Who Is The Shohei Ohtani Of Higher Education?

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“Talent is the steak and I don’t really care what time dinner is.”

– Scott Boras, baseball agent

Baseball is back next week after a bitter and boring 99-day labor dispute in which the only highlight was superagent Scott Boras sounding off about steak at a steakhouse press conference. Boras was making the point that his star clients were on track to get paid even if the lockout compressed the timeframe for free agent signings. Based on the flurry of deals following the lockout’s conclusion, Boras was proven correct. With an expanded postseason, more teams are going for broke and the 2022 season should be competitive and entertaining – an island of normal in a sea of once-in-a-century anomalies.

I’m a die-hard fan of one competitive and entertaining team, the Toronto Blue Jays. I began attending Jays’ games in the early days of the franchise when the team played in a (Canadian) football stadium and the center field bleachers were a hundred yards (meters) away from the fence, and – related – when so few fans sat out there that the center fielder boasted of being able to urinate in the outfield during games. While I suppose that requires talent, Boras and baseball have long decided that’s not the kind of talent that gets paid. In an era of data analytics, the #1 metric for determining talent value is WAR, Wins Above Replacement.

Although the idea behind WAR is simple – number of wins contributed relative to a readily available replacement player at the same position – calculations involve dozens of variables. But unlike simpler statistics, the payoff is that aggregate WAR is highly correlated to actual wins (0.83 correlation coefficient in various studies). And this has led to a strong connection between WAR and salaries (at least for players beyond the 6-year control period). Remarkably, during the lockout owners offered to replace the current salary arbitration process with a WAR calculation.

Basing compensation on value added relative to a readily available replacement is an appropriate topic for spring what with the return of baseball and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual ranking of presidential pay. Nicholas Zeppos of Vanderbilt made $3.2M in 2019. Is he adding millions of dollars of value relative to a readily available replacement president? Same for Ronald Daniels at Johns Hopkins ($3.2M) or Lee Bollinger at Columbia ($2.7M)?

To answer these questions, we need to define value added in higher education and the antecedent question of value added for whom. Higher education has many constituencies: faculty, staff, alumni, community members, parents, employers, the general public. But it’s hard to make the case that students shouldn’t come first in a higher education WAR formula. So what constitutes student wins? Educated citizens for sure, but like actual learning, that’s hard to measure let alone incorporate in a formula. And most of the metrics used by U.S. News and other rankings – student-faculty ratio, faculty compensation, selectivity, financial resources – are inputs rather than outcomes. But here are a few clear and measurable wins that could constitute the basis of education WAR: completion, employment, income, ability to repay loans, alumni satisfaction, maybe even distance traveled.

So if higher education is being run as rationally as baseball, presumably Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia would be touting all kinds of good news about student wins. Looking at recent press releases, not so much. Out of thousands of announcements from Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia in the past year, fewer than 20 had any connection to student wins, and more than half of these were profiles of celebrity alumni. Only one related to student employability, equal to the number of announcements about mimes. As to quantitative student outcome metrics, deafening silence.

Of course we can’t conclude these presidents haven’t added any value. Columbia may have added value via ranking rigging, but only for administrators, and only in the short term (for long-term results, I refer you to the Temple business school dean’s 14-month prison sentence for submitting false data to U.S. News, a sentence that surely ranks in the top 10 in U.S. News’ ranking of Best Prison Sentences, college administrator category). But in the absence of evidence, it’s hard to argue that these highest paid presidents have a high education WAR and that – other constituencies notwithstanding – students at these schools might not be better off with readily available replacements.

Baseball players with the highest WAR do things differently. Shohei Ohtani blew away the rest of the field last year with WAR of 9.0 because he’s baseball’s first two-way star since Babe Ruth: a starting pitcher who won 9 games with an ERA of 3.18 and 156 strikeouts and a designated hitter who hit 46 home runs and drove in 100 runs. Last week baseball established a new rule specifically so Ohtani could get more at-bats. Ohtani won last year’s American League MVP ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of my Blue Jays who slugged 48 homers with WAR of 6.8. Guerrero is also a generational talent. ESPN describes Guerrero’s swing as having “a rare, whipping violence the game hasn’t seen.” Other observers say “the ball… sounds different off his bat. Vlad’s swing produces a sonic boom unlike anything I’ve ever heard.”

Most higher education leaders – like most baseball players – show up and do their best, typically producing a handful of wins above replacement. The job itself imposes limitations; both college presidents and major leaguers are required to spend a good amount of time gladhanding with donors/fans. But performance may also have something to do with background. A record-setting star in high school, Shohei was convinced to remain in Japan for the first phase of his professional career by an iconoclastic team – the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (owned by Nippon Ham, Japan’s leading purveyor of ham, sausages, and frozen pizzas) – willing to buck convention with a pioneering two-way player. Vladito is the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr. who played 16 years for the Montreal Expos and L.A. Angels and brought young Jr. everywhere – the clubhouse and batting practice.

While the leaders of Vanderbilt, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins are all former law professors, the most innovative and likely highest WAR higher eductation leaders – Arizona State’s Michael Crow, Purdue’s Mitch Daniels, and Paul Quinn’s Michael Sorrell – are not. Without launching into a litany of their many accomplishments for students, these presidents have untraditional backgrounds. Daniels was an executive at Eli Lilly, then CEO of the Hudson Institute before launching a career in government during the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, ultimately becoming governor of Indiana. Sorrell was a practicing attorney and public affairs consultant before becoming a nonprofit entrepreneur. Crow is the only academic of the lot, beginning his career as a political science professor at Iowa State. But his field was science and technology policy and when he arrived at Columbia in the 1990s, he took the reins of technology at Columbia (e.g., patents, digital technology) and ran it like a business, for better and worse. I can testify that Mike is not your typical academic because he hired me into his “business.” He was like no one I’d ever worked for before or since – a unique combination of innovative thinking and energy, and improbably practical for someone so imaginative and eloquent. 20 years down the road, Mike may be the best manager I’ve seen up close. His subsequent transformation of Arizona State was entirely predictable.

Why do higher education’s WAR leaders have untraditional backgrounds? I think it has something to do with exposure to what my friend Tom Monahan calls “modern work.” Before becoming a university president, Tom was a tech company CEO. In his estimation, there are two kinds of work today. Modern work is digitized, automated, and metric-driven. Like it or not, modern work produces the goods and services that undergird our standard of living. The other category is craft work: small scale, unautomated, few (if any) metrics. Craft work (not Kraftwerk) describes the legal profession, policy, the arts, and education. And its practitioners generally have little understanding of modern work beyond a Word doc.

Although it hasn’t been long since craft work represented the majority of the economy – especially the service sector – to people like Tom, the crafty remnants feel like museum pieces with little accountability and notoriously bad management. Craft work doesn’t require or respect good management and, as a result, doesn’t produce much (or nearly enough) of it. “Remember that department chair or congressperson who was renowned for training and developing their staff?” asks Tom. (“Me neither.”) My rejoinder: “Remember when that UCLA department listed an adjunct faculty job with the important proviso that ‘there will be no compensation for this position’?” (“Yes, just last week.”)

My wife works in Hollywood and over the years I’ve heard management horror stories that made my hair stand on end. Time, money, talent, and human dignity sacrificed at the altar of a boss’s ego. While these people aren’t war criminals, they surely have negative WAR. I guess it’s like Denzel says, “at your highest moment, be careful — that’s when the devil comes for you.” After #MeToo exploded in the entertainment industry, many of my wife’s colleagues were waiting for the same in finance and tech. We’re still waiting and the simplest and most likely explanation isn’t that it remains concealed, but rather that it didn’t happen as much: better management in modern work didn’t allow as much awful and demeaning behavior (at least on a per manager basis). By my count, while we’ve been waiting on finance and tech, they’ve been surpassed by #MeToo reports out of higher education.

Tom suggests universities could benefit from a few more higher education leaders who took a psych degree, went into HR, and then shifted into a supervisory role at an L1/L2 tech support center. College and university presidents without any background in modern work are likely to have greater difficulty producing wins for students. Relative to other craft fields, higher education has an even higher degree of difficulty due to shared governance, one result of which is an even lower bar for management and leadership.

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Strom Thurmond: Mr. Winter, you are a dean?

Ralph Winter: No. A professor.

Strom Thurmond: Oh, merely a professor? Not a dean?

Ralph Winter: No sir. A professor, not merely a dean.

At his confirmation hearing for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the late law professor and federal judge Ralph Winter sparred with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in one of Strom’s uncharacteristically non-racist moments. Like all craftspeople, educators tend to elevate the individual craftsman at the expense of the manager. And, of course, we all want to root for the little guy or free spirit. But if we’ve learned anything from modern work, it’s that outcomes are highly correlated with metrics and management.

There are plenty of examples of successful modern managers parachuting into colleges and universities and making a hash of things. But relative to the (law) professor norm, I’d bet that a much higher percentage of university presidents with untraditional backgrounds become WAR leaders. In my wife’s work, lifelong writers rarely make the best TV showrunners (cue the horror stories). Similarly, lifelong academics have a proven path to becoming the higher education equivalent of utility infielders, but they rarely become the very best higher education leaders.

But this is academic unless and until we have data. WAR can only be calculated from underlying statistics. We desperately need uniform data for higher education: reliable statistics on completion, employment, income, ability to repay loans, and alumni satisfaction. Just don’t ask Temple, USC, or Columbia.

Tracking and reporting these stats will help boards of trustees determine which current leaders should be sent to the minors in favor of readily available replacements, which candidates are prospective Shohei Ohtanis and Vladimir Guerreros, and which law professors should simply continue teaching contracts. If a craft like baseball can evolve, higher education can as well. So let’s get the season started; the steaks could not be higher.

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