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  • The Toughest Job in America?

    Posted by David Foster on May 24th, 2018 (All posts by )

    Admiral William McRaven, who is retiring as Chancellor of the University of Texas system, asserted that  “Leading a university or health institution is ‘the toughest job in the nation.'”

    McRaven was for many years a SEAL leader, with his career culminating in planning and overseeing the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

    I’d suggest that, if leading a university (and for this post, I’ll be focusing on that part of the admiral’s statement rather than the healthcare part) is harder that leading major special-forces operations against determined enemies…then something is very wrong.

    Mind you, I’m not saying he’s incorrect.  Indeed, I’d go further: except for certain niche institutions, the job of university president or chancellor may now not just be difficult, but impossible.  Impossible, that is, if you look at success in terms of generating reasonable positive educational results within a reasonably positive culture, not just keeping one’s job.

    And this situation is largely the result of the poor performance of several generations of previous university administrators. There has been overselling of what universities are offering..increasingly including graduate studies…as the only key to success in American societies.  There has been encouragement of students to sign up for very large loans, without the kind of disclosure of risks that would be required for any other kind of large investment; coupled with the first point, this has resulted in many people being on campus who shouldn’t be there at all and/or aren’t taking their education very seriously. There has been in many cases a lack of attention to the mission of teaching.  There has been a lack of respect for civil liberties of both students and professors, a tolerance of intimidation tactics by students, professors, and outside parties, and an encouragement of organizations and ‘fields of study’ that are by their very nature hostile to the notion of an academic community.  And there has been little pushback against intrusive regulation from government, as long as funding is at stake.

    True, not all university administrators have conducted themselves in the manner described above, but enough have that American higher education as a whole has become increasingly toxic.  And when a culture has become sufficiently toxic, it is very difficult for even the best leader to implement meaningful change.

     

    29 Responses to “The Toughest Job in America?”

    1. Mike K Says:

      The problem of Deans is the Faculty.

      Our medical school dean once said, “A Dean is to the faculty what a fireplug is to a dog.”

      The faculties of universities since the Vietnam War have gone hard left. I actually think the war had a lot to do with it. Left wing students cowered in grad school while more conservative students went to Vietnam People still forget, or never knew, that something like 70% of the soldiers in Vietnam were volunteers.

      The left wing students stayed there in grad school and, by the end of the war, were assistant professors with PhDs, many in useless fields or Humanities. Now 40 years later, we are dealing with the results of that shift and the second generation of professors is even more leftist than the Vietnam generation.

      What is a dean to do? Even worse is a president of the U. He has all the deans and the faculty advocating ridiculous things and, if he refuses, you have the Larry Summers scene again.

      Here is one theory about Summers that says more than it knows.

      From my discussions with senior faculty who were at Harvard at the time (I was there as a graduate researcher), the factors that led to Larry Summers stepping down at Harvard were several fold; however, the underlying cause was that Larry Summers was attempting to shift the core of undergraduate education away from the Arts and Humanities and into Science and Engineering. This was part of his strategic vision for the future of Harvard that included moving much of the sciences to the Allston campus (in hindsight, probably a mistake). A lot of the discontentment from senior faculty mentioned in the other posts were from departments that were losing power/importance in this transition. Prof. Summers was like a bull in a china shop of delicate academic egos and made many impolitic gestures towards some well-known faculty members, questioning their course content, grade inflation, and the level of academic quality — this is essentially an ad hominem attack upon faculty members and their departments. This bolstered his image of being an arrogant ass (which isn’t a total stretch on a polite day).

      The comment about women was probably part of this.

      Why would a president want to shift emphasis and resources to science ?

      Maybe he wants to be president of a serious U. Couldn’t be.

    2. David Foster Says:

      Summers doesn’t sound like he has a whole lot of emotional intelligence….important in all executive jobs, but especially where formal power is relatively weak and the ability to manage by influence is accordingly critical.

    3. Brian Says:

      Every single faculty member thinks that they answer only to God. How do you manage a place like that?

      The fact is that the university system evolved over centuries to train a very small number of professionals–first the clergy, then a few others such as law, medicine, then much later the physical sciences. It was never intended to serve as a place for the majority of the population to get certified in any imaginable field, and trying to change it to that mission in a single generation was bound to be a disaster.

      (P.S., I have no affection for Harvard or Harvard graduates, but I actually don’t think it should become a training ground for scientists and engineers. That strikes me–someone with a PhD in a hard science–as a betrayal of its history.)

    4. Mike K Says:

      It was never intended to serve as a place for the majority of the population to get certified in any imaginable field,

      That was high school. I saw an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal about 30 years ago, front page left side which used to be the serious spot.

      It was about high schools in the early 20th century. They were supposed to train tradesmen types in mathematics and technical trades that were needed in a modern economy.

      High schools are pretty useless now. A few good ones have calculus and real chemistry but so many don’t even have serious algebra and geometry. Part of the problem is that education majors are now the bottom quintile of college students.

      We should go back to “normal colleges” that taught teachers and get rid of Education Departments in Universities.

      Normal schools, like the one Lyndon Johnson graduated from, should be free. If teaches did not have student loans there would be less agitation for more money for schools.

      Personally, I don’t think there should be student loans for non-STEM majors. The student loan program began as National Defense Student Loan Program.

      The universities would go bankrupt but that is going to happen, anyway,

    5. David Foster Says:

      Brian–“I have no affection for Harvard or Harvard graduates, but I actually don’t think it should become a training ground for scientists and engineers. That strikes me–someone with a PhD in a hard science–as a betrayal of its history.”

      Agreed. But Harvard, and all serious liberal arts colleges, should have a core curriculum which includes a reasonable level of science, math, and technology.

      How many college graduates today could even explain how a car engine works?…I don’t mean at any level of detail, but even at a the-piston goes down-and-sucks-the-air-in-and-then-it-goes-up-and-compresses-everything level.

      What does a typical politician (Al Gore, for example) visualize when he hears the term “mathematical model”? Maybe a scantily-clothed girl with algebraic symbols strategically placed?

    6. Mike K Says:

      Harvard was a divinity school, like Yale.

      The medical school was proprietary until almost 1900.

      I could see the school educating the children of the rich, as they used to do, in English Literature and Poetry. History maybe.

      MIT is good, CalTech (where I was accepted but did not have the money to go, is better.

      Few colleges are worth the money spent.

    7. Gringo Says:

      Mike K
      High schools are pretty useless now. A few good ones have calculus and real chemistry but so many don’t even have serious algebra and geometry. Part of the problem is that education majors are now the bottom quintile of college students.

      Those who pass the teacher certification tests for teaching high school are NOT in the bottom quintile.Ed Schools and Affirmative Action. Math and Science teachers who passed certification tests have SAT Math scores higher than the average college graduate. Social studies, Foreign Languages and English teachers who passed teacher certification tests have SAT Verbal tests higher than the average college graduate.

      From Figure 21: SAT Math scores by licensing areas for those passing Praxis (teacher certification) tests. College graduates who took the Math SAT averaged 542. Math teachers averaged around 590. Science teachers averaged about 570. ( I am reading off a graph, so these are estimates.) Elementary Ed teachers were below the average at around 480.

      From Figure 20: SAT Verbal scores by licensing areas for those passing Praxis (teacher certification) tests. College graduates who took the Verbal SAT averaged 543. English teachers averaged around 570 on the SAT Verbal, Science teachers averaged about 570. Foreign language teachers averaged around 560. Social studies teachers averaged around 550. Elementary ed teachers were below average, around 505.

      Education Realist has an interesting blog.

    8. Mrs. Davis Says:

      Mitch Daniels seems to be making it look easy in West Lafayette. Perhaps he could handle the White House.

    9. Anonymous Says:

      Gringo, I’m not sure we are disagreeing. The last I checked, Ed majors were in the bottom quintile, which is quite different from the days when I was in college.

      When Pete Wilson was CA governor, he went on a campaign to reduce class size and a lot of teachers were hired.

      There was a test they had to pass called CBEST. My ex-wife, who had a lifetime teaching credential and who had just been laid off in a bank merger from her VP job, took the test and worked for 6 months as a long term sub.

      She said the test was 8th grade level. The LA Times was full of complaints that he test was racist and too difficult.

      She said the changes from her days teaching (1965) were appalling. The teachers ridiculed the kids. This was a lower middle class district east of LA.

      Mitch Daniels would be a good president but his wife left him when he was in politics and returned a few years ago.

      I think he has other priorities.

      Tucson teachers just were on strike. The school district is trying to sell a vacant school to developers to prevent a charter school from buying the building. Two of my grandkids are in charter school now, a huge improvement over the public school they were in.

      I wish I could afford to send them to private school, like I did their father, but I have less money and private schools in California have gotten to astronomical tuition levels.

    10. Mike K Says:

      It did it again !

      The comments function is really messed up.

    11. Brian Says:

      Regarding your penultimate paragraph, Ike nailed it in his farewell address:
      “Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
      In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
      Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
      The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.
      Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

    12. David Foster Says:

      From Ike’s address: “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.”

      Yet the heyday of the solitary or small-team inventor/entrepreneur was just about to get started. Intel was founded in 1968, Microsoft in 1975, and Apple in 1976.

      No such escape from working under institutional wings occurred in the academic world. (although many business entrepreneurs were themselves former academics)

    13. DirtyJobsGuy Says:

      Never neglect the cost factor. We are at a junction where education at all levels has become a jobs program. There is no reason a true liberal arts college needs to cost a lot. No labs, what should be low overhead, and little else. But everyone thinks they can price like its a status signaling resort for the rich like Middlebury. State schools will have to face this first because they cannot hike prices at will. Not even a good sports team can stop the pressure to lower costs from the public.

    14. David Foster Says:

      As an interesting cost comparison: You can go from *never having flow an airplane* all the way to holder of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate for about $70,000.

      https://www.vt-aaa.com/fixed-cost-tuition-for-pilot-program/

      This includes a lot of one-on-one instructional time (the actual in-airplane or in-simulator time) as well as the usage of the airplanes and simulators.

    15. David Foster Says:

      A talk by Jonathan Haidt on academic focus on Truth versus academic focus on Change. He argues that we need to have a schism: some universities (Brown) should just go and focus on “social justice”, etc, whereas others (Chicago) should focus explicitly on Truth.

      A good discussion of what he calls Motivated Reasoning.

      At NeoNeocon, where there is a comment thread:

      http://www.neoneocon.com/2018/05/25/jonathan-haidt-on-the-extreme-important-of-opinion-diversity-to-challenge-motivated-reasoning/#comments

    16. Brian Says:

      “He argues that we need to have a schism”
      OK, so who is “we”? America is unique among countries in that our higher education system is incredibly large and diverse and flexible. For our first century and a half or so, when someone thought there some sort of university that wasn’t being met, they just founded a new one with that mission. If it didn’t attract students, it failed. If it could, it thrived. Government intervention has completely broken the system. If you want change, I’d propose to entirely eliminate government payments and subsidies for private universities, and a radical, near-total reduction in government research funding for universities as wel.

    17. David Foster Says:

      “Government intervention has completely broken the system”…true, also there is excessive credentialism among organizations doing hiring. NewUniversity may actually have a better MBA program than Harvard, but how many companies would be willing to take a chance on a graduate of the former vs the latter?

      It probably takes at least a couple of decades for a universities “Brand” value to rise or fall to match its actual educational value.

    18. ErisGuy Says:

      I was taught to make a difficult problem simpler by breaking it down into smaller parts. Let’s break up the UT system, making each campus independent and divide the endowment evenly among them.

    19. MCS Says:

      At the time Harvard was founded, both Mathematics and science as Natural Philosophy were important parts of the “Liberal Arts”. I believe that this continued until around 1950. A good indicator would be when Calculus disappeared from the required courses for a B.A.

      I’m afraid that the same sort of thing is happening in STEM. Engineering is learned by doing engineering, finding an answer that solves a problem and being able to convince the money people that you’re right. No one will pay for all the equations you memorized, but they will pay for looking up the right equation when it’s needed. An answer within 10% today is worth infinitely more than 3 decimal places next year.

      When the details of the Texas A&M bonfire collapse became known. I was working with an outspoken Agie. I asked him seriously; how could a school that presented itself as one of the premier engineering schools in the world have allowed something so patently unsafe to become a tradition, he was at as big a loss as I was. This wasn’t some sort of casual wood pile, cranes and high lifts were hired.

      The real scandal and crisis is that less than 30% of High School “graduates” can score as “proficient” on tests that are probably what those of us educated in the 60’s and before would consider 5th grade at best. Why are we spending tens of thousands of dollars per student per year and achieving ever poorer results? Why do we expect that spending more will change the results?

      At the beginning of the 20th century, Normal School was intended to qualify graduates to teach High School. A High School degree was considered adequate for elementary grades.

    20. Mike K Says:

      Why are we spending tens of thousands of dollars per student per year and achieving ever poorer results? Why do we expect that spending more will change the results?

      Because colleges are now an industry employing millions of non-teaching people who less interested in learning than they are in fatter paychecks and enticing children to go heavily into debt, often debt they will never repay, to fund those paychecks.

      If colleges were required to accept liability for 50% of delinquent student loan debt, you would see reform in a hurry.

    21. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      The situation may be worse than Admiral McRaven suggests. Rather than leading a university being the toughest job in the nation … it may be an impossible job.

      Management guru Peter Drucker appears to have written only one short book in his life — along with a shelf-full of long tomes. The short book was “The Effective Executive” (1966), sparked initially by his experiences in the World War II conversion of US civilian manufacturing to military production. It is still highly relevant and worth reading today. In Chapter 4, Drucker notes that the effective executive is “forever on guard against the ‘impossible’ job”. He goes on to state: “The presidency of a large university in the United States is … such an impossible job”. In Drucker’s view, this is the kind of job that has to be redesigned.

      The situation with universities can only have gotten worse since Drucker’s 1960s view — with Political Correctness causing university presidents to be selected mainly based on gender & skin pigmentation. It is hard to realize that university presidents were once highly regarded, as – for example – when General Eisenhower was president of Columbia University.

    22. Ginny Says:

      Re: The Bonfire: https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/4872.html
      Jonathan married a wonderful woman who lived with us and he’s a great person. His argument, as I remember, was that it was another of those let’s make rules and not consider human nature in terms of consequences. He was on the faculty senate when it came down and his background was in cultural geography. The senate had a few years before decided the bonfire was getting out of hand – too big – so they ruled that the base could not go beyond a certain size. That meant that each Aggie generation – wanting to outdo the one before – began making it too high. The memorial is a 3 or 4 blocks from our house. The students built it – but the school was getting larger and some institutional memory was likely to be lost.

      A&M has always prided itself on building leaders, etc. so it gives a lot more room for students to take responsibility (as in the student-run science fiction celebration and building the now-forbidden bonfire). At least some of that tradition remains, even with the bonfire gone. Without faculty supervision 5000 gather once a week for Bible study, they turned out in ratios 100 to 3 (next to other colleges) to plant trees after the fire destroyed a forest between here and San Marcos. This is a school of action – UT is more one of contemplation. The Corps remains important to its sense of self. (And if an Aggie has a different # for some of this, take their word.)

      This is beside Foster’s point – but I’ve got to say that I suspect UT is ungovernable and has been since before I started grad school there in 1971. Silber had just left and the battles over turf had not settled down – but according to Ronnie Dugger’s (progressive) book, they hardly began or ended then. My husband and I had come from different land grant schools and felt considerable pride in that tradition; the English departments were full of people who loved literature, teaching it with an awe and analytic appreciation that made classes a joy. At UT we found an immensely better library and both of us pretty much liked the committees that guided us through our studies, but I think Spindletop was more a curse than a blessing. We were more naïve than most (especially those that had been there through the late 60’s) but politics within the departments was heavy and affected the atmosphere, our classes, our work.

      I wonder how much better college education would be today if loans had not been encouraged, guaranteed; if Viet Nam hadn’t led to grade inflation; if. . . well, if post modernism had been shunted aside because it undermined that great joy we’d known before. Gratitude and humility before the art and thinkers taught was soon considered quaint.

      They say oil is the devil’s excrement, but perhaps any too easy money is a problem. Of course, the jobs for ph.ds disappeared – but lunch with a demographer in 1971 or so might have led some departments to consider keeping tenure track faculty teaching lower level classes and limited the burgeoning grad depts. And some of this is from the influence of business schools and belief greater prestige came from administrative jobs. There’s nothing wrong with business – I learned more creating a business and keeping it going than from the equal time in college. But it is not the same and the values can translate well in the big picture but not in the particulars. Oh, well.

      I’m not sure anyone here is especially interested in the fall of the humanities – but they were not always as you see them now.

    23. David Foster Says:

      Ginny…fall of the humanities:

      Tom Watson Jr of IBM, in his autobiography, mentioned another executive whom he greatly admired, the man had worked his way up from a rough coal-mining background into a top management position. When Tom Jr asked him how he had done it, his friend replied that his self-improvement program had had three elements:

      1–read the classics
      2–listen to classical music (and opera, I think he said)
      3–buy suits at Brooks Brothers

      This would have been in the 1940s or 1950s. It’s hard to imagine what the current equivalent might be….listen to TED talks?

    24. Mike K Says:

      I wonder how much better college education would be today if loans had not been encouraged, guaranteed; if Viet Nam hadn’t led to grade inflation

      Student loans began as “National Defense” student loans. When I applied for one to do pre-med in 1960, coming back to school from engineering, I couldn’t get one. Pre-med was not an approved major. English Literature was, interestingly enough. So I was an English major while I did pre-med as electives.

      Vietnam. I think, was a fundamental factor in the destruction of college. The leftist students hiding from the draft stayed in grad school and became the first leftist generation of professors. The more conservative/traditionalist students went to Vietnam or went into the reserves.

      It was the leftists who stayed in school.

      I think the loans have had a terrible effect on society. Of my five kids, the one who owns a nice home is the one who does not have a degree. I paid for the BS or BA for each. Him, I gave a down payment on a nice condo in lieu of college. He has ridden the appreciation of housing in California to a home that is probably worth a million dollars.

      The others all went to grad school, two to law school, and are still paying student loans.

    25. Gringo Says:

      Mike K
      There was a test they had to pass called CBEST. My ex-wife, who had a lifetime teaching credential and who had just been laid off in a bank merger from her VP job, took the test and worked for 6 months as a long term sub.
      She said the test was 8th grade level. The LA Times was full of complaints that he test was racist and too difficult.

      The difficulty of teacher certification tests has varied over the years. The Education Realist link in my comment discusses that. ER points out that there is currently not any affirmative action in teacher certification tests.

      In any event, that link – and my comment- discussed SAT scores of teachers who passed the certification tests. Go back and look at those scores. In short, certified STEM, English, and Social Studies high school teachers have SAT scores related to their respective certifications that are above the average for the SATs for college grads. Not so for elementary and Special Ed.
      That renders your anecdote about the CBEST irrelevant.

    26. Mike K Says:

      “That renders your anecdote about the CBEST irrelevant.”

      Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. You apparently don’t want to discuss it.

      My grandson’s 4th grade teacher told his mother that she could not do the math problems using Common Core math, either,

      Just another anecdote.

    27. Anonymous Says:

      Sure, the classics help. A fascinating book on Lincoln contended that it was Euclid that made him a great lawyer – he lost his cases, then went home and worked on Euclid for a few months, went back and started winning all his cases. I’m not sure that works for everybody but all of us can use some sense of how to prove our hypotheses. (I tend to do it with one or two anecdotes, which, as my children observe, may move closer to prejudice than reasoning.) But the depth of beauty of his style and thinking surely owes most to the Bible.

      I am afraid that if you want to sound like someone who has pursued the humanities for the last decades you need to throw in some Foucault and Derrida. Two of the Peterson dialogues or debates (with Paglia and with Dyson) demonstrate how these are often the “dog whistles” – in her case, she sees it negatively and Dyson tries to use it to certify his position as black intellectual.)

      This doesn’t answer your question. And I don’t know. At one time reading Shakespeare would in itself demonstrate a refined taste but it isn’t a bad place to go for the understanding of human nature. But isn’t that what Newman meant? That a good liberal education gives us a broader horizon on the big truths of human nature and virtue?

      When I was an undergraduate, no classes in literature past 1900 were counted toward our major (they could be taken as electives) and no theory courses were even offered to undergraduates. (Of course, I entered in 1963 so the 1900 cut off made more sense then than now.) The effect of those, along with requirements in Shakespeare and Chaucer, gave us a broader horizon.

      Off-topic: I tend to idealize what I don’t understand or know, I suspect. I thought it would be great if my middle daughter went to St. John’s, so she spent the weekend there that they required. She listened to VDH, a writer she knew from going with her father to one of his talks at A&M, and liked much about it, but returned saying she knew she would be a different person when she left but somehow going to a college whose sports rivalry was in croquet with Annapolis just seemed too precious. She might never go to a game but thought UT was more how she thought of a college. So, she didn’t learn Greek or study Euclid, but she did learn Czech. And neither she nor her parents were in hock for it.

    28. Gringo Says:

      “That renders your anecdote about the CBEST irrelevant.”
      Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. You apparently don’t want to discuss it.

      I suggest you read the Education Realist article I linked to and get back with me. Look at the SAT graphs.

      My grandson’s 4th grade teacher told his mother that she could not do the math problems using Common Core math, either,
      Ed Schools are a disaster- and have been since before you were born, judging from the comments of my relatives who attended teachers’ colleges- which would be nearly all of my parents’ generation. Unproven teaching fad after unproven teaching fad. My experience in the ’90s also led me to disparage Ed Schools.

    29. Brian Says:

      https://twitter.com/wretchardthecat/status/1001268189026701312
      The purpose of an education is not to make you feel safe but to get you ready. Unless it accomplishes this goal it’s useless.