WSU clearly has a top 25 constituency for a public institution however is currently ranked 47th nationally. So what’s to blame and how do we fix it? In this post I’ll review the external and internal conditions for growth, then apply lean manufacturing and design philosophies with a sprinkling of social entropy to describe how we’ll fix it. Along the way you’ll likely see that top 25 is readily achievable… if we rally together as a community and get beyond some of our old ways (yes that’s an entropy pun!).

The external conditions are great:

 The conditions are prime for growth in our region and these are the hard ones to affect: 1) Puget Sound’s reputation as a national hi-technology hub (here’s a recent national review), 2) the booming high value agrarian opportunities within the greater Columbian Basin, and 3) a long-term positive regional growth outlook driven by global climate change. These opportunities culminate in likely the highest research 1 faculty to economy ratio of any public institution in the US (even when factoring in the University of Washington). These combine with our strong legislative support for higher education, including our new forward-leaning and regional niche medical school, and many top legislators at the federal level. Opinions of public institutions are rising with recent statistics showing best value for education and less than 20% of public institution students receiving more than $30k in student loans. With population shifts towards urban centers over the last decade the pendulum is due to swing back to help the rural communities through our land-grant mission. Any way you look at it, it’s tough to find real dampers for short and long-term growth outside of WSU. So why are we still at 47 and potentially sliding further?

The internal conditions are average to poor:

Pullman is the quintessential, quiet, safe, destination college town. Where else could you see such an awesome welcoming as a Lentil Festival?? But the problem is, that’s it. There’s nothing else (except for hit-or-miss decades of football) to bring our community together for a common cause. For us not to have a great community (look six miles away to Moscow as an examplar) we really have to have serious culture problems.

I’ve spent all but 10% of my life within 1 hour of Pullman and have known very closely farmers and companies in the region that have tried to work with WSU. It’s not always easy. There are several examples I can provide but will stick with the most poignant. In my first two years here I went on a tour around the rural libraries in Whitman County to do cryogenics demonstrations for children. The demo is fun. We make refrigerators out of rubber bands (seriously), liquefy air, and freeze marshmallows in liquid nitrogen prior to making icecream. After completing something like 3-4 visits (Uniontown, St. John, Colfax, and Garfield), I asked the coordinator of the branch libraries, who had served in the position since the mid 1980’s, how often WSU faculty visit the branch libraries. She said I was the first. In roughly 30 years.

Time for a brief review. Kenyon Butterfield, the former President of the University of Rode Island and driver of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that created the extension branches of land grant institutions, published many works on the problems afflicting rural communities of the 20th Century. Chapters in rural progress is one of several focusing on the problems of education for rural communities. In his works you can see a real intent of the Land Grant mission to be the advocate for the rural and disadvantaged constituencies, a grand equalizer or feedback loop ensuring equality to those not in urban areas. Most of our research can help the rural populace, but we most affect them through a quality education, we just have to emphasize the connections and get out there. When viewed this way, the paragraph above is even more poignant, but that’s not the end.

When we as an institution looked inward to develop our Grand Challenges initiative in 2015, the first draft, as developed by WSU faculty, did not mention “Land Grant” or refer to our charter mission once. After a steaming review from myself and others, the words were added into the final documents wherever possible. This shows that on many levels we, as an institution, have lost sight of our primary brand charter and mission. We’re becoming a stepping stone for people seeking career advancement on the way to somewhere else. These traveling administrators hardly have the time to understand our own charter mission and brand promise, let alone the values of the people in our constituency.

Like any business, when you loose sight of your primary product and how you leverage it to cultivate brand trust and a system of synergistic offerings, you’re in trouble. Positive culture is one of the first things to erode. Look around and try to find a group of emeritus faculty members sharing coffee with young faculty or students. Go through the halls and try to find an example of an original student contribution that is furthering our community through continued use. Find examples of faculty sharing spaces, classes, or students. Find a rural community that says, “this awesome ____ would not have happened if not for WSU.” After the erosion of culture comes the push for metrics, because, like GPA and school rank, they only matter when you’re not fulfilling the real needs of clients, and hence those metrics are subsequently manipulated. When you’re not connected to others or face the consequences through connected feedback loops, you’re highly susceptible to Campbell’s law. Here’s a quote from the Toyota Way about leadership:
“The least effective manager in this [the Toyota model) is top-down and has only general management expertise–the bureaucratic manager. This characterizes a large portion of U.S. managers. How effective can you be if you are trying to run the organization through command and control without an intimate understanding of what is going on? Your only choice is to make a lot of rules and policies and measure performance relative to those rules and policies. This leads to metrics-driven management that takes the focus away from satisfying customers or building a learning organization.”

Let me be clear, the problem is not the metrics. Metrics are important. The problem is focusing on the metrics, instead of the broader goals that implicitly drive the metrics. If we were a company, we would have been divided and sold off a long time ago. But we can’t. So we must force change upon ourselves.

How we fix it:

The solution to fixing our low ranking is through our community. Space, time, and money are the easy cop-outs. We can and should fix this with what we have, through cultivating trust-based relationships. These relationships are built in many ways, a unifying objective, appropriate structure, and performance-based culture are key and I’ll focus on those three here.

We can come together as an institution and fulfill our land-grant mission by setting unifying goals relevant to our Grand Challenge areas. For example, a Food-Energy-Water nexus goal to become the first zero-carbon emission R-1 campus in the US. This goal is highly relevant to our constituency on many levels and requires the entire university looking inward, to eachother, to realize. The primary gains will be through social changes, however structural changes will be necessary. The structural changes can be accomplished through re-purposing our steam plant at the base of the hill as a large-scale clean energy demonstration bed. The Bulitt Foundation, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Mission Initiative, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Vulcan, etc. should all be very interested in major donations in support of this mission. One of the running jokes between me and Foundation folks is, “Where did the $1 billion from our last campaign go?” To which everyone gives a nervous laugh. Because nobody knows! This is a common, defined goal that is easy to allocate and track resources for, all of the campus community can work together towards, and instills communitarian/sustainable values. If we can’t do this, why should anyone believe we can do it for others? Not just rural communities in our region, but the majority of the rural communities world wide.

We need to restructure our organization to most efficiently work towards this goal. The empathy and connections of an organization are highly connected to organizational structure. The authoritarian-legalistic structure of the academy is antiquated and we’re no different from universities facing similar problems nationally. Youth, companies, and anyone else not stuck in this structure simply function in different ways because we no longer communicate through tree-like structures. Arizona State University is an exemplar of the benefits afforded to research from restructuring the social networks and physically moving faculty offices. Restructuring allows us to become more agile, when we become more agile we’re more capable of sprints towards shared objectives. When we’re agile and sprints are the norm, we start realizing that the built environment is conformable and start aligning everything towards the real products we produce that are actually needed by our constituents. One opportunity is to consider expanding the extension office roles to include colleges and topics besides Ag. Structural changes like this often need to be initiated from the top.

What doesn’t work top-down are culture changes. These, as President Schulz has said, best come from the bottom up. That doesn’t mean that administrators are off the hook for this though. The implicit challenge of administrators is to setup the right conditions for spontaneous culture changes to initiate, propagate, and manifest. The first task is creating a space where the ideas can emerge. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a famous Union Terrace where people go to at the end of the day to share a pitcher of beer, listen to music, and watch the sunset over the lake. Ideas can’t be forced. They come when you’re happy and surrounded by new friends and ideas. But WSU doesn’t have a faculty lounge or congregation area for this sort of brainstorming. One example: our observatory could be an incredible beer garden and destination for alumni. Sometimes all that’s needed is trading places. Creating the channels for the new ideas to communicate and propagate has never been easier with social media. President Schulz has already paved the way through Twitter. RSS feeds for WSU WordPress Spine sites (what you’re looking at) have significant potential for growth into rivers of info that communications and administrative personnel can monitor. The third facet of cultural coherence is diversity, in every sense. We all need to work to improve it.

The bottom line is, we can change! A windfall of funds won’t fix our problems nearly as much as we can. We need to come together as an institution, build trust and connections with eachother, and collectively work towards fulfilling our mission of a better future for the Columbia Basin, and then the world. How do we start? We begin.