Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.

Trade Secrets

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News offered two articles by Mike Swift that are must-reads for anyone concerned with diversity in technical occupations. The title of the first, “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies,” makes the importance of that piece clear. The newspaper analyzed combined work forces of ten regional companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, and found that already small numbers of black and Hispanic workers in those firms declined from 1999 to 2005. Swift analyzes this data, provided through the U.S. Department of Labor, in a rare and commendable inquiry into the social dimensions of high-tech industries–usually so venerated as a source of the nation’s economic health and international competitiveness that we dare not “quibble” about their involvement with diversity. 

But it is the second article, posted the next day, that I want to hone in on.

That piece, “Five Silicon Valley companies fought release of employment data, and won,”  tells us something new and worrisome about why minority involvement in high tech enterprise may have dropped. Swift recounts how five other firms, including Apple, Google, and Yahoo, declined to have the Labor Department provide the Mercury News with information about their workforces’ race and gender representation. The newspaper’s 18-month pursuit of the data through the Freedom of Information Act resulted in federal regulators confirming the companies’ claim that such revelations would cause them “commercial harm.” Let’s think about the implications of both the claim and official support for it.

Maybe these companies, which together employ tens of thousands of people,  are trying to hide poor performance in this area, a failure to engage or retain a diverse workforce.  Maybe not; We don’t know. But we do know that their argument against releasing the data itself bodes ill. For one thing, the idea that public disclosure of the number of female managers or Hispanic engineers working in a company could provide competitors with  information about a firm’s operations or productivity is positively creepy. Is the presumption that employees’ genders or ethnicities enhance their performances, or diminish their contributions? Or does that depend on the gender or ethnicity in question?  Either way, highly problematic…After all, how can information about workers’ race, ethnic heritage, gender, age, or sexuality be linked to productivity or business strategy in any way that is not discriminatory? It is hard to see how those characteristics could have anything to do with employees’  work or the conduct of business, high-tech or otherwise.

Second, what exactly is the Labor Department, which accepted the arguments of lawyers from the five firms against releasing their workforce data, up to? They seem to be placing corporate privacy above the goal of diversity.  Haven’t we long accepted that  proportionate representation of women and minorities across the labor pool is a collective national good that transcends the profit schemes and business priorities of free enterprise? Apparently not.

Swift is clear that the five companies are not easily critiqued: He reports that Google recently donated millions to groups like the National Society of Black Engineers. But the secrecy here and the rationale offered for it are deeply disturbing. If this is what inclusive management ideologies look like in 21st century high-tech enterprise,  we need to worry. And keep Mike Swift on the case.