Too Big to Fail

Using the new hotness that is the Stream of Tweets™,  I've been teasing out some thoughts about higher ed on Twitter. I want to compile them here for ease of finding later when I develop more, because I've got some career news coming up that will relate. Here goes:

Universities are just too big. Common popular analysis and hot takes often pin University problems and failure on a proliferation of administrative legions. That's a thing, but I'm pretty sure that's just a symptom. As a vocation, higher ed has made at least two big and potentially fatal errors.

First was to turn to growth as the main path to stability/relevance. (That first one I know for sure. The second mistake I'm still teasing out.) Second is a general refusal to allow for competitive consequence. That is to say, most Universities act as though certain programs are Too Big To Fail. Take filmmaking for example, because that's my original field.

It might be common to say "no truly excellent institution could exist without a filmmaking program." Anyone in that field currently in one would say that. Obviously. Let's say the faculty are left to run such a filmmaking program, and they do a great job. Lots of students, lots of impact, high placement. Yay! Program grows because economics.

Let's say a different faculty run it poorly and screw it up. Bad decisions, bad management, enrollments drop, it becomes too expensive to maintain. If it goes on too long, one ought to dissolve it right? Place the tenured faculty elsewhere to teach because they still generate value and knowledge. But the unit failed. Dissolve it and try again with a new idea. But that wouldn't happen. Because "no truly excellent institution wouldn't have that program." So the unit stays, it gets subsidized by units that haven't failed. Not a huge problem.

Now what happens if that example unit is, say (and this in hypothetical so no one freak out) English. Or Chemistry. You can't imagine dissolving a unit like that, can you? Too Big To Fail. What does Too Big To Fail really mean in this context? It means "our accreditation agency and the Dept of Ed would not allow us to remain accredited if Program X were dissolved and reformed in new ways."

These two Fatal Errors lead to many maladaptive behaviors. First, nearly EVERYTHING is considered Too Big (Important, Ethically Central) to Fail. Because of this there's little incentive to design programs that are truly resilient: they'll exist perpetually, subsidized by other programs. But that's not economically scalable. Over time administrators stop trusting faculty to do meaningful planning and governance. All planning becomes centralized. And why not? If sick units have to be subsidized, someone has to figure out that economy because it's huge.

Faculty forget how to truly govern at the local level. Everything is controlled form above. In state schools this is micromanaged by legislatures that pass more laws to prescribe actions. Mandated actions require more bureaucrats to manage. More administration. Costs surge. Faculty resent massive superstructure dictating everything. They withdraw to their individual research. Those who don't withdraw, who want to make improvements can't, unless they become... you guessed it. Adminstrators. But at the administrative levels, and oh there are many, you can't really make needed massive changes because of the cardinal two errors: all things must serve perpetual growth, and sick units can never dissolve.

I've got a lot more about this. It's complicated. But I think there's things that could save the idea of higher ed. Maybe not "nuke it from orbit" solutions (which sound awfully good sometimes). More "mammals eating dinosaur eggs" things.