Tuesday, October 26, 2004

How You Get Things Done in Phoenix

Here's the column I wrote in a hotel room in Kyiv about what's going on in Phoenix. Ain't technology grand? The newspaper version is available here.

In the lede, I originally wrote "Good Thing" but my editor deleted the capitals; I guess he didn't have a British public school education. (Not that I have, but I've read about it.) Good headline, though; it describes the column better than a 100-word summary I read.

It's getting too close to the election (and I’m too emotionally involved) to write about that, so next week is Ukraine. Try not to hold your breath until then.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 24, 2004

A new medical school for metropolitan Phoenix would be a good thing. We have too few physicians for our existing population, much less for future growth. Educating more doctors here means more residents, interns, and graduates staying to practice here.

More fundamentally, Arizona has underfunded higher education, much to our -- and our children’s -- detriment. By shortchanging universities, we’re eating our seed corn, passing the costs of today’s programs and tax cuts to future generations. It’s not just economically short-sighted, it’s morally wrong.

As the former vice-chancellor of Oxford University told the Financial Times last week, “You have got to take the most intelligent and give them the best education you can. All societies understand that this is how societies progress and remain strong.” Unfortunately, it appears that “all societies” doesn’t include the Arizona Legislature.

We lag sufficiently behind that almost anything putting more resources into higher education can’t help being worthwhile, so the following comments should be considered in the same spirit as when the rooster brought the ostrich egg to the henhouse. He meant no criticism; he merely wanted the hens aware of what’s being accomplished elsewhere.

Regrettably, and typically, we may do the right thing by expanding medical education, but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. First, you may notice that the medical community isn’t leading this push. Doctors are famously tough to organize, and usually let themselves be led only against things they detest, like lawyers and Hillary Clinton. Anything else is just herding cats.

Instead, other players -- hospitals, ASU, the still-emerging biotech sector, political leaders, and foundations -- are driving this train. These groups know something about medical education, but it’s not their primary focus. But they do know how to get the state to fund this project by convincing enough of the public to convince the Legislature.

The leading players understand how we usually build support for a project like a new medical school. We probably will see a familiar pattern, where certain downstream costs aren’t included in the financial discussions. Cost estimates might conveniently exclude faculty salaries or maintaining the library, burying them in larger university budgets. The locations of any new facilities won’t be determined until as late as possible, to keep as many people who support the proposal for economic self-interest in the game as long as possible. Hey, it worked for the football stadium.

We won’t see one typical tactic, because it’s just not credible that another community could steal “our” new medical school. It’s somewhat awkward locate a new Arizona educational institution elsewhere. However, we will hear that other communities have used their medical schools as catalysts for their emerging science and technology economic initiatives. This argument has the advantage of being true, but without the threat (real or imagined) of Austin or San Diego eating our lunch, it’s unclear if a merely truthful argument can prevail here.

Even if the medical school proposal wins using these tried-and-true strategies, two problems will remain. First, the need to delay determining the location of any new facilities means that we won’t completely define what the school must do and how it will work until the very end. It would be more rational to plan what’s needed before getting started, but we can’t risk losing support from any eventually-jilted suitors.

Second, the typical “the most important thing for economic development” approach, which convinces most of the community to support one single-shot project just this once, doesn’t address our fundamental issue of university underfunding. Yes, it would be much harder to teach people the utter foolishness of short-changing higher education, but the full-court press lets everyone (and the Legislature) think that they’ve solved, rather than continued to ignore, the underlying long-term problem.

And one more thing. If the East Valley naysayers think that if they defeat the county transit proposition, they then can replace it with their own sweetheart road-tax deal, think again. Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe voters shouldn’t tax themselves to build roads in Pinal County -- even if we do get a new medical school downtown as part of the deal.

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