IU East interim leader Richards makes career of mixing scholarship with administrative assignments

May 17th, 2013

Larry Richards was hired by IU East in January 2004 to serve as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs in the role of chief academic officer for the campus. With the addition of chief enrollment officer responsibilities in spring 2007, his title changed to Executive Vice Chancellor. He has been serving most recently as Interim Chancellor since June 2012, when Nasser Paydar left to take a position at IUPUI. He will relinquish the chancellor duties on July 1, 2013, when newly appointed Kathy Cruz-Uribe takes over as permanent Chancellor for the campus.

What many may not realize is that Richards has continued the scholarship he began after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania 33 years ago.

“I prefer to keep my scholarship low key for a variety of reasons, but mostly so that my primary responsibilities as a senior administrator get the attention they need for the campus to thrive in the way it deserves,” Richards said. “As a student of management and decision making, my 29 years in administration have provided an opportunity for me to try in practice ideas that I have proposed in my scholarly work—a lifetime case study of sorts. My experiences have definitely affected my thinking and my writing.”

Richards has an interdisciplinary education, combining two early degrees in engineering (electrical engineering and aeronautical systems) with two later degrees in management and decision making (M.B.A. and operations research). That mix proved useful in his first administrative assignment, when he was asked to create a new department offering graduate degrees in engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. With a background as a founding chair of a department, he was able to move next to a position at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts as founding dean of its new School of Management and Aviation Science. After two years as acting vice president for Academic Affairs at Bridgewater, he made his way to IU East.

“It has been a privilege and a unique learning experience to have been part of the dramatic transition of a campus from its roots as a community college to its current status as a full-fledged four-year and graduate institution,” Richards said. “The creative aspect of being an administrator has always been what has intrigued me most about these positions, and I have been quite fortunate to have had such a variety of opportunities. Going back to my duties at Old Dominion, a dean there once told me that I was a risk-taker in my career. For me, the bigger risk has always been the risk of not having the opportunity to be creative and a part of something truly significant.”

Richards’ first book was called Constraint Theory: An Approach to Policy-level Modelling, published in 1983 and reprinted in 2002. As a graduate student in Penn’s Wharton School, he had developed an interest in how we think and talk about our desires and values when we formulate problems and make decisions. The predominant way of doing this is to rely on the concepts of goal and objective. This way of thinking and talking about desires seems to prevail, not only among managers and administrators in economic organizations, but also in the everyday lives of ordinary people.

“What if, instead of treating desires as goals or objectives, we treated them as constraints?” Richards asked. “What if we focused on what we don’t want, on what we want to avoid, and leave the rest open to the uncertain circumstances in which we might find ourselves in some other time and place? When circumstances change so fast that we have a hard time keeping up with them, perhaps there are desirable consequences of this alternative approach, particularly at the policy or strategic level of decision making.”

When Richards began his academic career, including the time he spent at Old Dominion, he was able to get grants and do some research. One of his research projects was for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in which he was asked to develop an approach for deciding in what new space transportation technologies NASA should invest, given the extreme uncertainty in the environment of space funding and of the technology of space travel itself. This led to a paper entitled “Robustness in the Formulation of Technology Strategy,” for which he was able to use the idea of constraint as a way of mitigating the uncertainty acknowledged. His work in the space travel world also led to his key role in developing a concept and funding for a commercial spaceport on Wallops Island, Va., the only civilian spaceport in the country.

“While administrators, and people in general, still tend to think in terms of goals and objectives, I continue to develop the idea of constraint as an alternative way of thinking about desires,” said Richards. “It is a way of leaving our options open in the face of extreme uncertainty and of exploring common ground when multiple stakeholders have conflicting interests. Rather than leave it to those in positions of power to make the decision for us, let’s see if we, the people, can first agree on what we don’t want!”

One of the threads that Richards has pulled through all his work, from the time he was first introduced to it as an undergraduate student in electrical engineering through all his education and scholarship to date, is a body of work called cybernetics. Cybernetics is often associated with technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality, but it has also raised interesting questions about human cognitive processes. In particular, it asks whether or not the use of technological metaphors to describe human mental activity can have undesirable social consequences. Should human memory, for example, be thought of as storage? Should the brain be thought of as a centralized information processor? Should thinking itself be thought of as a logical process only?

“When modern cybernetics arose during the 1940s, it represented a new way of thinking about concepts like communication, control, information, self-organization, intelligence, and other non-physical phenomena,” Richards said. “It challenged the conventional logic of linear cause and effect and offered a dynamic and circular (or recursive) approach to describing and explaining such phenomena. The idea of constraint played a key role in this new approach.”

Richards served as president of the American Society for Cybernetics for three years and was awarded its Norbert Wiener Medal in 2007. He also served as president of the American Society for Engineering Management and was elected a fellow in the Society in 2002. He remains active in both organizations, a combination that allows him to work with others to expand the boundaries of cybernetics and of management to account for the human individual, the decision-maker, the one who does the describing and explaining and choosing that generate new ideas. This has been a key development in the thinking on human participation in modern organizations and societies, and how to facilitate it.

“This is not philosophy,” said Richards. “It is about the quite practical endeavor of realizing human potential and reducing human misery. It is about ways of thinking and how we get stuck in particular ways of thinking and how we can make the way of thinking about our world a choice rather than accepting, without question or even awareness, the current prevailing way as the default.”

As he moved into more senior leadership positions, Richards found the extreme demands on his time to make it virtually impossible to continue to take the grant-funded path to his scholarship that he had done earlier. So, he expanded the scope of his scholarship and began writing essays on cybernetics, social transformation and societal design. With titles like “Beyond Planning: Technological Support for a Desirable Society,” “Propositions on Cybernetics and Social Transformation,” “The Anticommunication Imperative,” “Difference-making from a Cybernetic Perspective,” and “Idea Avoidance,” these essays have drawn on theoretical constructs in modern cybernetics as well as his own background and experiences in decision making at the policy level. They have also become the substance of presentations at conferences and at colleges and universities. Most recently he presented at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., on the topic “Social and Unsocial Change: The Cybernetics of Desire.”

“I have also been fortunate to have found a group of interested teachers and students at an experimental school in Illinois called the School for Designing a Society,” Richards said. “For over 20 years now, the students of this school have been challenged to imagine a society in which they would like to live, and one in which, of course, others would like to live as well. As a guest presenter and facilitator at the school, I find the conversations encountered there to inform and stimulate my thinking.”

One student in the school took Richards’ essays and retyped some of them into a booklet that he published online under the title, Craft and Constraint, Clocks and Conversation.

When he can find the time, Richards continues to write and present. He has ideas for a couple of books on cybernetics and decision making, for example. Themes may include constraint-based design, collaborative decision making, alternative orientations to time and dynamics, and the consequences of a technology-assisted, dialogic society.

“I don’t know how much value these ideas hold for others,” Richards said, “but I do know that they are what I enjoy thinking about and doing. They have also fit well with my career in higher education administration.”

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