you need to do is inside and the function you need to perform is called leadership.

Very truly yours,

Michael O’Hare

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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