Monday, September 15, 2014


Administrative Lessons from the Salaita Disaster

I’ve been avoiding the Steven Salaita disaster as a topic for the same reason I avoid discussing Middle Eastern politics.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s mind changed, and so much depends on where you start.

That said, I’m thinking that my counterparts can take the Salaita experience as a teachable moment.

For those who haven’t been following the case: Steven Salaita held a tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech, which he gave up to accept a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois.  At the last minute, the Chancellor of UI contacted him to let him know that the offer was off the table, since she believed that the Board would never approve the hire.  It seems that several of his tweets offended some powerful people.  The last few weeks have been devoted to a back-and-forth around academic freedom, with most claiming that Salaita’s academic freedom has been violated, and a few claiming that his tweets were so extreme as to call his professionalism into question.  

For the record, I don’t see anything in Salaita’s tweets that I would consider disqualifying.  I’ve certainly heard and read worse.  And I think he had warrant to take the offer as an offer, based on longstanding practice; legally, I think he has a strong claim on “promissory estoppel.”  But those are contingencies of the particular case.  The lesson for those of us in administration elsewhere is that divided and ambiguous authority is an accident waiting to happen.

The ambiguities are several, starting with the timeline of the UI hiring process.  If the Board wants to have substantive input, instead of essentially delegating hiring to the administration, then it needs to have that input with some lead time.  Reports have indicated that people have started teaching at UI weeks before they were ever formally “approved” by the Board.  If the Board is willing to delegate that function, then timing doesn’t matter.  If it isn’t willing to delegate, then it needs to be timely.  Refusing either to delegate or to get around to it promptly can only lead to disaster.

Issues like that are surprisingly common in higher ed.  We have multiple traditions in which it’s generally understood that x makes the decision, even if x is officially only advisory to y, who has the actual, legal authority to make the decision.  It works until x and y disagree strongly enough that y is unwilling to defer to x.  At that point, typically, x becomes indignant and starts claiming that y is overstepping; y responds by saying that it was y’s right all along.  Depending on where you start, they’re both right.  Generally, neither side really wants to push too hard; x knows that, when push comes to shove, its power depends on y’s allowing it.  And y knows that the cost of alienating x is often much higher than the cost of abiding a distasteful choice.  Both know, too, that the public would find the whole thing bizarre, and neither wants to involve legislators in what had been internal processes.  

In the Salaita case, read “x” as the administration and ‘y” as the Board (or, more accurately, the Chancellor’s perception of the Board).  If you believe that the Board’s authority was effectively delegated, then the offer was inappropriately rescinded.  If you believe that the Board retained the right to make the final call, then there was no offer to rescind.  

The argument that Salaita’s academic freedom was violated rests on the assumption that an offer was rescinded.  But that presumes that the offer existed, which is to say, that the Board had no authority to do what it did.  If it had the authority, then no offer existed in the first place.  In the absence of an offer, it was within its rights to change direction for any reason at all.

That may sound persnickety, but it matters.  I’m guessing it’s why many of my administrative colleagues have maintained a careful silence in this case.  Deciding not to offer someone a job is meaningfully different than rescinding an offer previously made.  We do the former all the time, because we have to.  For any given faculty position, we typically get anywhere from ten to a couple hundred applications.  Assume that half meet the qualifications for the position.  In the case of a popular discipline, that means saying “yes” to one person out of a hundred or more qualified applicants.  Did turning down the others violate their academic freedom?

Of course not.  The alternative would make the doctrine so expansive as to be meaningless.

From the perspective of the applicant, that distinction may seem trivial.  But it isn’t.  Otherwise, anyone who didn’t get an offer after applying for a job would have grounds to sue.  Legislators would let that happen for about ten minutes before imposing a blunt and unhelpful solution.

I suspect that much of the anxiety around the case isn’t as much about academic freedom per se as it is about the academic job market.  That’s understandable -- the academic job market has been terrible for a long time -- but it’s really a separate issue.  The University of Illinois is not single-handedly responsible for the job market.  But it is responsible for untenably ambiguous lines of internal authority.  And to the extent that someone used that ambiguity as a loophole to squash someone strictly for his politics, then yes, it’s guilty of violating academic freedom.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Demography and Destiny

Does an aging population doom institutions that mostly serve the young?

In New England, this is not an entirely theoretical question.  The New England Journal of Higher Education just published a piece by Peter Francese that makes a compelling argument to the effect that K-12 and higher education in New England will be fighting some severe and inexorable demographic trends in the coming years.  Simply put, the proportion of student-aged people will shrink, and the proportion of retirement-aged people will increase.  Absent some unforeseen cataclysm, these trends are pretty much baked into the cake.  Our responses to them are not.

First, the usual caveats.  These trends probably won’t have much effect on the elite private universities that draw students from around the country or the world; I don’t imagine the folks at Harvard or MIT worry much about this, except to the extent that they publish it.  For various historical reasons, New England has an unusually robust set of elite, private colleges and universities that tend to draw most of the journalistic focus.  But the state and community colleges here, as elsewhere, mostly draw on the local population.  

(I should also add that Boston is an outlier in New England.  It’s affluent, young, hip, and growing.  Many of these trends won’t hold there.  But most of the region is not Boston, just as most of the Northeast isn’t Brooklyn.  Someday, I hope, journalists will figure that out.)

In a perfect world, aging demographics would actually help.  Fewer students per taxpayer could mean more support per student.  In the right political climate, that could (and can) happen. But the politics don’t usually work that way.

Francese’s piece makes the point, correctly, that local debates around school budgets often become baldly generational, with outcomes hinging on whether more parents or more seniors turn out to vote.  Although Francese’s analysis is confined to New England, I saw the same dynamic when I lived in New Jersey, which also features an aging population and high property taxes.  Different school districts handled it in different ways.  My favorite was the way that Somerville (NJ) handled it: it had the school elections on the same day as the science fair.  Parents would show up for the science fair, and then vote on the other side of the gym.  Turnout is turnout, after all.

The other piece of the puzzle is commercial development.  Commercial properties pay local taxes that help offset what residents would otherwise pay.  (Part of the reason that Agawam has a relatively low tax rate for the area is that SIx Flags is here.  All those roller coasters require land, on which taxes must be paid.)  To the extent that cities or towns forego future tax revenues in the name of “incentives,” residents pick up the slack. The argument for incentives is that in the long run, they’re worth the short-term cost-shift; whether that’s true or not, the short-term sacrifice of tax revenues is real. That kind of cost-shifting drives up residential taxes faster than it drives up public spending, but most voters don’t make the distinction.  In higher education, we’re well acquainted with cost-shifting from states to students, and the pushback that tuition increases and loan balances engender.  Much the same thing happens with voters who see taxes going up even as services stagnate; the underlying cost-shift is invisible, making room for other, more nefarious explanations.  

And then, of course, there’s race.  Older generations are significantly “whiter” than younger ones.  There’s considerable evidence for the theory that voters are more likely to support services for people they perceive as “like them” than for “others.”  That’s not unique to New England, of course, but it’s very much part of the picture.  And absent countervailing trends to overpower it, it can tip the balance.

Colleges and universities have more options, generally, than K-12.  Most obviously, community and state colleges can -- and do -- appeal to students beyond the traditional age.  That usually means higher, as in working adults and returning veterans, but it can also mean lower, as in dual enrollment and working with homeschoolers.  Expanding constituencies necessarily entails rethinking much of how we operate, whether that means looking at the semester-based calendar, the time-based degree, or the programmatic mix.  That’s hard to do when resources are scarce and tied to “performance” on set metrics.  Most innovations take a while to pay for themselves; without slack in the system, it’s easy to write off innovations as too risky.  

I don’t believe in fatalism, and I don’t think we’re doomed.  But I do think we need to start making changes on a level that we haven’t yet.  Demographics may not dictate an outcome, but they set some pretty unforgiving parameters.  Those of us who care about public higher education need to come to grips with them, and quickly.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Friday Fragments

What hath testing wrought?  TW and I attended parents’ night at The Girl’s school on Wednesday.  She’s in the fifth grade this year, which means she’s in a new school.  TB went through that school a few years ago, so we sort of know the drill, but the principal changed since then.  We went, because that’s what we do.

We heard plenty of talk about extra help for math, extra help for reading, discipline, homework, the online system (“edline”) that parents can use to keep up with their kids’ grades, what to have the kids wear for phys ed, the ubiquity of peanut allergies, and even the replacement of carpeting with tile.  What we didn’t hear a single word about, until TW specifically asked, was enrichment.  It was, literally, an afterthought.

What gets measured gets valued.  Schools aren’t judged on their high-achieving students; they’re judged on how many clear the bar of adequacy.  The kids who are likely to succeed are largely left to their own devices.  

I don’t begrudge extra help to the kids who need it.  I’d just like some recognition that high-achieving kids have valid needs, too.


Generation X parenthood in one evening: family dinner, two-hour First Tech Challenge meeting, write blog post, DVR the Replacements on Fallon.


By popular demand, the following is TW’s account of the successful conclusion of the Search for Sally:

After spending all weekend in Granby, CT hanging posters/flyers and talking to people, I woke up Monday morning expecting to do more of the same. Then we got an early call that Sally had been seen on Charles Johnson Rd in Southwick, so my plans for the day were turned upside down. Off to Southwick I went, but I had done this wild chase so many times before in the last 2 weeks that I knew not to get my hopes up. By the time I got there, she would be long gone. Still, it was a beautiful day and I told myself to just be peaceful and accept whatever happened.

I met Luann B. on CJ Rd and she had talked to a neighbor who spotted Sally later in the morning on that same street. Luann had set up the trap (cage) in the yard of a vacant house at the end of the road. We were working on the advice of Nicole Asher from Buddha Dog Rescue & Recovery. Luann took off to get 2 rotisserie chickens for the trap, and Nicole told me to just sit and be peaceful and maybe Sally would catch my scent.

It turns out that down the street lived a pet rescuer and she miraculously had bacon (bacon is not a staple in our house, so I'm always surprised when someone has it in theirs). She cooked a pound and we threw pieces on the ground and into the trap with the chicken. I hope I never have use my bare fingers to dig and tear through a hot rotisserie chicken ever again.

Nicole arrived and we split up to hang posters/flyers. Nicole and I returned to the trap mid-afternoon. No Sally. We decided to clear the area and park at the end of the street. No sooner had I left, then Nicole called and whispered that Sally was near the trap at that moment. I couldn't believe it! As Nicole was climbing into her car, Sally had come trotting out from the tree line towards her. As soon as she smelled the bacon and chicken, her nose went to the ground like a magnet.

Nicole gave me a whispered play-by-play, "She's near the trap...she's stretching into the trap...she's halfway in....halfway in....she's all the way in.....$%^&!"

The triggering mechanism did not work. Sally walked out of the trap.

A few minutes later, she walked back into the trap. The mechanism STILL did not trigger the door! Sally was busy eating the chicken at the back of the cage. Nicole quietly came up from behind and just as she was going to bring her arm down hard on the door to close it, the trigger sprung and the door slammed shut. Nicole called me and told me to come up and get my dog. Tears of joy!!!

Sally was VERY excited to see me! She yipped and barked and wagged her tail. We loaded the cage into my car and took off for the vets'.

Sally lost 5 lbs during the whole ordeal (hey, I did, too, but nobody's making as big a deal over it!). She was so exhausted Monday night and Tuesday, but she is much more herself today. I do feel bad over how skinny she is, and I can tell her muscles are sore because she has a little trouble standing. But she is a survivor and will bounce back quickly.

Was it my decision to peacefully accept whatever the day brought? Was it the fact that a pet rescuer lives on the street and had bacon? Was it a sign when the UPS truck came up the quiet street as I was sitting alone, peacefully, in the sun (Sally HATES the UPS truck and I half-expected to see her chasing it)? Was it a sign that I had told someone earlier, "it's a beautiful day to catch that damn dog"? Did all these things - and more - work together to bring Sally back to us on this particular day? I don't know, but I like to think so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Spikes, Stacks, and Spaces

What should a campus library look like when enrollments are moving increasingly online?

I’m old enough to remember when college libraries were all about books, microfilm, and microfiche.  (Anyone who worked with microfiche will be immune to talk of the “good old days.”)  Over time, the emphasis on paper volumes -- whether books or periodicals -- has gradually receded, in favor of access to all sorts of electronic databases and resources.   That’s particularly true, my layman’s eye tells me, in the area of reference materials.  I haven’t seen the Big Wall of Encyclopedias in a while, and I’m not sure such a thing would even make sense anymore.

Simplistically, one would expect the shift to more online enrollments and more electronic materials to mean that increasing fractions of library space could be repurposed.  After all, if students are logging on from home, they’re using their own space.  If the physical footprint of the “stacks” is shrinking, the recovered square footage could be used for something else.

But it doesn’t seem to play out that way.

Instead, students seem to have greater expectations of libraries-as-physical-spaces than they have in the past.  But the nature of the expectation has changed.

(I should clarify that I’m writing about commuter campuses.  Residential campuses may see these issues play out very differently.)

Tom Friedman and Richard Florida have famously sparred over the spatial implications of the internet.  Friedman made his name arguing that “the world is flat,” since production can theoretically happen anywhere someone has internet access.  Florida has countered -- convincingly, in my view -- that in fact, the new industries and new wealth are geographically concentrated to a greater degree than the industries they succeeded.  (He calls the world “spiky,” rather than flat.) The reasons are many and complicated, and subject to debate, but the underlying trend is pretty clear.  Technologies that would seem to make spaces irrelevant have actually made them matter much more.

In a much less dramatic way, that’s what’s happening with campus libraries.  The library as space is becoming more important, even as students are able to log on to databases from wherever.  

It could be read as a paradox, or it could be read as a sort of specialization.  Instead of the physical space of the library serving multiple purposes, each of them only so well, it can focus on fewer and do them better.  By freeing up physical space that used to be devoted to, say, periodicals, we’ve been able to create new dedicated study spaces.  One is for group study, complete with computers that share multiple keyboards.  Another is decidedly low-tech, with a focus on quiet individual study.  That one has been gratifyingly popular.  Sometimes you just need the basics: student, table, chair, lamp, book.  It’s an old formula, but it still works.

Databases can be accessed from wherever.  But if a student has an hour or two between classes and some work to do, library-as-place serves a function that only it can.  

A few years ago, if you had asked, I would have envisioned the future directions of libraries as full of screens.  Now, I see it as full of students, some with screens, but many without.  And I’m happy to have been proven wrong.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014



The Chronicle got one right.  It outlined yesterday some discontent among sociologists at the cost of attending the American Sociological Association annual conference.  If you don’t live in or near the host city, the combination of registration, airfare, hotel, and food can easy run over two thousand dollars for a single conference.  And the ASA isn’t unique in that.  If anything, it’s fairly typical.  

If you’re independently wealthy, or extremely well paid, or you happen to work in a setting with ample travel budgets, then the cost doesn’t matter much.  But if you’re like the vast majority of working academics, the cost is severe.  Many institutions have relatively meager travel allowances, if any at all, and travel is usually the first thing to cut when budgets are tight.

The cost functions as a filter, screening out the non-elites and ensuring a deeply skewed representation of the discipline.  The questions that get attention are the ones considered important by the people who work in large departments and who have the luxury of specializing.  The folks who teach slates of intro courses year after year struggle to attend, and often, don’t.  Their questions go unasked, or get answered for them by people who don’t face the same institutional realities they do.

But it’s a difficult problem to fix.

In the short term, travel is a reasonable target for cuts.  In most community college settings, full-time faculty do not have a publication requirement for tenure or promotion.  (That’s why I get twitchy whenever I read that the path to acceptance of digital humanities, or OER, or whatever, involves tweaking tenure processes to give as many points for them as for traditional research.  We don’t give points for traditional research.  The suggestion carries with it an assumed institutional background that erases my own.)  Most of the budget is labor, which means that most budget cuts would require firing (or not replacing) people.  

Conference travel isn’t like that.  The short-term cost of cutting it is diffuse.  And grants are often more likely to fund travel than they are to fund, say, instruction, which means that it’s easier to make up cuts to travel than cuts to instruction.

Still, something real is lost -- to the faculty, the college, and the discipline -- when faculty are kept away from broader discussions for too long.  

I’ll offer a few suggestions, and then look to my wise and worldly readers for more.

The simplest, and least difficult, change would be for conferences to DROP THE CHARADE OF THE LAST HALF DAY.  That last half day requires another entire night of hotel stay, and rarely accomplishes much of anything.  Panels are lightly attended, because people are catching flights.  The net cost of the last half day far outweighs any real gain from it.  Reducing the length of the conference by a night/day would reduce the rental cost for the association (and therefore the registration fees for attendees), and the room charges for the attendees.  This should be a no-brainer.

Making regional conferences more relevant could also help.  Perhaps scheduling all of them on the same two or three days, with live video hookups among them, could get around some of the issues of provincialism.  Getting Twitter cross-chat among the regions could make for some lively discussion, and the infrastructure is already there.  It would probably involve having the national organization take a more directive role relative to the regional ones, but that strikes me as solvable.

Philanthropy could also play a more intentional role here.  If academic conference travel matters as much as some of us think it does, we should make the case to prospective donors.  Donors who want, say, community college faculty to be able to keep up with their fields could make significant differences relatively cheaply.  

Or, we could just keep booking three hundred dollar a night hotels in expensive cities, and lamenting the nearly complete absence of the folks who work at teaching institutions.

Wise and worldly readers, short of a visit from the money fairy, is there a better way to handle conference travel?

Monday, September 08, 2014


The Largest Major at Community Colleges

I’ll get to the responsible, adult part of the blog shortly.  But first a giddy update: The Dog is home!!!! (Insert mental pic of me doing the Snoopy dance.)  We had some wonderful volunteer helpers who helped us get the word out and used reported sightings to triangulate the best spot for a trap.  Now she’s home!  And she has a GPS collar in her future.

Okay, on to the responsible adult stuff…


Quick: what’s the single most popular major at community colleges in the United States?

Liberal arts.

That was true at my last college, but I initially attributed that to a fluke of demographics: Morris County, NJ, is a very affluent area, so I assumed that the transfer orientation was largely a focus on money.  But when I came to Holyoke -- the lowest-income city in Massachusetts -- the same was true here, too.  Now it comes out that the same is true nationally.  It’s not just local demographics.

I mention this because it’s almost entirely absent from national discussions of higher education.  In the popular press, “liberal arts” are assumed to be the exclusive province of the affluent, particularly at older small colleges that are full of people who use words like “problematize.”  (I attended one myself, so I know whereof I write.)  When higher ed policy types talk about liberal arts, they usually have in mind literature majors at places like Sarah Lawrence.  Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s only a part of the picture.

The traditional arts and sciences are much larger parts of the community college world than is generally acknowledged.  Some of that has to do with the overlap between “general education” requirements and the liberal arts, of course.  But some of it has to do with preparation for transfer, for which the liberal arts major is specifically built.  The student who wants to go on for a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field is typically well-advised to take a liberal arts focus while at the community college.  Those courses transfer cleanly -- I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone shooting down Intro to Psych, for example -- and they’re much less expensive here.

For all of that, though, most of the political discussion around community colleges centers on workforce development, and most of the discussion around liberal arts ignores community colleges entirely.  

That’s a missed opportunity.  I’ve made the former point repeatedly, so here I’ll focus on the latter.  

If you take the original meaning of “liberal arts” as the “arts of liberty,” then community college students should be the first focus, rather than an afterthought.  In the aggregate, these are the students who have the most to gain from a serious education.  They’re the most trapped by economics, and frequently, the students with the least prior social capital.  If you believe, as I do, that the ability to think broadly about questions of ethics and economics and politics can come in handy from all different parts of society, then it would make sense to focus especially on teaching those intro courses well at the colleges that have the students who most need them.

So far, that mostly hasn’t happened.  Maybe it’s time to start.

Sunday, September 07, 2014


60 Divided by 12 Equals…

What’s a full-time student?

The Community College Research Center, of which I am a fan, issued a new report called “Redefining Full-Time in College,” by Serena Klempin.  It’s an overview of the various strategies that different colleges and universities have used to encourage students to take fifteen or more credits per semester, rather than twelve.  (Alternately, some have nudged students towards thirty or more per year by using summer and January terms to supplement semesters.)  The concept is based on a simple but important arithmetical mismatch: the Feds and most colleges define ‘full-time’ as 12 credits, but if you take and pass 12 credits per semester, it will take you five semesters to earn a two year degree, or five years to earn a four-year degree.

In other words, “full-time” on a semester basis is less than “full-time” for normative completion.  

Naturally, the disconnect leads to issues.

When you combine a miscalculation of “full-time” with some developmental courses and maybe a stopout for life events, then a graduate shows up in our “performance” numbers as attrition.  From the student’s perspective, the disconnect is a sort of slow-motion sense of betrayal.  If I took a full-time schedule and passed everything, a student might well ask, why is it taking longer than it’s supposed to?

The study is well worth reading, though it’s inconclusive, particularly from a community college perspective.  

It’s possible, for example, to set up tuition and pricing to encourage heavier courseloads.  When I was at DeVry, tuition was per-credit up to twelve, and then free up to sixteen.  That “free” fifth course was an incentive for the student to load up on classes.  As Klempin correctly points out, though, “plateau pricing” is vulnerable to a charge of favoring students who are already relatively advantaged anyway.  Students whose work and life commitments make heavier courseloads impossible won’t benefit from such schemes, and to the extent that they require raising prices on the “first” twelve credits, could conceivably be hurt by them.  The students who are likeliest to benefit are those whose work and life schedules are clear enough to allow heavy courseloads.  In the real world, that group skews more affluent than other students.

I suspect that for students with more demanding external commitments, we’d get better results by allowing a more even schedule across a twelve-month year.  Breaking the year into more and smaller bits, with fewer courses at any one time, can still speed completion; this is the “30 credit year” model, as opposed to the “15 credit semester” model.  Nine credits in Fall, three in January, nine in Spring, and nine in Summer will get you to 30 in a year, without ever having a wildly heavy semester.  (Of course, if you go with a competency-based model, you could get around credits altogether.)  This approach works better with year-round jobs and year-round parenting.  But it doesn’t work terribly well with financial aid, which is still largely based on the traditional academic year.  Year-round Pell came and went too quickly for its potential impact to be realized.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective institutional “nudge” towards heavier courseloads that didn’t just favor the already favored?  Is there an easier way?

Thursday, September 04, 2014


Friday Fragments

Maybe it’s me, but this story seems obvious.  Colleges with distinctive niches, whether demographic or academic, will punch above their weight in terms of applications.  If you’re the most prominent campus in your region for a given denomination, or program, then you have an automatic “in” with a given set of prospective students.  Maybe you can’t compete with Harvard across the board, but you can offer something Harvard can’t.  

Community colleges are based on the opposite model.  They’re mostly “comprehensive,” which typically implies covering both transfer-focused and workforce-focused programs.  (I’m not a huge fan of that division; it strikes me as largely outdated.  But it’s the coin of the realm.)  As far as I know, most states haven’t looked closely at having different community college campuses specialize to any great degree.  That’s rooted mostly in the idea of geographic access, which remains more relevant than one might expect.  But to the extent that public higher ed becomes more tuition-driven, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it start to embrace specialization more aggressively.  It’s a way to punch above your weight.


Libby Nelson defends the honor of her generation.  Well worth a read.


This is uncomfortable, but I think it’s true.  Over the past couple of weeks I’ve approached people at home at night, asking if I could leave traps or run through their yards to recover my dog.  (It was at night because that was when the sighting reports came in, and when I wasn’t at work..)  People have been remarkably generous, often going beyond giving permission and actively helping.  In my undergrad days I did some door-to-door canvassing for various environmental groups, so I’m familiar with the skeptical look and the slammed door.  In this case, when they see the flyer and understand what I’m doing, I haven’t seen any of that.  People have been great.

The uncomfortable part came to me as I was reading my Twitter feed.  Some very smart people I take seriously have been writing some thought-provoking stuff about what Ferguson teaches us about American culture, and I started to wonder.  Has part of the generosity of reception been a function of being white?

I don’t mean to impugn anyone who has helped.  That’s not the point at all.  But I can’t help but wonder if a black man in the same situation and location would get the same reception.  I’d like to think so, but I can’t say with a straight face that it’s a given.  “Balding middle-aged white guy in polo shirt, khaki shorts, and boat shoes” elicits a different visceral reaction on the porch at night.  I’ve gone to local police stations without giving a second thought, assuming -- correctly -- that they’d be sympathetic and helpful.  And they have been.  Some people have really gone above and beyond, devoting many hours to chasing a dog they’ve never met.  I’m grateful to every single one of them.  And I really hope that these misgivings are misplaced.

The difficulty in addressing racial privilege, in many ways, is that it’s often invisible when you’re in the middle of it.  I didn’t go out as some sort of sociological experiment; I went out to find my dog.  When I knock on doors, I try to look as non-threatening as possible.  I just happen to have a head start on that with some people, for unearned reasons.  To make matters murkier, it’s impossible to test the counterfactual directly.  Maybe I’m overreading.  But somehow, I doubt it.

I’m writing this down not to inflame the usual wars on the interwebs -- I have no appetite for that at all, and I salute the brave souls who endure more hostility in a week than I do in a year -- but to remind myself to tell the kids about it when they’re older.  It’s not about “guilt,” exactly; I have no guilt about trying to find my dog.  It’s about taking that extra moment to stand back and notice.  And then taking some extra moments to nudge positive change, somehow.  At some level, I have to believe that starts by acknowledging reality, even when it’s uncomfortable.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Getting Started

The first week of classes is under way, which means that students are getting their first exposure to new professors and new courses.  In many cases, they’re getting their first exposure to college classes, period.

Last night on the drive back from yet another unsuccessful search-and-rescue mission for The Dog in Granby, CT, the kids were speculating about their imminent first day of the new school year.  They opined with great confidence that teachers won’t make them work very hard for the first few days, since the teachers are still shaking off the rust from the summer and they know the students are just getting acclimated.

In my teaching days, the first day of class was always a good place to try something different.  My favorite was the Gilligan’s Island exercise, which I used for Intro to Poli Sci.  I’d break the students into groups of six or so, and tell them that they had been passengers on a plane along with about 200 other people of various ages, races, backgrounds, and the like.  The plane crashed on a deserted, but fairly lush, island.  For the sake of argument, they knew -- doesn’t matter how -- that they weren’t going anywhere for a long time.  While the rest of the passengers were out gathering food and building shelters, they had been delegated to come up with ground rules that everybody could live by.  Then they had most of the period to come up with the rules.  

(This was back before the “Lost” series, which may have spoiled it.  When the show named two of its characters “John Locke” and “Jeremy Bentham,” I knew they were thinking the same way.)

Typically, the students would assume that the exercise would be easy and they could leave early.  Then the arguments would start.  They quickly discovered that one person’s sense of obvious rightness conflicted with somebody else’s, and that total victory for either one was not an option.  Suddenly we had politics in our midst, and the class was off and running. The exercise would become a reference point for the rest of the semester.

Other openings were less successful.   The “first day walk through the syllabus” always felt hollow and pedantic.  And with the length of syllabi now, it would probably require a double period.  First day lectures at least offered the possibility of feeling useful, but I didn’t want to set the precedent that they didn’t have to read.  

Wise and worldly readers, what was/is your favorite first day of class activity?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Lessons from a Missing Dog

Our Fall semester started this week.  I don’t get to address the incoming students at the beginning of the year.  This year, if I did, it would probably go like this:

The Dog has been missing for over a week.  She broke free when I was trying to drop her off at a kennel before a weekend trip that ended up not happening; she has since been seen mostly in the Southwick, MA and Granby, CT areas.  We’ve been distributing flyers, working Facebook and Twitter, putting up posters, calling animal control offices, setting humane traps, and doing just about everything possible short of actually catching her.

The entire process has been stressful.  We get calls about sightings, which are great, but most of them end with “but when I called her name, she ran away.”  She’s skittish on a good day, and by now I’m sure she’s scared out of her mind.  Worse, the kennel is a good twenty-minute drive from our house, and in unfamiliar territory, so she hasn’t been able to find her way home.  The pattern of sightings doesn’t suggest she knows where she’s going.

In the last ten days, I’ve learned quite a bit about dogs and locations.  Several websites mentioned that lost dogs typically move in circles. (The Dog doesn’t seem to know that, but in her defense, she can’t read.)  Apparently, it’s possible now to attach a doohickey to a dog’s collar that sends a GPS signal.  That’s high on my list for when TD comes home.  And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how helpful most people have been.  

If you had asked me two weeks ago what I would do to find a missing dog, I would have shrugged.  I had no clue; I really never gave it much thought.  TD had never bolted before, and I didn’t think she would.  I have no detective experience, and I don’t think of myself as particularly gifted at that sort of thing.  My sense of direction has been described as “iffy.”  I claim no superior insight into canine psychology.  TD and I have been close for years, but it literally never occurred to me that she would bolt.  You think you know a dog…

Okay, you’re thinking, your dog is lost.  Sorry to hear that.  But what does this have to do with us?

It’s about discovering capacities you didn’t know you had.  

Over the past ten days, The Wife and I have developed strategies, recruited volunteers, worked social networks, tracked sightings, tromped through woods, distributed flyers, put up posters, talked to dozens of random strangers, and worked through a thicket of local police and animal control departments.  We’ve dealt with the kids’ emotional crises and our own, and have sucked it up and gone out to set up yet another trap even when we really didn’t feel like it.  We’ve become reasonably adept dog-hunters in a relatively short time.  We didn’t want to, and we don’t ever want to again, but we did it.  

If we had thought that our dog-hunting capacity two weeks ago was all it could ever be, we would have given up after a few hours.  But we didn’t.  When we had to, we learned quickly what you’re supposed to do when a dog bolts.  We stepped up our game, and even involved the kids in carefully considered ways.  I’m proud of how well the kids have handled the process to this point.  They acknowledge the real fears we all have, but maintain that difficult balance of faith in a good outcome, combined with faith that we can and will handle what happens.  For a thirteen year old and a ten year old, that’s pretty good.  

The ability to find a lost dog isn’t genetic.  It isn’t supernatural, and your dog-hunting IQ isn’t fixed.  If you choose to, you can get much better at it than you are now.  You can put in the effort, do the research, reach out to people who are willing and able to help, and become capable of things that probably haven’t crossed your mind yet.  And if you have the motivation, you can do it quickly.  There’s no guarantee of a happy ending -- TD is still out there somewhere -- but we’re doing things I didn’t know we could.  And I can honestly say we’re trying.

College is like that.  Intelligence is like that.  You don’t have some fixed IQ that can never change any more than I had a fixed ability to look for a lost dog.  You can get better at thinking.  You can train yourself to get, pardon the term, smarter.  You can learn to find “x,” whether “x” is a number, an assumption, or a new way of doing something.  You can learn the sort of quiet resolve you’ll need in that awful first moment when you face a complicated problem and have no immediate idea what to do about it.  You can develop the skills to sort good information from bad, to ask the “second” question that clarifies the first, and to avoid going to pieces when things don’t go according to plan.  You’ll even learn to keep going in the face of failure.  That’s no small thing.

I’d love to report a happy ending to our dog hunt, but I can’t just yet.  For you, endings are a long way off.  I’m here to tell you that if you decide to -- and it’s really up to you -- you could develop abilities you never knew you had.  And someday you can catch your own dog, or whatever it is that you’re chasing.

Happy hunting.

Monday, September 01, 2014


The Accreditation Conundrum

Are accrediting bodies toothless jellyfish, or jackbooted thugs?  

Reading these two articles next to each other, it’s easy to be confused.

The first, by Andrew Kelly, suggests that accreditation agencies amount to the enforcers for a producers’ cartel.  Given that “peer review” underlies regional accreditation, the definition of “peer” matters.  If a new provider comes along that doesn’t resemble its predecessors in important ways, then it’s entirely likely that the “peers” will find a reason to reject it.  But once you’re in the club, it’s remarkably rare to get kicked out.  Kelly notes that institutional eligibility for Title IV financial aid is a binary variable -- yes/no -- so the usefulness of any “in-between” or “warning” findings has to rest on the credibility of the ultimate weapon.  If a college actually believes that the ultimate weapon might be used, then warnings and such may work.  But if nobody seriously believes that the ultimate weapon would actually be used, then anything short of it is merely ceremonial.

Kelly’s position, I think, is that part of the higher education cost spiral can be explained by incumbents engaging in cartel-like behavior, with accrediting agencies acting as the border patrol along the boundaries of the cartel.  We can urge accreditors to be more open-minded, but that would violate their basic reason to exist.  Incumbents protect each other.

Except when they don’t, as in San Francisco.  The San Francisco Examiner noted last week that the California legislature passed unanimously (!) a bill to require the statewide community college accreditor to report directly to the legislature.  The motive was to bring the accreditor to heel, so that it wouldn’t follow through on its threat to shut down CCSF, or make similar threats in the future.  

The California case provides a fascinating counterpoint to Kelly’s thesis.  Whatever position you take on it, CCSF is an incumbent provider.  The ACCJC attempted to shut it down.  CCSF hasn’t been rescued by its fellow incumbents.  It has been rescued by judges and legislators.  The “peers” were prepared to close it; political figures from outside of higher education made sure that didn’t happen.

The “cartel” thesis really struggles to explain CCSF.  CCSF’s tuition, as is true of community colleges generally and California community colleges in extremis, is markedly low.  The indifference to pricing that cartels are supposed to enable didn’t happen in this case.  (To the extent that price increases did happen, they were tied directly to cuts in legislative support.  Even after those increases, though, tuition there is still low.)  And the “peers” were far more willing to be the bad guys than the general public was.

A single counterexample doesn’t necessarily tank a thesis, but it does raise some questions.  If the accrediting agency is really captured by incumbents, why is it giving incumbents a hard time?  Alternately, if it has an anti-incumbent agenda, as some have suggested, why?  If nothing else, the seeming “rogue” status of ACCJC calls into question the idea that peer review is necessarily clubby and insular.  In this case, it seems almost hostile.  The very independence from its sponsors that Kelly sees as an impossible dream strikes the California legislature as a clear and present danger.  

I’m thinking that maybe we should be a little more circumspect about inferring organizational behavior from a simple, preconceived theory.  Yes, peer review can be insular, but it can also be exacting or even vicious.  Yes, accreditors can create barriers to entry, but they can also force a certain honesty on providers who rely on federal financial aid.  (I’ll go farther.  If regional accreditors are such lapdogs, why do most for-profits avoid them in favor of so-called “national” accreditors?  And if regional accreditors are so clubby that nobody can get in, how is it that Phoenix and DeVry did?)  In my neck of the woods, I’ve seen NEASC work positively with SNHU’s competency-based College for America, despite the very real threat that a competency-based degree could pose to incumbents.  In that case, I applaud NEASC for being forward-looking.  That’s exactly what I would hope a group of concerned professionals would be.

So no, I don’t think of regional accreditors as either spineless or jackbooted.  And I’d be wary of any analysis that needs them to be one or the other.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


The Quick and the Deep

As regular readers know, I’ve given California a hard time over the last few years.  Some of its rules around structure and funding of community colleges strike me as perverse, poorly thought out, and doomed to fail.  I stand by those judgments.

But even California is capable of getting one right.  This week it announced the creation of a $50 million “innovation fund” for public higher education.  Apparently, the idea was born as a retreat from a failed effort at a state-driven online entity; policymakers still want to encourage the development and use of online courses, but have come to realize that it’s likelier to work when the faculty and staff on actual campuses are involved in it.  The innovation fund seems to be designed to encourage people on campuses to come up with ideas that have promise, and to help them carry those ideas through to fruition.

This is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.  

Policymakers too rarely take a “laboratories” approach to different campuses.  When you have a single system encompassing many different campuses -- California alone has over a hundred community colleges -- it’s at least theoretically possible to test different interventions alongside each other.   If you’re really ambitious, you might take, say, a half-dozen of them, and test each at multiple locations.  See what works, and let the results tell you the next step.

There’s nothing glamorous about that process, and it doesn’t lend itself to easy political coalition-building because winners and losers aren’t necessarily known in advance.  Little glory attaches to “let’s try stuff!”  

But the potential payoff is great.  For best results, I’d love to see the funds split into two categories: the quick and the deep.  For “quick” innovations, allocate a set amount to each of several colleges and require them to report back on what they did with it.  Don’t wait for the ideas before making the funding available. (You’d need some “thou shalt nots,” for obvious reasons, but they shouldn’t be terribly restrictive.)  For “deep” ones, a more standard competitive RFP process makes sense.  Too often, grants that ostensibly promote innovation require severe amounts of detail upfront, and usually within a very short timeframe.  That method can work reasonably well when the overall concept is predefined.  But if you’re trying to grow new stuff, a certain open-endedness matters.  That doesn’t fit well with the “competitive RFP” approach.

The “quick” approach allows for many eyes on the issue, and for a truly iterative process.  The “deep” approach allows for rigorous testing.  Both matter.

California may have backed into the idea, but it’s a good one anyway.  And it looks like the state is putting enough money on the table to matter.  

I haven’t said this in a while, but for once, California could actually be a national leader.  I’d love to see this wave move East, quickly and deeply.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Timing a Departure

A new correspondent writes:

I have just started a new term at a community college where I've been teaching for a year (this is my third term), but we may be moving out of state before the term ends, and I really don't know how best to handle it. There are two things going on: my husband has been offered a great work opportunity out of state (he is the primary bread-winner), and we have an offer on our house. At the moment, we don't know if we will be able to come to an agreement with the prospective buyers, and if we don't, I don't plan to say anything to the college, as we would then be here indefinitely, until we do sell the house (very slow market). If we do get the house in escrow, that still doesn't mean we will end up leaving, as houses in this market fall out of escrow for any number of reasons. My husband, therefore, thinks I should wait until we are closer to closing for me to notify the college that I am leaving. However, I feel that it will be a real hardship for the college, as they will probably find it difficult to get someone to fill in for the last two months of the term I would miss. I, therefore, feel that I should let them know as soon as it looks like we have a deal. The downside of doing that, of course, is that if our house falls out of escrow, I won't have a job. They already have two classes lined up for me for next term, as well, so I would be giving up all of that. Either way, I'm pretty sure the college is going to be furious with me, and I certainly feel bad about it. There is a remote possibility that I could find a place to stay with a friend or something and finish out the term, but that would make things very difficult for my husband, as we have farm animals who are my day-to-day responsibility. I would certainly appreciate hearing from you or anyone else who might want to chime in on this situation. I hate the idea of ditching my students in the midst of the term, and I hate the idea of causing difficulty for the school, but I'm not sure what I can best do in this scenario

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many variables in play.  I’d start by winnowing them down based on what you actually know.

You have an offer on the house, but you haven’t closed the sale.  That means that there’s no guarantee that the house will actually sell, nor is there any guarantee about when.  You refer to having two months left in the term when you move, but you don’t actually know that; maybe it’ll be two months, maybe three, maybe one, or maybe the sale won’t happen.  

As the seller, you have some control over timing.  You could make the sale in October with a move-out date in December, if the buyer is willing.  You could sell and rent it back for a month or two.  That’s contingent on a willing buyer, obviously, but it can’t hurt to ask.  It might be worth sacrificing a little on the price to get control of the move-out date.  It’s still cheaper than renting, and you could time the move to the gap between semesters.

If your buyer balks at those and wants to move in quickly, and you’re intent on selling, then you hit the ethical questions of when to leave and when to tell.  It sounds like you aren’t confident that you have the kind of relationships with local admins that you’d feel confident telling them about your situation and trusting them not to react badly.  That’s a shame, but it happens.  Certainly don’t give notice until you actually know you’re leaving; if you believe that even the prospect of leaving will be held against you, you’re within your rights to guard that, too.  

Students are another matter.  Whatever you may or may not think of local administration, I’d argue that you have an obligation to the students.  If you believe that a mid-semester departure is plausible, I’d advise constructing the syllabus to minimize the potential damage.  Are there elements of the latter part of the course that could be done online?  If so, maybe you could minimize your trips to campus during the second half of the term. You probably couldn’t eliminate them altogether, but you could get them down to a briefly manageable level.  

In any event, I think it’s unlikely that you’d only have a couple of days’ notice.  If you have at least a couple of weeks, that should give time for folks to scramble for coverage.  It’s not ideal -- I’d expect some people to be annoyed, and reasonably so -- but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Whatever you do, though, own it.  Don’t try sneaking out in the dead of night, leaving students and colleagues abruptly marooned mid-semester.  Once you have solid dates, assuming you do, tell people.  Until then, it’s not their business.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way to handle the possibility of a mid-semester departure?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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