Donald O. Parsons: Four-by-four focuses too heavily on bottom line

If one were going to buy a whole pie, it would probably not matter much how many slices the pie is cut into. It is not surprising then that the report of the GW task force on a four-course, four-credit undergraduate curricular structure cites no studies that suggest the four-by-four pie is either superior or inferior to the current five-by-three arrangement. The simple truth is that cutting a semester’s work into five slices or four or six will not turn GW into Harvard.

If common sense suggests that the number of slices of the pie cannot be a major academic event, it is natural to ask what the current debate is really about. The task force report is refreshingly candid on one administration interest in the proposal: “The consistent message from President [Stephen Joel] Trachtenberg regarding the financial savings associated with offering a 4X4 curriculum” (Executive Summary, paragraph 2). In short, the administration would like to remove some of the filling from the pie as the number of cuts is changed.

This financial interest is troubling, and this concern is compounded by the report’s silence on exactly how much “academic filling” the administration intends to remove from the pie. I and the Ad Hoc Committee of Concerned Faculty have argued at length, in The Hatchet and elsewhere, that the administration is not seriously committed to educational excellence. One example of this is the rapid expansion of undergraduate enrollments in the last decade. The administration generated large sums of money for a variety of projects by collecting net tuition payments much in excess of the resources it devoted to teaching the additional students, a form of negative endowment income.

Having no scholarly basis for preferring the four-by-four plan to the current five-by-three, other than the president’s interest in freeing some educational resources to fund more interesting projects, the task force report highlights the positive argument that change itself is invigorating, even if the end position is no better than the initial one. “Change for change’s sake” is one argument. Discussions that contain this idiom, however, typically emphasize the point that such changes are ill-conceived, not that they are wise.

The task force report does inject an almost mythical element into the argument, expressing the belief, or perhaps the hope, that the act of re-cutting the pie may be “the start of a cultural shift toward a more academically focused GW” (Executive Summary, paragraph 5). The industrial psychology literature does contain ample evidence that worker productivity responds positively to essentially irrelevant changes – “the light bulb effect” – but only for brief periods of time. In fact, a policy of changing light bulbs continuously is not a clever productivity stratagem.

The faculty and the GW community are much excited by the prospect of the arrival in July of next year of a new president with new ideas. It would thus seem appropriate to shelve the current proposal until the incoming president has an opportunity to review educational policies at GW more broadly and analytically, and propose productive changes.

One is reminded instead of the New Testament parable of the “seven loaves and a few small fishes” that fed 4,000 men, besides women and children (Matthew 15:32-39). Apparently inexplicable events do happen. Still, one cannot help feeling that the absolute, positive transformation of the academic pie, simply because it was cut differently and had some filling removed, is a low-probability outcome for a modest curriculum change at a secular University.

-The writer is a GW professor of economics.

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