Close Mobile Menu

Lemon or LeMans

July 17, 2013

If the UC system is like the auto industry, will Janet Napolitano be its Taiichi Ohno or its Rick Wagoner?

That’s the question Professor Michael O’Hare left hanging off the end of his open letter to the new UC President-designate yesterday. At over 1,500 words, the Goldman School prof’s long and severe overview of the state of the UC system may not seem a very warm welcome for Napolitano, whose selection was announced late last week. But it does offer a thought-provoking, and provocative, diagnosis of the university system’s many ills.

To sum it up with one analogy: the University of California looks an awful lot like the American auto industry, pre-bailout. In short, he wrote, “The university industry, wonderful as it is, is not a delicate, perfect blossom needing only a steady flow of water and fertilizer, but an enormously valuable and productive enterprise that is also in a fair amount of trouble.”

Insular and sclerotic, self-aggrandizing, but unable to deliver on its own promises, O’Hare says that the UC system is charged with delivering “two products”: education and research. And it has been failing on both counts, he claims. The price of an education is skyrocketing while its value for the student is proving more and more difficult to demonstrate. Behind the curtain, he says, academic research is conducted in cloisters, the liberal arts are plagued by “mathematics envy,” and the “old deal” for aspiring scholars—“be trod underfoot at low pay for a few years to get a Ph.D. and you can be a professor”—is no longer a sure thing.

And so welcome, Madam President-designate, writes O’Hare: “Please break up some furniture and open some windows.”

Accepting O’Hare’s argument for the time being, this raises the question of whether any mortal, let alone an academic outsider like Napolitano, is up to such a task. The host of problems O’Hare describes are so tightly woven into the fabric of the institution, does he really think it’s possible for one person to overhaul such a mammoth institution?

Probably not, he says. Not by herself, anyhow.

“One of the reasons I wrote the letter publicly, rather than just sending it directly to her, was because of course she can’t do all that,” O’Hare said over the phone this afternoon. “She can make small adjustments that will move the rudder that will move the ship, but what needs to happen needs to happen within the faculty.”

Napolitano’s biggest tool, O’Hare suspects, will be her bully pulpit. Particularly given the notoriety of her person and her appointment, she’ll be in a position to call attention to specific issues, set the pace and direction of the agenda, and, as O’Hare put it, quoting W. Edward Deming, “drive out fear.” That is, make it easier to openly raise uncomfortable topics by being the first to openly raise them.

And on that front, he said: “I’m not pessimistic.”

“It wouldn’t hurt if the alumni got behind reforming the system and made a little less noise about football,” he added.

As for specific steps that the new president might take, O’Hare said that though it might feel a bit “presumptuous”—“she hasn’t even sat down in her office yet and she certainly hasn’t asked for my opinion”—he does have a few ideas, naturally.

And he probably isn’t the only one.

—Ben Christopher

Share this article