Unintended Consequences


The Washington Post ran a fascinating and insightful story about the issues of too many men in China and India recently.  Currently the two countries find themselves with 50 million males under the age of 20 who will likely never marry and that number is climbing.  Because of significant social engineering policies like the one child rule, coupled with the cultural and social stigma associated with passing of family name or desire for a male dominated society, many extreme and haunting practices like female babies abandoned, aborted, or (now illegal) otherwise changed through sex-selective technologies are commonplace.   Human trafficking is on the rise and mass depression, changes to social class, and massive housing inflation have appeared almost overnight as men / families try to grapple with it all.  Some projections even suggest wars will be caused by the problem. 

My wife and I read the story at the same time.  It led to a “debate” (married people, you know what I’m saying here…) about whether or not these country’s governments knew any of this would happen.  After all, they have an over-population problem.  I believe they knew exactly what  issues would arise, but proceeded with policies and processes anyway.  Perhaps they didn’t know the exact ripple effects, but I’ll bet they could have gotten close as they projected out a year, a decade, etc. 

Similarly, the US news cycle from the past few months has been focused on a lot of issues within our Government.  It’s really hard to determine if the firings, accusations, and other social media banter are of importance or creating a shiny object to grab our attention as real issues are over-shadowed.  In that vein, I almost missed something big.  I almost missed something that just about everyone else missed too.  During FBI firings and investigations, Steel taxation, and the like, the Director of the US Census resigned. 

Now stick with me.  Because if you are like me, you probably wonder how I could call that “big” at all.  Well, until recently I would have agreed with you.  Census?  Who cares?  We know how many people live here.  We may not have the hospital / health information connectivity we want yet, but we have a pretty good sense of how many kids are born, how many immigrants enter, etc.  Right?


That is exactly what I would have thought until I read, “Bad News for Everyone! The 2020 Census Is Already in Trouble” (Marshall, 2017).   (Thank you trusty IFTTT sending me Wired articles to keep me in the know…)

See, aside from the point of pride that is the United States Census – arguably the bellwether of countrywide, citizen data for the world – the census does a lot of other things.  Important things. 

The census tells America how many Congressional seats should exist so as to represent the people.  The census explains where poverty lines are.  It has implications for voting, gerrymandering, water, power, and other infrastructure considerations.  The census shows if a new bus route is necessary for people to get to work or if a community is finally large enough for a natural grocer.  It’s constitutionally mandated too.  The census is vitally important.

So why did the director resign?  Likely because the current administration cut the funding the director believed was necessary to get the job done.  After all, nobody wants to lead an organization that can’t overcome a lack of funding to succeed. 

What will the ramifications of a lynchpin organization led only by interim leadership be for the US?  Several stories have run regarding the census and speculating around the infrastructure implications.  But the department, which has alerted Government leadership that the 2020 census is highly at risk, still sits without a leader and without nearly enough funding.


Ok, so why am I talking about the politics of China, India, and the US Census?  It’s not just to help shed light on some fascinating and potentially dangerous problems, but to illustrate the power of consequences.  These ramifications are happening because of choices made.  Choices matter.  There are hugely consequential choices like how we deal with climate at a society or personal choices about appearance.  (It’s a bit like seeing somebody in 2018 who has a mullet.  Don’t you want to follow them around and see what other decisions they make?  After all, having a mullet was a choice!)  But eventually, all choices have consequences. 

So now back to education.  I fully admit I am an arm-chair quarterback regarding politics as I rely on informed journalists, commentators (on both sides) and other experts to try and wade through the muck.  But education I understand.  I’ve seen it, experienced it, studied it, and seen it in context after context.  I’ve visited hundreds of schools, met with thousands of leaders from community colleges to ivy league universities and I have seen this same issue raise its head over and over.  Higher education is FILLED with consequences, many of which are unintended. 

Take learning outcomes.  Every school in the land needs a curriculum map.  Every university in the US has to meet accreditation standards regarding the outcomes for a course, a program, etc.  Yet most schools have extremely weak outcomes as tied to instruction, learning, assessment, etc.  It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.  Solid outcomes would mean that Economics 200 from Professor Smith was taught in such a way that Economics 200 taught by Professor Johnson got the same end result for students.  But that is almost never the case.  The closest you’ll find to that experience lies in online courses where the school uses a ‘master course’ concept.  But even then, if there are face to face courses, the concept flies out the window.  That means students are often graded in comparison to others, not against knowing the material.  It often leads to high degrees of subjectivity on assessments, meaning students are after a moving target.  That means some students get very little preparation for upward movement as professors teach things that tickle their fancy vs what the student’s genuinely need.  Ripple effects. 


How about enrollments?  There are a healthy number of colleges and universities who have tried to serve the “2nd chance” student (or the student who struggles to get a 1st chance).  But as regulations have tightened around graduation rates, the burden of higher education debt with no degree to show for it, student employability, professors who are underprepared for learner management, and the constant pendulum swing of a college degree being “worth it” to the public, those universities are struggling.  Typically handled by community colleges and private schools (State Universities and “top 100” colleges usually push their GPA requirements so high that it causes the need in the first place), those organizations are struggling mightily.  They are attempting to reset their entry points, furiously seeking adaptive or CBE models (without the funding to seed it), and begging faculty to change standards to overcome this issue.  Ripple effects. 


I could go on, but you get the idea.  There are always consequences for our choices but it seems that very often in higher education those consequences are not considered.  (Either the system is too siloed for that to happen or the collective nature of the model makes it impossible to architect effectively.)  A course based mostly on lecture has negative consequences.  A campus where student affairs and academic affairs don’t legitimately work together has negative consequences.  Schools that resist online learning have unseen negative consequences for students, just as schools who bound into eLearning without strategic considerations for quality and scale also see negative consequences.  Faculty Development being left solely to the discretion of the faculty can have negative consequences.  Athletics integration on campus can have negative consequences.  Hiding school email addresses from the public can have negative consequences.  Creating a school website for marketing purposes and ignoring current students, faculty, and staff can have negative consequences.  Recruiting volunteer faculty as adjuncts can have negative consequences.  And on and on and on…

So I guess the question for you is simple.  Have you considered the consequences?  Do you have enough visibility across the organization, around the interdependence that is (or should be but isn’t) in place, or based on the student, faculty, or staff experience to even really know the consequences?  We all know the story of the Challenger and the single point of failure in a bad “O ring” failures which exploded the rocket.  That was a problem few could have predicted.  But to deal with unknown emergencies and crises as they arrive, it is also obvious that having mitigated against those which could be predicted is a smart move.

So do the smart thing.  Take care of your school’s census.  Walk through your university’s one child policies.  Bring in systems thinking, design thinking, “architects” who have both sight and authority across the organization.  In other words, don’t run your school like 90% of higher education organizations currently do…

Good luck and good learning.