Monday, July 31, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Mapping the Black Hole

A frustrated correspondent writes:

Once a department sends a request for hiring
authorization up to wherever it goes (you for
example), what happens to it?

All I know is that it is either approved or not. How
do folks at your level make that sort of decision?


It would be lovely to say that there’s a consistent method. Maybe, somewhere, there is.

Department chairs like to believe that there’s a natural number of positions to which a department is entitled. (It usually coincides with the historic peak, plus one.) Since they don’t have any budget responsibility beyond their own department, and salaries and benefits are covered by Academic Affairs, this is understandable. It’s also false.

Since the cost of health insurance has gone up faster than the cost of salaries, it’s no longer the case that an institution can break even when hiring two for one. (The old rule of thumb was that if someone at a senior rank retired, his departure freed up enough money for two new hires. This was true as long as salary was the bulk of the cost; now that health insurance has skyrocketed, this doesn’t hold anymore.) Now, if anything, we average one hire for every two departures, with the difference made up via an ever-swelling army of adjuncts. Say that two full professors retire, making 100k each and carrying two health packages, for a total cost of 240k. We hire one new professor at 50k, for a total cost of 70k. (Yes, I’m rounding with reckless abandon. It’s for illustrative purposes.) The difference (240k-70k=170k) is split between the cost of additional adjuncts (probably 10-15k) and trying to patch the chronic, yawning, expanding chasm in the college budget.

In practice, this means we practice a sort of triage in determining which new ‘lines’ (positions) are approved.

Considerations include, but are not limited to: availability of adjuncts in that discipline (English easy, Nursing hard); enrollment trends (don’t throw good money after bad); curricular coverage (going from 15 professors to 14 is one thing; going from one to zero is something else); relative ‘hotness’ of the field (we like to support growth); and accreditation (again, a field like Nursing that has its own special accrediting body gets special consideration). In my experience, interpersonal politics have been surprisingly marginal considerations, though I can’t vouch for other places. Since I’m at a cc, ability to raise research funds is not a consideration. I’m sure that’s different at other kinds of places.

What makes these decisions difficult is knowing that, say, the History department neither knows nor (especially) cares if the English department is just scraping by, and vice versa, so an explanation that strikes me as persuasive may strike the losing department as simply so much administrative bloviating. I’ve gathered that there’s a history of crying wolf when it comes to the budget, so now that we’re actually in the red as a college, many of the longer-term folk simply don’t believe it. Some have asked me to my face, indignantly, “where did the money go?” My short answer is “Blue Cross,” which doesn’t really satisfy them, even though it’s true.

Were we in flusher times, I’d expect to see more defaulting to historic norms, and more room for personal politics. As it is, we just try to stop the worst bleeding. It’s incredibly demoralizing, since I know firsthand what it means to be an adjunct with a Ph.D., and I’ve seen what can happen to departments that go too long between hires. But there just isn’t the fiscal slack to take a flyer on a new program, or to add positions to try to increase diversity. Growth in either of those areas has to come in the context of overall shrinkage.

(To forestall the anticipated flaming: my college also has fewer administrators than it used to. The pain has been spread widely.)

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

Friday, July 28, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: The Princeton Law School

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a senior in college, currently applying for grad school. My problem is that I am interested in a very specific area. However, the few top graduate schools I would love to go to do not specialise in this area and do not in fact have a sizeable faculty for such classes as well as thesis supervision. I could just go to a less-recognised school that specialises in my area of interest, and I do know some, but then I wouldn't be getting my PhD from the best school I am able to enter, given my grades. The dilemma now is, should I go to a less prominent school with less "name recognition" just so I can receive more attention on my pet topic, or should I just go to the "big name" schools, study the more general aspects and then think about focusing much later?


I’m reminded of the famous poll in which college presidents ranked the Princeton Law School as one of the top ten in the country. Princeton doesn’t have a law school. The halo effect of the name trumped objective reality.

I’ll ask my readers to chime in on this one, since I suspect it varies widely from field to field.

In my neck of the social sciences, there’s often a drastic disparity between a university’s overall reputation and its strength in my particular field. Some very well-known places are fairly weak in my area, and vice-versa. For my doctorate, I went for a university with a very strong program in my field, even though its overall brand name falls into the ‘respected but not revered’ category. The upside was that I was able to work with a large number of remarkable people, most of whom disagreed with each other. An environment like that forces you to step up, since there’s no groupthink on which to fall back when you don’t know what else to do. On the downside, people outside my little subfield don’t know which programs are strong and which weak, so it carried relatively little cachet on the job market. Since most colleges don’t carry multiple people in my little subfield, most hiring committees could only look at the general reputation of the university.

Grad school is not a time for free-form intellectual exploration. It’s a time to get a degree to get a job. In certain very well-defined disciplines, of the sort that are only taught at very large universities, it may well be the case that anybody who would hire you would know one program from another; in that case, overall school reputation really doesn’t mean much. If you’re in the kind of discipline that gets taught everywhere, though, you may find yourself eventually applying at small colleges that wouldn’t know one graduate program from another. In that case, the imprimateur of, say, Harvard would trump the fact that Harvard’s program in that area may not be the best.

I’ve written before on the general unadvisability of going to grad school in the first place, and I stand by that. If your field is in one of the crowded disciplines, and you can imagine yourself happy any other way, I’d advise against grad school. But if your mind is already made up to go, I’d make the call based on how widely your subject area is taught.

Wise and disparate readers: what do you think?

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

Thursday, July 27, 2006

 

Agrarian Calendars

According to IHE, Florida is considering moving some public colleges and universities to 12 month schedules, to increase capacity without building. My free advice, having worked in a 12 month academic environment for six years, is to be very careful what you wish for.

The impulse behind the idea makes a certain sense. Although faculty don’t like to admit it, the original idea behind the summer vacation wasn’t to give faculty time off to do research; it was to give students time off to help with the crops. Summer ‘vacation’ wasn’t a vacation as we know it; it was a shift of focus from inside work to outside work.

Over time, of course, we’ve moved away from an agrarian economy and culture, and most full-time jobs run twelve months. Academia has held on to the agrarian calendar, and a whole set of expectations has developed around it. For college faculty, summer is time to renew, but also to research. (For K-12 faculty, the ‘research’ component is much less relevant.) For students in the lower grades, summer is playtime. (In the tonier suburbs, playtime has become hyperscheduled and competitive. Leisure, ironically enough, is seen as the prerogative of the lower classes. This is without precedent, historically.) For students in the higher grades or in college, summer is time to earn small amounts of money doing scut jobs, possibly garnering unpaid internships to get a foot in the door of a chosen field.

Colleges have used summers to turn their attention to various fundraising activities. Although the popular imagination seems to think that college buildings gather cobwebs from May to September, most colleges have become quite resourceful about renting out facilities to community organizations, conferences, adult/continuing ed, and other profitmaking ventures to subsidize their core operations. For a college to go to a 12-month calendar would mean giving up those cash cows, forcing it to make its core operations self-sufficient.

For some idea of what that means, I can gloss the conditions at my former employer. Full-time faculty workloads were 45 credits per calendar year, divided evenly into three four-month semesters. (Interestingly, the adjunct percentage was no higher than at most lower-tier four year colleges.) There were no athletics, dramatic productions, dorms, or cultural events for the community. Tenure didn’t exist, and faculty were evaluated on criteria including, among other things, student drop/fail rates. The Admissions staff was large and well-compensated.

It wasn’t all bad, certainly. High turnover brought with it an openness to new ideas, and anybody with the energy to try things above and beyond the soul-crushing workload pretty much could. A clear institutional mission meant surprisingly minimal internal politics, since there were evident criteria for what fit and what didn’t.

All of that granted, though, the operational issues alone were staggering. Federal and state financial aid are both premised on the agrarian calendar, so a college (or system) that breaks from the agrarian calendar puts many students in a difficult position.

Even if the financial aid system were adjusted, which could and should happen, a college that went to a 12-month calendar would have to make some tough decisions about sports, staffing, and student life. Assuming three four-month semesters per year, would faculty teach two out of three, so they’d be staggered, with one-third away at any given moment? If so, faculty governance is pretty much dead in the water, since decisions are made by those who show up. (You’d also have to maintain a lot of dead office space at any given time, eating into the supposed efficiency savings.) Alternately, would faculty teach 12 months per year? If so, research expectations would have to be adjusted dramatically downward, as would courseloads for any given semester. Faculty attrition would skyrocket, which brings issues of its own.

Collegiate athletic leagues are based on the agrarian calendar, so a college that went to a 12 month calendar would quickly find itself badly out of sync with its leagues. Students wouldn’t be able to do summer internships without falling out of sequence with their cohorts. (This brings course-scheduling nightmares you would not believe.)

It’s also a fact of life that people take vacations. At my current college, faculty don’t get discretionary ‘vacation days,’ since they have the entire summer, a week in the Fall, a month at Christmas, and a week in the Spring without classes. Take those breaks away, and professionals will want vacations. If classes are always running, then the only time to take vacations will be when classes are running. This gets very ugly very quickly, since finding competent subs for upper-level college courses isn’t just a matter of finding a warm body. (“Differential Equations? No problem! X=2, right?”) In most professions, self-scheduled vacation isn’t as much of an issue, since people can cover for each other. In college-level teaching, that’s not a serious solution.

Speaking of facts of life, it was a frustrating-but-consistent fact at Proprietary U that the summer semester had lower enrollments than the others. We could talk about a 12-month calendar until we were blue in the face; students had a cultural expectation of a summer break, and plenty of them took it. Anyone who thinks that going from 2 semesters to 3 will bring about a 50 percent increase in productivity is simply delusional. (It’s analogous to solving a classroom crunch by running more 4 p.m. classes. It works on paper, but good luck getting students to sign up. Student preferences are much less manipulable than you might think.)

That’s not even addressing the impact on communities of losing access to the kinds of programs that colleges run during the summer, or of losing the cultural extras that colleges can provide when they have the cushion in the budget that cash-cow programs can provide.

My skepticism towards the 12 month calendar isn’t based on a misplaced nostalgia for agriculture – as my regular readers know, I’ll take central air in suburbia over sweating in the fields anytime, thank you very much – nor is it based on self-interest, since I already work a 12 month calendar anyway. (It’s one of the curses of administration.) It’s based on a sense that the people pushing it haven’t thought it through. When I hear complaints about academics getting summers off, they’re usually couched in a sort of populist resentment, rather than any kind of careful examination of the facts. It just isn’t that simple. It rarely is.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

 

Gee Whiz!

According to this article, a bunch of the dot-com vets have designed a car that runs entirely on electricity, at a fuel cost of about a penny a mile. The car is based on a high-end Porsche, and goes from zero to sixty in four seconds. It can go several hundred miles between recharges. It sells for less than the Porsche on which it’s based, and looks better. It’s a zippy, nifty little machine. As they improve the battery technology, they plan to roll out a significantly cheaper four-door sedan in the near future.

This story didn’t appear in any of the major media.

The part of the article that raised my eyebrows was the mention of parts outsourcing. Since the Big Three outsourced most of their parts-making to other companies (or spun off the companies altogether, like Delphi), they inadvertently lowered the barrier to entry for new companies to make cars. Now, a new carmaker can commission a designer, set a few techies to engineering efficiencies, and have Delphi make the windshield wipers.

Hmm.

Granted, the technology still has a ways to go. I remember my high-school physics class back in Northern Town in the 1980’s. My physics teacher told us that if we wanted to win the Nobel Prize, all we had to do was to come up with a more efficient battery. If batteries could be made more efficient, all manner of things would become possible.

It stuck with me, even though I was a complete idiot in physics. (She gave up on me after I once calculated ‘force’ in ‘kilometers.’ In my defense, as an American, I have a constitutional right to ignore the metric system.) Batteries? Really? How mundane!

Apparently, this was the source of the breakthrough.

The Big Three, when they did electric cars (for about ten minutes), did so using variations on the Sears Diehard. So the things ran for about twenty minutes before conking out, topping out at low speeds. The dot-com guys had the blindingly simple idea – what if we used the same high-efficiency batteries we use for laptops? According to the article, if you stitch together enough of them, you can do zero-to-sixty in four seconds.

(Granted, it would also crash every few hours, but they’re working on that.)

While it’s still in the cool-toy-for-rich-nerds phase, I’ll say confidently that if I worked for Ford, I’d be pooping construction materials right about now.

Why do we expect the Big Three (or even Toyota or Honda, for that matter) to come up with the next great breakthrough? Has that ever happened? Did blacksmiths invent the locomotive? Did railroad companies develop the Model T? Rabbits don’t lay eggs, and huge path-dependent corporations don’t suddenly change their product lines. If history is any guide, the likeliest course of development would be the first gradual, then rapid displacement of the traditional carmakers with startups. That would truly suck for certain communities in, say, Michigan, but it might not be a bad thing for the country as a whole, in the long run.

With a few refinements, this technology could be massive. Imagine the glory of stopping at a gas station once every…well, never. A penny a mile! (That’s a farthing per kilofurlong, or something.) Sheet. At 25 miles per gallon and 3 bucks a gallon, I’m currently paying about 12 cents per mile. Charge that puppy up in the garage when I get home, and never stop for gas. Pop some super-efficient photovoltaic thingies on the garage roof to supply the juice, and we’re in bidness. Suburbia lives!

(Yes, we’d have to figure out how to handle folks who park outside – apartment dwellers, say. This strikes me as fundamentally doable.)

Imagine the impact on American foreign policy. If we could get our oil consumption down to the point that we could satisfy the remaining needs between our reserves and Canada’s, we could tell certain unfriendly regimes to go jump in a lake.* That would be sweeet. They would suddenly run dry of petrodollars, forcing them to do something productive, instead of just counting our money and calling us Satan. Bin Laden’s money came from oil; this would hit him where it would really hurt. Move away from the economics of resource extraction, towards actually adding value.** That wouldn’t be so bad…

Now if we had a government that could actually do some basic math, maybe we could redirect tax deductions away from SUV’s (yes, they get tax deductions) and towards, say, battery research, or photovoltaic research. Wouldn’t that be something?

Sigh.

Okay, back to my skeptical self. It’s fun to air out the ‘gee whiz’ side every so often, though. Wouldn’t it be nifty if we had a high-performing technical substitution for oil, just as oil is starting to peak?

*A few months ago, I read that one of the mixed blessings of global warming is that with the arctic ice sheet melting, it’s getting easier to drill for oil up there, so Canada’s reserves are increasing. This is further proof, along with the platypus, that God has a sense of humor.

**Tom Friedman argues that countries whose economies are based on resource extraction, rather than taxes on their populations, will tend towards tyranny, since a government that doesn’t need its citizens is free to abuse them. It sounds right, although I hardly consider Canada or Norway tyrannical.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

 

Billing High Schools for Remediation

Over at Cold Spring Shops, there’s a suggestion that universities and four-year colleges should get out of the remediation business altogether, and outsource it to community colleges.* In response to an anticipated objection by me, to the effect that we get flak from aggrieved taxpayers for making them pay for the same course twice (that is, subsidizing us to teach material that they already paid to have taught in high school), the suggestion is that cc’s bill high schools for the instructional costs of remediation. After all, if the high schools had done their job right the first time, we wouldn’t need to remediate.

I’ve been cackling over this one, in a Snidely Whiplash sort of way.

There’s an undeniable poetic justice to it, and there would absolutely be a material incentive that would get the high schools’ attention PDQ. And I’m always up for sending more students and more funding to the cc. The mischievous part of my mind likes it, which is usually a sign that it’s a bad idea.

And it is, for several reasons.

First, and most obviously, it’s unenforceable. How far back do we go? What if the student goes out-of-state? What if a cc raises its tuition, and the high school doesn’t have the money for the increase? What if the student only needs remediation in one subject, but needs to take 12 credits for the coveted “full-time status” that keeps them eligible for financial aid and/or their parents’ health insurance? (This is incredibly common.) How long before evil proprietaries swoop in, and offer to allow students to do an end-run around the forced march to the cc? (I ask that one as a former employee of a proprietary.) How many four-year schools would have the intestinal fortitude to send half of an incoming class away? How many would they actually get back? (In reality, we’d see exceptions for athletes, then for legacies, then for people willing to pay extra, then for the litigious, then for…) A college forced to choose between teaching remedial courses and laying off swaths of employees would probably choose the former, if past practice is any guide.

(Rather than admitting it, they’d just lower the standards for passing the placement exam, and/or relabel ‘remedial’ or ‘developmental’ courses something like ‘prerequisite skills’ courses. I’ve seen it firsthand.)

Second, the taxpayers are still paying twice. Public high schools get their money from the taxpayers. If the high schools are suddenly billed by the cc, they’ll pay the bill with money raised from…wait for it…taxpayers. The substantive issue still stands.

Third, what do we do with students from other countries (which probably wouldn’t honor the tuition agreement)? Older students? Students with GED’s? Who do we bill for a high-school dropout? Someone who graduated before the new rules kick in? Someone from the neighboring county or state? (If they’re exempted, I’d expect to see informal exchange programs suddenly flourish. Online teaching makes that possible.) Are ESL courses properly considered ‘remedial,’ if the student was never taught English in the first place?

Fourth, if No Child Left Behind has taught us anything, it has taught us that high schools with financial guns at their heads are willing to play all kinds of games with numbers and tests. Entire states are lowering their standards to avoid the federally-mandated penalties for not meeting state standards. Add college tuition to the penalties, and the cheating will skyrocket. You heard it here first.

Fifth, an enterprising principal would do everything in her power to keep the risky kids from applying to college in the first place. Incentives cut both ways. I agree that college isn’t for everybody, but the opportunities for racial bias or linguistic bias or disability bias or just about any other bias you can name are just too glaring. Right now a high school can encourage each kid to go as far as his ability will take him; shift the incentive to reward early pruning, and early pruning ye shall have.

Sixth, the most powerful predictor of test performance, statistically speaking, is parental income. Overall, the lowest-income high schools would have the highest percentage of tuition penalties. Draining resources from the bottom of the economic ladder is not the way to improve academic performance there.

Seventh, local property taxes are regressive in the extreme. To the extent that high schools derive more of their budgets from local property taxes than cc’s do, shifting some of the cc funding burden to high schools would increase the overall reliance on regressive property taxes. Not good. If we want to avoid regressive transfers, which I read somewhere, then let’s avoid this.

None of this is to deny that better preparation in the high schools would be a wonderful thing for all concerned. Sure would. You betcha. And I’m all for constructive incentives, coupled with resources, to do that. I just don’t think this idea, as much fun as it is to think about, would work. The incentives, seemingly so straightforward at first blush, actually get pretty screwy if you try to apply them to messy reality.

*Depending on how you read it, it may only apply to flagship campuses. But if that’s the case, we’d have every reason to expect that rejected students would go to ancillary campuses of the same system, rather than cc’s. I went with a broader reading of the proposal to salvage its economic coherence.

Monday, July 24, 2006

 

In Which The Boy Demonstrates that Meaning is Not Transparent

The Wife took The Boy to mass. The Boy noticed the crucifix on the wall. Pointing, he asked:

"How did he escape?"

I never thought of it that way before...

 

Group Presentations

What’s the best way to handle group presentations when not all members of the group show up?

In my faculty days, I never found an elegant way around this. I was partial to group debates in some of my classes, and when they worked, they worked well. But there wasn’t enough class time to do one-on-one debates and include everybody, so they were usually three-on-three. And at least once in the sequence (and sometimes more), a team would be pressed into playing shorthanded.

I wasn’t happy with that, since it seemed to me to put undue pressure on the students who actually did what they were supposed to do, but aside from giving the absentee a zero, I wasn’t sure what else to do. We didn’t have time in the semester for makeups, and I didn’t want to reward absenteeism with extra preparation time. It also would have thrown the sequence of topics in the course out of whack, and with some students barely hanging on as it was, any added confusion was to be avoided.

In a perfect world, student peer pressure and the threat of shaming would be enough to cow even the most devoted slacker into putting in at least a token effort. At some small, residential colleges, that might actually suffice. But at commuter colleges with some students who are, um, let’s go with ‘easily distracted,’ it’s pretty much a given that some kids will simply flake.

Since plenty of academic bloggers have used exercises like these, I’ll try to tap into the electronic brain. Has anyone out there found an elegant solution to the problem of absenteeism on group presentation days?

Friday, July 21, 2006

 

The Curmudgeon Factor

IHE has a piece about a spat at MIT that highlights The Curmudgeon Factor.

Long overdue, I say.

Is any other industry as prone to curmudgeons as academia? They’re thick on the ground in higher ed.

I would define a curmudgeon as someone who is consistently negative and always believes he’s right, even though he never actually offers a positive alternative to anything. He just stands back and criticizes, fairly and unfairly, and generally spreads gloom and frustration in his wake. In my observation, they tend to be older and male (Andy Rooney is the mild version), though that’s not universal or necessary.

What motivates curmudgeons?

Admittedly, we all have a little Andy Rooney in us, and the occasional barbed comment can be both clarifying and refreshing. (One of my faves: in grad school, a usually-decorous colleague read aloud an especially florid paragraph from some Authority Figure that included the phrase “my two cents.” She harrumphed, “I’ll give you a quarter if you just stop writing.” I spat my coffee.) A very small amount of that, carefully crafted and selectively used, is a good thing.

Curmudgeons have no sense of the proper dosage.

I remember a professor in grad school who spent two hours of a seminar discussing the right and wrong ways to yell at secretaries. We kept begging him to come back to the official topic; he declined, saying that this was more important. He also wore a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap with his brown corduroy jacket and too-small oxford shirt, straining at each buttonhole. Yes, he had tenure. In many years of observing him, I never, not once, ever noticed him admit a mistake. His students always took forever to finish their dissertations, since nothing gave him greater pleasure than finding fault with the work of other people.

To my mind, curmudgeons are different from garden-variety eccentrics. Eccentricity is colorful but not harmful – a weird fashion sense, say, or a pronounced fixation on some randomly-chosen piece of cultural detritus. I’ve always imagined the British do ‘eccentric’ better than we do, since they have a more finely-tuned sense of class differences, and more defined (or archaic) rules of etiquette. Given Americans’ denial of class differences and relatively watered-down etiquette, ‘eccentric’ just registers as ‘weird,’ which is nowhere near as interesting.

Curmudgeons are nastier than eccentrics. They insist on exporting their own brand of eccentricity to others, and thinking badly of whomever doesn’t share it, which means, pretty much, everybody. They despise change, even though they complain about the status quo. Whether this stems from disappointment with their lives or some sort of chemical imbalance, I don’t know, but I know they’re toxic and they’re rampant in academe.

The incident in the IHE story shows some of the impact of curmudgeonliness. There, a crabby older tenured professor decided to pitch a hissy fit to keep out a promising, younger, female prospective colleague. The bulk of the article addresses whether younger folk should appease curmudgeons or avoid them, neither of which I find terribly appealing, since in both cases the curmudgeon is indulged and the young folk pay the price.

How do you spray for curmudgeons? How do you prevent infestations? Once they’re entrenched (tenured, say), how do you dislodge them? Any practical ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

 

If I Ran the Media...

I’m way too cranky from the heat to put together something thoughtful and wry, but some bullets of snark are well within range. And since it would be professionally unwise to train my sniper fire where I work, I’ll pick on a big, dumb, slow-moving target. If I Ran The Media…

I’d pass a rule banning reporters from ending stories by saying “one thing’s for sure…”

I’d also pass a rule that they can’t go ‘live’ to a reporter who has nothing to say about the story at hand. (“we don’t know yet exactly what happened…” Report when you do.)

Am I the only one tired of the ‘crawl’ at the bottom of the screen?

How about some actual, honest-to-goodness data checking? When, say, two parties make empirical claims, how about actually testing them against some %&#*($# empirical evidence?

Context, context, context. Distressingly, only The Daily Show even attempts this, and they do it mostly to set up jokes. Instead of just jumping into “violence erupted again today in the Middle East” (the AP has a macro for that phrase), set up the story with a few minutes of thumbnail background. Yes, it would require fewer stories per hour and some actual *$#%*&#% research, but at least we’d have a clue what was going on. Hell, maybe after the story you could have academic experts with different perspectives offer interpretations without cutting each other off. The experts could be different for each issue, since each issue has its own context.

Move Robin Meade to prime time. I’m not made of stone, people…

As far as entertainment goes…

Enough of the forensics shows. Part of me worries that we’re offering criminals free tutorials on how to get away with stuff.

More animation! I’ve noticed that the likelihood of a show not sucking is much higher if it’s animated: Dr. Katz (now on DVD!), The Critic, Drawn Together, Family Guy, South Park, American Dad, Robot Chicken, and, of course, The Simpsons. Compare to, say, According to Jim. I mean, please.

Memo to PBS: No more Peter, Paul, and Mary. So very, very tired.

How about hiring some actresses larger than size two, and having them play attractive characters? Romantic leads, not sidekicks. In the real world, many attractive women are larger than size two. And let’s be done with plots like “Heather Graham can’t find a guy.” Puh-leeze.

Explosions are boring.

I shudder to think what future anthropologists will make of Fear Factor.

Why are characters in comedies always unrealistically wealthy? (This is especially true of the attractive-twentysomething-singles-in-the-city comedies.) How about some comedies based on the sheer dreariness of sucky, low-paying jobs? The Office suggests that it can be done, and of course Roseanne had a good run. (I recently saw Must Love Dogs, and couldn’t get past the economics of it. Struggling grad student drives beemer convertible with leather seats? Struggling soulful divorced guy hand-carves rowing sculls out of teak, doesn’t sell any, and lives in fabulous loft? Give. Me. A. Break.) How about no more comedies based on working at magazines or tv shows until we get some based on working at Wal-Mart or temping? Hell, temping lends itself, since the workplace could change every few episodes. The Adventures of Supertemp, starring, say, Linda Cardellini. It practically writes itself.

Does anyone else remember the beloved-but-mostly-unwatched 90’s show Homicide? Do you remember the guy who played evil smooth drug dealer Luther Mahoney? Get that guy back on tv. He had the Kevin Spacey-ish gift of giving you the creeps just by standing there. Great villain.

Kudos to whomever titled Snakes on a Plane. I like titles that tell you what the movie is about. In that case, I’m guessing it’s about snakes on a plane.

How about a show or movie with Italian-American characters who aren’t involved in crime or restaurants?

A realistic portrayal of academia might be nice.

What would you do if you ran the media?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

 

This One's Personal

My Dad is very sick. He has to use a walker, and has trouble lifting his arms.

Today, President Bush saw fit, for the first time in his Presidency, to use his veto power. To prevent research on treatments for the disease that makes it hard for Dad to breathe.

Shame on this President. Shame on him.

Were I a man of greater faith, I’d take comfort knowing that this smug son of a bitch is going to burn in hell.

As it is, there are no words.

 

Shooting the Messenger

By necessity, I’ve been diving more deeply into a very messed-up situation. In trying to figure out hot it got so messed up, I’ve discovered the shoot-the-messenger syndrome again.

When shoot-the-messenger becomes standard operating procedure, the long-term results are utterly predictable: small problems will grow into big problems, because people low on the food chain with relevant knowledge will keep their mouths shut. Over the long term, shooting the messenger guarantees disaster. That’s pretty much what happened in this case: people high on the food chain made some pretty uninformed decisions, but nobody beneath them who knew better felt safe saying anything. So nobody did, the consequences snowballed, and now we have a full-blown fiasco.

(From what I’ve read, this is almost exactly how the Bush Presidency operates, with tragic consequences.)

I’ve never seen a compelling argument in favor of shooting the messenger. Most people agree, when asked, that it’s a terrible idea. Yet the behavior persists. Why?

Admittedly, messengers are imperfect, and sometimes even implicated. Messengers will present information in the light that makes them look best, so a certain discounting can be in order. And everybody gets crabby sometimes. There are crunch times during the semester when I’m simply on overload, so I’ll push back a meeting or defer a discussion until I’m better able to handle it. But that’s seldom more than a day, and usually not more than an hour. And I don’t hold it against the messenger; if anything, I apologize for the delay.

Messenger-shooting goes way beyond that. It involves questioning the loyalty of anyone who raises uncomfortable points, even to the level of terminating them.

I think, in part, it comes from impatience with passive-aggressive foot-dragging. Folks who know think they’ll be around a long time can fight a project they don’t like simply by complying in the most minimal way possible, maximizing the nitpicking along the way. They can inflict the death of a thousand cuts, all the while protesting that their hands are clean, that they only want what’s best. Once you’ve seen that a few times, it’s easy to start brushing aside nitpicky, detail-y objections as little more than whining or work avoidance (which they are, sometimes). If you try to design an initiative or project to the point that nobody anywhere can possibly raise any objections, you will try forever. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do it, objections and all. The bigger, more expensive, more visible, and/or more important the project, the more objections you’ll just have to live with. Leaders know this. Some people will complain that their objections were ignored, and will use terms like “high-handed” or “arrogant” to characterize the decision-makers; this is simply the price of progress.

On related lines, sometimes the options at hand both suck, if in varying degrees. People who aren’t paying very close attention – that is, most people – won’t see the dilemma; they’ll just see the option that got selected. Elements of that option will suck. The folks who made the call probably have some idea of the downsides, and, being human, aren’t terribly keen on constantly being reminded.

And of course, sometimes messengers are wrong. I’ve heard a fair number of whacked-out explanations from the trenches over the years, enough to know not to fall for the “if the grapevine says it, it must be true” fallacy. Sources of error can range from personal vendettas, to connecting the unconnected, to an inability to do math, to forgetting to put on the tinfoil hat. These all happen. Combine enough of these, over the years, with enough instances of passive-aggressive foot-dragging, and I could see how seasoned leaders could get pretty jaded.

It’s after you commit that you learn the difference between passive-aggressive slackers and people with the best interests of the organization at heart. By then, of course, it may be too late.

We have new leadership at the college, but most of the lower-level folks date back to the previous regime. Convincing a generation that spent a generation learning to keep its collective head down to speak the truth is tricky. Trust builds slowly, and problems mount quickly. With each week, I discover some new nightmare buried under layers of denial. At what point the balance will tip and we’ll start actually gaining ground, I don’t know. I hope it’s soon, though. The cost of continued foot-dragging is getting prohibitive.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

 

Hot Deaning Action

My office is at the very end of the ductwork for its building, which is to say, it isn’t air conditioned in any meaningful way. It also has nice big windows, so the greenhouse effect is pronounced. This week, according to the National Weather Service, it’s approximately 10,000 degrees outside, which means my office is about 9,000.

I am not a happy camper.

The rest of the building is hit-and-miss; one professor actually stopped me in the hallway today to complain that the chocolates she had left in her office for a week had melted. She seemed to think that I have some sort of control over building temperature. If I did, I’d start by getting my office temperature down into the double digits.

At one point it got so bad that I actually moved a meeting out of my office into another building, just to escape the heat. If it gets much worse, my office will start to look like a Dali painting.

I’ll just admit it: I simply don’t understand the apparent national mania for moving South. Leaving aside the red state/blue state thing, the NASCAR thing, and all the various cultural signifiers, it’s also *#%#)% HOT down there. (And I’m not fooled for a minute by the whole “palmetto bug” scam. I know a cockroach when I see one. They also have hurricanes and Republicans.) I’ll take cold over hot anytime. At least with cold, you can add layers.

It’s hard to look appropriately decanal when you’re visibly sweaty. I don’t think the college is ready, culturally, for a dean in shorts, but I’m _this close_ to trying it. (Last week Danigirl did a post about a supposed no-miniskirts-after-35 rule. I may have to do a no-deans-in-shorts query. Nothing lycra, just some tasteful long khaki numbers. Waddaya think?) And a fan is out of the question, given all the loose paper in here. But I need to do something, because it’s hard to maintain the appropriate external quietude when you’re too close to a literal boiling point.

Oh, Blogosphere, I seek your wisdom. Assuming the windows don’t open, a fan isn’t realistic, and the a/c is mostly theoretical, how do you keep cool at work in July?

Monday, July 17, 2006

 

The Passing Lane

You know that awful feeling when you’re driving in the right lane, and you’re behind someone who’s going a good 15 below the speed limit, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it because the left lane is going so much faster than you that you can’t move over without getting rear-ended? So you’re stuck behind this idiot precisely because he’s going so slowly?

That’s what it’s like when you’re trying to manage during budget cuts.

Budget cuts happen when the normal state of affairs isn’t getting the job done. They have the effect of taking away any slack in the budget, focusing only on the existing essentials. Paradoxically, they make future budget cuts more likely, since they prevent the development of new strengths that would make future cuts unnecessary.

As with job hunting, the best time to make changes is when you don’t need to. By the time you need to, it’s almost too late.

My college is taking another budgetary hit, and it’s putting a damper on developing the new programs and facilities that we need to develop to avoid taking even more hits. Phrases like ‘hiring freeze’ are being bandied about. Hiring freezes are incredibly blunt instruments that pretty much guarantee institutional decline, since they restrict the range of local expertise to what you already have, which is what got you in trouble in the first place. So we need to get into the passing lane, but we don’t have enough power to get up to speed quickly enough.

It’s frustrating. Since most of the expense in higher ed is labor, and labor is unlike other costs of production in that you can’t just set people aside, unused, indefinitely, any new program will involve taking on substantial new long-term costs. Since the costs are immediate but the resultant revenue prospective, you need some slack in the budget when you develop the new program. It takes money to make money. When we have to cut back, and most of our labor is tenured, the easiest cuts to make are in the area of people not-yet-hired.

Making matters worse, it’s possible to get grant money for equipment and even for buildings, but nearly impossible to get it for faculty salaries. (I’m told things are different at research universities; here I’m talking about cc’s.) In my state, the legislature is willing to entertain multi-billion dollar bond issues for higher ed construction, to address a capacity shortage, but is simultaneously cutting our operating funds. So we can build new classrooms, but we can’t hire anybody to teach in them. (If I were a cynical sort, I’d suggest that building contractors are politically connected. Good thing I’m not a cynical sort.)

In the relative boom years before I got here, the college let tuition go unraised for several years on end. As a result, no significant new programs were developed, and the faculty was allowed, gradually, to shrink. We’re paying for that now. Had the college raised tuition even just enough to keep up with inflation, there would have been enough slack in the budget for a few projects to get off the ground, generating enough enrollment gain to keep us going more steadily during the rough years. But noooo….

Someday, somewhere, I hope to manage during growth. Just by the damn law of averages, if I stick around long enough…

Friday, July 14, 2006

 

In Praise of Ad-Hockery

My college, like every college in the known universe, has plenty of standing committees. Most of the committees on the academic side are peopled with stalwarts – department chairs who have held their positions since the Carter administration, mostly, and their hangers-on. Since everybody has dirt on everybody else, and everybody has been trapped in the same sandbox for far too long, protocol has become increasingly baroque.

Since the only thing everybody can agree upon is process, process has become a goal unto itself. I’ve seen, and I’m not making this up, a committee spend the first half-hour of its meeting going over the minutes of the previous meeting. I wanted to die. I only got through it by thinking of it as a Seinfeld episode gone horribly wrong. To make matters worse, the folks who write the minutes are usually terrible writers, so we actually correct grammar. During the meeting. In lieu of actual business.

Your tax dollars at work.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of an ad hoc committee that had been convened to address a new issue. The meeting was just over an hour, and insanely productive; it was probably the single most productive meeting I’ve seen here. I actually congratulated the chair when it was over.

Reflecting on it, it was different from the standard college meeting in several ways:

- Since the committee had no history, there were no minutes and no baroque internal protocols.

- Since the committee had been drawn up specifically to address one issue, everyone there was relevant to that issue. Nobody was there ‘ex officio,’ or to represent a constituency.

- The committee consisted of a cross-functional mix that hadn’t been tried before, so nobody had familiar ruts to fall into. Interaction occurred between people who rarely deal with each other.

- We had data.

- The average age on the committee was about 15 years younger than on any other committee on which I’ve served here. It was striking, and, frankly, refreshing. Nobody impugned anybody’s motives, nobody got on a moral high horse, and nobody tried to score political points. Nobody did the Old Fart Two-Step: “I refuse to allow that, because I have integrity.” (In my experience, the people who most frequently use the word ‘integrity’ and the people who actually exemplify it are two distinct groups.) The entire tone of the group was “we’ve got a problem, how are we going to fix it?” In the very best sense of the word, it was businesslike.

Obviously, we could never have gotten away with something this efficient during the regular academic year. During the year, we’d have to have a bunch of department chairs, and reps from all of the unions, and it would quickly become encrusted with all of the usual procedural baggage that prevents actual discussion. This was only possible because it was below the radar, and that was only possible because the problem is both sudden-onset and in need of resolution before September.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a lesson in here somewhere. Focused committees, with data, and unusual combinations of people, some of whom are under fifty, with periodic reshufflings to prevent stasis, and sunset clauses for committees that have solved the problem they were formed to address. Hmm...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

 

Reward or Fix?

We’re doing budget dances again.

With steadily dwindling resources, now we have to make choices between rewarding programs that have achieved growth, and fixing programs that have sprung leaks in recent years. It’s pretty much either/or; we don’t have the money to do both.

The problem is that either solution on its own is wrong.

If we take the ‘money sends messages’ approach and use what little we have to reward the areas that have grown, we will continue to bleed out in the other areas. If we shore up the holes, we will be punishing success. Neither is good.

(And no, ‘academic considerations’ don’t solve the issue. From an academic standpoint, which is more important: chemistry or biology? Me, neither.)

I suspect that, over the long term, the answer will be to abandon the idea of the “comprehensive” community college, in favor of a statewide system of community colleges with different strengths. (Boutique majors could be hosted at particular campuses, with online sections open to students across the entire state.) But that’s the kind of strategic decision best made deliberately, with forethought, broad discussion, and statewide buy-in. It’s not the kind of thing to decide on the fly, unilaterally, at one college. (“Okay, you guys in the next county over can take over nursing; we just want the chalk-and-talk majors. That work for you?” Uh-huh.) And we can’t base long-term strategic decisions on who happens to decide to retire next semester. (Even if we tried, retirements have a frustrating habit of happening in the wrong places, or happening all-of-a-sudden, or, in some departments, not happening at all for decades at a time.)

At some point, I think we’ll have to make a choice between doing a whole lot of things not-so-well or a few things well. I’d vote for the latter; others may disagree. But this isn’t the moment to make that call.

(Back in 2000, when The Wife and I were house-hunting, I briefly worked with one realtor who wanted me to carry around a cell phone at all times, because anything that came on the market in that town would go within an hour. I stopped working with him; there was no way that we would make that kind of decision in that kind of time.)

The frustrating likely outcome is that we’ll split the difference, meaning that some weak areas will continue to wither and some strong areas will get little more than a hearty handshake. Departments will dig in their heels, turf battles will escalate, accusations will fly, the state will continue to send contradictory signals, and the muddling-through will get just a little harder each year.

Grumble.

If it were easy, anybody could do it…

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

 

The Twoddler

Yesterday was The Girl’s second birthday. We brought up a little table and chairs from the basement into the living room, and The Wife bought a little tea set to put on it. We set it up in the living room the night before, and when she came downstairs in the morning, The Girl actually squealed with delight.

Shockingly, The Boy played nicely, even acting as a waiter while TG sat at the table! How he knew to do that, I have no idea.

The gender differences kick in early. She inherited many of The Boy’s toys, but she’s indifferent to almost all of them (except an Elmo cell phone and legos). But she loves her dollies, and the little tea set sent her over the moon.

TG is a charmer. A few nights ago we all went for a walk, resolved that the kids would walk the entire way. TG kept asking me to pick her up, but I held the line stoically for three of the four turns. On that final turn, though, her little face was just too much to resist, so she rode my shoulders the rest of the way, giggling at the altitude. It’s a dangerous lesson, I know, but there’s a level of cuteness that constitutes a kind of force majeure. I’m not made of stone, people.

For the big day, The Wife’s parents came over for a little celebration. When TW mused that TG isn’t a toddler anymore now that she’s two, The Boy chimed in, “she’s a twoddler.” (pronounced ‘toodler’) It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

TG is still young enough that we’re able to get away with avoiding a Big Party, so we’re having a series of little ones all week. My Mom came over on Sunday, TW’s parents came over yesterday, and TG’s little friends are coming over today. TG loves the attention, and thrills to every gift (unlike another child I could name, who tosses aside clothes as if they’re contaminated).

It’s heartbreaking to know that The Girl will never be this age again. She has been a remarkably well-behaved, low-maintenance baby – unlike another child I could name, who could be likened to a woodpecker on meth – but she’s slowly becoming a little girl. Someday she won’t even be that anymore. Twoddlers aren’t twoddlers forever. Someday she’ll speak in paragraphs, and decide she knows everything, and swoon over idiot teenagers, and pity her ignorant parents whose loathsome existence she tolerates only because she can’t afford rent.

But there’s time for that later. We took lots of pictures, and everybody stayed up a little late. We all climbed onto The Boy’s bed and read Happy Birthday to You, by Dr. Seuss. When I took her back to her crib, she contentedly went down for the night with her stuffed Grover in one arm and her stuffed Santa in the other. For now, all is right with her world. The rest can wait.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

 

Higher Ed as Economic Savior?

Apropos of my minor obsession with the economic conditions in Northern Town, the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a story noting that the University of Rochester is now the largest employer in Rochester. A quick check on the always-reliable Wikipedia (I know, I know…) reveals that SUNY-Buffalo is the largest employer in Buffalo, and Syracuse University the largest employer in Syracuse. Binghamton University (a.k.a. SUNY-Binghamton) is the largest employer in the Greater Binghamton region, which is almost an oxymoron. I’m starting to see a pattern here…

Higher ed makes an awfully dicey economic engine for a city, especially when it’s just a single institution and a fair-sized city. (Boston succeeds with gazillions of colleges and universities, and Ann Arbor does quite well by being not much bigger than the University of Michigan, but those are exceptional cases.) Colleges and universities (other than proprietaries) are tax-exempt, so unlike other employers, they don’t pay property taxes. (In the Northeast especially, that’s a big deal.) They generally don’t grow very fast, when they grow at all. With the increased reliance on adjunct faculty, they don’t pay as many middle-class salaries as they once did, even as total employee headcount increases. Students come and go, generally supporting a few local pizza places, bars, and slumlords, and not much else.

The article lists several cities all trying to adopt essentially the same strategy: establish public-private partnerships to encourage biotech spinoffs from the local university that will take root in the local community. (Rochester is using optics, rather than biotech, but the rest is essentially the same.) The idea is that cutting-edge university research will lead to commercially-viable breakthroughs that will generate massive local employment, bringing prosperity in its wake.

The strategy is good, as far as it goes, but it goes only so far.

For one thing, much university research isn’t geared towards immediate commercial applicability. Pretty much everything in the humanities and social sciences falls off the radar, and that’s the core of higher education. Business schools produce research, but the research itself, as far as I know, rarely leads directly to start-ups. Even in the favored ‘techie’ areas, it’s impossible to know in advance what’s going to be ‘hot’ in five years. At my previous college, many of the companies that served on our industry advisory boards and (quite arrogantly) told us what to do in 1999 were bankrupt by 2002. Any research of a level good enough to result in breakthroughs is years in the making, so jumping on the biotech bandwagon now is a riskier move than it may first appear.

I’m a big believer in higher education (which is why I criticize it so much – I want it to be better. The same applies to my government). It’s a good thing in itself, and I think it has very beneficial long-term economic and political effects on the country as a whole. That’s different from saying that SUNY-Buffalo will save Buffalo.

There’s nothing unusual in students taking the education they got in Grad School City and moving elsewhere. It’s normal, natural, to be expected, and not bad. Yes, it would be nice for Grad School City if more grads stuck around and started the next Dell Computers there, but you can’t guarantee that.

There’s also an inherent tension between the universalist/cosmopolitan aspirations of higher education, and the parochial boosterism of public-private partnerships. There’s nothing unusual about research universities going across the country (or into other countries) to raid superstars; it’s simply how the game is played. At the upper echelons of higher ed, place-loyalty is considered quaint, at best. A little is nice, but too much would get in the way of the pursuit of the cutting edge. Resources spent on town/gown events are resources not spent on labs.

The economic-development approach to thinking about higher ed carries other dangers. Community colleges can justify ourselves as low-cost feeders and workforce developers. Research universities can justify themselves as grant engines and incubators. How do mid-level four year colleges justify themselves? Even if SUNY-Buffalo carries some economic charge, does SUNY-Oneonta? Fredonia? Potsdam?

(Answer: they weren’t designed for that.)

I don’t blame these cities for trying. I can imagine a hypothetical conversation with the mayor of Northern Town:

Me: You know, higher ed is a dicey choice for an economic engine.

Mayor: As opposed to…?

Well, yeah. If every other major employer in your area is either dead or dying, and the local university is holding its own or growing, what else are you going to do? It may not be what GM or Kodak or U.S. Steel was back in the day, but it’s the best of the currently available options. Universities don’t usually pack up and move, they bring cultural events and educated people to the community, and once in a while, they generate strike-it-rich breakthroughs.

(A quick aside on behalf of my libertarian/conservative readers: the tax exemptions that make colleges and universities less desirable economic engines also make them less likely to be driven out of town by high taxes. If I don’t pay taxes anyway, do I really give a rip about the rate I’m not paying? Other employers might flee a city as its taxes rise, but colleges generally won’t, in part because they don’t have to. To a city in death spiral of raising rates on a declining tax base, this is not a minor consideration. A quick ‘thank you’ to my libertarian/conservative readers for pointing this out. Some universities pay PILOTs – payments in lieu of taxes – to the towns in which they’re located, but there are natural limits to that. PILOTs are voluntary, and easy for a university to forego when times get tough.)

To indulge in a little prognostication, I foresee some public favor for research universities and community colleges, but rough sailing ahead for the nondescript four-year colleges. CC’s are cheaper than everyone else, and open to everybody. Research universities can sell the prospect of generating the next Dell. The local nothing-special former teacher’s college can, um, uh…

Of the cities mentioned, Rochester looks to have the most hope. Its big-three private employers – Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb – all do a lot of work with optics, so both RIT and the U of Rochester have developed specializations in optics, and have already generated a few spinoffs. That’s something, at least. At least in that case, the specialization grew out of local conditions, rather than being imposed upon them (biotech in Bethlehem? Really?).

Even there, though, I can’t imagine higher ed saving the city. A good university or two (or three) can be a valuable supporting player in a city, but it can’t be the lead. The lead has to come from the taxpaying sector. That’s not a criticism of the universities; it’s just a recognition that economic development is an ancillary benefit of a university, while profit is the primary function of a company. Goodwill is a fine thing, but priorities matter.

Monday, July 10, 2006

 

A Management Book Actually Gets It Right!

On the recommendation of MBB, I just finished Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). It’s an attempt to apply evidence-based analysis to management theories. (It's following in the footsteps of 'evidence-based medicine' and sabermetrics.)

As a critique of management theories, it’s surprisingly readable and cogent. I may work up a more thoughtful response after I've had time to think it through, but there’s a passage that described my life so perfectly that I literally laughed out loud:

[W]e overattribute actions and consequences to individuals rather than to the constraints under which they operate…This is where an organization hires one apparently brilliant person after another, and then places them in the same badly designed jobs in the same badly designed system. Each new incumbent seems smart and savvy until they start the job, and in a flash they start acting stupid. We first noticed this syndrome by watching friends who took jobs as deans and associate deans in business schools. These jobs come with much responsibility but little authority and few resources. Demands from students, faculty, staff, university administrators, companies, and alumni are intense, unrealistic, and in conflict. These jobs are hard, perhaps impossible, to do well. But that doesn’t stop virtually every major constituency from focusing attention on the incumbent’s personality and skills rather than the impossibility of doing the job. To most observers, it seems like every ounce of intelligence, common sense, and skill is sucked out of people the minute they become academic administrators. Much the same thing happened at NASA, where the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was dismayed to see that, although most of the people had been changed, the same system produced the same mistakes seen 17 years earlier – it was a system that made it difficult for smart people to do smart things. (p. 102)


So at least I’m in good company. Deans, and the people who blew up two shuttles.

The point of their analysis was that when smart people keep falling flat in the same way, the problem usually isn’t the people; it’s the system. Very few people ever really look at it that way, since people are visible and systems aren’t (or aren’t easily), and blaming is easier than thinking.

Astute readers of my blog will notice that my complaints about academia, and they are many, are almost always couched in systemic terms. That’s not because every flaw is systemic; it’s because personal flaws are both idiosyncratic and (often) obvious. I’m trying to highlight the non-obvious stuff that torpedoes even well-intentioned, intelligent people, usually in the naïve hope that bringing it out into the open will make it easier to address. (Pseudonymity actually helps with that, since it takes some personal quirks out of the picture.)

Just to give one example of the kind of constraints Pfeffer and Sutton are talking about: approximately one-fifth of one percent of my overall budget is ‘discretionary.’ And even that paltry sum has to be left alone, for the occasional blown projector bulb (those suckers are five hundred bucks a pop!), sudden software upgrades made necessary by hardware upgrades, and the like. I am routinely excoriated by tenured faculty for not purchasing whatever six-figure piece of hardware they want for their program. My ‘no’ is taken as conclusive evidence, as if any more were needed, that administrators are vile, scum-sucking cretins, unworthy of drawing air. Surely, if I had any academic integrity whatsoever, I would go out back, shake my secret dean’s-money-tree, and hand over a blank check. That’s what managers do, right?

It must be nice to be so untroubled by facts, and so completely unaccountable for being wrong. This, from people whose job it is to be smart.

Later in the book, Pfeffer and Sutton capture better than I have what I consider the essence of good management, and what I keep trying to do:

Perhaps the best way to view leadership is as the task of architecting [ouch – call the verb police!] organizational systems, teams, and cultures – as establishing the preconditions for others to succeed. (p. 200)


Yup. That’s the art part. Set up the background conditions such that motivated, intelligent people can do their best work. Some of that involves money, of course, but much of it doesn’t.

The limiting factors here, other than money, are several. Some people have carved out comfy little niches for themselves in the interstices of irrational systems, and will defend those systems to the death. Some people really aren’t motivated at all, and would prefer not to have attention called to that fact. Some people don’t respond to messages unless they’re physically beaten over the head with them; a management style based on background conditions is too subtle for them to notice. And some people are just batshit crazy, and tenured.

Still, it’s gratifying to see a tome on management that doesn’t rely on moving cheese, glowing profiles of people who made their fortunes by abusing others, or The Seven anything. And anybody who can distill deaning to a paragraph (accurately!) has won my respect.

Now, if only I can convince the state to adopt evidence-based budgeting…

 

Scale

I took The Boy to a planetarium show this weekend. The announcer mentioned, as part of the show, that many scientists believe that hundreds of millions of years from now, our solar system will crash into another one.

The Boy (earnestly, whispering): I’d better wear a helmet!

Friday, July 07, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: If You Knew Then...

A new correspondent writes:


I have been approached to consider being dean of a
very small private college. Having not worked in
academia very long I wonder what would be the first
three questions you would ask your potential employer
and what things have you learned that you wish you
knew on the first day of your job. Finally, knowing
then, what you know now, would you change from
teaching to administration?


You’ve been approached? Damn. Every job I’ve landed has involved campaigning.

Since my experience has been on the academic side (as opposed to, say, dean of admissions), I’ll focus on that.

Several (more than three, I’m afraid) quick questions to start:

- Does the position carry tenure, or, at least, tenure-eligibility? If you fall out of political favor, will there be a job for you on the faculty, or will you be out on the sidewalk?

- Assuming that department chairs report to you, how long have they been in their positions? Are they elected or appointed? Fixed terms? Term limits? Chairs-for-life?

- Why is the position open?

- How long has the VP/Provost been there? The President?

- How many full-time faculty are there? How many were there, say, five years ago? Is the change noticeable?

- Is the faculty unionized?

- What is the single most contentious issue on campus?

- In ballpark terms, what are the demographics of the students? (The culture of a spoiled-rich-kid school will be different from that of a first-generation-college school, which, in turn, will be different from a we-take-our-religion-very-seriously school.)

- How long does it take a new program to get approved? (If the answer is “what’s a new program?,” run.)

- How much of your budget is discretionary? (Sometimes it’s labeled ‘contingency.’) Does your college operate on use-it-or-lose-it?

- How long until the next reaccreditation visit? What’s the biggest issue the college needs to address by then? (Hint: it’s usually ‘outcomes assessment.’ If you aren’t familiar with that, you’ll need to get familiar with it.)

- How does the college distinguish itself from its competitors?

- Does the Dean’s office have a secretary of its own? (You’d be surprised how many don’t.) This should be a deal-breaker.

- Are there any immediate plans for construction or renovation on campus? (These projects are always, without exception, money-sucking nightmares.)

I’d also ask about usual recruitment practices. Since you’re apparently being courted, I’d ask about how vacancies are usually filled. Does the college usually do advertised searches with committees, promote from within, and/or go by personal connections? You can learn quite a bit from the answer to that.

A few questions to ask yourself:

- Can you keep your cool while being falsely accused by people who have tenure, and are completely insulated from the consequences of their own statements and actions?

- Are you comfortable with being a ‘public figure,’ and all of the scrutiny (both fair and unfair) that goes along with that?

- Do you have a clear idea of what ‘success’ in your position would mean? Other than preventing flare-ups, what would be your primary job function?

- Would you be insanely jealous of the folks who get to teach for a living? (I’m prone to bouts of this.)

I would do it again, but my teaching career was at a proprietary school where the annual teaching load was 5/5/5 and faculty weren’t eligible for tenure. Administration was my escape hatch. If I had a more traditional tenured position with a courseload closer to the industry standard, I’d have to think long and hard about it.

(A word about salaries: overheated faculty fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding, the salary premium for a dean is shockingly low, considering the increased number of hours you have to be around. Presidents make a lot, and vp’s do okay, but at smaller and non-elite schools, anything below vp shouldn’t be taken for the money. The situation may be different at research universities and/or elite colleges.)

Wise readers: what questions would you add?

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

Thursday, July 06, 2006

 

Thoughts, Now in Fun Size!

- Why is it that, in the Northeast, house numbers usually start in the single digits (5 Main Street), but in the Midwest, they often start with four digits and go up from there (3490 Main Street)? Which way do they work in the South? California? In Canada, are they somehow metric? Do they have to be repeated in French?

- It would be cool if we provided basic liability insurance for cars through a gas tax. (People who wanted more-than-basic could always buy it on the existing market.) As it is, if I took a bus to work twice a week (assuming, falsely, that the option existed), my cost of driving would decline only by the gas I didn’t consume. But if insurance were tied to gas, my savings would increase by the insurance I didn’t consume. Increase the marginal cost of new miles. (We’d have to leave collision insurance to the existing market, for some fairly obvious incentive reasons.)

- Why is it that, even though I last had a Shamrock Shake about 30 years ago, I could still describe its flavor, color and texture, but if you asked me which shirt The Boy wore yesterday, I’d be stumped?

- Why is bunting illegal in softball?

- Why is it that major franchise chains totally dominate the hamburger market, and increasingly dominate the hoagie/sub/grinder/hero market, but are relatively minor players in the pizza market?

- Has there ever been a lyric as inane as Van Halen’s “only time will tell if we stand the test of time”? (And I’m not counting “yeah yeah” or “oo oo.” Sentences only.)

- Back when Indecent Proposal came out, I remember Mom objecting that the premise was implausible. Robert Redford and money, or Woody Harrelson and poverty – to her, there was no dilemma; take Redford and the money, end of movie. I have a similar response to Big Love. Bill Paxton is married to Jeanne Tripplehorn. Definitely with ya so far. Then, he feels the need to marry Chloe Sevigny. Huh? The other way around, I could understand. This way, no.

- Why is it that nothing is more certain to lower my morale than morale-building exercises?

- If education is the key to success, why are there so many struggling adjuncts?

- If estate tax is reimposed fully on Jan.1, 2011, which is currently the state of things, I suspect there would be some very suspicious deaths around December of 2010. Incentives, and all that.

- If water is clear, why is the ocean blue? (The Boy asked me this, and I drew a blank.)

- If Chester the Molester moves onto my street, and the state posts his whereabouts on the Megan’s Law website and my property value drops, is that a ‘taking’ for fifth amendment purposes? If so, am I entitled to compensation for my lost property value? After all, the state’s act of publicizing his presence effectively confiscated the value of my property, in the name of a public use (that is, safety).

- Does the Constitution require that a President not use a pseudonym? (I’m thinking that Jimmy Carter’s given name wasn’t Jimmy, so maybe not.) I’m just askin’...

- On the 4th of July, I caught the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN. I couldn’t look, yet I couldn’t look away. The highlight, about ten minutes in, when the two frontrunners were in a virtual dead heat: one announcer says, “Now it all comes down to hot dog management.” Indeed it does.

- Is there a better compliment in the world than when The Girl pushes the The Boy off my lap, yelling “My Daddoo!”? (I’ll answer that one: no.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

 

Authority

As a kid, parents seem all-powerful and all-knowing, until puberty, when they become all-powerful and inexplicably stupid. But either way, they seem terribly powerful for a long time.

I’m convinced that lots of people carry that attitude towards authority into other areas of their lives, and never quite reach adulthood relative to authority (even if they do, relative to their parents).

Self-styled ‘rebels’ often have the same issue without realizing it. Conspiracy theories generally assume both tremendous power and tremendous competence on the part of the conspirators, as well as assuming the tremendous importance of the victim. (After all, if everybody from the Trilateral Commission to Fox News to Halliburton is out to get me, I must be terribly important!)

The frustrating truth of authority, in both parents and politics, is that these are just people. Some are sharper than others, and some more powerful than others, and some more malicious than others, but they all have feet of clay, blind spots, human failings, and everything that goes with being human. And even with the best of intentions, sometimes these human failings will play themselves out in ways that affect other people.

It’s scary when someone who still carries the view that authority is all-powerful moves into a position of authority. Typically, they kiss up and kick down; they bootlick without shame, and abuse their underlings like it’s going out of style. I’m not entirely convinced this kind of behavior can be changed, or at least, not without a level of psychological intervention that goes far beyond a manager’s toolkit. These people can be very successful at relatively low levels, since they run tight ships (through sheer terror), and they have a way of saying what those above them want to hear. But they’re essentially parasitic, draining the lifeblood of the organization in the name of some unresolved psychodrama. Over time, they entrench themselves by draining the spirit from anybody else with any leadership potential. They practice zero-sum office politics, and see nothing wrong in it. At the end of the day, they’re more than willing to hollow out the core of the organization, as long as their own turf is enhanced.

I used to teach the play Antigone, and I’ve come to realize that I taught it wrong. I used to focus on the King’s dilemma – honor Antigone’s request for a proper burial for her brother (a traitor to the city) in the name of family, or deny her request in the name of sovereignty. Now I’m thinking the really key moment in the play is early on, when Antigone is steaming about her brother not receiving a proper burial, and she says something to the effect of “it would be different if it were my child, because I could have another; but it’s my brother, and my parents are dead, so I can’t have another brother.” To the modern reader, that’s @#$(! weird. What she’s doing there, though, is separating the individual from the role. The role is much more important than the individual; she could always have another child. As a culture, we aren’t too good at separating the role from the individual, and some people seem completely incapable of it.
Separating the role from the individual involves recognizing the limits of each. An ethical person in a position of leadership will at least try to recognize where relevant leadership ends and personal pique begins. Nobody will get it right every time, since we all have blind spots, but failing to make the effort is contemptible. It’s a sign of the belief that authority is self-justifying, which is madness incarnate.

Since moving into administration, I’ve seen an awful lot of variations on how to wield authority, ranging from the thoughtful to the clueless, from ethical to manipulative to abusive. To the extent that I’m dogmatic, it’s in adhering to the belief that the role and the person are separate. Everyone brings a personal style to the job, and that’s fine, but personal style has its limits. I’m now in my sixth year of deaning, and reporting to my fifth vice president, so the separation of person from role is quite clear to me. Each vp had strengths and blind spots. The acid test for me has not been what a given vp has thought, since there have been times when I was out of favor for reasons I considered crap; it has been whether I could face myself on the drive home.

One of the many reasons I keep blogging is that the academic blogosphere has so little thoughtful input from administrators. Childlike fantasies of how administration works (e.g. Cary Nelson) float around almost un-rebutted. I’m trying to de-mystify the role (which, paradoxically, requires mystifying my identity – no problem, since the two are distinct). Over time, I’d love to see more thoughtful, ethical people go into administration, people like many of the folks whose blogs I read daily (especially if the alternative is more of the kiss-up, kick-down petty tyrants). The role matters, because higher education matters, and running it into the ground would be a travesty.

Deans, vice presidents, assorted muckety-mucks are often no smarter than you are, and frequently less. Trust me on this one – I’ve seen enough of them to know. Some of them got where they are by climbing over people who were too intimidated by the idea of the all-powerful authority to try it themselves. If my messages-in-a-virtual-bottle convince some thoughtful people that they can do this, and a few of them actually give it a shot, that would be a fine thing. It wouldn’t do anything to further my career, but unlike Cary Nelson, I know that careerism isn’t the only thing that motivates us. Some of us actually care, clay feet and all.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

 

In Which I Get a Little Panicky

First off: I’m not an economist. Readers who actually understand economics are invited to explain why I’m off my rocker on this one. And I’ll try to refrain from my usual Bush-bashing, since that’s not really the point of what I’m trying to figure out.

From what I’ve been reading, the U.S. is running nasty and increasing deficits at the government level, the household level, and the international level. We owe more to other countries than we ever have, and much of that debt comes from selling government securities to foreign central banks (esp. in Asia). Household debt is skyrocketing, and the interest rate increases of the last year or two are poised to nab anybody stupid enough to have taken out an adjustable-rate mortgage in the great housing boom of the last five or six years. The national debt grows apace, and has been refinanced over the last few years to progressively shorter-term loans, meaning that higher interest rates will hurt badly and quickly. Think of it as putting the national debt on an ARM, then watching interest rates go up.

Since we import most of our oil, and the price of oil keeps going up, our trade deficit is likely to keep increasing. (The folks who study ‘peak oil’ are becoming increasingly convincing.) Plus we don’t manufacture very much, so we don’t export very much. We also borrow money for wars of choice, which themselves actually interrupt the flow of oil. We borrow money to pay for causing our own supply disruptions, which is uniquely stupid by any standard.

China is keeping its currency artificially low, to keep its exports cheap. Then it lends us the money to buy those exports. It underpays its own workers so that we can have cheap stuff. How long its own workers will stand for that is anybody’s guess. I know the Chinese government isn’t exactly a champion of civil liberties, but from what I’ve heard on Marketplace, riots are becoming markedly common. The fact that the Chinese government is as repressive as it is makes the outbreak of riots all the more impressive. If it makes concessions to its workers, we’ll feel immediate inflationary pressure.

Since there are so many U.S. dollars flowing out of the country, their value is dropping on the world market. (According to the Bank of Canada website, a Canadian dollar was worth about 63 cents American at the beginning of 2003. Now, it’s about 90 cents. Rates for savings appear to be significantly lower there. Coincidentally, Canada exports oil.) The only way to entice foreigners to keep buying a depreciating currency is to raise interest rates to compensate for the depreciation. Raising interest rates kills the folks with ARMs, increases our national debt payments, and hurts the business climate. (It also pretty much wipes out the ‘refi’ market, which has been a major economic engine for the last few years.)

Although productivity has been going up, real wages haven’t. I know it’s gauche to talk about income distribution, but there’s no other way to explain how those can both be true at the same time. Corporate profits are going gangbusters, with an astonishing amount of the profits being spent on taking ‘public’ companies ‘private’ (that is, buying up their own stock). As opposed to, say, investing in productive capacity, or paying workers some small fraction of their increased productivity.

So my question to my economics-literate readers: how are we _not_ screwed? (That’s the technical term.) If China lets the yuan float, we get inflation. If the Euro starts to displace the dollar as the denomination for international trade, demand for dollars drops and we get higher interest rates, eventually tipping us into a nasty recession. (If we’re really lucky, we get a burst of 70’s vintage stagflation: inflation and unemployment at the same time. Oh, goody.) If oil stays high or goes higher and we don’t get really serious really quickly about alternative energy, we continue to bleed money. If somebody manages to blow up a key pipeline or refinery, the sky’s the limit.

I’m instinctively inclined to doubt doomsayers, so I’m thinking I must be missing something really basic and wonderful that will reduce these concerns to nothing more than blips on the screen. I don’t foresee a complete collapse, like a Weimar or Depression scenario, but something as icky as the 70’s is starting to look awfully likely.

Please tell me why I’m wrong. I’ll sleep much better if I can dismiss this as the ravings of someone who just needs a vacation.

Monday, July 03, 2006

 

Mom's Wisdom Vindicated, or, In Praise of Crap

My Mom is a genius. I realize this more as I get older.

One of the manifestations of her genius was buying MAD magazine for me as a kid. Unlike all the ‘wholesome’ books and magazines for kids, MAD was written specifically to entertain kids. I LOVED it, and devoured every issue over and over again. (Any lingering influence on my prose, I’ll leave to the reader’s kind estimation.)

Was it puerile? Yup. But so was I. It was written for me, unlike so much of what kids around ages 7-9 are supposed to like to read.

I’ve proudly carried this tradition forward. Walter the Farting Dog and Dog Breath are among The Boy’s favorites. When he gets a little older, I’m looking forward to getting him the entire Captain Underpants series of graphic novels, as well as the more expected Harry Potter.

The genius of giving kids this stuff is that it gets them used to reading on their own, for fun. If you censor their stuff, such that only Wholesome and Approved Books may enter the home, they’ll just steer clear altogether. I’d much rather have him laugh himself stupid at Captain Underpants than watch SpongeBob (and I like SpongeBob). Reading well takes practice, and if the practice feels like drudgery, they just won’t do it.

I remember back in my days teaching English Comp, I asked a class, in frustration, if they ever read for fun. Two students out of twenty raised their hands. One read motorcycle magazines, and the other sometimes read the Sports page. The rest, nada. As a result, they rarely read anything at all, so they didn’t have the foggiest idea what ‘writing’ is supposed to look like. The idea of an ‘essay’ held no reality, outside of something that teachers asked for and then graded harshly. Out of sheer desperation, I once assigned a piece from The Onion (about a guy whose girlfriend explained dumping him using charts and graphs from Kinko’s), on the theory that humor might make reading a little less scary. It worked with a few of them, but if I had to do it again, I’d probably use Dave Barry. Dark humor is an acquired taste.

Mine is a tricky position to hold, since moralistic scolds can always find some ridiculous example to use against it. “You’d have them read Boogers Are My Beat?” Well, yeah. If the alternative is having them not read at all, then yes. And if you’ve ever seen a humorless CEO try to crack a joke, you realize that effective humor writing is harder than it looks.

Last year a book came out – Everything Bad is Good for You – that made a similar argument. It pointed out the relative simplicity of much early television and video games, compared to the extraordinary complexity of the current product, to make the claim that audiences are getting smarter. (IQ tests, apparently, have to be re-centered every ten years or so, since average scores keep going up!) It’s an easy argument to scoff at, until you cruise youtube.com and actually look at some of the old stuff. The Brady Bunch Variety Hour wouldn’t survive now, and I say, good.

Blogging is an extraordinary medium, if you think about it. People can carve out a niche – a thirtysomething progressive academic administrator, say – and start/join a conversation with others from around the world who find something of value in it. My access to the public square is no longer conditional on some pinhead editor. I’m my own pinhead, and damn proud of it. The guardians of tradition are taking the predictable huffy positions, but they’re becoming less relevant as the sheer fact of success makes them look ever sillier. Now, academic bloggers are addressing the MLA. That would have been unthinkable even two years ago. A medium initially dismissed as unworthy of serious attention has generated an entirely new conversation.

Mom’s genius was in seeing the educational value of low culture thirty years ago. Well done, Mom. The most forward-thinking publishers are just beginning to catch up to what you had figured out by 1975.

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