Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mason's Home Run

August 14, 2007, 8:00 a.m.

UI Presidents' Home Run Records

The Gazette has a Monday morning editorial feature it calls "Homers" and "Gomers" -- Gazette speak for "what's going right" and "what's going wrong." Yesterday it awarded a "Homer" to UI's new President Sally Mason:

VOICE OF REASON: Less than two weeks on the job, new University of Iowa President Sally Mason already has brought a calming demeanor to contentious campus issues.

She’s urging thorough, thoughtful discourse regarding a particularly emotional debate about corporate naming of colleges or departments. This is about Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s offer of $15 million from its foundation in return for renaming the College of Public Health after Wellmark. Mason said discussion at next month’s Board of Regents meeting must clarify when corporate naming is appropriate and when it’s not.

Meanwhile, she rightly reminds that universities should not accept naming gifts from companies if there is an expectation of equivalent value in return. She’s also not about to fire the College of Public Health dean, as a prominent donor called for after the dean raised legitimate concerns about the Wellmark offer. Good to have you here, Mason.
Editorial, "Homers: What's Going Right; Voice of Reason," The Gazette, August 13, 2007, p. A4. It's a sentiment similar to those I earlier expressed in this blog immediately following the first reports of her comments.

Everyone -- except perhaps my beloved, and otherwise all-knowing colleague Arthur Bonfield -- knows that the big news last week was Barry Bonds 756th career home run, a feat (however achieved) that surpassed the former record of Hank Aaron.

But who knows what the "Homer" record is for UI presidents, and who holds it? When Sally Mason's swinging for the bleachers in the bottom of the ninth from time to time, what's the record she's trying to beat?

How about it, Gazette? "Inquiring minds want to know." How many "Homers" were her predecessors awarded?

Failing to Learn from our Mistakes

The evidence is continuing to mount that those getting the big bucks in our country aren't earning their pay.

The top one-half of one percent of the American people are given one-half of all the income. Why? Because, as the commercial used to put it, "They get it the old fashioned way; they earn it." They're smarter and more far-seeing than the rest of us, wiser and more experienced, deserving of being paid some 450-times more income than their employees.

Whenever I encounter a service person who's not performing up to what I'd hope for, I don't blame them, I blame their boss -- and that boss's boss. They are the ones who do the hiring, the training, decide who fits best in which jobs, set the standards and institutional values, the pay scales and benefits, impose quality control and safety standards, provide the preventive maintenance routines, and so forth.

I've written at length in this blog and elsewhere about board (and CEO) "governance," the value of the really tough task of thinking through "ends policies, and then tracking them with management information reporting systems.

Really competent management isn't in the business of responding to lost horses by manufacturing locks for swinging barn doors. It doesn't take a Virginia Tech shooting to get them thinking about campus safety. If you start thinking about "ends policies" for a university, student safety is going to enter the discussion fairly early on, I'd think. (In point of fact, it has for Iowa's universities -- the Regents, presidents, and responsible administrators had protections and procedures in place long before Virginia Tech -- procedures professionally followed in yesterday's threat.)

It's one thing not to do your highly-paid job when it comes to anticipating possible problems -- and opportunities -- in advance, and then doing something about them before it's too late. That's a skill worth paying for (even if not as much as we do pay).

But what can you say about someone who knows to a certainty, from prior disasters, what the problems are going to be -- and then does nothing?

Consider the recent news:

* Six coal miners in Utah -- the latest in a series of coal mine disasters befalling profit-maximizing, safety-minimizing coal mine companies -- are trapped (and likely dead) in the very spot in that mine that had already collapsed before!

* The I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, killing perhaps as many as a dozen unsuspecting motorists, was known for over ten years to be defective in some particulars.

* The lives of seven astronauts on board the shuttle Endeavor are now at risk because of what may have been significant heat shield tile damage at lift-off. This is the same kind of problem that caused the deaths of the seven astronauts traveling in the Columbia in 2003. Other shuttles have had similar damage for similar reasons. (Bear in mind, the damage apparently leaves a layer of felt to protect the occupants from surface temperatures in the range of 2000 to 3000 degrees on re-entry.)
Note that none of these problems involve any legitimate element of surprise. They are not the result of having overlooked a detail despite the best efforts of bright, resourceful, administrators engaged in hours and hours of "what-if" scenarios, planning and the creation of "ends policies."

Nor is any the result of a low-level employee violating procedures in spite of management's best efforts to monitor performance.

No, they are the result of the negligent leadership by very highly paid executives who either don't even have the ability to learn from their own obvious, and literally fatal, prior mistakes -- or who simply don't care -- and who are then rewarded with embarrassingly large pay packages anyway.

"When will we ever learn?"

Arming Campus Police

Golly, if only the UI campus police carried guns we wouldn't have pipe bomb threats.


Yesterday's police blowing up of what turned out to be a perfectly benign student backpack is but one more example of the ineffectiveness of arming campus police. To have them carrying guns may increase feelings of security on the part of the university community in general -- and those police officers in particular. But it is unlikely to be an effective preventative for many (if any) of the threats to campus security we are likely to confront from pipe bomb threats to tornados -- or even shootings.

See, e.g., Brian Morelli, "Threat puts UI on alert; After e-mail clears buildings, police explode suspicious bag," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 14, 2007, p. A1.

None of which is to detract from the campus police's judgment call on this occasion. Any bomb threat has to be taken seriously, even though many will prove to be a hoax. They responded promptly, in a measured way, found an unattended backpack, minimized risk to themselves and others, and destroyed it. I'm not sure what better response there could have been.

Still to come: Can UI's IT folks track down who sent the email and from where? Was the backpack left where it was because it was forgotten by its owner? Or was it left there to produce the response it did?

Finally, if this backpack was as smelly and dusty as reported -- and presumably had been there long enough to produce those conditions -- is that perhaps a clue that we need to have in place (like the airports) a little more attentive focus on "unattended baggage"? A policy like that holds a lot less risk to campus safety than putting guns in the hands of anyone.

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