Sunday, December 30, 2018

President orders federal pay freeze

Isn’t it interesting that a president who claims to be for workers is willing to, during what he claims is a vibrant economy, freeze federal workers’ wages?  He touts that his policies are bringing prosperity to steelworkers and coal miners (despite evidence to the contrary).  But then the one group of workers for whom he has a direct control sees their wages stagnate. 


If you looked at the rhetoric of the right wing over the past 40 years, you’d think that the ranks of federal employees has become so large that it has choked our economy.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, federal workers comprise 1.79% of the nation’s workforce.  Despite claims of a growing and bloated federal workforce, it’s one of three employment sectors that BLS predicts will decline between 2016 and 2026.  The other two declining sectors are manufacturing and self-employed agriculture, two sectors of the economy for which the president reserves his most serious pandering.  In contrast, federal workers have been part of the right wing’s symbolism for decades.  They get pilloried along with “welfare moms” and liberals.  As is the case for all of these other generalizations, federal workers are a convenient target, and how they’re caricatured is far from reality. 


That’s how divisive politics works.  Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981.  It was a symbolic act more than anything else as he showed his “strength” against unions.  It was politically expedient and a significant shift from his time as governor California in 1968 when he signed the nation’s first law giving public employees the right to bargain collectively.  After all, Reagan had been a union member of sorts, having served extensive terms as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild.  By 1981, though, he saw a chance to make political gains by attacking those air traffic controllers.  In the time since, right-wing politicians learned a valuable lesson as they discovered a convenient enemy that could be readily mocked, demonized, and easily blamed. 


It’s actually how bullies always operate:  Pick on someone whom you can defeat and call that a victory.  The belief is that then others will defer to your superiority.  Federal workers, because they are relatively few in numbers and have lost much of their collective bargaining power over the last three decades, are any easy target for a bully.


And that’s what’s really going on here.  Yes, the current administration gave away billions to the wealthy and now claims that there isn’t enough money to pay workers.  But that’s been the pattern for failed trickle-down Republican tax policy for decades.  This focus on federal workers is more than just that; it’s a symbolic statement.  It is intended to show that the president is powerful and in control.  It’s the fundamental lesson that any bully seeks to send.    


So let’s be clear here.  Federal workers have become a tool, here, for a dangerous message by a despotically leaning president who’s using them to show his superiority and willingness to push them.  The president doesn’t care that these folks have made career commitments to service.  When he was out night clubbing, bragging about assaulting women with impunity, and golfing, these folks were keeping the business of government operating and forming the steady foundation for our democracy.  It’s clear that the president doesn’t care about their cost in the overall federal budget.  As he does with most of his actions, he’s sending a message that he’s in control, and that no one other than him can lead this nation – that he, as a person of action, offers the answers.  There’s no thought to the people who will be affected or how this act diminishes their service and dedication.  It’s the same megalomaniacal beliefs that purportedly led Mussolini to declare:


“Democracy is talking itself to death. The people do not know what they want; they do not know what is the best for them. There is too much foolishness, too much lost motion. I have stopped the talk and the nonsense. I am a man of action. Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. You in America will see that some day.” 


Although this quotation may be apocryphal, it rings true to Mussolini’s overall approach to governance as cited in many of his speeches and writings.  The echoes to comments from the current president demand that we pay attention.


Refusing cost-of-living raises to federal employees is about strongman optics.  That’s done in the corporate world all the time.  A CEO will “hold the line” on workers’ wages to earn favor with the board of directors and stockholders.  It may be tolerated there, but in a representative democracy, it’s a dangerous gamesmanship that defies the nation’s egalitarian ideals.  No group should be targeted for use in politically expedient lessons.  The idea of a strongman government where the leader can so easily target one group should be abhorrent to us.  Mussolini was wrong to cavalierly dismiss democratic systems in favor of his own judgment, and so is the president. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Intolerable Inaction

My feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration at this nation for allowing violent acts to continue leaves me numbed by each new atrocity.  Numb enough to be once again pushed into a paroxysm of grief and anger.  But not numb enough to be silent. 

First, let’s get something clear:  The U.S. has never been a safe place for people of color or for people of different faiths.  From the witch trials of the north, to the klan night riders in the south, and to the abuse and mistreatment of first peoples from 1492 onward, the history is unambiguous.  So please don’t be shocked that there are people in this country who hate enough to harm others and to do that without provocation.  

It may be hard to acknowledge, but hate-fueled action has been a consistent feature of every era.  Just ask the Jews who were attacked by the mobs incited by Father Charles Coughlin in the New York of the 1930s.  Or the victims of “race riots” where White mobs attacked Black communities with impunity from the mid-1800s into the 1940s.  And it’s not just faith that people use to attack others.  Let’s not forget the killings of Matthew Shepherd or Harvey Milk.  Violence toward people who are different has been our history.  Let’s own that.  And let’s keep working to confront and eradicate it. 

What’s definitely gotten worse is the means by which people who hate can carry out their acts.  The evil attack at Charleston’s Emanuel AME and the one recently at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life were carried out by men who were able to transfer their hate into the trigger and magazine of an assault-style weapon.  Access to such weapons means that a lone actor can inflict significantly more damage than in past generations.  Through the 2008 Supreme Court Columbia v. Heller decision that overturned 200 years of precedent, the nation has accepted a revised understanding of the Second Amendment to mean something that the authors of the Second Amendment never intended.  And here we are again.

So maybe we can’t soon change the minds of people intent on hate – at least I’m convinced that we can’t do it quickly enough to prevent the next tragedy.  But we can, as other civilized nations have, limit access to a weapon of war that even military professionals can’t touch until they complete extensive training.  So as we’re countering the debased public ramblings and veiled hate speech from a president who should be leading us, let’s also stop putting weapons of war into the hands of people who hate enough to use them.  By all measures, when the nation banned assault weapons for a decade, the number and scope of mass assaults was reduced.  It’s time to demand that these weapons are once again banned.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Bezos’ gift: Here we go again….

Jeff Bezos and his wife are promising to set up a foundation that will work on homelessness and providing preschool to low-income communities.  I can’t speak to what this new effort will or won’t do for homelessness.  That’s an issue where I have opinions, but no expertise.  But I fear what it will mean to have another deep-pocketed mega-donor step into education.  I’ve seen these efforts from afar and up close, and I’ve developed a preternatural concern that warns me that this won’t end well.  Maybe the Bezos family will be the exception, but in my experiences, having deep pockets involved in education generally isn’t good.

Where to start with the examples?  We could look at how the Annenburg Challenge put a half a billion dollars into schooling in the 90s.  Or perhaps a review of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark, New Jersey’s schools.  Or maybe the Gates Foundation’s investment of at least $650 million into small schools; or its more recent $575 million on teacher reforms.  If you want to review the sad details of all of those, follow the links.  And if you want to see more examples, Diane Ravitch offered an excellent history and critique in her 2011 blog posting (including a prescient warning about the current federal Secretary of Education) at this link. 

What all of these have in common with the Bezos’ gift is that they come from well-intended wealthy people who have been exposed to some basic ideas about education.  Then they marshal their excess resources into well-meaning, yet ineffective actions.  What they all also have in common is that they fail. 

So what?  Somebody with a lot of money decides to throw their money away.  It’s not a significant loss to them.  They can still buy another estate in San Sebastian, or purchase another sports team, or whatever.  It is their money, after all, and what harm comes from sharing their wealth in a way that they feel benefits the world?  As things turn out, there’s actually lots of potential harm.

In the Ravitch posting I note above, she identifies some specific, politically motivated efforts that undermine public education.  She writes more extensively on that topic in her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.  These wealthy donors who are pushing agendas certainly pose a threat to the successes of an education system that has flaws, but isn’t failing in the ways that these wealthy “reformers” suggest.  It’s important to note, though, that Bezos, Gates, Annenburg, and others aren’t rabid reformers who preach an anti-public-school orthodoxy.  Yet their failed efforts have had and will have serious and significant negative impacts.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics, from the period of 2004 to 2014, the U.S. increased its K-12 expenditure per student by 3%.  The 2014 U.S. expenditures still place it fourth highest on the list of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries; however, that 3% increase is among the lowest increases among member organizations.  The average increase for other OECD countries during that period was 15%.  The U.S., during that decade, did not noticeably increase its investment in education, and that lack of investment came at a time when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dollar at the start of that period required $1.27 to obtain the same buying power at the end of it.

Like everything else, schooling runs on money.  An increased 3% investment didn’t help the nation’s education system keep up with costs – especially in poor urban and rural schools.  When schools can’t get their communities, their state, or their nation to provide resources, they chase dollars elsewhere.  And if mega-donors offer to give funding for schools that implement their idea, many schools will latch onto that idea and reach for the dollars that follow.  Look at the links to the initiatives I included above, and you’ll see what that looks like as schools re-formed themselves around donors’ initiatives.  Oftentimes, the changes meant that the structures that had been in place prior to the change were eliminated in favor of newer structures.  When the experiment failed, the school had neither the newly failed structure or its older processes to support it.  In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the only one harmed was the king.  However, these schools are left, after the funding is gone, with not only embarrassment, but without the systems they need to function fully.

You can see where my concerns come from with this latest announcement.  Does this mean that people with money should just stay away from funding education?

Before I answer, let me emphasize that the problem really lies in inadequate funding of our educational system, and especially insufficient funding for schools that serve students in poverty.  In my home state, that was the finding of our state supreme court’s decision in McCleary, et al. v. Washington State.  In 2012, the court found the state in gross dereliction of its responsibilities in funding schools equitably.  The court even got to the point where it found the legislature in contempt and fined it $100,000 a day from 2015 until 2018 because legislators failed to act even after the court’s ruling.  The $1 billion that the legislature added to its budget in 2018 takes a step toward addressing a long-standing failure to fund schools equitably.  The new funding in Washington state is a start toward addressing the need – a start.  When we adequately fund schools, then we won’t have a need for philanthropists’ involvement.

Given that full funding for schools isn’t likely an immediate outcome, the question remains:  With the failures and pitfalls, should philanthropists invest in education?  Despite my many concerns, I don’t see a binary “yes” or “no” answer to that. 

I have seen philanthropists who do have a positive impact in education.  And what they did is instructive to others.  First of all, they need to know what they don’t know (and it’s a lot).  At best, a philanthropist can only give small amounts of time to understanding the complex issues of education.  I expect that Jeff Bezos knows as much about education as I do about online retailing.  I understand how it works because I use it, but I wouldn’t be of any use if someone asked me to manage a division of an online retailer.  Anyone offering support, or advice, or certainly millions of dollars has to have more than a passing knowledge of how education functions and what communities actually need.  If it were as easy as funding preschools, then Head Start, which has been one of the most successful and researched federal programs of the past 50 years, would be where the Bezos family can put its money. 

One of the most impressive foundation missions I’ve seen was a regional foundation that sought to support an increase in the numbers of teachers of color.  The woman who started the foundation went to school to earn a master’s degree as she and her husband were starting the foundation so that she could be informed.  The result of her gained knowledge was a thoughtful engagement with colleges of education, with pre-service teachers, and the regional education community.  The foundation listened and learned and developed an excellent model of how to impact their intended focus.  The mission that began the organization evolved as they became more immersed in the needs of the communities they sought to impact, and as they learned how to work with those communities to serve the need.  What began as an effort to recruit teachers became a movement to support teachers because the funders learned and evolved.

Secondly, funding should be built on relationships.  The best foundation grants I’ve either received or evaluated are from funders who’ve taken the time to get to know whom they’re funding and to understand the work that they’re funding through the people being funded.  Whether it’s an award of $15,000 or $15 million, this relational aspect is critical.  Funding done well isn’t organization to organization; it’s person to person.  Of course, that can lead to cronyism that doesn’t ask questions and blindly doles out money.  But that doesn’t have to be the outcome.  Understanding the work means understanding who’s doing the work: their skills, their experiences, their goals.  It also means understanding the people who’ll be impacted by the funds.  By granting money, funders intend to impact lives.  It’s antithetical to do that in a vacuum where the funder neither knows the people being impacted or the people doing the work. 

I once evaluated an afterschool program that intended to serve a specific group of children.  The funders gave a significant amount of money to two organizations to implement a specific intervention.  The funders had chosen to fund this intervention because they had seen its impact on their own children’s learning.  Their children, of course, lived in privilege while the impacted children lived far from privilege.  It was a laudable aim.  These funders sought to provide a community with something that they believed was useful and impactful.  However, after four years of the project, the data that my evaluation team collected showed that the intervention was having no impact on the participating children.  The intervention was a poor fit to the children it intended to serve.  I recommended that the funder and the two organizations use the funding elsewhere, and they did. 

What went wrong?  The well-intentioned funders had no idea of the needs of the children they sought to impact.  The funders also didn’t know that the two organizations would need at least two years of working together to get the project fully operational.  The result was a lot of money that was spent ineffectively.  I’ve often thought that the localness of Head Start is one of the keys to its success.  The one study I completed involving Head Start certainly showed that.  Although it has federal mandates and benchmarks, it is implemented locally by directors and staff who are embedded in the communities they serve and each center tends to reflect local needs through adaptations that are suited to those needs.  That’s very different than an external funder coming with a solution that tries to fit the funder’s perception of needs.

In contrast, I worked with a funder who funded some projects that I generated as a college dean, and although I’m no longer seeking private funding for projects, I remain in touch with this funder because we developed a friendship.  This funder got to know me and through that knowledge provided support to important projects that helped to complement other funding.  Those funds allowed me to support not only my own unit, but the college as a whole as we sought to impact college instructional methods.  I still hear from people at that college that they’re using the skills they developed from that work.  The funder’s role was critical because as they got to know our work, they could see the arc of that work and its potential.  They also got to know the college and continued the relationship with the college well after I left.  Instead of seeing programs and operations, that funder sees people and relationships.  Through the relationships, they fund people and their projects.  I’ve seen that funder do that with many people in the region, and they have a resulting major impact in the region.  Instead of their philanthropy being about the funder’s ideas, they develop relationships that ensure that their funding supports communities’ ideas.

That’s what’s troubling about mega-donors’ efforts.  Their initiatives are never about building relationships and an understanding of impacts on people.  This new Bezos initiative has all the telltale signs:  a big plan where direction is already set.  It assumes that building Montessori-style preschools will make significant contributions to addressing the problems of an inequitable school system.  It’s a technical solution when a personal one is required.  As Arnold Pacey warned in his 1985 book, The Culture of Technology, we need to take caution before handing over social challenges to technicians with technical answers.  In announcing the new initiative, Bezos noted that, “I’m excited about that [building and operating a network of preschools] because it will give us the opportunity to learn, invent, and improve.  We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon.” 

This is the technician’s response.  Every problem is a matter of engineering a response that addresses the issue.  Social challenges, however, require relational responses.  Realistically, by the nature of mega-donors’ size and distance from the issues they wish to impact, it’s a getting-the-camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle challenge for them to build the requisite relationships to support education.  When you’re spending billions of dollars, creating the kind of organization that knows the people you’re funding and their communities is difficult.  However, without that, we see the results in decades of misspent resources. 

While people (both in education and without) are excited that the Bezos family has become engaged in supporting the planet that gave so much to it, I’m cautiously pessimistic.  Good for them that they want to do something.  As the record shows, though, the history of these efforts is poor, and this one has all the marks of being as poor.  The Bezos family evidently decided on this venture when Jeff Bezos crowdsourced the issue of where to commit funding in 2017 through his Twitter feed.  That’s an innovative approach, but Twitter isn’t a good medium to develop relations or to gain the level of knowledge needed.  The family could save itself a lot of wasted resources and time if it replaced its technical response with a plan to develop the skills, knowledge, and relationships to succeed in supporting education.  Top-down solution solving may be sufficient to create an online retailer, but it definitely doesn’t work in education.  

Friday, September 7, 2018

On educating for action

I write this as someone who has considered himself as an activist since I was 16 – just over 50 years ago.  I could list all of the “actions” that I’ve been part of as my bona fides, but that seems tiresome to do.  You’ll have to accept my statement at face value – as a statement that at least I see as a fact that informs what I write here.

I like to see the young folks from around the country engaged in active response to the problems of gun violence.  They are passionate, focused, and gaining skills in how to make their message have impact.  At the moment, they are getting lots of attention, so their voices are being heard in places and by people who have ignored the problems generated by gun violence.  Good for them!

But I see all the markings of the end of this movement before the movement even gets underway.  Energy, passion, and current focus just aren’t enough to maintain the momentum that will lead to intended changes.  Activists need to develop the “legs” they need to carry their ideas on the long march to change.  What do I mean by “legs”?  Legs are the coalitions that bring together multiple constituencies for sustained action around a multi-pronged plan that includes legislative, social, and economic changes.  Legs are what it takes to merge ideas into a coherent statement of purpose.  Legs means that there are activists who will make this work their life’s mission and commit multiple years to creating change.  Legs mean that a movement has to work toward goals while effectively dealing with the inevitable and fatiguing infighting and divergence of opinion that mark the leaders of any action group.  If you look at any social movement that has long-term impact, it takes all of that. 

These barriers to success aren’t an outcome of right- or left-leaning politics.  Look at the alt-right movement that seemed to coalesce under the banner of the president in the last election.  It’s falling apart at every level because of these issues as national figures like Steve Bannon start jockeying for power.  Or smaller figures get wrapped up in the nexus of internecine wars and the demands of their personal lives.  It’s no different on the left of the political spectrum.  You don’t have to look too far back in the left’s history to recall the “Occupy” movement that was going to change the way that the nation looked at its economic structure.  After months of huddling in tents of the cold streets of New York and elsewhere, that effort seems to have dissolved into factions and slogans that can still be heard at rallies.

What will keep this current youth movement from gaining legs?  First, and most importantly, we can’t expect that high school students will give up their futures and fight for this cause for the time it will take to address all of the federal and state laws required to make changes.  The NRA and the legislators the NRA has bought know this.  These young people will graduate from high school and they will go out and get jobs, or enter training programs or attend college.  That’s what they should do.  They can be advocates in those roles, but being leaders in a movement that generates national change isn’t a part-time job.  They are fighting against one of the best financed machines in the history of the nation. 

And as much as I’d like to share the David-and-Goliath idealism that beliefs can conquer all, that’s just not how things work.  We got to this point in our history because gun manufacturers in the past 30 years have used the NRA as a tool to generate public opinion and policies that run contrary to what had been opinion and policy for almost 200 years prior.  The gun lobby/NRA’s machine has the legs that millions of dollars have bought so that it can create public campaigns and legislation, and shape public perception.  Beating that machine will take more time and energy than enthusiastic young people can provide in the short time they have to keep the nation’s attention.

I keep seeing these new activists being compared to the movements in the 1960s that brought about such change in that decade and the decades following.  The myth is that era’s change was brought about by youth marching in the streets and organizing for change.  Yes, that was at times the visible component.  But behind the peace movement was decades of organizing history and knowledge that groups like the American Friends Service Committee and the support of religious leaders like the Berigan brothers; and behind the civil rights marches were the Black churches and organizing structures like that of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council.  These groups began well before the 1960s, and they had the staying power to hold the fight after marchers’ initial enthusiasms waned and during the moments when no spotlight was being held on their issues.  Today’s activists would do well to learn from those experiences instead of hearing the misguided mythology that they’ll be adequate in and of themselves.  For their efforts to impact their cause of gun violence, it seems they would benefit from connecting to the groups and organizations that are already engaged in the work. 

I’m actually heartened by seeing these young folks doing this work.  Good for them for caring about their world enough to demand that it change.  As they move on with their lives, my experiences tell me that their current activism will shape how they interact with the world, and that’s a good thing.  We need more actively engaged citizens who demand that our government and our society offer safety, justice, and opportunity to all.  So I believe that this movement will have lots of impact in the long term as we encourage more young people to be engaged in the society. 

But for now, let’s find ways to leverage their work into the efforts that have longstanding viability.  Let’s help them to see their work as part of a continuum of other work that precedes them and will last beyond them.  Let’s help them to see the ways in which they can channel their passion to work with other people and organizations that can help them learn and can help their work persist. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

A simple solution to a problem we all share…

After reading the constantly dismal news lately, I’ve decided that I can’t solve any of the world’s problems and many of my own.  So I looked around for a problem I could solve, one that could decrease the general anxiety I see and hear all around me.  I found one. 

The problem:  What to call a former teacher when you meet them on the street or interact online.

As the former teacher to thousands of students, I’m especially qualified to address this potentially awkward and potentially stress-inducing dilemma.  However, as a teacher, I, of course, can’t just give a quick answer.  I need to explicate, find context, provide exemplars, and create the mise en scène. 

These days, with connections I’ve made through social media, I’m communicating with students I taught almost 40 years ago.  Back then, I was a secondary English teacher and students were required to call me “Mr. Hughes.”  That was a title I got used to for 12 years until I moved on to teach at a community college where I asked students to call me “Bob” somewhat successfully.  Many students were in their 20s and 30s, so calling a man in his late 30s/early 40s by his first name seemed comfortable enough.  There were a few students whose upbringing and cultures wouldn’t allow for that, and I understood their insistence and remained “Mr. Hughes” to them.  Then I complicated things by earning a doctorate and changing roles.

As I assumed different titles (especially as professor or dean), I gently found ways to remind folks that I wanted to be called “Bob.”  I taught, over time, all graduate courses and mid-career adults; so many students were again mostly comfortable with my first name.  But there were students and people in the community who only felt comfortable calling me “Professor Hughes,” or “Dean Hughes,” or “Dr. Hughes.”  Encountering all of these titles in the course of a day, it’s still sometimes exhausting to remember whom I’m supposed to be to the speaker. 

The upside is that the titles generally help me place someone I can’t remember completely.  If someone from my past calls me “Mr. Hughes,” that person generally comes from my pre-college-teaching days.  “Dr. Hughes” generally means that I’ve known the person since the degree was conferred.  These locators help me scan my failing memory to identify when I knew the person so that I can remember the person.  But the most confusing is when someone calls me “Dean Hughes.”   I had the title at three different institutions, so it’s a roll of the dice as to where and when I knew the speaker. 

While I’m on the subject, I may as well admit that the one annoying appellation is when someone wants to acknowledge my professional status and concurrently attempt familiarity by calling me “Dr. Bob.”  Sorry, but that sounds like a Muppet character.  It’s definitely not me.

Okay.  So my problem of what to be called doesn’t rise to the level of crisis, or even “issue.”  But it can lead to uncomfortable exchanges.  I enjoy seeing people from the past 39 years in education, and I enjoy hearing their stories.  I want people I meet to feel at ease.  Similarly, I’m guessing that if you encounter former teachers, they also may not want the awkwardness of you being embarrassed about what to call them.  That’s why I’m lending my extensive experience and knowledge to solving this one problem.  In this age when we need to be more mindful of social conventions because of the complete lack of them in people who should be providing role models, this is one problem for which I can offer a simple solution. 

As I noted above, I’ve always preferred to be called “Bob” (not “Robert,” a name which I reserve for my family – another story altogether).  Therefore, if you’re a former student reading this, that may solve the problem for you. 

But what should others do when encountering a former teacher other than me?  It’s easy.  Ask this question to your former teacher: 

“When we last met, I used to refer to you as ‘[insert name]’.  How should I address you now?” 

Simple, huh? 

The discussion might even give you a chance to talk about how you and your former teacher have changed over the years.  It also puts the decision in that person’s control to address – always a good thing to do when there are questions of propriety in how to interact with someone.  You might even consider this approach for other kinds of communications where you ask another person’s preferences on other interactions.  For example:  “Do you prefer to react to what I’ve said, or should I just keep rattling on?”  Or “I’ve been talking incessantly about baseball.  Is there another topic that you’d prefer?”  If enough people used this approach, we might just start a spark of civility where we talked to each other about our preferences instead of just assuming we know, or awkwardly embarrassing ourselves when we discover that our assumptions are wrong.

Just ask.  And if the person asks why you’re asking, reply that Bob suggested it.  And feel free to share….

Sunday, February 25, 2018

On personal attacks

It’s happened too many times.  I get a call or a request to meet from a colleague who wants advice on how to cope with being publicly attacked by someone with an agenda.  My colleague explains that the attacker is using legal action, political pressure, and media in the attack.  The attacker is never content to make the attack alone, and seeks to gain support from many others.  The attacks are personal and intended to damage the colleague who has done nothing except to be perceived as a threat by this attacker.  Seems contemptible that anyone would do that to another person, and you may be thinking that there must be more happening than I’m telling.  After all, it’s hard to believe that someone would unfairly attack another person without cause.  And if that does happen, it must only occur rarely. 


I wish that I believed that these are unusual circumstances, but I’ve learned from my own and others’ experiences that when you choose to be a leader, the threat of unwarranted personal attack is not uncommon.  In practice, it’s become an expected part of public life for anyone who seeks to advocate for change or lead.  I know few leaders who haven’t experienced it. 


I’m not talking about leaders who make significant mistakes and are excoriated for their errors.  The celebrity who harasses women.  The prelate who puts personal gain over believers’ needs.  The government official who lies and connives for personal gain.  Those happen, but they’re different than when a leader is attacked unfairly and systematically by someone who has something to gain from harassing that leader.  I also don’t mean angry comments that somebody in an organization makes when they disagree with leaders.  The phenomenon I’m describing is continued, relentless and focused on harm.  It’s obsessive and seeks to coalesce opinion to lead toward damaging actions against someone. 


I remember when I first witnessed this.  It was the mid-1960s, and I lived in a community where the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society was active.  In a 1966 report filed by the FBI on the JBS, the then president of the California State Board of Education, Thomas W. Braden, is quoted as saying that the JBS targeted that community as one of 10 in the state to focus its actions.  One of their typical strategies was to attack school board members, and that’s what happened in my community.  In the FBI’s report on the JBS, Braden uses the example of what happened there to warn of the devastating effects of the JBS’ attack tactics.


The board member, Edward Newman, had served on the school board from 1958 to 1966 when the JBS targeted him for recall.  He was, they claimed, too liberal and showed communist sympathies, a charge that still had meaning in that community.  Even in 1966, a significant portion of the community was still in the thrall of anti-communist, postwar nationalism, so stoking that fear was not difficult.  JBS members created a campaign to have him removed.  The campaign was filled with half-truths and lies told by a group seeking to discredit a man whose beliefs were contrary to theirs.  Underlying the entire case was an anti-Semitism that was never spoken publicly, but was whispered behind closed doors.  Despite his years of prior service and his impeccable integrity and care for the community, their innuendo and attacks succeeded in ousting Newman.  As a 14-year-old boy who admired the Newman family and also knew the families of his accusers, I was shocked.  His children were exemplary students and human beings, in readily seen contrast to those of his accusers.  To see someone so dedicated and so willing to serve treated so poorly was a lesson for me in what evil looks like.


In watching these situations happen over the years, I find that they follow a common pattern.  The playbook for mounting a propaganda campaign against a leader hasn’t changed since I observed the John Birch Society 50 years ago.  These campaigns rely on false statements that are spread quietly at first and, as rumors spread, they become commonly repeated.  Anyone with any complaint soon finds a voice in the campaign.  With time, and as the rumors continue to build, comes a more formalized campaign of written documents that contain just enough truth to make them plausible.  With that documentation comes requests for legal and/or administrative action from authorities or voters.  Concurrently, especially as administrative avenues are exhausted, the campaign also seeks to engage information distribution venues – news outlets, e-mail, social media, etc.  When one charge is disproven or one venue for distribution of falsehoods is closed, the attackers open another one.  The point is to incessantly attack from every possible angle.  With the present prevalence of the many avenues where people can self-publish their ideas widely, they always have a new venue.  It’s a shotgun approach that fires volleys in a general direction and sees what hits the target.


Having seen this so personally in my childhood, I understood that unprovoked and unfair attacks can happen to any leader, and that those attacks can be effective.  Learning that there are people who think nothing of harming another person to further their own needs was shocking.  Understanding how common this is took me a while to discover, though.  It was not until adulthood that I started to see how common these situations are for leaders.  I saw this happen to the principal of the school where I taught when other administrators in the district wrote unfair evaluations that could bring disciplinary action and dismissal.  I saw it as people filed spurious complaints of mistreatment by their managers to forestall disciplinary actions against themselves.  I saw it in campaigns that distorted a manager’s policies or statements to make the case to a school board or a college president for that manager’s dismissal so that the accusers protected their own position.  I saw it in whisper crusades that used racist tropes to make claims against someone’s character and professionalism as a way of deflecting the accusers’ own misdeeds. 


I’ve seen good people, people whose integrity I know to be beyond reproach, battling these actions regularly and consistently throughout my career.  Their only mistake:  taking an action that someone didn’t like, at a moment when the adversary felt no pull of conscience in creating a smear campaign.  Because the issues that typically draw an attack involve personnel or other confidential issues, the leader often can’t respond openly.  In return, she/he is accused of being secretive and uncommunicative.  The attacker often makes unsubstantiated claims that feed misperceptions while the accused is forced to remain professional and avoid attacking in return.  The attacker distorts truths with impunity while the attacked tries to counter half-truths with often complex answers that the issues demand – complexity that is often not as readily understood as half-truths. 


Maybe I just happen to know people with problems and maybe this isn’t as widespread as I perceive it.  But when my colleagues call me for advice, I’m never surprised to hear how the actions unfolded.  I have these discussions far too often with far too many leaders.  To anyone who is attempting to counter sustained attacks, I often offer the same advice:  Seek legal counsel if needed; look for others with similar experiences to help you navigate the issues; rely on your allies to affirm who you are, but don’t allow anyone to define you; be certain about who you are and what you’ve done; if you’ve made an error, own it and move on; etc.  These are the bits of advice that leaders all offer to our colleagues because these are the bits of advice that got us through our own challenges.  But they’re never enough to counteract the immediate pressures of what is typically a very emotional moment in any person’s career.  Being able to understand what is happening, process it, and respond to it, while keeping those emotions balanced with taking appropriate action, is hard.  I know and have met people who are unable to continue their careers after experiencing these attacks; or, if they do, the experience can leave them afraid of making difficult decisions that would offend anyone and, thus, avoid being the target of attack again.


It’s interesting to me that, in all of the reading I’ve done about leaders and leadership, this isn’t part of the leadership experience that is openly discussed.  People who’ve experienced unwarranted attacks share knowing nods as they talk to others with similar experiences.  In pairs or small groups, colleagues empathize with others and share the knowledge they’ve gained.  But despite the pervasiveness I’ve noticed, this isn’t ever a subject of a conference, or a broad strand of research, or the topic of journalistic inquiry.  Facing scurrilous attack is a difficult fact of being a leader for many of the leaders I know, but it’s rarely (maybe never?) acknowledged as part of the leadership experience.  And leaders often can’t discuss this openly because it involves the kinds of confidentially issues that, if broached, lead to more issues. 


Aside from being an empathetic listener who’s willing to share my own experiences, I never have immediate solutions for my colleagues.  The resolution for them comes with time, a persistence that’s equal to the attack, a patience and commitment that’s stronger than the attack, and a community to help weather the attack.  Although I can’t offer a fix, I do know that we need to pull this topic away from the shadows and have discussions about it.  If this is as common as my experience leads me to believe, then we do need to have conference strands that focus on it, it needs to be a topic of discussion in courses of study that prepare leaders, and maybe even the media should look at it as a potential topic.  Because I believe firmly that new knowledge comes from open dialogue and not by hiding our experiences, I believe that ongoing discussions can lead to solutions. 


So that’s my request on this.  Let’s talk – as openly as possible to provide a venue for discussing what happens and how these situations progress.  I know that people often can’t openly discuss the particulars of their circumstances because of legal and ethical considerations.  But let’s talk about the ways in which false and defamatory attacks impact us as leaders.  Let’s talk about the ways in which these attacks are carried out.  Let’s talk about what to do about them.  Let’s talk about what kinds of support that a leader should have when this happens.  At least, in acknowledging that this happens, we’ll reduce the isolation that people feel when they experience these assaults.  At best, we can hope that the tactics and strategies that attackers use will become more obvious and less accepted.  With an open light on the practices, the openness can help to balance the emotional impacts and provide a path for leaders to take effective action that helps their organization and then progress in the work they have to do.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Extending Social Capital – a primer for those who wish to do good in higher education

In the past two decades, as post-secondary education became more efficient and responsive to mandated regulations or competitive pressures, we narrowed our thinking about what education should be.  That narrowness pushed us into emphasizing college and university education for occupational purposes.  The same hyper-emphasis has also affected many K-12 schools which are being asked to be accountable for not just students’ graduations, but to ensure that students are on track for vocational futures.  That’s not entirely wrong.  Occupational readiness can and should be one of an educational system’s aims.  After all, the nation has a right to ask our schools to fill the society’s economic need by preparing students for careers and economic stability.  And it’s certainly important to know that education will lead to something. 

Let me accede that ONE purpose for education is employment and that developing needed skills is important.  To provide those skills, though, skills-focused training isn’t enough.  To give someone technical training in the skills to be an engineer, doctor, plumber, or accountant is a start.  But that person, upon completing the training, will need to negotiate that profession with more than technical skills. Knowing how to build a bridge, diagnose illness, replace the pipes in a house, or maintain financial records doesn’t do people good if they can’t get a job using those skills or successfully negotiate the complexity of how those skills are applied when hired.   An educational experience that doesn’t extend beyond the techniques of the profession, regardless of what kind of profession, will create disadvantages for some while privileging others. 

Anyone who glances at the history of education in the U.S. knows that it has always been a tiered system from its onset.  Certain people have been educated for leadership by allowing them experiences that broaden their worlds.  People with power and privilege get an education that teaches them to think critically and holistically while making the professional connections they need.  Even into the first half of the 1900s that differentiation was just an expected outcome.  Some people had privilege and others didn’t.  During the past 50 years, the nation began working toward accessible education for all.  But we really didn’t interrogate the issue of the kind of education that some receive and others didn’t.  Actually, as we made education more available, we also started creating more narrowly available educational experiences for the new populations who hadn’t been previously served.  This new education focused on technical skills to provide the workers we needed as we ramped up initially for an industrial and now knowledge economy.  The downside is that who receives which kinds of education falls along the same socioeconomic and racial lines that allow privilege to some and exclude others.  We still provide a broad and expansive education for some while providing technical training for others.

This isn’t about the type of job, but, rather the type of opportunity.  We can limit the kinds of experiences that a physician receives as much as we can limit a plumber’s.  Whether we’re preparing electricians or lawyers, we need to ensure that people are prepared equitably to progress into and through their profession.  Unfortunately, disparate educational experiences have historical roots that lie deep within our systems of class and race.  Race, gender, socio-economic status matter.  While focused technical training will provide people with skills, those skills need to be applied in a world where race, gender, social status, and other characteristics create barriers for some people.  Since the early civil rights era, we’ve opened more opportunities to attend school for more people.  But the type of education given to people who aren’t in education systems of privilege means that some have access to people and ideas that others do not.  And that access equates to social capital that ensures continued, generational privilege to some and continued generational exclusion to others. 

If you’ll forgive me for being professorial (a classification that I proudly accept), let me define what I mean by “social capital.”  The term gets thrown around a lot in discussions like this, and it’s often used to define an individual’s feeling of belonging that translates into access to knowledge and privilege.  It’s often used to show that non-privileged people become marginalized because they lack access to the networks and the resulting power needed for full participation in a society.  I like Robert Putnam’s more nuanced perspective on the term.  He looks at social capital in relation to groups and suggests a definition that:

 emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well. (

Putnam’s view is one of the collective nature of social networks, and that collective nature becomes important as we look at how students’ social capital (gained from their inclusion or exclusion in certain groups) affect their education.  It’s not just what an individual brings to an experience in relation to dominant societies.  Social capital is a description of what my group identities provide to both me, and to the others around me.  Moreover, it’s not just the person with power who holds social capital.  All of us possess the social capital of our affinity groups.  However, as I seek entry from my affinity group to another that has more power or status, I may not possess the social capital to access that other group.

I see this regularly when someone gets referred to me for counsel about finding work in higher education.  One person will come after spending months unsuccessfully trying to find work.  That person will have a degree that qualifies her for the work, yet she isn’t being interviewed or offered opportunities when she submits her resume.  As I ask that person what kinds of experiences she had in college, she generally speaks of the courses and requirements of the degree.  When I ask if she has any contacts in higher education within her network, the answer is typically something like, “No – I just graduated.  This is all new to me.”

Contrast that to many people I know who got hired into their first higher education job as they were finishing a graduate degree or soon afterward.  They typically hear about the job through their networks – networks that often begin to form in their degree program as faculty and peers connect students to past graduates and professional associates.  Who typically gets those experiences?  Generally, it’s students who have develop a bond with the people they encounter, and most often those are faculty and peers with similar backgrounds as they have.  They connect through internships or opportunities to participate in the faculty’s research.  In order to have that first job, it’s often about those networks.  Then when these folks finally get hired, they have that same network to call for advice on how to manage the complexities of the job beyond technical skills.  In contrast, this all becomes moot if a degree program doesn’t make those connections for you, and you find yourself relying on your resume to shine among the dozens (hundreds?) of other resumes sitting in a hiring manager’s inbox.  I see this as we hire people in education, but I know that this extends to other occupations, too. 

Seems to me that all this calls for looking at education as a place for the connections of social capital as much as it’s a place for knowledge.  Elite schools and elite groups in universities already know this.  The formal and informal alumni networks from places like Stanford or Wharton form the root system of this country’s political and business elites.  It’s no accident that Facebook sprouted from a Harvard tradition that was intended to connect students to each other.  And it’s no accident that Paul Allen and Bill Gates learned computer programming on mainframe computers in high school as their private Seattle high school exposed them to the people who gave them that access.


We’ve sold students on the idea that if they get an education, the power of that education will be enough to ensure their future.  In other words, the technical skills they gain will serve them well.  The maxim to “study hard, get good grades, and you’ll have your pick of jobs” is rooted in the Calvinist ideals of the rewards of work and the importance of individual effort.  It assumes that the rewards of success attach to the follower of that axiom.  On the face of it, this platitude sounds right:  meritorious reward, based on effort.  The flaw is that it assumes a fair process where all effort receives equal, or at least equivalent, reward.  But the student with the requisite social capital has more potential to make that true.  If I have connections and insider knowledge of how things work, I’m more likely to get hired and to progress in my profession.


So that’s the problem.  The solution requires a different kind of education system – one that relies on people who are willing to share their social capital – not as missionaries or messiahs who want to “help” marginalized communities, but as co-explorers of the world.  If I have power and privilege, and if I make connections with people who aren’t like me, I’m more likely to learn more about the larger world and be better equipped to navigate it.  That means being able to learn from others and to walk alongside others – not to be their helper or savior.  And once I’m in real and honest relationship with them, then I can share my social capital as they extend theirs to me. The critical learning would be that people including me into their worlds is as important and valuable as me including them in mine.  Social capital is not just what the powerful and privileged possess.  It is what allows us access into the multiple cultures and societies that we navigate.  Think of it like a foreign currency that allows people to negotiate different worlds.


All this means an education system that, instead of rewarding certain types of social capital, provides opportunities for people of differences to meet and interact and learn together.  It means looking at education differently than a pseudo-meritocracy that rewards only those with the privilege and access with which they were born.  It means allowing people’s difference to have as much value as their accomplishments.  It means that schools would educate for collaboration and cooperation as much as competition (or maybe instead of competition).  It would be healthy for the society, after all, for those with privilege to learn that their status isn’t the result of a modern manifest destiny that confers favor to them. 


Please don’t leave this article thinking that I’m proposing another technical solution where education needs to provide more exposure opportunities.  Internships, externships, service learning, cooperative education opportunities, and the like have been around for a long time.  They work well, but they’re clearly not enough to bridge the social capital chasm.  Many of the people who come to me for help in finding work in higher education have had those experiences, yet they are still stymied about finding work.  What I propose requires more personal investment – a way for people to share their social capital outside of their affinity groups – as a significant purpose of the educational system.  We who are professionals know how to do that within our existing affinity groups as we write reference letters, make phone calls on people’s behalf, or bring people with us when we attend gatherings.  That’s all built into the norms of our social groups. 


To extend our social capital truly, though, requires that we discover how to develop and sustain relationships outside of what we typically do.  And that begins with discussions where we learn from people outside our own bubble as we share our knowledge.  I don’t include a formula for how to do that in this statement because effective and genuine relationships are never about a formula.  The closest I can offer is that you need to be honest and open to listening to what others tell you.  And you need to advocate for systems of education that encourage and value and promote complementarity among diverse groups and people.  If there is a skill to this work, it’s the skill of listening, learning, and living in each other’s worlds.  This model of crossing borders requires a systemic change that allows cooperation and dialogue to occur. 


These are lofty ideas and some might argue completely fanciful.  But, as with any change, we begin with a vision of what can and should be.  Then we live into it.  There are already organizations at all levels of education that practice these ideals.  For example, Highlander has been doing this work for decades as it provides support to groups ranging from the early Civil Rights movement to indigenous groups in Central America to Appalachian folk artists.  There are also people who live this way.  Some educational consultants no longer parachute into a setting and offer a one-sized-fits-all solution – and prefer to commit to longer-term relationships where they can embed into institutions and become part of the institutional community. 


These people and organizations should be our models, the people and groups we seek out when we look to new ways of operating.  We make choices when we decide what should be.  If we inform those choices with a clear vision, soon elements of that vision start to emerge.  What I propose, then, is that this starting vision – where we begin with the idea to create opportunities for people to meet and cooperate to share each other’s social capital – can help us to make the small decisions now that will give everyone an equitable opportunity for the future. 


And maybe that will mean that someday the person who comes for career advice to me will come to ask about how to decide among the multiple opportunities before her.