• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


A Public Higher Ed Primer for Politicians

Translating what we do.

November 7, 2019

(Note to my local politicians: no, this isn’t about you. You are all, without fail, brilliant, well meaning, wise, devastatingly handsome/pretty and farsighted. This is about all of those other politicians. #notallpoliticians)

If years of fragments of daytime talk shows in car repair shop waiting rooms in the ’90s taught me anything -- and how couldn’t they, really -- it was that the moment of clarity usually comes after you hit bottom.

I had one of those recently.

The hitting-bottom part came when I realized that a very well-connected and powerful person for whom I had real respect suggested a game-changing idea for community colleges. Fairly beaming with pride at his breakthrough, he suggested that we work with local employers.

I was diplomatic. Rather than saying something like, “Gee, why didn’t our workforce development people think of that?” I just affected a polite smile and stared sadly into the middle distance. He didn’t have a clue about what we’ve been doing for years. And he’s one of the good ones.

The moment of clarity followed. Most of the people actually making higher ed public policy don’t know how any of this works. They may have gone to college, but that’s not the same as knowing how they work. They’ve never thought it through from the production side.

The annals of political philosophy teem with pieces on the tension between expertise and democracy. Plato’s philosopher-king made sense if you assumed that most people were just staring at shadow puppets. It’s a straight line from the “noble lie” to “you can’t handle the truth!” When democracies failed, or morphed into tyrannies, the lesson that political thinkers drew was that the masses can’t be trusted to govern themselves. They needed experts, often appointed directly by God.

America’s great contribution was to demonstrate that if you have a large and diverse enough group involved in politics, each group’s distinct idiocies are largely canceled out by those of other groups. That was the point of Madison’s analysis of factions in the Federalist Papers. But it only works when you have enough, and diverse enough, participation. (It’s easy to overlook now, but in the 1780s, the concept of a representative democracy covering people from Virginia to Vermont was considered insanely expansive. Historically, democracies had been much smaller.) Too much groupthink can give one group’s idiocies the power of law. And once that groupthink has force behind it, no institutional setup is enough to prevent abuses. Hungary, Turkey and Brazil are probably the best current examples, though certainly not the only ones.

The optimistic strain in American thought has tried to square the demands of expertise and democracy through mass education. If expertise is broadly shared, this school suggests, then the conflict can be minimized. Equip the masses with what they need to participate, and basic self-interest on their part will take it from there. Even if many people don’t vote, and even if many who do aren’t necessarily experts in much, mediating institutions like unions and political parties will provide enough organization and clarity to make up most of the difference.

Seen in that light, public higher education -- and especially the open-access variety -- is inevitably going to be politically contentious. That means that those of us who care about it need to be willing and able to engage with political people who may or may not have given the entire matter much thought. If we don’t, we cede the field to people with other agendas.

I’m thinking of working on a public higher education primer for politicians and other public figures who don’t work in the industry. Too often, they fall back on simplistic assumptions or anecdotes when making policy, with real consequences over time. It’s unrealistic to expect every political figure to study higher education deeply, and even more unrealistic to assume that many of them will have higher ed experience from the production side. But if we don’t translate key parts of our world into language they can understand, we won’t cancel out others’ idiocies.

One recent example of a primer working remarkably well would be Sara Goldrick-Rab’s #RealCollege campaign. She has brought issues of student basic needs to public awareness in ways that make sense even to people who might never have heard of a provost. I’m thinking about what a primer would look like from within administration.

Let’s prove ’90s daytime talk shows wrong and provide clarity before we hit bottom.

Wise and worldly readers, other than funding, what concept of college structure or practice do you wish legislators understood better than they do?


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