February 6, 2023

From Rob Wiesenthal at the Wall Street Journal re Elon Musk and Twitter: 

Minutes after closing his purchase of the company, he started a process that reduced the workforce from 7,500 to 2,500 in 10 days….

Mr. Musk is trying to cure a degenerative corporate disease: systemic paralysis. Symptoms include cobwebs of corporate hierarchies with unclear reporting lines and unwieldy teams, along with work groups and positions that have opaque or nonsensical mandates. Paralyzed companies are often led by a career CEO who builds or maintains a level of bureaucracy that leads to declines in innovation, competitive stature and shareholder value….

Mr. Musk set his new tone immediately. He eliminated a 12-member team responsible for artificial-intelligence ethics in machine learning, the entire corporate communications department, and a headquarters commissary that cost $13 million a year (despite prior management’s pandemic decree that Twitter employees would be “remote forever”)….

he knows he doesn’t need five layers between him and the employees who actually do the work. His recent email to the engineering team stating, “Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 pm today,” makes it clear he doesn’t want a membrane of corporate yes-men between him and the people who actually build things….

As sole owner, he can also quickly terminate the members of Twitter’s black hole of middle management, that cold and lonely place where great ideas go to die at big companies….

The days of nap pods, emotional-support dogs, corporate pronoun guides, personal wellness days and email blackouts after 5 p.m. are quickly vanishing….

 Those employees who relish getting things done will thrive.

My thoughts go naturally to my home institution, Stanford. We are self-evidently bloated with administrative staff. Stanford proudly lists 15,750 staff, for 7,645 undergrads, 9,292 graduate, and 2,288 faculty. 

This lovely Harvard Crimson editorial by Brooks Anderson (HT Chris Phelan) paints a devastating picture there:

Across the University, for every academic employee there are approximately 1.45 administrators. When only considering faculty, this ratio jumps to 3.09. Harvard employs 7,024 total full-time administrators, only slightly fewer than the undergraduate population. What do they all do?

For example, last December, all Faculty of Arts and Sciences affiliates received an email from Dean Claudine Gay announcing the final report of the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, a task force itself created by recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. This task force was composed of 24 members: six students, nine faculty members, and nine administrators. The task force produced a 26-page report divided into seven sections, based upon a survey, focus groups, and 15 separate meetings with over 500 people total. The report dedicated seven pages to its recommendations, which ranged from “Clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage” to “Create a dynamic program of public art in the FAS.” In response to these recommendations, Dean Gay announced the creation of a new administrative post, the “FAS campus curator,” and a new committee, the “FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage.” 

The “12-member team responsible for artificial-intelligence ethics in machine learning”… I just learned that Stanford, like other institutions, now has an “Ethics and Society Review” bureaucracy gearing up. (“Voluntary” for now.) We already have the large and cumbersome Institutional Review focusing on human subjects, but it had a pesky limitation 

The IRB should not consider possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research […] as among those research risks that fall within the purview of its responsibility.

Well, let’s not let that get in the way, 

… it is inappropriate to ignore the risks that research poses for our collective future: the risks of artificial intelligence to the future of work, the risks of sustainability interventions to the societies that they are purported to support, the risks of the internet to professional media and accurate information. 

“to ignore.” Don’t you love passive voice? “For the university bureaucracy to ignore” is less self evident. If you stop and think just a moment, absolutely no research can pass this test. Risks to future work? Sorry about that steam engine Mr. Watt. Sorry about that word processor Mr. Wang. “risks of the internet to … accurate information.” Pretty much all social media or the internet itself must be banned or censored by this standard. Sorry about that printing press Mr. Gutenberg, our Ethics Review Board has determined it might spread inaccurate information.  Pretty much all AI research must be banned see  Marginal Revolution here for excellent disruption possibilities, such as 

…ordinary people will have more capabilities than a CIA agent does today. You’ll be able to listen in on a conversation in an apartment across the street using the sound vibrations off a chip bag. You’ll be able to replace your face and voice with those of someone else in real time, allowing anyone to socially engineer their way into anything. Bots will slide into your DMs and have long, engaging conversations with you until it senses the best moment to send its phishing link. … Relationships will fall apart when the AI lets you know, via microexpressions, that he didn’t really mean it when he said he loved you. Copyright will be as obsolete as sodomy law, as thousands of new Taylor Swift albums come into being with a single click. Public comments on new regulations will overflow with millions of cogent and entirely unique submissions that the regulator must, by law, individually read and respond to.   

Indeed, I gather the point of the Stanford effort is precisely to regulate AI research. Which will mostly just mean China does it instead. 

Yes, a university bureaucracy wants the power to stop research ahead of time on the basis of its views of potential social harm.

Of course a regulatory body that basically can be interpreted to ban anything that advances actual human knowledge will end up being mostly a way to use university disciplinary procedures against research that has the “wrong” answers. We’re not firing you because of your unpopular opinions, but you failed to properly fill out your ethics and society review forms. 

And “accurate information” curation brings up another Twitter story… 

Well, I’m getting off track. Read the rest with a university in mind, and it is just a delicious fantasy.

Why can’t a Musk come in and similarly clean up a university? It’s an obvious takeover target. $37.8 billion in money it doesn’t know how to use, and an obvious target for getting back to its core functions. 

Well, because Stanford is a non-profit. Non-profit doesn’t mean “doesn’t make a profit.” Non-profit really means that it does not have shares outstanding, which you can buy up if you think the thing is badly run, and clean the place up. Non-profit means protection from the market for corporate control.  (It also means a lot of subsidy from taxpayers, making competition from organizations organized as corporations much harder.) 

It’s time to rethink whether the non-profit structure is doing what it’s supposed to do. A regular corporation is perfectly free to not make money if its shareholders choose to operate that way. But bloated immoveable “nonprofits” don’t make sense. (Anderson also notices the perversity of tax-free status, and recommends that the doctor who prescribes wealth taxes should heal itself!) 

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Update:

I went a bit off the deep end here, both on the social ethics review boards (more on that coming, it’s a widespread trend and truly horrifying) and on my fantasy of getting rid of non-profit status (worth considering, but needs a more comprehensive treatment). 

There are mechanisms to fix universities. Alumi can stop giving, trustees can force change and appoint leaders who do, faculty can wake up and use faculty senates to take back control of admissions and bureaucracies, and the federal government can have a big effect. If it has a huge endowment, a bloated staff, and an ethics review board, a “DEI” office enforcing political conformity, and zero political/ideological diversity, don’t give it money. Government can condition student aid and loans and grant overhead on reform (rather than, as now, the opposite). And eventually competitors can spring up. Privately funded research institutes, new universities are not out of the question. Also, research and teaching excellence may flow to what is now the second tier, ambitious state schools for example. 

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