Tuesday, April 11, 2006


The Visiting Expert

At my college, as at many others, we have a routine cycle of program reviews. Each degree program has to bring in an outside expert in its own field every few years to evaluate our offerings to make sure that we’re up to snuff.

Yesterday we had one of those for a smallish program that’s relatively technology-intensive. The guy was from a private research university where, judging by his comments, the faucets pour money.

It was disheartening. For over an hour (at lunch), the expert opined on how a few hundred thousand here would help, and a few hundred thousand there would help, and how we’re really only a few million away from really having a quality program. Of course, we’d have to commit to keeping that funding level going indefinitely, given the rate of technological change in the program, unless we’re knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who don’t care about the students.

I hate conversations like that.

Part of the tragedy of administration is that, by definition, the closer you get to actual power, the farther afield from your area of scholarly expertise you get. I don’t know enough about this particular area to know how much of what he said was true, and of course the folk on campus in that area are always ready to argue for more. There’s no such thing as a disinterested expert.

Of course, by virtue of his role, he was allowed to call for millions for a single area, without having to address just where, exactly, those millions would come from. So he gets to climb on the high horse and preach about Excellence and Virtue and the evils of administration, while I try not to choke on my salad at the figures he spews.

After the lunch, I had a brief chat with the chair of the relevant department. When he asked my impressions, I asked which programs he thought I should eliminate to pay for his wish list. The Expert didn’t see fit to mention any.

I’m not naive enough to take his suggestions literally, but in a way, that’s the most depressing part. The whole point of bringing in experts is to get the truth; if they’d rather play political games and build castles in the air, then it’s not clear to me why we should bring them in at all. I have plenty of able practicioners of office politics on campus. There’s no need to import them.

A statement I’ve never heard, in my six years of deaning: “This program has more money (or resources, or faculty) than it can handle. I recommend reallocating some to an area of greater need.” Never heard that. Not a single time.

When the mission of a college is as diffuse as ours (the word ‘comprehensive’ gets thrown around a lot), it’s hard to measure one claim against another. In a perfect world, I’d have no problem throwing state-of-the-art equipment at every program. Motivated students would appear from the woodwork, working closely with self-starting faculty on a crowded-yet-roomy campus with both rapid growth and plenty of free parking. But that’s just not reality.

Since we lack consistent, objective, measurable criteria for success, we rely instead on (self-interested) departmental pleading, buttressed by the occasional department-selected Visiting Expert. I base judgments on what I know, what little I can measure, my guesstimate of the likelihood of any given grant program surviving any given year, and a fairly steep discount for rhetoric. It’s more than nothing, but it’s less than enough.

The Expert ate well and went home. I’ll receive his report in a few days. I’ll get called on the carpet by the VP to explain why the material needs he identified exist. And I’ll be told to reduce next year’s allocations some more. To suggest connecting the dots would be bad form.

Maybe it’s not too late to chuck it all and start a band. I still think Johnny and the Postdocs would be a great name. We could do all academic-themed lyrics: “(I Want To) Mentor You All Night Long,” “One Postdoc, One Diss, One-Year,” “(Let’s Do It) MLA-Style,” “Shake Your Endnotes,” “(I Got Some) Hard Data,” “It’s Hard Out Here For a Dean.”

You know the difference between higher ed and show biz? Show biz is a growth industry...

Can I be in the band? I can play keys, and/or shake a tambourine. And writing lyrics is WAY more fun than these article revisions.
I wonder how one becomes an "expert" like this...it sounds like a good gig. How are these experts identified? I ask because, as you rightly point out, his "services" are really not (as they say in biz) value-add. That is, he does not bring any relevance to the discussion. He is wasting your time.

What he should bring is not only an evaluation of the program (listing what is good and not-so-good) but also a sketched reconciliation plan. Looking at your mission, he should be able to quickly draft a plan that would, within a prescribed budget, bring you closer to the ideal.

Perhaps I have been a consultant for too long, but there are plenty of "experts" (of the "piled higher and deeper" kind)...what you need is a solution provider.

Oh my god...I slipped in corporate speak.

Excuse me...I am going to sit and ponder my sad, sad state.
Unfortunately, this is an outgrowth of how most of America sees most problems. Have a problem with hunger? We need a bigger budget. Problem with heatlhcare? More money. Immigration? More money. Global warming and other environmental concerns? More money.

Wouldn't it be nice, at some point, to hear someone say "we need to do something, and I think we can do it inside our existing budget, because by changing what we do, we actually save money."
I'm with Piss Poor Prof on this. I think that the kind of expert you've described is getting away with. . .money that could be put towards funding your college's needs. Maybe an expert from another cc would have been a better choice.
It's always seemed to me that the point of bringing in "management consultants" and visiting experts is simply to check a box. To reassure the outside world that Company X or University Y is doing the right thing, they bring in "an expert" for advice.

That the advice is often bad or inapplicable, and that said advice is almost never followed anyway, well, that's neither here nor there. The point isn't what the expert says, the point is that the expert was called in. Criticism is thereby deflected. We're taking our mission seriously, says the administration. Look, we brought in outside experts!

I am a consultant, and I've found it's more than a little useful to find out what the constraints are on the customer's business before I work on fixes. Without an idea of the local rules of the game, you're just a provider of fresh balloon juice. "We have no extra money" is a common constraint.

Consulting is a great gig for the empty suits of the world. As long as you look and sound impressive, you're set. By the time anybody figures out that you're full of crap, you've already moved on to the next customer.

In my evil moments, I've been tempted to go into full-blown Management Consulting, wearing expensive suits, mouthing weird platitudes, and doodling ovals on whiteboards. "We need to synergize our teams for a dialoguing sea change to leverage our core competencies..."

My favorite is "It's Hard Out Here For a Dean." I will be waiting for the release of the single. But I like the idea of a band dressed in "Academic Professional" wear. Sort of like David Byrne in his big suit.
There could be follow up hits too, like "It's Hard Out Here for an Adjunct Instructor" or "It's Hard Out Here for An ABD."
I think writing these songs IS a growth industry.
I just did a site visit last month to review a neighbouring university's program in my field. The sheer amount of paperwork generated for such an endeavour is staggering. I decided on measuring the material provided to me in advance of our visit in inches, not centimetres or pages. (Eight inches and a quarter, to be exact.)

You're right, Dean Dad, that sometimes these visits can insanely inflate expectations, although that hasn't been my experience (usually because we use or work with reviewers who are sensitive to our mission and limitations). I do find the process useful in many levels. One major assistance is in correcting internal miscommunication -- programs often wildly underestimate their own costs per student and related to other programs. Sometimes it's suggestions about administrative support (how to best communicate financial or enrollment information in ways that programs can use or programs can explain pedagogical needs that drive certain enrollment issues to administrators).

Any jerk can come in and prescribe "spend more money" but a good site review reflects back some of what they've seen with a list of choices, procedural refinements and insights that shouldn't just ratchet up the budget, but help programs see themselves at an arms length and with an eye to renewal.
How about "Take this discussion section and shuv it!"

Or "Adjunct Man":

"It’s nine o’clock on a Monday,
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s a co-ed sitting next to me
writing notes about her boyfriend Ben."
When my department had our most recent review, we put forward names of people we thought would be useful outside evaluators. To a person, we put forward names of people from schools like our own, and so our expert had useful input.

Who hired your expert? Why didn't "you" hire someone from another CC? Who had input into the hiring?
You said that no one ever asks for less resources. This is because, without exception, one is punished for saying something like that, no matter how true.

People behave in ways that are rewarded. Figure out a way to reward saving money and people will save money. Is there any way a department could keep its savings as discretionary funds?

There's nothing more depressing than eliminating jobs through efficiency and making do with old equipment in the name of economy to see the group in the next office get the benefit of your efforts. That's what happens at my university - over and over and over. One quickly learns to "need" every time it comes up and ask with both hands out.

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
Interesting comment from Bardiac. Of course, the problem with bringing in experts that look "just like you" is that you get comments back that often times look "just like yours."

One of the things we preach constantly with regards to Benchmarking is to benchmark processes like yours, but ideally from leaders in that process outside your own industry. It's not just another set of eyes that we often need, it's another point of view. Certainly we all see the need to have someone come in with a fresh perspective.

This is actually one of those things that I find distressing in academia. I find little diversity in what I believe matters--ideas. Diversity of ideas leads to that classic thesis/antithesis, and then synthesis thing that we so often teach. If we constantly surround ourselves by those that think and act (and research) like ourselves, we may never see that alternative view that provides the "Eureka!" which could change the world!
"Since we lack consistent, objective, measurable criteria for success,"

This seems like the real problem to me. This isn't true for all departments, is it? For example, you do have a measure of success for the nursing curriculum, the number of students who become employed as nurses. Perhaps the other disciplines are not so easily pegged, but lacking all criteria would seems to render management nearly impossible.
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