Discover more from Drezner’s World
A Politician, a Lawyer, and a Management Consultant Walk Into a University....
A key component of the Ideas Industry faces some real dangers
When I wrote The Ideas Industry six years ago, I noted that universities faced challenges but also held an advantage over other organizations like think tanks: in addition to producing ideas, they also were teaching students. Back then, higher education was attracting a boatload of international students, making it one of the leading U.S. export sectors.
That was then. Unfortunately, the three trends I identified in The Ideas Industry that were transforming the marketplace of ideas have accelerated rather than abated. The erosion of trust in institutions is ongoing, causing a 20-point decline in trust in higher ed from 2015 to today. Political polarization is persisting as well, with knock-on effects on higher education. As for the rise of plutocrats, Elon Musk and his ilk sure seem interested in boosting thought leaders with just the slightest tinge of racism. Combine all of this with the decline of the college wealth premium and you have a recipe for trouble.
Unfortunately, this challenging climate is encouraging politicians and college administrators to turn to another component of the Ideas Industry to affect change in the way universities do their business: the management consultant. And for Exhibit A, all one has to do is look at Florida.
Drezner’s World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The New York Times’ Michael Sokolove recently profiled Ben Sasse, the former U.S. Senator-turned-University-of-Florida-president at the behest of Ron DeSantis. To be fair to Sasse, he’s almost qualified for the position. Sasse holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale and before that was the president of a small college in Nebraska. He styles himself a thought leader. Furthermore, as Sokolove notes, he and DeSantis are ideological kindred spirits: “Sasse does not have DeSantis’s barbed-wire personality, but it would be difficult to say where their politics diverge.”
The problem is that Sasse was also a management consultant. And it’s very clear from Sokolove’s story that this is how he thinks of his job as University of Florida’s president:
[Sasse] was previously a management consultant for more than a decade, at Boston Consulting Group and as an external adviser to McKinsey & Company, and that is the language he speaks. According to U.F.’s acting provost, Scott Angle, Sasse has been holding dinners at his home to learn more about U.F. and talking with “a cadre of consultants who have fanned out” across campus and beyond. A copy of the contract for this work, obtained through a public-records request, shows that McKinsey is getting $4.7 million to provide guidance on “strategic management.” Sasse told his audience that “an age of technological disruption” was coming, one that would be “scary” and “opportunity filled.” He said they needed to create a “data-saturated environment.”….
Sasse’s words sometimes tumble out in a kind of techno-futurist patois that can be hard to follow. In response to a question about his perceived invisibility on campus, he veered off into something about the future of pedagogy. “And that requires us to unbundle cohorting, community and synchronicity from co-localities,” he said. Later, he added, “What will today’s generic term ‘professor’ mean when you disaggregate syllabus designer, sage-on-the-stage lecturer, seminar leader, instructional technologist, grader, assessor, etc.?”
A few thoughts on Sasse’s management consultese:
As God is my witness, I have no idea what “unbundle cohorting, community and synchronicity from co-localities” means. Was Sasse high when he agreed to this interview?
You can pry my syllabus from my cold, dead, tenured hands. I’ll begrudgingly add explanatory segments to my syllabi at the university’s behest — things that make it look more like a terms of service agreement — if they insist on it. But I’m not teaching someone else’s syllabus. So Sasse can just piss right off when it comes to disaggregating the components of a professor’s job.
As someone who has written about management consultants and experienced them first-hand at my university, I have serious doubts about whether their approach can yield much in the way of improved performance. Maybe — maybe — consultants can improve the non-teaching side of universities. The overall McKinsey track record beyond the for-profit sector is, how to put this, not good. As with governments, all too often I suspect the consultants are being brought in to promote an idea that university leadership already wants to do.
The price of the management consultants is another way that university administrators can try to lock in their preferred changes. After all, it would be pretty stupid to pay north of $4 million to commission a strategy and then decide not to go forward, right?
The most telling moment in the Sokolove story, however, comes when he wonders whether DeSantis’ assault on New College is a harbinger of things to come: “I asked Sasse if New College was a test run and if DeSantis might soon exert his will in a similar way at U.F. ‘How big is New College?’ he parried.”
Sounds like a decent answer! Except that very few Florida faculty believes Sasse. There was mounting evidence about the disenchantment of Florida’s professoriate: (see here and here for example. Now there’s additional evidence: Axios’ Kathryn Varn reports about a survey of more than 640 college faculty members in Florida:
Nearly half of Florida respondents said they planned to find jobs in other states within the year. About a quarter said they'd interviewed for jobs in other states at some point since the beginning of 2021.
85% said they wouldn't recommend teaching in the Sunshine State to a graduate student or colleague.
95% described the political atmosphere around higher education as bad or very bad.
Faculty members and advocates have already said a brain drain has begun and the results signal it will continue without a change in the state's approach to higher education.
The tragedy of all of this is that the University of Florida seemed to be an exemplar of what a flagship campus should be. As Sokolove reports:
It doesn’t go hunting for out-of-state students and the inflated tuitions they bring. Ninety-two percent of its 35,000 undergraduates come from Florida; for many other flagship universities, the figure is not much over 50 percent, and for some, like the University of Alabama, it barely cracks 40 percent. By current standards, they pay a bargain rate: $6,380 for a full year. (And many of its students qualify for Florida’s Bright Futures program and attend free, housing included.) In exchange, they get to go to a highly regarded school…. Last year, U.S. News ranked the University of Florida fifth among public universities.
That seems like an institution worth preserving. Which makes it all the sadder that politicians obsessed with conservative political correctness are using management consultants to make things worse in the ideas industry.