Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tell Me About the Bunnies, Simon

President Cuddle Bunny
By Finbarr Curtis

Simon Newman, the president of Mount St. Mary's University and academia's own incarnation of Martin Shkreli, recently made a public splash when the school newspaper reported on his proposed plan to improve academic retention rates by encouraging some students to drop out of college. He wanted to administer a survey, identify students with lower scores, and then dismiss these students before the University had to report its enrollment numbers. Newman's theory was that students with lower scores were more likely to eventually drop out and hurt retention rates, so he might as well get rid of them sooner rather than later.

Predictably, this plan met with opposition. While specific details are fuzzy, it appears that the program was never enacted as faculty did not produce names of students to dismiss in time for the deadline. When emails discussing the program were leaked by his critics, Newman promptly sought the resignation of the Provost and fired a couple faculty members who opposed him.

Newman was capable of outside-the-box thinking because he is no educator.  His professional biography cites his master of business administration degree from Stanford followed by an illustrious 30-year business career that started at Bain Co and and LEK Consulting.  This career appears to have taught him that human suffering is necessary "collateral damage" of profitable business practices.  Newman informed educators that their desire to educate students was a sign of weak will. As he explained, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

Presumably, Newman was brought in to shake up academic culture, to innovate through creative disruption.  Recruiting talent from the corporate world has become increasingly popular among presidential search committees who subscribe to a familiar American myth that corporations are especially well run. The way this narrative goes is that unlike government bureaucracies and educational institutions, private corporations encourage competition and reward innovation.

There is no doubt that Newman has disrupted things. Like many innovators, he does not actually propose creative solutions to problems as much as he proposes ways of branding these problems as novel experiments in success.  In reality, private corporations, like all organizations, are efficient in some ways and inefficient in others. What Newman's career teaches is that if you suspend all considerations for human welfare in the interest of a single-minded pursuit of making money, you are likely to make a lot of money.

There is no pedagogical value to Newman's scheme. However, if one suspended the desire to educate as well as any sense of human decency, there is a diabolical sort of logic to Newman's idea. He hopes to employ Enron-style creative accounting in order to game the numbers, to give the appearance of increasing graduation rates even though a greater number of students are dropping out of school.  In other words, you make the school worse if you think a school is a place that educates students.  But you make the school better if you think a school is a corporate brand.

Maybe the most illuminating aspect of the bunny-killing ethos is what it tells us about how Newman succeeded in the corporate world.  He did not succeed by being good at his job. He succeeded by giving the appearance that he was good at his job.  People climb corporate ladders for diverse reasons.  Sometimes, they show up and perform well.  But another path to career advancement is to become an expert practitioner of games of smoke and mirrors.  These kinds of corporate operatives understand the power of confidence and bluster, and they develop expertise in taking credit for other people's work and shifting blame for their own failures.

The corporate veterans who take leadership positions at universities come entirely from the confidence and bluster school of management.  What all hot-shot MBA presidents, whether at the University of Iowa, the University of Missouri, or Mount St. Mary's, have in common is the chutzpah to demand large compensation packages for jobs for which they are entirely unqualified.  The only people who would be willing to do this are those convinced that qualifications and job performance have nothing to do with advancement and compensation.

To someone whose success depends not on doing a job but on appearing to do a job, critics like the faculty and provost at Mount St. Mary's pose an existential threat. Rather than conscientious and engaged critics, the corporate-style university president seeks to instill the organizational culture immortalized in the classic film Office Space, in which good employees ask "Is this good for the company?"  What Newman fails to understand is that what might be good for the company is not always good for the school.

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