January 29, 2009

The colonic theory of school reform

Looking at news this morning of university-wide furloughs at Arizona State, where my brother is a professor of geography, has put me in a sour mood. Not only does this affect my family and a bunch of friends elsewhere on the faculty, but it puts the lie to the "this is a great time to winnow out bad programs" argument. When there are draconian budget cuts, and they come quickly, there is no way to avoid damaging good programs as well as bad ones. Even if a university avoids across-the-board cuts for a time, when the cuts become severe enough, everyone feels it. The pain is not felt equally, but it is widespread, and there is going to be damage to good programs.

My friend and predecessor as faculty union chapter president, Roy Weatherford, explained his disdain for the political argument that events needed to get truly bad for the voters to kick out your opponents: "That's the enema theory of politics," he's said on various occasions. There are some advocates of this approach in any political organization, I'm afraid. If you subscribe to it, you hope for the worst instead of arguing for the best.

The parallel argument is now being made with respect to budget cuts: they're good! (I've also heard that argument from one state legislative aide in Florida. That was last spring, and I haven't heard that argument since, at least in Florida.) That assumes that at some point in an organization, the pain is so bad that decisions get better. I'd love to see any research on this, but I suspect this is a seat-of-the-pants argument (see Andy Rotherham and Kevin Carey for more on this point).

For those who still believe that draconian budget cuts somehow make things more efficient, pretend for a moment that there were such as thing as perfectly rational management. Even if that were the case, there is no management system that simultaneously has a perfect understanding of the value of all organization components, is effective in organizational politics, and has not yet optimized stuff. (For the market fundamentalists out there, this is the parallel of saying that stock prices automatically reflect the knowledge that "the market" already has. In this rationalistic world, if there already were information to justify cutting a program, effective managers would have found a way to do that, or they're not effective.) That means that when stuff hits the fan, even if you thought there could be an objective way to make budget-cutting decisions, decisions will be made that cannot be justified based on what's known at the time. That's because there is no such thing as objective ways to make budget cuts, there isn't good information, or the decisions will be made for the wrong reasons.

Decisions should be made for the right reasons at all times, and any claim that "this is the perfect time to do X" strikes me as opportunistic, along the lines of arguments for tax cuts:

  • We have a budget surplus, and it's the people's money, so we should give the money back.
  • We have a budget deficit, and the best way to solve that is through growth, so let's cut taxes as a stimulus.
  • Times are good, so let's cut taxes.
  • Times are bad, so let's not put a greater burden on families.

This reminds me of the classic British argument for tea-time:

  • Working hard in the afternoon? Have some tea.
  • Spending time with friends? Have some tea.
  • Not feeling well? Have some tea.
  • Want to celebrate great news? Have some tea.
  • Nuclear war? Have some tea.

While it's a delight to see intellectual flexibility among my fellow Americans, at some point it is hard to argue that program and policy decisions should be rational when your argument for making those decisions is fundamentally irrational; don't simultaneously indulge in Machiavellian fantasies and then claim that it's all in the service of decency. Maybe I'm the education blogosphere's hobgoblin this morning, but there it is. It's a small consistency I'm asking for, that's all.

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Tags: Arizona State University, budget, furloughs, Roy Weatherford
Posted in Higher education on January 29, 2009 9:11 AM |