Monday, April 07, 2008

Observations from the AACC

After my first full day at the AACC in Philadelphia, a few observations:

  • The InsideHigherEd crew is fun to have lunch with. They have a winning mix of surface irreverence and substantive seriousness. Also, their cub reporter is a dead ringer for the “I'm a Mac” guy.

  • Several panels discussed the lack of an administrative pipeline to replace the current generation as it retires. In each case, the discussion treated the lack of a pipeline as a simple fact of nature. Nobody connected the dots of 'lack of tenure-track faculty hiring' leading to 'nobody ready to step up.' I don't know if it's because they think of the two issues as discrete, if they think the connection is too obvious to mention, or if they're more focused on solving the immediate problem than discussing its historical roots. Of course, if you don't underlying issue, the symptom is likely to persist. I'll have to ask the question the next time it comes up.

  • One speaker mentioned – and I don't know if this is true, but it sounds right – that nationally, community college students pay nearly as much for books as they pay in tuition. We sweat bullets over raising tuition five percent, but publishers just let it fly with abandon. There's something fundamentally wrong here.

  • When you're innocently wending your way through the exhibitors' area, looking mostly at publications and software, those human-patient-simulator-mannequins can give you quite a start.

  • I've heard several references to the “community college movement,” and the need for the retiring generation to steep its followers in the true faith. Intriguingly, nobody ever bothers to define the term. One generation's 'common knowledge' has become another generation's 'trivia question.'

  • The feel of the conference is very different from the League for Innovation. The League had a charming “let's take a flyer on that” attitude. The AACC so far feels much more Establishment. Too many speakers have started with “I remember my first Presidency, back in 1984...” Yawn.

  • A speaker at a panel on change management was completing his doctoral dissertation on how college Presidents and senior administrators deal with change. He drew a distinction between Presidents, whose most important decision is when to act, and senior administrators, whose most important decision is when not to act. I suspect there's a lot to that, but I need more time to chew on it.

  • Kay McClenney, of the University of Texas at Austin, is an absolute genius. She led a panel on the “Bridges to Opportunity” initiative of the Ford Foundation that was so well done, so perfectly structured, so spot-on in tone and content, and so full of information that I actually left jealous. My note-taking wasn't fast enough to capture all the good stuff. She knew it cold, but let the panelists fill in the blanks for us. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done. There's something simultaneously gratifying and humbling about watching a master work. (If I can fill in the blanks in my notes, that panel deserves a post unto itself.)

  • The architect who designed the Philadelphia convention center was apparently influenced by M.C. Escher. The buildings are connected, sort of, except when they aren't. The 100 level rooms are in a different building than the 200 level rooms. And the whole thing is bisected by a sort of postmodern hockey rink with what looks like tinkertoys suspended high above. Call me boring and suburban, but I like when room numbers serve as navigational cues, and I've never thought to myself “you know what this academic conference needs? An ornamental hockey rink!” Maybe that's why I'm not an architect.