#26 By Degrees (1999)

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

Many of us who attended US colleges in the last couple of decades will admit that our academic careers were . . . less than academic. Little rich boys and girls, whose parents paid for their "education" mostly majored in non-stop partying. Less rich boys and girls, who paid for their education with student loans and grants, mostly majored in sucking up to the people who provided the money; with minors in identifying courses that wouldn't negatively affect their GPA. The least rich of all, those who paid for their own education out of their own pockets, majored in getting in and out of college in the shortest amount of time with minimum cost. Only freshmen and a few very dense sophomores waste time trying to locate the educational part of higher education. Those intent on becoming educated either give up on college and head into the real world where they can educate themselves or suffer through the paper-gathering phase of life and try to suffer as little permanent brain damage as possible during their academic incarceration.

The problem with colleges is that they are the home port for every corporate malfunction described in a Dilbert cartoon. Corruption, lethargy and indolence, inefficiency, and nepotism are all SOP (stupid office practices) in academia. If you can't do, teach. If you can't do or teach, administrate. If you can't do, teach, or administrate, there's always research. In Academia, we've created a home for every sort of incompetent.

The idea that the worst run organizations in the country, our disheveled and dishonest universities, can find the gall to offer "Master of Business Administration" degrees is as unlikely as your local YMCA Jazzercise instructors offering a "Masters of the Universe" self-defense class. How many times have you said, "I sure am impressed with my school's Admissions Office?" When was the last time you heard "enrolling for classes in this school is easy as ordering a pizza by phone!" Or how about "the thing I love about my school is that, after four years of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars, my college didn't make a single mistake on my transcript." On the other hand, if you've ever uttered any of the above sentences, you're going to be very happy in an MBA program. If you often thought "I can't imagine doing a better job than this school is doing," you can skip the "corporate internship" and go straight to a Ph.D. and a Business Department professorship or a CEO's desk.

Life never lets us down in the humor department, though. Not only are universities churning out MBA degrees, but companies seem to prefer losers with that useless credential to experienced employees with skill and ability. Many of the Fortune 500 types won't put you in the mail room if you don't have an MBA at the head of your resume's "education" section. Almost all of those companies absolutely refuse to consider you for any kind of supervisory position unless you have evidence of your ability to fail IQ tests and put up with extreme absurdity evidenced by an MBA degree. Note that the low-tech schools that used to argue for the importance of a Liberal Arts education, because of the minimal investment required in equipment and talent to offer those degrees, now specialize in "Business."

Imagine, if you will, how this trickles down into the companies for which we work.

For example, college profs are infamous for assigning grad students with sections, or entire presentations, of, research they intend to present as their sole effort. It's easy to see where that carries over into business. For one, the infamous "Six Stages of A Project" rule ("wild enthusiasm, disillusionment, total confusion, search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and promotion of the non-participants"). By their very lack of useful background, many of the degreed types are always non-participants, which guarantees success in the typical dysfunctional corporation or education system. This is a good thing for the credential collector and a very bad thing for the business. Eventually, all of the "guilty" (those who do work) will be purged from the system, leaving nothing but those who are innocent" and incapable. The hot business trend of the moment is the guilty are starting home businesses and abandoning cubicles in droves. Soon, all functional employees will be "contract labor" and all full time employees will be wandering, hopelessly, through the dead halls of the Fortune 500. Not a bad future, if it holds up.

Another of the many forms of academic corruption is unbelievable laziness, especially in state funded schools or federal funded programs. It's never hard to find a prof who hasn't stood in front of a class in decades. Even Paul Harvey can recognize "research" that is pointless, expensive, and has been done so many times by other academic deadbeats that copy machines have worn out the template. This routine is rearing its ugly corporate heads in gutless, me-too products. Look at the various versions of the Ford Taurus produced by every car company from GM to BMW and back to Ford. Look-alike consumer electronic products are churned out each year with no improvement more substantial than color and model number changes to distinguish the new stuff from the previous year's models.

The best of all academic aberrations is the totally useless and obscure specialty. Degrees are handed out for any damn thing, these days. You can practically study yourself and get a Ph.D. It used to be that FizEd majors took all the basket weaving classes. Now, the pushup-majors are taking College Algebra while the Fill-in-Your-Nationality-or-Sex Studies, Communications (learn to talk in your native language) hog all of the underachiever classes. There are even simplified Engineering programs that make Liberal Arts requirements look technical. In fact, some of the low-science program core classes make basket weaving seem scientific. Once you move this habit into business, it's almost impossible to figure out what department does what. Engineering departments masquerade as "Research and Development," because that gets a better tax break and inflates job titles. No one knows who Marketing serves, especially Sales. The rush to eliminate middle management has become an avalanche of middle-non-management positions with vast numbers of workers unsure to who they report. It appears that most companies have done what the federal government did in 1996. They identified "non-essential employees" and promoted them.

The fecal icing on this steaming mound of BS is that we are packing our companies with people who have been "educated" by those who can't do, teach, or administrate. If you're looking for the fatal flaw in our booming "Alice in Wonderland" economy, this is it. If you're worried about Y2K, your problem may be that you spent too much time in 400-and-up classes. If you want something to worry about, worry about companies that form the foundation of our economy and who insist that their most critical employees be college graduates. That's like insisting that a surgeon be blind and nervous. Or that your dentist only use tools made by Black & Decker. In Hitchhikers' Guide to the Universe, Douglas Adams wrote about a world where MBAs and Marketing types spend their days arguing about what color the wheel should be and burning down forests so that their leaf-based monetary system doesn't collapse in devaluation.

There is a glass ceiling in American business. But it's not just gender based. It's also a sort of academic aristocracy. Aristocrats are the ruling class version of hillbillies. Branch-less family trees and all. When a college degree is what we use to determine competency, we're screwed. Every honest fast-tracker can tell tales of being tutored, on the way up, by superior quality people who were stuck where they are because they weren't rich enough to loiter in a college for four years. It doesn't take any effort to find examples of incredibly successful, degree-less, self-employed multi-millionaires (or billionaires, in Mr. Gates' case). Seems like this ought to make someone think twice about where a degree's importance fits into a prospective employee's decision. Doesn't it?

August 1999

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