by David Safier
I went on the Bill Buckmaster Show today and talked about a TUSD-related topic that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves: the politically charged nature of the TUSD Board. No serious followers of the State Legislature or Congress would be foolish enough to think they can observe elected officials' speeches, tactics and decisions without considering the players' political motivations. Savvy observers try to peek behind the curtain to figure out what's really going on behind all the posturing for the public. But when we turn to TUSD, too often we forget to ask ourselves, What are the politics behind what people say and do? I'm not referring to Democratic and Republican politics here. I'm talking about "politics" in a more general sense, where there's more to people's actions than meets the eye. Politics are behind much of what's been happening lately at TUSD, and it's played with great skill by the master gamesman on the Board, Mark Stegeman, who is both a scholar and a practitioner of Economics Game Theory.
I went into the subject of TUSD politics on today's Buckmaster Show for 10 minutes starting at about the 30 minute mark, specifically in reference to the superintendent search. I delve into it in more detail on the show than I will here, so I recommend you give it a listen. Bill and I go on about TUSD and also discuss the Sunnyside Board meeting that will decide Manuel Isquierdo's fate after that, and Steve Farley discusses the legislative session at the beginning of the show. It's all reasonably interesting, but I think I can safely say, you haven't heard what I have to say about TUSD.
Things got very complicated on the TUSD board during the Mexican-American Studies controversy, but there was a reasonably solid 3-2 or 4-1 majority that was likely to go along with Huppenthal and dismantle the MAS program. Many of us hoped for a different outcome, but few people were surprised by the vote to end MAS. However, the Board composition changed significantly in November when Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster replaced two moderate-to-conservative Board members. Together with Adelita Grijalva, the new Board members form a 3-2 progressive majority, leaving Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks with far less power and influence than they once had. Hicks may be willing to accept his role as a back bencher, but Stegeman is having none of it, and he's ratcheting up his political tactics to gain whatever advantage he can.
Stegeman is an Economics prof at UA's Eller College. His field of specialization is Game Theory, which he refers to on his campaign website as "the study of strategic decision making." Stegeman's 2009 paper on the topic is titled, “Leadership Based on Asymmetric Information." His basic thesis, as it's described in an article on the Eller website, is that a leader can benefit from restricting the amount of information others have. That way, others don't have sufficient knowledge to make decisions which might be contrary to what the leader wants. If the leader can win the followers' trust, she/he can push forward an agenda without others knowing enough to mount an informed opposition. In the paper, Stegeman also applies the concept to politics, where a leader endorses a candidate without revealing the candidate's weaknesses, hoping the followers' trust in the leader's opinion and their restricted information will make them vote the leader's way.
There's nothing earth shattering about the thesis of Stegeman's paper, but the fact that this kind of manipulation is what Stegeman is most interested in sheds an interesting light on his actions as a Board member. (The Eller article states "Economists rarely study leadership," but apparently Stegeman is interested enough in the use of "asymmetric information" as a leadership tool to choose it over the usual areas of economic study.) He makes good use of his understanding of game theory on the Board to try and bend decisions to his will even if the majority opinion is against him. I've seen Stegeman structure votes in a way that other Board members vote contrary to their beliefs, then they say later, "That's not what I thought I voted for." I've read newsletters he sends to people on his email list which slice and dice information in a way that leads his readers to reach the conclusions he wants them to reach by telling them only what he wants them to know. There's nothing unusual about a politician using these techniques, but that's the point. If observers don't apply what they know about politics when they try to understand what's going on at TUSD, they can't understand why the Board members act as they do.
It's unfortunate that we know so little about the superintendent search, but part of the problem is built into the system. Many of the most important discussions and events concerning the search happen in executive session, and what happens in executive session is confidential. That means Board members can't reveal what decisions were made in the superintendent selection process, nor can they reveal what the candidates said during the Board interviews. For someone like Stegeman who trades in the restricting information, this gives him the latitude he needs to shape people's perceptions of the process by structuring the limited information they have. My sense is, concern over Stegeman's wheelings and dealings is what drove the majority of the Board to choose a single finalist rather than coming up with a longer list of possible candidates to present to the public.
I admit, I'm arriving at my conclusions about the superintendent search by reading tea leaves, but tea leaves are all any of us have, because we aren't allowed to see what goes on behind the Board's closed doors. I'm certain if some of the Board members were allowed to speak freely about the process, we would have a far different impression of what's been going on. What I know for sure is, it's naive to think we can understand and interpret the Board members' actions without considering the high stakes politics involved.