Die Hard U: John McClane’s Top 10 Lessons for America’s Colleges

Volume VIII, #26

Primarily because I want to watch them again, I’ve convinced myself that my boys won’t grow up to become productive members of society unless they’re exposed to the canon of 80s movies. Having already shown them ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to the Future, Princess Bride, and Ghostbusters, over Christmas I made them watch Tootsie and Die Hard.

There were two surprising things about Die Hard. First, the film is chock full o’ foul language. So Bruce Willis’ New York cop gumption was punctuated by lots of fast-forwarding and apologizing on my part. Second, I wasn’t aware that Die Hard had become a classic Christmas movie. The hostage action thriller takes place on Christmas Eve, which this week led the NYPD to tweet “We’d like to acknowledge our partners at @LAPDHQ who have been working with us to protect Christmas since Hans Gruber’s 1988 attack on Nakatomi Plaza #YesItsAChristmasMovie.” Some critics have even named it the top Christmas film of all-time. As one wrote in Forbes, “There’s Christmas, and then there’s Christmas with punching terrorists in the face and winning back your entire family — which do YOU prefer.”

After we watched John McClane save Christmas, my 13-year-old son, who thinks I relate everything I see or do to higher education, asked what Nakatomi Plaza University would be like? So I gave it some thought, and here are the top 10 things one might learn about higher education at Nakatomi Plaza University.

10. Unclear purpose
We know that Nakatomi Corporation is a Japanese multinational. But what exactly does it produce? There’s talk of building bridges and state-of-the-art 80s electronics like tape decks, but we’re no wiser by the end of the film. Similarly, what do colleges and universities produce? Mission statements tend to be multifaceted, complex, and vague. Sometimes there’s a double-bottom line. Often, there are so many bottom lines, there’s really no bottom line at all. The answer should be educated and successful graduates. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a university that primarily evaluates the performance of its management on any of these metrics.

9. Yet somehow, there’s a lot of money sitting around
Whatever Nakatomi Corporation sells, they must be selling a lot in order to have $640M in bearer bonds in the vault. Likewise, top colleges and universities continue to rake in donations; for our most fortunate schools, it must seem like every day is Christmas. 2018 saw the largest-ever single contribution to a U.S. college or university: Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins. Most of the resulting commentary correctly homed in on the gift’s extremely limited impact: a boost of 66 low-income students in each class. As one commentator wrote in Inside Philanthropy, “Could Bloomberg have helped exponentially more low- to middle-income students by giving $1.8 billion to a far less elite institution? Most certainly.”

8. A lot of this money goes to pay for elaborate entrances
John McClane enters Nakatomi Plaza via the beautiful, sterile, and deserted lobby. Apparently, Nakatomi Corporation thought it important to make an impression on visitors. Colleges and universities seem equally susceptible to this thinking. Some schools are most interested in investing in facilities that are visible on the campus walk. According to Mitchel Livingston, former VP for Student Affairs at the University of Cincinnati, families not only make their decisions on the walk, but during the first fifteen minutes of the walk. “They want to be wowed,” he said. “If we don’t wow them, they go somewhere else that has more wow.” Nonetheless, beautiful, deserted entrances are less appalling than elaborate football stadiums.

7. Is the federal government enabling crime?
Hans Gruber’s masterplan is for the FBI to supplant the LAPD at the crime scene and run its “terrorist playbook,” which means shutting down the power grid: exactly what Hans needs to open the seventh and final lock of the Nakatomi vault. Special Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson (no relation) unwittingly allow Hans to lay his hands on $640M in bearer bonds. For its part, the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) was recently led by a Johnson, and as Jillian Berman wrote earlier this month in MarketWatch, the student debt crisis has opened the door for fraudsters to “prey on struggling borrowers confused about their options.” Law enforcement is playing “a game of whack-a-mole.”

6. A classical education no longer guarantees a positive outcome
Witness villain Hans Gruber, who upon entering the Nakatomi board room, says: “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept. For there were no more worlds to conquer… The benefits of a classical education.”

5. Helicopters don’t solve the problem
Special Agents Johnson opt for helicopters to solve the problem at Nakatomi Plaza (with a loss of life they can “live with”). But helicopters don’t work in Die Hard, or in higher education, where helicopter parenting is not the answer to the problem of career launch. (Uncannily, Die Hard foreshadows the issue of career launch through McClane’s limo driver Argyle, who’s driving a limo for the first time.) Just as all Nakatomi Plaza’s systems are digitally controlled, in order to have a decent chance of landing an entry-level job at Nakatomi, or any other faceless, product-less corporation, students must be exposed to the software that runs today’s buildings and businesses. If universities don’t fill this critical gap, new intermediaries will.

4. One thing at a time
Before he could kill Hans Gruber, John McClane had to take out Karl, Tony, Franco, Alexander, Marco, Kristoff, Eddie, Uli, Heinrich, Fritz and James. Facing everyone at the same time would have made for a much shorter, and less Christmas-y movie. Similarly, colleges and universities have a lot to work on. In addition to the crisis of employability, there’s the crisis of affordability, and the crisis of completion; President Michael Crow of Arizona State recently noted that more than half the students who have gone to college in the U.S. since 1980 never graduated. And there’s also a demographic crisis looming, with the number of college-age students declining by 15% between 2025 and 2029. The non-selective universities likely to be hardest hit in the next decade should follow John McClane’s example: pick a Karl, Tony, or Franco of higher education, and hit it hard: Die Hard hard.

3. The media is not helping
In Die Hard, the media is presented as alternatively buffoonish (“Gruber’s terrorist actions in Los Angeles tonight are well, terroristic…”) and malevolent (reporter intimidating immigrant nanny to put McClane’s kids on the air). While I have great admiration for the few dozen extremely well-informed reporters and writers who devote their professional lives to covering the sector for publications like Inside Higher Education, and the Chronicle, general news media coverage of higher education continues to focus almost exclusively on elite universities and scandals rather than the aforementioned crises that impact the lives of millions at the schools that 90% of students actually attend. It’s not malevolent, but it borders on buffoonish. The media needs to stop covering what happens at Harvard as though it’s representative of what’s happening in higher education.

2. The only sure killer is overconfidence
Holly McClane’s co-worker, Harry Ellis, is a caricature of a 1980s business executive; he thinks he can “handle these clowns” because he negotiates “million dollar deals for breakfast.” My friend David Friedman, a professor of business law at Willamette Law School, also watched Die Hard over the holiday and opined: “For a guy who negotiates million-dollar deals for breakfast, Harry Ellis did not know how to get to yes. He did not know Hans Gruber's best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA).” Sometimes the best thing to do is not negotiate. Overconfidence leads to mistakes like these. Colleges and universities that are overconfident, believing that enrollment declines are blips, and that next year’s numbers can’t be any worse than this year’s numbers, are more likely to end up like poor Harry Ellis.

1. It’s all about the money
Hans Gruber’s big idea is to portray himself as a terrorist, aiming to free revolutionary comrades languishing in prisons around the world. Of course, it’s all a ruse; he’s there to steal $640M in bearer bonds. For the vast majority of colleges and universities, ideological adherence to the traditional college model will last only as long as the money. And while the money isn’t running out yet, it will for many non-selective schools that fail to take action now. Nakatomi Plaza University isn’t “on fire… [but] it’s gonna need one hell of a paint job.”

The last line of Die Hard goes to Argyle: “If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be there for New Year’s.” Our team feels the same way: we’re gonna be there in 2019 to continue our groundbreaking progress on these challenges.

We hope you’re having a terrific holiday. The very best to your families from all of ours.

Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in education-to-employment.

1. Doing Well by Doing Good Tideline report on ways in which investing for positive social impact can drive financial returns, by multiple authors including Daniel Pianko. Operating with an impact objective lead[s] to specific sources of financial value—from increased deal flow and higher win rates, to more attractive terms at entry, to increased revenues and lower capital and operating costs. Read more 2. The Shift from Degree-based Hiring to Competency-based Hiring Ithaka S+R report mapping the wild west of pre-hire assessments, by Meagan Wilson, Martin Kurzweil, and Rayane Alamuddin. Traditionally, the process of assessing candidates’ skills has focused on resumes composed of credentials signifying successful participation in or completion of an experience (like a degree)… Such a process favored intermediaries like higher education institutions... By contrast, a large and increasing share of today’s job candidates are assessed directly on their job-related competencies through various technology-assisted means, allowing employers to supplement—and sometimes forego—the traditional criteria. Read more 3. A New U Working Nation review of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, by Matt Parke. Craig’s book doesn’t discount the value of a traditional college education and a bachelor’s degree. He counters the appealing lecture halls, dining plans and dorm life with the reality of post-college life, namely student debt and uncertainty of getting a quality first job. Now there are more options for students who want to learn work-ready skills and secure a better first job without saddling themselves with debt. Read more