Procrustes’ Market

My knee jerks pretty hard when I read an argument that because a service or institution does not behave like a perfect model market in economics, it must be changed until it conforms to the model. There is wreckage strewn all around the world from attempts to lop off limbs and contort reality in order to make non-model markets fit into a Procrustean bed.

So this is part of my problem with Dylan Matthews’ latest analysis of the cost of higher education: it is another example of a think-tanky Beltway writer with the generic hammer of neoclassical economics running around pounding down a world full of nails. But there are important and legitimate points made along the way.

For one, it’s true that education fits what economists call an “experience good”, though that’s a little like saying that life is an “experience good” and if you only had more information you’d make proper consumer decisions about living from seven to seventy. Life–and learning–aren’t just commodities that should be evaluated in some abstracted way by a universal rationality, even though life–and learning–have a big price tag. Even if there was all the information in the world, you couldn’t make the correct decision.

I point this out often to students when we’re discussing which class to take, or to prospectives who are thinking about applying to Swarthmore. There is a lot of information that you could acquire about courses or about colleges that you could reasonably use to assemble a decision matrix. What size is the class or the college? Do you have a good reason for thinking that you flourish in small or large classes or institutions? What do you think you need in terms of knowledge or training? What kinds of environments and teaching styles do you enjoy or find stimulating? And so on–this often information you could have, and sometimes, I agree, information that is hard to come by that shouldn’t be so hard to get.

But then think on all the things that make a difference in a class or a university that you cannot possibly know about no matter how much information you have. The friends you will make. The people you will love. The mentors who will strike a chord with you. The class that will surprise you and change your views of everything. The chance experience you have that will transform you. You can find an environment that is rich in people, in time, in resources, in the unexpected (and some colleges and classes are impoverished in all or most of those). But you can’t determine any of the specifics with all the information in the world and yet it is these specifics that create the most “added value”. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s not the person who just had the experience who will value the commodity most (or rue it most dearly), it’s the person you will be in the years to come. That person is not you in so many ways: you are today very very bad at predicting what that person needed or wanted and you always will be bad at it. If we could sue our younger selves, many of us probably would.

So the people who look and say, “Oh, just make sure there’s more information and people will make the choices that economists think they ought to make” are doomed to disappointment. Which would be fine if they would consent to just being disappointed but policy wonks tend to think that when the outcome that the models predicted doesn’t happen, the answer is to make people behave like the models said they would.

Matthews also indulges the “more administrators equals more budgetary bloat” argument straight out of Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty. Again, there’s something to it: large universities especially have added layer upon layer of administrative hierarchy and organizational complexity to little perceptible gain. But the way that Ginsberg lays it out, it’s a Manichean drama with the noble, voluntarily parsimonious faculty on one side and the sinister imperial administrators on the other, with the administrators grabbing territory for no reason other than “because that’s what they do”.

Go deeper and there’s several things at work. The first is way more important than Ginsberg (or Matthews) credit, which is the massive growth in “external mandates”, e.g., regulations and legal obligations that have been slapped onto universities and colleges (both public and private) without any attention to the costs of compliance. This is one of the few areas where I’m fairly sympathetic to a common conservative refrain about businesses: the desired outcomes of regulation are often very important, but it’s equally important not to act as if they are free. Equally important are “internal mandates”: new administrative staff who are brought on board to answer a demand made by faculty and students. It really grates on me when someone like Ginsberg complains about administrative bloat without an audit of the role of faculty themselves in creating the need for many administrative positions. Not infrequently, when I’m talking with a colleague who talks about how there are too many administrators (here specifically or generically in academia), if I ask, “So which positions do you have in mind in specific”, I get a lot of vague hand-waving. Or I get a named position and then I ask who is going to do the work that the person doing that work now does, and it’s usually, “Oh, someone else on staff will just have to do more work”, which is not exactly what you’d call grand solidarity between laboring people. Very rarely can a critic name an overall kind of administrative work that simply should not be done at all, and usually when they can they’re just being stupid or self-destructive.

Though in the end this is the kind of thinking that maybe we do need, and not just about institutional or instructional support, but about instruction itself. The basic thrust of Matthews’ analysis is fair enough: until they have to, institutions of all kinds (including companies) do not often think about what they shouldn’t be doing, or what they don’t need to do. And when they have to it’s usually too late to make those decisions judiciously and ethically. You want that a faculty and an administration and students should work and live in a progressively more focused or generative way all the time, to operate sustainably (with all that implies, environmentally and otherwise). Living sustainably means at least thinking about costs, and not thinking about costs (or making other people think about them) makes a savage, degrading reckoning with reality an inevitability.

But mindfulness of cost does not mean an abstemious, starveling existence. It doesn’t mean lopping off your feet so you don’t have to worry about the expense of boots any longer. Education, life and other “experience goods” are partly valued for their unpredictable excesses, their moments of giddy and unexpected sensation. A grey, spare, brutalist education in which one always received the training that was expected in order to service the need that was defined would impoverish more than professors and administrators.

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4 Responses to Procrustes’ Market

  1. Contingent Cassandra says:

    It has occurred to me that one way to chip away at several problems at once would be to require administrators to be (1)capable of teaching an introductory or core course in a traditional discipline (no “higher ed administration” for M.A. students, at least not as the only option) and (2) to do so regularly. Yes, that would mean that their duties would need to be scaled back in other areas, but it might be easier on everybody involved (except, perhaps, the adjuncts who would be replaced) than eliminating whole positions, and it would decrease the perspective gap between faculty and administrators a bit. It wouldn’t work for every administrative position, but, if hiring were done with this requirement in mind, it could work for quite a few. Tying administrative and faculty salaries to each other in some logical way (that takes into account 9- vs. 12-month distinctions, while also acknowledging that many supposedly 9-month faculty members do, in fact, have to work during the summer to keep up with research, service, and/or teaching) might also get things back in perspective. We definitely can’t fire all the administrators, but it’s also impossible to have a university without a sustainable faculty, and, at many institutions, we’re perilously close to the tipping point on that one.

  2. I’m glad to see you make the case for administrative staff. Those reasons for its/their growth rarely appear. And the faculty disdain is, well, sad.

  3. Chris says:

    More directly related to some of your earlier posts, but do you have any comment on your colleague, Barry Schwartz’s thoughts on the future of liberal arts education?

  4. Barry says:

    Contingent, somebody pointed out that the ‘professionalization’ of university administration meant a huge shift from professors to management. When a large proportion of the ‘managers’ were regular professors, they both made the decisions and held the executive knowledge.

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