Monday, October 31, 2005


Ask the Administrator: Helicopter Parents

One of my favorite fellow bloggers sent in a good one:

Do you think it is acceptable at any point for parents to step in during a kid's college career?

I'm not talking about "the loan check hasn't cleared and I just lost my job, please don't kick my kid out of school," but more along the lines of "I don't think my kid should have got a C- in Spanish, what are you going to do about it?"

I'm very picky about this issue. I think the kid needs to learn responsibility, so the kid needs to deal with the issues. Parents should not be driving up from West Nowhere to register the kid's car or to help the kid drop a course. I don't even like it when I'm working at a college recruitment or orientation event and the parent asks all the questions. "We're interested in philosophy." Who's WE? I also think college parents' associations are a terrible idea. The kids are the ones who have to eat the food, take the classes, live in the dorms. If they don't like it, they should act on it.

The other side of this argument is that as long as the parents are paying the tuition bill, they should have as much say in where their money goes as they like. I see the point in this argument, but I don't know how I feel about it.

What are your thoughts on the issue?

I’d have to make a distinction between ‘macro’ issues, like cost (and please use actual cost, not tuition!) and whether to go to college at all, and ‘micro’ issues, like grading. On the macro issues, parental involvement is a fact of life, and it can be either positive or negative. I’ve learned over the years that different ethnic groups handle college decisions differently; in some recent immigrant cultures, you don’t ‘go away’ to college; the family sends you to college, contingent on it making sense for the family. If the family needs you to drop out, you drop out. In my family, that would be unthinkable, but it’s a defensible cultural choice.

On the micro issues, though, I strongly believe that professors should be allowed to do their jobs, without having to endure undue parental carping. In other words, once they commit to send Johnny to college, dealing with college is Johnny’s problem.

I got a doctorate in an academic discipline after years of hard work and sacrifice. I have taught at multiple institutions, both public and private. I’ve been published in my field, and have received an award at my discipline’s national conference. All of this is to say that I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes a ‘C,’ as opposed to a ‘B,’ in the intro to my discipline. I take my work seriously, and would ask only to be allowed to do it. (And I take it as a point of decanal pride that I have never, not once, not ever, changed a professor’s grade.)

The metaphor I’ve used with both parents and students over the years has been batting. Your tuition guarantees you an at-bat; if you strike out, that’s your problem. If that’s too male or American, any sort of ‘audition’ metaphor should work.

(Sometimes they get indignant and start yelling “I pay your salary!” The best response I’ve heard to that, which I’ve taken to using, is “that’s you? I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that…”)

Honestly, I’ve grown to love FERPA. For my Canadian readers (what’s up, eh?), FERPA is an American privacy law that forbids a teacher or academic administrator from discussing a student’s grades with anyone except the student, assuming the student is at least 18. That includes parents. Technically, a student can sign a FERPA waiver (which we keep in the dean of students’ office), but very few do. So when the parents come in all upset, I cut them off with “I can’t continue this conversation without a signed FERPA waiver from the student on file at the Dean of Students’ office. So sorry. Federal law, you know.” It’s very rare that they ever return.

(Exception: truly egregious misconduct, like stalking or assault. I've had to deal with those twice, and they're no fun at all.)

In my experience, the few times I’ve actually had people follow through with FERPA waivers, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that the real issue was the student either not showing up for class at all, or not bothering to do any of the work. I’ve seen parents turn on their kids, in my office. It’s not pretty, but it happens.

Helicopter parents (so-called because they’re always hovering) make it tough for the kid to learn to deal, which is, in some ways, one of the most important lessons we teach. I crashed and burned when I took Russian in college; slogging through that hellish nightmare was a growth experience for me, albeit a painful one. Had Mom simply placed a call and made it all go away in the first month, I don’t know that I would have developed quite as thick a skin.

I say this was great confidence, since The Boy is four. If he were 19, I might have a more nuanced view. Any thoughts from the parents of college students out there?

Friday, October 28, 2005


Ask the Administrator: How Faculty Look From Here

In response to the open call for questions, two correspondents asked variations on how faculty look from the dean’s office.

One asked specifically about the need for ‘face time’ with the dean. Should a professor coming up for tenure, or angling for some goodie, make the effort to put in ‘face time’?*

I hate to be squirmy, but it depends on the institutional culture of your college, and the personal quirks of your dean. At my previous school, face time was almost a fetish. Oddly, the way it counted was the number of hours per day you were conspicuously on campus, but only after 9:00 a.m. Early arrival didn’t get you any points, but early departure certainly cost you some. I found it disheartening and vaguely sick, but it was pretty entrenched.

At my current school, we’ve had a recent change. Under a previous regime, face time was an unwritten requirement for tenure. Under the current regime, it isn’t. (I’m much happier with the current one, btw. I find suck-ups creepy, and the old system definitely rewarded vertical attention. Under the new system, I can actually get some work done.) As a card-carrying introvert, I find the ‘face time’ requirement perverse, but not everybody shares that preference.

(That particular correspondent worked at a research university, so I really have to plead ignorance of how this particular issue plays out in that setting. Anyone in the blogosphere have any thoughts on that?)

The second asked an interesting variation. She took up my challenge to dodge the draft and volunteer for administrative assignments as a way to gain valuable professional experience. Her dean referred her to the academic vp, which is already a great sign. Now she wants to know what she can ask for, in terms of goodies, while volunteering for extra work.

This is one of the rare times in which it might actually pay to put your cards on the table. If you just go in with “I’ve got a business proposition for you,” you risk the old glazed expression and roll of the eyes. Instead, go in with something along the lines of “I’m interested in working on my professional development in the ‘service’ area, and I’ve got some ideas on how to do that in ways that could help the college.” Then make your pitch, and ask for whatever goodie (course release, probably) you would need to make doing a good job possible. The first time out, you may have to compromise some on the goodie – if you’re willing to take the long view, I say, be willing to bargain down the first time.

The advantage of this approach, besides its honesty, is that it changes the way your proposal will be viewed (assuming your vp isn’t a complete idiot). Instead of coming off as “I’m trying to dodge teaching” or “I’m trying to con you,” you come off as someone who could be the go-to person in the near future for the next assignment. And there will always be a next assignment. That kind of respect has a way of paying off professionally in the long run, even if it seems to make little difference in the very short term. Go-to people have a funny way of climbing fast.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

* Per yesterday’s entry, ‘face time’ with students, in the form of actually showing up for your assigned classes, is absolutely mandatory. I mean, sheesh.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Showing Up

What do you do, as an administrator, when (you have good reason to believe) a tenured professor regularly fails to show up for class?

I have to confront this issue, and I’m not liking my options. One option, of course, is to get a copy of the professor’s schedule, stand outside the appropriate classrooms at the appropriate times with a clipboard and a stopwatch, and take notes. But I don’t want to do that. The union would accuse me of singling this professor out, which would be true to the extent that I haven’t made a habit of doing that for others (and have no plans to). I’d look ridiculous, the example would be toxic, and it’s not like I don’t have other things to do. Even if I got good data, I wouldn’t have anything to compare it to, since many classes run at the same hour and I can only be in one place at a time.

Students (or students’ parents) sometimes report it, but they frequently don’t. The temptation to coast is simply too powerful for most to resist. (This wouldn’t have happened at my previous school – there, students would have (did) stormed my office, demanding immediate refunds. Different culture.)

I asked the department chair if the reports I’ve been receiving are true – he didn’t know, and he hasn’t been able to ask the professor in question due to her/his frequent absences. A classic catch-22: if you never show up, you can’t get busted.

In the business world, the answer would be easy: give the AWOL employee walking papers, and hire someone who actually wants the job. Tenure defeats that strategy, even though I know there are plenty of adjuncts out there who would give relatively important body parts for a job like this. Between tenure and the faculty union, any discipline beyond the informal ‘cut the crap’ is incredibly costly and difficult.

As with most low performers, this one knows the faculty contract forward and backward.

Any ideas out there? I’m actually losing sleep over this.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Ask the Administrator: The Curse of Meetings

In response to a call for questions, I got two variations on the same question. The variations were:

1. Why are there so many &*#()@) meetings?

2. What’s in it for me to do a good job at these meetings, if I don’t want to move to admin?

The quick answers are, respectively:

1. Faculty governance/shared governance/consensus

2. Intrinsic rewards!

Oscar Wilde once said that he would have been a socialist, but he liked to keep his evenings free. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon with faculty. They want input into key decisions, but they don’t want to be bothered with meetings. How, exactly, that’s supposed to be possible is left to the imagination.

Certainly, it would be easy to get rid of meetings if we simply let colleges run like businesses – get rid of such archaic holdovers as tenure and ‘shared governance,’ give the managers tools to actually manage, and treat the faculty as line staff. The proprietary at which I used to work was pretty much like that, and there weren’t all that many meetings. As a manager, I can say that this structure certainly has its virtues: merit pay systems allow distinctions between contributors and free-riders, dismissal for dismal performance wasn’t nearly the nightmare it is at a tenure-based institution, and meetings tended to be short. The downsides are obvious: the faculty was exhausted and alienated; low performance evaluations created no end of stress; stupid decisions frequently went uncaught; and the academic voice was generally subsumed to the financial. I was happy to escape to traditional higher ed, even with a lighter managerial toolbox. (Note to Cary Nelson: some of us don’t only care about enlarging our own power.)

In a college with something like faculty governance, meetings are the price paid.

That’s not to say that every meeting is strictly necessary, or well-run. (True example: I’ve been at meetings at which the committee spent 20 minutes proofreading the minutes of the previous meeting for grammar. The living envied the dead.) An astonishing number of intelligent, educated people don’t have the first clue how to run a meeting, so they just try to let forceful personalities talk themselves out, in a doomed conversational rope-a-dope.

(Keep in mind, too, that while faculty keeps to a 9-month campus calendar with breaks, administration runs 12 months without breaks. That means that committees that require a faculty presence, which is most of them, have to meet in a compressed schedule to get their work done. It’s frustrating on both sides, but any alternative would be measurably worse.)

What’s the incentive for a professor who doesn’t want to move into admin to step up and perform well at meetings and administrative functions? Not much, sadly, other than intrinsic rewards. If you take faculty governance seriously as a value in itself, of course, then strong faculty performance in these settings is critical. I guess the short term, individual payoff has to be intrinsic, but the long-term payoff might be something like preservation of faculty autonomy. Decisions are made by those who show up; if faculty consistently fail to show up, over time, managers will take over by default.

This week’s example would be a speaker I helped bring to campus. The chair of the department in whose area the speaker’s subject fell took exception to not having been asked permission. In my years here, that department hasn’t brought anybody. Nobody. Nada. Zip. If I wait for the faculty to step up, I’ll wait forever. Sometimes ‘goosing’ them with the spectre of active administration is precisely what’s needed to get them to do what they should have been doing in the first place. I endured the usual epithets (“bureaucratic meddling” “run like a business,” etc.), but it’s worth it. Now they’re planning some public programs to pre-empt me, and I’m happy as a clam.

Any organization that values participation sacrifices speed. If you don’t believe me, attend a meeting of your local school board or city council sometime. The trial-by-jury system, similarly, is staggeringly slow. By contrast, the military can make decisions on a dime, since it has a clearly defined top-down structure. If the grunt doesn’t like the call made by the brass, the grunt is invited to shut the hell up and do it anyway. Academia comes closer to a local school board or city council then to the military, and frankly, that’s part of its appeal. The cost is meetings.


The Boy Discovers Another Eternal Truth

The Boy, at dinner:

"Girls like boys who can make them laugh."

And thank heaven for that, I say.

A few weeks ago, he noticed that they liked musicians. Now he's clued in to a sense of humor. Granted, he has described Weird Al Yankovic, who ain't exactly Brad Pitt, but hey, The Boy is four. Nuance can come later.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Another Good Idea Crashes and Burns...

Steven Krause’s blog recently mentioned a few free, open-source alternatives (Moodle, Sakai) to the big-market course platforms (WebCT, Blackboard, eCollege). Since I’m all about efficiencies, I jumped on the idea, and forwarded the names to my friendly local on-campus techie. (Course platform software is what we use as the architecture for online courses. Since online courses allow us to reach folks who couldn’t otherwise be reached, and to save classroom space during ‘prime time,’ we’re offering more of them each year.) Since we have to buy a whole new package this Fall anyway, and we have to retrain everyone anyway, I figure, why not save the licensing cost? We could channel the savings towards, oh, I don’t know, reducing our operating deficit!

But noo....

Annoyingly, a big-budget school could do this, but a tightly-budgeted one couldn’t. The rich get richer...

The critical variable is support. With a proprietary package, if something goes wrong, you have someone to call. With an open-source package, you don’t. If you have a significant number of in-house experts anyway, that’s fine; the U of Michigan could probably get away with it. But your local cc can’t, since we just don’t have the quantity of tech staffing to jump into the breach when the inevitable bugs start scurrying around. Which they will.


Seems like there’s a parable in here. When safety nets are privatized...

Monday, October 24, 2005


Ask the Administrator: Open Call

I haven’t had any Ask the Administrator questions in a while. If you’d like a dean’s answer to some variation on ‘why do admins do that?,’ drop me a line at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com. I’ll disguise enough details to protect your anonymity. As Easterbrook likes to say, all answers guaranteed or your money back!


Odd Fantasies, or, Why Remediation is Always With Us

My oddball fantasy:

Throughout this land, there would be a flourishing of taxpayer-funded schools, targeted at kids in the 13-to-17 age range. These schools could teach teenagers a love of learning, made possible by a solid grounding in the fundamentals: writing skills, multiple languages, rigorous math and science preparation, full engagement in the arts, hands-on training in trades, a sense of history, and a citizen’s knowledge of government. These schools would train body and mind, and inculcate a love of excellence. They would embrace a plethora of learning styles, preparing the college-bound for college and the trades-bound for trades. By virtue of their location in the economically and racially diverse towns and cities of this fine land, they would teach diversity awareness simply in the course of doing other things. We could call these strange places ‘high schools.’


Instead, judging by the amount of remediation we have to do at the cc level, what we have for the 13-to-17 population could be described as holding tanks.

Remediation is a live wire, as a political topic. Yet, educationally, it’s an obvious need.

Some have argued that colleges should get out of the remediation business. Leave high school material to the high schools, and don’t bill the taxpayers twice for teaching subject-verb agreement or the pythagorean theorem. Save tax money, and maintain the brand integrity of higher education.

Tell ya what. Fulfill my oddball fantasy, and I’ll buy into that one.

If the cc’s stopped doing remediation, who would pick it up? I can think of a few alternatives:

- Nobody.

- Volunteer groups/churches/concerned citizens. What the worshippers of the free market never quite seem to grasp, when they resort to this fantasy, is that it gets the incentives all wrong. If you force the noble few who actually do the hard work to go without wages, you’ll drive them away. You punish those who help, and reward those who don’t give a rat’s ass. Over time, you get more of what you reward. Obviously, if we want to attack basic skills deficits in a serious way, we have to pay the people who attack it well enough to get and keep them.

- Unscrupulous, fly-by-night, profiteering hucksters, preying on the desperate.

- Corporations. The problems with this theory are plentiful. Corporations will generally invest in training only when they bear a good likelihood of capturing the resultant gains. If MegaGlobalCorpoMax sponsors literacy classes for employees, it doesn’t then want those employees to quit and work elsewhere for more money. So it won’t sponsor them, or it will require a subsequent period of indentured servitude. Add to that the volatility of corporate funding generally, and this solution starts to look pretty silly.

- The illiterate themselves. They’ll pull themselves up by their own bootstraps! Probably, some small percentage will. Most won’t. This is not a serious answer.

- High schools! Make them open enrollment, so the illiterate 25 year old can hang around the 16 year olds during the day, on the taxpayer’s dime. No problems there...

I agree that it’s vaguely depressing to realize that courses like “college algebra” exist. (To my mind, that’s an oxymoron. College math proper begins with calculus.) I’m not wild about colleges having “Reading” departments. That said, I don’t see the real-world alternative. And I don’t think my fantasy of high schools is any farther afield than any of the alternatives I’ve seen proposed. It’s regrettable that remediation is necessary, but it’s necessary.

Friday, October 21, 2005


The Kubler-Ross Stages of Outcomes Assessment

If you want to make a roomful of faculty groan, all you have to do is mention ‘outcomes assessment.’ (Make sure nobody is armed with large fruit, or at least put on a helmet first.)

‘Outcomes assessment’ is a mandate set by the regional accreditation agencies. It’s a catchall term for a systematic process for continual improvement of student ‘learning outcomes’ over time. Academic units (departments or programs) are supposed to establish mechanisms for determining the skills they want students to acquire in the program; to measure the acquisition of those skills; and to use any shortfalls as spurs to curricular change to maximize future student performance. It’s a sort of decentralized TQM, deployed as a way to dodge really ugly standardized tests imposed from the outside.

Having been through this at two colleges now, I’m fairly sure it’s possible to map faculty reactions on the Kubler-Ross scale.

1. Denial. “We already have assessments. We give grades!” Like most common-sense brushoffs, this seemingly-persuasive objection misses the point completely. Grades are based on performance in a particular class, and they’re usually assigned by the teacher of the class. If a teacher knows that his performance will be judged based on his students’ grades, all he has to do is inflate the grades. Not that anybody would ever do that.

Assessment is about curricula, not individual courses or individual students. This is why it has to be separate from individual courses, and why it rubs faculty altogether the wrong way. (It’s also why institutions that accept a large number of transfer credits will have chronic problems with assessment – it’s never entirely clear just whose program they’re assessing.)

2. Anger. “This is just a way to ‘get’ professors.” “It’s not my fault the students are dumb as bricks.” “*(($&*#^ administration!” At a really basic level, faculty will perceive the call for outcomes assessment as insulting. They are not entirely wrong, but not in the way they think. The point of assessment is to measure program outputs; faculty are used to focusing on program inputs. Since any experienced teacher can tell you that what professors say, and what students hear, often bear only a vague relationship to each other, faculty correctly perceive great risk in finding out what students actually take from a program. That said, if students don’t take anything from a program, I’d be hard-pressed to justify its continued existence.

3. Bargaining. In academia, this takes the form of minimizing. “Can we just look at graduate placement stats?” “Can’t we just do a few focus groups?” “Will a scantron test be enough?” Minimizing is a very, very common strategy for saying ‘yes’ while meaning ‘no.’ Say ‘yes,’ then do such a pitiful job that the project collapses of its own lack of weight. A savvy dean will keep an eye out for this.

4. Depression. This one is self-explanatory. In academia, the preferred term is ‘faculty morale,’ which is followed by ‘is low’ with the same regularity with which Americans precede the word ‘class’ with the word ‘middle.’

5. Acceptance. Good luck with that.

Assessment is a quixotic enterprise in many ways. Mobile students contaminate the pool, making it difficult to know exactly which inputs are being measured. Pre-tests rarely exist (and students rarely take them seriously anyway), so it’s hard to separate what they picked up from a program from what they brought to it. The measures are inherently reductionist, which is part of what grates faculty -- if I’m teaching 19th century lit, I don’t just want students to develop critical thinking skills (though that’s certainly part of it); I also want them to learn something about 19th century lit. Since assessments are supposed to be content-independent, the implicit message to faculty is that the actual substance of their expertise is irrelevant. No wonder they get crabby.

To add injury to insult, most faculty hate grading, and assessment results need to be ‘graded.’ Even worse, they’re usually done at the end of a semester, when patience is thinnest and time is shortest.

The schools at which I’ve been through this have avoided the temptation to outsource their assessment by purchasing a standardized test. I’m mostly sympathetic, though not to the degree I once was. The virtues of an external test are twofold: the workload issue goes away, and you don’t have to worry about conflict of interest. The relative success of the professions in using external tests (your law school doesn’t grade your bar exam) suggests that there may be something to this.

Still, at its best, assessment is supposed to be an opportunity for faculty to discuss the nuts and bolts of their own programs, with an eye to the students. It should create space for the kind of productive, constructive conversations that are all too rare. It’s just easy to forget that at the end of the semester, with the herniating pile of assignments to grade growing larger with each new late one shoved under the door.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Shameless Plug

Check out today's Inside Higher Ed! I've turned pro.


Tuition and Batting Averages

It’s time for the annual wringing of the hands over tuition increases. The popular press will carry stories lumping elite liberal arts colleges, nationally-known research universities, local teachers’ colleges, and community colleges together, trying to generate maximum public confusion and outrage.

The causes for tuition increases are many, and most are poorly understood. (For examples of the blind men describing the elephant, see the current issue of the New York Review of Books.) Any labor-intensive industry will improve productivity more slowly than a capital-intensive one, so education will naturally have slower productivity increases (read: faster-rising costs) than the economy as a whole. Add to that the fact that education and health care are pretty much the only industries in which technology is a net financial drain. (Private industry adds technology when it thinks the technology will improve productivity. We add technology when private industry does, so the students will be able to use it. For us, it’s pure cost; it doesn’t speed up the teaching any, but it does require additional support staff to maintain it, upgrade it, etc.) Add to that the various unfunded mandates placed on education over the last few decades (ADA compliance, health & safety regs, etc.), exponential increases in underlying health insurance costs for (non-adjunct) employees, the unstoppable aging of the faculty (thanks, Justice Rehnquist!), decreased public-sector support, increased marketing costs...

This paragraph could go on for quite some time.

Yet much of it is also beside the point.

Tuition is an easy-to-grasp number, yet it’s a lousy indicator of actual cost. In a sense, it’s similar to batting averages in baseball. Batting averages are percentages (expressed in three digits, so 25% is expressed as .250), calculated by dividing at-bats by hits. In theory, the better the hitter, the higher the average. And, in fact, in the absence of any other numbers, it isn’t a bad place to start when evaluating a hitter. But it misses a lot, and misleads badly. It weighs every hit the same, so a single counts as much as a home run. It omits walks altogether, even though the ability to judge the strike zone well enough to draw a lot of walks isn’t evenly distributed among hitters, and a leadoff walk is as good for a team as a leadoff single.

Savvy baseball fans spend unfathomable amounts of time coming up with (and arguing the merits of) different metrics – slugging percentage (counts total bases, so a double is twice as good as a single), on-base percentage (hits plus walks), OBPS (on-base plus slugging), average with two outs, etc., to compensate for the important information that simple batting average fails to provide.

Tuition works the same way. It’s an easy-to-report number, yet it says much less than it appears to say. The relevant number should be something like cost-to-student, which fluctuates from student to student at the same school based on financial aid packages. If the nominal tuition at my kid’s school is 25k, but he gets a “presidential scholarship” for 10k, then the real tuition is 15k. If tuition goes up 3k and the scholarship goes up the same amount, then the real tuition hasn’t changed.

Proprietaries and some less-impressive private colleges have figured out that the lack of access to something like a ‘total cost’ number can actually work in their favor. They’ll quote tuition prices in the same way that GM quotes MSRP’s – numbers they don’t actually expect people to pay. Then, they’ll offer ‘deals.’ Gee, kid, you could go to the local cc for 3k, but you’d be turning down a 10k scholarship from us to do it! Why would you ever want to do that?

In academia, tuition can actually follow the ‘chivas regal’ rule. High tuition, for the uninformed consumer, can signal quality, and large scholarships to offset that high tuition can look like good deals. (Posting the low tuition upfront, on the other hand, just looks cheap.)

I’d love to see a truth-in-tuition rule, requiring colleges to provide something like a cost-to-student form for every student in some sort of standardized format, so kids and parents could actually compare them. Instead, we get gamesmanship within the system, and ignorant moralizing from outside. The only people with the incentive to really push for this are far too scattered; the only people who could actually do it now have every reason not to. Conservatives scream about undisciplined colleges, then cut public support for them, forcing even higher tuition (and giving conservatives more ammunition to cut even more). Liberals just call for more financial aid, and hope the problem will go away.

I’ll make a proposal for my conservative friends out there: if you’re really serious about controlling costs, let’s start by mandating legible, full, truthful disclosure of actual costs. Empower the consumer, if you want to look at it that way. Tuition is such a flawed indicator that it really isn’t worth taking seriously. Once we know what we’re actually talking about, then we can discuss changes. Until then, we’re all (in both camps) just blowing smoke. Make the statistics on college costs as good as the statistics on shortstops.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Who Would Play You in a Movie?

An English professor told me yesterday that I look like Gig Young, whoever that is. She reminded me of one of my favorite games. If a major studio made a movie in which you were a major character, who would play you?

It’s trickier than you’d think. There’s physical resemblance, of course, but the actors who most look like you might not capture you best. For example, my striking resemblance to Keanu Reeves notwithstanding, he could never sound like me. :-)

Anthony Edwards could get the personality, but we don’t look much alike. John Cusack could definitely do it, if I’m allowed to ‘round up’ on looks. David Morse, when he was younger. Matthew Broderick, if he were taller. Linus, from Peanuts.

The Wife? Lauren Graham. Brooke Shields or a taller Sandra Bullock could do it. Wendie Malick, about 20 years ago. Sally, from Peanuts.

The Boy? The Tasmanian Devil, from Looney Tunes. Dash, from The Incredibles. Animal, from the Muppets. Snoopy.

The Girl? She couldn’t be captured on film. Woodstock, maybe.

Who would play you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005



We’ve started a small alternate-delivery degree program this year, and so far, it’s going pretty well. The students enrolled seem to like it, and the numbers, while small, are viable. We picked the first few courses to offer based on what seemed to make sense for an entering group, and we mostly got it right (though transfer credits meant that some students who wanted to start in September already had credit for the first few courses we ran).

Now, the students who started in September are asking, reasonably, for the actual course schedule for the next few years – partly so they can plan, and partly, I think, so they can force us to commit to running everything they need, when they need it.

Conceptually, I agree with them. But anytime you try to figure out which courses everyone will need when, you start imaging students in cohorts. And they aren’t.

For scheduling purposes, it’s lovely to imagine that first semester students need these five courses, second semester students need these next five, and so on. When you’re talking about the weekday classes, the numbers are large enough generally that this illusion can go uncorrected. But when you have a fairly small group to start with, thin-slicing will kill you; if we only have 25 students when they’re all together, splitting them into three or four groups would make the program a money pit.

The catch is that students stubbornly refuse to behave the way we think they will. We can lay out a lovely, logical progression of courses, and students will bring in random transfer credits, fail a course here and there, ‘stop out’ for a semester, put off math until the bitter end, etc. They just won’t move in unison.

There’s no real reason they should, of course, but it makes scheduling a course rollout a lot harder, and effectively raises the bar for the minimum size population we need to make a program viable.

At my previous school, I went through this fire drill several times, and never found an elegant answer for it. Surveys don’t work, since students often don’t remember which courses they’ve already taken (incredible, but true), or, by a weird dyslexia, will badly miscategorize them (psychology and physics often get transposed, which I still find bizarre). Predictions are ballpark, at best, and usually pretty inaccurate when the sample size is small and the program new.

Any ideas out there? I’m getting pressure to lay out the next round of courses, so this isn’t just a theoretical exercise.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Double Dipping

Having managed on both sides of the non-profit/for-profit divide, I’m not especially spooked by the spectre of efficiency. If anything, I take comfort knowing that many of the for-profit ‘innovations’ that have sparked greater ‘efficiency’ in higher ed are as banal and fruitless as they are – adjunct/outsourcing, reducing travel funding, etc.

That said, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with efficiency, per se. In fact, as public funding gets progressively scarcer, we’ll need to get more efficient if we want to continue to do our best work.

I didn’t fully appreciate just how far we are from even reasonable efficiency until my recent trip to a prominent four-year school, to try to negotiate an articulation agreement. (An articulation agreement is a contract between two schools in which they agree that a student who transfers from the first school to the second, with a given major, will have x number of credits recognized. As a cc that sends a great many students on to four-year schools, these are big deals for us.) Students who graduate from our college with an associate’s degree (the equivalent of two years of full-time study) expect, reasonably, to be able to get a bachelor’s degree in two more years. There are exceptions, such as when students switch majors or go part-time, but a full-time student who sticks with a program, the theory goes, shouldn’t take any longer to get a four-year degree than a similar student who started at a four-year school.

Or so you’d think.

At the meeting with some high-level administrators of a nearby (public) four-year college, I was told, to my face, that students would lose a full year’s worth of credits. Possibly more, depending on some pretty bizarre variables.

Leave aside personal or professional pride, educational ethics, or what’s best for the student; from a taxpayer’s perspective, this is flat-out theft. The four-year school wants to re-teach a full year’s worth of what our local taxpayers have already subsidized. Why? Jobs and funding. The four-year school wants to get paid as much as possible, so it doesn’t want to ‘give away’ credits.

If the public sector wasn’t so caught up in respecting local prerogatives and faculty fiefdoms, it would simply mandate transferability of credits between public institutions in the same state, at least within a given major.

The for-profit at which I used to work was extremely generous, almost too much so, on the question of transfer credits. The reason was simple: it helped with recruitment, and therefore with enrollment. Educational outcomes weren’t in doubt; students who came in with transfer credits graduated at higher rates than ‘native’ students did (which is also true at the public four-year college in question). It isn’t about quality.

The problem is that the folks who have final say over these decisions (the tenured faculty at the four-year school) are disconnected from the consequences of the decision. Power without accountabilty leads to what economists call ‘rent-seeking’ behavior, or milking the system for one’s own benefit.

An intelligent (and empowered) manager of a state public system would simply impose two basic rules: common course numbers for intro courses (so Psych 101 is Psych 101 across the system), and mandatory transferability for intro courses across the system. Private schools that wanted to compete would have to play along, or transfer students would rarely choose them. That way, the taxpayers who subsidized Stacy’s freshman comp at the local cc wouldn’t have to subsidize her freshman comp AGAIN at the local four-year. (BTW, I have no issue with requiring, say, a grade of ‘C’ for the transfer to count. That’s pretty much the industry standard.)

This argument will probably get attacked as applying ‘commodity logic’ to something as ineffable as education. If so, what the hey. There’s a logic to not paying twice for the same course. If you want to call that ‘commodity logic,’ go ahead. I call it common sense, and something I can defend to my tax-hating father-in-law.

It could also be used to attack taxpayer funding of remedial courses in college – they already paid for high-school math in the high schools, so why should they pay again in the colleges? The answer, of course, is results. Students who transfer from cc’s to four-year schools graduate at higher rates than ‘native’ students; quality is not the issue. Students who fail basic cc placement tests for English and math graduate at much lower rates than other students; quality is exactly the issue. The stats tell the story.

Idiotic boondoggles like these just give the screw-higher-ed conservatives ammunition. Let’s get our house in order intelligently, so they can’t use forehead-slap moments like these as stalking horses for much broader agendas.

Friday, October 14, 2005


The Boy Discovers Judaism

The Boy’s preschool was closed yesterday. He asked Mommy why:

The Boy: Why don’t I have school today?

The Wife: It’s a holiday.

TB: What holiday?

TW: Yom Kippur. It’s a Jewish holiday.

TB: Jewish?

TW: Some people are Jewish.

TB (excited): And some people are publish!

Thursday, October 13, 2005



There’s a harrowing story in two parts at See Jane Compute about an untenured prof being stalked and feeling ineligible to report it.

I know that academia attracts the Calvinist, blame-yourself-first personality type, but I think this goes beyond self-doubt. It comes closer to accepting abuse.

Graduate school teaches us to accept abuse. The gap between the idealized meritocracy of academia and the lived reality of the thing breeds frustration on all sides. The outsized power of advisors (or what seems like their outsized power, which may not be the same thing) can bring out their worst. You get used to living hand-to-mouth, to currying favor with arbitrary overseers, and to losing contact with the outside world (a characteristic trick of abusers). Those who can’t put up with it either drop out or flounder; a certain ‘toughness’ (defined as the ability, roughly, to take a punch) becomes a calling card of success.

(If you think about it, the concept of ‘letters of recommendation’ makes no sense in a pure meritocracy. But I’ve covered that before.)

Then, there’s the market. Arbitrary, cruel, impersonal, and for surprisingly low salaries. That certainly teaches a lesson. Maybe you adjunct for a while, starving with dignity. Maybe you bounce from ‘visiting’ position to ‘visiting’ position, always good enough to do the work, never good enough to do the work two years in a row.

Then, the tenure track. Years of being judged by folks who were, generally, held to much lower standards then those by which they’re judging you. And making you believe it’s all about you, even when it isn’t.

Aside from the inherent ugliness of the whole process, a nasty side effect can be a creeping desensitization. It gets to the point that junior faculty who are being stalked are afraid that having been chosen as the target of some criminal’s sick fantasies will be held against them.

At my current school, we’ve had two cases on my watch in which faculty (both female) received intimidating, anonymous, threatening messages. To their credit, both professors reported it. We circled the wagons – department chair, dean, vp, security, local police, faculty union. One miscreant was busted, the other never came back. Both professors wound up winning respect from above for their aplomb in crises.

You don’t have to accept abuse.

You may have learned to. You may have always been the ‘good girl.’ You may have had issues in your personal life. None of that matters. You don’t have to accept abuse.

I’m all for hiring more women deans, but don’t assume that male managers will necessarily take these matters lightly. Any competent manager will jump out of his seat at this, feminist consciousness or not. (Even if your dean is a careerist troglodyte, imagine the consequences to the career of a dean who sweeps this under the rug, only to have the stalker later attack. Game over, career done. And we know that.)

(On another level, men know what men are capable of. That’s why we get so ridiculous about protecting our daughters.)

Not tenured? From my side of the desk, a good untenured person leaving is a devastating loss. First off, it’s not a given that I’ll get to replace. Secondly, a few departures within a short time of each other, and morale goes in the toilet. Third, we take a certain pride in having a strong faculty and a strong college. Repeated junior departures blow holes in both of those images.

You don’t have to accept abuse.

This week I’ve been playing around with podcasts. Yesterday on the way home I played a podcast of an interview Amy Goodman did with Studs Terkel, who is well into his 90's at this point. He kept coming back to the idea of a ‘prescient minority,’ which he defined as the folks who find, and tell, the truth first: abolitionists, say, or the early feminists. You can be the prescient minority. Tell the truth proudly, and don’t accept abuse. If you haven’t seen it, check out the picture at the top of Bitch, Ph.D. Prescient minority in training, I’d say.

And if you have a chance, send Jane some support. This crap has to stop.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005



“Knowledge adds; wisdom lets slide.” – Paul Westerberg

Okay, I’m getting older. In some ways, it sucks – my knees make noises they didn’t make a few years ago, my metabolism doesn’t forgive snacks the way it used to, and the Scalp Liberation Movement is making undeniable progress. I don’t get IM’ing, and the point of the Black Eyed Peas escapes me.

But it’s mostly good.

One of the attractions of academia is that it’s one of the few industries that actually allows people to age. Armed with data from HR, I found that the median age for full-time faculty at my college is 59. The social scientist in me decided it would be fun to find out by how many standard deviations I am younger than the mean faculty member here: the answer is 2.2. I can’t think of any other industry in which this would be true.

Maturity brings with it a clarification of priorities. I spent much of my teens and twenties mad at myself for not being good at (whatever), not getting along with (whoever). I didn’t know where I was supposed to be, so feeling out-of-place anywhere was cause for panic: I might be missing my chance! Since not-fitting is more common than fitting, it was a tough time. Now, with a wife, two kids, a mortgage, a (very) full-time job, and a heightened sense of the passage of time, I don’t worry so much about who I am or where I should be. It’s pretty clear.

Last week I had a chance to teach a class to a visiting group of senior citizens from the area. It was amazing – they were the kind of students every teacher dreams of having. They were opinionated, yet civil; the conversation was both lively and orderly, a tough combo with the 18 year olds. Part of it, I’m sure, was that it was a one-day class, and they had all chosen to be there. Part of it, though, probably comes from a sort of impunity that age grants. They could care less what I thought of them, since it made absolutely no difference in their world, so they could just engage the discussion for the sake of the discussion. (Naturally, it raised my opinion of them.)
They tested my assertions against their life experiences, and challenged me where appropriate. At the end, they applauded, and I reciprocated.

I still worry, and in some ways, the causes for worry are much greater than they used to be. (Any parent can tell you what it means to worry.) But they aren’t arbitrary anymore. I will sometimes go out in public looking like something the cat dragged in, if necessary, knowing that I don’t have to worry about missing my shot with my true love. That wasn’t possible at 24. I don’t especially care if smart people disagree with things I say or write; I’ve been attacked enough times, and by smart-enough people, that it just isn’t that intimidating anymore. And if some new music sounds like dental drilling to me, well dammit, it just means I have taste.

My grandfather, who was an electrical lineman for many years and a physically imposing man, spent his retirement wearing colors that golfers would consider too loud. His attitude, essentially, was ‘why not?’ I liked that. Age brings restrictions, yes. But it also brings a kind of freedom. Freedom to reject a boneheaded fad, to shrug off irrelevant concerns, to forgive oneself one’s own limitations.

I don’t have time for angst anymore. There’s just too much to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005



I recently attended a conference of academic administrators from around my state, and discovered that an organizational quirk of my school is actually widespread. We add programs frequently, and call it responsiveness, but we almost never eliminate programs. (My school has eliminated a grand total of one, and that was in the 1980’s.) Zombie programs walk among us, feasting on the resources of the living.

Zombie programs survive largely because of tenure. At my college (and many others), tenure is with the college, rather than with the department. That means that if we eliminate a program, we’re obligated to find alternate jobs for the people who used to work in it, assuming they’re qualified. (For example, most of the IT department can teach math, so if we eliminated the IT department, the tenured faculty would simply move to math.) Only those few who are completely unqualified for anything else get fired. As a result, the actual savings from any proposed program elimination are too small to be worth the political headache, and the zombies stick around.

I wouldn’t care so much, except that zombie programs have a way of multiplying over the years. Since retirements are astonishingly slow in coming, we carry these programs for decades. They use resources that could have gone for core programs (history, English, etc.), forcing those core departments to replace retirees with adjuncts. We hollow out our profit centers (chalk-and-talk gen ed classes) to keep our zombie programs undead.

The K-12 districts have a way of handling undead employees or programs. When a superintendent leaves, the hire an ‘interim’ whose job is to be the bad guy. The interim takes out some zombies, then moves on; the next permanent person then harvests the goodwill from 1. not being the interim person and 2. presiding over growth. We haven’t done that, though there’s certainly an argument for it.

The proprietary in which I used to work had a great many flaws, but one flaw it didn’t have was undead programs. Since there was no tenure system, a program that couldn’t carry its own weight anymore simply got the ax. This freed up resources for new programs (or, more annoyingly, for stockholders). We don’t have that option, for all intents and purposes, so even in dire fiscal straits we continue to support small programs that have long since outlived their usefulness. We make up the difference by adjuncting-out ever more of the academic core.

Protecting long-term employees comes at the cost of freezing out new ones. I’d love to hire eager new Ph.D.’s in the core academic disciplines on full-time lines, but that would require killing some zombies that we just haven’t been willing to kill. So the zombies walk among us, and new Ph.D.’s keep on adjuncting, hoping someday to catch a break. And students wonder why they can’t get the classes they actually want or need.

Sometimes being the good guy requires first being the bad guy.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Stupid Manager Tricks, Part II

I was surprised (heartened, yet depressed) at the feedback to the previous entry, on how to be a horrible manager. A few more ways to do damage from the top:

- Never hire anybody remotely as smart as you. They could be threats.

- Information is power, so hoard it jealously.

- Try to end every meeting with “okay, so I’ll wait for you to get back to me with...”

- Avoid conflict at all costs.

- Credit is zero-sum. Grab as much as you can!

- Customize everything you say to whomever is in front of you.

- Tell exhausted underlings to “work smarter, not harder.” That way, you show both ignorance and arrogance, the lousy manager two-fer!

- Punish ambition.

- Get prima donnas out of your office by appeasing them with goodies.

- Remember, it’s all about you!

- When assigning projects, don’t ever share your vision of the final outcome. Wait until a subordinate has made a presentation before letting an uncomfortable silence go by, sighing heavily, and whipping out the red pen.

- Schedule long meetings that overlap lunch. (Variations: start two-hour meetings a half-hour before quitting time; start long conversations just as people are packing up to go home; announce on Friday that everyone has to come in on Saturday.)

Reader contributions:

- Send long, info-packed emails, esp. with the not-at-all-cumbersome Word templates.

- Only come around when you want something. (Variation: dump bad news on people when they spontaneously drop by your office. Works better than Off as a repellent.)

- Give courtesy interviews for jobs that have already been eliminated.

- Lack self-awareness. Examples: invite questions, then punish them. Promise support, don’t offer it, then blame the non-supported for failing. Say things you don’t mean, then blame subordinates for not clairvoyantly sussing out your true meaning.

- Divide and conquer. Make subordinates bash each other, like Trump in the boardroom.

- Emails? What emails? I never got your emails...

Sadly, Dilbert inhabits the walls of academe.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


GirlZilla Attacks!

The Girl has hit her stride.

On Saturday night, as I was reading to The Boy on his bed, The Girl escaped the bathroom (where The Wife was drying her off from a bath) and stomped, nude, into The Boy’s room, with wet hair slicked back and arms stretched over her head. Her gait is tricky anyway, and she really looked like a cherubic Godzilla.

On Sunday, TG discovered that if she positioned herself in front of the couch, grabbed the cushion with one hand, and raised her right leg about 120 degrees, she could pull herself up on her belly. After a few tries, she got it down to a single, quick, smooth motion. When she gets up there, she immediately lies back and throws her arms out, smiling wide. I wouldn’t worry about it, except that she hasn’t mastered the dismount yet. (She did one that resembled a single-gainer. Not good.) So what used to be a reasonably baby-safe place isn’t anymore. Now there’s no safe place to put her when one of us, say, has to go to the bathroom.

Beware the wrath of GirlZilla!

Friday, October 07, 2005


Stupid Manager Tricks, Part I

Part of the challenge of finding good people for administrative positions is defining just what, exactly, a good manager is (or does). Like a sculptor, I’ll get at it by chipping away the traits of bad managers.

Stupid Manager Tricks I’ve run across at one time or another:

- Change your mind frequently, but don’t tell anybody. Moving the goalposts is profoundly demoralizing, yet oddly common.

- Tighten controls on meaningless details to show you’re in charge.

- Play games with the chain of command. Frequently overrule the people directly beneath you when people beneath them complain to you.

- Radiate stress.

- Make snap judgments about people, and stick to them in the face of torrents of counterevidence.

- Mistake personal like or dislike for evaluation of performance.

- Play out your personal demons via your organization. That never gets old!

- Refuse to make hard decisions. Always please the person in the room with you at the time.

- Frequently declare, “it’s not either/or, it’s both/and!” That’s non/sense.

- Budgets, schmudgets. Resources are infinite, if you believe hard enough!

What stupid manager tricks have you seen?

Thursday, October 06, 2005


The Boy Confronts Diversity

The Boy, after dinner, honestly perplexed:

“How can anyone not like candy corn?”


Why We're Cheaper

There’s a piece in IHE today suggesting that students who choose community colleges for academic (as opposed to vocational) majors do so because cc’s are cheaper than four-year schools.

Well, yeah.

But why are we cheaper? What’s our secret? Should four-year schools imitate us?

Several factors:

- Heavier courseloads for full-time faculty, without higher salaries. 30 credits per year is standard, as opposed to 18-24 for lower-tier four-year schools, and less than that as you go higher on the totem pole. Faculty tolerate the higher loads because the research expectations are correspondingly lower. We get the same teaching load from two professors that neighboring colleges get from three or four. Multiply that out, and the savings are substantial.

- We don’t do dorms, or the student life activities that go with dorms. We have a small student life office, but the menu of activities doesn’t even try to approach that of a residential campus. Since most of our students have outside jobs for significant numbers of hours, attendance at these functions doesn’t justify having that many.

- A greater percentage of classes taught by adjuncts (although the lower-tier four year schools are rapidly closing the gap!). Since adjuncts are cheaper, and we use more of them, we save there.

- Athletic programs carry a much lower profile here, and we don’t do scholarships or bidding wars.

- Fewer ‘boutique’ majors. While it’s true that we lose money on some programs (i.e. nursing), we don’t generally carry majors that don’t generate enrollments.

- Administrative thinness. I’m constantly amazed when I visit nearby four-year schools at the layers of administration. For example, at my cc, we don’t have a provost, and there’s no such thing as an associate dean (even though I could use one!).

- Less library/lab overhead. Since we aren’t focused on research, we don’t have to support the huge library collection that a four-year school would. We also don’t need the research labs that require foreign t.a.’s that require immigration paperwork that require full-time staff...

- More funding sources. Typical four-year state colleges rely on the state and tuition. We rely on the state, the county, and tuition. Having that extra source is nice, especially when the state is in a fiscal crunch (which is, more or less, the normal state of things). On the down side, we don’t have the level of alumni giving that four-year schools have, since our grads who transfer usually donate to the college that granted their highest degree. There’s room for growth here.

- Open-door admissions. Since we aren’t selective, we don’t need staff to make decisions on which students to accept. Our Admissions office is shockingly small for a college of our size, yet it’s able to get the job done.

There are more (less travel funding, fewer high-tech amenities, etc.), but these are the ones that leap to mind immediately. Many of these are contingent on our mission remaining tightly focused. For example, if we were to start teaching third and fourth-year courses, we’d have to beef up our library and labs, and reduce teaching loads; the combination would be a budget-buster. We’re cheaper than the four-year schools not because we’re more honest or clever, but because we’re more focused. A kid who does the first two years with us, and the next two years with a four-year school, saves a chunk of money without sacrificing much, since intro courses at four-year schools are usually farmed out to t.a.’s or adjuncts anyway. By the time the extra resources matter, the kid has transferred.

In other words, while I think cc’s occupy a necessary niche and will continue to, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to judge four-year schools against our tuition. They have costs that we don’t, simply by virtue of the different mission. While we’ll never compete with Stanford, I think we stack up pretty well against the first two years at Eastern Teachers College State. That will remain true as long as we don't try to stack up against the last two years.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Servant Leadership

Once in a while, I think about how much easier it would be to support The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl in a lower-cost-of-living region, so I scan ads for various admin positions in cheaper, but still appealing, environs.

I saw one recently for a nice position in a lower-cost location, but it listed among its requirements a belief in ‘servant leadership.’ I didn’t think that much about it at first, but over the past few days, it has creeped me out more and more.

I’ve worked with a couple of people (one former boss, one former colleague) who seemed to embody servant leadership. In both cases, an unquestionable work ethic was laced with a sort of conspicuous self-abnegation. Make a show of your self-sacrifice, and demand (directly or indirectly) that everyone else make similar shows of their own self-sacrifices. It’s hard to object to, in the same way that it’s hard to object to someone saying that you should eat your vegetables, but it really grows tiresome after a while.

Endless community service, mandatory altruism, is a losing proposition. It saps motivation over time, since there’s always more service to do and the point is not to enjoy it. It seems to derive from a bottomless need for external approval, but the approval is contingent on it seeming unnecessary; if the selflessness doesn’t look selfless, it doesn’t count. “Look at me! I’m being selfless! Yo, over here! Self-sacrifice, right here! See, everyone?” Ick.

The dark side shows up when others don’t meet the ideal standard, which is inevitable. Then, what should be a performance issue (if it should be anything at all) becomes a character flaw. Since character is harder to change than performance, once you’re on the ‘naughty’ list, you can never get off. People don’t care for being told they’re irredeemable, so over time, people start to withdraw altogether. What survives is a kabuki ritual of self-sacrifice, with barely-hidden smirks and lots of muttering.

I don’t care for it.

A college best serves its community by providing the best education it can, within the resources the community is willing and able to provide. (And I have no problem with colleges making the strongest possible case for the resources they need.) Employees do their best work when they’re working on things they actually care about. And creativity works best when it comes from many, rather than from a single person. (The blogosphere is a real-world example of many-centered creativity.)

To the extent that servant leadership implies exemplifying constant self-sacrifice, I have to reject it. I’d much rather see a definition of leadership that relies on clarification of goals and provision of resources, getting the incentives right to allow employees to channel their passions constructively for the good of the organization. For example, rather than berating the art department to work at a soup kitchen, I’d rather provide the resources for it to involve the community in creating art. Rather than devoting college time and resources to white-tablecloth lunches cosponsored by local banks to honor someone who planted flowers at a bus stop (I’m not making that up), I’d rather see the college host debates on current events for both students and community. Let academia do what it does best, rather than trying to be some pale imitation of a church, an Elks club, or a political party.

I don’t want to subject faculty to dreary self-improvement outings; I want to harness their passions for the good of the college. (Mortifying the flesh isn’t good for the passions – at least, for most people.) At some level, this is because I believe that higher education done well IS a public good (and is entitled to public support accordingly). We don’t need to add high-profile acts of self-flagellation to justify ourselves morally. Educating well, as opposed to indifferently, is justification enough. That’s the direction I’d like to see college leadership take. Save your own soul on your own time; colleges justify themselves when they tend to their educational missions.

(Btw, it may be the case that this entire rant is beside the point at religious colleges. I’ve never worked at one, and I’ll admit that it’s a blind spot in my view of academia. That said, there’s a reason I’ve never worked at one.)

Sorry for the rant. This one really struck a nerve.

Have you seen an example of ‘servant leadership’ that actually improved the vitality of a college? How did it work? Or am I just misreading the term?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


The Draft, or, How to Get an Administrative Job

One of the more annoying tasks I have to perform is to nominate (i.e. draft) faculty to serve on various campus committees. Nobody looks forward to the tap on the shoulder, and much of the general frustration faculty have with administration comes from it.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had several vacancies to fill, none of them especially attractive. There’s no really graceful way to handle it. If I pick people who generally avoid these things like the plague, I get reports back from the committee chairs that Professor so-and-so never attended the meetings. Alternately, sometimes I’ll challenge a malcontent to put up or shut up by placing him on a committee that grinds his particular ax. Professor Cranky will respond in one of three ways: outright refusal (tenure means never having to say you’re sorry), skipping every meeting, or, worst of all, attending every meeting and being such an antisocial presence that his eventual removal is welcomed on all sides.

The easiest method is to go back, again and again, to the few good soldiers (and/or the folks who don’t have tenure yet). It works great the first time you do it, but over time, it’s not sustainable. Picking mostly on the untenured means that you lose the benefit of experienced voices, and you ratify the cultural expectation that tenure means on-the-job retirement. Picking on the few good soldiers effectively punishes them for being helpful, and rewards the laggards for lagging. Over time, the ranks of the willing thin out.

I’ve been corresponding with an academic blogger who is thinking of moving from faculty to administration. In composing my advice, I realized that the strategy I used to make the move was pretty effective, and I’ve never seen anyone else use it: volunteer. Go to your chair or dean, and actually volunteer for projects. Make the draft unnecessary.

I did that, explaining to my then-dean that I was interested in testing the administrative waters, and that I would appreciate the opportunity to try. He seemed shocked, which I now understand, but that started the ball rolling.

If you’re basically sane, and you play well with others, I’d be shocked to see an offer like that go unanswered for any length of time. From a dean’s perspective, the chance to avoid a really unpleasant dilemma is very, very tempting. If a junior-ish faculty member steps up and asks to help with outcomes assessment, or a retention initiative, or whatever, my dilemma evaporates immediately, and that professor gains the kind of experience that helps make a subsequent leap plausible. S/he also gets a chance to find out if administrative work is actually more to her/his taste, which it isn’t for most.

If you want to test the waters, dodge the draft, and volunteer.


They're Baaack...

And the temporary bachelorhood is over; the crew flew in VERY late last night, thanks to the vagaries of airline timing. The Boy broke into a full run when he saw me, almost knocking me over when we hugged.

It's good to have them back. Time to be Dad again.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Tips for Faculty Job Candidates

‘Tis the season for faculty job seekers to make their rounds, so it seems appropriate to share a few pieces of advice from this side of the desk. Keep in mind, I’m writing from a community college perspective; the rules for research universities are almost certainly different. These suggestions are for instructor or assistant professor positions – tomorrow, I’ll do an entry on administrative positions.

- If you’re applying for a teaching position at a community college, don’t spend the entire cover letter describing your dissertation. We care that it’s done, but we don’t care that much about the content. If you spend the entire letter describing your research, we’ll assume that you don’t really want to work at a cc, and move to the next applicant.

- Think about the order of items on your c.v. Savvy applicants at this level place teaching experience before publications. To detail your publications lovingly while offering a perfunctory list of courses taught tells us where your heart is.

- Especially in your cover letter, find ways to portray yourself as a good colleague. Did you pick up the administrative tasks nobody else wanted? Have you done committee work? Have you picked up night classes and intro courses? Do you play well with others?

- If your graduate program is Ivy or otherwise super-prestigious, you have to convince us that you actually want to work here. Have you adjuncted at a cc before? Have you worked with non-traditional students before? Have you worked with students whose college skills lack polish?

Grad school trains people to think of the market as some sort of linear meritocracy, with a vague notion of an old-boy network or system of connections operating on the margins. It’s just not true. It’s not the NFL draft, with lower-level institutions getting the draft picks that the top schools passed over. What we want, and what R1’s want, are different. I don’t want the second-best researcher; I want the best teacher. Apply accordingly.

Last year we had a faculty search in which we got ridiculously strong applications from ridiculously prestigious institutions, and we promptly relegated many of those applications to the recycling bin. From the letters, it was abundantly clear that we were little more than a port in a storm, and that the applicants would deign to work here only until something they really wanted came along. No, thanks. I want people who want to work here. That may seem cold, but if you think about it from the employer’s perspective, it makes perfect sense.

Finally, keep in mind that the market, such as it is, is glutted, irrational, and largely random. It’s not just about you. Don’t let despair become self-doubt.

Good luck out there!


Incomplete Information, or, Why I Give the Runaround

At least once a week, some exasperated professor or department chair accuses me of giving her/him the runaround. It’s usually true.

It comes down to a lack of information. I’m not a subject matter expert in every academic field in my jurisdiction. That’s not unique to me; nobody who oversees more than a few closely related departments could reasonably be expected to be an expert in all of them. That means that when members of the departments that fall outside my own scholarly training come to me with funding requests for the latest gizmos they “need,” I have to make a judgment based on extremely limited information. I usually ask for more information, which they call the runaround.

Which it is, in a way. But it has to be.

At the beginning of the fiscal year (July 1), I get a lump sum to cover ‘contingencies’ in the departments for which I’m responsible. Contingencies, by definition, are unforeseen. As chairs bring me requests, I have to make fairly quick yes/no calls, taking into account my estimation of how candid they’re being (some are fairly restrained, others ‘round up’ pretty aggressively); my estimation of the impact the expense in question will actually have on students; whether or not there’s another possible funding source (i.e. Perkins); and whether I’m spending too quickly and setting a collision course with budgetary reality in, say, May. (I don’t want to get into a situation where we can’t replace a projector bulb for the film class in April because I bought somebody’s vanity project in September.) So I ask questions, I hem and haw, and I try to get a read on each chair’s and professor’s fiscal style.

It’s tricky, because the incentives are all screwy (candor could easily result in getting less than you want), and I don’t have the objective knowledge to know by how much to discount for salesmanship.

Departments have their own funds for anticipated repairs, and a small slush fund for the occasional unforeseen repair (copier machine, piano tuners). They come to me for the above and beyond stuff, which tends to be the hardest to judge.

Any ideas out there? If I could get the incentives right, I suspect that much of the (admittedly arbitrary) judgment would go away. I just haven’t figured out how to get the incentives right.

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