Friday, March 09, 2007


In the Spring, my cc has an Open House event focused primarily – though certainly not exclusively – on high school seniors who are finalizing their college decisions. Sometimes they didn't get into their first choice; sometimes they did but suffered sticker shock at the cost; sometimes family issues arose that made leaving an unattractive option.

At one of the planning meetings for last year's event, the Admissions director made a comment that stuck with me. In talking with her colleagues at other schools, she noticed a consistent pattern: if you provide light snacks, everybody likes it, but if you provide lunch, people complain. Apparently, if you provide lunch, it's never good enough, and the disappointed expectations generate ill will. If you only provide snacks, though, the expectations remain manageable, and you actually achieve more with less.

In following the constant debates about how to meet public expectations for higher ed, I'm beginning to think that we have an expectations issue as much as a performance issue.

Among the things we're supposed to do:

  • keep up with technological changes without spending money

  • provide world-class instruction to the graduates of the American public school system

  • keep the classics alive

  • remediate those who need it, without spending any time or money to do so

  • tend to the developmental needs of 19 year olds

  • welcome students of all ages, including working adults

  • develop critical thinking skills

  • foresee with perfect accuracy the specific jobs that will be in demand locally in a few years, with a focus on the good-paying ones

  • turn out well-rounded people with immediately applicable job skills

  • provide a dating pool

  • (at the larger schools) provide winning football/basketball teams

  • enforce pure meritocracy

  • while championing diversity

  • and the broadest possible access

  • with verifiable learning outcomes

  • achieved through finding a way to hold tenured faculty accountable for performance

and that's just off the top of my head.

It's a bit of a tall order, and it keeps getting taller. Student demands for amenities continue to grow at residential colleges (although cc's are largely spared that particular arms race – expectations to the rescue!). We're supposed to keep on top of emerging technologies as they emerge, so students can get jobs in those fields. We have to accommodate everybody with a documented disability – a huge and rapidly-growing group – without new funding to do it. And, for public colleges, we're supposed to moderate our expenses to make room in state budgets for ever more prisons.

(Apparently now, too, we're supposed to police the ideological deviations of our faculty, achieve racial representativeness without racial preferences, provide like-minded peers for any given group, mainstream homeschoolers, and convince publishers to reduce the cost of textbooks.)

Most of these goals are fine in themselves. Some, I think, are absolutely essential. But the sum total is quite a bit.

Most other public-sector institutions, I think, have narrower goals. With clearer missions, they are better able to make themselves understood by the public. Police fight crime, firefighters save people and property, and park rangers do whatever the hell it is that park rangers do. These institutions provide snacks, and the public is generally happy. We try to provide lunch, and get complaints that the food isn't hot enough/isn't vegan/isn't kosher/isn't free-range/might have peanuts/smells funny.

That's whinier than I mean, and obviously exaggerated, but the underlying point strikes me as largely valid. We need to be clearer about what we can reasonably be expected to do, and what we just can't.

Vocational education is one of those areas where it strikes me that we've overpromised. It's good to provide relevant training in many fields, but we don't know (any more than anybody else) what will be hot in four years. In the late 90's, everybody wanted computer degrees. Now, not. For the last few years, real estate was the hot thing. Now, and rather abruptly, not. Nursing is hot now, but historically it has run in cycles. Training is great, but we can't always forecast what will turn out to be useful. The kid who entered college in 1998 with visions of striking it rich in computers graduated in 2002 into a very different world.

I'm thinking maybe we need to get a clearer sense of our basic mission, and let some of the peripheral stuff slide. The answer to an unsatisfying five-course meal isn't always a sixth course. Instead of having every program at every college, maybe we let different colleges specialize more. Better for a given school to do a dozen programs well than three dozen badly. Retire the 'multiversity,' just as we've retired the variety show. Give up the ambition to be a 'total institution,' and instead be really good at a few core functions.

Sigh. It's been a long week. A dean can dream...