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Alright, Gladwell, you win this round.

Last year I tried to capture the tension between the culture of artisanal production and the need for scale by reference to an anecdote from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants. This week Malcolm Gladwell did it better with a reference to curing cancer.

(Exhale) Fine.  

I’ll admit to liking Gladwell, even though some folks would consider that a form of heresy.  He’s remarkably adept at using anecdotes to illustrate complicated points, and he writes clearly. I also liked his speech at the AACC last year, extolling the virtues of community colleges, but I was already in his camp before that.  He isn’t quite at Michael Lewis levels of amazing, but respect must be paid.  

(Everyone knows Moneyball and The Blind Side, and rightly so. But to get a sense of why Michael Lewis makes me feel like the authorial equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer, check out this podcast that he did on This American Life.  It’s so good that writerly jealousy is just beside the point. People could teach classes on it.)

Anyway, Gladwell’s piece translates nicely into higher ed. It’s about the tension between the freewheeling borderline-anarchy that makes breakthroughs likely, and the rules and clear lines of authority that can bring those breakthroughs to scale. Too much deference to rules, and the moon-shot risks that sometimes pay off can’t happen.  Too little deference to rules, and the moon shots that pay off don’t get taken up, because everyone is doing her own thing.  

Gladwell’s story is of rogue oncologists (!) who developed drug protocols that helped patients with cancer, but who couldn’t get heard in their own profession. A relative lack of respect for evidence meant that people continued to adhere to rules that had long failed to work.  Patients died because there was no effective way to bring the innovations into wide use quickly. Everybody wanted to be rogue. It’s more fun.

I’m seeing a similar tension -- if at somewhat lower stakes -- between institutional academic freedom and individual academic freedom. When an experiment shows signs of working, and a college tries to scale it up, the pushback is often quick and severe. The very same people who champion ‘shared governance’ will reject it if it requires them to change what they’re doing. I had a discussion just a few weeks ago with someone who believed that “shared governance” means never telling anyone what to do. I had to wonder what he thought “governance” meant.  

At nearly every conference I attend, I hear someone refer to the “not invented here” syndrome. It’s a shorthand way of capturing the resistance to any idea imported from somewhere else, no matter how good it is.  Sometimes the resistance is warranted and sometimes not, but I’m struck by the ubiquity of that flavor of response. As academics, we may be good at examining the ways that other organizations function, but we’re weirdly uncritical of our own.

Gladwell does his usual excellent job of delineating the dilemma, but to his credit, he doesn’t land on a pat answer. I don’t have one, either. Too much standardization, and no innovations are born; too little, and each innovation dies alone in a corner. We’re very good at spotting the first danger. I hope we get better at understanding the second.