Over the weekend I read Yasha Maunk’s new book, The Great Experiment. It is about the challenges and possibilities of democracy and the rule of law in a time of relatively rapid demographic change.
I was a little disappointed overall – although the issue was more than worth it, the treatment was relatively pedestrian – but there was one aspect I couldn’t shake. Monk breaks down the fourth wall in Chapter 10, to the extent that a non-fiction book has a fourth wall, and admits that many policy-based books suffer a “Chapter 10 problem.” At the same time they are supposed to turn from descriptions to prescriptions, providing solutions to the problems examined in the first nine chapters. As Maunk rightly points out, these divisions are often flattened for two reasons. Either the solutions assume a universe other than the existing one, or the author is so careful to avoid that charge that they undershoot and drag out proposals that, even if enacted, would not make much difference. Sweet spots are maddeningly hard to hit.
It’s not just about books.
I suspect that part of the “entrepreneurial fatigue” that many campuses suffer from arises from a variation of the Chapter 10 issue. “It will change the world!” Go through many of these cycles! Is followed by increasing progress and it is easy for even well-meaning people to become detractors. When ambitions and methods are ordered at different levels, and the implementation of those methods is suspended and / or partial and / or difficult, the description can be easy to lose. (“Why are we doing this?”) This is especially true when some kind of external power event, such as an epidemic or a large state fund cut, comes and overwhelms even well-executed plans. Gradual gains in retention may be real, but epidemic-driven enrollment declines may make them almost invisible.
Theoretically, a strategic plan could provide the connective tissue between grand aspirations and department-level strategies. But I’m not sure how many people actually read the strategic plan. And many strategic plans are not particularly strategic, which does not help. In my mind, a strategic plan refers to a strategy. That assumption is not universally shared. Over the years, I have seen things that were based entirely on hope, and that were immediately removed, and will never be consulted again. I’ve seen others combine to-do lists from different departments on campus, clearly assuming that a coherent strategy would emerge organically.
At the top of the list, in 2010, I remember being at a planning meeting where an excited staff member who was overwhelmed with work asked plaintively, “What is the goal of all this growth? How much is enough?” No one had the answer. At the time, the president seemed satisfied with the increase in his own interests, which worked until it happened.
Translation is part of leadership work. This involves making the demands of one constituency clear to others and coming back again. These constituencies are not just on campus: they include the wider community, employers, high schools, and potential students as well as current students. Keeping the big-picture strategy in mind, and making it clear to everyone, can help with Chapter 10 problem. Ideally, it can also set a context where people can suggest improvements in both practical and helpful strategies. This is a difficult task on a good day, when something big and external changes the game on its own terms. But when it is missing, people notice.
So thank you, Yascha Mounk, for giving me a perfect formulation for something I have noticed over the years but have not been able to fully encapsulate. Chapter 10 The problem is real.