Once, a long time ago in a place not so far away, universities and research institutions were the shining beacon of hope for our society.

They were going to cure cancer.

They were helping send us to the moon.

They were discovering penicillin and the polymerase chain reaction (which allows us to sequence DNA).

We had high hopes, so we invested in them heavily.

We believed in them, and they in turn opened their doors to our masses.

Giving nearly every kid the opportunity for a college education, we thought our future was bright.

Then something happened.

I’m not sure exactly what it was. I can come up with some smart-sounding theories, but in the end they matter not.

The only thing that matters is where we’re at, and what to do about it.

As our colleges and universities go, so goes society. As much as I love entrepreneurial activities and my own current independence from academia, we as a society need these institutions to carry forth the great intellectual traditions that have led to so much advancement for our species.

So, let’s start with the present tense. Let’s look at two examples of the lunacy that seems to be spreading throughout our halls of higher ed.

Example 1: Get Grants Or Be Fired

“If you don’t get at least one federal grant in the next six months, you’ll be out on the street, jobless, sweeping floors at the local burger joint… so get your butt in gear writing grants!”  This is a proclamation handed down by an administrator to more than one researcher I know lately. In each one of these cases, the recipients of the proclamation were already working blood, sweat, and tears on grants, but that is not enough. The proclaimer felt like adding some pressure to make sure that the “lazy” researcher in question got the message loud and clear.

A bit of background for my non-academic readers. When you get hired to do research, you are expected to go out and get money to pay for your research. This usually comes in the form of grant money from various federal and state agencies, along with foundations.  Grants come in all shapes and sizes, from small $5,000 grants to buy a piece of equipment to some that pay as much as $2,000,000 per year or more to support a whole team doing research on a topic like cancer.

It’s always been a challenge to get grant funding. I remember back in the 1980’s when my father ran a science lab, how much he’d stress out about writing grant proposals – these thick stacks of paper justifying every little detail of a project that hadn’t happened yet. I’d see him up late at night and then up again early, with circles drawing under his eyes, as he’d finish up one of these things for submission.

Yet, in the past few years, it’s become a whole new ballgame, kiddos. The new ballgame is definitely a pro’s only sport. For big grant-giving agencies like the National Institutes of Health, less than 1 in 10 proposals get funded. It takes months to hear back whether you’ll get funded or not, and if you get a rejection, reviewer’s comments are generally cryptic and don’t really help much.

Throwing Young Faculty Into The Ring With Pro Fighters

So here we have in one corner: new faculty who’ve never had grants before, never had any deep training in persuasive writing, being hired by big universities and thrown into the ring to duke it out.

The all pervasive mantra is “just fight more fights!!!”

As if getting knocked out and bloodied frequently is a substitute for real training. (It’s not).

In the other corner, we have university administrators. They’re coming out of their corners with gloves swinging, sweat dripping, and a big hard-on for grant money. Their fight is driven by the mantra “we need more money to pay the bills! so YOU are going to fight, whether you’re prepared or not!”

The bizarrely stupid thing about the threats I regularly hear lobbed at faculty over the need to get grants “or else” is that those doing the threatening are ignoring the very clear research that’s been done on human motivation.

How to Motivate Workers in Modern Enterprises (or… Not)

Dan Pink summarizes this in his book, Drive. If you put more pressure on people using a carrot and stick method, it works okay for simple mechanical tasks like assembly line work. You can use the carrot and stick to get more “productivity” out of those “damn workers.”

BUT: If you use this kind of punishment and reward scenario on people involved in complex cognitive tasks that involve creative thinking, forget it. The more you incentivize, the more you get just the opposite of what you want. It takes people longer to solve those big problems that need solving.

So let me riddle you this: Is writing a grant proposal an assembly-line job, or a complex cognitive task requiring creative thinking?

If you answered “assembly-line job” you joined the chorus of those misguided souls who think that grant proposals can be written by robots (robots that happen to be of the skin and bones variety). Last I checked, nobody has been able to build a grant writing robot.

No, grant writing – like much of what professionals and business owners do, involves complex thinking.  It can’t be carrot-and-stick’d into happening faster or better.

The Creation of a Robot Monoculture

As a result of this pressure, there’s a sort of “natural selection” that’s going on in these institutions. It is weeding out the creative thinkers, the innovators, and the future Nobel laureates to produce a monoculture of pseudo-robots that follow orders blindly and manage to just scrape by though a process of sacrificing family time, sleep time, and even their own health in the name of satisfying the hungry dollar-sucking institutions they work for.

Sadly, there seems to be a nearly limitless supply of such robots, so that when one of the monoculture succumbs to cancer, another steps up to gladly take the place of the fallen ones.

Yet, lest ye think this is sustainable, think again.  As has been discovered with agricultural crops, growing monocultures is a fragile situation. It’s susceptible to breakage if anything unexpected happens, such as pests or bad weather. In academia, the precise nature of future shocks can’t be predicted, but we can know for sure that they will happen. The unexpected is part of life, everywhere and every time.

I am honestly sad for these administrators. I think at least some of them are well-intentioned. But they find themselves in a situation that requires true leadership and vision, without the skills and tools to exhibit leadership and vision. So they resort to carrots, sticks, and “incentives” as a substitute. And they don’t realize that they are doing the opposite of leading in the process. True leaders inspire (think of MLK, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ganhdi, etc…). False leaders cajole.

So let’s consider the second scenario, again from a recent interaction within academia:

Example 2: The Only Real Way To Succeed Is To Join an R1

“You’re about to get your PhD, and to be a success you have to take a serious research job at an R1 institution. If you take that teaching job you want from that small college, you’ll be relegated forever to that third-tier, stuck in the backwaters as a nobody. So, c’mon, ignore your distaste for the direction research is going in the field, get with the program, do some fundable research, and start applying for real jobs at real universities!”

I remember the cliques in high school. If you weren’t part of the clique, you were a “nobody.” Well, I wasn’t part of the popular cliques – the jocks, the cheerleaders, the A-students. I have yet to return to a high school reunion, but I may do so someday to see what has happened to all those folks.

I suspect this: that 1) I earn more money than most of them; 2) I have more free time than most of them; 3) I spend more quality time with my family than most of them; 4) I am doing what I love unlike most of them; 5) I am having a positive impact in the world unlike most of them; and 6) that almost none of them has all of 1-5 going on in their lives. (I know this because it seems like less than 1 in 1,000 that has all this going for them).

No, I didn’t get to where I am by listening to the “advice” of the cliques. It’s a damn good thing that I never was really a part of one, so I got spared that kind of mind-numbing groupthink.

Sadly, much of this cliquey groupthink has now infected academia – and our world. If you’re not part of the “R1 clique” you are a “nobody.” (R1 refers to the exclusive group of 50 or so top-tier, well funded research universities, including those brand names we’ve all heard). Forget what you’re good at, your individual talents and contributions and join us in the  “IN” group.

OMG. Gag me with a spoon! No, wait… gag me with a bucketful of stupidity!

It’s not that the individuals in a clique aren’t smart. Sometimes they are. But groupthink is almost never smart. So when one subsumes her own smartness to the groupthink, it produces an immediate 30 point drop in IQ.

That’s what is happening in this highly toxic advice that someone gave this soon-to-be-minted new Doctoral researcher.

What’s so sad about this groupthink-spawned advice to our erstwhile PhD is that I think these folks giving the advice actually believe that there could be nothing better than life at an R1 research institution. They seem to actually believe that the sacrifices of family, free time, and health are worth it. They seem to believe that the constant treadmill of robotic grant writing and “publish or perish” is just a fact of life. Worse still, they actually believe that the current funding system leads to the best research being done, when it is just the opposite. The groupthink that happens in grant review committees usually produces a lowest-common-denominator approach to research progress that stifles creativity and innovation (how else can you explain the billions spent on cancer and no big cures to date?)

No. It is a case of the blind leading the young off the cliff into oblivion.

Do. Not. Listen. To. Groupthink.

Listen to what’s right for you. That should be the only criterion for any decision, ever. Sadly, we’ve programmed ourselves to listen to others, to follow orders, and to totally ignore our inner wisdom and intelligence.

And people ask me why I left academia… maybe a picture is emerging?

When this kind of terrible advice being doled out to our students is par for the course, it’s a sign that the system is more and more bent on breeding clones instead of creative, innovative researchers who could actually make a difference in the world.

It is truly sad, this state of affairs that’s represented by these two brief glimpses I’ve shared with you here.

It’s sad because I have so many friends and colleagues still in the system, trying to survive with some sense of self retained. It’s sad that it’s getting harder and harder to do.

The solution

I could write a lot about all the things that need to change, but in this case I think simplicity is the best policy.

The solution is the epitome of simple: we need leaders to stand up and step up, facing off with these negative forces, and saying “enough is enough! no more stupidity will be allowed in our halls of higher education! let’s start living sane lives again!”

I saw this recently happen with a PhD student whom I inspired, who then went and stood up to a borderline-abusive supervisor.

I don’t think unions are the answer.  The only time, ever, that unions have made a difference is when they have strong, inspiring leaders. But unions bring lots of baggage with them – including the very groupthink that’s part of the problem. You can’t fix a problem by substituting it with another equal (or worse) problem!

Great leadership is a solution, always and every time throughout human history.

I just got an email from someone I have worked with. This person decided to walk away from a faculty job next year – disgusted by what’s been happening. (Like most sane people are).

While I applaud the decision for the person’s own sake, it is sad that some of the best and brightest are choosing to leave rather than to stand up as leaders to fix the problem. (mea culpa, I am one of those who left, because I didn’t know how to stand up to it at the time – I didn’t have the skills needed).

These academic institutions are like a car on the road that’s just run out of gas, and which is now coasting on momentum end elevation gained during better times. If we don’t start seeing some real leadership, these institutions will soon run out of momentum and come to a jerky, shaking halt.

Are you ready to step up and be a leader, be a visionary? 

Because if our instituions of higher learning are going to live up to our belief in them as great institutions, then things need to change. We need leaders who are willing to step up and take risks, change the way the model operates, and CREATE a vision of an institution that is not just spewing out well-trained robots who join the existing rat race of chasing money.

And if these institutions fall, then what does that mean for the rest of us? Where will intellectual traditions be fostered? What will we look towards for the future of progress?

If you aren’t willing to step up, then you are participating in a slow-but-sure death of the system. Rest assured that things will get worse before they get better.

If you are, be prepared for a difficult but rewarding journey of change and struggle. Leadership is never easy, yet it is the only thing that brings true success. It is leading by example, leading with love, leading with a vision and passion. If you choose this path, you may be like a real-life Frodo Baggins, with dark forces amassed against you – but you will ultimately prevail.

Dr. Morgan Giddings
Dr. Morgan Giddings