May 25, 2020
Higher education has long had a deep commitment to the idea of being fair.
In fact, I am certain that most people would agree with the statement, “When times are tough, everyone should get less.”
But I have a question. Would these same people agree with this statement if I changed the wording, but not the meaning: “When times are tough, we need to punish the most productive.”
Chances are they wouldn’t.
The problem, I believe, is that most people don’t understand the too high cost of being fair.
When institutions are imperiled by financial meltdowns (think 2009) or a global pandemic that cause financial meltdowns (think 2020) their first instinct is to be fair and let everyone share the pain. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea.
1. Reduces available resources. Being fair reduces the resources available to the people and programs you need most. Instead of investing more resources in times of trouble, people are reducing resources.
2. Not everyone is the same. By treating everyone the same, you are telling your most productive people that they are of no greater value than your least productive people.
3. Programs expiration. You are harboring people and programs who have long outlived their usefulness.
4. Abandoned leadership. Being fair is an abandonment of leadership. Great leaders are willing to make the tough decisions and take their lumps.
5. Ignoring big opportunities. An attitude of fairness means you will ignore the big opportunities that will arise when you make the tough decisions that you have too long been avoiding.
In 2009, just after Barack Obama’s election, Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
This idea was not new to Emanuel. He was echoing something first said by Stanford economist Paul Romer some five years earlier when he said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the March 25, 2020 issue of The Washington Post, Emanuel once again offered his famous quote, “Today, faced with another crisis, we need to think strategically not only about how to address the virus, but also about how the United States can come out stronger on the other side. We all know this won’t be the last time we confront a pandemic. But it should be the last time a public health emergency provokes an economic depression. We need to prepare for tomorrow, starting today.”
I think higher ed needs to take a lesson from Emanuel/Romer. For years, colleges and universities have faced tough issues that at first glance appear to be intractable. I believe that the challenge is not a lack of solutions, but a lack of will to implement the solutions that are at hand. The problems are not intractable because they are tough, but because the political fallout would be so intense.
In today’s climate, being fair means closing the programs and departments that have run their course. Being fair, too, means making strategic yet careful investments in those programs and people that will see colleges safely forward after this crisis fades.
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