Thursday, February 16, 2006


Utopia CC

I have an invitation for my readers.

I’m trying to design the perfect community college in words, to have a coherent position from which to evaluate the ones that actually exist. A goal for which to strive, if you will.

I’ve also learned that the collective wisdom of the blogsophere dwarfs my own.

So, the invitation:

Give a characteristic (or several) of the ideal community college.

Possible angles: what does it do? Who does it serve? How is it structured? How is it funded? How is it different from what’s out there now? What’s worth preserving? Who are the students? Who are the faculty? How/where does teaching occur? How does the college measure success at fulfilling its mission?

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the laws of physics still apply. So we can’t solve the parking problem with hovercrafts, or staff the security force with superheroes. That’s too easy.

Waddaya think?

Interesting idea --

I think the key ideas are diveristy and energy. The ideal CC would have both a diverse faculty and a diverse student body. They would be energized to face the academic and economic challenges that place students in CCs.

Diversity would be both racial and in terms of ages. Both the students and the faculty would represent the community's mix of race and a variety of ages.

Utopia CC would have a wide variety of First and Second year courses. All cases would be appropriate for the first two years of a BA -- it would not be the case that the faculty was allowed to write new courses that would be upper division elsewhere.

A Critical Thinking course, along with a college skills course, would be mandatory in the first semester.

There would be no class at Utopia CC that is larger than 30 students. The standard faculty teaching load would be no more than 4 courses and would include advising -- that is in addition to a good counseling center.

Utopia CC would also have a variety of extracurricular opportunites. These activities would be both academic and social, and allow close interactions with faculty.
Utopia CC is a place that welcomes "nontraditional" students into the fold of academia. It is a place that bridges the worlds of "not going to college" and "OK, I'm ready now". Key in realizing this process is what the previous commenter has already noted: SMALL CLASSES. Also, academic advising is considered a priority. Students don't feel lost or on their own, but nurtured and helped to reach their next scholastic or professional adventure.
I really like Inside's first and second paragraphs. And both Inside's and Jennimi's focus on small classes.

I would want a wider variety of course types than Inside, though, I think. I imagine my ideal CC being (course wise, at least), much like the one I went to some years ago. It had courses to cover the first two years of college work for those wanting to transfer. You judge success there by how well your courses transfer to regional schools; in an ideal world, there's a pretty much seamless transfer.

It also had career training type courses, and career advancement courses for those who aren't interested in a four year degree, and for people who wanted to improve specific skills or be able to get licenses (contracting, etc).

In order to do that second job efficiently and well, you need to have a really strong sense of what your community perceives as its needs for training. That's going to vary regionally, I imagine.

I like the idea of critical thinking and skills classes being available, but don't think they should be mandatory. In any case, you need to aim them at both the more technical/licensing sorts of students as well as the pre-four year transfer students. It should have life skills type courses available (personal finance, for example).

My ideal CC is well-supported by the state so that tuition costs are minimal; it can offer a variety of classes during days and evenings. It provides offices for all instructors. It uses adjunct instructors sparingly, has a healthy tenure and self-governance system. (I'd also vote for healthy unions on campus. But maybe things are so ideal that no one needs a union to bargain for adequate pay or benefits?)

Again, ideally, my ideal CC is served by GOOD public transit, which runs until the late evening classes end. The bookstore has long hours, and provides a good mechanism for students to resell books. In a REALLY ideal world, the bookstore itself draws community members to campus.

Jennimi's focus on academic advising is on the mark: and academic advising has to be easily available to evening students, too, and on a walk in basis.

Finally, the campus has other "draws" which make it visible to community members and brings them to campus (including, say, field trips for local schools). A local history museum, a local ecology center, something which enhances the learning of students and helps give the community a sense of ownership.

Okay, off to the real world now.
There must be access to advisors, counselors, financial aid officers, bookstore employees, and faculty office hours for evening students. And not just one night a week because that might be the night I have class....and I don't want to skip my class to get other services that I need.

That's pretty much the only problem I have with my current CC.

Also, as a 32 year old student, who has run my own business for 14 years before going "back to college", I didn't need critical thinking skills or college success skills. And I would be pretty mad about paying for a mandatory course like that.
Oh, I remembered something else on my way to work!

Child care, both days and for evening classes. Reasonably priced for staff and students.
great community interaction and service - offering what are normally considered trade classes for both those wanting to enter the profession and those keeping themselves updated in addition to someone wanting to learn more about home repair and maintenance. Another example - computer classes taught by faculty and students who help the community.

Book discussions that involve community members that want to join in and maybe it will draw them in to your associate degree in literature.

Of course, the latest technology for everyone. Each person would walk around with their laptop/iPod/Pocket PC and all would interface seamlessly everyone on campus and in class. Of course, instructors could monitor all screens to see if the students are "getting it" as they take notes, surf related websites, etc.
The ideal CC, or any other kind of C, would have transparent decisionmaking processes (within reasonable bounds of keeping confidential that which really needs confidentiality). It would also have lots and lots of respect among its various people groups: administrators, faculty, staff, and students would all respect each other. One way this would be shown is that the president realizes that the janitor is absolutely essential to the functioning of the institution, and so the janitor gets the same access to services as anyone else!
I think the ideal CC would understand the specific community they serve, understanding the area's particular demographics and socioeconomic needs. They would be in close contact with local high schools, offer a wide variety of courses to non-matriculated students in the community, and have a good relationship with nearby four-year schools. The faculty should be largely tenure-track, but adjuncts should be treated with respect and dignity (with a decent paycheck and health insurance, included in faculty meetings, etc). There should be an excellent center for professional and emotional counseling, a well-staffed reading and writing center, and peer tutoring available on demand. There would be plenty of comfortable areas for students to study and socialize, including a large, well-lit cafeteria, an auditorium for plays and musical events, and a gym (and basketball court) with locker rooms. The library should be staffed by particularly energetic and informative librarians who can help the students build good research skills. Child care, an on-site nurse practitioner, and a helpful financial aid staff would be wonderful.

Of course, it would be a dream come true if suddenly the state government decided to fund all this, but that's not very realistic. It would be very important to have an energetic and creative development director who could push the community's involvement in the community college. Community colleges help to integrate immigrant and refugee populations, and they often serve as the first or last chance for students struggling to survive. The local philanthropic community (if there is one) should know this. Continuing education classes on popular topics also can help keep a school afloat. To achieve this, the school must be known for doing something particularly well, like culinary arts or film studies. (Having these specialties can also make incoming students feel proud of their choice. "I'm going to Utopia CC because they have such a great culinary arts program!")

I taught for a year at a school in NYC that used to be a community college and was later able to add a bachelors program because of the success of its CC program. It had good language arts support, peer mentoring, a sports team, a real sense of community, a wonderful library, a wide variety of classes, and a high status in the extremely impoverished community. My students were proud to be there, and so was I.
Nontraditional students. The primary goal should be, as this essay puts it, to be "engines of social mobility." Secondary goal, to serve the local community; so programs and departments should be determined with an eye to local needs, skill sets, job markets, etc. The CC would coordinate with local 4-year institutions to make sure that courses would transfer; but it wouldn't limit its mandate to being a feeder institution for the local 4-years. In addition to these kind of courses, there would be "open learning" type courses and community events on campus. The college might rent rooms to the public for meetings, book clubs, 4-H, etc. Ideally, the campus would be well served by public transportation. There would be good drop-in daycare available on campus.
There would be tutoring and writing centers available to offer one-on-one help. Tuition would be affordable, possibly linked to some kind of sliding scale program. In the perfect, ideal world faculty would teach a 3/3 load (yes, I know, ha ha) and would have advising responsibilities and be expected to be active in campus life, perhaps offering free lectures or mini-courses, or otherwise doing some kind of broader service to the community, again, to help the college be integrated locally.

Staffing decisions would be transparent; *maybe* the CC would move away from a tenure-track system to a long-term renewable contract system (with the expectation of regular raises; the obvious downside here is the incentive to let older faculty go in order to hire newer, cheaper folks, but of course that's also a potential gain, from the college's point of view). Benefits and tuition waivers would be available to all employees' families--ground crew, secuirty, etc. Funding and developmemt might draw on local businesses and large employers, possibly integrating job-training programs with short-term internships as a means of encouraging local private investment in the community college. Classes would be offered in evenings/weekends, on a rotating basis--that is, the expectation that people taking evening/weekend classes are working, and therefore attending school part time, would mean that core transfer courses would be offered one or two at a time in "off" hours: one semester it would be, say, Writing 101, the next semester Writing 102, then in the summer or following fall, Math 101 and 102, so that part-time students could, by taking a class every semester, eventually complete a core set of courses towards the B.A. or 2-year degree. Skill development or vocational courses aimed at working adults would also have evening classes. The CC might consider a differential tuition system, so that students pay different rates for evening or day classes.

Finally, I'd love to see CCs (and 4-year schools, and universities) have programs that coordinate with the public school system to bring "at risk" kids or dropouts back in to finish their high school degrees; this could mean just providing space for such a program. I've worked with a program like this: it provided small classes, oversight, high standards, and a more mature, independent environment that seemed to really benefit kids who were bright but disaffected with the standard h.s. setting. Could also be a great boon for young mothers--in a more adult setting, they wouldn't stand out so much.
Utopia CC would be a place where teaching really mattered. Not a place where teaching is talked about. Faculty would be encouraged to regularly consider their teaching and there would be administrative support for teaching (indeed, all administrators would, at some point, be active teachers as well). Students would be included in many, if not all, of the important decisions on campus. They would be valued members of the community, not just dollar-figures.
I think hands-on, practical education is critical for teaching the theories. One aspect of utopia CC is actual experience by the teachers, and the ability to convey it.
As I'm reading the posts above, and I agree with them all, especially the small classes and access to the professors/teachers/mentors.
Why couldn't the utopia CC become a self sustaining "city?" Train child care workers, and provide day care for the students. Train auto mechanics, and the students can have their car repairs done while in class, you get the idea.
I'm probably somewhat short-sighted on this subject, being a non-trad student who's very, very frustrated with her classes, but I have a dream of a CC that has a minimum entry age of 25 years old. Given that I am not well-versed in the ways of education in general, but am instead just an adult student who returned to school armed with "Real World" experience and a healthy respect for education and its usefulness, I realize my position might be controversial, but I really do wish such a thing existed. I think it would make for more interesting interaction between students and administration. Instead of feeling incidental to the whole community of a college, non-trad students might become more involved in things.

I wish I could articulate this more clearly, but I wonder about your point of view, Dean -- is this a ridiculous idea, or have you encountered others dreaming of a similar utopia?
MissM got in while I was posting, but I like her style. What a cool idea!
1) Utopia CC (academic) graduates would be seen as desirable transfer candidates by four-year colleges/universities including (private) small liberal arts schools (like the Miami-Dade to Radcliffe program) but also including less competitive four-year SLACs for good-but-not-top students.

UCC would minimize hoop-jumping requirements for innovative instructors and all students (i.e. *gratuitously* burdensome assignments).

Grads of UCC's vocational programs would be seen as desirable by employers.

Relationships among instructors and between instructors and administrators would be collegial.

UCC would offer ample opportunities for out-of-class learning for both students and faculty. This would include opportunites for virtual interaction as well as in-person book discussion groups etc. For example, the sorts of exchanges of views that goes on in Salon's Table Talk ( ) or Slate's "Fray" ( ) could easily be made available to students and faculty (and the community) online.

The UCC library would have service-oriented librarians available during all operating hours. The library collection would fully support the curriculum, and also include books/materials that would appeal to students' extra-curricular intellectual curiousity.

UCC would have the flexibility to allow integrated interdisciplinary (possibly team taught) courses like those offered at some SLACs (but which would also be transferable to public colleges).

As Bardiac mentioned, critical thinking classes should be offered for both academic and vocational students (employers have asked that we incorporate such classes into one of our vocational programs).

UCC grads would think well enough of their school that there would be an active alumni association.

UCC would offer ultimate frisbee for credit and as an intramural activity for both students and faculty. (you did say ideal...)

Curricula, reading lists, etc. would be as interesting and appealing to students as possible while maintaing high academic standards.
Come over to Community College English ( I've started designing the faculty office space.
Wow! I knew I had smart readers, but you guys are really coming through!

It's fun reading the comments in order, to see what's shared and what's disputed. The shared stuff includes an institution that really values teaching, and puts resources into it: reasonable courseloads, small classes, not too many adjuncts (and good treatment of the adjuncts who are there), good transfer and vocational programs, academic advisement available at all hours on a walk-in basis, ubiquitous but carefully-chosen technology, and real attempts to bring the fruits of academic life to the community (book groups, public lectures, etc.).

Another group of common requests addressed student needs: good public transportation (that one's KILLING my campus!), good and affordable onsite childcare for both day and evening students (ditto!), pinwheeled course schedules to allow part-time students to complete their degrees in orderly and predictable ways.

I'm also intrigued at the repeated calls for transparency in decision-making. From this side of the desk, I can tell you that transparency is very much in the eye of the beholder. I've told blunt truth to people, to their face, only to be called a liar or worse. But the principle is good.

Then, the disagreements start.

Should a critical thinking or study skills course be mandatory? Philosophically, I say no, mostly for the reasons Melissa gives -- to assume that every student needs to brush up on that is to assume much greater homogeneity among our students than is actually the case. But the call for it is common enough among the other commenters that I have to wonder. Shouldn't critical thinking be a central component of just about every course we teach?

The idea for a college with a minimum age of 25 is intriguing, since it spotlights the dilemmas of diversity. Does diversity have to exist within every institution, or would a diversity of institutions be better? I can certainly see the appeal of a minimum student age of, say, 25, though I'd be hard-pressed to defend it legally.

Age diversity on the faculty is even tougher. Absent Bitch, Ph.D.'s long-term contract system (which I STRONGLY support), it's pretty much impossible to achieve age diversity among the faculty. At my current cc, the median age of full-time faculty is 59. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids favoring applicants under 40, and tenure is lifetime, so getting younger role models on the faculty in any meaningful number is nearly impossible. I think that reflects an unconscionable flaw in the law, but there it is.

Interdisciplinary courses are wonderful, but they don't transfer. If we could get the four-year schools to give credit where credit is (literally) due, that would help tremendously.

And then there's funding...

Still, this is a fascinating discussion! Thanks for all the ideas -- you've really given me some things to work on!
I would like to see a community college where the needs of students outranked the convenience of the faculty and/or staff.

We had one faculty member at my former institution who rearranged the students' schedule so that their lunch break was eliminated; right before a 5 hour lab class, because it would work better... for her.

Concern for the students should be number one.
I would love to attend this ( college if it existed!
Utopia CC [UCC, which also happens to be a very dreadful brand of Japanese coffee] will have achieved the perfect balance between student participation and solid lectures from the professors. Too many Profs in my university give up too much of the floor to students for their opinions, which inadvertently results less learning and more free for all in-class bitching forums. On the other hand, solid lecture time makes most students tune out and reduces teacher-student interaction. So, UCC would have managed to achieve that mythical balance and maintain it.

UCC would have a student body that embraces college life and all its activities, encouraging fellow students to take part of the vibrant college life and yet not victimising those who, by choice or otherwise, spend more time in the library than on the football field.

School administrators in UCC [not the Profs; the administrative assistants and etc]will realise that they do not operate independent of the school, that their insistance on adherence to bureaucratic policies have effects on real students' lives, and will not stare down students like inconveniant insects when they encounter them.

UCC will have more oppourtunities for students to take cross-faculty courses, and the students will actually treat these courses [and the long-suffering professors] with respect when they attend them.

I have SO much more to say, but unfortunately I have work to get done!!
Another adjunct-related thought, but again, touchy: I for one think that having professionals in to teach courses occasionally, or in retirement, is a great benefit (though of course, not everyone is a gifted teacher). The problem is that it gets used as an excuse for exploiting adjuncts; I'm not sure how one would draft a policy that was clear and fair in this regard, but if it could be done, it would be a very useful thing.

On the 'critical thinking' thing--I'm not so opposed to it as many are, because I don't see any reason to assume that even people who are *already* fairly good critical thinkers wouldn't benefit from a course that let/helped them develop their skills in this area. There's no real reason, for instance, why one can't design a course in which students choose the topic of investigation on their own: students for whom critical thinking is a new concept could start with something fairly small and focused, students already skilled at it could, perhaps, use the course to begin research into a topic that they're interested in developing further for professional, academic, or personal reasons, no?
What a great question. Coming in on the discussion late most people have covered many of the points I would have made particularly to do with diversity. Working in a UK university means I am lucky enough to be on a fixed contract and I can't imagine how it would feel to be uncertain about my employment... Anyway I would add
1. If you are providing professional education for health or social care professions then make sure you have some service user representatives included in curriculum development and delivery in some way.
2. Rather than teach critical thinking straight off to everyone, help people to find examples of how they think critically in real life (assuming you've managed to encourage that diverse student membership) so they feel they are starting from a foundation of competence rather than deficit.
3. UCC would think hard about teaching methods - can you be more creative in delivery rather than lectures and group discussion - using media resources, project work, etc. For example my students have to make a short video to explain a piece of theory. (The equipment is provided by the university).
4. Make sure your assessments are part of the learning. Ban timed, written exams unless rote learning is an essential part of the learning objectives.
5. UCC would be very much part of the community - perhaps through making certain activities open to the public, perhaps by providing students for public projects, maybe through hosting events, lectures, exhibitions etc. that are free for public to attend. Run events within schools or collaborate with a school to run something for all local children in the holidays, for example an interactive Science Week or literature festival.
Have students go to a local kindergarten to explain their theory; because, if you can't explain a concept to a five year old, then you don't really understand it yourself.
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