Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moneyball meets academia

Of course I saw "Moneyball" the first day it came out.

Everything is great about the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis's terrific book on how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, managed to field a competitive team with scarce resources by junking the conventional model of team-building in major league baseball and emphasizing instead the "hidden" statistical performance of players who had either been written off or, as was more often the case, never had their worth properly assessed. Prodded by a 29 year-old Harvard-educated economics major named Paul DePodesta,who had developed, while working for the Cleveland Indians, a complex model of player performance, Beane retooled his management style that put him at odds with the way professional "baseball men" had assessed the talent and, in the post-reserve clause era, the monetary worth of free agents. He didn't have a choice. As a small market team with a payroll that was roughly a little more than one-third of the New York Yankees team that defeated the A's in the 2001 American League Divisional Series -- indeed, the typed graphic across the screen as the highlights of that series are replayed at the beginning of the movie emphasizes the David and Goliath context of Beane's challenge (the A's payroll is around $39 million per year; the Yankees, about $114 million) -- Beane was operated at a distinct disadvantage. After the 2001 season, the A's lost their three highest paid players to free-agency.

If you read the book or saw the movie, you know what happens next (there are a number of liberties taken with the book for dramatic effect; nothing fatal to the basic story, though). Billy Beane or Brad Pitt or whomever is sitting around a table somewhere in the dank bowels of the Oakland Coliseum with a group of scouts, most of whom look like they were extras on "The Sopranos." The old guys rattle on about the "five tools," "athleticism," and discuss gaudy stats like RBI and HRs, determined to find the right players to replace the ones they lost. One guy even says he doesn't trust a player because he has an "ugly girlfriend," which suggests that he lacks confidence. Others see his point. Beane stops them in their tracks and tells them they simply can't afford to replace all three, so they're going to have to find players that, in the aggregate, can replace first baseman Jason Giambi, center fielder Johnny Damon and relief pitcher/closer Jason Isringhausen, who, together, comprise about one-third of the team's already small payroll. And that's where the search for hidden talent comes, through a process that Bill James, who made his living as a security guard for a company called Stokley Van Camp, which made and canned baked beans, in a small Kansas town, introduced in the late 1970s caled "sabermetrics." James explicitly rejected the star system, and instead argued, through hard numbers and empirical evidence, that many players who nobody ever heard of were, in fact, quite valuable, and that many star players were not, in fact, nearly as important to a team's ability to win as the conventional wisdom seemed to believe. Compounding the problem was the enormous amount of money that owners were lavishing on position players and pitchers that had put up one or two decent seasons, only to watch their "investments" tank after a decent year or two or never put up a good season again. Something wasn't quite right, and James knew it before almost anyone else.

Naturally, when I watched the movie, I wasn't thinking too much about the novelty of the Beane approach, which was, in reality, was something that Sandy Alderson, who preceded Beane as A's general manager, had begun tinkering with in the mid-1990s. I've never believed in the star system in much of anything, mostly for the simple reason that it doesn't work. And it's not just because of the big busts this year in major league baseball, such as Jason Werth and Carl Crawford and John Lackey. That happens every year, and it will happen again next year. Owners will pay absurd amounts of money for reasons that have nothing to do with winning baseball games. They want to "prove" to the fans they're committed to winning (the Nationals and Werth); or they just can't help themselves (the Red Sox and Crawford/Lackey); or they're sentimental (the Braves and Chipper Jones, who I love, but is barely a WAR player at this point in his career). Some teams even believe it because sometimes -- sometimes -- it works, like when the Phillies bought the best starting rotation in baseball for one complete season, and they won the most games in they're history and are easily the odds-on favorites to win the World Series this year.

No, I thought instead about the mentality of my employer, and the belief, almost universally shared among my colleagues, that our department will get "better" if we hire the "best" political scientists entering academia from graduate school or hire a senior professor away from another university. Think of the former as first-round draft picks and the latter as free agents. Naturally, all employers, regardless of profession, want to hire the best people they can. But in a world where buyers and sellers are not equal, who you want to hire is largely based on the resources you have. Those resources are not equal. Understanding that, you hire the person that best fits the what the firm, institution, organization, baseball team or political science department is really there to do -- represent clients, advocate for the homeless, win baseball games or teach students. The problem with much of academia is that hiring professors often has nothing to do with the people who will pay our salaries and sit in our classrooms. In my department, the problem, in my view, is even more acute: we are a university that is approximately 95% dependent on tuition to operate. Nonetheless, our hiring decisions for about the last ten years or so have not been based on our undergraduate curriculum needs or by the need or desire to engage our undergraduates. Not at all. Instead, we hold meeting after meeting to discuss how we can address a "hole" in our graduate program, and that usually means finding a someone who can teach a course in advanced research design and/or statistics. These are important needs IF you are a major research institution -- Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, etc. -- that attracts the very best students and educates them specifically to land in other elite academic departments, where they will teach very little and instead bury their heads in their computers and hope that make a "significant contribution to the discipline." Undergraduates will never discover what those "significant contributions" are for two reasons: (1) they are not, in any real world sense, "significant contributions" and; (2) on the odd chance their contributions are significant, these professors will not teach them to undergraduates; rather they will teach them to the graduate students who sit in their seminars, all the better to perpetuate the illusion that they are all doing something very, very important.

But as someone -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, I believe it was -- once said, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different than you and me." Just like the New York Yankees were and remain different than the Oakland A's, Harvard is a very different place than American University. Harvard's operating expenses are nowhere closely related to the tuition they charge their students to come to Cambridge. My university's expenses, on the other hand, are almost entirely dependent on the tuition we charge our undergraduate students. For me, the analogy moves to another dimension of baseball: the fantasy leagues in which people with no real stake in a team and no real money to spend play a season by "drafting" players and "competing" against their friends for bragging rights, a small pool of money that the members of a "league" cobble together, beer, or, for the very rich, significantly higher stakes. In the end, though, it's just a fantasy, sort of like pornography, romantic comedies and professional wrestling. Cold, hard facts aside, we continue to hire (and fire) professors who do not meet our definition of a "productive scholar," which is the kind of person I described above and in more recent post on the diminishing role for professors in the classroom.

For example, we don't hire a professor with a particular research or teaching interest based on our curriculum needs. We hire someone because we think it will impress professors in other departments and prospective graduate students, who we think will come here to study with a new or established "star" professor. In all likelihood, we will adjunct-out our new hire's teaching responsibilities so that s/he may concentrate on publishing and teaching graduate students. Forget that we don't attract very many graduate students, and the ones that we do attract don't get good academic jobs. All that matters is that we think we are making an impression on the cocktail circuit at academic conferences held periodically around the country, where political scientists gather not to share any genuinely interesting work, but to gossip about what's happening in the "profession" and to hustle for book contracts and publishing opportunities. If the talk is that AU is hiring some "really good people" who will have an "impact" on the profession, that's considered a successful recruiting year. And that, in turn, makes us a department that is "on the way up."

But are we on the way up, and, if so, where are we going? Since 2000, we have hired 14 new professors. Of the professors we hired between 2000 and 2005, only one is still with us. Three were denied tenure, one left after a year to attend law school, and two more moved on to large universities that historically have not emphasized teaching in their hiring and promotion decisions. They were free agents who were never a really good fit for what we do. Only one who was tenured has remained with us. Since 2009, we have hired two established professors and five untenured assistant professors, so it's too early to tell how these hires will work out. But when you are unable to retain almost half the people you've hired over an 11 year period, and the two most "productive" professors leave for institutions with greater prestige in the field, it's not a bad idea to ask if we are hiring the right people for the kind of school we are. We are not asking that question. Instead, we hire professors who don't teach undergraduates very much, and, in some cases, not at all. But that's by design. Among my newer colleagues, this means that we are getting better as a department because we are becoming more "visible" in the profession. Are we really getting better? And visible, though, to whom?

We are the academic equivalent of a small-market team in baseball. Our hope for growth and prestige lies not with the star system and the misguided notion that we can compete with the richest and most powerful universities in the country by hiring people who don't really fit with the kind of institution that we are and think we should be. With an undergraduate population of roughly 6,000, a good number of whom did not consider AU their first choice when applying to college, our focus should be on delivering the best undergraduate experience we can in the classroom and developing an environment where professors and students can form a community. For the most part, professors who do the most teaching are the closest to their students and the most engaged in student life. At AU, those professors consist of adjunct, temporary and other non-tenured faculty, not the stars making the most amount of money and eligible for the longest-term contract available in all the professional world -- tenure.

So, for most of the baseball-heads who rushed out to see "Moneyball" last week, the movie was about baseball, and how a small band of unconventional thinkers challenged themselves and the sport they had grown up with to think beyond the star system. For me, the movie was about much more than that. Others in the theater saw the Oakland A's payroll of $39,722,689 vs. the New York Yankees payroll of $114,347,764. I saw $52,236, the cost of attending one year of college at my university, and wondered why continue to adhere to a business model that does little more than give those in power the feeling that they, and not someone else, are really in charge.

1 comment:

Bill DeBaun said...

"With an undergraduate population of roughly 6,000, a good number of whom did not consider AU their first choice when applying to college, our focus should be on delivering the best undergraduate experience we can in the classroom and developing an environment where professors and students can form a community."

Makes too much sense. I think/hope/know/suspect you know as well as I do that self-awareness and logic are as rarely demonstrated by the administration at AU as they are the average student.

Exhibit A, the FUBAR-worthy "strategic plan," that had us trying to strike a balance between being a research university (we're not and won't be; we have a reputation as a good social science trade school), a small-town liberal arts college (we don't really care about gen eds all that much and we're in Washington, DC and use that as a #1 selling point), and a social science trade school (ding ding ding, we have a winner, but for some reason we don't want to embrace that because it's demeaning to the students who came here specifically to learn how to get involved in IR/poli sci/Washington bureaucracy). Instead of choosing one, the administration thinks we can hit some kind of sweet spot between all three and knows just the vehicle to make it happen: saying we produce "wonks."

I know the Department of Government is different than AU as a whole, but when the umbrella is full of crazy, everything under it is bound to be, too.

PS, I'd love to see a post about what you think (if anything) about the wonk campaign.