Changing Culture

Higher education is a lot better at calling for reform than it is at enacting reform. And the calls are always top-down. Higher education organizations hold meetings and issue reports, arguing that the needed changes in culture follow from “best practices,” which are usually a pastiche of things (one from here, one from there).

This model is a nice hypothesis: tell the faculty to change practices to things that have been effective and you will fix the problems. You have done your job from up in the high tower.

A big investment of funds often follows, and all the big players run after it like kids pursuing the ice cream truck on a summer’s day, promising the moon if you just give me my well-deserved piece of the pie.

Money gets spent. Meetings are held. Proposals are made. And the reasons begin to percolate for why change is just so hard to do. Compromise proposals are made, a few intrepid adopters agree to do some stuff, and then the money runs out.

Rinse and repeat.

And it is happening again, right now, for graduate education.

I was a speaker at a symposium for Graduate Education Reform held at Tianjin University (Tianjin, CHINA) over the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend.

In my usual sermonizing way, I rejected the practices-lead-to-culture model, and suggested that the decision to change culture needs to come first. Then, it is obvious which practices need to change and how. Then, the culture changes some more, and course corrections can be made. Until you have optimized the changes through these iterations and you reach The New Normal.

And this costs nothing.

My three-part model for a functional culture is:

(A) everyone needs to agree to agree; it probably does not matter what you agree on, just that a group can meet and agree on anything important, in a public setting

(B) everyone needs to agree to act, in private, to the public agreement; this is the moral action component – if you agree to something in public and then turn around and just act against this anyhow, then that is an immoral decision within the context of the agreement

(C) everyone needs to be an open and transparent adherent to the cultural identity that has been agreed upon; with an agreement in place, the next members who are brought in (faculty, students) need to know what they are getting into, and that it is not a bait and switch falsehood (the corollary to this one is that in the first generation, there will be members of the community who do not agree and work against the change – the system needs to be sturdy enough to have some of these people, and patient enough to see them move on)

There are other things to say, such as what to agree to in graduate education and what sorts of practices follow, but these are what I propose are the pre-conditions for a change that can stick.

These days, if I am asked to come into a department and consult about education, I ask one question: can you sit down, as a department, and come to an agreement about anything important about an ideal an a practice related to the topic of interest? If yes, then I am happy to work with you; if no, then I really cannot help.

Ever since I figured this out, I have not been too active with these kinds of gigs.

Just How Far Out of Context Can You Get?

I was out at a department store earlier today, and in passing by the cheesy furniture section, I noted (with great interest, as they say) this small three-drawer chest, emblazoned with the apparent New Age message “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

I just had to laugh.

Did the person who created this… or most of the people who see it… understand the origin of this saying?

In 1979, a film masterpiece was released: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

I was never a Monty Python fan. My taste in what I find funny is pretty narrow and does not include silly, slapstick, or absurd. On the other hand, biting satire that skewers something, particularly something deserving of skewering, such as hypocritical institutions, gets my laugh, particularly when it is both clever and sustained.

And that is Monty Python’s Life of Brian in a nutshell. The only other thing that has ever come close is Book of Mormon.

Life of Brian starts with a simple and lovely premise. I wish I had been in the room when they thought of it: Brian Cohen is born in the stable neighboring the one where Jesus is born, and he is accidentally visited by the three wise men. Although they soon realize their error and take back their gifts, Mrs. Cohen is off to the races with her son, the Messiah. The movie is a satirical masterpiece.

At the end of the movie, Brian is sentenced to crucifixion along with over a hundred others. The prisoners, all hoisted onto their crosses, break into song in the grandest of Disney fashion to cheer each other up. The irony is sublime, as these victims all tap their toes and whistle to the song that closes with the credits: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Eric Idle, 1979

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best

And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing

And always look on the bright side of life
Come on!
Always look on the right side of life
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin
Give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow

So, always look on the bright side of death
A-just before you draw your terminal breath
Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the right side of life

C’mon Brian, cheer up!
Always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the bright side of life

Worse things happen at sea, you know
Always look on the bright side of life
I mean, what have you got to lose

You know, you come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing!
Always look on the right side of life…

Nothing will come from nothing, you know what they say?
Cheer up you old bugger, c’mon give us a grin!
There you are, see, it’s the end of the film

Incidentally, this record is available in the foyer
Some of us have to got live as well, you know
Who do you think pays for all this rubbish

They’re not gonna make their money back, you know

I told them, I said to them, Bernie, I said they’ll never make their money back

The Art of The Steal (Again)

Ren Jingwen, a man in Xi’an, China, who spent over 40 years collecting ancient artifacts, and particularly things related to “Ox Culture,” built his own museum in Xi’an. The birth of new China (October 1, 1949) was in the year of the Ox, and 2009 was the hugely important 60th birthday of China and the year he planned for this museum to open, displaying his collection to the public. This museum opened on September 12, 2009.

Here is a run-down about the museum

I just happened to be  with an alum group that month, and had arrived in China on September 17; we got to Xi’an on Sept 21-23. The provincial museum was closed on the day we were supposed to go, in preparation for the October 1 celebrations, and our guide had heard about this new private museum, so we went. Here is a link to my full set of pictures.

This place was not only physically magnificent, but the collection (and I have seen a few Chinese history museums) was at least as good if not better, in many of his items, that I have ever seen… examples that I had only seen broken and repaired, he would have five pristine versions of them.

He was there that day, and took us around – I am pretty we were the first foreigners, and among the first visitors ever.

Apparently, creating this palatial and privately held museum and putting on this display – EVEN though it was all in deference to the country and the culture – was too much for the provincial government, who decided they needed the land, and demolished the museum and parsed some of the collection to three smaller museums.

I am so upset to hear about this! It sets my social justice neuron to firing when you mess with art. I have a super-special sense of privilege to have seen this place during its short lifetime.

And if you are smirking and telling yourself that “this is China, and this could never happen in the United States,” then you do not know about the story of the ca. $25B (B!Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, and I urge you to watch “The Art of the Steal” (2009) sometime. There is a copy on YouTube.

I fell off the turnip truck a long, long time ago (Part III)

Previously… this point about reporting percentages.

In a recent essay, UCSB’s Robert Samuels began “Now that more than 75 percent of the instructors teaching in higher education in the United States do not have tenure, it is important to think about how the political climate might affect those vulnerable teachers.” And throughout the first paragraph, these instructors are (as are we all, apparently) being “threatened” and how these teachers are in “an especially vulnerable position because they lack any type of academic freedom or shared governance rights… they are a class without representation… [they have] precarious employment, which is spreading all over the world… [creating] professional insecurity and helps to feed the power of the growing management class.”

Whew. I am glad he got all of that off of his chest in the first paragraph. It is impossible to tell, from these multiple theses, that the point of his essay is to not use student evaluations to assess teacher performance.

I am sympathetic with his implication (or my inference), which rejects the consumerist mentality that has overwhelmed education in that last few decades, although I am more inclined to blame the faculty for being asleep at the switch, too readily giving up their responsibilities for governance, thereby letting the management class (including the lawyers) swoop ever so vulture-like into the void.

OK, OK. It is easy to get carried away when writing about these topics.

And I am always cautious about the claim of anyone lacking any type of academic freedom, because “academic freedom” has recently been overblown as a license to say or do anything without consequence. Indeed, if anything, academic discourse has been more restricted by internal policing than by external forces, it seems to me.

Samuels begins his essay with a percentage statistic. Did you notice that?

It has been common, for the last decade or so, for editorialists to at least imply that tenure track jobs have been lost and replaced by a growing class of non-tenure track faculty. The real picture, as you might suspect, is not so clear-cut.

Samuels rightly links to the dramatic graphical data (above) from the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), 1975-2011, which records the steady decline of the percentage of full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty as changing from 45.1% to 24.1%, and the part-time faculty as rising from 24.0% to 41.3%. The “75%” in the AAUP numbers needs to be attenuated somewhat from the get-go, given that graduate student instructors (TAs) are included in the ranks of the “75%,” but that percentage is nearly constant over this time period (20.5% to 19.3%).

Diving a little more deeply, there are two things to keep in mind to understand the “75%” and the percent changes shown here.

First, the number of students in higher education over this time grew substantially, from 8.6M (1970) to 11.1M (1975) to 14.3M (1995) to 21.0M (2011). In 2011, there were almost a many students in 2-year programs (7.5M) as there were in all of higher education in 1970.

What increase in the instructional workforce will result when the population of students doubles, and who is going to handle this teaching demand?

Second, and interestingly enough, the total instructional staff, including graduate student instructors, grew by 136% (remarkably, perhaps, tracking the enrollment increase since 1970). The number of tenured faculty increased by 36% (227K to 308K individuals), and the number of tenure track faculty increased 8% (126K to 136K). The number of full-time non-tenure track faculty, which was lower in 1975 (81K) has grown to 284K, a 250% increase), and the number of part-time faculty, which was 188K in 1975, has grown to 761K (305% increase).

So we have one of those situations, again, where you get to tell the story you want to tell to make your point. Both of the following statements are equally correct.

From 1975-2011, in US higher education…

… the fraction of tenured/tenure track faculty members has reduced by 45%.

… the number of tenured/tenure track faculty members has increased by 26%.

Maybe it is too much to follow, but I would have been happier if people such as Samuels would give me a bit more to go on when they decide to make a point with numbers such as these.

Now that more than 75 percent of the instructors teaching in higher education in the United States do not have tenure…

From 1975-2011, the increase in instructional ranks (136%) is comparable with overall increase in student enrollment (100%) in US higher education. While the absolute number of tenured/tenure track faculty members has increased modestly (30%), the fraction of instructors who are not tenured (or tenure-able), including graduate students, has increased from 55% to 75%, representing an increase from 430,000 to 1,140,000 individuals in the workforce.

I fell off the turnip truck a long, long time ago (Part II)

Previously, off the end of the truck… this.

Here is a description of someone’s history of giving: “Your charitable donations have gone up 100% compared with 10 years ago.”

Here is another description of someone’s history of giving: “Your charitable donations have gone down by 50% compared with 10 years ago.”

If you were a university fund-raising officer, which of these ‘someone’s would you rather target for that alumni dinner with the Dean?

On the surface of it, it seems pretty clear cut.

But it is not.

And every day (every day), the thinking person needs to filter the motivation of every author who presents or posts an idea. And particularly when they are quoting numbers, because we automatically, subconsciously, tend to regard numbers as clear and objective evidence without the intrinsic ambiguity that natural language can present.

But it is not that clear or objective. Keep  my two statements about those charitable donations in mind.

Ten years ago, when you were earning $50,000 a year, you made $5000 in charitable donations, which was 10% of your income. This year, you donated $10,000 from your $200,000 earnings, which was 5% of your income.

Turns out there are not two ‘someone’s in my original scenarios, and those seemingly contradictory statements are simultaneously true.

$5000 ten years ago; $10,000 this year; this means:

“Your charitable donations have gone up 100% compared with 10 years ago.”

10% of your salary ten years ago; 5% of your salary this year; this means:

“Your charitable donations have gone down by 50% compared with 10 years ago.”

Relative measurements (high, low, more, less, warm, cool…) all require additional absolute information (the point of reference) to understand them. Always think about that when people talk in percentage change.

I fell off the turnip truck a long, long time ago (Part I)

I was having a periodic annoyance with my home wireless system that was increasing in frequency, so I got onto the chat line for the company to report it. Turns out I needed an equipment upgrade, which took about 45 minutes to figure out.

As that was being ordered and set up, the kind person at the other end of the chat pulled out the standard company playbook.

“While we are waiting, I noticed your current service, and I think you can definitely get more for less money. Would you like to hear about it?”

I fell off the turnip truck a long, long time ago. So there was only one reply to give.

“I assume this is a promotion that reverts to a higher price after a while. What is the deal, how long does it last, and what does the cost go up to at the end?”


“Let me get that information. Hang on.”

Bottom line: for more service (some of which was interesting), I would pay about $30 less per month for a year, compared with now, then $10 less for another year, then it would be $15 more thereafter. That was a pretty easy calculation. 12 x $40 in reduction is $480 relative to what I am paying now, which would offset 32 months at the higher price. So that is more service at the same cost for 5 years. Not that bad, and the increased services looked good. So I agreed. Five years is next to forever; I might get run over by a turnip truck by then.

And it came packaged with phone service, which means -$60/month by cancelling the current service into the house.

There was a two-part online contract to sign to authorize the new service. And, I read it, which is another part of the lesson here (after understanding that you do not get something for nothing).

As it turns out, their contract read that the lower price ($30/month savings) was in effect for all 24 months, not 12, and it looked like the final price at the end of the promotion was not +$15, but -$10, from what I am paying now.

Maybe you can get something for nothing.

So I signed it and sent my chat buddy the authorization. Once that was confirmed, I pointed out the discrepancy.

“Before we end, I do have one more question…”

What I got back was a non-answer… a cut-and-paste repetition of the numbers from before, an uninformed answer.

Big mistake.

So I dug in through two rounds of this stonewalling, and finally got the person’s attention.

“I just signed a contract and here is what it says (quote/unquote). I know what you told me, and I even agreed to it. But now I have another thing that contradicts it. That is a discrepancy and needs to be resolved.”

“Hang on. I need to check with someone.”

Stonewall wall.

Rinse and repeat.

“Hang on. I need to check with someone else.”

“Sure, no problem.”

“Sorry for the misunderstanding. Yes, the lower rate is in effect for 24 months and the total price at the end of that time is lower than what you are paying now.”

“Thanks. Can I have the confirmation number and the chat reference for our conversation today?”

“Sure, no problem.”