Field of Science


Mavericks are not good leaders

I generally avoid being political, but something occurred to me and it struck me as important enough to share.

John McCain touts his status as a maverick as one of his primary qualifications for being president. Well, it occurred to me that I know a great deal about being a maverick because I have had a long career as a maverick among our faculty.

I’m very good at seeing issues from other perspectives and I often have a different view than the majority of my colleagues or the administrative main stream. At times I can broker cooperation by finding common ground, but that’s the best thing a maverick can do, other than being more or less independent of big cliques. Often I can get to the heart of an argument or issue because I don’t care all that much one way or the other, and in this instance provide a means of moving forward. So I’m an independent thinker, and that’s good, but mavericks are often a loose cannon on the deck; you are never sure which way they will shoot as the ship rolls to and fro.

Here’s something else I know about myself. I’m not a good leader; I lack those intangible qualities that make for leadership. And this is John McCain’s problem. He isn’t a good leader either. Nothing in his long and storied career suggests he is a leader. In fact being a maverick almost assures that you are not a leader because leaders behave in a very different way. Consider McCain’s military experience as a fighter pilot. These guys aren’t leaders, they’re mavericks (with apologies to the Senator for the necessarily comparing him to a 2nd rate actor). He picked Sarah Palin because she too has some credentials as a maverick, but nothing in her record of administrative experience suggests she has the qualities of a natural born leader either.

And leadership is something that no one seems to talk about amidst all the bickering and sniping that substitutes for political discourse these days. The McCain-Palin ticket offers nothing in terms of leadership. Neither candidate has the bearing, the attitude, the stature, the it’s-hard-to-describe-what-it-is but you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality. They feign the fictional macho leadership as it is so often parodied on TV and in movies. Both McCain and Palin have been emphasizing their tough decisiveness as if that were the end all and be all of leadership.

A real leader surrounds themselves with competent people, then demands and gets the best performance from everyone. For that you need three qualities: restraint, generosity, and empathy, which are a lot less macho stuff. Both McCain and Palin clearly lack restraint. They portray themselves as people of action, yet good leaders have the restraint to avoid snap decisions or undue action until the true nature of the situation is clear. This also takes an intellectual approach as opposed to the unthinking certainty of ideological thought that has been the hallmark of the current occupant. And of course a true leader does not work to obfuscate the situation for political ends either. To work with other people you have to have empathy for their position, to deeply understand their position, and so far this ticket has not gotten beyond campaign rhetoric. None of this suggests any empathy or understanding for others, and indeed, both seem quite proud of intractable, absolutist positions. Good leaders must be generous in their using their time, their treatment, and their recognition of others to accomplish their goals. Mavericks like doing things on their own, and sometimes have a hard time recognizing, listening to, and making use of the contributions of others.

In fact if McCain were a natural born leader, it would not have taken him so many years to have acquired his party’s nomination. His natural leadership talents would have been recognized long ago. So whether you agree with his positions on issues or not is almost a moot point, McCain will make a lousy leader of this country to say nothing of the free world. He’ll be a poor leader for different reasons than why the current occupant is a poor leader, but that doesn’t matter. This is why foreign leaders who certainly know McCain have not endorsed his candidacy or expressed any support; they recognize that he lacks the qualities of leadership.

Our country has been floundering for some time now on basic issues of freedom, democracy, and good citizenship, and what we as a country should stand for, and it’s because the current occupant is such a poor leader. He simply lacks the smarts and ability to communicate to be a leader. In fact his lack of leadership ability, and his departure from his own best instincts, turned him into a follower of Darth Cheney rather than a leader of the free world. And no one is better off because of it. We need leadership and it isn't going to be found on this ticket.

New Provost charging forward into the past.

Yes folks, our great institution of higher learning located here in the maize and soybean desert of Lincoln land has hired itself a new provost. Well, actually no provost is actually new, virtually all are used, administrators who occupied slightly subordinate positions at bigger institutions, or who occupied the same position at a smaller institution, both looking to move up, but in different ways. Each promises to bring new and better ideas, modes of operation, and innovative practices to your institution, retreads of ideas somebody else had at their former institutions. And for some strange genetic reason, these administrators are compelled by the Peter Principle to seek ever higher positions until their true level of incompetence is reached. So I welcome our new provost with no great enthusiasm, which is not personal at all, but a general cynicism born of experience.

Provost Plodder has introduced a “new” policy that will return us to the teacher’s college mentality we have for so long attempted to out grow. Faculty positions are one of the largest resources the provost has to dole out. Provost Plodder has announced that staffing decisions will be based upon number of majors, credit hour generation, student demand, and job demand in Lincoln land. Wow, such innovation really takes your breath away. Of course bean counting in Lincoln land is common enough, but usually it’s done in bushels.

This means Provost Plodder takes our primary charge as a state-supported institution seriously. Our venerable institution is supposed to train workers for the employers of Lincoln land. Yes, that’s right, train, not educate. Sit. Roll over. Fetch. And just for Lincoln land too; it’s no good providing an education to a tax paying citizen if they move to Iowa or Ohio. Next the 60% of our alumni who live out of state will probably be asked to retroactively pay out of state tuition. And it’s our fault entirely because we educated them and instead of training them. Maybe I didn’t mention the Provost’s first name, Parochial.

Yes, folks Provost Parochial Plodder made no mention of scholarship, makes no exceptions for departments with graduate programs versus those without, and takes no qualitative aspects into account. Why what if some bright, creative student, a native of Lincoln land, wants to study botany? Well, those students who have an interest in low enrollment, low demand, no jobs in Lincoln land programs are just crap out of luck. And besides they should seek job training, not an education. There’s always a demand for de-tasselers and bean walkers, if properly trained.

Years ago the state of Ohio applied Provost PP’s system to state liquor stores after they found out that 20% of their stock made up 85% of their sales. Bud Light and Seagram’s 7 drinkers didn’t even notice the change. PPP will bolster those programs that currently have the most people, fill the most seats, are most popular, those pandering purveyors of the ordinary, and of course, that’s only what's popular in Lincoln land. If you like something a bit unpopular like maybe philosophy or religion, or a nice chianti with faba beans, well, too bad. And you might even wonder how your kids would grow up if you let them decide what to eat the way our provost decides what to support. Letting student preferences determine academic programming makes just as much sense.

Now I do not argue that numbers are unimportant, but scholarly programs that engage students in scholarship and do so with the aid of graduate programs are without question quality programs where students can become so educated that they can seek careers anywhere. Such programs are high quality, but they are not going to be the biggest producers of credit hours or the most popular. Provost PP’s policy ends up robbing peter to pay paul, removing quality to bolster quantity. And this is why the bad old days may return. It reminds me of President Doofus all those years ago when I was hired. “We’re a teachers college so you should teach, and teachers are in demand. It’s that simple.” And so was he. Our institution was the K-mart of education under his guidance. And guess which college had a flashing blue light on top?

The faculty finally got tired of this go nowhere, do nothing administration, and we responded to his state of the university address in detail, in full harmony. And to our amazement he resigned. Dang! If we knew he'd fold like a cheap suitcase, we'd have gone after him sooner. But in recent years our institution has voiced a new image, one quite antithetic to Provost Plodder’s policy. Quality does count, and not just in teaching.

Provost Plodder is threatening 15 years of academic progress by demoting the most important decisions a university can make to an exercise in bean counting. Oh, did I mention PPP’s academic background was in education? Did I have to? Where else do such innovations come from? So these will not be happy days for programs that have labored to provide our institution with something of a scholarly reputation, quality academic programs, and highly qualified students. Now we’ll be staffing those high volume, popular, we-can-train-you-for-a-job programs, and our university will be little more than a glorified community college. Maybe we can install a drive-up window. But the best and brightest students of Lincoln land would do well to consider universities in neighboring states, unless they too have recently hired a provost from Kneebitska. The next state is not too far to drive for a really good education or bottle of wine. You won’t be getting one around here.

Moments of educational gratification

There are times when I wonder why I am in the business of education. These mostly occur when dealing with the bureaucracy, including the silly and wasteful efforts of my employer to make certain that I am not unethical and am working my full 37.5 hrs a week, the utterly absurd curricular process, and most people from our college of education. I certainly am not in this business for the money because even after 3 decades and considerable academic success my salary is laughably low. A member of our foundation board asked if my salary was under $100K. I told him you could almost hire a new faculty member with the difference, and at least he was shocked.

What keeps me going are those occasions when you have one of those breakthrough moments. One of those times that you finally realize something really important or fascinatingly interesting about your research or when you finally see students catch the spark and get really interested in the subject or gain some fundamentally new insight.

Yesterday in a very mundane laboratory on cereal grains was one of those times. The planets must have been in a very special alignment because several students figured out some very fundamental concepts about some very common things. Mostly these labs are about connecting the commonplace to the science of botany. Realizing that there is perhaps a scientific and botanical basis for many of the things people do. And it is these little moments when you know you are actually succeeding as a teacher, as an educator, as a mentor, that keep me going.

Of course, students can bring you down quickly. People who think 30 is ancient cannot even begin to understand what you can know and remember when twice that age, especially when those additional 30 years have been spent as a professional student. So they will have to figure out why Quaker puffed oats were "the cereal that's shot from guns." That marketing phrase was introduced in 1904, way before my time, but line was still being used in ads when I was a kid. This will be real ancient history to people who have never used a typewriter, a rotary dial telephone, or gotten up to change a TV channel. Each of these moments gives me another gray hair.

Oh, you're curious about puffed rice and guns. Well, look it up. Here's a hint. The cereal was introduced at the World's Fair.

Does the candle burn too brightly?

This morning brought the news that David Foster Wallace had died at the age of 46 by his own hand. Wallace was a member of our faculty for 8 years, and it was clear to almost everyone that he was an exceptional talent. The author of Infinite Jest and the winner of a McArthur genius fellowship, his efforts had won him critical literary acclaim and he would seem to be the very picture of success. And yet dead at 46.

Now that I am in the September of my academic career, I can look back on my earlier years with a bit more perspective. Years ago I was a bride's maid for three different jobs and in each case the person hired was "brilliant", "an up and coming talent", "a future super star", and while I have certain talents and abilities in good measure, no one has ever called me brilliant or a potential super star. And no question about it, I had a bit of academic envy for the abilities of the two I knew best. I ended up taking a much tougher route to where I am, and so it has been with some measure of interest that I have tracked the careers of my talented contemporaries. All three self-destructed in one way or another, and as modest as it has been, my academic career and record has easily eclipsed theirs.

It makes me wonder if for some of these exceptionallly talented people the candle burns too brightly. It's too bad that they did not achieve what they might have. As tragic as these people are, some of us merely above average pluggers achieve a measure of success in the long run with a decent work ethic, a bit of curiosity and drive, and a dedication to our professions. It does take a bit of fire in the belly to be successful in this business, and it can not come from wanting to best someone else, it must emanate from your own desire to pursue your profession.

I don't expect McArthur to come knocking on my door, but I have achieved something that David Foster Wallace did not. I have been pretty happy with my life and career, and clearly he was not. Sad. Very sad. So very sad, for him.