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Bill Tierney

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The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks principle has been used in science and social science, but I don’t think we have seen it pertain to higher education until now. The simple idea states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes. It’s sort of a theory of equilibrium. Remember Goldilocks and the three bears? She thought one porridge was too hot and another too cold, and then one was “just right.” Let’s leave aside that when the bears came home and found her sleeping in the “just right” bed the bears almost ate her; fortunately, Goldilocks was a good runner and made it out of the house. The principle, however, pertains to the need for something to fall within a certain margin.

Our colleges and universities have a version of the Goldilocks principle as well with regard to our mission, with one significant exception. Earlier this week I mentioned the “too cold” extreme—community colleges that have no mission (or a mission to be all things to all people). The other extreme, the “too hot” mission are those small liberal arts institutions that serve a very narrow niche where that niche is evaporating. The College of Santa Fe was a good example of the “too hot” mission. Their heyday was in the 1960s but as times, preferences, course offerings, and clientele changed they lost students until they were on death’s doorstep and ended up being bought by Laureate.

The exception is what Burton Clark once called “distinctive colleges.” These institutions have such a distinctive mission that very few people will be drawn to them, but their distinctiveness is what makes them attractive to a specific clientele. Even Clark’s traditional definition, however, is iffy. St. John’s College offers a distinctive (and superb) curriculum focused on the Great Books. In this day and age, however, fewer and fewer students even want that superb of a curriculum at the prices that they charge and the faculty are unwilling to change the curriculum. We all know of distinctive colleges that continue to survive—Deep Springs is a good example, albeit they have an endowment which makes their tiny existence manageable.

Oddly, and Clark never meant this, a case could be made that ethical and successful for-profit colleges and universities are distinctive institutions: they do not do research, they have a focused curriculum, and their temporal arrangement is extremely clear. Their distinctiveness, however, enables them to change and adjust—they have porridge that is “just right.”

My overall advice to administrations and faculties, however, is to heed the Goldilocks principle. When an institution has porridge/mission that is too cold/diverse, then Goldilocks/consumers won’t like it. And if an institution has porridge/mission that is too hot/narrow, then Goldilocks/consumers won’t like it either.

There’s a joke making the rounds:

“How many faculty does it take to change a light bulb?”

“What do you mean change?”

That’s the “too hot” porridge version. We have to be able to change. But by changing we have to maintain our values/focus or we will end up at the other end of the spectrum which is just as bad.

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One Response to “The Goldilocks Principle”

  1. Tapan Kumar Mukherjee #

    The Goldilocks principle is very interesting and finds applications in many fields of study, psychology, biology, economics, engineering etc. Essentially it advocates the principle of moderation or middle course. I am reminded of a famous book ‘Eternal Golden Braid: Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas B. Hofstadter interweaving like the goldilocks or golden locks consisting of three braids engaged in the process of lock formation in an endless manner. The author illustrates the process from logic, mathematics, art and music. Avoidance of extremes and steering the middle course is the ideal way in all spheres of life and academic intellectual pursuits.

    07/30/2012 at 8:31 pm