Guest Commentary

Is Mark Stegeman using game theory to bend the TUSD board to his will?

No serious observers of the political scene take what they see and hear from politicians at face value. That's why political junkies like me pore over newspaper articles and check the pundits' latest analyses to divine what's really going on in that dark, murky world.

But when it comes to the TUSD school board, too many people forget to ask what are the politics behind the decision-making. In a more perfect world, board members would start from their own educational perspectives, educate themselves about the school district, then discuss the issues openly and honestly with one another and cast their votes.

Since the Mexican-American studies controversy, and continuing through the recent vote for a new superintendent, politics has played all too prominent a role—not Democratic and Republican politics, but "politics" in a more general sense, where there's always more to what goes on than meets the eye. And it's played with the greatest gusto by the master gamesman on the board, Mark Stegeman, who is both a scholar and a practitioner of game theory.

Stegeman is an economics professor at UA's Eller College. He teaches intro econ classes to undergrads, but at the Ph.D. level, he teaches his specialty, game theory, which he describes on his campaign website as "the study of strategic decision making." Stegeman wrote a paper in 2009 titled, "Leadership Based on Asymmetric Information." The paper is way above my pay grade despite my few college econ courses, but fortunately the Eller College website summarizes it in a way I can understand. The basic thesis is, a leader can manipulate people to agree with him by restricting the amount of information they have available. If others don't have sufficient knowledge to make decisions on their own and if the leader has gained their trust, they're likely to follow his or her lead. The paper is mostly about the business world, but Stegeman also applies the concept to politics.

Stegeman's scholarly interest in the topic of restricting others' access to information to push one's own agenda sheds light on his actions on the TUSD board. He makes good use of his understanding of game theory to try and bend decisions to his will even when the majority opinion is against him, which is happening more frequently since two progressive board members were elected to replace the conservative-to-moderate members who usually voted with Stegeman.

Stegeman writes regular email newsletters and publishes op-eds in the paper where he slices and dices information about the latest TUSD issues to persuade his readers to agree with his conclusions. It's harder to pinpoint specific examples where he manipulated board decisions, but one clear example was last December during a meeting discussing the federal desegregation order, when he used a procedural sleight of hand to trick another board member into voting against her own beliefs.

There's nothing unusual about politicians using techniques like this, but that's the point. If TUSD watchers don't apply what they know about politics, they don't stand much of a chance of understanding the way board decisions are made.

The recent search for a new superintendent is a case in point. Lots of people were upset, understandably, when a majority of the board chose one finalist, H.T. Sanchez, for the position instead of giving the public a chance to hear from two or three candidates. The problem is, board members can't talk openly about the reasons for their decision because they interviewed the candidates and made their choice in executive session, and what happens in executive session is confidential. For someone like Stegeman, who trades in restricting information, this gives him the latitude he needs to shape people's perceptions by structuring the limited information they receive. My sense is, the majority who voted for a single finalist did so less out of a desire to keep the public out of the loop and more out of concern that Stegeman's wheelings and dealings would finesse them into choosing a candidate he preferred rather than Sanchez, who was their first choice.

I admit, I'm arriving at my conclusions about the superintendent search by reading political tea leaves, but tea leaves are all any of us have. If board members could speak freely, we would have a fuller understanding of what's going on. Since they can't, we have to use our limited knowledge and our understanding of the world of politics to define the truth as best we can.

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