Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Why I Don't Envy Colleagues at Four-Year Colleges

I'm beginning to think that anytime I'm stuck for an idea, I should just read Tim Burke. This piece on “Building the Teaching University” – to which I'm inexcusably late – is well worth reading if you haven't already. And it encapsulates nicely why I'm happy to stay in the community college sector.

Burke does a thought exercise, imagining how an ambitious President of a regional college or university who wants to make a mark might go beyond the usual semi-successful mission creep and winding up a “third-order imitation of the University of Michigan.” The exercise runs aground quickly, and that's not a criticism of Burke; I think he has it right. For a public college or university that doesn't stand out in any particular way, the path towards gaining notice involves specialization. If you want to specialize in research and try to claw your way into the relatively lucrative top tier, that path is well-worn (if consequently slippery). If you want to stand out for teaching, the path is much more difficult to discern. External evidence of strong teaching isn't as easy to find as external evidence of strong research, and the revenue payoff is, shall we say, elusive.

From a community college admin's perspective, I can say confidently that we place a great deal of weight on teaching ability when we hire, and have done so for years, and we still haven't cracked the code entirely. It's harder than you might imagine, even assuming the best of intentions on all sides. Judging one teacher “better” than another involves having a clear sense of what good teaching looks like, and there are plenty of schools of thought on that. I've seen brilliant lecturers who believe with all conviction that that's what good teaching is: they present, clearly and engagingly, and the students get it or not. I've seen teachers who refuse on principle to teach other than in a circle. I've seen some who think it's all about group work, and some who consider group work little more than legalized shirking.
Some who aren't that great in the classroom do great online, and vice versa.

There's also the matter of context, by which I mean students. Anybody who has taught in multiple settings can tell you that what works in one college may not work in another. At Flagship State, my students were acutely grade-conscious, so I learned to pay a great deal of attention to incentives. At Proprietary U, the students were jumpy, angry, and skeptical; my job was to calm them down and to get them to risk trust. When I taught my first class at the cc, by contrast, the students struck me as inexplicably docile. They showed up on time, took notes, and more or less did what they were told. My job was to get them past memorization to something like critical thought. Instead of coming to class prepared to shadow-box, I had to come to class prepared to wake them up.

The common denominator, I think, is a focus on students. Community colleges are capable of that, and in their better moments actually achieve it. That's what I like about this sector; I understand the mission. Research universities exist to produce breakthroughs, and they pay the bills with adjuncts and football; I get that. Elite SLACs sell exclusivity and high standards; I get that, too. Schools with specific religious niches or curricular foci justify their existences by their differences from everyone else. Community colleges exist to provide the basics for either transfer or work. But the 'comprehensive' midtier public college that tries to be a little of everything strikes me as doomed. I can't help but wonder if some of the animus directed at administrators in the four-year colleges derives from their personification of what's really a very confused mission. You have an opportunity to hire one of the world's leading specialists in nuclear basketweaving; she's brilliant, well-published, and utterly incomprehensible. Do you hire her? At Flagship U, yes. At a cc, no. (So much for 'meritocracy'!) At a midtier school trying to raise its profile? Uh, maybe...

As barriers to entry keep coming down in all areas of life, I just don't see the “all things to all people” model as sustainable. When people have so many options, the way to stand out is to pick a particular niche and do that really well. To my mind, for a cc that would involve pouring what resources we do have into a few fundamentals, rather than growing by constantly multiplying small programs. Get damn good at remediation, general education courses, and a couple of job programs, and leave it at that. (Alternately, 'technical community colleges' might put job programs first.) We don't do high-level athletics, or dorms, or climbing walls, or specialized research, and I'm okay with that; I'd rather do a few things well than a whole bunch badly.

I've had conversations with friends who've asked me when I plan to make the jump to the four-year sector. My response is 'never,' which sometimes takes them aback. There's a clarity of purpose here that I find really appealing. My hat is off to anyone who figures out how to do the 'comprehensive four-year midtier public college' thing well, other than just clawing its way up the food chain and becoming either the third-order imitation or the de facto state honors college. My guess is that the basic structure is flawed, and starting to come undone. Subtler minds than my own have come to grief trying to crack that nut. No, thanks. When 'confusion' is the central organizing principle, I'm not interested. Doing a clear mission well is hard enough.

"But the 'comprehensive' midtier public college that tries to be a little of everything strikes me as doomed."

Hmmm. Except I'd imagine that this is where many, if not most, of the students from your CC transfer. So if that model is doomed, that seems like a problem for your CC - and for the public in general.

While I agree with you about regional comprehensives that try to crawl into the realm of research universities, never quite succeeding, I don't work at one that is trying to do that, or that I anticipate will try to do that. The emphasis here is on service and regional stewardship. Research and teaching are part of that broader mission, the kinds of research that "count" are broader (scholarship related to teaching/service is rewarded), and we do offer students personal attention (much like a cc) but also greater opportunities for guided collaborative research projects, community outreach, etc. (that a cc wouldn't typically in my experience be able to sustain).

It strikes me that maybe the experts on what regional comprehensive universities are all about may not be a dean at a community college and a professor at an elite slac. Just saying.
You're clearly well-adapted to your job, but even though you do a great job describing what your CC does, I still think it's not always obvious from the outside.
Remediation, job training, non-credit community resource programs, liberal arts transfer programs, even career-oriented programs that still need to transfer... that's would seem to offer a lot of potential for mission creep.
If you're right, and good teaching arises from attention to students (which seems dead-on to me), then wouldn't it stand to reason that good administrating at any given school arises from attention to that schools stakeholders? I don't know that the stakeholders are intrinsically more difficult to identify in mid-tier colleges, if you've spent several years working at them.
I agree with DD that this is an issue. My own employer is guilty of trying to do exactly what he decries (self-promote to R1) Still:

1) Are you so sure the "3rd Tier U of Michigan" isn't a differentiated niche of it's own? What if there are students who want a "college experience" but don't need the intense atmosphere of a residential SLAC, cutting edge reseach of a R1, or focus of a technical school. Maybe they're not brilliant, and quite sure what they want to do just yet, so they're looking for a place they can shop around a little, watch some football, and come out with a decent education. IMHO, that describes most of my advisees.

2) One of Burke's commenters (and Dr. Crazy) reminds us that regional universities serve their region. We academics commit to going to whatever school will take us (by and large), but I've come to appreciate that most of my students aren't willing to do that. Given how close their ties are to home (students calling their mom between classes? What's up with that?!), it may be appropriate for them to have a variety of options at an institution close to home.

3) What's wrong with research expectations? I think I've said this before here, but I like mixing teaching and research--and I know my research makes my teaching better. I know that my younger colleagues feel the same. On the other hand, we don't have to sweat the journal impact ratings that assistants at big R1s do. I guess I'm kind of like Goldilocks--not too much teaching, not too much research, just right.

Considering the consistent rise in applicant numbers we've seen for more than a decade, I'm not ready to condemn my school to the dustbin of history just yet.
I have an ethical concern with a certain kind of private SLAC.. the one that puts on the 'student-centered' face when recruiting and the 'research aspirations' face when hiring.

The result is students paying $30,00/year so that mediocre researchers can research instead of teaching. They tend to hire people with research potential -- and, if that potential is realized they go elsewhere.... while deciding that excellent teachers are "just good teachers".
This is another post written from the blinkered perspective of someone who has seemingly never left the northeast. I suppose if you're in New York State or Massachusetts, some of the lower-profile branches of SUNY or UMass might seem extraneous. But the state of Wyoming, for example, has only one four-year university to service an area nearly twice the size of New York, and it had damned well better offer teacher training, and agriculture, and engineering, and anything else you can imagine. Out here in the provinces, our midtier public comprehensives, even the ones with research ambitions, play a very coherent role in our communities. And most of us have no designs to become the next Michigan...
Great article, DD.

Interesting choice, Michigan, in Shane's example.

Michigan has an outstanding set of mid-tier comprehensives (its directional state universities), one of which (Western) has pursued mission creep from its start as a Normal school (exclusively teacher prep) to a major university with a graduate research program in many key areas, such as engineering. Those universities are, of course, suffering as they try to pull the state out of its dependence on auto manufacturing while dealing with budget cuts.

When Michigan comes back, it will be because of education. What DD is writing about is the key question of which tier (CC, mid, R1) is more important in that process. Are the auto companies where they are today because of the University of Michigan, or despite it? There is an "outcomes" study worthy of a look by IHE! I've always judged a state's engineering schools by their highways and bridges, since highway departments tend to hire in state. Where did GM, Ford, and Chrysler execs get their degrees?

Ditto for a study that looks at various state models. Should you aspire to look like California? New York? Florida? Tennessee? Ohio? Michigan? Good question. No obviously good answer.
I get that you favor specialization but one of the key problems with that is that you are incredibly vulnerable to changes in whatever you specialize in - and colleges are not institutions that change well. Right now, my college is surviving because we have lots of different ways of getting money. You also assume a geographic flexibility that does not exist for most of our students.

My institution serves the needs of the local students and needs to be comprehensive as we have a multitude of needs that are met only on this campus. Our R1 schools don't train nurses, don't train teachers and for the most part are supported by research dollars - adjuncts and football are not a major funding source - research is 80% of the funding of most R1 schools in my state. R1s are largely unresponsive to local industry needs and don't even have business majors (because that's too applied). It's a bit nuts.

Teaching gets the short end of the stick because of academic culture more than anything else. Ironically, we've had more grant money come in in my department from teaching oriented grants than from research but there is still this weird attitude that research is the way we can fix all of our financial problems. And of course research is what is rewarded in the tenure process - though teaching takes the majority of our time.

I think that socialization in grad school to the values of an R1 are part of the problem we have in recognizing our own worth - and the desire of our administration for the "easy money" that comes with research doesn't help. I do believe that if we don't maintain our diversity, getting money from research, teaching and industry partners that we will not survive. Yes, it makes things harder for our administrators - but you have to be comfortable with that at this type of college - you won't serve your students or community well with a narrow vision.
I work at the kind of institution you describe as potentially "doomed," and I too don't buy the entire analysis. I am also in a western state, where there are far fewer institutions of higher ed, so we do indeed serve a regional need - especially for those students are like or are committed to the West. We were the state's normal school, and we still fulfill that function. Finally, at least for the humanities and social sciences, I mourn the splitting apart of teaching and research, and believe that they can indeed be held together. In fact, I don't see much purpose to the vast quantities of humanities and social science research, except insofar as it keeps teachers engaged and learning.
I definitely agree that there's a regional bias there -- monopoly cures a lot of ills. One can be only okay at a lot of things, but if you're the only one doing them, it's important that you're there.
To put it another way, I think DD would be blown away at what a gas station store looks like in a rural western area.
I'm going to think the Burke post, and your reaction through.

For now, though, with the Wall Street Journal once running a story about upscale students, including one who viewed Michigan as a safety school (he ultimately enrolled there), and with the waiting lists for the land-grants and the private R1s, I'm not so sure that the mid-majors are wrong to want to be more like Michigan (as it once was) or the other R1s. That's where the excess demand is.
Very insightful post.
Just discovered your blog; greatly enjoying it.

I'm writing my first Teaching Statement and appreciate the insights here, particularly the part about tailoring teaching to the situation and the institution.

What's DeFacto State's mascot, by the way...? Is Proprietary U. anywhere near Anonymous College...?
Hey, DD, make that an "open thread": mascots for Defacto State.

I'll offer "The Snarky Beagles".
The De Facto State Realists.

Maybe it should be Surrealists...?
I agree completely with what you've written. My alma mater (a middling, over-priced private college) just decided that it's "University" status time. They may not have any money (i.e. it's tied up in the Common Fund debacle), but it's time for an expensive logo, some new signage, a school of pharmacy (random, I know), and new VPs for institutional something-or-other.

I'm all for ambition, but the only justification is that every other "peer institution" is becoming a university. A lot of us alums will miss the small-college feel that we got from the old name. But now is the age of the comprehensive, where the school must educate in everything -- commuters, residents, adults, non-traditionals, vets, foreign students, corporate clients, etc. After awhile the mission gets lost.

CCs should consider themselves blessed that they can only grant the A.A. or A.S. My school has gone from granting the B.A., B.S., and J.D. to adding masters and PhD programs in experimental fields. Behavior Analysis? Is that even a real field? Doesn't it involve zapping autistic kids who act up? Geez, does a small college need to do EVERYTHING?

I like your philosophy. Do one thing. Do it well.
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I like your philosophy. Do one thing. Do it well.
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