September 4, 2018

Dare to Play a Different Game

Welcome back! I hope you all had a wonderful summer and look forward to a great start to the new academic year.

I may have met those of you who just joined Mason at the welcome orientation. If not, I hope to meet and talk with you soon. For now, as I begin my second term as Provost, I will be sharing my thoughts through this monthly blog. In turn, I want to hear your ideas and priorities. My goal is a vibrant dialogue with the campus community and I value your ideas and perspectives.

Earlier in the summer, I attended The New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum and engaged with some of the nation’s top experts in discussions about challenges facing higher education today. A particular discussion that caught my attention was the one by best-selling author Simon Sinek, who used the metaphor of finite games and infinite games to describe challenges in organizations.

Some of you may be aware that my own research has explored the use of game theory as framing and analysis tools. Game theory is fascinating because of its diverse applications, from abstract strategies of human cooperation and conflict to questions we encounter in our daily lives. Basically, it’s the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction between rational decision-makers.

There are two types of games: finite and infinite. A finite game has known players and rules that are followed until a winner is declared, as in basketball. We all agree to the rules, and we all agree that whoever has the most points at the end of play is the winner. An infinite game welcomes new players and has rules that are changeable over time. There are no specific beginning or end points, and the game progresses indefinitely. Players may drop out when they no longer have the will or resources to continue. Sinek’s point was that successful organizations play the infinite game based on a compelling vision or set of values. Simply stated, they take the “long view.”

Competition can be fun. And to a certain extent, it’s natural to compare ourselves to others. It’s also true that finite games can support the infinite game. For example, the finite game of Mason gaining Tier 1 (R1) Research University status contributes to the infinite game of attracting talented faculty and students who forge our scholarly excellence.

We earned the R1 status owing to years of shared hard work and dedication. Yet while an important step in Mason’s strategic mission and a proud moment for the entire university, external validation for playing well by certain rules can distract from the fact that some rules should be questioned. I’ll cite the tendency to conflate exclusivity with quality in higher education: universities with the lowest acceptance rate are considered superlative.

In the world that is, elite research universities do not typically form extensive transfer partnership with community colleges. Many in our community, myself included, are wondering out loud if it is possible to maintain our R1 status while serving our diverse and rapid growing student population.

I can hear the voice of “what is” calling for pragmatic resource trade-offs, proclaiming that an institution may spend time and resources one way or the other, but not both. But if we choose to play the finite game as defined by our academic peers over the past few hundred years, we submit to a false choice about what academic institutions – and Mason, in particular — should aspire to become.

Instead, let’s ask “what if.” Audacious as it may sound, I believe we can choose to be a new player in the infinite game and work to change the rules of the game. What if we choose to define an exemplary institution as one that actively seeks out, rather than sorts out, all social and economic strata of society to educate and elevate? What if a critical mass of talented people is inspired to join us in becoming a path-breaking, exceptional source of knowledge, insight and innovation?

In my view, at some point in Mason’s history, we chose to change the rules of the game; now we need the courage, confidence, and vision to define and continue the infinite game.  Mason has been developing what could be a national model for higher education, an institution accessible to large populations of students, while a powerhouse for new ideas and new paradigms for research and learning that change the world. We not only provide access, but access to excellence. If that sounds incredibly ambitious, that’s because it is, and it requires the whole community working together to make it real. In this vision, education is a means to social justice and social transformation; in our own words, “George Mason University – A university for the world … we are an innovative and inclusive academic community committed to creating a more just, free, and prosperous world.” This is a game that should never end.

What are the intrinsic values that animate our infinite game? How would we make this vision a reality in a way that is realistic and sustainable? Such questions challenge us to envision what being a part of Mason can mean for us as individuals, as a collective, and as a force for good in the world.

So, let’s examine our finite games for the values they keep in play. Let’s continue to participate in those we deem necessary in the course of the infinite game, but remind ourselves not to engage in finite games for the sake of conformity or lack of confidence.

And let’s think and talk about the steps we can take to advance our vision. For example, one might be to make space for intrinsic motivation in our students’ day-to-day educational experience. Taking a “long view” also considers higher education in a larger social context, with an eye to the consequences for the world we would like to live in.

In this inaugural blog post, I’ve presented one component of game theory — the process in which players define their own game – to open a dialogue on the important question of how we at Mason define who we want to become. You may have a far better metaphor to offer, and/or more thoughts to contribute using the infinite game metaphor. In any case, I look forward to hearing it and to engaging everyone in that conversation. Feel more than welcomed to provide your feedback and comments at the end of this blog.

3 thoughts on “Dare to Play a Different Game

  • Thank you for sharing your perspective in this manner. It was extremely insightful and inspiring. As a member of University Life, I believe very strongly that we provide an essential piece of this infinite game, allowing opportunities for students to jump in and out of experiences that foster their creativity and curiosity, problem solving skills, ability to work with others to accomplish shared goals and other necessary skills that employers are looking for as they hire their next employees. I look forward to continuing to read your blog and making connections between your vision and the work we are doing to support it.

  • “What if we choose to define an exemplary institution as one that actively seeks out, rather than sorts out, all social and economic strata of society to educate and elevate?” Simply, yes! As you said in this post, “education is a means to social justice and social transformation.” It is the reason why Brown vs. the Board of Education was such a turning point for this country. Education is the ladder that helps everyone to climb regardless of the rung on which they started. An institution with these values is inspirational. I’m in.

  • Thank your comments! Absolutely. University Life is a critical part of the infinite game as we provide our students the experiences and tools to engage people with different backgrounds and perspectives as they are.

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