Does the UW System Need A Business Leader at the Helm?

Should the UW System look for a business leader to be its next president?  John Torinus poses this idea as a means to transform the UW system, arguing that “Business leaders are more inclined to be clear-eyed and hard-nosed about the need for strategic turn-arounds or transformations.”  Full disclosure, I am an employee of the UW system and hence have skin in the game, but Torinus’s premise is faulty.  The let’s run government like a business trope is built on an incomplete understanding of both the public and private sectors.

First, the assumption that private sector is more effective and efficient by virtue of being the private sector is plain wrong.  Private businesses fail all the time.  While the profit-motive gives private business a clear goal, i.e. maximizing profit, having a clear goal is no guarantee of success.  I am not reflexively opposed to a business leader running the UW system, but I do reject the premise that the system can only be transformed by a business leader.  A poorly matched leader will hurt the system regardless of where they come from.

Second, public sector shareholders are an open group (everyone owns a share), as opposed to the closed group of shareholders in a private corporation.  As such, the leader of the UW system must take into account equity, transparency, and minority rights in ways that a private business leader does not.  A university system will do things that lack clear economic rationale as a result of being a public entity.  This is not a weakness, but a key attribute of being an organization serving the public at-large.

Third, the UW system (and any public organization) lacks the clear market signals of a private corporation.  Failure is not always obvious because the stream of public and customer funding will continue (to some degree) in both good and bad times.  Leadership in a system without clear market signals requires a very different skillset than leadership over a private corporation.  To say nothing of the unique dual task of managing over a complicated bureaucracy populated with employees enjoying strong job protections, while at the same time being managed by an unpredictable politics.

Fourth, and this is the public management professor in me, but it drives me nuts that the very specific and well-developed field of public administration is ignored in these calls for running the UW system like a business.  Running a public organization is a very specific challenge that requires a very specific skillset.  We have assets throughout the system who are nationally-known experts on new public management, public governance, public budgeting, performance measurements, social equity, and so much more that is directly relevant to the business of running the UW system.  Assuming a business leader is more apt to be clear-eyed about what is needed is at odds with so much work being done right here in the UW system!

To be clear, I do not think picking a private sector leader to lead the UW system is an inherently bad idea any more than I think it is a good idea.  But I do know that assuming positive reform is only possible with a business leader is wrong.  My hope is that the next leader of our system is a good fit regardless of where they come from, and that the talent and expertise in our system is utilized as the asset it is.

Rethinking the UW System

I was recently asked on twitter what a restructuring of the UW system would look like.  I did not have an immediate answer (and still lack specifics), but I wanted to start by articulating some values.  I find it helpful to articulate broad values as a first step toward creating specific policies.  Failure to do that results in confused policies that will conflict with one another.  So what should be the dominant values in a restructured UW system?

  • The Wisconsin Idea. This is an easy one because it already defined as the idea “that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”  I like this because it clearly states that part of our jobs as faculty and administrators in a public system is to be outward facing.  It also precludes us from existing solely for job training.
  • Academic Excellence. If we are putting out a sub-par product for our customers, what is the point of our existence?
  • Specialization. It is ok for some universities to have strengths and offerings that others do not have. It is ok for there to be multiple paths to tenure.  It is ok to have research and teaching expectations that are individualized.
  • Adequate Financial Support. I know, adequate is a loaded term, but any of us in the system right now can tell you what adequate does not look like.  Adequate support also ensures tuition remains affordable for students.
  • Adequate Flexibility. This is both an external issue, i.e. a question of state mandates, as well as an internal issue, i.e. the nature of the university bureaucracy.  To be more efficient and effective universities and departments need the freedom to make our own decisions as well as the freedom to innovate.
  • Equitable Financial Support. This refers to some of the inequities in support between campuses.  For example, there are two R1 Universities in Wisconsin but only one that gets treated that way.  I also think some of this is reflected in philanthropic support, I wish there was more thoughtful discussion about how resources can be distributed in ways that strengthen the system as a whole.
  • More Utilization of Campus Resources. What do I mean by that?  Well, this too is a two-way street.  Faculty have so much to offer the state in terms of having a practical positive impact on government and industry, yet we are underutilized.  At the same time, we need to be aggressive about making our abilities and willingness to contribute known.
  • Talent Generation. We want to graduate well-rounded students that are assets to Wisconsin.
  • Collaboration over Competition. In tough financial times every UW system school had the same plan: Increase enrollments.  We cannot all not be successful.  More collaboration between campuses, more cooperate diploma programs, less duplication, and more willingness to view each other as assets as opposed to competitors is needed.  What do I mean by less duplication?  I look at it this way, why have two underfunded struggling programs at two geographically close campuses when we can have one well-funded cooperative program active on both?

I do not have a monopoly on good ideas, and I am sure I am missing things, but I hope others are thinking about this too.  We have a challenging situation in the UW system, but we also have so much talent, and so many great things going on.  I think we can leverage the good stuff to proactively address the challenges.

Having a Chip on Your Shoulder

I saw a recent tweet discussing the motivation that comes from being an academic with a chip on their shoulder. I agree completely. There are many things I love about working in academia. I have the freedom to follow research ideas of my choosing, some pan out, some don’t, but I get to pursue them. I get to learn something every single day. Sometimes from students, sometimes from colleagues, sometimes from books and articles, and even sometimes from myself. Research and teaching is challenging, fun, and interesting. In short, I know I have it good. Many never get to the tenure track, much less tenure.

But…and there is a but…it is not an easy road, and if I am honest, yes, I have a massive chip on my shoulder. When I hear people talk about multiple fly outs I think about how I applied for 50+ positions at R1 institutions and never even got a phone interview. I have had 3 interviews total, including where I am at. When I hear people say that it is all about publications, I cannot help but compare my record to people who did get those interviews, and who did get those jobs. When folks talk about their startup funds and their 1-2 teaching loads, I look at my 3-4 and barely functioning computer.

I will never forget the day I had an article rejected from a top PA journal on the grounds that the editor did not know who I was and thus did not trust the results. I remember the many conversations where well-meaning people advised me to not get stuck at a regional comprehensive university because it is career suicide. To be clear, I totally disagree with that assessment, but it is worth pointing out that such advice is unhelpful when R1s will not interview you.

I could go on, but who wants to hear my litany of complaints? The reality is just about every academic can share their own unique stories. When I hear tales of sexism and racism in the academy I realize my struggles are mild. When I meet colleagues who cannot sniff the tenure track despite great records I thank my lucky stars. I love PA because it is a field where we confront situations as they exist. Well, the academia is not always fair. The academia is not always a meritocracy. Perceived slights are not always slights. My read on situations is not always the correct one.

So, I try to recognize and use that chip on my shoulder. How? I work relentlessly to publish where I can when I can. I say yes to opportunities when they present themselves, and I am sure to be publicly thankful for them. I work hard to resist the urge to judge people by their publications or affiliations, instead recognizing that impact comes in many forms. I make an effort to be publicly facing so as to create a place where internal gatekeepers, be them at my institution or in my field, cannot stop me. In short, I try to make my impact where I can, and I try to focus on and appreciate how lucky I really am.

But yes, as petty as it is, I am still motivated by all of those R1s that wouldn’t interview me 🙂

Don’t Overthink it. The Issue is Gun Control

I was in high school when the Columbine shootings occurred. I attended a large suburban high school that did not seem all that dissimilar from Columbine. There was a palpable…maybe not fear…but discomfort in the halls in the days following the tragedy. An abstract fear had suddenly became something within the realm of possibility. Shortly after Columbine I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper urging school leaders to resist the urge to overreact with security measures that limited student freedom and autonomy. I believe I requested leaders to not turn our schools into a prison. Perhaps they took my advice because nothing changed.

I was living on the Southside of Milwaukee when a white supremacist murdered six people at a local Sikh temple. My wife baked cookies and we took them over to our neighbors who worshiped there.

The day I interviewed for my first academic job (the one I have) was the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. Between meetings I followed the details on my phone, I was shocked like everyone else, but also convinced that this is it. This was the tragedy that will finally open the policy window for action. The next day I returned to work at my conservative leaning think tank and penned a call for the right side of the aisle to embrace more common sense gun control. I received a little bit of pushback, but found people across the political spectrum willing to recognize we had a problem. Of course nothing changed.

In 2016 I wrote, in response to the Orlando massacre: “To me the best response to this tragedy is a steady commitment to our ideals as an open pluralistic society. If we as a nation lose that, we lose our very humanity.” After the Las Vegas shooting I had nothing to say.

Today I am once again writing about more mass shootings. I know that nothing I write will change anything, I write for me as part of my struggle to make sense of things. I can point fingers. I can blame incivility, I can blame mental illness, I can overthink it a million different ways. But one of the things that attracted me to public administration was the field’s commitment to addressing issues as they exist, not as we wish them to exist. Mental illness is part of the human condition. We can and should take steps to address it, but it will always exist. Incivility in our politics is something we can and should push to the fringes, but it will always exist to some degree.

The common denominator in all of these mass shootings is easy access to guns. The main difference between the U.S. and other similar democratic societies vis-à-vis mass shootings is they do not have easy access to the weapons used in mass shootings. The reasons these shootings occur are complex and I am not dismissing the role of mental illness, hate, and the like. But the simple direct issue that can be addressed through policy change is gun control. Not taking meaningful action because of our ideological loyalties is a choice we make as a society. The consequences of that choice will no doubt continue.

Teaching, Ambiguity, and Not Obsessing about APA Format

I have an affinity for ambiguity in teaching. I know this drives some students crazy, especially those who are used to undergraduate work where many assignments involve executing a clear set of tasks rather than venturing into the unknown. When I assign something that requires a good amount of individual ingenuity I usually get e-mails worrying about APA formatting, or about whether the specifics of the assignment are being met. My reply is likely not very comforting: What do you think?

Of course all of my assignments have a clear goal (and point) that is well explained. I use ambiguity to stimulate critical thought from the student, i.e. leadership. Leaders are able to use ambiguity to their advantage, and I teach in a program aimed at creating leaders. Further, ambiguity is a function of most real life work environments. Most of the jobs our graduates seek require independent thought and an ability to operate without a safety net. I aim to mimic that reality.

The difference is I do offer a safety net. Students need room to take risks, fail, succeed, and ultimately learn. It reminds me of teaching my grandparents about their new computer way back in the day. They were so afraid of hitting the wrong button and somehow destroying the machine. I would tell them no, worst case scenario you delete something by accident and we move one…you won’t break the whole thing by hitting the wrong button. Students, you won’t fail if you screw up APA format. I want you to learn about economy of force. Don’t spend all your time on secondary objectives. I want you to gain experience in creating your own solution to a problem. Start with the goal of the assignment and work from there!

Reflecting on Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism”

I just finished reading Max Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism” and it really hit home with me. Like Boot, I worked on the conservative side of the policy and advocacy world for many years, and was attracted to the right’s intellectual foundation. Personal freedom, the efficiency of markets, free trade, and diversity of thought and experience were all things I could readily get behind. Like Boot I also was socially liberal in that I supported a strong social safety net, minority rights, and marriage equality. Frankly I saw the socially liberal part as consistent with support of personal freedom and an embrace of diversity.

One of the best experiences in my intellectual life was serving as the research director for a right-leaning think tank. There I wrote constantly. I penned a piece about my own immaturity in supporting the Iraq War as a college student, confronting the ways in which I rationalized something that I was simply wrong about. I penned pieces supporting gun control, marriage equality, increased government spending, and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. I would get e-mail and snail mail agreeing with me, and disagreeing with me in fairly equal measure. But I was allowed and even encouraged to engage with these ideas on the conservative side of the spectrum.

Admittedly I was never one to idolize any individual in politics or the world of ideas (I still have a bad habit of reading library books on my kindle without knowing the author). Someone once showed me a bust of Ronald Reagan in their office because they thought I would like it…I was indifference. People are of their time and circumstances, but words and ideas live on. I prefer to engage with words and ideas rather than personalities (My favorite songwriter is Bob Dylan but I am pretty sure he would be insufferable to actually be around). If we engage with personalities over words and ideas we enter dangerous territory.

And that is where we are with our current president. I do not get it. I do not understand how the entire Republican Wisconsin Congressional delegation could vote against a resolution condemning Trump’s most recent racism. I do not understand how Paul Ryan can condemn Trump in an interview but do nothing when he had the chance. I do not understand how Scott Walker can go from saying he is dropping out of the presidential race to unite Republicans against Trump to saying he will be Trump’s greatest cheerleader in Wisconsin. I do not understand how the conservative infrastructure, which welcomed me and my ideas even when many on the right disagreed (and it is a story for another day, but the left was not so welcoming), so quickly degraded into a cult of personality.

Perhaps I was simply wrong about being welcomed. Perhaps I was merely tolerated. As Boot wrote, there were always signs of trouble, but like Boot I was happy to dismiss the signs of trouble as unrepresentative outliers. Now I am not so sure. And I am not one to condemn all Trump supporters; in a free democratic society people have every right to support who they want for the reasons they want. I am just saddened and confused to see where the conservative side of the policy and advocacy is currently at.

Reflecting On Tenure After Six Years in PA

Well, assuming the board of regents approved it, it appears I earned tenure and promotion from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Tenure seemed like such a far-off concept when I started, yet I here I am. It feels good, and I am hopeful achieving it will enable me to focus on some longer-term projects, and participate more fully in department and university business. So now that I am here, what have I learned?

First, that everyone’s journey to academia is unique. After six years of getting to know other professors I still feel like a bit of an outlier. I did not get somebody else to pay for my grad school. I completed an interdisciplinary Ph.D. I worked a demanding full-time job throughout graduate school with a family. I placed pretty strict geographical restrictions on where I could go. But it worked out. And I know I am not the only one that feels like a bit of an outlier; I think most do at one time or another. There is no one path to this career.

Second, I realize just how ignorant I was to the profession when I began. I had no idea what a 3-3 actually was, or that it was considered a heavy teaching load. The publication process was also pretty foreign to me. I did not know what an impact factor was or why it mattered. My ignorance is on me. I never knew any academics outside of the classroom, never had time to socialize with other graduate students, and I did not ask questions when I could have. Why? I was busy and I did not want to appear stupid.

Third, I knew (and know) even less about the job market. After a couple of years and a good number of publications, I was encouraged to test the job market. But when I did, I could not get interviews anywhere. I felt unwanted, and admit being somewhat hurt and confused by it. But honestly, it motivated me to get busy. To keep publishing, to keep improving my teaching, to keep taking chances, and to spend everyday trying to make the positive impact I wanted to make. I also learned to fully appreciate being at the institution that was willing to take the chance of granting me an interview in the first place. If you follow my blog at all you know things are tough resource-wise at Oshkosh, but it is a great place where great things are possible. It is home. My advice to junior faculty is to not fall into the trap of letting your institution define your work, or of letting your success be a function of anybody else’s goals.

Fourth, that I got a lot of help. My Ph.D. adviser taught me to be positive, to be productive, to let my work speak for itself, and most importantly modeled how to treat people. Be kind, be positive, and realize it is not all about work. My students teach me everyday about new aspects of PA, and how we can bridge the academic practitioner-divide. My colleagues have exposed me to parts of PA that I did not know exist, and showed me that there are places in this profession where I will not feel like an outsider.

Fifth, and really the one that brings it all together, is I learned that I had to make my own place in PA. Few if any simply get invited to the table, sometimes you have to push your way in. How? My approach was to try everything. This strategy has given me opportunities to participate in fulfilling funded scholarly activities in Lubbock, Seattle, Ottawa, Calgary, D.C. (over and over), and Indianapolis. It has given me a voice as a PA Times columnist and MPAC representative. It has helped me meet new friends and research partners. It has expanded the scope of my research in ways I never imagined. It has helped me get my work, and ideas, in front of practitioners, legislators, and the general public in ways I never imagined six years ago.

In short, I feel good that I am making my place and my impact in the ways I know how. I am thankful to have this career, these networks, and the chance to be a positive welcoming voice in PA.