Monday, March 12, 2007

Did you ever wonder what Carbondale want to be when it grows up?

I have been thinking about this a lot for the last 6 months or so. What is Carbondale and what does it want to be in 10, 20 or 50 years?

When I talk to a 60 year old professor, they don't think about the city at all. They want water, sewer, police and trash pickup from the city and nothing else. Ask about economic development, don't really care. Their children already moved away because there is no work here, so they haven't thought about the schools forever. There is a belief that SIU will always be there in about this form and their pension is going to be paid, so they just drift along, happily ignoring the details.

Talk to a business person and they are excited about Carbondale's progress in the last few years. Buildings are filling up, taxes are down, and city hall isn't impossible to deal with. SIU is losing students and really hurting the service industries built around them, but still the USA is the richest country in the history of the world and times are pretty good.

Talk to a business development person and they are frustrated. There are very, very few companies starting. There are very few people to work with, because there are no jobs for college educated people here. Our future entrepreneurs can't find jobs, so most move away and never return. We also have a culture that based on a sole practitioner model of doing business, so the management teams are aways thin.

I think all these views are valid, but maybe a more interesting question is what does Carbondale want to be in 20 years.

Does Carbondale want to be the best 25,000 person city, built around SIU and the SIU service businesses it can? The best example of that this I know was Carbondale in 1970. At that time there was a feeling of goodwill and success here. The schools were among the best in the state. There were lots of locally owned businesses. There were lots of low paying, but secure jobs.

Does Carbondale want to be a bigger city that has a more balanced economy? A good example of this is Corvallis, OR. Corvallis has almost exactly the same history as Carbondale (as far as post WW2 university and city expansion). It is rural and off the beaten track, but has a better school in OSU. They also have the biggest Hewlett-Packard plant in the world, that does all the Ink Jet development. Now they are running about 25 to 50 technology companies in town, but they are in the West, so that is easier. There is an intact downtown shopping area, but they are lucky because they don't have a state highway running down the middle. There is no Mall, it has been kept out because of strong zoning (but they are building one that opens soon). State income taxes in Oregon are 9% and there is no sales tax, so there is lots of money for state services (pool, Boys and Girl's club, etc.). The town has grown to 50,000 or so.

If you could live in either one of these communities, Carbondale in 1970 or Corvallis today, it would be a tough choice. The problem is that Carbondale isn't the town it was in 1970. The urban flight because of the schools and housing sizes (zoning too) are killing the city's school systems. If you don't work at SIU, everyone is underpaid. SIU is sliding down and needs a major overhaul. Illinois is hurting Carbondale, because of corruption, workman's comp overhead and future costs in the retirement system. I guess the taxes are lower for now, but I can see the day that the total tax burden in Illinois will be far higher then it is now.

If we assume that Carbondale isn't the town it was in 1970, where do we want to take the city? Saying you are safe at SIU and don't care isn't a great answer ("I'm a liberal and I can't even tell you what is happening in the city," is a fairly standard quote). Do we want the best Town and Gown situation we can have or do we want to grow and attract or develop a second business to grow the city?

It could be the citizen's vision for where they want Carbondale to go, is the most important question of all? Is the goal to be Carbondale in 1970 again or to be like Corvallis or maybe something else?

Your comments are always welcome.


Fraydog said...

Well if you took over as President from Delyte Morris in 1970, what do you think should have been done with SIU? I'm sure you know from growing up here and listening to your father.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I was hoping to discuss what we wanted to be in the future, but let's take a crack at Fraydog's question.

Any organization is about people. Under Morris, SIU was run as a dictatorship. When Morris fell, there really wasn't a replacement ready to step in and no one from the outside was going to keep all the balls in the air. A really tough situation.

I'm too young to remember what happened then, but let me write the legend. The next leader of SIU stepped into the void created by Morris's departure and thought the president's job was to be a dictator. The problem was that only Morris had the accomplishments to be allowed to do this without challenge.

The morale of everyone at the university was slowly drained away through a series of decisions. For example, the "Durge Purge" in 1974 was similar to successful companies first big layoff, you never get the feeling back after management does something so stupid. The chance of real greatness went softly into the night.

There is a good speech that I have put in here before
One of the deep things he says is that, "A performers hire A performers, B performers hire C performers, who hire D performers and pretty soon the whole organization is full of Z performers. As SIU has settled in hire people who were more average, it becomes self selecting in the wrong way.

If organizations are about the people, I think the only way to make it better is to hire and manage better.

The answer at SIU is always, always, manage better. If you stepped into SIU's Presidency in 1970, hopefully you would understand it was a magical place on the way up. Your job was to not screw it up by throwing your weight around to much.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think that's what happens when you hire academics to be managers. They're great at what they know, which is their subject, whether it is math, or chemistry, or art, or whatever. Why does anyone think they'd be a good manager? Some of these guys don't even work in a classroom very much, they do research all the time. And that's great, but doing research doesn't make good managers. So, given that, do we hire trained managers to run the place? Oh gawd, the faculty would have cow...especially since trained manager would not put up the stuff that goes on at a university. For instance, it seems all decisions are made by a committee.. In the real world managers make the decisions, the workers either follow or get out of the way. Well, at SIUC faculty are unionized, perhaps we're one step closer to the manager - employee relationship. This shared governance thing would never fly in the real world.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I like the idea that there are 3 levels of management decisions -
The manager decides and doesn't ask for opinions.
The manager thinks he knows what to do and asks people if they agree.
Something needs to be done and the manager allows the people doing the work to decide what to do.

Personally, I like to push decisions down into the organization as far as possible. It is a form of management failure when management makes too many decisions.

In software companies, when managers start to push decisions that are wrong into the staff, people just quit and go elsewhere.

A big problem with tenure is that you get tied to bad employers forever. Any rational person has to shutdown instead of taking it personally.

The ideas that a university can go hire a manager from outside is a maybe. I can't just switch and run a restaurant very easily, I don't have the expertise. University professors can't switch to city government either, most lack expertise. I agree a great manager would be better then a average manager for SIU, but I'm not sure there are great managers who don't have PhD's available for SIU the first day. You would have to hire and train, and that is against SIU culture.