Radical simplification redux

Radical simplification redux
Photo by Sarah Dorweiler / Unsplash

Widespread agreement is rare in higher education. But one thing seems to resonate strongly with just about everyone: The entire enterprise of higher education is too darn complex, and everyone involved would be well served in engaging in radical simplification – that is, taking a critical eye to, well, everything; and if a policy, procedure, practice, or anything else causes more problems than it solves, ditch it and don't look back.

Late last year, Jeff Young at EdSurge asked me to write a brief article about what I'd learned so far over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. That article showed up here, and I reposted it here with some additional thoughts not found in the EdSurge article. That's where I first voice this idea, in terms of what I have learned to stop doing. Namely, I have made a commitment to identifying pointless tasks and stop doing those, which is what I mean by radically simplifying.

The idea seems to have legs. I was asked to talk even more about it on the Helix Education podcast with Eric Olsen. Here is the trailer, via a sweet animated clip:

(My animated avatar is a lot better-looking than I am.) And here is the entire episode:

And here are a couple of additional thoughts that so far have appeared nowhere.

How far should we take radical simplification?

I think most higher ed folks can get on board with identifying bureaucratic items that don't seem to serve any real purpose and eliminating them without mercy. Meetings that don't really need to happen? Policies that seem to be no more than food for the filing cabinet? Procedures that duplicate effort or go nowhere like an M.C. Escher staircase?  Off with their heads! (Figuratively speaking.)

But what about other items in the university that "serve no real purpose"? Should we just cut anything that apparently consumes more than it produces — for example, academic programs with stagnant or declining enrollments, or faculty positions that cost more than the revenue they generate? Or even administrative positions that seem useless to the average person?

If we mindlessly apply the radical simplification idea to anything that "doesn't produce", we run the risk of turning higher education into a corporate dystopia where we are all slaves to shareholder capitalism. Regular readers of this blog know that I am on record as saying higher education has a lot to learn from the corporate sector, and we would be well served to be curious, not judgmental about the corporate world, learning where we can and appropriating what can be useful. But a slavish devotion to efficiency and "shareholder value" is not one of those things. (And if you look around, the best companies out there don't subscribe to that devotion themselves.)

When we encounter a potential simplification that incurs a human cost, or a cost to the core mission of the institution, we need to take a breath and think carefully about what "serving a purpose" means. If you're a small liberal arts college, for example, and the number of majors in your Philosophy program is declining, the shareholder-capitalist response would say: Downsize the Philosophy Department and reinvest the resources in something that's "working". Some schools are doing exactly that. This makes sense from the standpoint of maximizing "shareholder" value. But it doesn't make sense from the standpoint of being a liberal arts college. At least, cutting programs and faculty should be the response of last resort, once a good-faith effort to build that program back up has taken place.

Who gets to decide what to simplify?  

That's the other question. Obviously administrators do. This is part of their job as managers, to make decisions about how best to allocate finite resources. This means making decisions, period; and making decisions to remove items from the university in a mindful way, takes a certain courage.

A good administrator has the courage to take simplifying steps while also seeing the entire playing field and understanding the human and institutional costs of those steps. A bad administrator makes one (or both!) of two mistakes. They either lack that courage, and fail to make decisions at all — instead, trying in vain to give everybody everything they want, and instead making everybody unhappy. Or, they oversimplify and don't take the human/institutional cost, or any other nuance, into account — they subscribe to an ideology instead, and like a zealot, seek only to align their actions with the ideology.

And what about people who aren't administrators? To what extent can rank-and-file faculty like me, and including contingent faculty, radically simplify things? Obviously there's much less power involved and so some things, while obviously pointless, can't be removed. I cannot decide just to skip my next committee meeting just because, in my view, it seems to serve no purpose. Or, I can decide this, but there will be consequences.

I would say to this something similar to what I say about personal productivity (and the two are related): Do what you can with what you have. For example:

  • In your course syllabus: Is there a topic or assessment that, if you're being honest, doesn't really need to be there (because it's not on the department syllabus of record and seems weakly related to your course objectives)? Then cut it. Nobody will object and everyone's life will be easier.
  • In your service work: Are you being asked to show up for meetings to which you have literally nothing to contribute? Or are you being asked to do more stuff for the department than seems fair to you? You might not be able to just straight-up say "no" to those, but you can at least bring it up with your department chair in a positive and professional way. I am wondering how I contribute to those meetings, I want to help the department but I'm not sure this is the best use of my time. Or, I want to help the department but I think I'm getting a disproportionate amount of service assignments. If that sounds scary, it sort of is, but after 25 years I've decided that faculty have to advocate for themselves — we can't expect someone else to swoop in and save us.

Again, simplification takes a certain courage. It's easy to just add more, more, and more — but the human toll it takes on all of us, and the toll it takes on our institutions and eventually our students just isn't worth it.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.