14. Almost The End of Civilization As We Know It

Judicious application of forcing functions can yield faculty development.
The world as we know it almost ended on January 1, 2000.

When electronic coding became widespread in the 1900s, its capacity was extremely limited.  Programmers realized they could extend this capacity by coding the year with only two digits; e.g., 1951 as “51”.  This was all well and good until the year 2000, which in this system would be indistinguishable from 1900, 1800, etc.  Doomsayers predicted that when 2000 arrived, algorithms and error detection processes relying on this system would go so awry that airplanes would crash, power grids would fail, and civilization as we know it would end, etc.  Dogs and cats living together …mass hysteria![1] My institution stockpiled liquid nitrogen in the event refrigeration failed.  I myself laid in firewood and awaited midnight.

Of course, planes did not crash, power grids did not fail, and civilization as we know it did not end in 2000.  Governments and the private sector modified computer software to accommodate 4-digit coding of the year.  Fixing the Y2K bug, as it was called, cost more than $130 billion in the US alone.[2]

Forcing functions

In business-speak, the Y2K bug  was a “forcing function”.  Wikipedia defines this as “any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result”.[3]  For maximum efficacy, forcing functions need to include an irrevocable deadline or trigger, and dire consequences.  In some instances, the deadline and dire consequences can be created intentionally to force an action.  The fiscal cliff of 2013 is an example.[4]  Forcing functions are a form of commitment device.

Forcing functions are very useful in faculty development.  The ‘usual suspects’[5] include, for example:

  • The tenure clock
  • The potential wrath of Chairs, Chiefs, Deans, Provosts, Presidents, etc. if performance is insufficient
  • Deadlines for submission of promotion materials, grant applications, or meeting abstracts
  • Requirements for signatures, which force oversight by the signatories
  • Regulations that would automatically invalidate a search for a new faculty member unless conducted properly
  • Requirement for a balanced budget before a fiscal year begins
  • Peer reviewers

All can be anticipated.  All can provoke good behavior that ought to ensue spontaneously for its own benefit, but often doesn’t.  All can be improperly or counterproductively used.  For example, if the associated anxiety is too great, a forcing function can undermine the very activity it is intended to promote (cf. annual performance reviews).

As with “the boogeyman”[6], the credibility of these threats is more important than their reality.  At my institution, for example, our Appointments and Promotions Committee concurs with recommending department in the vast majority of promotions.  Nonetheless, the (unjustified) reputation of this committee for rejecting departmental recommendations suffices to keep departments honest in most cases.  Damaging such reputations, diminishing the dire consequences, and/or showing deadlines to be false[7] can undermine forcing functions, create moral hazard, and encourage abuse.  The moment a forcing function is shown to be ‘not really serious’, it ceases to force (cf. ‘the boy who cried wolf ‘[8] ).  This reality ought to discourage the enforcers from allowing exceptions, as “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”[9]  But often it does not.  In the heat of the moment, the mind’s System 1 and present self will deal with the issue at hand and be oblivious to long-term consequences.

One noteworthy use of forcing functions is in achieving faculty diversity.

  • Medical schools, for example, undergo regular review by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), and commit themselves either to meeting the LCME’s standards or remediation.  Standard IS-16[10] is:

An institution that offers a medical education program must have policies and practices to achieve appropriate diversity among its students, faculty, staff, and other members of its academic community, and must engage in ongoing, systematic, and focused efforts to attract and retain students, faculty, staff, and others from demographically diverse backgrounds.

Schools that lack the will to meet this standard spontaneously will nonetheless strive mightily to do so to avoid citation.

Another is in faculty quality control.

  • At some institutions, those external experts to be consulted on senior appointments and promotions are only suggested by the recommending unit, and must be approved by a senior dean or board (who may insist on other experts).  This practice keeps the recommending units from approaching prejudiced or weak critics, and the units themselves now avoid bad suggestions to keep from tarnishing their reputations in the eyes of the dean or board
  • Regular departmental reviews and standing visiting committees are a staple of many institutions, as are reappointment reviews for faculty on term appointments.

For forcing functions to work they must be recognized and remembered as such.  We are good at ignoring even the obvious, however; a subsequent post touches on this.  Even repeated reminders eventually lose traction.  Forcing functions may therefore best be deployed in combination with other tools in the faculty developer’s toolkit or others in the quiver of magic feathers.


Sometimes naming a thing permits it to be addressed directly.  Now that forcing functions are part of the faculty development vocabulary, let’s discuss them and optimize their use.

To-do list

 When you are not just before an imminent deadline, inventory and reflect on the forcing functions in your faculty development world. Are they effective in causing good behavior?

 When you are tempted to override a forcing function to deal with an immediate issue, pause and reflect (if you can) on the long-term consequences of this action; reconsider.  [I will be the first to admit that it is easier to suggest this than practice it.]

 As always, please consider sharing any innovative forcing function in the Comments field below.

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087332/quotes

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2000_problem

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forcing_function

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_fiscal_cliff

[5] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/quotes

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogeyman

[7] https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/w/wrong_date.asp

[8] https://www.storyarts.org/library/aesops/stories/boy.html

[9] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084726/quotes

[10] http://www.lcme.org/connections/connections_2013-2014/IS-16_2013-2014.htm

[11] http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/184/hopkins.html

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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