• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Pangloss, Plato and Progress

Why experiments are hardest when they're the most necessary.

July 27, 2020

Tim Harford, the economist and author, has a pretty good piece on why people resist experiments. Some of the objections he notes are rooted in ethical concerns about the impact of the experiment, but many of them are based on a false confidence that we already know the inevitable result. If we already know that, say, students will lie when they self-report their readiness for college-level work, then why bother trying it? (The answer, of course, is that what we think we know is often incorrect. John Hetts has noted that students in California who self-place wind up more successful than those who take placement tests.)

I’d add another objection, one that has smacked me in the face more than once. It’s a failure of imagination, or, put differently, a Panglossian belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, so any deviation from it can only presage decline. This version of Panglossianism is more fatalistic than optimistic, though. It’s almost Platonic. In this version of the story, things are getting worse across the board, so the job of the keepers of the flame is to hold the line as tragic heroes until the inevitable collapse to the forces of barbarism, preferably after said flame keepers have retired.

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If you equate change with decline, then any sort of experiment is dangerous, by definition. The timeless truths are already known in full; anything new is inherently suspect. These are the folks who like to throw around pejoratives like “flavor of the month” or “the latest fad.” When pressed, they’ll either invoke a lost Golden Age (usually coinciding with their own young adulthoods) or simply deny that the truths are even in question.

On the other hand, if you assume that this is not the best of all possible worlds, then experiments may hold the promise of better days ahead. They may not, of course -- that’s why they’re experiments -- but the possibility exists. When it comes to matters like graduation rate gaps by race, the possibility of improvement creates a moral imperative to try.

Unfortunately, when budgets get tight, each side confirms its priors. Those who lament decline point to the very real sacrifices driven by budget cuts and say, “See?” Those who think the current system is failing and we need to try new things point to the latest failings and say, “See?” And the two groups talk past each other.

Right now, public higher education is facing crises beyond anything it has faced in its history. To my way of thinking, the crisis is a slam-dunk argument that we need to try new things. But emotionally, many people respond by clinging ever more tightly to the past.

Experiments risk failure. That makes them potentially expensive; you need to be able to absorb the costs of failure. In flush times or locations, that may be relatively easy. Stanford can afford a Design Thinking Lab, because Stanford can afford almost anything. If it works, that’s great; if not, it can move on to the next thing without much damage. Most public colleges are struggling just to break even; they can’t afford experiments that don’t work. (“Performance funding” makes that dynamic even worse; “accountability” presumes that the task is fully defined, and the only question at hand is execution.) The very moments that call the loudest for new approaches actually make those new approaches more difficult to develop.

My own fear for public higher education is that it’s so busy managing the current emergency -- playing defense, essentially -- that it will lose sight of the larger story. Yes, COVID has brought a host of new challenges that nobody anticipated, but it’s not like things were going along swimmingly before that. We already had decades of disinvestment, serious labor issues, real demographic challenges in some regions, a student loan crisis and increased use of higher ed as a political football. COVID came on top of all of those. When the pandemic finally fades, as it has in most of the rest of the developed world, we’ll still have those underlying trends to face.

I know folks are tired. I have my moments, too. And there’s no getting around the need to plug holes when you’re taking on water. But as a sector, we need to start taking chances. Given the choice between possible success and certain failure, I’ll take possible success. I just refuse to believe this is the best of all possible worlds.


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