28.2.07

LOSING THE GOOD OF THE INTELLECT. Perhaps the Southern Illinois University looking-glass lawsuit in which two professors are asserting it is unethical to make them sign a confession that they were unethical when the ethics training site authorized a certificate of completion that they obtained too quickly is a sign of a deeper malaise. An Inside Higher Ed column approximates a Fisking of the Daily Egyptian's criticism of the professors who correctly stayed away.
The attitude that education is, when you get right down to it, one more service industry.... this does not warm the academic heart, somehow. About 10 percent of faculty and staff actually showed up.
That "service industry" attitude contributes to higher education's failing its market tests, as regular readers understand. The column focuses on a clash of values.
But the editorial is also interesting for how it mimics management-speak. A motivational speaker provides “valuable information ... to improve the quality of the university’s product.” Not a hint of skepticism about the corporate rhetoric. No questioning at all of the idea that learning to answer the telephone in a pleasing manner will contribute to the manufacture of skilled and well-informed students.
(Need I note that one doesn't require a motivational speaker to develop a properly firm persona that does not start a class with AWRIGHT, MAGGOTS!)

More importantly, the motivation fad has numerous failures of market tests on its permanent record.

“For much of the eighties and nineties,” writes [Jonathan] Black, “the motivation business was all about making it, self-propulsion, getting rich quick. Athletic coaches ruled, because winning wasn’t everything – it was the only thing. The lecture circuit starred corporate titans like Malcolm Forbes, Lee Iacocca, and Ted Turner.” The ethos of this period was summed up by a pace-setting speaker named Zig Ziglar (something like the Stanley Fish of the motivation world) when he titled one of his books See You at the Top.

Around the turn of the century, though, something happened — several things, in fact. The tech bubble burst. Dubious business practices eroded corporate prestige. Murderous fanatics showed that globalization would not be all about getting and spending in peace and comfort. The old motivational messages started sounding hollow, and the market took a hit.

You'd think the folks in charge at Southern Illinois would have enough confidence in their core functions of teaching and scholarship to support faculty in maintaining standards and saying no.

What works to motivate workers, [Black] believes, is ‘an authentic cause that becomes the culture of the company.’ ” One example [Jason] Jennings offers is IKEA, with its proclaimed devotion to “furniture for the many – not for the few, not for the rich, not for design magazines.” The company’s president takes just two weeks of vacation a year, and stays at Motel 6 when he travels.

I don’t have statistics at hand about how many chancellors or provosts stay at Motel 6. It would hardly be surprising to learn that most do not. That sort of change might not be the solution to “pridelessness” or academic anomie. But there’s certainly no evidence that motivational bromides are, either.

(Can you say Nucor Steel, another of my favorite stories about the austere company that does what the later sold at a bankruptcy sale Establishment concluded couldn't be done?) The column goes on to quote a graduate student who identified some candidate opportunity costs for the Saluki Dilbert moment.
“Spending $20,000 on motivational speakers is absurd in the face of so many laid-off graduate assistants and deferred facilities maintenance. Let’s look at what $20,000 could do that would make a difference in the actual education of students. On my estimation, it could hire two half-time graduate assistants, purchase 31 new Dell computers (assuming no discount) or pay for any number of books. I suspect we could even make a big bonfire with money that would draw more than 50 people..... All this occurs in the face of raising fees and tuition are ion incoming freshmen and graduate students.”
That in a world where the positional arms races to get into brand name colleges is a flight to quality driven by the perception that Southern Illinois, and more than a few other public and private universities, are in thrall to various fads, whether from the corporate world or from the Perpetually Aggrieved, that have crowded out the higher learning.

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