Friday, June 27, 2008

 

Interview Tips: A Bleg

This week a correspondent sent some good interview tips for faculty candidates, asking that I gather more from my wise and worldly readers and compile them.

So, wise and worldly readers, if you have any specific and useful tips, please either comment here or email me, and I'll put together a 'best of' tips post.

Thanks!

 

While We Still Can

Next week...Roadtrip! I'll be channeling Clark W. Griswold as we give 'affordable gas' a Viking funeral by heading hither and yon. If you happen to be hither, or maybe yon, I'll be the pseudonymous guy in the dorky shirt.

Normal blogging resumes July 7.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

 

Systems and Silos

This article had me laughing, smiling wistfully, and pulling what little hair I still have. It's frustratingly true.

The article basically asks why colleges and universities are so consistently caught flat-footed every time there's a state budget crunch. Rather than the predictable right-wing bloviating -- “public anythings can't do anything right, except the military, which is perfect in every way, so shut the hell up you hippie peaceniks...” -- it actually addresses reality. In this case, it's the difference between systems and silos.

If we had a higher education system, we'd build into it features like transferability of credits, inter-institutional divisions of labor -- “this campus will specialize in life sciences, and that one will specialize in social sciences” -- and consistent standards between, say, high school graduation and public college entrance. Hell, we might even tie graduate admissions numbers to projected employment needs in various fields.

But we don't have a system. As in so many things, we have thousands of independent silos, each with its own internal politics. And we try to stitch them together after the fact, paying only intermittent attention to their own individual imperatives. Predictably enough, ignoring their internal imperatives leads to failure over and over again.

Why don't public colleges and universities salt away large sums of cash during good times to tide them over during bad times? Because the internal politics won't allow large sums to sit undisturbed. Because the external politics are such that when times get bad, legislators see those reserves as excuses to cut funding. (Apparently now in Massachusetts, the state is even applying this to endowments at private universities!)

Why don't public colleges and universities at least develop contingency plans for 'what to cut first' when times get tough? Because the contingency plans would generate terrible ill-will and politicking on campus during the rare good times when people could be otherwise engaged. (Imagine the faculty senate meeting: “Clearly, Nuclear Basketweaving is our weakest program, so if the state cuts are bad, we'll get rid of that.” “WHAT????”) Because legislators will see contingency plans as licenses to cut. Because naming departments as the lowest priorities at a campus rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've read plenty of college promotional materials. I've never – never – seen a college admit to the public at large that a given department or program isn't very good. That's not because every program at every college is perfect, heaven knows; internally, I've heard plenty of discussion of the weak links at various places. But it's simply not in the college's interest to advertise that. A publicly debated contingency plan would effectively tell the public which of any given college's gazillion priorities are the lowest. Presumably, the public would respond accordingly.

So we have colleges pretending that all is well, because to do otherwise would make things worse. And we have legislators largely disregarding what they hear, partly out of a legitimate skepticism and partly out of baser, but very real, political motivations of their own. We make idiotic short-term decisions during crunch times because we can't count on internal unity or external comprehension. For example, I don't recall the public debate about going all-adjunct, all-the-time. It was the cumulative result of a great many local decisionmakers taking the path of least resistance. (It's politically easier to 'not hire' than to fire.) Although it's tempting to ascribe conspiratorial agency to the trend, it was primarily a predictable consequence of failing to look at higher ed as a system.

Fixing it is the hard part.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

 

Ask My Readers: Expat Positions

I have no idea how to answer this one, but I'm curious, so anyone with knowledge is invited to comment:

I am a university administrator(classified staff) at a large university.
I have a unique role in that I offer student services to our distributed campuses including
one in the Middle East. Recently, I was asked to apply for a position in the United Arab Emirates,
where I have been traveling and working in Education for two years. What are the big issues to
consider in taking on a new position of this kind? How would I know what the actual pros and cons
to becoming an expatriot are? What are the pitfalls?



Wise and (literally) worldly readers – what say you?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: The Tap on the Shoulder

A rising young correspondent writes:

I am a newish faculty member at a large
community college. During a recent interview, I made a positive impression
on our division's Vice Chancellor, and he has decided to groom me for a dean
position that he plans to create in the next year or two. Of course, I
wasn't sure he was serious at first, but after a long conversation with him
a few days ago it seems this is not a cruel hoax. If everything goes well
and I get this position, I will be the youngest dean on campus and will have
been promoted to my boss's boss's job.

O I have so many questions. Here are a few:
1. The V.C. says this is not a secret; furthermore, his "grooming" plans
will eventually be obvious to my program coordinator and department chair.
Still, should I tell them up front the future dean position? Will it sound
as if I am suffering from delusions of grandeur?
2. I have many professional friendships with faculty here. Should I tell
them about this turn of events now or later?
3. Are there any pitfalls to being a new dean (or to the deanship grooming
process) that I could avoid with some advance warning?


First, congratulations on the faculty job! Next, a few thoughts.

I'd be wary of someone offering to leap you several levels so abruptly. People who make strange decisions on a dime often change them on another one, so even if he's sincere right now, he may get distracted by a shiny object next month and that's that. And I absolutely would NOT go around telling all and sundry that you've been promised a much higher-level job that doesn't exist yet. (Among other reasons, jobs like that are supposed to be advertised, and subject to open searches. Even if he were consistent, he couldn't actually promise that you'd win an open search.)

Instead, I'd re-frame the discussion as an opportunity for faculty/leadership development.

Although I don't buy into the cult of seniority nearly as much as many academics seem to, I do believe that some experience beats no experience. (My difference with the Seniority Squad has to do with how we envision the payoff to experience over time. They think it's linear, or even exponential. I think it plateaus relatively early, and can even turn negative eventually. But we agree on the first few years.) Going directly from 'new faculty' to 'dean' is quite a leap, and you'd arrive in the new office with very little sense of the jobs of the people who report to you. Unless you're either preternaturally talented or really, really lucky, you'll make some basic and costly mistakes that a little more experience (or exposure, if you prefer) would have prevented.

For example, fielding student complaints about other people is very different than fielding students complaints about you. You know what you did or didn't do; that won't be the case when the complaint is about someone else. What do you do when a student storms in and complains that "Professor so-and-so is biased"? Or that she doesn't return papers, or doesn't show up for class, or says demeaning things? And what do you do if Professor so-and-so refuses even to address the charge, responding instead with insinuations that The Administration (cue ominous music) is simply out to get her and everybody who looks like her?

Or, what do you do when a department chair refuses to add sections of a popular class – despite all existing sections being full, and despite a very real budget problem at your college – on the grounds that "it's hard to find good daytime adjuncts"? (I've had them say this six months in advance.) If you've chaired a department, or otherwise been responsible for hiring adjuncts, you'll have a good idea of the relative truth of that. ("Gee, I always managed..." has a way of changing the conversation.) If not, you'll have a harder time.

The tap on the shoulder is a good thing. It's a recognition that you have the talent and temperament to deal with some of the issues that plenty of otherwise brilliant people just don't handle well. But jumping multiple levels at one time can actually set you up for failure, even if unintentionally.

My advice is to express gratitude for his confidence in you, and interest in preparing yourself for possible future administrative opportunities, whatever those might be. Then take on a lower-level assignment to get some experience (and maybe some course release), and cadge some travel funding for a relevant conference or two. (The AAC&U, the AACC, and the League for Innovation all offer worthwhile options.) Get some exposure and some experience, so you'll be prepared not just to get a job, but to succeed at it. It may take a little longer upfront, but you'll be setting yourself up for more success, and more opportunities, over time.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, June 23, 2008

 

So...Struck a Nerve?

Judging by the comments, Friday's post really set some people off. Rather than responding to each attack – and 'attack' is the right word – I'll just make a few observations and move on.

A disturbing number of commenters went right to 'intention,' implying variously that I was finally showing my nefarious true colors, my 'roots' in a proprietary college (!), or some other variation on the Dark Side. Others detected a note of satire, with multiple references to Swift.

Those were all disheartening, if for different reasons. First and most basically, I, personally, am not the point. The proposal makes sense, or doesn't, independently of me. Anybody who knows me knows that the frustrations I periodically reference on the blog are rooted in my caring about higher education and what it could, and ought to, be. They're the frustrations of someone who hasn't sold out. I'm frustrated that we've developed a system in which lifetime job security for some is paid for by sub-exploitation wages for others. That may offend some people, but it's true, and I noticed that none of the attackers actually refuted that point. (A few dropped the predictable snide comments about administrative salaries, which simply shows a complete ignorance of scale. But it doesn't refute the actual point.)

If I were only in it for the money, I'd find another line of work. If you're looking to get rich, don't work at a community college. You heard it here first.

My personal story aside, the whole point of a 'what if' post is precisely that. I frequently get requests to flesh out a Grand Unified Theory of what I think higher ed should look like. I don't have one. That's not for lack of trying – it's just that it's flippin' hard. So I'm coming at it piecemeal. What if we determined everything based on tradition? Okay, we know what that looks like. What if the organizing principle were internal interest-group politics? See my last four years of posts to get a sense of that. What if it were the market? Friday's post was an attempt to sketch that out. It could easily be something else, too, and I'd be more than happy to entertain possibilities.

But the 'burn the heretic' tone that I encountered on Friday wasn't exactly encouraging. If internal reform is blocked by such indignant huffing and puffing – which, admittedly, is likely – then the obvious consequence will be other institutions coming along and eating our lunch. (See “Phoenix, University of”) We can cast aside the old catechisms and actually try to come to grips with what's going on, or we can just get angry at anyone who connects the dots. I'm trying to connect the dots in various ways to see what makes sense.

(As far as the satire/Swift line of reading, I'll just say that I like to think that my satirical pieces are clearer than that.)

I want to protect academic freedom, properly understood. I want people who go into higher ed to be able to make adult livings, with dignity, and reasonable – not lifetime – security. I want students to have challenging professors who are up-to-date in their fields and who are rewarded for teaching well. I want the public to have legitimate confidence that its spending on higher ed is wise, and that more would be wise, too. I want administrators to be thoughtful about what they're doing, and to have a firm grasp on the fundamental truth that It's Not About Them.

What I see instead is a class of adjuncts exploited at Wal-Mart levels to make possible endless internal interest-group politicking; academic decisions made based on whose local ox is gored, rather than the good of the students; tenure used as a cruel sort of bait to keep replenishing the ranks of the adjuncts; ridiculous funding models creating all manner of perverse incentives; and declining public confidence coinciding with the rapid ascent of new institutions based on very different values.

In that context, airing out some different theories strikes me as worthwhile. If we just trot out the tired old war-horses, we'll keep losing ground. And if we can't tell allies from enemies, we've already lost.

Friday, June 20, 2008

 

What If...

A commenter to yesterday's post about compensating staff made a point I've wondered about before. It's worth contemplating – not advocating, just contemplating – at some length.

Given the crazy-high ratios of applicants to full-time faculty jobs in many disciplines, why not lower the wages to a 'market clearing' level?

Or, to make the same argument from the left, why not give adjuncts salary parity? Right now, higher-than-market full-time faculty salaries are subsidized by astonishingly low adjunct salaries. As a result, there's a chronic surplus of applicants for full-time roles, and a chronic scramble for good adjuncts. If we established both 'parity' and 'market-clearing levels' as guiding principles, I'd expect to see per-course salaries fall considerably higher than current adjuncts get, and considerably lower than full-timers get, depending on the field.

(Of course, in fields with a shortage of full-timers, something like this happens already on the high end. I'm talking here about the fields with far more applicants than jobs, like English or history.)

Over time, the uninspiring salaries for full-timers would probably lead fewer people to get graduate degrees in those disciplines. This is probably a good thing. It's 'pricing' as 'signaling,' which is how a market is supposed to work. Eventually we'd have fewer underemployed Ph.D.'s, which strikes me as a humane change.

Different disciplines would have very different pay scales, much more so than they do now. For example, professors who teach Broadcasting would make much more than professors who teach Composition. Those who teach Nursing could command substantial premiums over those who teach French.

Of course, to make the market a market, tenure would have to be banned as cartel-like restraint of trade. In a competitive marketplace, there's no such thing as tenure. Your monetary worth rises and falls with both the market value of your discipline and your relative standing within it. Resting on laurels wouldn't be an option. Is seniority worth what we pay for it? Let the market decide.

I could see an easy attack on this position: “this is yet another attempt to impoverish faculty.” Well, no. That attack only makes sense if you ignore what adjuncts currently get paid. If you count adjuncts as faculty, the objection evaporates, since they would almost certainly get more than they get now.

(I read somewhere – Freakonomics, maybe? -- that most criminal gang members make less than the minimum wage. The reason they work for so little and accept such horrible risks is for the shot at the big payoff. It's a sort of winner-take-all tournament. I think that's a reasonably fair description of the academic job market. Why are so many people willing to adjunct for so little? Many of them do it to stay in the game for the shot at the Golden Job. If the Golden Job suddenly tarnished, many adjuncts would probably walk away altogether. Supply and demand being what they are, wages would have to rise to compensate.)

Another easy attack: “students don't know what they want. Trendy stuff would supplant The Classics.” There's some truth to that, but honestly, that ship sailed some time ago. (Undergraduate business majors, anyone?) And as long as employers want students with actual skills, I suspect there's a market-based limit to the number of people who will major in YouTube Studies.

A more thoughtful attack: “graduate school takes years and years, during which time the market can change. How are people supposed to know what will be hot in seven years?” That strikes me as a damn good argument for streamlining graduate programs, and forcing them to pay some actual attention to the realities of their fields. It might also dissuade people from piling into overcrowded fields, which would make the endless reproduction of the reserve army of the underemployed much harder. That's a good thing.

Another thoughtful attack: “specialized study requires extended time and minimal disruption. This would privilege the quick-and-dirty.” Again, there's some truth to that, but there's also a difference between 'specialized' and 'actually good.' They aren't mutually exclusive, but they aren't synonyms, either. I'm constantly struck at the ratio of crap-to-quality published in my scholarly discipline, and it's hardly unique in that. And the private sector seems to do 'specialization' pretty well, one way or another, so market conditions obviously aren't fatal to it.

This is all much less hypothetical than it might seem. Yes, the transition within existing tenure-based institutions would be wrenching, if it happened there at all. Instead, the transition is happening with the emergence of new institutions – proprietaries, notably – increasingly at the expense of traditional ones. Which means that those of us who care about education as a public good – who don't just want to cede it to the Apollo Groups of the world – need to get serious about questioning how we do things.

That's a long response to a short comment. Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Recognizing Staff

A returning correspondent writes:

The vice president who oversees the majority of support staff at my SLAC
is constructing a proposal for a year-long recognition of the
contributions of non-faculty employees to our university's operations.
Over the years, members of staff have noticed that faculty consistently
receive larger percentage raises (on top of higher starting salaries) than
support staff and that faculty enjoy significant benefits not afforded to
staff (tenure, sabbatical leave, employment for trailing spouses, etc.).
This coming fiscal year, for example, will see a 15% increase in faculty
salaries while staff raises will come from a pool capped at 4% of current
staff salary expenditures. The 2009 fiscal year will also see several new
tenure-track hires with a simultaneous freeze on the creation of new staff
positions.

Recognizing the substantial disparities in compensation, benefits and
overall treatment between faculty and staff employees, our vice president
would like to demonstrate in tangible ways that our university does, in
fact, value non-faculty employees. She has solicited proposals from her
subordinate directors and employees for programs that would benefit
support staff and improve morale.

So far, I have heard various suggestions, including:
• a one-time cash bonus awarded to each employee at her employment
anniversary or birthday
• a pool of services from which employees might choose (spa days, resort
weekends, etc.) in lieu of a cash payment
• an increase in paid vacation days allotted
• a peer-to-peer gift-card recognition program to tangibly recognize
service provided by staff to each other

Our university is located in a "right-to-work" state; faculty enter into
annual employment contracts while staff are employed "at will." No union
representation is recognized on campus.

What say your wise and worldly readers? How have their institutions
successfully addressed the gap between faculty and staff? What
compensation or recognition programs have they seen (or led or
implemented) that succeeded? What failures have they seen -- and what
have they learned from these failures?



I've never heard of 15 percent raises, period. So congratulations on that. And your VP is certainly right that good staffers are well worth recognizing. One of the lessons I learned very early in grad school was that the administrative assistants are remarkably powerful, and that you mistreat them at your peril. That has held true at an R1, a proprietary, and a community college.

Compared to a 15 percent raise, any of the possibilities you mentioned may well come across as unsatisfying consolation prizes. (Depending on local rules, though, there may be ways around that. For example, if your college 'buys out' unused vacation time upon retirement, some people would see picking up a few vacation days as a financial windfall.)

I would shy away from the peer-to-peer thing, since that pretty transparently shifts the cost onto the staffers themselves. Secret Santa is just not the same as a raise.

Some people respond to public praise more than to private reward. Public recognition in the right situation may count for more than a token gift, at least for some people.

One of the frustrations of administration is that doing a Good Thing – like finding money for faculty – inevitably results in blowback when others wonder why you didn't do the same for them. What you might see as “righting a longstanding wrong,” others will see as “favoritism” or “precedent.” No good deed goes unpunished.

I'll echo the call to my wise and worldly readers. What have you seen succeed or fail?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

 

CC's as Replacements?

According to this article in IHE, the state of Florida is trying to get its community colleges to offer the four-year degrees that its upper-level schools can no longer afford to offer.

According to this article in IHE, the major points of discussion seem to be:

  1. Community colleges are cheaper, and they're accredited by the same agency that accredits the university campuses. This is a much more efficient use of taxpayer money for developing an educated workforce than, say, having the universities do it.

Or,

2. Community colleges suck, and can't do it.

I'd like to offer another perspective:

  1. Community colleges are good at the first two years precisely because of specialization. Lose that specialization, or that focus, and you lose the effectiveness.

In other words, I'm not against the proposal because of a lack of faith in community colleges. I'm against the proposal because I don't think it makes sense to turn a strong two-year school into a weak four-year one.

If anything, I'd support proposals for narrowing the 'comprehensive' focus of many cc's. Instead of trying to offer all majors to all people, split the institutions – have some focus largely on transfer and traditional academic subjects, and others focus largely on technical and vocational training. It makes perfect sense to me for a single area to have both a 'junior college' (though I've never liked that term) and a 'technical college.' Devoting an institution to a clear mission seems to me a likelier route to success than devoting to multiple and sometimes conflicting missions.

Why are cc's cheaper? Among other reasons, we don't have the research overhead of four-year colleges. Our faculty teach more credits per semester, since they don't have to do research, so their salaries are amortized over more (if lower) tuitions. That can work when the coursework doesn't go beyond the first two years, but I'd shudder to see that model extended upward. As the coursework becomes more specialized, currency in the research becomes more relevant.

(We also don't generally have the climbing walls and football factories and the general 'bread and circus' side of college life that seems to be an endless money pit. To that degree, there may be an argument for taking cc's as models.)

I frequently hear students lament that we don't offer four-year degrees. It's a lovely compliment, but much of what makes us appealing – low cost, small classes, tight focus – would be lost if we did. To the extent that there are issues around geographic access, many cc's, including mine, routinely 'host' classes taught by four-year colleges on our campus. We rent them space, and students can stay local while earning a degree from a college an hour or two away. In those cases, the four-year schools that rent space are responsible for faculty hiring, curriculum, transcripting, and the like; we just provide a facility. That approach lets us continue to focus on what we actually do well, while still meeting a real student need.

Although it's certainly refreshing to see cc's get some budgetary respect, this isn't the way to do it. Cc's aren't an alternative to the existing system of higher education; they're an integral part of it. They can make a real contribution when allowed to do what they do, but not when they try to pretend to be what they aren't. I count it as success when a student starts here, does well, transfers to a four-year college or university, thrives, and graduates. That's the goal. Dividing-and-conquering higher ed doesn't help anybody.



Tuesday, June 17, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Moonlighting

A new correspondent writes:

I'm in my first tenure track job in my mid-40s. I just got my Ph.D. this last December. College faculty is definitely a "second career" for me. As I was having some trouble landing a job, I was arranging some "fall back" positions with some well-known-distance-learning companies.

I pursued one and not the other. Here I was, in my first gig, trying to do another job and arranging some free-lance journalism jobs from myself.

The job with well-known-distance-educator ended up falling through. I have since made contact with another well-known-distance educator to pursue some part-time employment with them as well as pursuing freelance writing and doing voice work.

Now, the voice work and journalism fall into my area as a communication professor and could make me better at those jobs.

I'm a little coy about letting anyone know about my "job" with the distance educator.

I have known several academics who have "moonlighting" gigs. How do administrative types and chairs and what not feel about that? Is it encouraged? Discouraged? Is it "don't ask, don't tell?" Is it, "as long as you do your job, it's okay?"

I'm not a greedy person, but I do feel I need a little more than my base salary to be comfortable.

I'll open with an admonition to check the faculty handbook and/or union contract at your college. Some colleges have explicit guidelines about this sort of thing, so the kind of general thoughts I'll offer here may or may not apply in any given case. For example, at my college, you couldn't hold another 'full-time' position, but writing, consulting, and short-term gigs are fine as long as you perform well at your main job. (Adjuncting elsewhere is usually okay, but only if you disclose it, and there is a theoretical veto power that I've never actually seen used.) And depending on what you do, some outside gigs could actually make you more effective at your faculty role. Applied work in your field can help you advise students realistically and keep your contacts current, both of which are actually pluses. (For example, we have music faculty who perform professionally, and art faculty who exhibit and sell their own paintings. I don't see anything sinister about either.) From my perspective, a communications professor doing some voice work on the side – how the hell do you get that gig? -- makes all kinds of sense.

In my faculty days, I even adjuncted an advanced class at a nearby university while doing my regular load, with my dean's blessing. He knew that I was chafing under an “all intro classes, all the time” regimen, and needed to stretch a little. He saw it as a sort of faculty development on someone else's dime. I saw it as a breath of fresh air, a chance to scope out another college, and a way to pick up a few bucks. It was tiring, but worthwhile.

The 'tiring' part is the part I'm concerned about. If you had already been doing the full-time faculty thing for a few years and had it down, I wouldn't worry about it. But if you're new to the full-time teaching thing, you haven't yet discovered how much time it takes, and you haven't found any shortcuts yet. In the first year on the new job, if you have the option financially, I'd advise focusing narrowly on the new job. Give it your best, and get established as someone who takes the job seriously. As you start to get the hang of it and discover the shortcuts that work for you, the extra gigs become less risky.

(I've also seen another administrator – not me – take exception to a brand-new full-timer adjuncting elsewhere, precisely on the grounds of 'lost focus.' It struck me as petty, but there it was.)

If you have a trustworthy faculty colleague, you might want to ask her about local history and personalities. Even if the official policy is permissive, you might just have a particular dean or vp who looks askance at these things. I'm embarrassed on behalf of my profession to admit that, but I'd hate to see you unknowingly run afoul of someone's unwritten rule.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? What have you seen?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Monday, June 16, 2008

 

Indy's Dean

Although I kinda expected it to suck – which it did – this weekend I took TW to see the new Indiana Jones movie. She's had a thing for Harrison Ford ever since Star Wars, and she loved loved loved the first three Indy movies.

Nobody warned me that it was a comedy. I actually laughed out loud, hard, at this one:

The Dean: It's the FBI. They've ransacked your office!

Indy: But you're the dean of the college! Couldn't you stop them?

Me, in audience: HA!

Nobody else in the theater laughed. I thought it was the highlight of the movie.


Friday, June 13, 2008

 

Fridays and Footprints

With gas around four dollars a gallon, the seventies-era idea of colleges closing on Fridays to reduce travel is making a comeback. The idea, which I've already heard from several people on my campus and read about in a few places, is that switching to a four-day workweek will reduce commuting by twenty percent, thereby reducing the college's carbon footprint and the cost to employees of gasoline and/or mass transit fare.

It would also (theoretically) allow colleges to save on HVAC, lighting, and other utilities on Fridays.

Color me skeptical, and not because I don't get the appeal of a four-day week. On sunny summer Fridays, I get it viscerally. But that doesn't make it a good idea.

At a basic level, the college would be sacrificing enrollments, and therefore money, to save gas for other people. That may be ethically admirable, but it's a cost. The classrooms are already full during 'prime time' – roughly ten to two, Monday through Thursday – and students leave for part-time jobs after that. (The classes fill up again in the evening.) Moving the half-full Friday classes might seem efficient, but there's no room for them during the week. Those enrollments would have to be foregone, which is tough to do when tuition pays half your budget and the other half is based on formulae largely driven by enrollment numbers.

It would also force the full-time staff to work ten-hour days to remain full-time. For those of us with kids, or other commitments, or just lives, that's nothing to sneeze at. Some faculty would experience the change as liberatory, but for administration and staff, it would mean being chained to the offices even longer than we already are. (The alternative – make four eight-hour days the definition of full-time – would occasion a taxpayer revolt.) This is where the “just move it online and stop whining” approach falls down.

We'd also lose all that studio time, lab time, performance time, practice time, and all those other time-intensive non-classroom instructional uses that colleges support. We'd either have to cut the programs that need those things, or stuff them into the already overcrowded Monday-to-Thursday bloc.

Worse, we'd have to sacrifice the Friday-Saturday class blocs we run for working adults. Those aren't huge sellers, but they're incredibly important to some hardworking people.

And then, of course, there's parking. If you think it's hard to find a space during prime time now, just try adding all those displaced Friday folk! Irony of ironies if we wind up adding parking spaces to accommodate our anti-driving agenda.

It's true that our facility use is lighter on Fridays than during the rest of the week, but another way of reading that is “we can actually grow on Fridays.” We don't have the room to grow during the week. Since there seems to have been a de facto political decision made that we have to be much more tuition-driven than ever before, the only way for us to continue to meet our growing costs is to continue to grow. Take Fridays off the table, and any energy savings for the college will be more-than-swamped by the lost revenue.

It's a shame, since there's an obvious intuitive appeal to the idea. Painfully obvious. Really, crushingly, painfully obvious. Sigh.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

 

As The Boy Turns

Without so much as warning me, The Boy has started to move from small child to proto-tween.

Yes, I'm biased, but he's a remarkably smart kid. Earlier this week his class did an exercise with contractions, in which they were supposed to fill-in-the-blanks with the appropriate contractions. One sentence was “Mars ____ have water.” The 'correct' answer was 'doesn't,' but he knew that was wrong, so he crossed out the n't. His teacher raised an eyebrow, but he got a round of high fives when he got home. Speak truth to power, big guy! We were proud that he knew the facts, but even prouder that he was willing to contradict the official story when it flew in the face of the facts. That's not bad for a first grader. Hell, the President of the United States can't do that. Go, TB!

I took him recently to a baseball clinic for kids held at the local stadium by our local minor-league team. It was that nasty Northeastern muggy hot, where it's too humid to sweat but too hot not to, and you start to reflect that maybe the root of the Middle Eastern conflict is a lack of central air. His friend Chip was there, so he and Chip immediately paired up and went from station to station together. (I was in the stands, with the other parents. It looked like a photojournalism workshop, with Dads wielding all manner of cameras from all over the stadium.) Watching him field grounders brought that mix of pride and shock that all parents know. Pride that he was out there, un-self-consciously participating and giving it his all. Shock that my little guy has hit an age I remember being, and is doing things I remember doing. He's better at it than I was at that age, which, I'll admit, is easy.

Standing in line at each station, he and Chip just kept making each other laugh, doing impressions of characters from the Star Wars movies and showing off their armpit-fart techniques. When other kids were fielding grounders or throwing pitches from a windup, he and Chip were just busting on each other and having a great time. It was fun to watch, and I know it was a great experience for him, but there's something a little humbling about realizing that you've been demoted to 'chauffeur' status.

Or sometimes censor. We get 1-3 newspapers every morning, because I'm a nerd. I read them at breakfast, and encourage TB to read them, too. (Yes, I know, it's very pre-internet of me, but there's just something comforting about reading a paper while drinking coffee at breakfast.) He usually just does the kids' page or the comics, which is fine, though sometimes there's a cool story-with-picture about a volcano or a Mars rover or something and I'll point that out to him.

But he can read, and sometimes he'll scan headlines before I realize he's doing it.

This week there was a story about the parents of a girl in his grade, at his school. He has friends in her class. Her father shot and killed her mother in their home, and the girl and her younger sister have become wards of the state. The girl hasn't been to school since then, but so far, the kid grapevine hasn't picked up on the story.

I'm not ready for him to know that yet.

Luckily, the headlines were sufficiently indirect that even if he saw them, he probably wouldn't have connected the dots. And the sheer ubiquity of violence in our culture, perversely enough, means that this story gets coverage for a day or two, then fades away to make room for the next ones. He doesn't know the girl himself.

TW and I have discreetly hidden the last few newspapers.

Yes, he'll eventually have to be exposed to the whole panoply of human behavior, including the inhuman parts. Coming to some sort of terms with the barbarity people are capable of is part of growing up. But for God's sake, he's in first grade. It's too soon. It's just too soon.

For all his astonishing maturity, and his composure beyond his years, he's still a kid. I want him to have that. I'll accept demotion to chauffeur status for sports, and the vaguely patronizing look he gives me when I don't recognize some character from the second Star Wars trilogy. But let him have a few more untroubled years to grow stronger, to develop the perspective and empathy and ability to compartmentalize that lets us read something utterly horrific and then go to work. Without more life behind him, I worry that news like that could just overwhelm him.

At some point, he'll learn about men who think they're entitled to shoot their wives and leave their young children defenseless. I'd just rather he not learn that while he's a young child himself.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Self-Paid Interview Travel?

A new correspondent writes:

I've found myself in a little conundrum lately. I was contacted last week that I got an interview for a community college job I applied to in the Spring. I'm assuming this job starts in September, since that's when their school year starts. Today, I got an email with interview times, which were all next week... My problem is that this interview is across the country, and flights at this time are $500. I assume I'll be paying that since there was no mention of reimbursement. That's quite an investment for a 1-hour interview! I'm very nervous about this, since the only possibilities are that this would be the first in a string of interviews (so more $500 flights) or they're basing their whole decision on just 1 hour! This is a full time tenure track position, so that seems unlikely. I very interested in this job, since it would involve some awesome teaching possibilities. But I'm not quite sure how to proceed and be professional about this. I'm willing to pay for travel, but only if I stand a chance.

Ugh. I know budgets are tight – believe me, I live it every single day – but paying reasonable airfare (by which I mean 'coach') for tenure-track candidates just strikes me as a basic, minimal professional courtesy. Hiring (potentially) permanent employees is a high-risk proposition, since a good hire pays you back for a long time and a lousy hire can be an organizational migraine. Laying out a couple thousand upfront in travel reimbursements – and thereby vastly broadening your applicant pool – is money very well spent, if you have any ability at all as a talent scout. You'll get it back, and so much more, in a stronger faculty, over time.

My first thought is that just because they didn't mention reimbursement doesn't mean they won't do it. Call the HR department there and ask specifically about it. Sometimes they'll reimburse up to a certain amount, sometimes they'll reimburse entire costs, and sometimes they won't pay you anything but they might arrange for someone to pick you up at the airport (if that needs to be done). I've heard of colleges (cough) that won't volunteer the fact that they reimburse, but that will reimburse if asked directly. It strikes me as weaselly, but there it is.

It's not unheard of for colleges to conduct 'airport interviews' for the first round. Typically, they'll get some space either in or very close to an airport, and interview 6-8 candidates for maybe an hour each, intending to call back two or three for full-day, on-campus interview gauntlets. It's a relatively time-efficient way to do a first in-person screen, even if there's something vaguely surreal about it. (Full disclosure: back when I was trying to escape Proprietary U, I had an airport interview for a gig at a quirky college in a quirky and distant place. Flying out and back on the same day is a weird experience. As it happened, I made it to the next round but didn't get the job.) As technologies like Skype become more refined and more common, and airfare more expensive, I wouldn't be surprised to see airport interviews give way to video interviews, although I don't think we're there yet.

If the HR department responds that yes, they'll pay you back, then congratulations. If they decline, then you have a decision to make. It's typically not the case that a college will pay for some applicants and not others; usually, they either pay or they don't. So don't take it as a personal affront. But five hundred bucks is five hundred bucks, especially if you're living on grad student money.

At Proprietary U, I saw a candidate hired who had to pay his own airfare for the interview. So it has happened, though it was certainly a gamble on his part.

I suspect emotions run high on this one, so I'll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers. Voices of the blogosphere, what do you think?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: The "Four-Year" Degree

A longtime reader writes:

Given the experience of some friends, I'm wondering what you think
about the end of the "four year degree." A number of friends took 5
years to do a four year BA while a bunch (including myself took the
normal 4). Others take a victory lap (a 5th year) to improve grades
for graduate\professional programs. Do you have any sense of whether
taking more than four years to complete a bachelor's degree is a
growing trend or not? There seems to be a few reasons for this trend.
For some, it is those taking a part time route - they know at the
beginning that it will take more than four years since they are doing
less than a full load.

Is it a good idea to let people take longer than four years? I would
not want to exclude or eliminate people if they took longer, but it
does seem like there should be a carrot and stick encouragement to get
in, get serious and graduate promptly. Does taking longer have any
particularly positive or negative outcomes at your college? Is it wise
to be neutral (you can take as long as you want: here are the pros and
cons of each method) or be strict about completing on time? I know at
the graduate level - where I am now - that departments are under
pressure to "graduate people on time" but I'm not sure if there is
equivalent pressure at the undergraduate level.

This is a sensitive issue.

In practice, it's common to refer to Associate degrees as “two-year” degrees and bachelor's degrees as “four-year” degrees. (Interestingly, there's no normative timeframe attached to Masters or Doctorates, even though there are normative times attached to J.D.'s and M.D.'s.) They're usually structured on the assumption that they can be completed in either four or eight full-time semesters, even though only a minority of students actually do that.

Taking longer can reflect any number of variables, from going part-time to changing majors to medical or personal leaves to starting with remedial classes to checkered performance to enrollment in a designed “three plus two” program (common in engineering). (Alternately, some people finish faster by taking summer classes, piling up AP credits, and taking overloads.) I'd hesitate to draw any conclusions about a given student, given only the information that she took more than four years. Yes, that could reflect aimlessness or indifferent performance, but it could also reflect many other things, most of which have nothing to do with either drive or talent.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was a mythical creature called the Perpetual Student. The Perpetual Student exploited free or remarkably cheap tuition, cheap student housing, and abundant financial aid (along with some dicier sources of income, such as, um, let's go with 'running informal, freelance pharmacies') to stay in college forever and thereby avoid both the Real World and the draft. Perpetual Students at the undergrad level went extinct sometime in the 1980's, killed off by the cost shift of higher education from the public to the student, the rapid rise in housing rents, and the all-volunteer army. By the early 90's, the only remaining Perpetual Students were usually found in graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines, where they subsisted mostly on tuition waivers and righteous outrage. There was one in my graduate program, regarded by the rest of us as a sort of historical curiosity. When last I saw him, he was busily doing the umpteenth revision of an already-obsolete dissertation, and making predictably ill-fated passes at pretty young lesbians.

Although they've been extinct for some time, Perpetual Students left a bad taste in the mouth of mainstream culture. (“The Mouth of Mainstream Culture” would be a good name for a band.) Like hippies and Black Panthers, they animated a backlash far out of proportion to any actual threat they ever really posed. At this point, though they've been gone for decades, they immediately leap to mind when people talk about 'graduating on the five-year plan' or 'going part-time.'

I've actually heard employers visiting campus say that they give extra points to applicants who graduated 'on time,' which I interpreted as animus toward the Perpetual Student. Taking 'too long' because you spent all your time smoking weed and listening to Pink Floyd is blameworthy; taking 'too long' because the minimum wage hasn't kept up with tuition and your parents aren't rich, isn't. But in the absence of context, it's easier just to sort the application piles into 'standard' and 'deviant' and be done with it.

If we want more students to graduate 'on time,' which is a fine goal in itself, I don't think the way to do it is by punishing those who don't. Instead, it's to make the goal more attainable by, say, improving their preparation levels in high school, bringing costs within range, providing services like on-campus childcare, and, yes, taking a serious look at how we remediate and how we teach those tricky first-year courses. A lousy public high school is its own punishment; heaping additional scorn on a kid who took an extra year to undo the damage before getting on the degree track just adds insult to injury.

One dean's opinion, anyway.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Monday, June 09, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Introducing Faculty Rank

A new correspondent writes:

I teach at a smallish CC with no tenure system and no faculty rank designations. Technically, all faculty, full-time and part-time, are classified as "Instructors." Though at first I found the egalitarian spirit of this system charming, over the years it has proven to be somewhat inconvenient. Anytime I interact with my colleagues from 4-year institutions, for example, I have to go to great pains to explain that I'm not a temporary faculty member, not part-time, etc.. I've also come to believe that the lack of any system for faculty promotion (combined with the lack of merit-based pay raises) is a major contributor to the "deadwood" phenomenon: with no possibility of promotion, faculty have no real external motivator to do much beyond the minimum requirements.

Recently, I've been trying to get both the faculty and the administration to consider adopting a faculty rank system, which would be independent of tenure (since tenure isn't really an option) and which would have little connection, if any, to pay scale. Both sides seem to be amenable to the idea of this kind of system in theory, but the logistics are proving to be a major obstacle. The big question is not just how the system would work--what the requirements for each rank would be, what benefits would go along with promotion, etc.--but also how to implement the system with a pre-existing faculty that has been operating without rank for so long. What do you do with seniority and degree differences (which at present make a difference in salary but not in title)? I can't imagine making a 25-year teaching veteran an assistant professor until s/he works the way up the ladder. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to undermine the system from the get-go by automatically conferring full professor status on anyone with a certain amount of seniority. We need some way of grandfathering the existing faculty into the new system without making that system meaningless.

There's a lot here. It's worth looking at carefully.

First, there's the assumption that the dead wood would respond positively, rather than digging in their heels and getting even less pleasant. Some will probably be positive, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some dig in their heels against it, since rank would highlight their relative lack of production. They may be flying below the radar now, since they probably don't think the change will actually come to pass. But if it does, I'd expect them to crawl out from under their rocks and make your life hell. (They'll say they weren't consulted, that the criteria are flawed, that this is just another step in consolidating managerial power, etc.)

Strikingly, you mentioned that the current system gives the same rank to adjuncts as to full-timers. If you draw a more visible distinction, expect some pushback from some affronted adjuncts.

There's also the question of the value of a promotion that carries with it neither the possibility of tenure nor a meaningful raise. If it's just a title, I'd expect to see its motivational value remain fairly low. If it were up to me, I'd keep tenure off the table – don't get me started – but I would tie promotion to a meaningful raise. If a full professor has demonstrated considerably more value to the institution than an instructor has, I'd have no (conceptual) problem with paying accordingly. (Of course, finding the money to bump up a significant chunk of your faculty by a significant amount all at once may turn out to be a deal-breaker.)

Faculty promotions are strange creatures. In most organizations, promotions bring with them changes in job responsibility. Faculty promotions mostly don't. The core of what a full professor does is usually the same as the core of what an assistant professor at the same institution does. (There may be some differences on the margins in terms of, say, committee service, but the job is still fundamentally recognizable.) That's why some colleges manage to function just fine without faculty ranks. Put another way, the difference in responsibilities between 'Associate Dean' and 'Dean' is usually much more drastic than the difference between 'Associate Professor' and 'Professor.'

Since faculty promotions don't bring much difference in people's job descriptions, I tend to think of their primary function as motivational. (Again, for purposes of this discussion I'm bracketing the question of tenure.) That's not a small thing; in the ranks of our staff, I've seen the undesirable side effects of jobs without any hope of advancement. In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if some of the crabbiness among senior faculty comes from realizing at some level that they've topped out. If you've hit 'full professor' status, but you have no administrative ambitions and you aren't a superstar, you're just looking at repetitive grading and cost-of-living adjustments until retirement. That has to be a little demoralizing, especially if you've had a lot of success in your past.

Of course, it's even worse if there's only one faculty rank, and you hit that your first year. At least introducing a few levels, with corresponding raises, can take the edge off the sense of drift.

(It can also give you a performance-based referent to use during layoffs, if it should come to that.)

How to introduce it? I'll share a few thoughts, and ask my Wise and Worldly Readers to chime in.

First, be very clear on the criteria and the value of the ranks. If you can, throw some money at them.

Second, don't start anybody at the top. The highest rank anybody should 'grandfather' into is Associate Professor. Nobody gets to coast across the finish line.

Third, a few 'bright line' rules about minimum length of service for a given rank, minimum degree level (no full professorships without a terminal degree, for example), minimum time between promotions, how to count medical and/or parental leaves, and guidelines for hiring new faculty who aren't entry-level can save a lot of headaches. I wouldn't recommend being overly restrictive on any of these, since they tend to weaken your ability to keep the best people, but some basic minima will reduce the caseload (and politicking) and guarantee some basic level of procedural fairness.

Fourth, and I'll admit this is my hobbyhorse, count performance more than seniority. Breathing is its own reward; if you want more money, create some value for the institution. In the context of a teaching college, I'd imagine looking at things like 'new courses developed' and 'willingness to teach online and/or at unpopular times,' as well as the usual course observations and such. The more closely you can match promotion criteria to what the college needs to prosper, the better.

I wish you luck. This will be a lot harder than you may suspect, and will almost certainly lead to some really nasty infighting. Ultimately, I agree that performance should be rewarded, but getting there will be a bumpy ride. Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen a successful introduction of rank?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Friday, June 06, 2008

 

From the Departments

- From the 'Signs of Hope' department: apparently, the top-selling vehicles in America for the last fifteen years have been trucks. In May, they were the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic. In my mind, the change is an unambiguous good. Now if the American carmakers could get their stuff together and produce some well-made, small, efficient cars that don't suck, we'd really be in better shape.


- From the 'Time Passes' department, an actual exchange with The Boy yesterday:

TB: Dad, what's a Walkman?

(pause)

DD: It's like an ipod.

TB: Oh. Okay.


- From the 'Budding Critic' department, an actual exchange with The Girl from earlier this week, when we were listening to XM Kids in the car, and a slow version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" came on:

TG: I like the noisier songs.

DD: Me, too.

TG (forlorn): Songs like these just make me sad.

Her use of 'noisier' may be technically incorrect, but I knew exactly what she meant. And she nailed the tone.


- From the 'Algonquin Round Table' department, an actual dinnertime exchange, earlier this week:

TB: I bet Darth Vader had nasty farts.

DD: I wonder if they had that same breathing sound as his voice.

TW: He probably sighed afterwards.

DD: And had to swish his cape.

TB: (in a Darth Vader voice) The Force was strong in that one!

DD: (in a Darth Vader voice) My shorts have gone over to the dark side.

I don't even want to admit the total number of years of formal education represented in that exchange...



Thursday, June 05, 2008

 

What FERPA Assumes

As a card-carrying administrator, I loves me some FERPA. FERPA is the privacy law that forbids us from discussing an individual student's performance, or schedule, with anybody other than the student – read: parents – without a waiver signed by the student. It comes in handy when I get irate calls from parents asking why Johnny got a C instead of the A he obviously deserved: “Gee, I'd love to discuss that with you, but federal law says I can't.” Good stuff. The folks over in Student Affairs consider FERPA pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But this story in yesterday's IHE triggered something. In a piece on how to improve student retention, the article notes that

Especially for first generation, low income students, family members are the most trusted advisers about colleges – even if those family members have no knowledge of colleges...In most cases where such students drop out, the first person they talk to about such a decision is a family member, so if colleges want to keep these students, they need to pay more attention to families.

I've actually seen this in action at in-person registration. Five or six people – parents, siblings, cousins, boyfriends/girlfriends – will accompany a prospective student, offering varying combinations of moral support; exhortation; (sometimes conflicting) advice; logistical arrangements (ride sharing, mostly); spokesman services (the bane of my existence -- “Johnny wants to be a Criminal Justice major.” I assume Johnny is capable of telling me that himself, if it's actually true); and money.

Probably as a result of the inadvertent lessons learned in the K-12 system, it's not unusual for families or support networks to come in as a united front. But this is exactly what we try to prevent, and FERPA is part of that.

In some ways, of course, we're right to try to prevent that. Part of the point of college, as opposed to the K-12 system, is that the students are assumed to be adults. As such, they shouldn't have to worry about us telling Mom on them. We assume that students do their own work, make their own choices, and control their own fates. (We don't always assume that they pay their own tuition, though, which leads to heated variations on the “what do you mean you can't tell me how he's doing? I pay his tuition!” conversation.) We leave 'in loco parentis' to the K-12 system. If Johnny can't bring himself to tell us what he wants, then lands someplace he doesn't like, then Johnny has learned a valuable life lesson.

But the clean and fast distinction between 'independent' and 'dependent' may not be a fair or accurate description of how many students actually live. And it assumes a level of institutional literacy – 'getting' the rules of the game – that may be widely shared in some circles, but often aren't here.

If Mom and Dad don't know the rules of college, they might not know what they don't know. So they'll pass on bad information in an attempt to be helpful. And if Johnny doesn't know the rules either, he may well listen. If we can't get to Mom and Dad, we may not know what bad information they're passing.

And to pretend that class scheduling is a purely academic function, separate from transportation considerations, is just naïve. Our students work around ride availability, family demands, and fluid job hours. It would be great if they all had the leisure that Aristotle thought was a prerequisite to contemplation, but that's not the world we live in. But to work those things out requires working with the entire group, and bringing knowledge of the rules of the game to bear. (“The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Is it a problem if I can't always make it on Thursdays?” “Yes. Yes, it is.”)

We're still experimenting with – okay, sometimes struggling with – ways to balance the legitimate expectations of student privacy and autonomy with the realities of their embedded lives. We've found that separate but concurrent programs for parents (and significant others) during in-person registration can serve two purposes: it forces the students to tell us what they actually want, and it imparts valuable information to the support networks that they sometimes don't have. It helps, though it's obviously only a partial solution.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a graceful way of balancing a proper respect for adult autonomy with ways of actually addressing well-meaning but sometimes problematic support networks?



Wednesday, June 04, 2008

 

The Class Must Go On

Every so often I read or hear about something so obvious, and so brilliant, that I actually get mad at myself for not having thought of it first. This is one of those times.

According to this article in Community College Week, Tallahassee Community College in Florida (and certain programs at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana) has started a 'no cancellations' policy for scheduled classes. Once a class is on the official schedule, that's it. If it only attracts half the usual minimum, so be it. The idea, apparently, is to improve degree completion rates, since last-minute class cancellations make degree completion harder, especially for working adults whose schedules are delicate in the best circumstances.

The article mentions the intended benefit:

“[at Tallahassee CC] student retention has increased about 2 percent every year since the guaranteed schedule was introduced in 2004, although [the academic VP] declines to say whether the policy is the primary reason. Financial aid has also grown appreciably, another indicator students intend to stick around.”

Not too shabby. The revenue from a two percent annual increase in retention can certainly cover the occasional small section. It's true that correlation isn't causation, but I can also attest that retention gains of that magnitude, sustained over several years, are rare, and not to be sneezed at.

The article also mentions some unintended benefits. With a fixed schedule, it's easier to attach faculty names to sections. (Fewer sections are taught by “Professor Staff.”) Which means that it becomes easier to suss out which faculty attract students and which faculty repel them. The folks at Tallahassee claim that they've only used this knowledge for good (mentoring) rather than evil (mindless number-driven purging), though it could probably go either way.

The greater benefit, though, accrues to adjuncts. Since full-timers have to 'make load' one way or another, they're often given the sections that everybody knows will run. That means that the adjuncts get the classes that may or may not make it in a given term. One of the many banes of adjunct life is prepping a class that doesn't run. In most cases, if it doesn't run, you don't get paid, even if you busted your hump on a new preparation. But with a guaranteed schedule, an adjunct who is assigned a class can be confident that it will run. That increases the incentive for preparing thoroughly, which can only benefit the students. It also gives Tallahassee an edge in recruiting adjuncts, since unlike the local schools with whom it competes, it can guarantee that its classes will actually run.

As any administrator can tell you, enrollments at a given cc aren't identical from year to year. The way Tallahassee handles that is by holding 'shadow sections' in reserve, and adding them as the already-scheduled classes fill. So the first print run of the schedule won't match the last, but any changes will only be additions. The idea is that you don't bump students who have already registered. Given the choice between 'standby' status and getting bumped, they've made the judgment call – probably correctly – that standby status is less disruptive. Once you're in, you're in.

In mulling over how this would work on my campus, I could envision the first year being a train wreck, but the long-term effect being real improvement.

Departments compete for classroom space, especially during prime time. One way they've done that has been by scheduling sections that may or may not run, just in case. It's individually rational, but collectively destructive. But if they knew they'd actually have to follow through on everything they tried to offer, some of the space conflicts would probably evaporate as 'just in case' sections go away. There would be a nasty learning curve during that first year, but it would be mostly temporary.

It would also allow departments to 'pinwheel' low-enrollment classes. Instead of trying to offer Nuclear Poetry every semester and usually canceling it, they could commit to running it every other Spring. If it still ran with only three students, there would be an obvious opening to take a long, hard look at the class.

So here's a relatively easy reform that would save administrative headaches (I hate hate hate the pre-semester conversations with Chairs in which we guesstimate which classes will make the cut), reduce faculty anxieties, improve course preparation, improve adjunct recruitment, allow students to plan ahead, and increase retention rates. There's gotta be a catch.

Wise and worldly readers, help me out on this one. What's the catch?


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

 

Citibank to CC's: Drop Dead

Several alert readers sent me links to this article from the New York Times. Apparently, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, and several other major lenders have stopped providing student loans to students at many community colleges and some less-tony four year schools. The key quote:

The banks that are pulling out say their decisions are based on an analysis of which colleges have higher default rates, low numbers of borrowers and small loan amounts that make the business less profitable. (The average amount borrowed by community college students is about $3,200 a year, according to the College Board.) Still, the cherry-picking strikes some as peculiar; after all, the government is guaranteeing 95 percent of the value of these loans. (emphasis added)

So smallish loans to struggling students are bad, despite being guaranteed by the government. But biggish loans to struggling students elsewhere are okey-dokey.

Alrighty then.

Obviously, the only reasonable course of action for cc's, in this case, is to jack tuition up to the sky. Make those loans big enough to be worth offering. What could possibly go wrong?

Sigh.

Clearly, the student loan racket needs to be dismantled and rethought from the ground up.

Education loans are a tricky business in the best of times. You can't really repossess an education, the way you could repossess a car or a house. So the way to get private lenders to take the chance of being stiffed, in the absence of collateral, without having them charge politically unacceptable interest rates, has been through subsidies and guarantees.

Here's where my Scandinavian/social democrat side gets confused. If you have to subsidize and guarantee anyway, why do you need private lenders at all? Why not just have a single public agency, with a single set of rules and a single pile of paperwork? Run it on a non-profit basis, and let Citibank and its ilk lend for houses and cars and businesses.

If that's still too much paperwork, you could always replace the loans with scholarships. Call them vouchers, if that makes you feel better. I prefer 'grants,' but to each her own. If an educated workforce and citizenry is a public good, and I believe strongly that it is, then why not have the public handle it?

Come to think of it, this might work for health care, too. Why deal with 500 different sets of HMO paperwork, each with its own incentives to make 'mistakes'? If only there were a precedent for a single-payer system in an advanced country, with lower health care spending and better outcomes...

Sigh.

This is so seriously messed up, it's hard to know where to begin. First, there's the ecological inference fallacy. Credit risk is supposed to attach to people, not groups. If I've defaulted many times before, then yes, I'm risky. But if others who share my zip code have defaulted, does that mean I'm more likely to? This smells like educational redlining.

Then there's the staggeringly obvious fact that different majors at the same college have different employment prospects. Our Drama majors have some difficult choices to make, and face long odds in their field of study; our Nursing majors are hired before they graduate. Averaging them together tells you about...who, exactly?

And what about the students who transfer to complete four-year degrees? How do they count? In my mind, they count as 'successes' for us, but I could see where they'd drag down the 'starting salary' figures.

Besides, if ability to pay the loan back were really the issue, wouldn't the smaller loans be the ones least likely to get cut? It's easier to pay back $3,000 than $30,000. I would think the community college Nursing grads would be the best risks, since they combine small debts with healthy salaries upon graduation. But Citibank is cutting those, while happily lending $50,000 or more to poetry majors at Midtier State. Ability to pay ain't the issue.

The category mistake here is in treating a largely public good as a purely private one. Lenders get paid back by individuals, so they have to think in terms of a private good. But higher ed was never meant to be nothing more than the personnel office of the economy (even if it has a role to play there).

Some folks have an ideological interest in claiming that any market move must be right by definition. But for those of us who prefer to deal in objective reality, this just smacks of straight-up class bias. After all, the same banks who turn up their noses at community college student loans have been more than happy to lend those same people much larger amounts of money in subprime mortgages. No, this isn't economically rational or the act of a disembodied market. This is snobbery, this is wrong, and this needs to be dismantled.


Monday, June 02, 2008

 

Quack

We had to get out of Dodge this weekend for a whole series of reasons, so my Mom invited us to take the kids on a Duck tour of Nearby Big City.

For those who haven't done it: 'ducks,' in this context, are amphibious vehicles that drive you around for a while, showing sights, then take you in the water and show you the city from the water. Depending on the joie de vivre of the tour guide, you also get issued kazoos shaped like duckbills, which the kids enjoy honking at every possible opportunity. If you were in a major Eastern city this weekend and saw a pasty suburban dad in a baseball cap gamely honking a duckbill kazoo in an amphibious vehicle with an enthusiastic three-year-old by his side, that may have been me.

(We discovered that random people on the street and smile and wave when you pass by in a giant motorized duck. Who knew?)

According to the tour guide, our duck was a 1944 model, built by Rosie the Riveters at GM for military purposes. It has since been repurposed, obviously, with a roof added (and an ipod hookup, apparently). He also mentioned that ducks were pressed into service as rescue vehicles after Katrina, which made sense, since they can drive or float or both as needed.

The land part of the trip was nothing special. We saw some Major Historical Sites, but the kids are too young to get much out of them. (Major Historical Sites don't mean much if you don't know the history.) Trips to Major Historical Sites are different as a parent than as a kid. As a kid, I remember wondering why my Dad kept making such a fuss out of such seemingly random stuff. Now, I can't help but notice the glazed expression on TB as we explain that this was where (fill in the blank) happened.

(Exception: The Air and Space Museum, in DC. I actually got a little teary when TB and I touched the command module for Apollo 11. Yes, I'm a nerd, but in my defense, it went to the freakin' moon. Can you imagine being, say, Neil Armstrong, and being able to point to the moon and say “been there”? That's pretty *^%#^% cool. TB didn't need any convincing on that one.)

When we got to the water, though, it got good. The duck charges down a ramp directly into the water, landing with a satisfyingly colossal splash. Then it starts chugging along in the water without skipping a beat. TB and TG loved the splash and the waves, and the view really was different. (To really appreciate a major bridge, look at it from underneath.) After a few minutes on the water, when we still hadn't been issued our quackers, TG raised her hand and very politely asked the tour guide if we could have them. He smiled, charmed, and dutifully handed them out. Before long, the entire boat (maybe 20 people) was contentedly quacking, singing, and laughing. The tour guide was a cross between Tom Waits and the Car Talk guys, so he was great fun in an “I don't give a crap” kind of way. The end of the trip featured the entire group quacking in unison to Cheesy Hits of the Seventies, which is life-affirming in its way. (“YMCA” lends itself especially well to three-year-olds with duckbill kazoos.)

To a seven-year-old – let alone a three-year-old – major historical sites just can't compete with a really cool splash. I can't blame them.

When we eventually got back home, I asked TB and TG about their favorite parts of the day. TB picked the splash, and TG picked the quacking. Major Historical Sites will just have to wait.


 

Ask the Administrator: The Tap on the Shoulder

A rising young correspondent writes:

I am a newish faculty member at a large
community college. During a recent interview, I made a positive impression
on our division's Vice Chancellor, and he has decided to groom me for a dean
position that he plans to create in the next year or two. Of course, I
wasn't sure he was serious at first, but after a long conversation with him
a few days ago it seems this is not a cruel hoax. If everything goes well
and I get this position, I will be the youngest dean on campus and will have
been promoted to my boss's boss's job.

O I have so many questions. Here are a few:
1. The V.C. says this is not a secret; furthermore, his "grooming" plans
will eventually be obvious to my program coordinator and department chair.
Still, should I tell them up front the future dean position? Will it sound
as if I am suffering from delusions of grandeur?
2. I have many professional friendships with faculty here. Should I tell
them about this turn of events now or later?
3. Are there any pitfalls to being a new dean (or to the deanship grooming
process) that I could avoid with some advance warning?


First, congratulations on the faculty job! Next, a few thoughts.

I'd be wary of someone offering to leap you several levels so abruptly. People who make strange decisions on a dime often change them on another one, so even if he's sincere right now, he may get distracted by a shiny object next month and that's that. And I absolutely would NOT go around telling all and sundry that you've been promised a much higher-level job that doesn't exist yet. (Among other reasons, jobs like that are supposed to be advertised, and subject to open searches. Even if he were consistent, he couldn't actually promise that you'd win an open search.)

Instead, I'd re-frame the discussion as an opportunity for faculty/leadership development.

Although I don't buy into the cult of seniority nearly as much as many academics seem to, I do believe that some experience beats no experience. (My difference with the Seniority Squad has to do with how we envision the payoff to experience over time. They think it's linear, or even exponential. I think it plateaus relatively early, and can even turn negative eventually. But we agree on the first few years.) Going directly from 'new faculty' to 'dean' is quite a leap, and you'd arrive in the new office with very little sense of the jobs of the people who report to you. Unless you're either preternaturally talented or really, really lucky, you'll make some basic and costly mistakes that a little more experience (or exposure, if you prefer) would have prevented.

For example, fielding student complaints about other people is very different than fielding students complaints about you. You know what you did or didn't do; that won't be the case when the complaint is about someone else. What do you do when a student storms in and complains that "Professor so-and-so is biased"? Or that she doesn't return papers, or doesn't show up for class, or says demeaning things? And what do you do if Professor so-and-so refuses even to address the charge, responding instead with insinuations that The Administration (cue ominous music) is simply out to get her and everybody who looks like her?

Or, what do you do when a department chair refuses to add sections of a popular class – despite all existing sections being full, and despite a very real budget problem at your college – on the grounds that "it's hard to find good daytime adjuncts"? (I've had them say this six months in advance.) If you've chaired a department, or otherwise been responsible for hiring adjuncts, you'll have a good idea of the relative truth of that. ("Gee, I always managed..." has a way of changing the conversation.) If not, you'll have a harder time.

The tap on the shoulder is a good thing. It's a recognition that you have the talent and temperament to deal with some of the issues that plenty of otherwise brilliant people just don't handle well. But jumping multiple levels at one time can actually set you up for failure, even if unintentionally.

My advice is to express gratitude for his confidence in you, and interest in preparing yourself for possible future administrative opportunities, whatever those might be. Then take on a lower-level assignment to get some experience (and maybe some course release), and cadge some travel funding for a relevant conference or two. (The AAC&U, the AACC, and the League for Innovation all offer worthwhile options.) Get some exposure and some experience, so you'll be prepared not just to get a job, but to succeed at it. It may take a little longer upfront, but you'll be setting yourself up for more success, and more opportunities, over time.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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