A Moon Shot Without Rocket Science

Why is it so hard to tackle big problems when the solutions seem so obvious?

November 10, 2014

As usual, after I rant about some big systemic issue – last week it was the pointlessness of paying so much attention to polishing the surface of things in competition against one another while the core of who we are and what we do empties out – people ask “so what? What are we supposed to do about it?” Pointing at problems is always easier than coming up with solutions. But I think solutions are possible, even practical - just complex.  

Let me state a few assumptions first.

  • Every person matters. We can’t fix the problems we face by disadvantaging others. If, to meet productivity goals without going bonkers, a department or institution offloads teaching responsibilities to underpaid adjuncts, that’s a patch, not a solution.
  • The public good matters. We can’t simply assume that what benefits us individually or our institutions will benefit the public. It’s not possible to avoid looking out for ourselves, but self-interested benefits  don’t trickle down. We need to maintain some balance between what is good for us individually (and institutionally) and what is good for everyone.
  • Honesty matters. One of the most destructive things about  the triumph of grandiose self-fashioning is that it institutionalizes and rewards dishonesty. It substitutes truthiness for integrity. Higher education is neither a finishing school nor a production facility for published objects. It’s a place where people practice the pursuit of truth. That sounds grandiose, but actually it’s not, it’s grand. There’s a difference.

Now, on to some specifics.

First, to draw on the wisdom of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t panic. The problems we face are human ones. That’s good news. We made them. We can fix them.

Second – low-hanging fruit – we could reconsider the ways we decide which faculty members are worthy of employment during a time of austerity. It’s not surprising that we use publications and grants – vetting that other people do – as a proxy for an individual’s quality. But when (for reasons that have nothing to do with productivity) we have too few full-time positions for too many qualified experts, credential inflation becomes a problem. We could ask every candidate for tenure and promotion to choose a limited number of items that are representative of their best work rather than demand that they do lots of it in all the right places and show all their work. Scholars could then focus on doing good work rather than worry about producing volumes of it. As a bonus, we’d have fewer papers to review and less half-baked stuff to sort through to keep up with what’s new in the field.  

Third, when it comes to institutional decision-making don’t assume malice aforethought without good reason. Issues any institution of higher education face involve a lot of people who, for the most part, aren’t malicious. That doesn’t make the problems less complex, but it may help us arrive at solutions if we assume that people with whom we disagree may have perfectly reasonable, practical grounds for taking the positions they do and that all of us have some blind spots. Academics respect training and expertise. We can’t assume that administrators don’t have those things. Often they do, and they see things differently than faculty because they know more of the gory details about the area for which they are responsible. Likewise, assuming all faculty are arrogant know-nothings who want to call the shots even though they don’t understand the real-world challenges an institution faces is not helpful. We’ll make better decisions if we’re all informed, and to do that we’ll  need to spend some of our time and energy trying to understand institutional matters. We need to have a shared understanding of what we ideally want coupled with a the capacity to trust one another’s expertise and good will to make it happen – and to hold one another accountable for mistakes made along the way. That's time consuming. It means we have to stop focusing exclusively on what we personally care about most, our comfortable areas of expertise, to care about the larger systems we’re part of, and we need to be able and willing to explain our piece of it without getting defensive. But we'll make better decisions.

My final thought: beyond our institutions, we need to think about broader systems that have an impact on our work. Our disciplines, our departments, our institutions all are responding to larger interconnected economic, social, and natural systems that intersect in complicated ways. None of the big problems facing higher ed can be fixed in isolation from the other systems. One thing that the recent Ebola outbreak should teach us is that many hard problems can be approached with relatively simple solutions. Ebola is a dangerous but treatable disease, given a functional public health infrastructure. What we cannot do is let people in a large portion of the world live precariously and then try to protect ourselves from outbreaks by beefing up our local infrastructure and sealing our borders. It’s inefficient and unfair – and it doesn’t even work.  

When we approach big problems, like the over-emphasis on surface over substance, it’s not something any one of us can solve individually simply by making different choices (though a lot of us will need to make different choices if this is going to change). It’s not something we can entrust to the experts because these problems involve numerous interconnected spheres of expertise. It’s not something we can leave to market forces or to government officials. It’s something we’ll need to work on collectively. These problems are ours to solve. 

To once again draw from the response to the latest Ebola outbreak, I was struck by two different messages in one New York Times story. Treating the disease is not “rocket science” according to Daniel Bausch of Tulane University, but the article concludes with Paul Farmer of Partners in Health saying that too many people have grown resigned to scarcity and what we really need is “a medical moon shot.” It’s not that these problems don’t have solutions. It’s that they’re embedded in complex webs of connected systems involving lots of people, mostly well-meaning but unable to see how connected one problem is to another, unable to grasp one another's perspectives. We need to have the will to figure out how to tackle big problems together. It’s that last bit - working together - that’s the hardest part.



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