Letter to Janet Napolitano

Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world.  I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses.  You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm.  Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues.  A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making  the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them. 

A recent exchange on a faculty listserv made an analogy between the university of today and the auto industry of the 1970s; a business historian colleague reflected on the damage done to it by financial people who had never put a nut on a bolt. She was worried about the kind of attention we have already been receiving from business management types, like  the increasingly failure-prone laying-on-of-the-hands of Bain and Company at Berkeley, entirely devoted to cost-cutting but called “Operational Excellence” – perhaps because the words, and ideas, of quality and excellence appear nowhere in the program after the title.
I think that analogy has some weight: the American automobile industry by the mid-60s was a comfortable, hierarchical, isolated world whose effectively tenured management was the sole judge of its membership. For example, at the ‘platoon leader’ GM, one duty of every executive was to drive his superior to the airport whenever the latter went on a trip. With a new GM car appropriate to their level delivered every year, these people never bought a car, nor drove a competitor’s car (they were required to rent only GM cars on travel), nor had a car repaired. As a result, they made the same lousy cars year after year, cars that did only one thing well (the easiest thing, accelerating really fast in a straight line), stupefied three generations of Americans with leaded gas, and didn’t last very long.  Disruptive presences from outside were squashed like bugs (Fuller, Cord, Tucker, Deming…). The big three bosses divided the market like gentlemen over golf at Grosse Pointe , divided the profits with the union, and never had an unpleasant day until…the energy crisis, Ralph Nader, failed financial efforts to make things the way they were “with no actual heavy lifting by us”, pollution regulations, and the invasion of good, cheap foreign cars blew up the whole system. The humiliation of GM having to partner with Toyota in Fremont to learn how to survive in a world it used to rule must have been a truly wondrous moment.

The auto industry didn’t pay three decades of very painful dues merely because it was damaged by outsiders who didn’t understand it, though that was part of it: actually it went through purgatory mostly because of its own dogged refusal to recognize that its comfortable culture was unsuited to a world that was changing around it, and its hostility to outsiders.  We’re in a very similar situation.  The university industry, wonderful as it is, is not a delicate, perfect blossom needing only a steady flow of water and fertilizer, but an enormously valuable and productive enterprise that is also in a fair amount of trouble.  The analogies to the car industry of forty years ago are several, and sobering.

For a start, our costs have been going up faster than inflation for decades, and about all we can figure out to do about it is whine about Baumol’s disease, assert our unique and ineffable intrinsic merit and exclusive right to judge it, and demand more funding. If our value created were keeping up, this would be tolerable to the society that we work for, but I don’t think it is.

We make two main ‘products’, of an abstract sort, namely educated citizens and knowledge through research.  But we pay almost no attention to the production process for the first. There is no quality assurance program for teaching that a Toyota middle manager would recognize, none: we almost never watch each other work, we talk about how we do it even less, and we delegate to students the little bit of consequential evaluation that goes into promotions and raises, in a process shown by research to measure comfort and not learning.  We are failing spectacularly to explain to voters, or demonstrate to increasingly careerist and anxious students, what a liberal education means to a society and to an individual. I have to spend a significant part of every semester undermining the conviction among my students that flattering my ego will pay off in grades; where did they learn that?  For the most part, we are teaching students how to be the second-smartest person in a room with one person who knows the truth, but no-one in the big world pays for that skill: you get paid to be good at finding new truths, and making other people smart.  That reactionary slough of old-fashioned thinking, Google, has rudely done actual research and discovered that the grades we give have nothing to do with our alums’ ability to create value for them.  The nerve!

Research quality assurance, our celebrated peer review publication process, at least invokes collegial attention and debate over process.  Probably for that reason, it isn’t as broken as our pedagogy, but it is starting to take on some serious water.  We treat producers (ourselves) as customers (always dangerous), mistreat uncomfortable players who threaten to upend doctrinal applecarts , and even our core epistemological conventions are starting  to look frayed around the edges, as (for example) rude people are starting  to ask whether clinical trials and randomized experiments are what they appear to be in a selection process tilted towards surprising first results and against replication studies, while overvaluing statistical significance relative to effect size. The enterprise is staffed on the shop floor by graduate students for whom the old deal (be trod underfoot at low pay for a few years to get a PhD and you can be a professor) no longer delivers, an unstable state of affairs.  The range of intellectual skills represented by the faculty of every department known to me has shrunk, along with the number of people who care enough about the average scholarly paper to actually read it. Physics and economics are distorted by mathematics envy, physics envy drives design and construction out of the engineering curriculum (and our shiny new bridge is full of scary defects before it even opens).  Howard Gardner identifies eight kinds of intelligence; we operate exclusively on about three.

Even tenure, to which we cleave at least putatively on grounds of academic freedom, doesn’t seem to work right: not a single colleague whom I knew before and after became more adventurous, courageous, and risk-taking after getting tenure than before (probably including me).  The most striking way in which we become hidebound, despite the freedom our tenure allows, is in making new appointments, where we assiduously and increasingly cleave to the intersection (not the union and certainly not anything beyond our own limits) of our own skills and methodological chops and hire people who make us look good as we are, rather than people who will push us to grow. Groups that are the sole gatekeepers of their own membership follow a known, inevitable trajectory: the dimensions of excellence that count gradually collapse so that new appointments certify the excellence of current members. One may wonder whether this system maximizes value creation, especially as stable comfort is always toxic to innovation and growth.

I have no idea whether you will put any of this adaptive work before us. Serious people who mean well will surely explain to you that it’s either too hard or doesn’t really need doing anyway, at least not now! Or both.  Your lieutenants will exaggerate the risks of anything you try, and caution you to keep your powder dry and conserve your capital. The idea that the worst thing you can lose is your job will float in the air. You certainly can’t do this work for us, and we are not better people than you managed at DHS or in Arizona: expect lots of pushback, grousing, and resistance.  If you try to get us to attack all of it at once you will surely sink without a trace (and we will go mad).  But if you don’t push us hard on our real problems, past our comfort zone, we will be in terrible trouble. Just as protection from competition was nearly fatal to the auto business, protection from a changing environment will be very bad for us.  Please break up some furniture and open some windows; the work you need to do is inside and the function you need to perform is called leadership.

Very truly yours,

Michael O’Hare

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

33 thoughts on “Letter to Janet Napolitano”

  1. “… while overvaluing statistical significance relative to effect size.” A related anecdote. At one time Mercedes made Formula One racing cars. They never broke down – this was the old Mercedes, that held a monopoly on the German taxi market for that reason. They never won either, and the company eventually quit the business. Their philosophy, you see, was the same as for production vehicles: to build a reliable racing car and then try to make it go fast. Their rivals, like Frank Williams, started at the other end: make a car fast enough to win, then work on making it reliable enough to finish.
    I hold no brief for the dangerous extravaganza of F1 racing (Williams goes round in a wheelchair now) but it’s nice example against BAU thinking.

    1. Clicking on your link for Frank Williams says his spinal injury was driving a rental car. How is racing to blame for this?

      1. When a very experienced driver of racing cars loses control and rolls over in a rental car, you have to think he was driving too fast for an ordinary road and vehicle. Is it unfair to blame the racing culture to which Mr. Williams belongs?

  2. A post for the ages Michael. There has always been a problem in large organizations of the leadership losing touch, governing as if the world in which they grew up is still trapped in amber. It recently occurred to me that universities are at this point largely run by the baby boomers who tend to see the universities as being what they went through what is now quite some time ago. I wonder if there has ever been a time in the history of our universities when the average age of the faculty and administration was as far from the average age of the students as is the case today.

    But let’s say something good and personally relevant: You are in one the best public policy schools in the world. Public policy schools are to me a model of how universities can take knowledge development and teaching seriously while also engaging in the world each day and producing valuable real-world products. One hope for the social sciences generally is that great public policy schools like yours will help the other social sciences conduct themselves in a similar way.

  3. Not sure you made your case that the UC represents an example of Baumol’s Disease. It’s not like professors make much more after inflation than they did 25 years ago. One can say with the rise of adjuncts, they make less. The UC’s big administrative piece increase is in computers and technology in general, both in the IT departments that did not exist in any significance 20 let alone 25 years ago. The computers do make us all more efficient and able to respond more quickly and have more information at our fingertips. I think the growth in pay for the chancellors or the presidents is a problem, but the UC is a victim of the way markets are distorted for the top. In private universities, regents who are wealthier and wealthier tend to reward those around them who they see as functionally equivalent. It is like a union for the rich.

    Talk therefore of Baumol’s Disease represents an unconscious betrayal of workers and obscures the reality that the UC is overall a microcosm of the society in which it attempts to function.

    1. I didn’t get the impression that Mr. O’Hare was accepting (or rejecting) the Baumol’s argument; just noting it.

      I haven’t seen any strong proponents of Baumol’s outside if neoliberal bloggers and Norquistisn budget choppers. The arithmetic seems not unreasonable but he explanatory power for events from 1970-today very lie.


      1. = “very low”, although the iPhone malapropism isn’t bad either.


        1. =”the”, although there is something to be said for the iPhone malapropism.

      2. Here is what Michael wrote:

        “For a start, our costs have been going up faster than inflation for decades, and about all we can figure out to do about it is whine about Baumol’s disease, assert our unique and ineffable intrinsic merit and exclusive right to judge it, and demand more funding. If our value created were keeping up, this would be tolerable to the society that we work for, but I don’t think it is.”

        Who was the “our” or “we” here then?

    2. where is the website with good data on costs over the last 50 years, so we know how much has changed, and what the change is due to ?
      oh, aint no such website
      which is a massive indictment of the people who study education

      That we are having an argumnent about has the cost of college increased, and if so where are the added costs going (fringe, IT, rock climbing walls…) is to me prima facie evidence that the professoriate doesn’t care…and why should they, it is a great gig, where you have the most important thing for job satisfaction: personal autonomy and power over others

      1. I think we can start here:


        This tells us a lot about the current budgets of the past few years, and has some handy dandy Myths/Facts along with it. One thing I did not consider in my statement above is the cost of university teaching hospitals. Expensive capital equipment, expensive doctors and staff, and that is far more so today than 20 years ago. Again, there are structural things here and it’s not about overpaid professors in the sense most people seem to believe.

        I’m a private sector lawyer, I should add, not an academician.

  4. One comment for Mr. Humphreys: How old was Mr. Chips and his faculty? 🙂 He was young once, but the faculty was portrayed as quite old throughout. If it was younger in the 1970s, for example, that is a demographic bubble more than anything else when cast against the larger canvas of time (say 100 years survey).

  5. Excellent post!

    I do wish to defend the physicists–they’re not suffering from math envy. I worked in a physics department once upon a time, with very primitive math skills by physics standards. But I had the knack for coming up with interesting experiments, and nobody held my math retardation against me, although it sometimes made it difficult to communicate. Physicists know that math isn’t physics, and theoretical physicists (such as my boss at the time) used “mathematical physics” as a slur, not praise. Many theorists deride string theory as mere mathematical masturbation, not physics. (Many do not.) Remember, one of the three portraits on Einstein’s study wall was Michael Faraday–no mathematician. (The other two were Maxwell and Newton.) I’ve got some beefs with the practice of physics, but math envy isn’t one of them.

    On the other hand, physics envy is a definite disease in the academy, and is responsible for much of the intellectual corruption of economics. Economics, aping what it thinks is physics, too often resembles the most crabbed forms of theology: using logic and first assumptions as a substitute for empirical knowledge. (Of course, in physics, the logic and first assumptions are constantly tested by empirical evidence.) Physics envy in economics is a serious problem in the university. Economics is now at the intellectual center of the university, having replaced physics, which in turn replaced the humanities, which in turn I suppose replaced theology. So in a sense, we’ve turned full circle. And the business school–watered-down economics and sloppy sociology–gets all the funding.

    1. Not quite full circle.

      I am an atheist, but I recall hearing that once upon a time, perhaps when theology ruled the academy, a passage something from Matthew (6:19-21,24 to the effect that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. Apparently this was once an issue, since there was concern about it. With economics now front and center, the hypocritical fig-leaf* is gone: we serve only Mammon with no doubts, no second thoughts (except perhaps from pantywaists like Mr. O’Hare), no ifs, no ands and no buts.

      As I said, not quite full circle. Rather we are spiraling our way … to somewhere.

      *Not sure about the grammatical accuracy here – can fig leaf truly be a hypocrite?

    2. There is no physics envy in economics. If you simply read the many economic journal articles, you will see that =all= economic ideas get tested and retested, using statistics and observations, and ideas are advanced forward and backward in a ridiculously incremental fashion. Those that are invested in economic thought are fully aware that human activity is a nebulous and changing phenomenon. Since physics does not care whether we originators of “physics” are reptiles or homo sapiens, it is merely hubris to think that economics uses hard sciences as a measuring stick, any more than the study of geography compares itself to astronomy.

      1. Try reading Milton Friedman’s Essays in Positive Economics. I remember Herbert Simon stating that econ had become more mathematically sophisticated than physics: so much the worse for economics. (It didn’t Google easily, or I would cite it.)

  6. Nothing about the sports programs? That must have taken iron self-control.
    Anyway, great post.

  7. James, I don’t know which car company you were thinking of but it surely isn’t Mercedes-Benz. They dominated Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. Then, when they returned to Formula One in the mid-fifties, they won the Manufacturers’ Championship both the years they competed. And their drivers, Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss, finished first and second in the driver championship. At the same time, their sports car racing team was dominating their field, too. The Mercedes-Benz withdrawal from racing, both Formula One and Sports Car Racing, had nothing to do with success or failure. It was planned in advance, and although that plan could potentially have been changed due to their phenomenal success, it was locked in by the terrible disaster of their sports car racing team at LeMans.

    1. Oops, I stand corrected. Memo to self: check sources before posting comments, not just posts! I wonder where the story came from? Rivals no doubt.

      But on checking, it’s a mixed story:
      – there’s no doubt about Mercedes-Benz’s racing success up to 1955;
      – their return to F1 racing as an engine supplier to McLaren (1994-2009) was mediocre, McLaren winning the constructors’ championship only in 1998 (in spite of reliability problems, SFIK not with the engine), and the drivers’ championship in 2008;
      – their return to F1 as a carmaker since 2010 has been pretty unsuccessful do far.

      The making of F1 racing cars is almost entirely an English business now, based in the so-called Motorsport Valley, a diffuse patch of the Midlands. The Germans just don’t have the technical skills … I wish it mattered more.

  8. Also, fire John Yoo, torture apologist. No legal faculty should be proud of someone filled with such rot on staff.

    Also, here’s hoping that your DHS years do not mean you will be emboldening more pepper spray cops. Free speech and protest are every student’s right.

  9. I find it telling that the Salary and Fringe of Sec Napolitano is not part of the discussion…the outrageous, obscene salary and fringe of Yudoff must surely have cost the UC system support in the legislature, and among the citizenry at large.
    (I’m from Massachusetts, our much lower ranked state system is chock full of political appointees drawing salarys that are, by comparision, even more obscene then yudoff)

  10. Just prior to the Napolitano announcement Simpson-Scarborough queried graduates of the UC system (not just members of the alumni association) about what might be the attributes associated with a great university. It gave me pause as I picked Stanford first in the list over UC. In sum I was glad to see it and now am wondering how or if this interest in alumni attitudes might relate to this selection of a new university president?

    1. I picked Stanford first in the list over UC.

      This is a testament to the fine minds turned out by the UC system.

      1. You’re right but my imprinting makes me wish that it were different.

        In 1949 when Red Sanders’ new, powder blue Bruins defeated Stanford (Indians?) 14-7 at the Leland Stanford Junior Farm ‘the Farm’ was a pretty scruffy place. Barely a flag stop on the railroad line. UCLA was not much different; five buildings, a bridge over a dribbling creek and a lot of muddy parking. Both of them grew up.

  11. Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues. A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”.

    I’m an academic and have seen a few presidents appointed from outside academia. Usually this is a mistaken belief, that such presidents don’t understand the culture of the university. They do understand! They just don’t care. (And in the right doses, that can be a good thing.)

  12. Mike, I’ve criticized you before for relating to people in person in ways that make them less rather than more likely to do the things you believe will make them and the institutions in which they operate better. (Choose your definition of better.) If you can interact with President Napolitano, and the subset of your colleagues who are interested in, and in a position to, support her in moving in the directions you suggest, in as graceful and polite a way as you have written this letter, much good may result. I’m happy to discuss over lunch, though I think we should take a poll first. 🙂

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