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Why college costs so much: a clue

2013 July 7

Once more I have a few remarks prompted by the latest ISU inspire newsletter, but these are of a different nature than previous comments. In fact this post is likely to shade a bit into a rant, but I will try to avoid getting completely carried away.

After kicking around the coffee table for a week or so without motivating any particular response on my part, just recently the Summer 2013 inspire got my attention upon a closer look at a seemingly insignificant, adminis-trivia squib. The last paragraph in a round-up of administrative news informs readers that

The search for the next chair of the Department of Graphic Design has been extended, and the College of Design will seek the services of an executive search firm to assist with the process. Associate Professor Debra Satterfield will continue as interim chair of that department for the coming academic year.

I’m sure I skimmed through this at least once before without it prompting any significant brain activity, beyond memories of my Photo Art Direction course taught by Professor Satterfield. This last, chance re-examination, however, I finally registered meaning in the dry, formal official-ese and realized that something seems very wrong, here.

An executive search firm?” Are you kidding me?

I’m going to acknowledge that I don’t know all of the details, here, and that my reaction could well be off in terms of specifics. But I’m fairly confident that I’m perceiving the larger picture clearly, and that it is a picture of caste-fixated absurdity.

Look. The Iowa State University graphic design program is not. that. complex. It has admittedly expanded in student numbers since my undergraduate days, and itself graduated to a full-fledged “department.” Apparently 76 students are now admitted each year. Allowing for some modest attrition, that’s perhaps 220 undergrads, maybe a dozen or so graduate students, about 14 faculty and one administrative staffer. Plus, I’m guessing, roughly 150 applicants, but of course they’re presumably still restricted to one pre-ArtGR course… and by that same token, the Department has only relatively limited responsibility even to the admitted students and faculty, given that it exists within the infrastructure of a larger college and university.

Furthermore: it’s graphic design. This is not a training center for neurosurgeons, astronauts or Time Lords. With all due respect to my professors, and other design educators I have met since, teaching graphic design isn’t that ****ing complicated. I could walk into a classroom tomorrow and provide graphic design instruction similar to the average quality of that which I received as a student.

I do not see any plausible way in which managing a department of around 14 faculty—with no major departmental responsibilities besides that faculty’s provision of graphic design courses to maybe 400 students whose other relevant requirements are largely addressed by the surrounding university—is dramatically more complicated.

Again, I feel reasonable in suggesting that I could do the job. Perhaps not well, but

  1. If I could even come close to managing the position’s responsibilities, there cannot be a shortage of other, more than adequate candidates. I have every confidence that Prof. Satterfield is thoroughly qualified in every meaningful sense, and that if for whatever reason she does not want the job on a permanent basis, any number of reasonably experienced design professionals inside or outside of academia would be viable candidates, and
  2. More to the point I really wish to emphasize, chairing the graphic design department at Iowa State University just does not appear to be such a “mission critical” role that mediocrity should be ruled out as a reasonable option.

It’s this last notion that, I believe, offers a valuable illustration of how things have gone haywire in higher education, and perhaps elsewhere. Iowa State University is hiring an “executive search firm” to vet candidates to chair one relatively small and undemanding department within a relatively laid-back college (again, not neurosurgery) that itself exists within a thoroughly-administered university infrastructure.

Why? Presumably because they were already overcomplicating things; I can’t find a job posting at but, again, given the real-world demands of the position and that we’re in a period of extended high unemployment, I must imagine that the College of Design is being stupidly picky with demands for credentials that serve no practical purpose other than to limit the pool of candidates. Having now, apparently, limited the pool too much, the response is not to re-evaluate whether they really need to demand surgical-grade double-hulled platinum résumés but, instead, to bring in consultants to extend the fantasy of super-specialization.

Enough. Enough. More than enough, in fact. Someone needs to pull the brake cord, admit that the emperor has no clothes, snap their fingers and wake people out of this self-hypnosis. I’m not sure if it’s an example of what people have called “managerialism,” or something related to it, but this is definitely an example and unfortunately a representative example of a growing delusion that any and every “leadership” position requires deference to a select, sacred priesthood.

(n.b. I’m probably getting carried away; skipping the next three paragraphs may avoid the heaviest rantiness.)

Gotta get a growing laundry list of degrees, certifications, royal seals, and other formal credentials. Gotta get informal but equally restrictive credentials in the form of experience; it doesn’t even matter whether that experience was remotely good just so long as they have that holy experience. Look at Mike Brown (this one, though this one isn’t exactly a disruption of the pattern). Fired from the Cleveland Cavaliers for mediocrity, he was promptly hired by the Los Angeles Lakers; as their coach he proved so blatantly incompetent that he was fired five games into his second season… and then re-hired by Cleveland for next year. Look at the revolving door between the business and political elite, just among HP executives. Run a major corporation into the ground? The political elite will embrace you for your business-world experience. Waste a more-than-modest fortune on a catastrophic campaign for office? No worries; you still top the list for upcoming CEO hires.

And these are just some of the over-the-top “superstars” of the “failing upward” phenomenon. What’s arguably much worse is how far this lunacy is spreading. Our society is beginning to settle into an almost Wells-ian separation between an elite overclass and a great unwashed mass of mere toilers. Any “elite,” “leadership” position simply must receive more and ever more money in order to compete for the small number of candidates with “necessary” qualifications and experience; no questioning results, no questioning the actual importance of those qualifications or even the position itself. Only a proven member of the elite will do, as though they’re already a separate species. Paradoxically, if too many “toilers” somehow begin attaining “elite” credentials, such as college degrees, it prompts a ratcheting-up of credential requirements. If a BA was formerly enough, now applicants need a Master’s; if a Master’s was enough now it’s a PhD.

Nothing else will do, after all, lest an expanding number of positions classed as “leadership” be accompanied by a loss of that class’s “elite” exclusivity. And by exposure of the “elite” to the same kind of globalized economy, “here comes everyone,” income-reducing competitive pressure accepted as healthy and natural as it has applied to the toilers for more than a generation.

There are some reasonable enough motivations at work, here, in all fairness. Striving for “excellence” is a very worthwhile object, as a general idea. But in practical application it seems vulnerable to going wrong for a couple of different reasons. One, when “excellence” is mapped to “credentials,” we easily lose sight of genuine results and instead end up with a pointless arms race for “experience,” and eventually, in desperation, begin preferring even consistently bad experience to waiving some of the credentials and letting in some new candidates who may do better and in any event can hardly do worse. Two, in a world of finite resources, endlessly bidding up the price of “excellence” in certain narrow fields can have significant costs elsewhere, and too little thought is given to prioritization. Even in some “leadership” roles, there is such a thing as “good enough,” even if a superior “ideal” outcome is possible. And I submit that within a context of skyrocketing higher education costs, driven in no small part by bloating administrative expenses, “good enough” is overdue for a comeback.

Iowa State University Graphic Design Department: call off the headhunters, throw out the credential-encrusted job requirements that don’t actually eliminate the risk of disaster but simply provide you with CYA insurance when it happens, and bloody hire someone and get on with things.

Get Real and Carry On

Clown bosses are a risk. Spending more money doesn’t make it go away. Deal!

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