University strikes and unforced errors by administrators

From news reports in the past week, it looks like the University of Oregon administration is making some foolish decisions in how to respond to striking graduate students. If the news sources I have read are accurate (see reports from Inside Higher Ed, Oregon Live, and December 6 and December 9 reports from the philosophy blog Daily Nous), the administration has taken the following steps:

  • Refused to make written commitments on several agreements in principle on family leave, the prime area of disagreement remaining in bargaining.
  • Asked faculty to let students receive semester grades based on work completed before the strike, even if assignments with significant weight in the syllabus — and significant student work — were due after the strike began.
  • Asked at least some department heads to become instructors of record or hire non-union graders, including for hundreds of students in courses where they and likely graders have little to no expertise.
  • Threatened international students with deportation if they participated in the strike.

This is happening as the university is led by an interim president whose area of research is precisely around paid leave.

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Observations from a doctoral research forum

ASU’s EdD program students are great in describing problems of practice and focused in tackling them. That’s part of what I learned last Thursday night, when I welcomed dozens of ASU doctoral students, faculty, and several guests to the fall Doctoral Research Forum on the ASU West campus.

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Beyond the Borg Fallacy in higher-ed discussions

I will forgive Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc’s references to Clayton Christensen and disruption because LeBlanc’s Finding New Business Models article largely ignores Christensen’s ilk.1 We need to get beyond the disruption rhetoric’s Borg Fallacy, the belief that a particular form of change is inevitable (aka “resistance is futile”). LeBlanc points out that the fragmentation of higher education in the United States is critical to understanding its challenges. That fragmentation means that the correct questions revolve around what the role of specific institutions and sectors can be. And that selection can only happen if we ignore Christensen’s universalistic claim that Disruption is Here. If resistance truly is futile, institutions have no choices but only a single path.2

As an example of where he usefully ignores Christensen, LeBlanc points to the abortive attempt in 2012 to fire the University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, a move reportedly taken over her reluctance to move at warp speed on MOOCs and whatever else hit a few major donors’ fancy. LeBlanc observes that UVA’s position in higher education revolves around residential undergraduate students and networking, and that the deep error of UVA’s Board of Visitors in 2012 was to misunderstand the role of the university. This critique is close in substance to Siva Vaidyanathan’s analysis at the time.3 And both LeBlanc and Vaidyanathan are right: Helen Dragas and her allies had no clue what they were talking about in pushing UVA to invest heavily in MOOCs as a logical strategy.

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  1. Passing references and one weird chart do not count. []
  2. I will skip for now the common criticisms of Christensen as either a business historian or visionary, except to observe that there is something deeply flawed about a theory that first claims a driving logic of change, a sort of hipster capitalist version of Marxist materialism, and then uses improvisational, contingent business history to confirm that deterministic logic. []
  3. Okay, Vaidyanathan was much snarkier, and funnier, and sharper in his critique of public-university governance by political appointees. But both he and LeBlanc point out that the Board of Visitors didn’t have their act together in understanding UVA’s elite position and reputational reliance on the residential undergraduate experience. []

Mandates don’t matter; power does

One more short piece on the midterm elections. I do not care whether a 4% (or 8% or 12%) margin of victory in a 25% (or 35%) turnout translates into something pundits love to call mandates. That’s a foolish concept for a number of reasons, but most importantly is this: elections are not designed to deliver ideological domination. That may only happen in retrospect (or may not: the 1936 victory of Franklin Roosevelt was followed by his disastrous entry into 1938 politics).

The main purpose of elections is to decide who has power afterwards. It does not matter if you win the presidency by 5 million votes or 537; what matters is whether you have all the legal authority and power structure of the Oval Office. If you doubt me, ask President Gore.

Or, if you really think the margin of victory matters more than which party holds the governor’s mansion or state legislature, assume for a moment that you accidentally won office; for some reason, you are a minor state official and some clerical error in state law placed you as the successor to a governor who was just appointed as a Cabinet officer in Washington. You’re told by the state’s Attorney General that, yes, you are governor. Complete accident, as far as you were concerned, but it’s the law.

How much would your decisions be made on the basis of that accident, or would you make the very best decisions you could, according to your best judgment?

That is why mandates do not matter. After an election, people who have power will (and should) try to exercise it to the fullest. And the rest of us kibitz and push back when appropriate.

Election results and education (brief version)

A few cynical thoughts after the 2014 election, focusing on education politics:

  • Get ready for Higher Ed Act and ESEA reauthorization! Er, or not. Wasn’t happening before the election, likely won’t happen in the next two years, either.
  • Ignore “the decline of” chatter, all of which is post-election punditry equivalent of a November 1 candy binge. Well-resourced, politically-oriented groups don’t disappear because they lose a single election, or even several. This holds whether you are talking about teachers unions in general, reformy campaigns in California, or any national political party. “I’ll be back!” may not be true for individual candidates, but “We’ll be back!” is a reasonably good bet for organizations over the medium term.
  • The closest statewide elections in both California and Arizona were the state superintendencies. In both cases, the majority party picked up the downballot race. Yeah, I know, you’d like to talk about the huge money spent in California and the professor-vs.-tea-partier match in Arizona, but at a first glance the dynamics were about tickets. (Update 11/6/14: enough late ballots are still uncounted to make the Arizona superintendent race still uncertain. Douglas is still likely to have her lead confirmed.)
  • State budgets are going to drive a good deal of education policy over the next few years. With a moderately-weak recovery, as well as different policy structures, states are diverging in their budget outlooks. That matters. Just to pick my last two states of residence, Florida was able to put more money into K-12 education in the current fiscal-year budget, while Arizona is struggling and will continue to struggle. The one pundit-oriented conclusion I can endorse for Arizona is that whoever was elected governor was going to have budget woes abosrb all of the oxygen for the next few years. With a court system’s battling with the legislature over K-12 funding, that will dominate discussion in my new state.