Thursday, July 31, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Breaking Into Administration

A new correspondent writes:

I'm having a tremendously hard time landing my first college staff Job.
 I'm a graduate of Respected State U, and a current graduate student there
studying English Lit.  My goal is to move on to an Ed.D at Respected State,
and to become an
Administrator.  In order to achieve my goals, I need to get experience
with an entry-level position.  It's very, very frustrating and
discouraging.  While working for a large health insurance company, I've
conducted a two year search, with visits to the campus career center to
polish my resume, and I have yet to get an interview.  Respected State is a
very large school, and is known as a Commuter College, with people
commuting from all over the area.  In my time there, I've
gotten to know very few people with whom I can network.  I'm trying my
best, but what else can I do?  What *should* I do?

My first thought is, slow down.

Generally speaking, 'administrative' positions can be broken into two groups: academic and non-academic. Academic administration encompasses department chairs, deans, VPAA's, provosts, and the like. Non-academic encompasses the business and finance side (payroll, buildings and grounds, security, budget); the non-credit side (continuing ed, workforce development); fundraising (whether in the sense of grants officers, or people who cultivate donors); and student life (athletics, student clubs, records and registration, admissions, student judicial boards, etc.) There are also hybrid positions that fall between the camps, like HR, academic support (tutoring centers, instructional technology), and planning.

For the most part, the academic administrative positions require full-time faculty experience. The idea, which is largely correct, is that faculty have a culture uniquely their own, and that people who haven't done what they do are unlikely to get it. Faculty culture has its own set of buzzwords and tripwires, and someone who doesn't know them will likely fall victim to them, despite the best of intentions. If this is the route you want to take, I'd target a faculty position first, and earn your stripes there.

On the non-academic side of the house, the rules are different, but there's still an expectation of starting at the beginning. And although this flies in the face of every career counselor out there, I'll go out on a limb and say that 'networking' is probably less important here than in almost any other industry.

The first thing I'd advise is deciding which path you want to follow. A degree in English Lit certainly suggests the academic side of the house, though an EdD may or may not work for that. (In the evergreen disciplines, it's fairly commonplace for faculty to look down on EdD's as impure.) There's really no such thing as an entry-level generalist, so you'll need to pick a path and devote yourself to it.
The highest demand is usually in fundraising, though that's one of those fields for which you either have the personality or you don't.

One relatively easy thing to do, depending on local culture, would be to talk to people in the various offices at Respected State and see what they actually do. The details can surprise you. When I finished my PhD, I had no intention at all of going into administration. I wasn't opposed to it, exactly, any more than I'm opposed to playing third base for the Orioles. It just wasn't part of my world. Now it's what I do with my time, and I've found parts of the job that I really enjoy. (Other parts are simply pains in the neck, but that's true of most jobs.) Conversely, in college I thought I was prelaw until I spent a summer internship surrounded by lawyers, and discovered that I wanted no part of that world. Best to find out early.

I'll throw this one open to my wise and worldly readers, since my experience has been entirely on the academic side. Folks who've done other versions of administration – what would you suggest?

Good luck!

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

 

Email

Last week I saw another iteration of something I still don't really understand. People who are perfectly civil in person are often capable of firing off incredibly nasty and hateful emails. Sometimes they'll do that with cc's all the way up the chain, as a way of spreading the manure over the most ground with the least effort. Yet, when confronted, they're surprised that anybody would take offense, and they revert to their perfectly civil selves.

It's mystifying.

The same happens in the blogosphere, of course, but anonymity may explain some of that. I'm likelier to feel free to write horrible things if I think they can't be traced back to me. (I don't – or at least I don't think I do – but that's a conscious choice.)

On the campus email system, though, there's no anonymity. In fact, the folks who fire off the poison-pen (poison keyboard?) messages usually sign them.

In my early, naïve days of deaning, I used to try to answer the bills-of-particulars in great detail. Over the years, though, I've learned that rebuttals don't work. They just invite escalation.

I've developed a protocol that usually works, though your mileage may vary:

1.Read the whole hateful thing at least three times, to try to sort through the invective to the actual substance, if any.
2.Let at least two hours pass. If circumstances allow, make it a day. This is to allow me to put the initial emotional response behind me.
3.Respond verbally – either on the phone or, preferably, in person – and do it with unemotional questions. Don't – ever – respond in kind.

Some people seem to use ritualistic invective as a sort of throat-clearing; it's just something they have to do before writing. “This is typical of the administration, always putting money before the good of the students.” Translated, that's roughly “ahem.” Yet many of those same people wouldn't dream of saying such things in person. Some of that may be timidity, but some of it, I think, is because they suspect at some level that it simply isn't true.

Back in my days of teaching freshman composition, I used to claim that one of the advantages of writing as a medium was that it allowed for more thoughtful expression than speech, since you could edit and revise until you got it where you wanted it. I still believe that, but I'm starting to believe the opposite, as well. Speech requires acknowledging the human reality of your interlocutor, which has a way of tamping down the really bizarre accusations. But when you're writing, it's possible to get all wrapped up in your own issues, without anyone's horrified expression or body language serving as a corrective. You can go much farther off the deep end without even realizing it.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely reports a study from a major California university (I don't remember which one) in which male undergraduates were queried about which sexual behaviors they would be willing to engage in. They were surveyed once in a relatively cool emotional state, and once while, um, let's go with 'actively' viewing pornography. Unsurprisingly, the answers rendered in the heat of the moment were much more venturesome than those recollected in tranquility.

I think there's something similar at work with the poison keyboard emails. They're (presumably) composed in solitude, in an emotional state, and without any kind of external reality intruding. The authors get themselves all worked up about (whatever), and go out on rhetorical limbs that they otherwise wouldn't. I've actually had cases in which I've quoted people's emails back to them, and they've been visibly shocked at the sound of what they've written, almost as if they'd been written by someone else. Sometimes they're even visibly embarrassed, as if they'd been caught.

I don't know if there's an effective way to discourage the poison keyboard attacks. I don't want to be a censor, but it's also true that starting a message with “dear jackass” doesn't do much for the sender's credibility. My preference, obviously, is to have sufficiently open dialogue in the first place that people don't feel the need to go off, well, half-cocked. Sometimes that works, but it takes both time and a willingness to meet halfway.

Wise and worldly readers – is there a good explanation for the exponentially-higher level of personal attack and ill will in emails than in person?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

 

On Writing In Public

As a rule, I don't write in public. It's too exposed, a little pretentious, and just not me. Besides, when one tries to maintain the fig leaf of a pseudonym, it's probably best not to generate material where just anybody can see you.

Today I'm breaking my own rule. Worse, I'm in a coffeehouse. For that, alone, I should incur some serious 'douchebag' points. Hey, everyone! Look at me! I'm writing!

Part of it was simple claustrophobia. If I didn't get out of the house, I knew something bad would happen. Part of it, admittedly, was curiosity: what, exactly, is the appeal of writing in public, anyway?
(And part of it is a basic caffeine craving.)

Weirdly enough, the white noise of other people milling around is actually comforting. I discovered something similar, entirely by accident, in my first year of college. I had fallen behind in my laundry, so I had to camp out by the machines for a few hours while I studied. For whatever reason, the white noise of washing machines and dryers actually helped me concentrate. When I mentioned my discovery to a few others in the dorm, some of them reported having discovered the same thing. This came in handy in grad school, when I had to decamp for actual laundromats.

(Tragically, my choice of laundromat reading material seemed to frighten the horses. There's a certain level of nerdiness that goes way beyond 'endearing,' landing somewhere between 'inexplicable' and 'call 911.' )

Airports can have a similar effect, if only for short periods. Something about focusing narrowly on my own thing while the world buzzes loudly around me is actually comforting.

Family sounds don't have the same effect, since they're usually calls to action of one sort or another. Anything abrupt is just out of the question, since it breaks concentration. Some people can use music, but I haven't had very good luck with that; I'm one of those people who turns down the car radio when I'm lost. When I listen to music, I actually listen to it, so I can't focus on anything else terribly demanding. (When I try, the music just registers as annoying, even if it's something I otherwise like.) But coffeehouse noise is unpatterned, indistinct, and utterly indifferent to my presence. In other words, it actually works.

There's also a de facto deadline when writing in public. You're allowed to stick around only as long as your drink holds out. Without deadlines, I just don't produce. (This is part of the appeal of my self-imposed five-day-a-week posting schedule. If I only posted when the spirit moved me, months would go by. Inspiration can't be forced, but it can be encouraged.) Self-imposed deadlines usually do the trick, but there's something about the inarguable fact of coffee cooling to focus the mind.

Coffeehouses have changed from their 90's iteration. Back then, people usually sat in groups, or, if they sat alone, they read 'zines. Now at least two-thirds of the people here are sitting alone, doing whatever they're doing on their laptops. Not a 'zine to be found. Whether that bespeaks greater isolation or a new level of virtual connectedness, I'll leave to the Robert Putnams of the world, but it's noticeable. Even the people sitting in groups are engaged in a sort of parallel play, sitting across from each other, the tops of their screens nearly touching. Where all that noise is coming from, I honestly don't know.

It certainly isn't the typing. I'd bet that most people under thirty have only the vaguest sense of what an electric typewriter sounds like when it's being put through its paces; that sound is a clear and distinct childhood memory. (For the kids out there: back in the paleolithic era, people produced text directly onto paper by hitting keys that would physically collide into the paper. Crude, yes, but it beat quill and ink.) Dad would disappear into the guest room/office, or sometimes the dining room, and I'd hear BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG DING! ZWOOP BANGBANGBANG. The sound of a piece of paper being aggressively ripped from the roller signified completion, whether triumphant or otherwise. I couldn't imagine a coffeehouse full of electric typewriters; it would probably violate a local noise ordinance. Fixing typos required 'white out,' a hallucinogen that doubled as a sort of manuscript spackle. It was a different time.

This 'public writing' thing requires far too much time away from home to be sustainable, but I'm beginning to see the appeal.

Wise and worldly readers – where, physically, do you like to write?

Monday, July 28, 2008

 

Thoughts on Service

It's a measure of just how far behind I've been lately that I didn't get around to this story until now.

According to IHE, there's been another study documenting what many of us have suspected for some time; 'college service' gets badly under-rewarded relative to the other things that faculty do, so the people who often embrace service – usually women – suffer negative career consequences.

I've regularly complained that many faculty attacks on administration are either exaggerated or misplaced, and I still believe that. But this one is spot-on, and shame on us for not getting this right.

Part of the job of management is to structure the incentives to align employee behavior with organizational goals. (That's part of why I'm so fascinated with behavioral economics, since the recent turn towards deliberate monkeying with incentives.) If organizational goals include things like “taking outcomes assessment seriously,” then the folks who do the heavy lifting to make that happen should be rewarded for doing so.

Instead, most colleges seem to have fallen into the trap of valuing some things rhetorically and others economically. The savvier career-minded folks figure out pretty quickly which is which, and either go with the economic or make a conscious choice not to, accepting the consequences. The less-savvy ones take the rhetoric at face value, do what amounts to unpaid labor, and then realize years later that they've been had. To the extent that 'helping the college' becomes identified as 'career suicide,' we shouldn't be surprised to see widespread faculty indifference, and even hostility, to calls for service.

I can imagine any of several responses to this study:

1.“Yeah, but what are you gonna do?” This has the distinct advantage of not asking anybody to change their behavior. It has the distinct disadvantage of acceding to a bad-and-worsening situation. I consider it unacceptable, though I also consider it likely to be widespread.

2.Ratcheted-up service requirements. In the absence of actual incentives, we can file this under “doomed to fail.” The likelier version of this is ratcheting-up the requirements on the untenured, with the tacit realization that you can't make tenured people do anything. Inter-generational unfairness is much easier than cross-generational fairness.

3.An actual shift of rewards to service. Of course, to do that, you'd have to shift those rewards from something else, and good luck with that. Should we tenure mediocre teachers if they're conscientious about committees? If we do, I'd expect the caliber of teaching (or research) to decline over the years. If we don't, we're vulnerable to the 'hollow gesture' critique.

4.A long, hard look at service itself. This would be my preference. Is committee work really the best use of tenured faculty? Would it make more sense to offload some of that onto professional administrators, leaving faculty free to focus on their actual areas of expertise? This would invite attacks along the line of “that's a power grab by administration,” but the annoying truth is that running stuff takes time. If you aren't willing to put in the time, you shouldn't get to run stuff. If you're aware of the concept of a “division of labor,” this approach has a lot to recommend it.

Honestly, I think the rhetorical (as opposed to economic) status of service reflects a mealy-mouthed pragmatic compromise. Nobody really wants to value committee work over research and/or teaching, since those are the reasons that the public supports the existence of higher education in the first place. (I've never seen a college guide say “send your kid to East Nowhere State – they have a spectacular curriculum committee!”) But saying so out loud would invite unwinnable political conflicts, so the path of least resistance is lip service to service, with a tacit understanding that we don't really mean it. That way, we can get around accusations of power grabs without losing focus on teaching and research. If you were naïve enough to take the lip service about service seriously, well, whose fault is that?

Yuck.

I know that unsatisfying compromises are sometimes the best that can be done, and this may be one of those times. But it really cuts against my sense of fairness to say one thing and do another, especially when careers are at stake.

Although I'm almost afraid to go there, I'll have to throw this one open to my wise and worldly readers. I've outlined four options. Is there a good fifth option? Maybe even a good sixth one? This is one of those times when I actually hope that I'm wrong.

Friday, July 25, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Tracking Doctoral Grads

An occasional correspondent writes:

Recently, I've been thinking about applying to some PhD programs. As
part of my research, I'm trying to get some numbers on the
post-graduation success or lack thereof. This is not reported anywhere
on the Faculty's website and it doesn't look like it has been tracked
by the administration, though they are still looking to see if they
have records. I realize that getting answers out of graduates about
their outcomes (especially if it is negative) is difficult, since they
have little incentive to keep the Faculty updated on their contact
details or help them. I don't want to reduce a PhD program to
employment outcomes but it does seem like that is something important
to track.

How can the tracking improved? Is the present scarcity (for many
Canadian universities anyhow) of information solely due losing touch
with graduates? I very much wish that there was some sort of uniform
reporting mechanism that covered data like this, as it would make one
aspect of the applicant's life a bit easier.

P.S. I know that you have cautioned your readers several times about
pursuing a PhD when the academic job market is so terrible. That's
part of the reason why I want to get a handle on this sort of the
data.



Ah, the fantasy of a uniform statistic...

These things are tough. For example, I have been many things – a freeway-flying adjunct, a full-time professor, a chair, an associate dean, a dean – but have never been a tenure-track professor in my scholarly discipline. (Proprietary U had full-time permanent faculty, but it didn't offer tenure, so there was no tenure track.) If you just count tenure-track positions, I show up in the stats as a washout. I don't consider myself a washout, but depending on how you define the variables, there it is.

In my early years out I used to keep my graduate department updated, until I realized that it wasn't really achieving anything. Maybe I'll drop them a line before the last people who would remember me retire. Or not.

Selection bias is a major issue. I remember the year I got my doctorate, I heard the vice chair of the department proclaim proudly that the department had a 100 percent placement rate. I knew that was crap, since I knew what my peers and I were going through, but that didn't stop him. To this day, I recognize names of former colleagues popping up as leaders in the part-time faculty movement, still trying to land full-time work. And most of the ones who did find their way to the tenure track did at least a few one-year 'visiting' gigs first. But how many of us see fit to call up the department and trumpet our 'failure' to attain goals that, frankly, most of us had internalized pretty completely? What would we gain by doing that?

I don't see anything wrong with choosing a program based in part on its ability to place its graduates. If graduate school is understood as professional school with the profession being academia, that makes sense. In some disciplines, it's probably pretty easy to have a high success rate; in others, any program below the top ten or so is really a shot in the dark. And if you're on the fence about going to grad school, don't go.

If the program won't pay you – tuition remission and some sort of livable stipend – don't go. If it won't commit to funding you beyond, say, the first year, don't go. And if it can't even fake convincing success stories, run for the hills and don't look back.

There are so many ways to define the variable you're looking for – people with livable salaries doing jobs related to their training; people with academic affiliations; people who simply completed the degree; the list goes on. If you define success only as a tenure-track position at a prominent research university, then probably very few programs have much to brag about. But some of us have found other ways to cobble together satisfying lives, even if we show up as washouts.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – how would you define 'success' for a doctoral program?

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

Thursday, July 24, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Phantom Policy

A Californian correspondent writes:

  I work at a California community college in two different positions.  I hold a permanent 75% staff position and last semester I was hired to teach as an adjunct faculty member as well (I'm fully qualified for both positions).  There is one other person on campus who does the same thing and he has carried out both roles with no conflict for at least 2 years, and so my hiring was based on that precedent.  The only limitation HR ever informed us of was that we could not exceed a 40 hour work week between our teaching and staff duties, and we abided by this.
  At the end of the semester the Dean of HR informed my academic dean that I could no longer teach for the college due to a "union conflict" (my college has separate unions for staff and faculty).  I became highly suspicious of this when I found out that neither of my union representatives have identified any conflict, the policy is not being applied to the aforementioned staff member,  and the Faculty HR Specialist has never heard of such a policy.  I was referred to one of our college's former HR employees who has a great deal of information (and personal experience) regarding the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.  This woman has informed me that the law is that if I am carrying out a 75% staff position then I can still legally teach a 25% faculty load.  She also forwarded this information to the Dean of HR.
  I emailed the Dean of HR to inform him about my concerns and he replied offering to meet with me to "discuss the college's position on the matter;" however, when I replied requesting such a meeting, he never got back to me.  It is now almost 2 months later and he has not returned my emails or phone calls.  When I have stopped by the HR office he is unavailable.  I spoke with my academic dean about the situation and she is completely willing to reinstate me as a faculty member as soon as she gets the okay from HR (she has been unable to find any other qualified adjuncts and my evaluations were glowing).  Complicating the situation, it was just announced that starting next month the Dean of HR would be taking a leave of absence to assume an interim position at another college (and possibly leaving for good), with no mention of who would be assuming his duties.  I am hesitant to speak to the HR Manager (the second in command) due to her history of giving grossly inaccurate information to employees (myself included).
  Do I have the right to fight this (I know as an adjunct my rights are limited)?  Can the college fabricate a policy and selectively enforce it?  Should I bother with the current Dean of HR or try arguing my point through another avenue?  In any case, what might my options be?



First, a disclaimer: I don't live or work in California, and I've never worked for any of the California community colleges. The California system is famously bizarre – almost to the point of being entirely self-contained – so there may be state-specific quirks of which I'm unaware. Readers who know that system well are especially invited to comment.

That said, I'll take issue with the parenthetical that “I know as an adjunct my rights are limited.” That's not entirely true. You have rights to non-discriminatory treatment, for example. It's entirely possible that the college has some asinine policies, and that you may legitimately fall victim to them. But if you do, it shouldn't be unique to you; the same should happen to anyone in an analogous circumstance.

(I've noticed that a great many grievances hang on whether different situations are sufficiently analogous. This is where 'judgment calls' and 'gray areas' become very real.)

If you have colleagues whose situations are like yours, but who aren't being covered by this alleged policy, then you absolutely have the right to challenge it.

The HR director's leave of absence for an interim position is a glowing red flag. In my observation, the only time that happens for administrative positions is when somebody is being pushed out. I've seen leaves of absences for other reasons – medical, usually – but they don't involve taking on new full-time jobs. New full-time interim jobs are even weirder. This smells like change in the making.

The evasiveness of the HR office also lends itself to this interpretation. If it were simply enforcing an established policy, it shouldn't need two months to find the policy. (The “union issue” line is less worrisome, only because I've seen admins use “union” synonymously with “contract.” They could have meant “contract issue,” in which case I wouldn't be surprised if your union hadn't heard about it.) You might want to ask your sympathetic department chair to put in a call to HR for clarification, and see if they're any more responsive to her. (I'm guessing not, but hope springs eternal.)

If your primary position (or your adjunct position, for that matter) is unionized, then you have an obvious avenue for filing a grievance. At the very least, it would force the college to provide some sort of answer. It's illegal to retaliate against employees for grievances, so you shouldn't be putting yourself at any undue risk. (I say 'shouldn't,' rather than 'wouldn't,' because it's an imperfect world. If it were up to me, there'd be a quota on frivolous grievances, but that's another discussion.) Best case, the college might realize that it had made a mistake while it was distracted by other personnel drama. Worst case, the college has engaged in selective enforcement, which is a huge and fundamental no-no.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add (or correct)?

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

 

On Seeing My High School Friend Get Married

High School Friend on Right Ocean got married earlier this month, and it was a glorious day.

He and I have seen each other through some challenging times. In high school, we were the guys the girls always thought of as “like my brother.” We soldiered through as best we could, but at sixteen, patience isn't easy.

Over the decades, we both made our share of perplexing choices. That's all I'll say about that.

HSFRO was one of my groomsmen when I married TW. He knew me well enough to know that I had married up, and that while I had occasionally (cough) exhibited a gift for messing up, this one was just too important. He has seen TB and TG grow up, and seen us try to find our land legs as parents.

I've known his younger sister since she was in the fourth grade. Although his younger brother is a veterinarian and a certified grownup, I still think of him as the wiry kid with the guinea pigs. My Mom and his parents have remained in constant touch over the years, even to the point of my Mom attending his siblings' weddings. She has been known to refer to HSFRO as “my other son.”

It was my first Jewish wedding, and I'm thinking the rest of us can take lessons. It was festive, festive, festive, as well it should be. All the trappings were there – fast circle dancing, hoisting the couple up on chairs, breaking the glass – and I even got my first yamulke. (It hides the bald spot really well. Suddenly, I get it.)

Another reformed nerd from our high school clique was there, and it was wonderful to see him, too. He's married, living in San Francisco, and generally enjoying life. We lost touch sometime in the 90's, so it was fun to reconnect. His wife and mine hit it off immediately. I'm thinking “Spouses of Nerds” could be a support group.

(Interestingly, though all three of us had targeted college faculty positions at various times, two of us have left that world, and the third is leaving in the next year or so. The habitat we had assumed would be welcoming just wasn't. Three doctorates, no professors. Our extended clique in high school generated at least six doctorates I can name off the top of my head, though I'm probably missing a few. Heaven only knows how many M.D.'s. Not bad for a public high school in Northern Town.)

TB and TG were on their good behavior, and I was struck at how grown-up TB looked in a tie. He's growing at what seems like an inch a day, and seeing him dressed up really completed the effect. HSFRO's younger brother has kids almost exactly TB and TG's ages, so the kids were in their glory. In a fit of genius, the folks with kids were seated outside on the balcony, so the kids could run on the lawn. This was a Very Good Idea. Much squealing ensued, and we discovered once again that a clever seven-year-old can fashion a laser blaster out of almost anything.

Characteristically, the kids were most excited about staying in a hotel. I remember being fascinated by hotels too, at that age. Don't know why.

Good luck, HSFRO. You took the long way, but you've found a great place to be.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

 

Caps on Adjuncts

My cc is gearing up for yet another discussion of the proper 'cap' on the number of credits taught by an adjunct in a single semester. It's one of those awful cases in which every option is wrong.

The theory, as near as I can tell, is that if you don't cap an adjunct's load at something below a full-timer's, then there's very little to stop a college from simply phasing out full-timers altogether. After all, if we can get good teachers at piecework rates, but our other costs aren't nearly so flexible, then the gravitational pull in that direction will be powerful. If you place an arbitrary cap on how much you can ask of a given adjunct, the theory goes, then you will force colleges to hire more full-timers.

There's something to that, even if it undercounts some of the other roles than traditional f-t faculty play (like student advisement). But it creates other issues.

For one obvious one, our 'cap' is campus-based, rather than statewide. That means that adjuncts will sometimes cobble together assignments at multiple campuses, the total of which is well over the usual full-time load. It defeats the intention of the cap, and imposes obvious transportation costs on the adjuncts. (In the age of four dollar a gallon gas, that's nothing to sneeze at.)

It also impacts different disciplines differently. Since we count credits, rather than classes, an adjunct in disciplines with lots of credits per section (like studio art or lab sciences) can bump up against the ceiling very quickly. Department chairs in those areas are constantly pushing for either exceptions or a general increase to the cap, since they want to staff their sections with the best available people.

(The danger in bumping ceilings, as I've learned the hard way, is that if someone at the absolute max bails on you, it's that much harder to replace them. At PU, the max was annual – as opposed to semesterly -- so someone hired in the Spring could teach more or less as much as anyone wanted. That worked fairly well until I had someone teaching far too much drop out the second week of class. Not pretty.)

Some adjuncts clamor for more hours at one college, to reduce their freeway flying to other colleges. I get it, and it makes sense from a particular angle, but it really raises the issue of what full-timers bring to the college to justify their higher salaries and benefits. Yes, they bring institutional memory and college service, but is that enough to justify a compensation package three to six times larger than what the adjuncts get? It seems like a stretch. And the idea of pro-rating, while it has a certain moral appeal, is a flat-out budget-buster. Without a serious, massive, sustained, predictable subvention from the state, or a herniating tuition increase, or both, it's just not gonna happen.

(Before the ritualistic “well then, just fire all the administrators and distribute their salaries!” attacks, I'll just note that colleges don't run themselves, money comes with oversight requirements, the money 'freed up' wouldn't even come close to being enough, and community colleges are administratively thinner than any other branch of higher education. We have more adjuncts, and fewer admins, than any other branch of higher ed. What this says about the Bousquet hypothesis – that the adjunct trend exists to feather administrative nests – I'll leave an as exercise for the reader.)

I don't have an elegant solution to all this, but I wish I did.

Monday, July 21, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: What Do Proprietaries Do?

A fellow blogger writes:

Recently, a for profit school opened in our area, and seeing it here, where there's a fairly good state university and a quite good state technical community college in the city, and several other colleges and universities in the area, makes me wonder about how they do their business.
 
I'm wondering what students would choose that school given the other options? 
Are they open enrollment? 
Do they offer classes the other local schools don't (in general) or classes at times other schools don't? 
Do they offer mostly on-line, or combo options?
 
If you have thoughts on how these schools fit into higher education, I'd be interested in learning.


I can't speak for all for-profits, but having worked at one for several years, I can offer a few thoughts. Readers with direct knowledge of for-profits are especially welcome to comment.

While different proprietaries have different specializations, what they tend to have in common is a strong career focus and a relatively clear niche. Although it's possible to transfer from a for-profit, depending on its accreditation (and yes, some of them are regionally accredited), that's really not their focus. They're all about job placement, without apology.

Their clear purpose and narrow curricular focus allows them the benefits of specialization. Under the older model, a student might go to learn auto repair and to get a job as a mechanic, maybe with the goal of opening his own garage. That school may or may not have much in the way of general education, but chances are its mechanics' bays are pretty good. Now it's likelier to be a computer lab or health care setting, but the same principle applies. When I was at Proprietary U, the state of its gen ed was uneven, but its computer labs were pretty impressive for the time.

As a full-time faculty member, I was struck at how openly the administration talked about retention as a financial matter. In the cc world, retention is usually discussed as a social justice issue, with a dollop of financial interest on the side. In the proprietaries, it's reversed. Yes, it's gratifying to see a previously-unemployable student graduate to a real job, but the point of the place was to make money. A retained student is a repeat customer, so retention was a business need.

That could play out in both good and bad ways. At its best, it led to some thoughtful discussions and innovations in the classroom and the curriculum. At its worst, it led to unsubtle pressure to inflate the lower grades. (There was never pressure to raise B's to A's; it was to raise F's to D's or preferably C's.)

Faculty life was worse there. The teaching calendar was twelve months, so there was no summer break. Curricular change happened so quickly that sometimes you'd have three different curricula for the same program running simultaneously. The turnover rate was striking.

The biggest difference on the student side, other than advertising, was the almost concierge-level service students were given from before they even enrolled. The ratio of Admissions staff to student body was higher by an order of magnitude than anything I've seen in the nonprofit world, and those folks worked their tails off to hit their numbers. Among other things, that meant handholding students as they worked out transportation arrangements, wrestled with financial aid paperwork, and even had awkward conversations with family. (I once had a student in my office tell me how sympathetic his admissions rep had been when they had long conversations about his divorce.) On the positive side, that meant that PU didn't have nearly the casualty rate to the FAFSA that most schools have. (I consider the FAFSA a crime against humanity.) On the negative side, it meant that students often came in with wildly unrealistic expectations to an even greater degree than in the cc world.

Enrollment standards were low, but not technically open; some people actually got referred to the local cc for remediation or ESL instruction. I don't know if that's still true. That said, though, the standard for escaping remediation was notably low, and that reflected a straightforward business decision that telling a prospect that he has to take courses that 'won't count' is no way to close the sale.

The productive lessons I think cc's can take from proprietaries are twofold: some degree of specialization can actually be a good thing, and some attention to the 'customer' experience of, say, applying for financial aid might be well-advised.

Wise and worldly readers who've dealt with proprietaries – what have you seen?

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

Friday, July 18, 2008

 

Release Time and Double Dipping

If you're a full-time faculty member, and you get a courseload reduction in exchange for taking on some extra non-classroom assignment – be it chairing a department, working on a self-study, or whatever – are you 'double dipping' if you then teach the released course anyway for extra pay?

I've always thought not, but some folks around here are quite adamant that you are.

The argument that it's double dipping rests on a literal reading of 'course reduction.' At most cc's, the standard f-t teaching load is fifteen credits, which typically means five classes in most disciplines. (Disciplines with lots of lab or studio time work out differently.) Say you get three credits, or one class, subtracted from your load in order to make room for some extra task. So far, nothing extraordinary; the true cost to the college is what they'll have to pay the adjunct who picks up the class you aren't teaching. Since adjuncts are paid so poorly, that's not very much.

Suppose now that instead of dropping the released class, you agree to teach it yourself on top of everything else you're doing, in exchange for extra pay in the amount of what an adjunct would have made. So if an adjunct would have made $2000 for the class, you make an extra $2000. From the college's perspective, the money is the same either way, so financially it's a wash. Whether you get the two grand or the adjunct does, the bottom line for the college is the same.

(I know that's not entirely true, since retirement account contributions are usually percentages of pay, but we're talking very low numbers here.)

In effect, the college is getting full-time faculty to pick up small administrative tasks at adjunct rates. That's a pretty good deal for the college. You'd think that, from an institutional perspective, this would be a no-brainer.

Apparently not.

I've heard arguments recently that release time shouldn't count towards overloads, since that turns one benefit (time) into two (time and money). So if you get three credits of release time, you shouldn't be allowed to teach the full fifteen. Some journalists seem to hold this view, judging by the fairly cavalier use of a loaded term like 'double dipping.' The double dipping charge only makes sense if you don't include the money you would have paid someone else to pick up the class. If you're running the class anyway, someone has to teach it, and whether it's Bob or Jen who gets the adjunct rate makes no financial difference.

I must be missing something.

Wise and worldly readers – am I missing something here? How does this work on your campus?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Salary Haggling

A new correspondent writes:

With a little luck and a lot of hard work (and a long, drawn out application process), I've managed to land a job offer for one of the two full time faculty positions open in my department at the CC where I've been adjuncting for the past few semesters.  As this is my first full time job offer,  I was wondering what tips you have about negotiating the salary and benefits package.  I don't have competing job offers to force them to "sweeten the pot," and it's pretty obvious that I will take the job.  Do you or any of your readers have advice for the what and how of haggling?



First, congratulations on the job! That's wonderful!

Now for the bad news...

In the cc's I've seen, there's no wiggle room on the traditional benefits (health insurance, retirement plan, etc.). Those are standard across ranks, and often across entire institutions. For example, at my cc, every full-time employee has the same few options for health insurance, regardless of rank or title. Colleges – and sometimes entire state systems of colleges – can get better deals when they standardize the packages, since it reduces administrative overhead for the insurers and makes the colleges more desirable customers. In unionized settings, such as mine, these packages are spelled out in considerable detail in collective bargaining agreements, so everybody in the union gets the same benefit. (Sometimes newer hires have to pay more for it, but what they get is the same. It's also commonplace for non-unionized full-time employees – that is, administration – to get the same benefits as the unionized folk.) In some states the benefits packages are actually legislated.

Less obvious benefits often offer more wiggle room. These include availability of summer teaching, nicer offices, new computers (as opposed to hand-me-downs), and more desirable schedules. I'd be surprised if you got what you wanted in all of these areas, but you might be able to swing one or two of them. If you can decide which of these are most important, you could start by asking for several and then whittling down to the one or two you care about most.

Salary is tough. If you don't have one of the hot niches (nursing, say, or information security), you don't have a lot of bargaining power. In unionized settings, it's commonplace to have pre-set salary schedules in which new hires are given a number of 'points' based on degree level, years of experience, and the like, and the points you have determine the salary range to within a remarkably small degree of discretion. (At some schools, they'll actually determine the salary literally to the cent. I consider that bizarre, but there it is.) Even if they don't get as precise as I've seen, they'll still be budget-conscious both for good reasons (lack of money overall) and iffy ones (fear of 'salary compression,' or paying newbies more than those already there).

All of that said, you actually have more bargaining power now as a prospective hire than you will as a new employee. Raises are almost always given as percentages, so swinging a slightly higher starting salary will pay off with compounding returns over time, since you'll be getting bigger raises. So take a shot.

I'd suggest taking a few days, coming back with a counteroffer maybe 1500-2000 higher, and seeing what happens. Depending on their circumstances, they may meet you halfway, or they may shrug and say that the offer's the offer, and you can take it or leave it. But even if they do that, you're no worse off for asking.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Selling Assessment

A new correspondent writes:

I'm interviewing for an interesting non-faculty position soon, and
before I go in to the interview, I'd like to get your/your readers'
takes on it. The position is "Assessment Coordinator" for a relatively
small (specialized) university. The job description looks something like
this:  1. development and implementation of an assessment program; 2.
conducting quantitative and qualitative assessments for campus wide
assessment; 3. assisting program chairs with developing departmental
assessments; and 4. facilitating the administration and analysis of
internal and external surveys.

Now, I have a Master's in Sociology, so I know how to develop surveys
and assessments in a variety of settings, and analyze the results. I
also have experience in medical research and working for hospitals, so
I can handle the medical aspect. However, I'd like to get a
specifically higher-ed perspective. I know when I was in grad school,
faculty HATED the student assessments and students didn't take them
seriously, making the validity and effectiveness very low. I'm sure
similar displeasure exists with some institution-wide assessment
methods and other assessments within the departments, though I did not
really encounter these personally as a student. I personally believe
that failure to involve faculty and other stakeholders at the
institution in the *design* of assessments is a major reason for this
dissatisfaction, as well as just poor understanding of survey and
research design, and low institutional investment in really
understanding the results of data and acting upon the results.

What would you, as a dean and a former faculty member, like to see in
the assessment methodologies your CC uses? Are there any methods
you've found that really work, or are appreciated by faculty/students?
Ideas I can pipe up with in my interview, as possible options for this
institution?  I am not afraid to be perceived as the bad guy, since
finding out all the problems and bringing them into the light is
rarely popular, but I optimistically hope that if an assessment was
valid, and really captured the good and bad of a university system,
and gave opportunities for people to get their grievances out there,
stakeholders would get behind it. Since I am just getting ready for
the interview, I don't really know what known problems or issues this
institution has yet, but some general input would be welcome.



This won't be easy.

There's a difference between the kinds of assessments students do of classes at the end of the semester – usually called 'evaluations' or something close to it – and 'outcomes assessment.' (Your reference to 'student assessments' is ambiguous.) Students' course evaluations are the sort of Siskel/Ebert thumbs up or down on a given professor and/or class. Professors are supposed to loathe and ignore the student evaluations, although many secretly cackle when they themselves do well. (Honestly, I did the same thing.) The strange paradox of student course evaluations is that for such crude and badly administered instruments, they tend broadly to get it right. (Ratemyprofessors does that, too. I have no idea how it happens, but it's generally pretty close.) Yes, they tend to over-reward attractiveness and sense of humor, and under-reward clarity, but the margins of error (at least in my observation) are usually pretty small.

Outcomes assessment is a very different animal. It's about measuring student achievement, rather than student opinion, and the point is to focus on curriculum, rather than personnel. It's largely driven by mandates from regional accrediting agencies, and it's usually unpopular with faculty.

Broadly, the idea of outcomes assessment is to see what students are capable of doing after completing a given course or program of study. It's different from grading, which is the usual first line of attack. (“We already assess. We give grades!”) For example, in my days at Proprietary U, we noticed that even students who had attained good grades from the start were often clumsy public speakers, incapable of giving effective presentations. As the faculty discussed that, we found that although we had emphasized writing a great deal, we had done little or nothing to teach effective speaking throughout the entire curriculum. That's how a student could get good grades and still fall short on a key outcome – simply put, there was a hole in the curriculum. Once we figured that out, we adopted a number of measures to improve students' ability to do presentations.

Outcomes assessment carries with it any number of negative associations for faculty. It's extra work, it's often ignored at budget time, and to many (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) it smacks of standardization. Bring it up among faculty, and mere nanoseconds will pass before someone mentions No Child Left Behind, teaching to the test, and Wal-Mart. It can also be jargon-laden and opaque, if not obtuse, which doesn't help. For a general outline of the Kubler-Ross stages of outcomes assessment, see here.

If the job is about outcomes assessment, rather than student course evaluations, I'd strongly suggest going in with discussions of two major issues: addressing the roots of faculty resistance, and using the findings to close the loop and actually improve program delivery. They're really both about communication; if you can frame assessment in ways that don't trigger unhelpful reactions, you might actually get some useful data. Then if you can convince people to actually use that data to improve their programs, you've really got something.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Firing Student Assistants

A regular reader writes:

I'd love to hear people's advice on how to fire student assistants gracefully.  Better still, I'd love to get advice on how to convey to student employees that the job they have with me is as important as the classes / volunteer work / research they have to do.  I just fired my fourth student assistant of the year.  I give them a written description of my expectations for the position when they are hired and a hard number as to the hours I expect.  I also provide examples of what an excused absence would be (doctor's note, documented car trouble - no notice required.  Most other things, at least 48 hours written notice).  I write down what I expect their schedule to be and clip it to the master calendar.  Most of the time, if they ask for time off or to leave early, I say yes.  But still I end up with people who after a couple of months are coming late or not showing up when they say they will.  After the second unexcused absence, I fire them.  I invest a lot of effort in training these people and firing them hurts me as much as it hurts them.  Sage advice would be much appreciated. 



Ugh.

I don't have a student assistant, and have never had to fire one personally, so I invite comments from folks who can speak from direct experience. And I'll just note in passing that managers are rarely, if ever, trained in how to fire people. I consider this an egregious failure on a structural level, but there it is.

My first guess is that they're seeing the job as makework to justify financial aid. I held a fair number of work-study jobs in college, and have to admit that my work ethic on those jobs was, um, let's go with 'just good enough to not get fired.' Every one of those started with the boss solemnly intoning that this was a serious job to be taken seriously, but the speech was quickly belied by what we actually did. If the students are coming in with the expectation that this is just an excuse for financial aid, then I wouldn't be surprised at indifferent performance.

Whether that's the case or not, though, the job is the job, and not every job is for every person. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy. So, with apologies to Evil HR Lady, a few tips on terminations:

1.They shouldn't come as surprises. If your expectations are clear, and you've communicated about the times they've fallen short of your expectations, then you should be okay. Too many bosses do the first step and neglect the second, though, patiently tolerating failure until they just can't take it anymore. To the long-tolerated employee, the 'just can't take it anymore' seems to come from out of the blue.

2.A termination is not a performance review. This isn't the moment to regale the employee with her failings; that should have happened already. Don't explain, at least not at any length, and certainly don't get sucked into a debate or the person's life story. Keep it short and impersonal.

3.Before re-posting the job, take a moment to step back and think about what you're asking the employees to do. If you've burned through four student assistants in a single year, well, there's no elegant way to say this, but the common denominator is you. Are your expectations actually reasonable? Are they relatively consistent with 'industry standards' (that is, what other folks on campus ask of their student aides)? If you're a significant outlier, you can expect the problems to continue. You may believe that you're right, but if you're several standard deviations beyond the mean, arguing with the mean won't help you.

I'm curious to see what my readers who have actually dealt with this issue have to say. So, wise and worldly readers, what say you?

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

Monday, July 14, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Rounding Up References

An occasional correspondent writes:

I've been teaching as an adjunct for five semesters at my local
community college. I carry a full adjunct load every semester and they
give me first pick after the full-time faculty. My reviews are
stellar. I really, really enjoy teaching at the CC and would love to
go full-time there, and they have expressed a tentative interest for
"somewhere down the road" in taking me full time. However, they're
constrained in creating full time positions and neither of the two
current full-timers is planning to go anywhere any time soon.

A full-time position just opened up at a local specialized college
that is an UNUSUALLY good fit for me.

This is the first time I'm in a position to seek references from an
academic employer, and I feel a little awkward about it. I have good
relationships with both my department chair and my dean, and I think
they're both eager to help adjuncts/faculty succeed generally. But I
definitely don't want to burn the bridge or suggest to them that the
CC isn't my first preference -- but the other school can give me full
time and benefits, and whether the CC will EVER be able to offer me
that is up in the air.

How do I go about asking them for references? Will it signal I'm not
serious about teaching there? Or is it a really normal thing? Do I
stress that it's an unusually good fit? Do I say I'd rather be at the
CC, or is that then bad if the other school calls the CC?


I've gone on record opposing the whole system of academic job references. In a litigious age, I just haven't seen anything useful come out of them. Employment verification through HR strikes me as reasonable – either Bob worked there or he didn't, and finding out that he lied on his cv is worthwhile – but anything opinion-based will be hopelessly sanitized for the speaker's protection.

The downside of references is exactly what you've described. Although it's petty, and destructive, and selfish, and ultimately self-defeating, some employers will actually hold 'looking elsewhere' against you. (I had a department chair do that once when a secretary sent out applications.) I've been lucky enough not to have to go through that personally, but I can't guarantee that it wouldn't happen to you. Given how empty most references are anyway, this strikes me as a high-cost, low-value enterprise, well-suited for the dustbin of history.

That said, you still have a situation to negotiate. A few thoughts:

First, even a relatively petty employer should be able to understand that 'full-time' beats 'adjunct.' It isn't a matter of preferring one college over the other; it's a matter of preferring decent salary and benefits over piecework. If asked, I'd address it as 'full-time vs. adjunct,' rather than as college A against college B. After all, this approach implies that you'd be open an offer, either now or down the road. I've had adjuncts leave for full-time positions elsewhere, and I can honestly report that the unanimous reaction on the campus they left was “good for them.”

Second, if you find it politically necessary, you could always frame it as the next step in your professional development. “I've learned a great deal here, and now it's time for me to take what I've learned and see what I can do in a full-time position.” A little flattery can help, if your supervisors are the sorts who respond to that sort of thing. It also gives you a chance to frame their descriptions of you – remind them of all the great stuff you've achieved, in the guise of expressing gratitude. (“Thank you for giving me the chance to shine so brightly that I won the teaching award...”)

Weirdly enough, I've seen cases in which the prospect of losing someone actually made them suddenly more appealing. This is the only non-creepy explanation I have for why Bill Clinton's approval ratings actually went up after the Lewinsky story broke. When faced with the prospect of losing him, Americans took another look and decided that he was okay after all. I got my best performance review from my VP after he started doing references for me. To what extent that was him convincing himself, or to what extent it had to do with taking a fresh look, I don't know, but I didn't argue the point.

I also don't see the upside of not applying. The status quo is that you're adjuncting, and your cc doesn't seem likely to change that. What, exactly, do you have to lose? Take the shot, take the high road, and know that even if it doesn't work – and statistically, that's a very real possibility – you'll at least know that you tried. If nothing else, you may very well get valuable interviewing experience, and that's nothing to sneeze at. I say, go for it.

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.

Friday, July 11, 2008

 

Orientation

How do you make new-student orientation actually work?

I've seen this tried in any number of ways, and it nearly always falls prey to some or the other of the following:

information overload at a moment when they aren't paying attention; nothing sticks.

no meaningful incentive for the students to show up, so they don't.

students drifting in and out, either physically or mentally (thanks to cell phones and the like)

As with new employee orientations, it's hard to strike the balance between “what they really need to know right away” and “what they're capable of hearing at that moment.”

(A similar issue often arises with course syllabi. Students receive them, tuck them away unread, and then complain later that they were never told about the grading penalty for late assignments. In an annoying way, they have a point. They weren't told in a way that they could hear. In the real world, credit card companies rely on the same phenomenon: “sure, we disclosed our latest innovation in fiscal piracy, right there in four-point font on page 34, paragraph B, subsection iii of last month's bill insert! If you didn't read it, whose fault is that?”)

I've seen orientations structured around parades of speakers, which strikes me as hideously inefficient. Each new speaker requires an introduction and thank-yous, and usually a non-trivial amount of scene setting. Three minutes of arguably relevant information shouldn't take fifteen minutes to deliver, but internally there's often a push for 'representation' of the different areas, as if students care.

Oddly enough, for all the attention paid to the diversity of incoming students, student orientations are one-size-fits-all. They're based, consciously or unconsciously, on an idea of what a typical student would need to know. But the whole idea of the Typical Student is much harder to sustain than it once was, and in most other contexts, we know that.

Personal concierge service isn't really an option, given the numbers of students we're talking about, and a purely online program strikes me as just as likely to fail as anything else. (If that worked, we could just hand them the catalog and the student handbook and send them on their merry way.)

Peer-directed orientations have their appeal, but in a community college setting the 'seniors' are sophomores. Even the savviest students will have had only limited views of the place.

So, a question for my wise and worldly readers (who've been on a roll lately): have you seen a way to make new-student orientation actually work?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Charging Search Committees

A left coast correspondent writes:

What constraints do people serving on hiring committees work under?

In an attempt to make the hiring process as fair as possible-which translates as avoiding lawsuits-my California community college district requires that a Hiring Compliance Officer (HCO) sit on every hiring committee.  The HCO is sometimes an administrator, but because there aren't enough administrators to go around, the HCO is more and more likely to be a lawyer or a consultant from off campus.

The job of the HCO is to make a somewhat (or maybe mostly) subjective process like a hiring decision as "objective" as possible.  Back in the day, when an English department hiring committee got 300 applications for a single position, the first job of the committee was to screen these applications and select 15 or 20 for an interview.  Committee members would take a stack of 50 applications home and simply check off one of three boxes: interview, don't interview, and maybe.  Right now, hiring committees are writing a set of "objective criteria" which will determine how a committee member decides whether to check the yes, no, or maybe box.  I can only imagine what that set of criteria might look like.   Starting from the basics, I guess that criteria for a cover letter would have to include stuff like "word-processed, in a standard font with standard margins, laser-printed in black and white," go on to "free from errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar," and end with more criteria intended to eliminate cover letters full of pompous bloviation.

Then things get even stranger.  When interviews are scheduled to begin, HCOs inform committee members that they must rate candidates only on what happens during the interview.  Any prior knowledge, positive or negative, that they have about a candidate must be ignored and cannot be discussed.  So if I've observed someone being abusive to the department secretaries, I have to forget about it.  Or if I've heard nothing but glowing comments from students about another candidate, and I've seen her classroom full of students asking questions and continuing a discussion after class time is over, I have to forget about that, too.

Is my college 'way off base here, or are these bizarre practices becoming the rule rather than the exception?



There's a lot here. I'll discuss what I've seen, and my sense of it, but I'd also love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. My guess is that practices are widely varied, though I don't actually know that.

Every public college I know of has some variation on an 'affirmative action/equal opportunity' officer. (The titles vary, but they usually include one or the other of those terms.) That person's thankless task is to either ensure that fair and reasonable policies are followed to ensure that historically underrepresented groups are given a fair shake, or to trample individual judgment by imposing broad social categories on individual people, depending on your politics. Either way, lawsuit prevention is key.

Search committees, left to their own devices, are strange creatures. I've seen committees in which a single powerful personality dominates, so that it's a committee in name only. I've also seen committees reject the strongest candidate for fear of flight risk. Sometimes a dark horse candidate will carry the day with a committee, despite being nobody's first choice. Some committees go out of their way to replicate themselves, only younger and dimmer; others expect the new hire to magically make all their problems go away. And it's not unusual for a committee to surprise itself as it deliberates.

But the key point about search committees is that the people on them, other than department chairs, are often completely untrained in how to do what they're doing. And in a litigious world, that can lead to real danger.

The rules about what you can and can't ask are complicated, shifting, and sometimes counterintuitive. (They can also vary by state. Some states forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and some don't, for example.) Apparently, according to my correspondent, California cc's handle that by training a cadre of specialists and farming them out to each group. In the places I've worked, the method has been different. The AA/EO officer prepares a workshop on the latest iterations of the law, and every committee chair has to go through it. I prefer this method, since it spreads the knowledge farther, which increases the chances of its being used as well for, say, adjunct hiring.

In discussions with the HR director at my previous college, I got some great advice that I've shared with my chairs. If there's knowledge you aren't allowed to use, don't get it. So in the course of chitchat, don't ask about or bring up children or spouses or partners. If you didn't know, then you don't have to prove that you didn't use that knowledge. Obviously, this doesn't work for every category – the comedian Zach Galifinakis likes to say he has “blackdar,” which is like gaydar for black people – but steering clear of certain topics can save a lot of drama later.

In my experience, the issue with anti-discrimination rules is in the shadow that falls between the idea and the instance. In theory, nearly everybody agrees that, say, racial discrimination is bad. But search committees don't judge theories; they judge individual candidates, each with real imperfections. And it's easy for unconscious biases to latch onto real imperfections and exaggerate their importance. (That's why 'objective' criteria that can be quantified can be so attractive. They anchor the comparison in something at least arguably relevant.) So the role of the AA/EO office is twofold: to try to make sure that the rules of the road are such that everybody gets something approximating a fair shot, and (related, but not the same thing) to keep the college from losing lawsuits.

(Although it would take some finesse, I sometimes wonder if explaining more fully the 'lawsuit avoidance' function would actually improve faculty buy-in. It's not that the college doesn't trust Bob not to be sexist; it's that the courts don't. If accused, the college wants to show that it took concrete steps to ensure that he wouldn't be sexist. The 'concrete steps' part is the important part. 'Trusting Bob' doesn't cut it in court.)

The 'only use what you know from the interview' rule strikes me as bizarre, since it's standard practice to check references, who presumably know the candidate from outside the interview. I've never heard of that one before.

Wise and worldly readers – how do search committees work at your college?

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

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

 

A Minor League Baseball Game, Through the Eyes of Three Seven-Year-Olds

When do we get snacks?

Now?

Now?

Stand up? Aw, man...

I can do an armpit fart. Watch!

Oh, yeah? Mine's better!

(Dancing)

Hot dogs!

I have to go to the bathroom.

Me too!

I'll go with you!

(Cartwheels in the men's room. Literally.)

I want popcorn!

I want ice cream!

(Dancing)

(Climbing railings)

Ice cream! (celebration ensues)

I have to go to the bathroom.

Me too!

I'll go with you!

(Urinal bumping. Don't ask.)

Seventh inning what?

(Dancing)

I want lemonade!

Me too!

Aw, man...

I have to go to the bathroom.

Me too!

(return)

Who won?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

 

Tiers

I had a conversation this week with a colleague at whose college, as at so many others, the level of benefit an employee gets is based on her hire date. The farther back you were hired, the better your benefits. This isn't just a matter of, say, compounding interest; it applies to things like health insurance and retirement account contributions. Newer hires pay larger percentages of salary for retirement, and have larger payroll deductions for health insurance, than do their coworkers the next office down.

Interestingly, nobody ever calls this age discrimination, which is what it is. (It clearly has a 'disparate impact' on younger workers. How many credentialed professionals currently under 40 were working there fifteen years ago? I thought not.)

These tiers were the result of collective bargaining. They were a way to cut future costs without hurting present employees. Of course, time has a way of passing, and now some of those unnamed (and unrepresented) third party folk are actually on staff.

Or, increasingly, not. It seems that new employee retention has mysteriously nosedived since, well, the latest round of tiers went into effect. It's most pronounced among staff, as opposed to faculty, probably because staff aren't eligible for tenure, which is a lure of its own.

Apparently, the college can't compensate for the higher deductions by offering higher salaries, for fear of triggering complaints of 'salary compression.' If you look only at salary, and not at take-home pay, the objection holds some water. But x minus five is more than (x plus two) minus ten, so in terms of take-home pay, it's misplaced.

Worse, the disparity becomes progressively harder to 'fix' over time, even if one were so inclined. Any move to raise the effective compensation of the disfavored group would immediately bring calls for retroactivity, which is a headache beyond words. And as the gap grows, the cost of filling the gap grows with it. Right now, that cost is simply passed along to newer hires, who swallow it in the form of lower take-home pay.

Judging by the turnover of younger staff, the combined pincers of 'tiered benefits' and 'no salary compression' have pushed take-home pay to below market-clearing levels. This is not good.

Although some might read this as an anti-union post, I don't think it is. My preferred solutions are either to go with national single-payer health care for everybody and be done with it, or, failing that, for the union to adopt the Rutgers faculty union model of actually having incumbents make some level of sacrifice for the sake of their future colleagues. Either way, the goal should be precisely to get away from invidious distinctions among employees based on age. Tiers aren't solidarity; they're sellouts. They defeat the purpose of unions, and make administrators' jobs harder, too. No, thanks.

Instead of my preferred solutions, though, I foresee the tiers getting steeper, and colleges compensating with an unsatisfying combination of efficiency drives, reorganizations, and lower quality. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

I honestly hope I'm wrong on this one.

Monday, July 07, 2008

 

Ask and Ye Shall Receive...

Before my sojourn, I asked folks to contribute any tips for academic job candidates going out on interviews. Lo and behold, they did! (The generosity of the blogosphere continues to amaze me.) A few highlights, qualifiers, and afterthoughts:

- Respect the unknowability of the process. Several commenters noted the alchemical reactions that occur in committees, and sometimes at levels to which those committees report (hi!). In grad school I recall both faculty and students speaking with great knowingness about “the real story” behind this or that search. Having been on this side of the desk for a while, I can attest that much of the time, even the folks involved don't know the “real story.” (In my faculty days, I was on committees that, in retrospect, I couldn't explain on a bet.) While that can lead to a certain fatalism -- “doesn't anybody here know how to play this game?” -- it can also lead to a certain freedom. Since there's no set template for What Committees Really Want, you're well advised to be yourself. Be on your good behavior, yes, but be a recognizable version of yourself. Over the long term, you're likelier to succeed at a job that found your actual personality a good fit. If you fake your way into a job, you may work your way right out of it.

- Have good questions to ask. This means reading the website and any supporting materials they send you in advance, and not asking questions that you could/should have been able to answer there. It also means not leading with “So, what does it pay?” Multiple commenters noted this one, and I couldn't agree more.

- Don't come in with Attitude. Yes, a community college gig may not be what you had in mind when you signed up for grad school. But projecting that is the kiss of death. Even people who routinely bash their own employers often think quite highly of the work they themselves do. If you honestly believe that a given job is beneath you, don't apply for it.

- Pitch at the right level. If you're applying for a faculty gig at an R1, it's all about research. At a community college (or a proprietary college), it's really about teaching. At this level, candidates who can't stop talking about their research are regarded with skepticism. Yes, it's good to remain in touch with your field, but at the end of the day, what we're paying you for is good teaching. (I'd imagine this advice is trickier at those midtier four-year schools that think they can have it all. It's probably also trickier at institutions with distinctive religious or ethnic identities, when the candidates don't fit those identities. Readers with knowledge of those are invited to comment.)

- The Waiter Test. I once heard a bigwig say that he uses the Waiter Test to judge every candidate. At the lunch or dinner, how did the candidate treat the waiter? (This also applies to administrative assistants, student aides, or anybody on the lower rungs of the local hierarchy.) This is a way to spot the “kiss up, kick down” personality, which is toxic. Treat everybody you meet with at least basic courtesy.

- Listen, listen, listen. You can pick up amazing things by listening between the lines. Listen for the pauses, the hesitations, and the garbled constructions. I've seen wonderfully intelligent and well-spoken people fail this basic test. At one college at which I applied for an administrative gig several years ago, I kept hearing deeply messed-up stuff between the lines. I decided not to take the gig, if offered. (It wasn't.) Within a year, both the President and the Academic VP had left, each under a cloud. I've also seen candidates so intent on hitting their talking points that they didn't register when the group had mentally moved on. This did not bode well for their teaching.

- Kait had an interesting suggestion that I actually tried once, to awful effect. She suggested “At the end of the interview, when they ask you if you have any questions, ask them: "Do you have any reservations about hiring me that I can address?"” I actually tried that once. My questioner recoiled, the temperature in the room dropped several degrees, and she replied that she didn't think it would be ethical to share the committee's inner workings with a candidate. I retreated to “is there anything in my materials that you'd like me to clarify?”, but by then, the damage was done. If you try this, pick your moment carefully.

- Finally, and this is easier said than done, don't take it personally. It's Not About You. I know that's cold comfort when you need a job, and counterintuitive when you're the one being scrutinized, but it's true. I've seen wonderful candidates do nothing wrong, impress all who met them, and still walk away disappointed, just because there was someone else who solved the college's need a little better. Sometimes I think the old jingle “Weebles wobble but they don't fall down” is the most profound piece of philosophy ever smuggled into a children's toy commercial.

Wise and worldly readers – anything to add?

Good luck to all.

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