Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Advisory Boards

My cc is taking a new look at guidelines for 'advisory boards' for various 'occupational' degree programs.

(A quick definition: an 'occupational' degree refers to one designed primarily to make students employable in a given field upon graduation. Its counterpart is the 'transfer' degree, which is intended to be the first half of a bachelor's degree. Transfer degrees typically include much more 'gen ed,' and their intended audience is four-year colleges and universities, rather than employers.)

The distinction between 'occupational' and 'transfer' isn't always clean. We have several 'occupational' degrees that have, for various reasons, become transfer degrees. (I've never seen it go the other way.) Sometimes that's because of credential creep in the target industry; where a two-year degree was once enough to get a decent entry-level position, now a four-year degree is the de facto minimum. (Sometimes that's driven by employer preference, and sometimes by external legal changes.) Sometimes it's because of increased technological complexity in a given field. Sometimes the field has changed, such that even an entry-level hire is now expected to have the kind of range that would not have been expected at the entry level a generation ago. And sometimes it's driven by some enterprising four-year schools that have established degrees where none existed before, and have created their own demand.

Still, just by looking at the paths our graduates take, we can get a pretty clear idea of which programs are currently (mostly) occupational. For us, for example, Criminal Justice is largely an occupational program; most of our grads go directly into law enforcement, even if many of them later go on to finish four-year degrees while on the job. Nursing is similar.

In my observation, advisory boards tend to go through a distinct life cycle. There's the exciting initial stage, in which folks are happy to be on board, ideas are brimming, and the world is about to be changed. This slowly gives way to the bubble stage, at which everything is assumed to be fine, and the meetings are more about group bonding than substance. (Typically, this is when the dreaded 'loss of touch with reality' sets in.) Eventually, as the irrelevance of the board starts looking like a given, the 'let's skip the next meeting' stage sets in, followed eventually by the “didn't we used to have an advisory board?” stage.

It's not unusual to see program chairs select personal friends as advisory board members, since they're likelier to say 'yes' to sacrificing the occasional evening, and unlikely to do anything threatening. This also makes the segue from stage one to stage two clean and effortless. Unfortunately, it also pretty much guarantees stages three and four.

As with making movies, casting is ninety percent of the battle. If you get people from too high on the food chain, they're often out of touch with what the front-line hiring folk actually do. (Back in the 80's, I recall hearing lots of CEO's say that the skills developed by a liberal arts education were exactly the skills the managers of the future would need. Apparently, the only people who didn't get that message were the hiring managers.) But if you aim too low, you get constant turnover and a need to reinvent the wheel on an annual basis.

There's also the danger of corporate (or employer) myopia. Back in my Proprietary U days, I saw many a corporate muckety-muck tell us with unshakable confidence just exactly what the key to business success was, less than a year before his company went out of business.

All of that said, we're looking at basic guidelines for the composition of advisory boards. I'm thinking that less than half the board should have any other existing connection with the college, and that multiple employers should be represented. Beyond that, though, I'm short on ideas.

So I turn to my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen a good rule of thumb for comprising a useful and effective advisory board?

DD, this applies not only to the advisory boards you write about but also ad hoc committees, committees that monitor/supervise/advise cross-curricular matters, etc., etc. Great description of the life cycle, but I'm afraid I don't have many answers.

I'd suggest a gutsy dean who will add a couple of troublemakers to the committee to keep it honest as a first suggestion, though.
Clear goals and tasks, attended meetings, clear agendas, and A WELL-RUN MEETING. It's appalling how many people can't run a meeting, and they drag on for two hours without anything actually occurring. Whoever's going to chair it should be required to get actual training in how to run a meeting. It makes an enormous difference between the organizations/committees I'm eager to be involved with and those I just suffer through and seek escape from.
I don't have much experience on committees, but have attended alot of faculty meetings on various issues. All I can add is that without a strong leader most of the meetings lead no where and leave people wondering why they wasted their time attending.
Be careful.

If Widgets 'R Us needs trained widgeteers, a community college certificate in widgeting provides them with surplus labor which means lower pay for certificate holders.

They should train their own workers or pay us to set up a training program for them.

If there were only one employer for a given skill, that would make more sense. However, most skills (nursing, law enforcement, IT) have many employers (hospitals and clinics, differing jurisdictions, any organization of any size), so the incentives shift back to the student for training.
Rotating members can sometimes be important. Once you set up the advisory board, get it on a schedule where there is turnover every 2-3 years or whatever works for you. That will bring fresh blood (and presumably ideas) on periodically.

We have had much success in holding advisory boards for related programs at the same time. For instance, all the allied health and nursing programs have a formal brunch where their advisory members can network with each other before the meetings. Helps increase attendance.

Consistent guidelines set and "enforced" by the administration can help the faculty know the expectations. If you give them an example agenda and the forms you want committee members to complete, that helps support the faculty in accomplishing the goals that you expect the advisory board to meet.
A part of the problem with advisory boards is the different agenda between hiring firms and educators. As an educator, your client is the student, and you are generally looking to equip students with capabilities not just for their entry level job, but ones which will serve them well in the future. To serve the student well, you accept that they will pick up some of the specific skills on the job while you prepare them for the longer haul

Firms, by contrast, are usually concerned with their immediate skills deficit, even while they claim to be about long-term growth etc. they would prefer it if your students were ready to do the job with no immediate orientation required. In fact, too much ambition is sometimes a problem my graduates have often faced going into design firms.

My suggestion is to get people from industry associations and economic development organisations rather than individual businesses if you can. Those people tend to have a much bigger picture of their sectors which is more aligned with where things are going than the individual firm.

Second the comments as well about the importance of chairing the meeting, and also clarifying exactly what kind of input you're looking for from advisory groups and (and this is a big one) making sure that your meeting is at the right stage of the programme cycle for the board's input to be actioned.

Good advisory boards I've been associated with meet less regularly, but show how the input from the meeting has been actioned (sometimes by being discussed and rejected for reasons x, y, and z - it's important to remember that teachers have expertise in teaching and industry groups do not - but at least you know what happened to your time).

Also second last anon on connecting it to a different event which creates value for the participants (networking etc.) - an awards ceremony with an out of town speaker, etc. Adds to the stress of the day's planning but greatly increases intrinsic motivation.
The first requirement is that the administration will listen to them. A major part of the job is to advocate for the program.
Some may feel squeamish about eating it, but rabbit has a fan base that grows as cooks discover how easy they are to raise — and how good the meat tastes.
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