I was at a super-exclusive, informal meeting-type thing this week. I have to call it a meeting as there was no beer. There should have been beer. At one point, I was explaining how cultish higher education is. Really.
And this phrase didn’t originate with me. More’s the pity.
Back in 2010, shortly after I returned to work following my adventure in neuroscience, there was a subcommittee meeting for Governor McDonnell’s higher education reform committee. As is often the case for these things (in Virginia, at least), it was standing room only for the audience. No matter how often we try to explain that the meeting host that there will be a crowd, there is huge interest in higher ed policy and we always need more seats for the audience than the normies think. As one legislative liaison pointed out, “It is a cult, it really is. We want to be here, even more than our institutions want us to be here. We need to be here.”
Part of the attraction is the desire to be involved and to avoid damage to one’s institution. It’s also fascinating. There is very little as as intrinsically interesting and mind-consuming as higher ed policy. It’s powerful stuff, too often polluted with overly simple explanations or overly complex solutions. And the people are fun to watch.
The only thing that is clearly more interesting and drives even greater passion is higher ed data & data policy. If you don’t believe me, show up at an IPEDS Technical Review Panel (TRP) and just observe. The level of passionate discourse and argument over a minor change in definition can go on for hours. It is almost obscene. Hell, just read tweets from any of the IR people or the higher ed researchers, or follow #HiEdData. These are people deeply invested in what they do and what they want to know from data. And what they can know. And what they do know.
This is what Secretary Duncan and President Obama did not know, or failed to understand, when #PIRS was proposed.
There are hundreds, more like thousands, of people who are experts in IPEDS data. They know what can and can’t be done with IPEDS data. And what shouldn’t be done. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” That is how people felt about the prospect of using IPEDS data for a ratings system. What could be done that would be substantively different from what now exists? As big as it is, it is an exceedingly limited collection of data that was never intended for developing rankings or ratings.
Just to make this post kind academic-like (undergraduate-style) let’s look at the definition of a cult:
a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.“the cult of St. Olaf”
a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.“a network of data-worshiping cults”
synonyms: sect, denomination, group, movement, church, persuasion, body,faction“a religious cult”
a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.“a cult of personality surrounding the IPEDS directors”
synonyms: obsession with,fixation on,mania for,passion for, idolization of,devotion to,worship of,veneration of“the cult of eternal youth in Hollywood”
The only thing really lack is any type of charismatic leader(s). Or charisma, really. (Again, observe a TRP). Kool-aid generally comes in the form of caffeinated beverages. Everything else is there.
Of course, there are more than just these two higher ed cults. We have the new cult of Big Data, and it seems full of evangelists promising the world and beyond. Of course, this cult transcends higher education.
While I like the idea of Big Data. I like the idea of Big Information/Bigger Wisdom even more. That’s the cult I am waiting for.
I hope they have cookies. Without almonds.