3 Reasons Every Academic Should Read "Double Down"

Being smart is not enough.

November 13, 2013

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann 

Do you think it is weird that I am saying that higher ed people should put down their higher ed related books and pick up this political tale?

Maybe Kissinger’s words are ringing in your ears, "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

3 reasons why you should be reading Double Down:

1. Being Smart Is Not Near Enough:

The revelation for me in reading Double Down is how well Romney and his team come across. Romney was advised by a group of hyper-smart and hyper-confident professionals. This intelligence and competence, however, shielded the Romney team from understanding that the electoral ground had fundamentally shifted in 2012. That they were running a campaign that may have worked in a time of less diversity and less income inequality, but not in 2012.   

In higher ed we need to make sure that our intelligence and competence does not get in the way of us seeing that the fundamental context in which higher ed is operating may have also shifted.

2. We Underestimate the Importance of Low-Probabilty, High-Impact Events:

Do you remember the video secretly made at a fundraising event of candidate Romney talking about how 47% of the electorate will never vote for him because they are dependent on government? Or the impact that Hurricane Sandy had in the last few days of the election, sidelining Romney while Obama was able to helicopter around New Jersey with Chris Christie surveying the damage and offering help? Or even Clint Eastwood’s decision to spend 20 minutes lecturing a chair on stage during the last night of the GOP convention?   

None of these events could have been predicted, and all had a huge impact on the final result of the election.   

What we learn from Double Down is that the Romney campaign never really learned how to respond to the unexpected. So determined to be consistent (and not be accused of flip-flopping), they were unable to be flexible and agile.

In edtech and higher ed we do not know what low-probabilty, high-impact events will ruin our best laid plans. We can’t know. But we need to get good at overcoming unexpected hurdles. We need to build flexibility and agility into our institutional structures and academic cultures.

3. We Should Enjoy Ourselves More

The characters that come off best in Double Down are those that don’t always take themselves too seriously. Candidates, pollsters, fixers, strategists - anyone able to laugh at themselves and see the essential absurdity of the whole election process manages to seem sympathetic and likable.  

By far the most interesting character in Double Down is not Obama or Romney, but Chris Christie. Big Boy (the nickname the Double Down authors give to the NJ Governor) might have been able to beat Obama, as the public and the press loved his no-nonsense approach and the fact that he seemed to actually enjoy the political process. But he decided to stay out of the race, as he made the determination that simply was not ready to be President in 2012.  Double Down will be a great launching pad for Christie in 2016.

I’m not saying that we should all act like bellicose NJ Republican governors on our campuses. But maybe we could spend less time hand-wringing and worrying, and more time enjoying ourselves while we say what’s on our minds.

What are you reading?


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