Too freaked out to fix higher ed

I recently read Paranoia the 21st-century fear by Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman. I was looking for insights into the mental states of partisan politicians and media propagandists. While I got what I was looking for, I also gained lots of understanding into why administrators and faculty members in higher ed cannot make the necessary changes to thrive in this century. Here's some of how our minds function that I've realized by combining this latest book with many others I've read:

  1. Extrinsic rewards: Our minds can become addicted to making the grade, getting the promotion or being awarded a promotion. When we chase after those kinds of prizes, the prospect of losing out is devastating. We become paranoid about any rivals and those higher-ups who pass judgment on our qualifications. We worry about what all can go wrong. When our minds are in this state of fear, we cannot think about positive changes or others' interests that call for those changes.
  2. What comes to mind: We receive constructive and creative thoughts when we're clear of fear. Our minds are open and receptive to possibilities that might otherwise frighten us. When we're afraid of what might happen, our minds become closed and unreceptive. What comes to mind is highly repetitive, annoying and apprehensive. What cannot consider constructive and creative possibilities. They appear too dangerous and exposed to rejection by others. 
  3. Negative self concepts - When we think of themselves as defective, deviant or deficient , we can justify why we did not make the grade, get the promotion or earn a pay increase. Yet these negative self concepts make us prone to paranoia. Thoughts come into our minds that feel invasive, haunting and troublesome. We entertain scenarios of situations going from bad to worse. We get put us on the defensive and concerned by others finding out what going on with us. 
  4. Delusional constructs - When our minds get this troubled, we cannot face reality. We assume the worst if we were to find out what's really going on, who's responsible and how things are really changing. We expect to be false accused, blamed and ostracized. We live fully absorbed by elaborate fantasies, justifications and denials to avoid regrettable hysterics, panic attacks and outbursts.
  5. Catastrophizing - When our minds are in this state, we cannot see the good in something or put situations in a more positive light. We find fault with everything and dwell on how awful it's becoming. We fixate on the negatives to match our somewhat rational thinking with the disturbing, irrational emotions we're experiencing. 
  6. Dichotomizing - Perhaps to keep our thinking simplified while our minds handle this full load of troubles, we reduce everything to either/or, black or white extremes. We cannot process gray areas, combinations or two sided possibilities. Everyone is with us or against us, a winner or a loser or a success or a failure -- as we entertain this reductionistic fallacy.
  7. Colluding with the clueless - When our minds our functioning in all these dysfunctional ways, we don't trust ourselves. We place lots of reliance on social proof, even when everyone is wrong or deluded. We want to agree with the crowd because we have no reliable basis to disagree. We're very poor judges of others quality of judgement. We jump on bandwagons, follow the herd and do our best to think alike regardless of how clueless that might prove to be.

Combine all these seven ways our minds can function and significant changes in higher ed become infeasible. There too much against the needed changes in ways the minds of administrators and faculty members are processing their situations, opportunities and outcomes. What has changed in our culture and what needs to change in higher ed is not registering on their brains in spite of being plainly evident to students, applicants and most alumni.


  1. Interestingly enough, those with entrepreneurial personalities react the opposite. For example, they are pushed to higher levels of creativity when faced with fear. They have a high level of self efficacy regardless of what those external to them are saying.

    However, there is very little entrepreneurial spirit in academia.

  2. I suspect that academia creates the very convincing impression of having a lot to lose and little to gain by moving toward dangerous ground. In contrast, innovators operate under the opposite impression - a big upside and small downside to exploring, taking risks and conquering fears.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment Virginia.