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A Visit with Sandy

Rick Perry's education guru, in his own words.

What, me worry?
What, me worry?

NOTE: This piece is satire, and does not represent anything that should be taken seriously at all, let alone represent the serious opinion of Vox Media, SB Nation, Barking Carnival, Sailor Ripley, Scipio Tex, or other BC contributors, or the peanut gallery, for that matter the author himself.

Also: LEAVE POLITICS OUT OF THE DISCUSSION. I'm making fun of a public figure here, but not for his left-right political orientation.

This is basically a long aside, a very long aside, to the discussion we've been having about the Powers situation. Ignore it completely if you like.

Jeff Sandefer has been an occasional topic of discussion whenever the Wallace Hall winds have picked up. He's Rick Perry's ideological spirit guide on the subject of education. But despite this lofty advisor perch, he's left nary a visible fingerprint on the direct conflict between President Bill Powers and Perry's strongest advocates on the Board of Regents.

But many of us will insist that you can't understand this conflict without understanding Sandefer. He's not a bad man. But he is very driven, with an unrelentingly high motor typically reserved for outside linebackers and cokeheads. He's also a happytalk free marketeer, an instinctual evangelist, and for a man with many millions in the bank, he's has relatable charisma. Unfortunately he's also an impressively empty shirt.

Here's my take from earlier today, ripped from comments:

Fortunately you don’t need skeletons when you have his interviews. He’s basically Ron Paul meets Tony Robbins. This is a guy who thinks you can teach someone economics in a weekend seminar. This is a guy who thinks a business student only needs one year of higher ed.

I completely buried the lede there. COMPLETELY. Did you catch it?

You won't unless you click that link...

Nah actually I'll just break it down for you, Dreamwagon-style. This interview is epic and occasionally jaw-dropping. Hitch up yer britches and grab the horn:

<blockquote>Well, right after my UT graduation I had been accepted to Harvard Business School. At an early age I saw that all the money that came from New York seemed to get into the bad oil deals in Texas. And all of the good oil deals in Texas could never seem to get money in New York. And I was convinced that Harvard was in New York, so I thought that would be a good place to apply. It took a while to realize that it was actually in Boston. </blockquote>

Juuuust gettin' started. And I'm not even gonna touch the whole New York/Boston thing.

First note how Jeff Sandefer claims that from an early age, he made insightful observations about regional trends in oil trade negotiations.

The only reason this insane aside is remotely plausible is because Jeff Sandefer is indeed from an oil family. His dad was a wealthy West Texas oil wildcatter, and his peepaw was from money too. In fact Grandpa Sandefer ran Hardin-Simmons for awhile, which is where Sandefer's new business school, the Acton School of Business, is currently accredited.

Sandefer went to UT for undergrad and Harvard for his MBA before leaning on his family connections to nab insider wisdom on where the best expiring oil leases in the Gulf were located, and made himself and a select circle of partners a quick low-risk nine figure windfall - or at least, that's how he describes it:

<blockquote>It was a great opportunity because energy prices were down, and the major oil companies had offered a severance agreement to many employees. Basically, if you were over fifty years old and a professional, you could get a million dollars to retire.
So, what happened? Many of the best people retired. They had a lot of cash. We hired them and gave them a piece of the potential profits. They knew where all of the good leases were expiring. It wasn’t a conflict of interest because the majors didn’t want the leases anyway. So we looked for leases where a well had been drilled; oil and gas reserves had been found, but the fields weren’t big enough to be interesting for the major oil companies. We could give the large oil companies a slice of the revenues, develop these leases, and still make a profit.</blockquote>

So basically: a child of big West Texas oil money, he went to UT and then Harvard, then used his inherited connections and cash and some damn amazing timing to make a giant pile of additional cash before the age of 30.

Then...he decides he's suddenly a professor:

<blockquote>The dean at the business school, a man named Bob Witt, who is now the president of the University of Alabama and a dear friend, said, "You should teach. I would love to have you teach." And I said, "Gosh, I’ve been thinking about what to do next. So, I’m in." (...) I called in about July or August and asked, "When should I show up?" The dean doesn’t return my phone call. I call again and I call again. Finally, I get so fed up that I go sit in his office. I mean, not returning phone calls, really. Bob Witt comes out and says, "Look, the faculty’s not going to let you teach, not without a Ph.D. I said, "No, no, no. We had a deal. You’re the CEO; you made the deal."</blockquote>

Because that's how it works, right? NO BACKSIES!

<blockquote>I went to see members of the board of regents, and finally I end up in the president of the university’s office, Bill Cunningham. And at the University of Texas, this is like going to see Oz; you could throw a football across his office. He’s in this big, tall chair, and I’m in this little, bitty chair. I’m 28 or 29 years old at the time, and he looks at me and says, "You can teach astrology for all I care. But I’m begging you to teach an undergraduate course. I’m so tired of hearing your name; I don’t ever want to hear about you again. If I have to let you teach a graduate course, I’m going to catch hell from the faculty. So I’m asking you as a favor, would you teach an undergraduate course?" Well, who was I to say "no" to the President of the University of Texas? So I saluted and said: "Yes, sir. Sure." </blockquote>

Nope. No manipulative ego-fluffing going on there.

And surely no eyerolling by ol' Bill as soon as this presumptuous 29-year-old trustie (again: with zero academic or teaching experience, who profited off of black gold that had already been located and tapped, indubitably because he happened to have been born as the son of a wealthy Texas wildcatter at juuust the right historical moment, and thereby thought he was qualified to teach Texas MBA classes) left the room.

But who was Bill to say "no" to an involved ego with a massive bank account? In that position, I wouldn't say "no" either. Some of the University's wealthiest professors are also its biggest benefactors.

<blockquote>It turns out the MBA students wanted the course so badly that they found the woman who was in charge of the computer to set the schedules and went in and gave her cookies and cakes. I walk in the first day of my undergraduate course and it’s filled with MBA students. They filled it before the undergrads could register because of her. That year I won teacher of the year in the graduate school teaching an undergraduate class. They had no choice but to promote me.</blockquote>

MBA students succesfully bribed the B-School registrar with baked goods to allow them to sign up for an undergrad course taught by a 29-year-old with zero name recognition who'd never taught so much as a Sunday school class before?


<blockquote>Sometimes the data you have is conflicting. The student says, "Well that’s not fair. It says this on one exhibit and on the next page another." We say: "Welcome to the real world. You don’t get pure data. You get messy data."</blockquote>

We're a couple thousand words into the interview now, and it's becoming increasingly clear this guy truly believes that the key to success is having the courage to (a) beat one's head against the wall and (b) make decisions without information. That, plus having the energy and inclination to rotate between those two poles nonstop for a hundred hours a week like a crappy magnetic desk pendulum.

Surprisingly little so far about how helpful it is to have eight figures in the bank and a West Texas oil money rolodex that's been accumulating chits for three generations.

<blockquote>Kaizen: "Experiential learning." What does that mean at Acton?

Sandefer: Selling door-to-door. In the early spring students are given a set of children’s books and a geographic sales territory. Then they have to sell door-to-door. If they don’t make quota, they don’t come back.</blockquote>

Ah, stealing lesson plans from Celebrity Apprentice. Spicy.

<blockquote>The teacher is literally forbidden to make a declarative statement during class. You are on video all the time, and if you slip up, you will see it on the screen in the teacher’s meeting. We are committed to only ask questions so the students have to make all the decisions. That’s the best way to prepare them for the real world.</blockquote>

See, the "best way to prepare for the real world" is to deal with authority figures who never assert statements of fact and always speak in riddles. YUP THAT'S LIFE ALRIGHT. Not just a bad movie cliche.

Hey I get the Socratic method and all, but it's one legit teaching method out of many. Sandefer's absolutist level of devotion to it is more proof that this guy has an inclination to be needlessly single-minded.

<blockquote>In the first semester, you take the Entrepreneurial Journey course, Customers (sales), Operations, Cash and Valuation, and Life of Meaning.

The second semester, you have four Integrative courses. You go deep into each of the four stages of a business: opportunity analysis, launch, growth, and harvest. Then there are two additional  tools courses—People and Raising Money. We don’t teach you how to raise money until the end because we think first you need to know how to build a profitable business.</blockquote>

Mostly I just want to point out that this is the entire Acton MBA courseload. Soup to nuts.

Here's your sign: Eleven classes, and one is "Life of Meaning".

<blockquote>Kaizen: Other MBA programs may have courses in business ethics, business history, business writing, political economy, and so on. You don’t include them or they get folded in?

Sandefer: We don’t have a business ethics class and this is one I feel pretty strongly about. Business Ethics, even at (Harvard Business School) was taught as "Thou shalt do this because corporations should do this." It was not human, personal morality and choices. It was ethics from afar. I found that to be ineffective.</blockquote>

Jeff Sandefer runs a business school and doesn't understand the first thing about corporate ethics. Corporate ethics isn't (and shouldn't be) about teaching people how to make tough moral choices. It's about teaching people the importance of making obvious and significant moral choices when organizational pressure and profit motive push in the other direction.

Forcing your students to confront tough moral choices over and over? That's just being a jerk. And what's more, you may be conveying the opposite lesson - that the only ethical dilemmas in business are moral close calls. In reality, tough ethical decisions are instructively boring - whatever you choose, you bear no real risk of moral condemnation. Meanwhile, the most corrupt businessmen  - the Kenneth Lays, the Bernie Madoffs - faced no real moral quandary in their moments of truth, just a lack of courage and will to do the right thing.

<blockquote> In Life of Meaning we put the students in these incredible dilemmas and the students say "But there is no right answer." And we say, "That’s what a dilemma is." The phone rings, you promised your daughter you would go to the dance recital and you’ve been promising for weeks—but that’s your biggest customer on the phone. And then whatever decision they make, it escalates. "Well, I have to go to the dance recital." Oh, did we mention that it’s your only customer and 130 people are going to lose their jobs? Did we mention that you’re in Appalachia, so there are no other jobs? So there’s no "Well, I’ll go to the other factory." Oh, did we mention that this is the third dance recital that you missed? That you are a widower? Did we say dance recital? We meant wedding. And so all of these dilemmas, whatever you choose, they ratchet up.

And then the students, in this part of the course, they have to pick and declare a moral framework—are they utilitarian? Do they use justice, fairness, or virtue as a guide? We ask the students to declare which one they are going to be consistent with in this part of the course. And then we ratchet up the intensity of the dilemma until students abandon their chosen framework. Then we ask, "Why? Why were you forced to abandon your utilitarian approach?" And that’s how they learn.</blockquote>

Do you know how cults work? Like this, basically. Frustrate a person with increasing intensity until their internal compass breaks down, then when they're aimless and begging you for direction, discreetly coach them back up toward...well, whatever you want.

Can that work in a school context? In theory, sure, once you accept Stockholm Syndrome as a teaching method. But it doesn't take a cynic to point out that this dynamic is probably why Sandefer's students give him good reviews.

<blockquote>But we only ask questions. No answers allowed. A student cannot even approach a professor about a problem until they worked it with their study group and their study group has given up; and then they’ve gone to the student advisor and worked the problem and the student advisor’s given up; then they come to us. I think in the last three years we’ve never had a student come to a professor about anything.</blockquote>

Clearly, he's like, proud of this? I cannot fathom like, why? Striving and self-discovery are good traits for like, business students? But so is, like, accounting and microeconomics? Which one cannot teach with like, only questions? Unless you speak like, a Valley Girl?

Sandefer is the equivalent of the middle school football coach who zealously runs his twelve-year-olds into the ground trying to develop "attitude". And then the team gets seconds into their first game before realizing the other team has learned, like, plays and technique and stuff.

<blockquote> Each student has what most people would call a syllabus, but we call a covenant—that is, both sides say "I will show up on time. I will be prepared. I will participate." So there’s a set covenant. I can get you a copy of one. And we each sign them in a big ceremony. Each professor signs one with each student, and it is a handshake, a look in the eye, game-on. There’s a lot of symbolism around here that you are involved in. They are ruthlessly enforced—I mean in a kind way. But I can’t remember the last time we had a student be late for a class. The students are very, very … we have to make them leave if they’ve got the flu or something.</blockquote>

You know who also likes big ceremonies and heavy symbolism invoking pure obedience? Cults. Just sayin'.

<blockquote>Father Sirico and I are, in fact, coming out with a book. We don’t have the title yet, but it’s something like "A Priest and an Entrepreneur: Your Guide to a Hero’s Journey." It’s higher reflections of each step of the hero’s journey within classic readings. </blockquote>

(wink) Good title brah. Oprah Winfrey on line seven!

<blockquote>Today, far too many undergraduates are being taught by low-paid adjuncts who aren’t trained very well at teaching. So the quality of teaching isn’t very high in most universities. And many tenured faculty at research universities are teaching so few students that college is getting increasingly expensive and it’s reached a breaking point where many families just can’t afford it anymore.</blockquote>

This is plainly counterfactual. College is not getting too expensive due to a declining student-teacher ratio. That ratio has been going up for years, especially at the large research institutions like Texas that Sandefer thinks are the worst at managing tenure, and so is the increasingly rampant use of unpaid or cheaply-paid student labor in place of actual full-time faculty.

Tuition has become more expensive because state funding has collapsed and employee benefit costs have skyrocketed over the last generation. That's pretty much the whole story. Professors exploiting their tenure to slack off is a minor sideshow in comparison. The only reason the surge in costs hasn't resulted in massive layoffs as opposed to rising tuition, the way they have in most labor intensive American industries, is because students are overwhemingly able to find ways to pay the rising tuition. Why? Mostly it's because college - not just the diploma, but also the experience - is still marginally worth it. It's also because most four-year college students are fairly well-to-do and have access to decent sources of funding; those that can't are a large minority but most are entitled to enough need-based financial aid to make it work.

<blockquote>A very close friend of mine (who I think is the wisest guy I know in higher education) is the president of a large university, and is a very thoughtful and very quiet guy. I said to him, "What do you think happens in 10 years?" And he said, "I think Harvard makes it and I think some of the better, specialized, small liberal arts schools make it." And I said, "Oh, you mean they don’t have to change." And he said, "No, no, no. I mean they exist." And I said, "Now come on. Michigan, USC, A&M … I mean, really?" And he said, "They are locked into a cost structure escalation they can do nothing about. They’ve reached their breaking point. They’re not offering a very high quality product." And he said, "They can’t be disrupted by a lot of the other things going on." And he said, "Unless there are continued, massive federal subsidies, I think you will see thousands of—not Chapter 11 bankruptcies—but Chapter 7 bankruptcies." Now, I think that is too extreme. But the fact that this guy I know said that makes me go, "Wow, that’s interesting."</blockquote>

Funny, that guy sounds exactly like a <a href="">Clay Christensen</a> bit - seriously, check the link. Christensen isn't a president of anything but has made a cottage industry for himself out of proclaiming that [insert whatever industry group is paying him to speak] is about to get disrupted.  Watch <em>Silicon Valley</em> for some relevant satire. Not surprising that someone is quoting Christensen verbatim and passing it off as their own opinion to an awestruck Sandefer.

In the meantime, consider that (a) no one thinks an online remote curriculum is a good rite of passage for a young maturing adult, or a good way to finally get your kids out of the house, and (b) no online BA program exists today that has a better reputation with employers than your average community college AA degree.

Did You Know: online schools often have tuition costs just as stifling as the brick-and-mortar schools, and are exponentially more likely to funnel their students toward high-interest loans. To wit: the average University of Phoenix tuition is over $15 G's a year. That's more than Texas and much more than getting a BA at ACC.

Do MOOCs have the potential to be a boon in lots of ways? Sure. It's already ideal for most professional certification and computer skills training. But will it replace the University as we know it? Not anytime soon. Again: college isn't just a diploma, it's a life experience, and that experience isn't only valuable for the classwork.

<blockquote>When our students come out and you ask them, they are incredibly satisfied, and one of the things they’ll say often is: "Look, I learned 100 things that will save me $100,000 each. They are mistakes I won’t make now." So the trick to that is you have to be playing at a game where you can be making $100,000 mistakes.</blockquote>

Ooh, he gets <em>so close</em> here. So close to self-awareness.

<blockquote>Kaizen: Are you planning to franchise out in some way?

Sandefer: Yeah. We don’t know how yet. We’ve got one group that wants to build 100 in Latin America—the guy who started one in Guatemala. And he’s an expert in franchising. And we’ve got another group in America talking about building 100 here. We’re more likely to offer people: "Here’s what we’re doing; here’s a kit; you’re welcome to it and use it as you want." </blockquote>

Now would be a good time to mention that the one year MBA at Acton costs over $49,000. Ironic, right? Also: not scalable in Guatemala.

But he's got experts in franchising in the wings, so you know it's all good.

<blockquote>An asset fox is (...) a trader of assets. (...) I have all of the characteristics of an asset fox. I’m contrarian—I don’t really care what people think. I’m good at sensing markets and summing things up very quickly. I was lucky to end up in an asset fox business. You know, somehow I got to that pretty quickly. So I think that match of archetypes has been—however that happened—was a really fortunate thing for me.</blockquote>

ahem..."However that happened"...cough cough... "Somehow I got to that pretty quickly" (shrugs, tries to calculate bank balance for funsies, but dangit the number keeps auto-converting to exponential).

As it turns out, this guy is only slightly more self-aware then a doodle bug.

<blockquote>Kaizen: Looking back over your career, is there anything that you found yourself struggling with, something that is actually challenging for you?

Sandefer: Yeah. The biggest struggle for me is that I do not have the patience to develop people. </blockquote>

The Governor's favorite education expert "does not have the patience to develop people". Sincerely. For reals. Not kidding.

<blockquote>And, you know, being rich is about spending less than you make. It’s not about how much you make.</blockquote>

By that logic, do you know who the richest people are?