Sunday, May 15, 2011

Graduations

I spoke at the Jewish University of America's commencement exercises today.   I always love graduations. The enthusiasm of the graduates is  inspiring.   JUA is a place which conscientiously tries to encourage the development of values and community service.   Presented below is the Commencement Address I did for the event.  But after the actual graduation there was a small lunch where the award winners (I was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters) get a chance to speak.   The picture is of the alumni award winner - each of his kids was sitting in the front of the room with an iPhone taking pictures of their dad.   Also honored was a renowned Rabbi in the LA area who has national prominence.   At the luncheon he gave the best short explanation of the two clauses of the First Amendment that I have heard.  Very impressive.  The other honoree was a woman who has spent six or seven decades dedicated to community service, indeed her book is called Professional Volunteer.  It was an honor to be included in that group.

My commencement speech went like this:


EPIPHENOMENALITY HAPPENS
First, congratulations on your commencement.  These things have two meanings  - completing your degree and taking up what is next.  I've always believed that a commencement Speaker's role should be brief.  But at least as a part time academic and certainly one connected to the academic community, I also believe that these things should be substantive.  I am not sure how many of you would be interested in hearing me talk about tax theory (which is what I wrote my dissertation on),so I usually try to stick to economics.   But your president and my colleague also asked me to do something a bit different today.
You see, I am commencing this year too.  For the past three and half decades I have worked for independent colleges in the state.  I am finishing a very rewarding period in my life in which I have been called to think about how to link colleges that come from differing inspirations and backgrounds with legislators, and public officials and even with their colleagues.  In the legislature that has focused on Cal Grants, a program that assures that bright students will be able to complete their educations.   The joy of my profession has been the opportunity to learn from great educators, some of whom are professors and some not; and to understand the diverse kinds of leadership which our sector has produced; and to encounter generations of students that our institutions serve.   I finish this period aware that what we have achieved together, and with our colleagues in the public universities. But those results are at risk from those who confuse expenditure and investment and apparently are more willing to spend on prisons than on education which could help empty them.
There are three ideas that can help summarize my professional life 1) Epiphenomenality; 2) The Knowledge of Time and Place; 3) The Wisdom of Crowds.  So I would like to discuss each briefly.
EPIPHENOMENALITY - In Economics this is an obscure term; but it is also applicable in many other fields.  Epiphenomenal events are unexpected. About twenty years ago I had a graduate student describe this tongue twister as “who’d a thunk it?”  That has always been about right to me.    
I went to the University of the Pacific as an undergraduate and I was about ready to finish when I was told in no uncertain terms that I was going to graduate school. A couple of professors thought I should go. That is the way independent colleges are - personalized.   I spent a year at George Washington University at the end of the 1960s pursuing a masters in International Relations on a fellowship.  At the end of the year, I was pretty sure I did not want to complete the degree and had secured a job with the Urban Teacher Corps.  I thought I would be a great seventh grade teacher.   
Before I started teaching, I went to a party in Georgetown.  I got into a conversation about the Vice President of the United States.   The guy I spoke with was interesting, we explored all the nuances of Spiro Agnew.  I was not a fan. At the end, the other guy said "I have enjoyed our talk ,if you ever need a job, give me a call."  I did the normal thing - took the card without looking and put it in my pocket.  When I got home I took the card and put it in my wallet, again without looking.   I went to work in the DC public schools for six months and discovered I did not have the patience to work with seventh graders.   At the end of the semester, I thought of the conversation I had had back in May and pulled out the card - its’ owner was a Deputy Director of the White House Office of Personnel.  I called him and in about a week I was working in the White House.   That led to positions in the White House twice, both sides of Congress and in the California Legislature before I began my Association with the independent colleges in 1975.
For epiphenomenality to have any effect you need to be aware that some things may not seem connected until later.  Constantly think about potential connections, at some point they will prove as valuable as that couple of hours I spent so long ago.
So, #2 - The Knowledge of Time and Place - One of my favorite economists was the first winner of the Nobel in Economics, the Austrian Frederich von Hayek.   In 1945 Hayek wrote an article which argued that centralized systems will always be imperfect.  He thought that each of us carries unique knowledge and that is often superior to the stuff that is collected centrally.
Independent colleges have are an examplar of Hayek’s notion.   One of the strengths of the sector is its variety.  AICCUs members range from 300 students to 30,000.  Almost any kind of educational institution that you can think of in American higher education has one represented in our membership.  What has been especially interesting to me is the strength of the sector when we work together.  Unexpected knowledge comes from unexpected places.  For example, the Association created a program to jointly purchase workers’ compensation insurance.  It was developed as a result of the collaborations between two unlikely partners - Azusa Pacific University, a university with a strong religious heritage and Caltech, whose special strength comes from cutting edge research.  One expert, from APU, brought an understanding of how smaller colleges treated their employees.   The other, from Caltech, brought an extensive knowledge of complex research institutions and also a couple of decades of industrial relations expertise.   The linking of those two sets of knowledge of time and place allowed a wide range of members to work together to save money but also to treat their employees better.
Knowledge of time and place is only useful if you are looking for how things fit together. If you look, you may well find someone, quite unexpected, who will bring something you have not considered, based on that person’s knowledge of time and place.  But the key here is an ability to listen.  Unfortunately, in the political process and in public forums, the willingness to understand the power of the knowledge of time and place has been diminished to a substantial degree.
Finally there is #3 -  The Wisdom of Crowds is the title of a book by a journalist named James Surowiecki.  It presents some convincing evidence that we make better collaborative decisions than individual ones.  To make this work you need to have access to information and a rich mix of players.  Experts may not be the best people to solve complex problems.  That does not discount the importance of knowledge but it does mock those who claim they have discovered the one best way.  
Here are two examples.  First, many of you know about the open source movement.   It has helped to define a number of things in society - from software to knowledge.  In each case, many individuals contribute to the result.  Each participant learns from other contributors.   When the open source model first came about many skeptics argued that it could not produce something which was either stable or long lasting.  But activities from Android to Wikipedia have disproven the initial assertions.
Suroweicki argues that experts are important but not essential in many activities of life and that they suffer from the same kinds of problems that lay persons do.   That does not mean I would be willing to seek out an guy who just read Operations for Dummies to do a complex medical procedure; but it should encourage each of us to try constantly to think about how things fit together.
About four years ago, I learned about the power of Suroweicki’s ideas first hand.  The US Secretary of Education was named Margaret Spellings. She went around the country saying that it was impossible to find key information about colleges.  She proposed to establish a big (and expensive) data system in the Department which would have all that information.  I thought that was silly.   So I set about to see if we could construct something similar to a term sheet used in the financial markets.  I started with three basic concepts.  The sheet had to be brief.   It had to be visual, sparse text and lots of graphs.  And, the data had to be reliable - auditable if you will.
I worked with all of our Association members and we came up with a conceptual draft.  Going into the discussion, I had some very definite ideas about how the thing should look.  But as we moved the idea to the national level, I encountered resistance.  It was not only to the small ideas about how the sheet should look but to the big idea of disclosure.  How could we reasonably compare a place like this one to USC?
But then I had a revelation.  Encouraging people around the country to use their own creativity but limiting the discussion to those three basic concepts would produce a better result, both for institutions and students.  Many of the initial opponents of the idea became supporters.  And more importantly, the end product, which is now called the University and College Accountability Network, presents a simple way for students and families to compare more than 800 colleges across the country.
Before I conclude I want to briefly discuss a dilemma which concerns me. Since the 1960s the state and the nation have benefitted from significant investments in higher education.  Much of the California’s economy is based on just five areas; Computers, Entertainment, Biotech, Professional Services and Foreign Trade. All of them can trace their roots to the investments we began to make here in public and independent universities.   But we are slipping.   The Public Policy Institute of California projects that by 2025 California will be short 1 million degrees to maintain the current economy.   College going rate in the state is declining.   We face real challenges in making sure that the next generation of students has opportunities.  If we ignore the challenges, the costs to California will be substantial.  We could easily evolve into Mississippi with earthquakes.
How do you sum up those three ideas - besides the title of this speech - Epiphenomenality Happens?  Earlier in the week I was in Mexico City, working with two rectors in AICCU affiliate universities.  I found a perfect quote from that famous philosopher, P.F. Chang - who publishes his thoughts in fortune cookies.  The fortune I got was “Hay muchas posibilidades a su disposici√≥n” - Many possibilities are open to you.   If you work hard but are alert to the possibilities you will go far.
Thank you.

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