Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Managing Academia by Baseball:
All-Star College Dean's N.Y. Yankee Lesson  

Everything you need to know about academic institutions' administrative staffing difficulties you can learn from dissecting the New York Yankees' roster building approach.

That's my clunky description of the entry from earlier this month on the Confessions of a Community College Dean weblog. Written anonymously, the insightful essay describes how the staffing choices of institutions of higher learning create, as they do with the Yankees, an age imbalance and thereby keep younger talent from getting an opportunity to participate.

It's a well-crafted management by baseball lesson. I strongly urge you to read it.

I want to add a small point he doesn't really touch on. That's the cost to the students themselves from having an overly mature faculty without a generous helping of younger educators. This is less marked at the college level, more in middle school, junior high and high school, but I notice it at the college level a little when I take occasional classes. When faculty are almost all over 50, you still get the benefits of their insight, but not the fresh, enthusiastic views of younger talent. You also miss out on the newer methods of instruction (I'm not talking about technology, but I am talking about the incorporation of new knowledge about how brain and mind work, for example, new instructional methods, a generally greater openness to new ideas). Again, I'm not criticizing older faculty (any more than in baseball, I would criticize a heavily-muscled first baseman who recorded a home run every 15 at bats) -- just suggesting balance requires a mix of experience levels to achieve the best results.

In baseball, the rule has been that as a team's average age gets to 30, you're cruising for a bruising. Certain abilities remain, some are enhanced, but the balance gets out of whack and things like outfield range and baserunning speed degrade enough that it costs the team a competitive edge. In baseball at least, the age at which the trend takes hold seems to be going up -- as a probable result of better sports medicine for talent that can afford to pay for it, better training regimes, supplements and social factors. Here's one look at the San Francisco Giants, a team that if you can believe Peter Gammons' math, was going to have a starting lineup with an average (¿mean? ¿median?) age of 36.5. This Tom Ruane-inspired piece by Alan Schwarz talks in depth about the Giants' aging pattern and what it means. Worth reading, but the thumbnail here:

Such rosters have a mixed history. The other five were the 1981 Phillies (59-48 record), the 1982 Angels (93-69), the 1998 Orioles (79-83), the 2001 Diamondbacks (92-70) and the 2004 Mariners (63-99). Although the Mariners were a classic case of an aged team falling apart, three of those clubs made the playoffs, with one, the Diamondbacks, winning the World Series.

Some predict the Giants are finally going to belly-flop this year as a result. Some believe the average age is just a number and that the team plays well enough to contend for at least a wild card spot. I was going to suggest watching the Giants this year as an interesting data point with which to enlighten this debate, but this story on BTF I just read while composing this essay suggests Barry Bonds will not play until mid-season at the earliest as a result of his second arthroscopic knee surgery. Since the Giants were 4-11 in games Bonds didn't start in last year, it bodes pretty badly, if he truly is out until mid-season) for their chance to be contenders. Of course, teams have rallied around losing their superstar for a long stretch. In 1995, the Seattle Mariners lost their superstar Ken Griffey Jr. from May 26 through August 14. They were playing 15-12 ball before he went down, and the team pulled together with guys most have never heard of (Mike Blowers, Alex "The Human Highlight Film" Diaz and Bob Wells) having career years & an unusual rate of big games, while Edgar Martínez ratcheted his game up from awesome to transcendent (.480 on base, .625 slugging). They played .500 ball while he was gone (36-37) and with Griffey on board went 28-17 for the chance to make the playoffs. Teams can overcome the loss of their best player...it's just that recent Giants teams haven't yet shown that ability.

The historical record indicates that a uniformly aged roster can succeed but is intrinsically more fragile than a more polycultural one. Apparently higher education is suffering a parallel hazard.

Read the Confessions of a Community College Dean weblog. There are other interesting entries there, systems thinking about educational organizations and their development. Sadly, this Yankees entry is the only baseball one there so far, but if you agree with me that it's good work, perhaps you'll write the author and ask for more.

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