Why I Wouldn't Leave Home Without Chaos Theory

The Inner Edge -- Oct/Nov 1998
by Barbara Mossberg, Ph.D.

Some people argue that bringing chaos theory to a college presidency in today's times is like bringing coals to Newcastle; but I suggest that it is more like fighting fire with fire. Chaos theory applied regularly serves to keep chaos at bay.

I'm fortunate to be the president at Goddard College, a national learning laboratory and an institution that trusts the process of self-organizing systems. Goddard's mission of relevance results from innovation and change, called for by continuous assessment and feedback (i.e., putting chaos theory into practice).

Why Chaos Theory?

"Chaos" is a sensational misnomer for a dynamic systems theory that evolved out of physics and mathematics over the last forty years. It has since been developed in various fields, from economics to psychology. Above all, chaos theory is an interpretive tool - my most important one - that enables a more realistic assessment of reality, based on a set of truths about behavior -- how and why things occur in complex systems, which can be wide ranging. A relationship with a teenager is as much a "system" as a global ecosystem or Wall Street or a classroom.

The term "chaos" is flamboyantly ironic: the theory's premise is that even when things seem out of control, if you step back far enough in space or time, there is order.

As an organizational leader, I find chaos theory relevant both for the attitude and knowledge necessary for systems work in several respects:

  • Energy is a destabilizing force. Even positive acts with the best intentions create turbulence initially.

  • Control is not realistic as an achievable goal for more than the short term. Stability can be achieved only as a longterm concept. In a system, everything belongs. Diversity is not antagonistic to stability. Instead, walling things up, separating out, discounting, and dismissing facts as irrelevant or "controlling" are detrimental to cohesion.

  • Understanding "the whole" and aiding in how "the whole" works, is the leader's unique role. The leader's challenge is to construct a vision of how parts relate and work together.

As much as I cherish these scientific insights, equally important is the spiritual element of optimism and encouragement. Things only look hopeless when all is disrupted. Step back and find pattern and truth. Step forth, make a proactive adjustment. Don't give up! All leaders need encouragement. Things look chaotic? Congratulations! You have a vital system going there!

Theory Put Into Practice

One way I use chaos theory to strengthen processes at Goddard College is to institutionalize and reinforce structures for feedback as a basis for planning. For example, I created a task force called, "The Student, the Whole Student, and Nothing but the Student." This title reflects my purpose: to have the institution see itself "whole," as a coherent enterprise, by focusing on the perspective of the student.

Even though each of us in our different units -- the President's office, the budget office, administration, faculty, foodservice, student affairs, maintenance, residence halls, security, library, and others -- may not feel engaged in the work of the other units, the student sees and negotiates our interdependence. The task force's charge is to examine every aspect of operations from the student's lens. How does the student experience the college as a holistic system from the first moment of "encounter" to the end of the first term? This period was chosen because it is the most critical in a student's success in school. Retention studies reinforce chaos' law that "initial conditions" create long-term consequences. Thus, we concentrate institutional energies at the earliest moments of a student's relationship with the college -- and can respond before things go awry.

By bringing all of the diverse parts of the college around one table to consider the student's point-of-view, we have a chance to learn how to work together better, to create a more coherent culture, and to correct problems which, if left alone, can grow and disturb the system, and create chaos. For example, waiting in long lines for financial aid counseling, being dealt with abruptly, finding policies as obstacles, being demoralized by broken dorm furniture-all these conditions and more can undermine the learning environment which requires that students feel valued. There is no way that any one department or office will know of the student's experience throughout the college, and a fiveminute wait at one office might not seem critical. But this, added to other seemingly inconsequential and unrelated occurrences, can lead to chaos, where aggravation accrues over time. That begins to change how the student behaves, and how the student causes others to behave throughout the system. The learning experience can deteriorate out of our ignorance from our own isolated spheres.

If students add up individual items and elect to leave the institution, the impact on a 100 percent tuition-driven budget is felt in every aspect of operations: the resources spent finding and admitting the students must be spent again, remaining students suffer a lack of resources due to a decline in revenues, resources for renovation and innovation decline, and the organization enters a crisis. By giving members of the college community access and exposure to each other's ways of doing business (from the student's unifying point-of-view), the organization can increase its internal coherence, productivity, and sense of common purpose.

The results of the task force so far are a number of practical proposals for everything from a better orientation program and more accurate advertising to the creation of a year-long Foundations course. The students requested that the task force continue next year, with a focus on housing and living conditions. The task force also has been integrated into the curriculum: a faculty chair made it part of a course that students can take for college credit. In this way, our curriculum is part of our feedback mechanism, which feeds back on itself, creates new changes, and still more new forms of feedback and learning.

Dr Barbara Mossberg, the president of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., has a master's degree and a doctorate in literature from Indiana University. She speaks internationally on educational leadership and chaos theory, and has a book in progress entitled, Educating for Reality: Toward a New Literacy of Wholeness for Leadership and Learning.