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Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010


By Michael Meranze

The unfolding summer has made it clearer than ever that the Regents have many plans but no sustainable vision for the future of UC. The plans are direct enough: administrative centralization, staff cuts, increasing tuition for students, a faith-based commitment to a second-tier of online UC education and a lowering of staff and faculty benefits.

It is equally clear that those in charge at Oakland and on the Board have set themselves apart and against those who teach undergraduate and graduate students—let alone the staff who keeps the University working from day to day. Indeed, they are remarkably uninterested in the experience of faculty, staff, and students. They are happy to stay in their own echo chamber, blissfully removed from the everyday life of the University and secure in their knowledge of what the future will bring.

Their first bold step is management centralization. Under the innocuous sounding phrase of “administrative best practices” UCOP is pushing ahead with plans to impose as much uniformity as possible on the System. UCOP’s leaders insist that centralization and uniformity will save hundreds of millions of dollars (admittedly over time). Improving software and simplifying administration are things we can all support. Yet, as Chris has discussed, UCOP’s push for control ignores the reality that in many cases the best approach to administering the University depends on local knowledge and experience. Moreover, the sort of top-down command system that UCOP is proposing was rejected by corporate theorists back in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the same time, the Regents have decided that Christopher Edley’s cyber-fantasy is the future of higher education. The Regents’ embrace of the Edley plan smacks less of considered thought than of desperation. Even Edley admits that there are no examples of online undergraduate education working the way that he insists that it will. (10) But based on a vague slideshow the Regents forge ahead. Sherry Lansing proclaimed that online education “should be one of our highest priorities. We cannot wait.” Bonnie Reiss announced that “It’s the future,” while Richard Blum opined that UC “can’t keep teaching the way we did 200 years ago” as if anyone is doing so.

The Regents proceed on faith; in their enthusiasm they don’t raise the important issues. Yet there are significant unanswered questions even about the economics of the proposal. Edley claims that it will only cost 20M to set up and will generate 180M in revenue each year but with its usual lack of transparency UCOP has neither provided any public business plan nor any actual justification for these claims. (11) He also insists—based on data from UCOP—that by 2020 we would need close to 2 billion more dollars to handle enrollment growth on campuses (assuming no increase in any revenue during the entire decade).

The Research Funding Work Group reported that the University could gain 300M each year in better negotiated grant reimbursements. Why is there no discussion of putting that 3B to work on the campuses to handle increased student populations? How many staff members could be hired with Edley’s 20M in initial infrastructure? What would the ongoing costs of creating classes, dealing with property rights, providing computers etc come to? None of these issues were addressed by the Regents or Edley.

Both Edley and the Regents claim that they are concerned with social justice. But these claims ring hollow when they systematically raise fees on students and constantly increase the demands on ever smaller numbers of staff members who labor on under the diffuse threat of being fired. The protestations ring even more false when they hijack the language of an agricultural labor movement while seeking to implement a plan that depends on ever increasing numbers of graduate student workers—despite the fact that they are in effect creating an even larger class of casual and underpaid workers.

Strikingly, UCOP and the Regents appear to be following the failed playbook of educational reformers in the K-12 sector. As Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System demonstrates, the fetishism of new technologies of testing and teaching, the worship of market driven solutions, the notion that centralization and the powerful executive could right all wrongs, and deference to philanthropic donors and interests who claimed to reinvent education all combined to narrow the education offered to children (in order to make it fit the technologies of testing and the theories of the reformers), demoralize the teaching force, divert attention from more serious social needs.

Among the most dramatic and disruptive of these failures took place in San Diego under the leadership of a former Clinton administration attorney convinced—despite his lack of experience in the field—that he knew better than those who taught the students. Apparently ideas rejected by the corporate world can only survive among the administrators of educational institutions—where they now can narrow the creativity of the young as they once limited the work experience of the adult.

In their understandable concern over finances, the Regents forget the broader notion of their public trust. No serious effort is made towards discussing their commitments to the State of California or of California’s commitment to its citizens’ education. The Regents barely give lip service to the effort to work to reinvigorate California’s public investments as part of a longer-term strategy to undo the social damage of the last few decades. Instead we are faced with a repeat of the 1990s when hope was placed on the use of information technology as a magic bullet.  A far deeper and more open discussion of education is called-for.

Both UCOP and the Regents are engaged in a sideshow. Their initiatives fail to address either the heart of the University or to propose real answers to the challenges that face us all. The most vital parts of undergraduate classroom teaching (the labs and the seminars, the tutorials and the effort to listen and respond in the moment orally) cannot be transferred easily to chat rooms or online assignments. Online tools are a tremendous resource in blended courses; standing alone they cannot build a community of scholars and learners. These things should be nurtured and financed—not pushed aside as archaic. Edley reportedly commented that what students would lose in not attending campuses would be their access to “beer bashes.” There is no report that the Regents objected to this characterization of the undergraduate experience.

There are signs that the Regents’ echo chamber may not be as secure as they and UCOP would like to believe. Questions about Regent Blum have migrated from the alternative press to the LA Times. The San Francisco Chronicle has taken up the call for greater administrative transparency. Arnold actually signed the law offering protection to UC whistle-blowers (after vetoing it for several years). The Sacramento Bee recognized that the Regents may have violated state law in refusing to allow an independent filmmaker to record their proceedings.

Of course, no one can expect to change the climate overnight or that the Regents and UCOP will suddenly begin to listen to our arguments. These will be long-term projects of uncertain success. But if the UC leadership will not address the question of what education should mean today we will need to continue to do it ourselves. We need to press alternative ideas of what UC can provide our students and the State. We need to insist on the priority of the educational process. People out there are listening.


cloudminder said...

I recommend taking a new tact:
ask UCOP for the numbers on how much it cost to put in HRIS (human resource information systems) and Financial Systems etc. - ask how much it cost each campus to put a different system with different vendors on each campus in place-ask for totals for each fiscal year since the start date of system implementation. from the purchase of software; to renewal of licenses; to hiring the tech staff; to paying fines for breaches ; to paying for add'l emergency patches and enhancements for compliance and add'l training for existing staff. Then, ask how many staff are required to maintain it and tweak it and what their salaries total, and if the staff will be dedicated solely to this system or if they will have multiple systems to maintain-- you will likely be shocked by those numbers.
then ask how many data security breaches have occurred with each of those systems at each of the campuses..."boondoggle" is a common term I have sometimes heard when discussing these systems with folks "in the know"...

If you get the answers to these questions i believe that you will then have many, many facts to support the belief that perhaps UC would not be able to provide a high quality, secure online product quickly, efficiently on the cheap or with the dollar figures they are currently citing. Reviewing costs of other systems as they have rolled out in real time might prove this out.

Also, how will UC protect any technological innovations UC tech staff might make in developing the online system? how would they keep those trade secrets from other institutions or vendors? or would they share it as though it were open source? if they share it as though it were open source -then how are Californians served by it?, how does it remain a California product intended for the education of Californians? will Stanford share their info on how to start up, tech issues? or MIT? both were used as examples that UC would compete against.

finally, a cynic might ask:
will they take care of it like they took care of whistle blower rights for UC employees?

will they take care of it like they took care maintaining an up to date public meeting policy that addresses Bagley Keene?

will they take care of it like they took care of .... well, you get the point

It appears they are attempting to pigeon hole those who disagree or challenge as mere bitter sycophants bent on holding on to their expensive face to face courses for their own personal interests- an out dated obstacle to real progress.

imo The argument has to be made from the Californian and customer/student perspective- will it be a secure quality product? capable of delivering all the bells and whistles?

they want to trumpet technological innovation and and align themselves with "forward thinkers"-- how hot it is-- well, then, you have to get to the truth of the supposed technological innovation and/or shortcomings of the systems they have put in place in the last 10-12 years.... what is the truth about those systems ? are they high quality?

Do you think UCOP would even give the answers to those questions? and if they won't give those answers -- then how much of a "shared governance" is there - or has there ever been-- really?

Gerry Barnett said...

One Instance

UCOP maintains a database for invention/patent management. This is a legacy system that has been added to over the years. When I was running a campus tech transfer office, we found the database all but useless for operations. We spent our time sending information to UCOP to be entered into the database (we weren't allowed to do so--only specially trained technicians were permitted), and then we had to check to make sure the information was entered correctly, and if not, try to get it changed. The only purpose served by the database, in practice, was to make reporting to the Regents easier to do.

Then a few years ago, UCOP got the idea that maybe they should bring this database into the 21st century. There was then a huge investment in time to develop a comprehensive specification of everything the database did, with extensions for everything folks wanted the database to do. Interviews with campuses, submission of comments, requests for review, and hundreds of pages of specification for module after module.

As the only person apparently who had done any database programming in the UC tech transfer community, I tried to argue that this wasn't a good way to go about changing systems--that we shouldn't be trying to get new technology to emulate a legacy system architecture, but rather that we should be rebuilding our information systems to reflect local and anticipated conditions. That is, make something useful. I was of course outvoted. The thing went out to bid as a $1m+ contract.

I identified a company that specialized in modular information and work-flow systems for distributed multinational companies and asked them to look at the specification in the call for bids. Would they bid? They laughed--no, not possible. See, they could build a system in a few months for less than 1/4 of the contract price, but the spec required them to bid to do it the way it was specified, not how it would be most cost effective, flexible, and useful.

So the spec ensured 1) replication of existing legacy approach approved by UCOP; 2) no flexibility in developing new approaches, such as open innovation, consortia, or commons; 3) assumption that a complicated system maintained by central specialists was better than simple systems managed by campus personnel without the need for specialization.

The contract gets awarded, and after a year, the contractor has yet to deliver a fully functional module for any part of the database. The contract ends up being canceled, and funds are then diverted to adding another layer of spruce-up to the existing database.

I dearly love my friends at UCOP. But the waste involved in central planning for just this one out of the way database was tremendous. The effort to create generalized "IT solutions" that meet all the needs of each campus is phenomenally expensive. Way more expensive than modest local optimization. Way more expensive than 90% solutions with some local variations. Worse, when such a general system can be created, the cost to change is so great it is nigh unto impossible to do, and is impossible to do timely.

The alternative for management, much simpler, is to dictate a system and force all local variation out of the system. This ends up with the odd idea that campuses exist to make central management decisions look efficient. So much for local engagement, liberty, diversity, innovation, and mobilization. Won't happen if management dictates a script in order to look efficient.

Either way by attempting a central system in such a complex organization, UCOP puts itself in a position where it is increasingly unable to respond to any change in local conditions. Perhaps folks should consult Jared Diamond on the consequences of not being able to adapt to changing conditions.

Catherine Liu said...

I think it is a good idea to push back at UCOP and be aggressive about the Regents' and UCOP's records in envisioning the future of higher ed or in "saving money" through administrative streamling. In addition to the good suggestions that Cloudminder and Barneet, offer, larger bore research and dissemination needs to be publicized. Keep up a pro-active attitude about scrutinizing the public and institutional record of achievements and failures of the UC admin. What has Blum done in higher ed? Examine the record, his financial holdings, his public statements. Do the same with Bonnie Reiss, secy of education. What does she know about education and how does she demonstrate her knowledge?

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