Posts tagged ‘Walter Russel Mead’

Creative Destruction

On UVA from Walter Russel Mead via Glenn Reynolds

As the NYT article points out, universities all over the country are facing a world of rapid change. This is going to be hard to face. Universities are structured to adapt slowly—if at all. Typically, university presidents have only limited controls, while faculties have a lot of power to resist. Management is usually decentralized, with different schools and departments governed under different rules and accountable to different constituencies. The fiscal arrangements of most universities are both byzantine and opaque; it can be very hard for administrators to understand or properly and fairly value the true cost and contributions of different parts of the institution.

The structural problem our universities face is this: confronted with the need for sweeping, rapid changes, administrators and boards have two options — and they are both bad. One option is to press ahead to make rapid changes. This risks — and in many (perhaps most) cases will cause — enormous upheavals; star professors will flounce off. Alumni will be offended. Waves of horrible publicity will besmirch the university’s name.

Option two: you can try to make your reforms consensual — watering down, delaying, carefully respecting existing interests and pecking orders. If you do this, you will have a peaceful, happy campus . . . until the money runs out.

This kind of organizational change issue is NOT unique to public institutions.  I think if one were a fly on the wall at Sears, or RIM/Blackberry, or AOL, one could describe exactly the same dynamic: insider constituencies were and are successful under the old model, so consensus processes involving these same constituencies seldom lead to change since these changes are inherently threatening to these same constituencies.  A simpler way of saying this is that it is really hard to obsolete oneself.  Just go ask Blockbuster Video.

But there is one difference in the world of public institutions.  In the private world, new success models in the worlds of Sears and AOL and Blackberry are already out there and growing really fast, run by outsiders who have absolutely no stake in the success of the old model (in fact by folks who have a strong economic stake in killing the old models).  But there is no parallel to capital markets and entrepreneurship in the public space.  There is no venue for new-model proponents to get capital and support outside of the old-model institutions.  In fact, if anything, public institutions will rally their political clout, up to and including sponsoring new legislation, to make sure new models are strangled in the crib.

If I were in the VA legislature and really cared about education innovation in the future, I would give up on UVA driving it and instead take 20% of its funding and hand it off to a brand new parallel entity, say UVA 2.0, run by an entirely new team.