Tuesday, December 23, 2008

 

Program Note

It's time to take a break and focus on family and festivities. The batteries need recharging, and the kids need my full attention.

I expect to be back in the virtual saddle on a regular basis in the new year.

Best wishes to my wise and worldly readers for a refreshing holiday.

Monday, December 22, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: What Makes a Good Job Talk?

A new correspondent writes:

 
I wonder if you’d consider posting a query to your readers about job talk expectations at their institutions, and whether those expectations are communicated to candidates ahead of time.  My institution just finished a round of hiring, and about the only thing we all could agree on was that the job talks were uniformly terrible.  Of course, we give little or no guidance to the candidates, primarily because we’d never agree among ourselves what an ideal job talk would look like.  I assume expectations for job talks will vary widely among institutions and disciplines, but my guess is that there probably is at least some commonality.



What I like about this question is the admission that committees often don't know, or can't agree on, what they want. That's why it's hard to answer questions like “what are they really looking for?” More often than not, they don't know either.

I suspect that this is also one of the reasons that criteria are rarely communicated to applicants in advance. If you don't know what you want, you probably won't ask for it.

I'll offer a few criteria that seem to be pretty reliable for cc-level jobs, and ask my wise and worldly readers to add what they've seen at their institutions. I'll stipulate up front that what might work for a research university might not work for a community college, and vice versa.

The first and most obvious is attitude. I understand that a cc may not be what you had in mind when you went to grad school. I also don't care. We take our work seriously, and we want colleagues who take it seriously, too. Our students deserve no less. I've seen candidates who did everything short of holding their noses during interviews; every single one of them was immediately DOA. If you believe that a cc is somehow beneath you, don't apply.

The second, related to the first, is curiosity. This may seem counterintuitive, but the candidates who talked less about themselves and more about the college generally did quite well. If you're just giving Prepared Talk #14, you'll be less impressive than if you're actually engaging the group, and engaging is a two-way process.

Obviously, that involves doing some homework prior to the talk. What's the teaching load, both in terms of credits/courses/hours/preps, and in terms of level? I once heard a math candidate generously offer that she was willing to go as 'low' in the curriculum as Calc I once in a while, in a spirit of shared sacrifice. Most of the job involves teaching either remedial or college algebra. She didn't get the offer.
The same can apply to the English applicant who only wants to teach literature, as opposed to composition, or nearly anybody who refuses to teach gen eds. In the cc universe, those courses are most of what we do; if you aren't excited to do them, you probably shouldn't work here.

In my world, too much dissertation talk is a clue that you really have something else in mind. Talk about teaching is much better received, particularly if it references both the scholarship of teaching and learning and your own actual teaching experience with students similar to ours.

Individual campuses have their own quirks, of course, as do individual departments. These really have nothing to do with the candidates, but they come into play anyway. Annoyingly, the departments often don't know that their quirks are quirks; they think they're normal. It's your fault for not knowing that there was a blowup several years ago over afternoon classes and now no full-timers ever teach after 1 pm, or that standardized outcomes assessment tools are of the devil, or that the unnamed college down the street is the source of all evil. My guess is that the extraordinarily low turnover of full-time faculty, relative to almost any other industry, explains the weird provincialism that can take hold in departments that haven't hired in a while. When nobody in the group has seen anything in the last thirty years to compare their place to, some very weird ideas can go unchallenged for a remarkably long time.

There's also the usual standard advice about being clear, dressing professionally, staying upbeat, and never, ever, under any circumstances, bashing a former employer. (My rule of thumb for clothes, and it works regardless of gender: at an interview, don't wear anything for the first time. If something squeaks, or pinches, or shines too much, you'll be off your game. Break it in, first.) If your primary aftertaste is 'bitter,' we don't want you.

And finally, if you don't get the offer, know that it probably had nothing to do with anything you did or didn't do. In this market – even more so since this year's free-fall started – the balance of power is so thoroughly in the employer's favor that heaven only knows who you'll be up against, and what will finally tip the balance. When it gets down to the final two or three, there's an inescapable element of randomness that creeps in – candidate A withdraws at the last possible moment for spousal reasons, or candidate A gets a better offer and candidate B has spousal issues, or the department falls in love with candidate A just before the funding for the position is sucked into the black hole. Don't internalize the bad news. Rejection is part of the process, and generally out of your control. Take the high road, do what you can, and try not to let it mess with your mental health. Taking it too personally can lead to the aforementioned bitter aftertaste.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add/amend/refute/suggest?

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

 

Milestones

The Boy and The Girl are hitting new milestones.

Last week we took them to a local park, where Santa held court near a restored old carousel. The Girl was in her glory – she told Santa what she wanted, declared which horse she wanted to ride, and pretended that her horse was jumping hurdles as the carousel turned. She smiled and laughed the entire time, and all was right in her world.

The Boy was okay with Santa, but begged off the merry-go-round. I sat with him – I lost the ability to do circular rides without bad side effects somewhere around thirty – and asked him why. He told me, a little wistfully and a little nervously, that he was too old for merry-go-rounds now. They're for little kids, not him.

The parents out there know that feeling – the peculiar mix of pain and pride you get when your kid leaves a stage behind. There's a loss in knowing that the little kid you've spent the last few years with is gone, but it's gratifying to see your kid grow and mature, and start to fill out the outlines of his personality. It's both surprising and not. TB is a thoughtful kid, in both senses of 'thoughtful.' He's polite and genuinely considerate, but he's also a thinker. (Between his parents, he comes by it honestly.) He's observant enough to notice that none of the other kids on the merry-go-round were his age, and status-anxious enough not to want to be the first. As a considerate kid, he didn't want to ruin the experience for TG, who was obviously enjoying herself. But he's just not temperamentally capable of faking it, either. So he sat out.

I remember that. Yup. I remember that real well.

He's old enough now to start worrying about things that never occurred to him before. Some of the confidence that comes from obliviousness will start to elude him. He's heading toward those awful years in which the rules seem scarily fluid and murky and arbitrary, and nothing feels quite right. And we can't shield him from that, as much as part of me wants to.

The contrast with TG is striking. She's amazingly secure in her world, and just happy to be there. She's still young enough that the rules are clear, even if some of them are clear only to her.

An exchange she had with Santa:

Santa: What's your name?

TG: [TG].

Santa: And what would you like for Christmas, TG?

TG: I would like an Easy Bake oven and a cupcake maker, please.

Santa: What does a cupcake maker do?

(pause)

TG (deadpan): It makes cupcakes.

She didn't actually say “duh,” but the implication was clear. Everybody knows what cupcake makers do!

Her preschool had a Christmas concert, which was utterly charming. Hearing ten four-year olds sing “Jingle Bell Wock” is good for the soul. She wasn't the least bit self-conscious about standing in front of a roomful of adults with video cameras, singing and dancing and banging sticks together in approximate rhythm. She knew – correctly – that she owned the room, and that snacks and hugs and smiles and approval were in the offing. It wouldn't occur to her that it could be otherwise, any more than it would occur to her that someone would have to ask what a cupcake maker does.

That won't last. As she gets older, she'll hit the same anxieties that TB is starting to hit now. The rules will get more complicated and less fair. People will disappoint her, and she'll discover self-doubt. She'll discover someday that some problems are beyond the power of parental hugs to fix.

But not yet. As proud as I am of TB, I can't help but feel a loss as he moves from the untroubled years toward something else. He won't be the heedlessly brave little guy anymore. I miss the heedlessly brave little guy sometimes. TG is in the full flower of secure, oblivious courage now, and TB reminded me of how quickly that passes. I owe him one – yet another one – for reminding me to enjoy TG's cloudless certainty while it's still here.

Over the months and years, we'll watch TB grapple with a world that gets palpably bigger seemingly each week. And we'll take real pride, as we already do, in watching him become himself, and watching him navigate his world's sharp edges with his particular grace.

But for now, for Christmas, I'll sit through a few more versions of Jingle Bell Wock.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Go or Stay?

A new correspondent writes:


I am a graduate student at a state school with a pretty decent reputation.
 Although I’m ABD (in sociology), I’m just in the beginning stage of
dissertation, although I think once I get going, it will not take me too
long.  (I’m hoping to get my degree either Jan. or May 2010.)  I’ve done
some serious soul searching and, after having taught at a state school, a
private liberal arts college, and a community college, I am now 100%
certain that I was meant to be at a community college.  I love the
emphasis on teaching, community development, the variety of students with
whom I’d get to interact, etc.  A tenure track position has opened up at a
cc school that looks great.  It really appears to be a dream job.  I
suppose my question is – should I apply knowing that I’m so far from
finishing my dissertation?  (The ad says Masters required, PhD preferred.)
 I know that if I were to get the job, finishing my degree would be very
difficult with a full course load – but on the other hand, I’m getting
this degree so that I can land a tenure track CC job, so if I can get the
dream job before finishing, isn’t that a good thing?  I think the other
thing that I have to consider is asking my advisor to write a
recommendation for me.  I definitely want her to write one of my
recommendation letters (although I wouldn’t tell the other members of my
committee that I was applying).  Although she knows that I’m *considering*
a job at a two-year school, my department (as do many, unfortunately),
tends to frown on this type of job – it’s seen as a step down or a
disappointment.  (Most graduates end up at top tier research schools or
major research organizations.)


First, congratulations on being able to see past the prestige hierarchy that some graduate programs live by. Yes, research-intensive jobs at prestigious places have their charms, not the least of which is usually a higher salary. But if teaching is really where your heart is, and research is just something you do to be allowed to teach, then a cc may make good sense. If you combine that with a location that makes sense for you, in a discipline in which even shaky jobs are hard to find, then I can certainly see the appeal of applying.

That said, several caveats:

First, don't underestimate the time and energy it takes just to apply. A thoughtful letter can't be dashed off in a day, and you'll have to get your various stuff together much sooner than you had otherwise planned. You'll have to make a good case with your advisor for a solid reference, obviously, and probably with a few others as well. Figuring this stuff out, and then doing it, will take time and focus away from the dissertation. That shouldn't be a deal-breaker, but it would be naïve to think that you could just fire off a letter in an hour or two and get back to work. There's an opportunity cost involved here.

Second, make sure you have a sense of what the cc pays at the entry level, and of what that looks like on the ground in its region. In the more expensive states (hi!), salaries that seem reasonable on paper often don't go far at all. That's especially true once the student loan deferments run out.

Third, finishing a dissertation – especially one that isn't all that close to being finished now – while teaching a 5/5 load is a herculean task on a good day. Dissertations are hard enough without multiple new preps in a new and very demanding environment. In my observation, most graduate students underestimate how long it will take them to finish, even without full-time jobs. (Not that – cough – that ever applied to me – cough, cough.) Add a very demanding new job to the mix, and you're adding several years. Again, depending on your priorities (and your productivity during the summer), that may not be a deal-breaker, but go in with your eyes open.

Finally, sociology is one of those evergreen disciplines in which even cc's routinely get metric tons of applicants. Chances are, you aren't the only one out there who sees this as a dream job. At your current stage, without cc teaching experience, I'd classify this as a relatively long shot. Whether it's worth diverting a significant chunk of time from the dissertation to spend on a longshot is your call, and it's true that longshots occasionally come in. (In this climate, I wouldn't even be surprised if the funding for the position evaporated by September. That has been known to happen.)

I don't mean any of this to deter you, necessarily, but to help you weigh the decision a bit. If you take all of this (and constructive input from my wise and worldly readers!) into account and still want to go for it, go right ahead. In the meantime, though, if you want to position yourself for other full-time cc teaching gigs in the future, I'd recommend getting some teaching experience at a nearby cc, and becoming familiar with some of the literature about the teaching of sociology. At a cc faculty job talk, too much focus on the dissertation is the kiss of death. If you can go in discussing your experience teaching cc students, and how it informs your sense of the scholarship of teaching in your discipline (and vice versa), you should be much better situated.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add/correct/refute/suggest?

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

 

Edifice Complex

Enough with the freakin' buildings, already.

Apparently, the American Council on Education (along with some other groups) is wasting no time in getting in line for bailout/stimulus money, petitioning the Obama administration-in-waiting to set aside a significant chunk of change for construction projects at colleges and universities across the country. The idea is that construction projects create jobs, and that once the buildings are finished, colleges and universities will be better able to provide students with exposure to and experience in the latest technologies. Oh, and the buildings will be suitably green, and 'shovel-ready' within 180 days.

Well, that's all fine and good. I have to give the ACE credit for being shovel-ready, based on this plan. But there's a much easier, faster, more effective way to shore up and improve higher ed in America. It's suitably green, the economic effects would be both quick and lasting, and it would have a direct, positive impact on students.

Don't spend it on more buildings. Spend it on people to work in the buildings we already have.

The faculty is an obvious place to start. Salaries come out of operating budgets, and the states' support of operating budgets has been falling faster lately than at any time in the last three decades, and that's saying something. Nationally, the aggregate response to that has been to shrink the ranks of full-time faculty and to replace them with part-timers. National studies have shown consistently that too heavy a reliance on adjuncts has negative effects on student success; at this point, that debate is pretty well settled. We're wasting an entire generation of scholars through hiring freezes, then doing a measurably worse job of educating a generation of students because of it. Given the money, we could start hiring full-time people at the drop of a hat.

Of course, faculty aren't the only ones needed. Labs and libraries don't maintain themselves. IT networks require constant attention. Campus security can't be left to volunteers. And don't even get me started on financial aid offices...

Unlike construction projects, which actually take years to move from concept to completion, we could ramp up our staffing on short notice. (Hell, at this point, just preventing layoffs would require a substantial infusion of cash.) For those who haven't had the pleasure, a quick overview of the various phases of a construction project:

- “Visioning.” Allow several months for input, internal politicking, deal-making, and arguing over what, exactly, should be built. Build in costs for ADA, LEED, etc.
Environmental impact studies. “You can't build there – that's a mating ground for the rare three-toed hornswaggler. And you can't build there – the local residents are organized and pissy. And you can't build there, because there would be no place to park. And what's taking you so long, anyway?”

- Permitting. 'Nuff said.

- Political deal-making. Luckily, there's no corruption in the construction industry.
Bidding, appeals, re-bidding. Since everything has to be built by the lowest bidder, the game is to make the specs ridiculously specific. Otherwise, some really inconvenient corners will get cut. (See “Big Dig, The”) This takes TIME.

- Actual building time.

- Lawsuits over cost overruns. These occur with the regularity of the sun rising in the East.

- Delays as various developers go broke. For reasons I still don't understand, the average construction firm has the lifespan of a fruit fly.

- Unanticipated last-minute fixes.

If you think that can all get done in 180 days, you've been huffing the pungent musk of the three-toed hornswaggler. Can't. Be. Done.

On the other hand, give me a green light to beef up the English department and the library staff, and I'll have folks ensconced in their positions faster than you can say 'environmental impact study.' And those people will spend their paychecks, stimulating the economy just as well as anybody else. Better, those folks will actually improve the quality of education for our students, so there's a real long-term payoff to complement the real short-term payoff. We can get to the buildings when we get to them.

Yes, there's a legitimate fear that Federal money would simply displace state money, but that's relatively easy to prevent. Just do what you do for highway funding, and require the states to match a certain portion. If you really want to get creative, require state-level set-asides. It takes a little doing, but it's far easier than managing thousands of construction projects across the country.
 
In fact, there's a very intelligent case to be made that rather than lining up as simply another industry begging for a handout, higher ed should partner with k-12 and law enforcement and petition the Feds to bail out the states.  State budget shortfalls will lead to layoffs, which are the worst possible moves in a downturn like this.  Keep people on payroll -- whether they're college professors, elementary school teachers, cops, or anything else -- and they'll keep spending.  Cut them loose, and they'll cut spending.  Buildings can wait.

The alternative is to continue to grow buildings while shrinking the faculty and staff.  To my mind, that plan is truly shovel-ready.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

 

“It's Just a Job” vs. “We're All in This Together”

Okay, I'm a little late to this party, but there's been a fascinating exchange in blogland between Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy. Both addressed the ways that budget issues are being discussed at their respective colleges. Stipulating upfront that neither was really arguing with the other, and that they're working at two very different kinds of institutions, they really staked out two very distinctive positions.

To oversimplify, TR's position is basically that colleges are communities, and that the members of a community need to share sacrifices in tough times. The idea is that if the community gets a clear sense that the local leadership has a reasonable plan, is sticking to it, is sharing it, is soliciting and listening to input, and isn't pulling any fast ones, then it's fair to include some shared sacrifice in that plan. (Admittedly, that's a long chain of 'ifs,' many of which won't be met in very many cases.) In the case TR outlines, it's reasonable for faculty to accept a pay freeze for a year, given that others are accepting it, too, and that the freeze prevents layoffs. Underlying this perspective, I think, is a nuanced sense of reciprocity as a common obligation. If a single group is singled out for sacrifice, then by all means, resist. But if everybody gives up something, then even a card-carrying lefty could sign on without selling out.

Dr. C's position is less idealistic. She argues that professors are workers, and that workers are entitled to fight for the best deals they can get. She suggests that paeans to 'community' are belied by the weight of her workload, and that given what she already does for her salary, she already (effectively) gave at the office. She seems to suspect that all this 'shared sacrifice' stuff is a sort of surrender by faculty, who are essentially being played for chumps.

There's enough truth to both of these that I don't want to just side with one against the other. (And again, they're writing from very different institutions. It's easier to be idealistic with a 2-2 load and a relatively high salary.) But I think the dichotomy runs far deeper than just the current budget cycle, and has implications that go beyond it.

For example, I'd argue that how one understands tenure will have a great deal to do with which position one takes. I've suggested before that it's reasonable to have tenure or unions, but not both, and this debate helped me crystallize that sentiment. Tenure is a lifetime commitment by the institution. (Since the badly-misguided repeal of a mandatory retirement age, this is literally true.) To suggest that a lifetime commitment somehow doesn't carry with it some sort of reciprocal obligation strikes me as narcissistic, if not laughable. Legally, tenure amounts to ownership of a job. Having tenure and a union amounts to negotiating against yourself, an ethically dubious proposition worthy of an Illinois governor. Being insulated for life against the vagaries of the economy is a privilege, and a rare one; for that privilege to bring with it a certain responsibility for stewardship of the institution is only fair.

On the other side, if you have a union but not tenure, then you're in a clear labor/management situation, and each side knows its role. Yes, there may be times when concessions make long-term strategic sense, but the calculus is still based on cold self-interest. Pay me what I want; where you find the money is your problem. Of course, for labor to represent labor, management has to be able to manage. This model allows for a great deal of recognition of work as work, but it makes things like 'shared governance' look awfully shaky. (To her credit, Dr. C implicitly recognizes this.)

Combining tenure and a union – having your cake and eating it too – reflects a basic unwillingness to come to terms with the nature of academic work. Are full-time professors professionals, or are they line staff? (Adjuncts are pretty clearly line staff, which is why I have no problem with adjunct unions.) If they're professionals, with a stake in the enterprise, then asking them to share in the sacrifice during lean times is entirely kosher. (And yes, I'll accept every single one of the 'ifs' that TR stipulated.) Having an ownership stake in an enterprise necessarily involves feeling some pain during down times. That's what owners do. (Technically, the 'ownership' involved in tenure is of a job, rather than of an institution. However, and this is a key point, the job doesn't exist without the institution.) But far too many faculty cherry-pick, wielding the rhetoric of shared governance when it suits their purposes, but then retreating to union protection when things get tight. “Because they can” is the only justification I can imagine for that, and it's looking a bit threadbare these days. At a certain point, colleges faced with this kind of denial of reality wind up invoking 'fiscal exigency' and rewriting the rules entirely. It's better to avoid that in the first place.

Longtime readers know that I've often taken the position that it's just a job. That's mostly in response to what I think is a really destructive inculcation of values in graduate school, in which people spend years learning that they're unfit to do anything but teach. This set of mental blinders keeps feeding the adjunct numbers, which I don't see as healthy for anybody. If a little demystification can prevent some self-defeating behaviors, great. That said, though, I'll admit that locally, as the budget crunch looms, I find myself doing everything possible to protect every last job. Even if it's just a job, a job is no small thing. And there's something to be said for treating people the way you'd want to be treated.

I've heard that crises are good for clarity. Higher ed has been juggling these two ideals for some time, buying off the conflict rather than coming to terms with the contradiction. Now that the resources for buying off simply aren't to be had, maybe we can finally start to get some clarity.

Monday, December 15, 2008

 

The One Way We Still Get to Hire...

is for grant-funded positions. But hiring for grant-funded positions is different than regular hiring.

Grant-funded positions exist in a parallel universe to the rest of the college. Since they come with their own funding lines, they're immune to hiring freezes and even layoffs. As long as the grantors keep supporting the positions, we can keep hiring (and/or replacing) as needed.

But grant-funded positions come with a self-defeating paradox. Although they usually specify a relatively rare and specialized combination of skills and qualifications, they also come with expiration dates. (This is the key difference between 'grant-funded' and 'endowed' positions.) I t can be remarkably difficult to hire people with rare and specialized skill sets, at academic salaries, for short-term jobs. This is especially true when someone leaves a grant-funded position with a relatively short time left in the grant, and the grant carries little or no prospect of renewal.

Grantors like to imagine that colleges will always transfer the positions from the grant line to the operating budget when the grant expires, and sometimes that happens. But if you do that too often, you find your college growing in ways that really don't cohere. And you wind up effectively hiring full-time staff from artificially small talent pools, which can't be good.

Grant hires can also wreak havoc with local gossip networks, since folks at large don't always know which positions are which. (A history of 'grandfathering' positions makes the distinction even harder to maintain.) Last week I was confronted by an angry academic, asking why such-and-such could hire and her area couldn't. When I replied that such-and-such's position was grant-funded, there was a puzzled silence, followed by an 'oh.' What I don't know is how many other people at the college have the same question, but didn't bother to ask. In the gossip network, that can get coded as 'administrative bloat,' with the clear (and false) implication that The Administration is hogging resources that otherwise could have gone to faculty. The nature of grants is such that if you don't use it the way the grantor wants, you don't use it at all; the money isn't fungible. (The savvier grantors even incorporate language making it difficult, if not impossible, to use grant money to displace positions you otherwise would have had to cover internally. The annoying result is that we frequently can't even share the bounty indirectly.) Had we left that position open, the faculty would have been no better off.

Grant-driven staffing can make long-term planning more difficult. It's tough to know now what will be in fashion among philanthropists several years from now. We can predict our own needs somewhat more accurately, but the two may or may not overlap. To the extent that we move opportunistically on the various RFP's as they come along, we may maximize our resources, but we give up a good deal of our ability to control our own destiny.

I won't even get into the frequent and annoying conflicts between grantors' criteria and our local union contracts. Suffice it to say, the world would be a much better place if the two groups would actually talk to each other. Far too many RFP's boil down to “here's a hundred bucks – remake your college from the ground up.” The more seriously your college takes shared governance, the worse the mismatch is, since grants usually work on deadlines that don't leave room for any sort of serious deliberative process. Anything that involves “doing things in a new way” typically involves departures from Past Practice, which means they have to be impact-bargained, in addition to being run through the local shared governance process. Yes, we could try to anticipate these and start the wheels in motion prospectively, but then the grantors would object that we were trying to find ongoing operations, and we'd lose eligibility.

None of this is meant to criticize concerned people for wanting to share resources to achieve something positive in the world; that's great, and I hope they keep doing it. But there's something to be said for not reinventing the wheel every time a new grant comes along. A few ideas:

- Drop the “no funding of ongoing operations” rule. Anything that will make a serious difference will have to be sustained over time, and cc's are chronically underfunded. Do the math. Besides, positions that don't have expiration dates will attract much more impressive applicant pools, making it likelier that we'll get the best people in the first place.

- Use deadlines that recognize the realities of union contracts, shared governance, and the like. Too often, colleges are forced to choose between ramming projects through and forgoing funding altogether. This forced urgency costs far more than it gains, over time.

- In structuring RFP's, talk to people on the ground who can explain the local realities that so often trip up the Grand Ideas. (Example: recently there's been a flurry of RFP's that share the assumption that the 'credit/non-credit' distinction is arbitrary and easily bridged. I don't know who's behind these, but whoever it is clearly lacks the foggiest idea of how higher ed actually works.)

- For the love of all that's holy and good, set aside some funding to actually hire faculty. Every grant comes with requirements for 'coordinators' and 'counselors' and 'liaisons.' Meanwhile, we're shrinking the faculty to accommodate the Incredible Shrinking Appropriation. Let's recognize reality here.

Of course, the best outcome would be operating funding of sufficient magnitude that we could actually cover what we need to cover, leaving us free to pursue only those grants that really make the most sense. Until then, I'm back to explaining to the academic side of the house why it's shrinking, even while we're hiring more liaisons.

Friday, December 12, 2008

 

Quote of the Day

From yesterday's New York Times article about the faculty at the New School passing a vote of no confidence in their President, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who has churned through four chief academic officers in seven years:


Like Mr. Summers, who is now President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to be chief White House economic adviser, Mr. Kerrey was recruited in part for his star power and management acumen. And like Mr. Summers, he has often found university politics more difficult to navigate than electoral politics.



I liked that. Earning a purple heart in Vietnam, getting elected governor, dating Debra Winger, doing two terms in the U.S. Senate, and reaching the point of being shortlisted as a Vice Presidential candidate? No problem! But academic administration? Now that's a challenge!

For reasons I still don't understand, people from outside academia often fail to understand that the culture of academia is fundamentally different. Better in some ways, worse in others, but markedly different. That's not to deny that it needs to change in some fairly fundamental ways, but those changes will have to be facilitated by people who understand where it's starting.

The guy was briefly among the dozen or so people most often mentioned as possibly running the country someday, and he can't even run a university.

If he's looking for work, I hear that Illinois needs a governor...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

 

Buying Low

Apparently, the proprietary colleges are in the midst of another of their periodic booms, swooping in and grabbing students just when the public sector is reeling from yet another round of budget cuts.

I've seen this movie.

As regular readers know, I used to work for a proprietary. You've heard of it.

I'd be both more and less worried than the IHE story suggests.

The worrisome part of the return of the proprietaries is that, unlike the public sector, their income rises and falls with enrollments. This means they're immune to the double-bind the public colleges routinely experience during recessions, when enrollments go up but funding goes down. This Fall my cc is experiencing the highest enrollments in its history, and applications for the Spring are even higher than that; at the exact same time, our operating funding is crashing. Say what you want about 'administrators' – I defy anybody to make that math work without pain. It's one thing to do more with less, and another to perform alchemy.

For the DeVry's and Phoenixes of the world, though, higher enrollments automatically equate to higher revenues. This means they can add capacity when it makes sense. In times like these, I envy them that.

That said, though, the relatively narrow focus of most proprietaries – pick one or two hot career fields, and put all your eggs in those few baskets – means that they're incredibly vulnerable to job-market shifts. The Admissions folk at the proprietaries, in my experience, are quite conversant in the job-placement stats (both percentages and average starting salaries) of recent grads. That's what they sell. “Sure, our tuition may be higher, but we'll get you a good job.” When I was there, the Career Services Office was almost as powerful internally as the Admissions Office, and both were far more powerful than the faculty. The entire organization was built as a factory, producing employable graduates. And in good years, it did exactly that.

But as with any factory that churns out a narrow product line, the model only works when the product is in demand. And I don't see a heck of a lot of evidence that new grads in most fields are in very much demand. (Nursing is an obvious exception.)

It's one thing to pay premium tuition and put up with a certain brutality of culture when you think there's a pot of gold waiting at the end. It's quite another to do that when nobody's hiring anyway. If there's no obviously lucrative path to follow, why not study what you actually like?

Now, if someone were to put up a serious chunk of venture capital to establish an upscale, 'comprehensive' for-profit, combining the best innovations of the for-profits with the best traditions of traditional academe...

And wanted to hire someone with experience in both worlds, a commitment to students, and a record of sustained reflection on higher ed issues...

I'm just sayin'.

If someone were to do it right, there's an opening you could drive the proverbial truck through. The public colleges are caught in a cost spiral generated by a productivity trap; the existing proprietaries are generally either far too narrow, or (I'm thinking here of Founders College) hostage to some weird Ayn Rand-ian ideology. (The last time I checked, their economics degree didn't even include any math. What do you say to that?) But a for-profit that actually understood education...

Alternately, if President-elect Obama wants to solve multiple problems at once, he could direct some of the 'stimulus' to enrollment-based aid to higher ed. Come up with a per-student (or per-credit) 'bounty,' and pay colleges accordingly. That way, we could keep the progressivity of the public sector, while emulating the enrollments-lead-to-revenues model of the for-profits. Colleges could start employing faculty again, and all those underemployed people could upgrade their skills. Think of it as a variation on the GI bill, except that it doesn't penalize institutions with lower tuition levels.

My guess is that the DeVry's of the world are sort of the Studebakers and Nashes of this industry. The Toyotas and Hondas are waiting to be born, and I'd guess they won't have to wait much longer. It's axiomatic that the way for investors to make money is to buy low. It doesn't get much lower than this.

The planets are aligning for a really fundamental shift in how higher ed operates. If the publics don't lead the way, the for-profits just might.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

 

A Mixed Marriage

I'm increasingly convinced that there are two ways of watching television, and that The Wife and I are firmly planted in opposite camps.

The first way treats tv as the home equivalent of a movie. You don't start watching until you're ready to focus on it; then, once you start watching, you focus cleanly until the program ends, you lose interest completely, and/or you fall asleep. (In practice, 2 sometimes shades into 3.) The purpose of the DVR is to skip commercials.

The second way treats the television as one input among many. This way involves watching for a few minutes, starting multiple conversations along various topics, getting up every ten minutes or so, and generally treating the program as something close to background noise. In this approach, the purpose of the DVR is to back up and replay lines lost to other distractions, and/or to stop the program for ten minutes at a time while you go and do something else.

To be fair, either style works well enough when it's the only one. When I watch tv alone, which isn't often, I focus on it. A program like The Daily Show lends itself well to this approach, since the jokes are quick and verbal, and reward close attention. When TW watches tv alone, she's all over the place, but it really doesn't matter. She's happy, I'm elsewhere, it's all good.

The catch is that the two styles don't mix well.

I first noticed this when we were engaged. I'd be sitting on the couch, contentedly reading an article or book. Soon-to-be-TW would walk in, turn on the tv, sit down next to me, and start a detailed conversation. I considered this inexplicable. If you want to have a conversation, why turn on the tv? If you want to watch tv, what's with all the conversation? And wasn't I reading?

For a while, we almost couldn't go to movies. The first ten minutes of most movies involve unexplained action by unidentified characters gradually becoming clear. I'd wait for the clarity. TW would keep asking questions. She has gradually dropped the habit, to her credit, but the impulse is still there.

When we went house-hunting, one of my desiderata was a living room separate from a tv room. We got that, and it makes a tremendous difference. It gave the kids a playspace without a tv, which we both considered important. When the kids go to bed, she can 'watch' her Bravo reality shows, while I contentedly blog on the laptop on the living room. Alternately, if I'm watching Family Guy, she can retreat to the living room and read Jane Austen.

(Sadly, this doesn't work in theaters. We saw Australia last week, which is basically three long hours of the camera lingering over Hugh Jackman. TW was entranced. I was bored out of my mind.)

In the best of all possible worlds, which happens sometimes, the styles meet in the middle, and we form a Mystery Science Theater style running commentary on whatever's on. We used to do that when W gave his televised addresses, until neither of us could stand to watch him for even a single minute more. (Fun trivia fact: he's actually still the President! A lot of people don't know that.) Several years ago, when my team was on the way to the World Series, we watched some games like that. Sometimes we'll do that during 24, although her appreciation of Keifer Sutherland far surpasses my own.

For whatever reason, we also both like to play the “who's that actor?” game. When there's an actor that one of us almost recognizes, everything stops until we can place him/her. We've had entire conversations along the lines of “isn't he that guy from that show? You know, with that other guy from the thing?” She's scary-good at placing actors, even in voice-overs. And hairstyle or fashion commentary is always fair game.

We both like the idea of being a one-tv house, so when there's something we both want to watch, we have to find ways to mesh gears. And we're getting better at it, as we're each letting go of the idea of converting the other.

I don't know anyone else I'd spend an hour with, watching a half-hour show. Time well spent.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

 

Yet More Evidence That I Don't Understand the Press

Isn't this story actually good news?

It's being covered as if it's somehow a bad thing that fewer people are taking the GRE this year. (The GRE is the sort of SAT-for-grad-school.) It's a pretty good predictor of the coming year's grad school applications. Typically, enrollments boom during recessions, but even though this recession has hair and teeth, applications are actually down.

People, this is fantastic news.

If all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about the plight of adjuncts is actually starting to get through on the Admissions end of the pipeline, then there may be actual hope for eventual improvement. Fewer people hopping into the sausage grinder may mean less sausage down the line.

Yes, there's the predictable “but we need educated people!” objection, but that strikes me as hopelessly naïve. Right now we turn down hundreds of applicants for every faculty job (or, more accurately, we did when we were still hiring at all). That doesn't smell like a labor shortage to me. If the number of disappointed applicants drops by half, it's still indefensibly high. To argue that it should be even higher strikes me as simply perverse.

In most of the classic academic disciplines, it's devilishly hard to get a full-time academic job. This is not news. What I haven't been able to figure out is how it is that we've been trumpeting this basic fact from the hilltops for a decade or more, with no discernible effect on the number of people entering the field.

Could it be that they're finally starting to connect the dots? Could it be that, even in a recession, the prospect of spending 5-10 years trying to get credentialed for a field with overwhelming odds of underemployment is perhaps less attractive than other things?

(Admittedly, it may be more a matter of increased debt aversion than raised consciousness. That's okay; I'll still take it.)

As regular readers know, I'm a fan of an educated population. This isn't about hoarding knowledge, or returning grad school to its roots as a province of the elite, or engaging in a rearguard action against diversity, or any other sinister motive. It's about treating people fairly. Continuing to shunt bright young minds into an already overcrowded pool just doesn't make sense. If some of those bright young minds are figuring that out for themselves, all the better.

Of course, certain graduate programs – I'm not naming any names, you know who you are – may respond simply by lowering their standards. All those sections of Freshman Comp aren't going to teach themselves, after all. And certain professors – again, I'm not naming any names – will do whatever they need to do to maintain their status as members of 'graduate' programs, even if there's no demonstrable need for their programs.

Still, the beginnings of a Great Refusal suggests that some basic truths are starting to get through. The optimist in me can't help but smile at that, and hope that it continues.

Monday, December 08, 2008

 

Affordability and Sustainability

One of my favorite aphorisms (I think it's Stein's law) states that anything unsustainable, won't be.

Several alert readers sent me links to this article from the Times, which, in turn, cites a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The headline, ripped from the Department of the Obvious, states that college is becoming unaffordable. Unlike many reports, it looks at the true cost of college (that is, after financial aid), and measures it as a percentage of family income. Since the true cost includes housing, transportation, and books, even community colleges come off as relatively pricey. (Most cc's don't provide housing or meal plans for students, which is one reason that the sticker price is so much cheaper. Including those costs decreases the relative price advantage of cc's, though we're still cheaper.)

The method of this study strikes me as more useful than many. Lazy studies just look at the sticker price, which often gives a very misleading picture, since many students don't pay full freight. I'm not sure that counting the cost of living at home is entirely helpful, either; I tend to prefer measures of marginal cost. If you're already living at home anyway, the marginal cost of the local cc is truly lower. That can apply as well to four-year colleges with commuter populations.

Still, a few thoughts.

First, taking 'family income' as the baseline measure – an eminently fair real-world approach for most people – suggests a perfectly obvious rejoinder: the real issue is less the growing cost of college than the stagnation or decline in average family incomes. There's a much larger political and economic issue here that has little to do with higher education per se. The growth and acceleration of income and wealth inequality over the last few decades has put the squeeze on millions of people; college tuition is only one case of that. (Judging by what the obscenely wealthy are willing to pay in tuition for their kids, there's a great deal of running room here.) Reverse the New Gilded Age polarization of wealth, re-establish a stable middle class, and much of the sting of tuition will go away.

Still, even with saner macroeconomic policies, higher ed has some serious issues to face.

On a short-term, pragmatic level, I think it's painfully obvious that the various states need to become much more deliberate and focused about allowing students to transfer seamlessly from cc's to four-year public colleges and universities. Having fought this battle for years now, I can attest that real progress won't happen without legislation. It has to be mandated, or the four-year schools will foot-drag and sabotage the process, just as they have for decades. On the ground, this would have the effect of greatly reducing the effective cost of a four-year degree for the people who most need it.

On a longer-term level, I see two adjustments coming, both of which will bring pain.

First, I don't see a way around a shakeout. The nothing-special private colleges that subsist on high tuition and high discount rates are going to have a tough time surviving much longer. In a national market, many of them don't really have a compelling reason to exist. The elites will be fine; they sell exclusivity, and there's always a market for that. The publics serve a clear purpose, and as more upper-income kids are priced into the publics, they're losing some of their historic stigma. Colleges with clear and specific religious identities or programmatic niches can at least answer the question of why they exist. But the older, fair-to-middling private colleges and universities charge premium rates for average product. With online education making geography less determinative of access than it once was, I just don't see what some of these schools offer to justify their prices. And they don't have the resources to survive without those prices. Antioch was just the tip of the iceberg (although one could argue that it at least had a niche, in its way).

The other is that we'll start to see a decoupling of 'hours' or 'semesters' from 'credits' or 'degrees.' If you accept the definition of economic productivity as money generated over a given period of time, then there's simply no way (other than real inflation, or continued adjunctification, or just stuffing the rooms fuller) to increase the economic productivity of a three-hour class. As long as the product is defined in units of time, rather than, say, documented competencies, we'll be stuck in a productivity trap. (Even degrees are denominated in time -- “two-year degrees,” “four-year degrees,” and the like. We all know that these terms often don't describe reality, but they survive as normative anyway.) When the rest of the economy increases its productivity and we don't, our costs will spiral disproportionately. So far, higher ed has dealt with this by overproducing graduate students, then hiring them into the same old system for what amounts to tips. This eat-the-young strategy has allowed the system as a whole to procrastinate on serious structural change, but it hasn't solved the underlying problem, and it won't.

There's no easy or graceful way to re-denominate an entire system built on 'credit hours.' But 'credit hours' weren't handed down from God; they're just a bureaucratic construct, developed at a particular historical moment to solve a particular problem. (As we used to say back in the 80's and 90's, they're 'socially constructed.') That's all. They can be changed, and they'll have to be.

That's not to say that the change won't be wrenching. Collective bargaining agreements are built on credit hours, as are transfer agreements, faculty workloads, and tuition. Path dependence is real, and changing paths isn't easy. But to assume that we can just keep asking the middle class to take on greater and greater amounts of debt for the next fifty years simply denies reality. Even with saner public policy, we're probably at the outer limits of what the market will bear already.

It will take a tremendous amount of ingenuity to redefine higher education in ways that preserve its real value, rather than simply reducing it to on-demand job training. On good days, I imagine that a bunch of minds as clever as the American professoriate is uniquely well-suited to the task; on bad days, I gaze in wonder at the fetishization of the past, and the complete lack of self-awareness on the part of some otherwise brilliant people. It may be that what will change is the dream of widespread access, as higher ed retreats to its historical province as a privilege of the wealthy, and proprietary job-training becomes the norm for everyone else. I hope not, but that's where inertia would take us. My continuing hope is that crises like these will shift the conversation enough to break our inertia. It's a longshot, admittedly, but given the awfulness of the alternative, it's a longshot worth taking. The current system is unsustainable and, therefore, won't be.

Friday, December 05, 2008

 

Layoffs and Transparency

Any thoughts on how to do the former while honoring the latter?

The last time I went through a round of layoffs, during the previous recession, I saw vividly the gap between what could be communicated at a given moment, and what people actually wanted to know. Now there's another round coming, and it's likely to be much worse than before.

There's some lead time, since the really catastrophic numbers apply to next fiscal year's budget (meaning the year that starts in July of 2009). We have a few months before anybody has to get the awful news. On the bright side, that means there's time to assemble and implement a reasonable strategy for communication, input, and brainstorming.

In the corporate world, layoffs are established practice, and transparency doesn't exist. But academia is different. Here there's a focus on process as a good in itself. That can sometimes become a maddening exercise in narcissism, admittedly, but the idea behind it is basically good. It's about respecting the stakeholders at the college as people with real value and real ideas.

With a storm of this magnitude approaching – and honestly, some sober and sane people around me who've been doing this for decades, and whose judgment I respect, are saying it's the worst they've ever seen – there's a real temptation to just lower your head, do what needs to be done, and be as unprovocative as possible in the interim. Given the way that some people react when given scary news, the temptation to keep them in the dark until the last possible moment is real.

But I can't help but believe that it's better to be as open as we can be. The catch, as I learned in the last go-round, is that 'as open as we can be' doesn't tell people what they actually want to know, until it suddenly and cruelly does.

Wise and worldly readers, I need any wisdom I can get. Have you seen layoffs handled with relative class? If so, how? Respond publicly, if you can, or privately to deandad (at) gmail (dot) com, if you'd rather not be public. There's a lot riding on this in the next few months, and not only here.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

 

Some Thoughts on the AFT Report

The American Federation of Teachers has released a report (here) complete with an interactive excel tool designed to both motivate colleges to convert more adjuncts to full-time status and to pay adjuncts on a pro-rata basis. The spreadsheet allows you, in theory, to plug in the numbers from your own college to see what it would cost to hit a targeted full-time/adjunct ratio.

It's a surreal read. Check it out. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes.

Honestly, I'm the writer's equivalent of speechless. The report is so bad that it circles around and becomes a sort of unintentional black comedy. If this report reflects the state of union thinking about the adjunct trend, I'd bet the mortgage that the trend will continue. “Provincial” doesn't even begin to capture it. I'd be insulted if I weren't so flabbergasted.

Just for fun, take a gander at page 21 of the report, in which it presents numbers for what it calls Sample State University. It blandly reports that SSU will have to spend an extra 64 million dollars per year to achieve parity at a 75/25 ratio. 64 million per year! For no new output! I don't even know what to say to that. There's 'rent-seeking,' and then there's self-parody. From whence that extra 64 million will come is left unspecified. Just for the sake of comparison, 64 million is about 1 ½ times my cc's entire annual budget. So you'd be talking about the funding equivalent of opening multiple new campuses across the state, for no more student seats. A rational taxpayer would want to do that because...?

The authors of the report are apparently unaware that all colleges of any size have comptrollers and accountants and fiscal people who are entirely capable of calculating these costs. That's precisely why the adjunct trend is so tenacious. We know exactly what reversing the trend would cost, and we don't have that kind of money lying around.

The report doesn't really bother to explain why adjusting ratios or bringing 'parity' in pay would be worthwhile expenditures, which suggests that it isn't actually written to persuade. To persuade, it would have to quantify the benefits of paying an extra 64 million for the exact same output, and to compare the benefits from that use of 64 million to the benefits of other uses for it, like, say, opening entire new campuses with new employees and lots of new student seats. Or technology incubators, or enhanced basic research, or tax cuts, or infrastructure repair, or (insert your favorite goody here). The outcome of that comparison isn't hard to predict, which probably explains its absence.

Persuasion would also have to include some sort of explanation as to why existing full-time salaries are taken as the unquestioned standard. Mathematically, parity could result from paying both full-timers and adjuncts the per-course average of what the two groups get now. In other words, instead of full-timers making 6k per course and adjuncts 2k, everybody makes 4k. Cluster the salaries around some sort of market-clearing midpoint and see what happens. Hint: it doesn't involve an extra 64 million.

The report doesn't make any serious attempt to address the outside-of-class tasks for which full-timers are paid. Even at the cc level, where we really don't sponsor research in any serious way, we do require full-time faculty to advise students, to put in office hours, and to do various sorts of college service. Adjuncts aren't required to do any of those. To look at the full-timers' pay as if teaching comprised their entire jobs is simply to get it wrong.

This point is more delicate, but if we're putting it out there, let's put it out there. The average adjunct is not as qualified as the average new full-timer. (I'm not addressing the folks hired back in the 60's, when the market was entirely different.) And I'm not just talking about them receiving less institutional support, though that's certainly true. Full-timers are recruited nationally, and vetted by search committees, deans, and vice presidents. It's not unusual to get hundreds of applications for a single position, even at the cc level. When we hire someone to the tenure track, we've chosen the best of hundreds. Adjuncts are hired locally, ensuring a far smaller pool. They're often chosen based on their availability for a given time slot. Yes, some of them are excellent instructors. Yes, sometimes we luck out and find really good people whose life circumstances steer them to us. (That was me, back in the mid-90's.) But the idea that, on average, the best of hundreds aren't any better than the best who live within a thirty minute drive and are available on Tuesdays at 12:30 just doesn't pass the sniff test.

If you want parity of pay, establish parity of qualifications and parity of vetting. Otherwise, you're paying the same and getting less.

In reading the report, I keep circling back to the question of 'intended audience.' Who, exactly, is it written for? It's obviously not written for academic administrators – that is, those of us who actually make the budgeting decisions. We know what '64 million' actually means. It's not written for adjuncts, who know perfectly well that their pay sucks. It's not written for the public, since the public would want to know – fairly enough – just where all that new money would come from (hint: the public), and what benefits it would get for all that money. I don't even think it's written for full-time faculty, since many of them understand intuitively that leveling can work down as well as up. (The faculty union at Rutgers recognized this last year and actually accepted a smaller raise for its members in order to fund more new tenure-track positions. If a union is serious about helping, it should look to the Rutgers example.)

As near as I can figure, the report is written for the union itself. It's preaching to the choir, rallying the troops, waving the bloody shirt. It's written to the already-convinced, who, after all, don't need to be persuaded. The excel tool is a cute add-on to try to distract from the narcissism by doing something that looks all business-y and reasonable. Until you actually crunch the numbers.

But if the union itself were the issue, the trend would have evaporated decades ago.

The issue is both simpler and far more complicated. On a simple level, it's about public funding. At my cc, the operating budget for next year is currently projected to be 10 percent lower than two years ago, even before adjusting for inflation. (If you adjust, the cut is even worse.) 80 percent of the budget is labor. (Another 7 is utilities.) In this context, the AFT suggests massive increases in labor costs? Frankly, we'll be lucky to avoid layoffs.

The more complicated cause is the relative difficulty of increasing 'productivity' when the 'product' itself is measured in time. Other than increasing tuition, increasing class size, or decreasing pay, how do you improve the economic 'productivity' of someone teaching 45 hours a semester? When most of the rest of the economy realizes productivity gains every single year and we don't realize any for decades, a funding crunch is utterly predictable. Unless we get away from the 'seat time' model, we'll be stuck in a work-speedup/cost-runup cycle until we simply break the market. Which we're perilously close to doing now.

As regular readers know, I've been an adjunct, and I've fought tooth-and-nail where I've worked to increase the ranks of full-time faculty. I've advised prospective graduate students to dodge grad school altogether, the better to avoid feeding the system, and I haven't been shy about pushing public policies (single-payer health care, progressive taxation, no more wars of choice, etc.) that would free up resources for higher ed. In other words, I'm not the enemy. But I can't find a single praiseworthy element to this report. It's a mockery, and a shame.

I'm happy to join any campaign to rethink higher ed in constructive ways, the better to regain public support for it. But this report fails on every level. It takes the unsustainable as given, the dubious as obvious, and the reader as an idiot. I don't often advise unions, but my free advice for the AFT is to stop preaching to the choir and start listening to the public.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: When the President is Tone-Deaf...

A regular correspondent writes:

Out here in California, my CC is in the same budget mess as everyone else.  But our Governing Board just gave a [dramatic] raise to our college president.  He doesn't deserve it.  Trust me on that part.

All this makes my job as union president about 1000 times easier, but I'm wondering what a good, solid, competent administrator would do in a similar situation.  Of course, I'm assuming that you want to keep your job.

This is, however, the most insensitive, politically inastute, boneheaded move that I've seen in 35 years of teaching at the same place.

So what can good administrators with mortgages and bills to pay do when the top dog puts them in an impossible position?



One of my many gripes with most of the management literature that I've seen is that it assumes that its readers are top dogs. Most managers aren't. It's relatively easy to say what the President in should have done in this case. Saying what the Vice Presidents, Deans, and suchlike should do is much harder.

To the extent it's possible to prevent this kind of maneuver by 'managing up,' by all means, do that. But outsiders often overestimate the degree to which that's possible.

Having found myself in this kind of position more than once – okay, more than I care to admit – I've only found a few strategies, none of them great. Wise and worldly readers with better ideas are invited to share them.

In administration, 'autonomy' is remarkably rare. The more visible your position, the less room for movement you have. In my first few months in administration, I learned the hard way that the kinds of comments I could make with impunity in my faculty role were out of bounds here. The reason for that, paradoxically enough, is the presumption (often mostly unfounded) of some sort of power. An offhand comment will be read as a clue to a subterranean agenda, often in ways that never would have occurred to you. If you've lived through the real-life version of the 'telephone' game a few times, you start to think much more carefully about what you say. With the appearance of power comes a real loss of freedom.

That isn't so bad most of the time. But occasionally someone above you makes your life measurably more difficult by doing something astonishingly tone-deaf. And people will watch your reactions and judge you by them.

The trick here is in simultaneously fulfilling the obligations of your role in the institution and still remaining true to yourself. Sometimes that's possible, and sometimes it just isn't.

The savvier managers often have a sort of ironic half-smile that they'll trot out from time to time, often accompanying phrases like “is that so?” or “lucky you.” Coupling something like that with a well-played silence can convey a certain distance without actually saying anything that could be quoted against you later.

(A few years ago I attended the retirement roast for a professor who lived to make the administration's life hell, and was well-known for it. Everyone above me in the food chain skipped, so it fell to me to give the administration's sendoff. The room was full of people who loved him – I'll call him Lucifer – and the occasion was festive. When it came my turn to speak, I was acutely aware that anything I said would be used later, and I didn't want to be the skunk at the garden party, but I also didn't want to lie. So my speech consisted of “On behalf of the administration, what can I say about Lucifer?” (pause) (longer pause) (really long pause) (look into middle distance) (excruciatingly long pause) “I got nothin'.” The place erupted, and one of Lucifer's friends commented later that I managed to both honor the occasion and stay true to myself.)

What you simply can't do, unless you're willing to resign on the spot, is openly and publicly call out the President, or otherwise put public daylight between him and you. If that happens, your effectiveness in the rest of your job will be fatally compromised for the brief time you still have your job.

In some cases, it's possible to try to perfume the pig by offering extenuating context or some other interpretive frame. I've found, though, that even when these arguments have some merit, they usually just come off as defensive. It's usually better to acknowledge that the issue exists, and then simply move on. Change the subject to something constructive, and make a mental note never to do anything that stupid yourself. Trust that over time, if you treat people respectfully and fairly, they'll eventually learn to distinguish you from the blowhard to whom you report. If these keep happening, and if almost nobody can make the distinction, apply for other jobs.

Wise and worldly readers – have you found good approaches for managing in the middle when the top dog does something idiotic?

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

 

The Dean's Court

TB and I played basketball on the driveway/court this past weekend. He's involved in a local kids' instructional league, where they do a lot of drills and a few scrimmages, and he loves it. Although he didn't have practice this weekend, we had some relatively decent weather, so I decided that shooting some hoops with him myself would be a good idea.

Normally, it's fine. We just take shots from wherever, running only when we have to go after the ball as it heads towards the road. Not a problem.

This time, I made a decision and forgot a key fact. I decided that I should play a little defense, to help him get accustomed to taking shots on the run and from awkward angles. And I forgot that I'm forty.

A brief excerpt of the conversation between my brain and my knee, as I played defense:

Brain: Left!

Knee: Left!

Brain: Right!

Knee: Right!

Brain: Left!

Knee: Fuck You!

Apparently, at a certain age, the knees decide that There Will Be No More Quick Cutting. And they make the decision abruptly, and without warning.

I didn't want to upset TB, so I changed my plan to what I like to think of as a narrow zone defense, which consisted of me standing with a Buddha-like stillness under the basket and catching occasional air balls. He didn't seem to mind or even notice, even as I occasionally swung my one leg out, ramrod-straight, pivoting on the other when I wanted to turn. I moved like a Buckingham Palace guard, except that I replaced “quiet dignity” with “suppressed whimpering.” That, and some free throws.

Luckily, my long-term nerdiness has kept my knees' exposure to this sort of thing fairly minimal over the years, so I was reasonably functional by the end of the day. I like to think that this is why we nerds age better than most. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

And The Boy will have to settle for playing against a narrow zone defense.

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