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Too much efficiency not good for higher education, March argues

STANFORD --Think of universities more as enduring temples to human potential than as factories producing educated people, James March urged about 60 educators at a recent School of Education talk on the drive for efficiency in higher education.

March, a professor of organizational behavior and decision-making in the Stanford schools of education and business, said institutions of higher learning cannot be wholly justified by their production of goods and services or their distribution of knowledge. They exist to "glorify and sustain a vision of human potential."

American colleges and universities are the "unconditional winners of international competition" -- more highly regarded around the world than American business institutions, March said, and that makes it ironic that higher education is now being pressured to adopt the efficiency methods of business.

Quoting from the recent dissertation of Gloria Marshall, one of his students, March said that of the 1,991 U.S. institutions that ever had granted four- year bachelor's degrees from 1630 to 1973, 1,458 still existed in 1973. Of those higher education institutions that had reached 80 years of age, two- thirds still existed.

"The change and the survival of these institutions is quite impressive, but it doesn't seem to be particularly a function of gaining efficiency," March said.

One sign that efficiency has not been as important in higher education as in industry, he said, is that there has been little concentration over time. "The largest university has, at most, 1 or 2 percent of the market. It depends on how you count these franchise operations like the University of California. If you count that as one institution, then you get up to 2 percent or more."

Colleges and universities don't compete in the same way as other businesses, he said. They still compete for students primarily on a local basis. Even among prestigious national institutions, such as Stanford and Harvard, about half the students come from no more than a few hundred miles away, March said.

"The competition that exists is to only a minor degree competition for numbers of students. It is competition, called signaling competition, [in which] we are competing for the value of the degree that we signal. That means we are competing largely for the quality of the students and the quality of the faculty."

As long as that remains the basis of competition, he said, "most of the standard steps toward efficiency -- toward improving the delivery of knowledge -- will probably hurt rather than help you" because there is no reason why efficiency will help an institution's reputation for having quality students and faculty.

Signaling competition, he said, has "led to great homogeneity with respect to the trappings of education, as weak institutions try to look like strong ones. All [college] catalogs look alike. I challenge you to read catalogs and find out which one is for which institution." But institutions do build niches based on their differing students, faculty and styles, March said.

Those who urge universities to become more efficient, he said, emphasize that they are in competition for scarce resources and that they need to pay increased attention to their customers -- the students or the eventual employers of those students -- to survive. This has led, he said, to an increased role for the administration, for development officers and public relations, and a reduced role for the academic establishment -- a "reduced role of the disciplines, reduced role of the research, reduced role of doctoral education, reduced role of the general faculty."

At Stanford, March said, the faculty "delegate to administrators all these minor issues of money, as long as they don't bother us. By the time they start bothering us, we've lost the capability of being involved in the activity."

Two efficiency problems

Theories of organizational survival and development, he said, posit a symbiotic relationship between organizational efficiency and adaptiveness. "By efficiency, we refer to the short-run improvement, refinement, routinization and elaboration of existing knowledge. Efficiency thrives on focus, precision, repetition, analysis, sanity, discipline, control."

Adaptiveness refers to the "long-term substitution of new technology, new knowledge, new strategies. It thrives on serendipity, experimentation, novelty, free association, madness, loose discipline and relaxed control.

"In most of these theories, these two are basically at odds with one another, but they are linked in a very deep symbiosis. Each requires the other, in order to contribute effectively to an organization's survival and prosperity. At the same time, however, each interferes with the other. They compete for scarce resources, and the natural processes [of each] tend to drive each other out."

The natural processes of learning "tend to drive out the experimentation that learning requires," he said, and the processes of analysis "tend to push you to one extreme or another."

The challenge for an adaptive system, he said, "is maintaining experimentation and exploration in the face of all the pressures of efficiency and exploitation to eliminate them." It is demonstrated in rational analysis courses as "the two-armed bandit" problem, he said, in which a student is placed in front of two slot machines with differing odds but doesn't know what the odds are. To determine which is the better machine, the student has to put some money into the one that pays off less well. The natural tendency, March said, is for people not to search long enough for the correct answer.

In the real world there is an added complication: The odds on the two alternatives can be changing all the time. "No one knows how much you should search under those circumstances."

Applying this to learning, he said the natural process is to fall into the "competency trap. You start something. If you're successful at it, you do it more. If you do it more, you'll get better at it. If you're successful at it, you're more likely to do it again, and before long, you are extremely competent at whatever technology you are accustomed to. Any change in technology or new strategy or behavior is, in the short run, not advantageous to you; you'll be punished for it, and that is a standard adaptive trap."

In that process, he said, "most of the things that we call efficiency tend to sacrifice the future for the present. Learning tends to have short time horizons, information tends to be relatively short. Of course, there is no long run if there isn't a short run. There's a special asymmetry of that world [in that] the long run is really a long string of short runs, but the short run is simply too visible to those who make decisions and those who learn. . . . That's particularly likely to be a problem with students, administrators, employees, all of whom are short- run participants in the system."

When constituencies pressure universities to produce practical knowledge too quickly, March cautioned, they tend to "produce the kind of program that devotes 50 percent of its resources to explaining what a great program it is."

Focus on local concerns

The second problem with efficiency, he said, is that it "tends to sacrifice general concerns for local concerns. Most of the pressures for efficiency tend to ignore the deep interconnectiveness of ecologies of people, actions and organizations. They ignore the fact that what is good in this near neighborhood is not necessarily good in a larger neighborhood." Although it is sensible to calculate the costs and benefits of units that are truly separable, he said, the calculators eventually "make mistakes" trying to separate subunits that aren't truly separable.

This suggests, he said, that the biggest endurance problem for institutions of higher education is to "protect adaptiveness from efficiency, buffering our actions from the immediate demands of our worlds, and that involves escaping the tyranny of consequentialist thought."

Consequentialist thought, he said, is that which allows a person to say he does something because he values its consequences. "It is what most of us mean when we [ask], why did you do something?"

Educational institutions viewed this way are factories distributing existing knowledge, products and services, he said. If they are viewed instead as temples, they are justified by "the way they symbolize and defend important human values."

The latter involves a commitment to knowledge that is not based on its usefulness. "We are committed to it because knowledge symbolizes an attitude about what glorifies the human condition."

Students in such a university, he suggested, "don't think of themselves as demanding customers asking for service, and faculty don't think of themselves as minimizing work. They think of themselves as committed to a proper behavior, because that's what a proper person does." The student who undertook the study of survival rates of higher education institutions took 18 years to earn her doctoral degree, he said, partly because she also had to work to earn money, but also because she refused to give up on a difficult dissertation topic that she considered worth doing.

Practical knowledge

Educators in March's audience, nevertheless, asked if U.S. higher education had not thrived precisely because of its usefulness. Several suggested that universities are viewed today as moving too slowly to provide practical knowledge to the world.

Foreign countries "emulate the U.S. land grant movement, the community college movement, practicality, utility, adoption of service as the third leg of the teaching/research triad," said Richard Lyman, Stanford president emeritus. "All of those things are what the rest of the world has not had while they built their temples to knowledge."

March conceded that his view is romantic and based on reading the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, rather than on the ideas of politicians who, in the 19th century, created the Land Grant Act, which financed a major expansion of U.S. higher education. "Kierkegaard said that any religion that can be justified consequentially is hardly a religion. It gains its character by the arbitrariness of the commitment," March said. "Any educational institution that can be justified is hardly an educational institution. It gains its character by the arbitrariness of our commitment to it."

"Agrarian socialism" merged with a "commitment to knowledge" in the history of U.S. higher education, he said, and its founders may have had more faith than he has that all of scholarship ultimately will be useful. "But the European universities, as they developed, I don't think created as much enthusiasm for knowledge as the Americans did."

That doesn't mean that all practicality can be ignored. "No organization works if the toilets don't work . . . leadership is a mixture of poetry and plumbing."

Asked whether he thought proposals in Congress to cut back on social science research funding suggested reduced public support, March said, "If our enthusiasm depends upon being bribed to do it, then we don't really have much enthusiasm for it. So our position should be, 'We are going to do this. If you are lucky, we'll allow you to support us,' but we are going to do it. That kind of attitude is the one that attracts support. I can't certify that, but I dearly wish it were true."

He cautioned, too, that the "discourse of efficiency" may not endure. "Just so you won't think that I'm completely innocent, many of the things I'm talking about would be very dear to the ears of Muslim fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists. We are talking about commitment, that if you tell somebody, 'That's crazy, you're about to walk into the fire,' they say, 'So what?' That should be mildly scary, but I'm not quite sure that efficiency is winning in the competition. I figure we might want to have deep beliefs that I like, rather than deep beliefs I don't like."

March finished with a quote from Don Quixote: "For a knight errant to make himself crazy for a reason merits neither credit nor thought. The point is to be foolish without any justification."



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