Why, Why, Why?

In a FB conversation I let loose with the idea that the leadership at a former institution had worked hard to reduce the kinds of things that contributed to its once great reputation. And I said “Educational malpractice in my book.” A few correspondents said, “hmmm, say more.”

TL;DR: the college’s onetime world brand was deliberately undone by decimating the faculty so the college could be steered in a new direction. It didn’t work.

In design we often do an exercise called “5 whys” where we keep asking “and why does/did that happen?” One has to channel one’s inner three year old. But working back to a cause we can grapple with often helps avoid misdiagnosis.

So instead of just accepting enrollment crash as an explanation, ask why that happened.

One of the answers, I believe, is the hollowing of the academic core, abandonment of the traditional liberal arts model without a vision of a new one, and shifting of resources to ancillary support programming which became the centerpiece of the “brand” presented to the world along with a shift to hyper-local focus.

I think these turned out to be bad bets.

A few people choose a college or university on the basis of such things, but not many. And very few will come across the country or world for it. Many families who can afford tuition won’t pay for it and neither will many of those who have to go into debt for college.

This is not rocket science. It wasn’t rocket science 5 years ago.

At the end of the day, the faculty deliver the thing that people choose a college for. Starting several years ago the institution’s leadership team seemed to choose to see the faculty as the problem and obstacle and whittled away at it. Very successfully. A lot of folks were forced into retirements they did not want. Folks with tenure were effectively fired. Others made the rational decision to take advantage of other opportunities when the admin waved bogus data at colleagues and said “your field is no longer of interest to young people.”

And the “new” institution? The supportive environment and engagement with the local community are wonderful and needed in higher ed, but if you don’t have a robust academic program behind it, it’s just icing on a fake cake. And if you radically slim down your faculty and curriculum, you don’t have a robust academic program. And people can tell.

This doesn’t mean students can’t find a way to get an excellent education from what remains. Some will. But lots of potential students will look elsewhere.

Maybe “malpractice” was a bit hyperbolic. I was referring to bending and reshaping an institution in a manner that the folks in your bubble applaud, and that some students sign up for, when in fact you have no plan or capacity to actually make it work. You’ll leave them in the lurch when you get your next job, rewarded, perhaps, for handling a crisis so well (n.b., the entire team of faculty members selected to guide the new institution c2018 has taken jobs elsewhere). Just kind of reminded me of a surgeon who totally botched an operation.

Throw in the effective destruction of some folks’ careers (and the estrangement of others from an institution they’d given their lives to) in order to get your way and it feels even a little more mal-.

Why? Why? Why? indeed.

One comment

  1. Not knowing the specifics except through you, the only thing I can say is that the average life of a Fortune 500 corporation is 15 years. Colleges last decades or centuries. Some try crazy or idiotic things and fail, and the cases attract a lot of attention although they are rare by any measure.

    That still doesn’t excuse closing down with a still significant endowment and physical campus. Who does the management want to preserve the capital for?

    The end of a college hurts all its former students and faculty, and few care about a failed car or computer brand. But the only surprise is how uncommon college failures are.

    Like

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