Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jonathan Franzen can't write . . .

. . . English.

Here's a sentence from Freedom:

"At home, after checking on the kids, she put on a sleeveless top and little cotton shorts and came after Walter in bed. This was very unusual of her, but thankfully not so unheard-of as to provoke comment and examination; and Walter needed no persuading to oblige her. It wasn't a big deal, just a little late-evening surprise, and yet in autobiographical retrospect it now looks almost like the high point of their life together."

Nice of her to come after Walter did, even if it was unusual. No need for examination though.

Two paragraphs down:

"A few weeks later, Dorothy collapsed at the dress store in Grand Rapids. Patty, sounding like her own mother, expressed concern to Walter about the hospital care she was getting, and was tragically vindicated when Dorothy went into multiple organ failure and died."

It's too bad that Patty's concern about her poor care is vindicated by the multiple organ failure of her mother in law. Vindication can strike pretty randomly, I guess. And this is the first we hear of Dorothy's failure and death.

Turn to any page in the book and you will find at least one sentence of stunning ugliness and and another of analgesic vapidity. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

British Bank Teller Becomes Dean, is Reappointed, then Fired

On Saturday, December 18th, the Globe and Mail reported that “A bitter dispute at McMaster University’s business school . . . has led to the resignation of the school’s high-profile dean, former business executive Paul Bates.” 
The Globe was not surprised or shocked by what was to me the most startling part of this story. A man without a university education was appointed Dean. According to Macleans (see below): "Bates reportedly got his start as a bank teller in Britain before moving to Canada in the early 1970s. He went on to head up four major brokerage firms and has sat on the boards of the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Canadian Investment Dealers Association, and has served as a part-time commissioner in the Ontario Securities Commission." Before his appointment as Dean, Bates was CEO of Charles Schwab’s Canadian division and taught at the University of Toronto, where he was an adjunct professor, a designation often accorded people with valuable practical knowledge who are asked to teach university level courses. 
Universities often contemplate appointing leaders from outside academia. They should not, and this story illustrates why. Universities do not operate like companies, nor should they. Their function is to produce and transmit knowledge. The production of knowledge is necessarily a wasteful endeavour – there are a thousand bad ideas for every good one, but you don’t know an idea is bad until somebody has put it forward and others have tested it. Very few companies can tolerate this kind of waste. Moreover, ideas are produced autonomously, not at the command of an executive -- there is an important area of operations, therefore, in which academics have no boss. This drives Deans crazy, especially Deans who are used to being captains of industry.
Business executives are rarely tolerant of administrative cultures other than their own (except sometimes the command structure of the military). They regularly excoriate the fact that there aren’t more business people in politics -- read Gwyn Morgan in the Globe for a good example of this -- ignoring the fact that the public accountability of politicians differentiates their endeavour from that of a bank or brokerage. Most business executives would similarly be appalled by the chaotic, highly individualistic, non-team-oriented, non-results-oriented culture of academia. Whether they are right or wrong is not something I want to debate on this occasion. The fact is that business executives are handicapped as academic leaders.
The handicap was pretty evident in Bates's case. The Globe says that, according to a review of the school commissioned by McMaster’s President, “Faculty members soon became “perplexed” about how decisions were made on important academic matters such as chairing tenure and promotion meetings, developing research policies and developing new graduate programs.” In fact, things were so bad that the the faculty association actually took a poll:  80% of the faculty responded, and 80% of those opposed Bates's reappointment. The university’s Board of Governors ignored them. Bates was reappointed for a second term in 2009.
As it turns out, there are indications that Paul Bates was not a great respecter of people even as a business leader. Macleans magazine reported on May 11th 2010 that Bates was in the middle of an “ugly battle” with Schwab employees in 2002. According to Macleans

“A 2002 Financial Post column headlined “Slick salesmanship masked discontent,” blamed Bates for the revolt at the discount brokerage—a dozen employees sent a letter to Charles Schwab’s head office warning that management of the Canadian arm was “no longer acting in the best interest of ourselves or our clients”—and suggested Bates should have been fired as a result (instead, he oversaw the sale of the brokerage firm to Scotiabank)."

Embarrassingly enough, the Financial Post report was later used as a textbook case-study of bad management. McMaster students would find photographs of their Dean in their text-books, cited as an example of poor personnel management.
At McMaster, Bates wanted to attract students with an interest in the “real world”, to treat these students as “customers”, and to remove academics from committee memberships, where (as somebody with his background might think) all they did was slow things down. These are telltale signs of a disconnect between the Dean and the entity he is administering. As Macleans observed: “while Bates’s pledge to treat students as “customers” sounds appealing on the surface, academics argue there’s an important distinction between training someone to do a job and providing them with an education.” 
Macleans continued:  

“One professor, who has been at McMaster for several decades, said it’s more than just a case of Bates and his private sector get-it-done attitude clashing with a bunch of cloistered academics. ‘It has a lot more to do with his conduct and him as a leader of an academic unit,’ he says. ‘Even after being around here for five years, he still doesn’t understand how an academic institution should be governed.’ The professor claimed that Bates appeared to recognize early on that he didn’t have the broad support of the faculty and quickly resorted to a system of rewarding those who were loyal to him—the report cites allegations that Bates attempted to influence tenure and promotion decisions—and marginalizing those who didn’t.” 

And when five of six area chairs at the business school expressed disagreement with the Dean's plans for a new facility in Burlington Ontario, they were officially reprimanded by the Provost (presumably after a complaint by the Dean). Those of us who have spent their lives in academia know how this kind of behaviour clashes with the democratic ideals of the university. Though these ideals are often breached, the bully tactics of a large firm are hardly ever seen on campus. (Incidentally, the facility in Burlington is largely devoted to an executive MBA program, hardly a part of a university's core mission. It was hardly unpredictable that the faculty would oppose this diversion of focus. Praise for the project came from other sources: the execs who took MBAs there, for instance.)
It may be that the faculty at McMaster’s business school are an academically disreputable bunch, and that Bates is being demonized for their pre-existent incompetence and lack of cooperation. But taken as exculpation, this does not strike me as particularly convincing. It is certainly true that an outsider faces resistance when brought in to reform an organization. But aren’t business executives supposed to be good at navigating organizational difficulties of this type? This excuse shouldn’t ring true even to those who think that the “private sector get-it-done attitude” should displace academic waffling.
Here is a maxim that Boards of Governors, stuffed as they are with non-academics, are reluctant to take seriously, though they really should: anybody who has responsibility for academic programs should be a capable, if not a distinguished, academic.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The King's Speech

Here's the scoop:
  • Guy appointed by god to do god's job has a speech defect. To make up for his/her lack of due diligence, god sends man to cure guy. Under man's tutelage, guy takes oath to serve god, and gives big speech committing his nation to god's care without making a fool of said god (whose faith he was defending, so win-win for god and guy).
That's about it. Colin Firth acted brilliantly as guy, Geoffrey Rush irritatingly as man, and Helena Bonham Carter cloyingly as guy's squeeze: lot's of slap and tickle there.

Thanks to Firth, the movie is extremely entertaining. 

I have been thinking how this movie is a beautiful little exercise in propaganda. First, Guy's daughter, Lilibet, now 83, is remembered less for carrying on in guy's virtuous path, than for having really silly offspring. In the movie, her adorable mom and noble father burnish her pedigree. Attention shifts from silly son (also apparently appointed by god to defend his faith). 

And not bad to revivify the story about guy's wicked elder brother (WEB). WEB is a bully, plus apparently he lost his mind when a not tremendously attractive chick lured him with tricks she learned in a brothel in Shanghai. (Guy himself, as well as WEB, learned them from a Parisienne prostitute named Flora, provided by "equerries" at Buck Pal. -- Shanghai/Paris which would drive a lustful young Englishman mad sooner? Those who say Paris: go see the movie.) 

Secondly, we are reminded that this small island in Europe (that's England, not Corsica) that saved us from Hitler -- led by guy who gave aforementioned speech. Good eh?

England is in tough spot these days, and needs every little boost that its debt-ridden populace can get. Publicly funded films about the glory of the realm don't hurt. When the yobs get excited about Harry and Kate, not to mention the Olympics, the wounded economy may get a little tickle/stimulus. Good investment, guys.