Saturday, December 10, 2022

Twitter and universities

From Rob Wiesenthal at the Wall Street Journal re Elon Musk and Twitter: 

Minutes after closing his purchase of the company, he started a process that reduced the workforce from 7,500 to 2,500 in 10 days....

Mr. Musk is trying to cure a degenerative corporate disease: systemic paralysis. Symptoms include cobwebs of corporate hierarchies with unclear reporting lines and unwieldy teams, along with work groups and positions that have opaque or nonsensical mandates. Paralyzed companies are often led by a career CEO who builds or maintains a level of bureaucracy that leads to declines in innovation, competitive stature and shareholder value....

Mr. Musk set his new tone immediately. He eliminated a 12-member team responsible for artificial-intelligence ethics in machine learning, the entire corporate communications department, and a headquarters commissary that cost $13 million a year (despite prior management’s pandemic decree that Twitter employees would be “remote forever”)....

he knows he doesn’t need five layers between him and the employees who actually do the work. His recent email to the engineering team stating, “Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 pm today,” makes it clear he doesn’t want a membrane of corporate yes-men between him and the people who actually build things....

As sole owner, he can also quickly terminate the members of Twitter’s black hole of middle management, that cold and lonely place where great ideas go to die at big companies....

The days of nap pods, emotional-support dogs, corporate pronoun guides, personal wellness days and email blackouts after 5 p.m. are quickly vanishing....

 Those employees who relish getting things done will thrive.

My thoughts go naturally to my home institution, Stanford. We are self-evidently bloated with administrative staff. Stanford proudly lists 15,750 staff, for 7,645 undergrads, 9,292 graduate, and 2,288 faculty. 

This lovely Harvard Crimson editorial by Brooks Anderson (HT Chris Phelan) paints a devastating picture there:

Across the University, for every academic employee there are approximately 1.45 administrators. When only considering faculty, this ratio jumps to 3.09. Harvard employs 7,024 total full-time administrators, only slightly fewer than the undergraduate population. What do they all do?

For example, last December, all Faculty of Arts and Sciences affiliates received an email from Dean Claudine Gay announcing the final report of the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, a task force itself created by recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. This task force was composed of 24 members: six students, nine faculty members, and nine administrators. The task force produced a 26-page report divided into seven sections, based upon a survey, focus groups, and 15 separate meetings with over 500 people total. The report dedicated seven pages to its recommendations, which ranged from “Clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage” to “Create a dynamic program of public art in the FAS.” In response to these recommendations, Dean Gay announced the creation of a new administrative post, the “FAS campus curator,” and a new committee, the “FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage.” 

The "12-member team responsible for artificial-intelligence ethics in machine learning"... I just learned that Stanford, like other institutions, now has an "Ethics and Society Review" bureaucracy gearing up. ("Voluntary" for now.) We already have the large and cumbersome Institutional Review focusing on human subjects, but it had a pesky limitation 

The IRB should not consider possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research [...] as among those research risks that fall within the purview of its responsibility.

Well, let's not let that get in the way, 

... it is inappropriate to ignore the risks that research poses for our collective future: the risks of artificial intelligence to the future of work, the risks of sustainability interventions to the societies that they are purported to support, the risks of the internet to professional media and accurate information. 

"to ignore." Don't you love passive voice? "For the university bureaucracy to ignore" is less self evident. If you stop and think just a moment, absolutely no research can pass this test. Risks to future work? Sorry about that steam engine Mr. Watt. Sorry about that word processor Mr. Wang. "risks of the internet to ... accurate information." Pretty much all social media or the internet itself must be banned or censored by this standard. Sorry about that printing press Mr. Gutenberg, our Ethics Review Board has determined it might spread inaccurate information.  Pretty much all AI research must be banned see  Marginal Revolution here for excellent disruption possibilities, such as 

...ordinary people will have more capabilities than a CIA agent does today. You’ll be able to listen in on a conversation in an apartment across the street using the sound vibrations off a chip bag. You’ll be able to replace your face and voice with those of someone else in real time, allowing anyone to socially engineer their way into anything. Bots will slide into your DMs and have long, engaging conversations with you until it senses the best moment to send its phishing link. ... Relationships will fall apart when the AI lets you know, via microexpressions, that he didn’t really mean it when he said he loved you. Copyright will be as obsolete as sodomy law, as thousands of new Taylor Swift albums come into being with a single click. Public comments on new regulations will overflow with millions of cogent and entirely unique submissions that the regulator must, by law, individually read and respond to.   

Indeed, I gather the point of the Stanford effort is precisely to regulate AI research. Which will mostly just mean China does it instead. 

Yes, a university bureaucracy wants the power to stop research ahead of time on the basis of its views of potential social harm.

Of course a regulatory body that basically can be interpreted to ban anything that advances actual human knowledge will end up being mostly a way to use university disciplinary procedures against research that has the "wrong" answers. We're not firing you because of your unpopular opinions, but you failed to properly fill out your ethics and society review forms. 

And "accurate information" curation brings up another Twitter story... 

Well, I'm getting off track. Read the rest with a university in mind, and it is just a delicious fantasy.

Why can't a Musk come in and similarly clean up a university? It's an obvious takeover target. $37.8 billion in money it doesn't know how to use, and an obvious target for getting back to its core functions. 

Well, because Stanford is a non-profit. Non-profit doesn't mean "doesn't make a profit." Non-profit really means that it does not have shares outstanding, which you can buy up if you think the thing is badly run, and clean the place up. Non-profit means protection from the market for corporate control.  (It also means a lot of subsidy from taxpayers, making competition from organizations organized as corporations much harder.) 

It's time to rethink whether the non-profit structure is doing what it's supposed to do. A regular corporation is perfectly free to not make money if its shareholders choose to operate that way. But bloated immoveable "nonprofits" don't make sense. (Anderson also notices the perversity of tax-free status, and recommends that the doctor who prescribes wealth taxes should heal itself!) 



I went a bit off the deep end here, both on the social ethics review boards (more on that coming, it's a widespread trend and truly horrifying) and on my fantasy of getting rid of non-profit status (worth considering, but needs a more comprehensive treatment). 

There are mechanisms to fix universities. Alumi can stop giving, trustees can force change and appoint leaders who do, faculty can wake up and use faculty senates to take back control of admissions and bureaucracies, and the federal government can have a big effect. If it has a huge endowment, a bloated staff, and an ethics review board, a "DEI" office enforcing political conformity, and zero political/ideological diversity, don't give it money. Government can condition student aid and loans and grant overhead on reform (rather than, as now, the opposite). And eventually competitors can spring up. Privately funded research institutes, new universities are not out of the question. Also, research and teaching excellence may flow to what is now the second tier, ambitious state schools for example. 


  1. Now unleash Musk on US State Dept.

  2. Obviously, Stanford has a governing board of trustees, just like a corporation would have, right? Let's say Musk pays them to make him president of the university.

  3. Sorry if this is off-topic, but what do you mean by the passive voice in that sentence? I was taught that the passive voice meant you needed a past participle and a form of "be" (sometimes "get"). So something like "The cat is fed by him" rather than "He feeds the cat."

    "It is inappropriate to ignore..." does not appear to have any passive voice in the linguistic sense. [I think the "are purported to support" is in passive voice, though]

    (I agree that it is written in a bureaucratic way that ignores who the agent is in the sentence, but I would like to know if this is a new sense of "passive voice" that I am unfamiliar with beyond the linguistic definition.)

    1. You're right, of course. I managed to get through school without ever taking a decent course in grammar. Not every sentence without a subject is passive voice, and it's the absence of the subject that bugs me.

    2. The most lucid thing I've read in a long, long time.

    3. Fantastic work

    4. The sentence in question is what I think is called an impersonal one. It is the subject without an antecedent. In the context, it seems a way to justify something that is difficult to justify.
      James Cover

    5. No real reason to learn grammatical terminology unless you want to learn a foreign language. Your English grammar is probably about 99.9% correct through the magic of the acquisition of a first language -- notwithstanding that you are not fully familiar with the grammatical terminology for your English sentence structure. Unfortunately you can't repeat this process with additional languages learned later in life and need to understand grammatical categories in order to efficiently learn the acquired language.

  4. But the problem is not nonprofit vs corporation - a private corporation is similarly immune from takeover?

    1. Not so. Public corporations and private corporations use what is known as a "roll-up strategy" to acquire private firms that have a local monopoly position in a specific geographic area to expand their market share. Lowes pursued such a strategy in Canada in order to compete with Home Depot in that market. If private corporations were immune from takeover, the "roll-up strategy" would not be feasible.

  5. Excellent blogging. In the private sector, bloated corporations eventually either lose market share or get bought out. The US educational system, especially at higher levels, cannot be bought out. Reform must somehow come from within, but that seems impossible.

  6. Thank you for the info on non-profits. It gives me a better idea of why they're like that.

  7. On the other hand, there's a well established process for creating a for-profit university and competing with Stanford for its revenue streams (students and grants), and many exist.

    Are there for-profit universities you where you would be interested in a faculty job, or where you would encourage your children to apply? If not, perhaps making it easier to turn Stanford for-profit wouldn't make a world you like better.

    1. This is a good point. I left out that non-profits are not only protected from the market for corporate control, but also massively subsidized by the taxpayer. They do not have to pay corporate tax, property tax, and tax on the endowment income, donors get tax deductions for donations, plus universities get direct subsidies, overhead on grants, plus the government has been recently working hard to put for-profits out of business. The market test hardly works when one side is getting billions from the taxpayer.

    2. so ONE Group avoids taxes....compete against ONE THAT doesn't PAY TAXES?

      When people are getting $100k+ from a non-profit...they are MAKING A PROFIT. TAX them all!

    3. Non profits aren’t entirely free from competitors. Ask any small college. Ask Stanford about Harvard or Chicago. They are fiercely competitive for the best faculty and students. The bloated bureaucracy seems to have a different source. And, eventually, donors will contribute elsewhere. Stanford would have a very hard time living entirely off of its endowment.

    4. If universities are in such white-hot competition for the best students and faculty, then why are we seeing the elimination of student entrance exams and the imposition of DEI political tests for faculty hiring?


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  9. Maybe a "limited profit" corporation would work better. Or maybe a corporation that uses its money for some altruistic or internal objective.

  10. any non-profit where ANYONE "gets" $100k+ should be TAXED!
    Including Colleges, Hospitals, etc

    1. Income from college endowments should be taxed to reimburse the government for the losses on student loans. It will serve to advance the philosophy of the university, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

  11. There is not a single large institution in the US whether in the public or private sector that does not suffer with bloat. When careers- compensation- largely comes from supervising people the incentive system is to add people to the employment ranks regardless of what their marginal productivity contribution may be.
    As to the Ed. system, the full elimination of gov student loans will see colleges and universities become more efficient and likely to spend down some of their vast endowment holdings.
    Size breeds inefficiency in way too many cases.

    1. I think you are right. Bloated student loans would be where I would look for the cause.

    2. I've witnessed this in the Australian public sector for many years, and it's getting worse. For an example (amongst many), over a few years the ratio of medical:non-medical staff in Queensland Health went from 60:40 to 40:60, with increasing bureaucratic loads on the medics. The current ALP governments are taking this to further extremes, the bureaucracy expands while business faces increasing direction and compliance issues.

  12. I am looking forward to John’s next piece in which he goes all out against privately held companies because they, too, are insulated from the market for corporate control.

    1. Well, I'm pretty empirical. Is there evidence of anything on the scale of university bloat? They certainly don't have the immense subsidies that "non-profits" have. And they do have shares, they can be bought at a high enough price. Greed seems to win sooner or later. Privately held usually have a small number, not one, of shareholders, and some sooner or later want money.

  13. I read that the faculty number is 1285 on the Princeton site:

  14. I love how simple concepts in behavioural economics can shed light on how humans respond to incentives in non-market-disciplined organizations. Fewer wasteful programs and more efficient functions in DC can return savings to taxpayers. That gets around the politicians who are unable to reduce or cut any program that is already funded. Imagine unleashing the potential energy sitting in Federal bureaucracies by allowing those humans to work in market-disciplined organizations: It might even help the labor shortage...

    1. I’m in favor of strong use of sunset, whether it is universities spending endowments or government grant making.

  15. And do not forget that universities have an unlimited cash cow from the federal student loans program. Some people claim there is a close relationship between tuition increases and the increases in student loans. Universities can increase their funding without incurring any risk, all courtesy of Uncle Sam. Somewhere this is called the "Bennett Hypothesis", after William (Bill) Bennett, who was Education Secreatary of Ronald Reagan. With such riskless increases in tuition, universities can fund a largely useless and bloated bureaucracy, full of deans, assistant deans, deputy assistant deans, deputy deans, alternate deans, and so forth.

  16. Somewhere in the comments section and the blog post there is the kernel of an idea. Non-taxable status is a form of government subsidy. Subsidies, or bounties (as Frank Ramsey termed them), have social welfare improving attributes which justify the governments' expenditure along this dimension. Student loans increase accessibility to educational services broadening the pool of potential employees in an age where increasingly more stringent educational qualifications would otherwise impose impediments to employment for a broad segment of the population.

    Conversely, increasing government regulations applied to educational services providers gives rise to increasing administrative costs and staffing compliment requirements to comply with those regulations. That federal regulations are tied to federal money in the form of grants for teaching and research drives colleges and universities to increase administrative staff budgets to meet compliance requirements.

    Private for-profit colleges and trades schools exist, but Congress and the Administration have made a concerted effort to curtail those establishments, to the full extent of federal and state laws.

    The hospital sector is also dominated by non-profit organizations. In the State of Washington, for-profit hospitals have no opportunity to become established because non-profit hospital organizations control, indirectly, the 'certificate of need' review and approval process. This is well-known within the state.

    The key characteristic of a registered non-profit or not-for-profit organization is the self-perpetuating board of directors. Tackle the social-welfare increasing assumptions at the foundational level if you seek to change the status quo ex ante, but be prepared for a long and arduous fight amid low prospects for success.

  17. You can find the breakdown using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). In Fall 2020, the Stanford University reports 15,271 full-time staffs, categorized by occupation as below.
    Instructional: 3,724 (This appears to include faculty)
    Research: 805
    Librarians, Curators, and Archivists: 319
    Student and Academic Affairs and Other Education Services: 86
    Management (*): 1,208
    Business and Financial Operations (*): 3,507
    Computer, Engineering, and Science: 2,705
    Community Service, Legal, Arts, and Media (*): 552
    Healthcare Practioners and Technical: 31
    Service: 684
    Office and Administrative Support (*): 1,288
    Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance: 362

    Counting categories marked with (*) above, Stanford employs 6,555 full-time administrators (using the same definition, Harvard has 7,410 administrators, which is close to the number given by the Harvard Crimson article).

  18. I've always thought that if Wal-Mart enters the University game, it would be a game-changer. Non-profits should run much more like for-profit businesses.

  19. Loving Purdue and Mitch! The Rational U


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