Higher Ed and the Obama and Romney Campaigns

Post by Rob Taber

This morning I read Thomas Frank's cri de coeur on the unraveling of the American university system: spiraling costs for students, loss of power for the faculty, budget cuts to state schools, universities more focused on pleasing donors/alumni than on educating students, and, to butcher Oscar Wilde, a "bureaucracy [that's] expanding to meet the needs of the bureaucracy." All in all, a familiar tale for those of us working in higher ed.

This year, I am employed by the University of Florida's Writing Program, teaching first year students the basics of college and professional writing. I see what I do in the classroom as very, very important. Also, because the Writing Program is housed in the same building as UF's central administration, I walk past the offices (some very modest) of the bureaucrats who support the work I do in the classroom. I depend on IT to make sure the computers and Internet work, HR to do the paperwork for my health insurance and pay, the Counseling Center to be there for students in need.

However, as I reflect on Frank's piece and the need for universities to reorganize themselves around their central mission and purpose (and not to shuffle things around to match up with the mush of a mission statement in an unread strategic plan), I can't help but think of the 2008 Obama campaign, compared to the camp from Romney's 2012 effort, and how organizational leadership sets the tone.

In chapter 2 of The Audacity to Win (1st edition), David Plouffe describes how early on in 2007, he and the rest of the top brass in the Obama campaign decided very early on that no one in the campaign would earn more than $12,000 a month, that they would focus on the individual elections in each primary state rather than national trends, that new media would be its own department, and no group was too small to organize. The result was a cost-conscious organization focused on delivering the field operations proven to make a difference.

Those who volunteered at an Obama field office in 2008 or 2012 might remember seeing a poster with the words "Respect, Empower, Include, Win." Those who volunteered a fair amount or found a paid position might also recall strict bounds on spending money or deviating too far from the mission. The organization had a purpose, and was happy to hear ideas on what you, personally, were going to do to achieve it, as long as it didn't involve spending much (if any) of the campaign's money.

Unfortunately, some higher ed initiatives, no matter how well-intentioned, and including some that claim to be about accountability, remind me of the Romney 2012 campaign. Part of Governor Romney's appeal was his experience as a technocratic businessman, who would be able to run things much better than the community organizer currently in the White House. However, even during the campaign, some journalists and conservative commentators questioned his dependence on high-priced consultants. After the election, this criticism grew into a chorus.

I recognize that some organizations' leaders need consultants to tell them things they should recognize within themselves or hear from the subordinates. But however tempting expensive solutions and programs may appear, web-based transformations in education (like flip teaching), just like the advanced door-knocking strategies generated by the Obama campaign, are tools available to help the people doing the work, not replacements for the people involved. The laborer is worthy of their hire. Respect. Empower. Include. Win.

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