Academic Senate

Op-Ed: Higher Education and the “Temptation of Unity”
Cezar M. Ornatowski, ASCSU Senator (San Diego)

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One of the consequences of the recent economic downturn has been a trend toward increasing centralization and standardization within the CSU system, as well as within higher education generally. While capitalizing on economies of scale and maximizing potential “synergies” within the system (for instance, in terms of combining the purchasing power of the 23 individual universities) make economic sense, duplication within the system office of functions (with attendant administrations) that have traditionally belonged to individual universities, such as Study Abroad or “Teaching and Learning” Centers or Institutes, makes less sense. The latter is part of the general tendency of the CSU system office to regard itself as THE CSU. (Referring to “CSU campuses” not “CSU universities,” is a symptom of this tendency.) Yet, students think of themselves as attending, or being alumni of, Sonoma State University, San Francisco University, or San Diego State University, not the CSU. Similarly, donors tend to identify with and give money to specific universities, not to the system.

But there is another aspect to centralization, and that is the tendency toward standardization. While centralization and standardization are not necessarily related causally, both are symptoms of a broader phenomenon that I call the “temptation of unity.” The temptation of unity usually emerges in difficult times; it is the perennial temptation of those who feel threatened, put upon, confused, or besieged.

The temptation of unity, once it takes hold on the collective (especially the managerial and legislative) imagination, has a tendency to “rationalize” everything in its path. Why have 15 of X when you can have one? Why have confusing, and expensive, choices when we can cut and simplify? Why let it take longer, or make it crooked when you can make it short and straight? Why let everybody do their own thing when you can standardize and supervise? Why pay for God-knows-what when you can have “outcomes,” preferably standard, thus “measurable” and “accountable” ones?

Take, for example, such initiatives as creating “seamless” paths from high school to college and from community college to university; the “common course numbering system” between CSU campuses, community colleges, or the CSU and UC systems; the 120/180 unit limit on bachelor’s degrees; and the various intrusions into the curriculum through, for instance, imposed “performance measures” or “outcomes.” All of these tend—down the road—toward uniformity and standardization, and thus diminish the diversity that had traditionally been the hallmark of American higher education.

Diversity, in the broadest sense, is a major factor in promoting creativity and innovation, which economists regard as a major contributor to economic success. “Economic life develops by grace of innovating,” Jane Jacobs claims in her classic Cities and the Wealth of Nations. According to a group of experts from the US, Switzerland, and Japan, “innovation lies at the heart of the economic prosperity and welfare of society…[U]ncovering the conditions that facilitate innovation could hasten advances in technologies that tackle global issues, from clean energy generation to food production to remediation of environmental damage.” . . . (“Hunting for Keys to Innovation: The Diversity and Mixing of Occupations Do Not Explain a City’s Patent and Economic Productivity.” Charles D. Brummitt, Andres Gomez-Lievano, Nicolas Goudemand, Gareth Haslam. Sept. 15, 2012, Web). Innovation has traditionally been America’s, and especially California’s, key to economic success, just as diversity has been a key to America’s political success.

Diversity implies two kinds of differences: differences in ethnicity, culture, or language (“identity diversity”) and differences in experiences and perspectives, in how people represent problems and how they approach them (“functional diversity”). The two are interrelated, since identity diversity usually implies also at least some degree of functional diversity. Research shows that functionally diverse groups outperform homogenous groups in creativity and problem solving. In fact, diversity may count for more than ability or expertise. In a 2004 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page found that “when selecting a problem-solving team from a diverse population of intelligent agents, a team of randomly selected agents outperforms a team comprised of the best-performing agents. . . . [R]elatively greater ability is more than offset by . . . lack of problem-solving diversity.” (“Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers.” http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16385.full)

One of the major reasons the Soviet bloc lost the Cold War was lack of innovation, which was discouraged by the centralized economic system as well as by a standardized, lock-step educational system. In the early 1980s, the martial law government in Poland initiated reforms to allow a greater variety in textbooks, in approaches and curricula, and in giving (selected) students some leeway in selecting their courses of study. It was too little too late. After the political transition of 1989, education reforms (in which I participated as a consultant to the Ministry of Education) attempted to imitate the Western, especially the US, "open" system of electives, individual paths to degree, competition between universities and programs, and so on—in other words, to implement the system which many in California today want to dismantle in the name of economic prudence.

Between 2003 and 2006, I served as evaluator to a three-year educational reform project in post-Soviet Armenia. The project was part of the effort to help Armenia become a modern, competitive economy. As part of the project, I spent two weeks in Armenia, observing classes and talking to Armenian students, teachers, administrators, and officials. They all saw the abandonment of the post-Soviet centralized, standardized educational system as a condition for Armenia's economic and civic progress.

As a culture, we value diversity because we think (and research, as well as history, appear to bear us out) that difference—bringing together different people with different experiences, perspectives, and approaches—adds value to whatever enterprise. That is why American universities typically do not employ their own graduates.

From this perspective, the fact that each student takes different electives than other students in the "same" major, that each student’s degree is a little different (even when they major in the “same” discipline), that each academic program is a little different from those at other universities (even within the same system), and that each faculty member teaches different things (even within the putatively “same” course) is a potential source of creativity and innovation. Such diversity, while more “expensive” in the short-term, is a capital we should protect, especially in difficult economic times (paradoxically, centralization and standardization are typically justified as economic measures).

Choice, variety, diversity are confusing, unruly, and, yes, more “expensive” and “wasteful,” as is freedom itself (and they do not lend themselves to neat administrative reporting). Institutions by definition tend toward centralization, uniformity, rationalization, and “managerialization.” As a response to economic hardship, however, such tendencies in higher education may be, in the long term, precisely the wrong medicine.