Tuesday, March 31, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: ERP!

A new correspondent writes:

I am currently on the administrative market.  I've had one interview, and this topic did not come up, but listed in the job description of my second interview is "Knowledge of and ability to use current administrative and educational technologies."  Is there any general consensus of what this means? The educational technologies, I think I probably understand more than administrative.  Would you assume they are looking for particular software knowledge?  If so what are the most common administrative software applications?


I'd guess that 'educational technologies' refers to learning management systems (WebCT, Sakai, etc), and to some of the trappings of the modern classroom (PowerPoint, clickers, podcasts, etc). Depending on how progressive the place is, it could also refer to some of the support programs that often accompany distance learning, like lockdown browsers, online quiz apps, and the like. In a given program, it could also refer to program-specific technologies.

'Administrative technologies' sounds vaguely Foucauldian, though in practice, it's probably somewhat less sinister than that. The most common uses of that term, in my experience, are in reference to either budgeting software or the ERP system. (ERP alternately stands for 'enterprise resource planning,' or the sound you make when you try to get it to work.) The ERP system is the central nervous system of the college. (Datatel and Banner are the two I've seen most often, though there are others.) It handles course scheduling, student registration, student grades, graduation audits (automated checks of student records against archived curricula, to show you what remaining courses a student needs to graduate), room assignments, and in some cases, purchase requisitions. These systems are deadly boring, but incredibly important. When they screw up, it's a very big deal.

(When I was there, Proprietary U had a legacy ERP of its own design, which it has since replaced. It was awful, and some of us believe to this day that it was haunted. One semester it automatically generated dismissal notices to every graduating senior the day after graduation. The phone calls could be described as 'irate' and 'legion.')

Knowing how to make an ERP do handstands can make you a very valuable commodity, depending on the level of position you hold. Most Institutional Research reports are run through the ERP, so seemingly banal decisions like “how to code the cohort of students in this option of that major” have ripple effects years later. Knowing how to pull the relevant numbers from the ERP for a given query, without inadvertently distorting the results, requires a tricky mix of art and science. I've known people (hi!) who know which questions to ask, but who don't have the first clue how to make the system generate an answer. And I've known people who can make the system sing, but who don't have enough of a grasp of the academic context to know how to phrase a query; these folks can generate mountains of completely meaningless data without even knowing they're doing it.

ERPs and FERPA don't mix. (I am soooo much fun at parties...) FERPA dictates which bits of student information are available to which kind of employee. ERPs were designed by software engineers. In practice, that means that, say, the one piece of information that a professor needs to advise a student properly is often trapped on a screen with other information to which the professor is not entitled access. Clunky workarounds ensue. Local IT departments are loathe to custom-program, since that quickly leads down the primrose path of endless patching. I've been trapped in multiple-hour meetings during which lots of intense people with very partial information debate third-level workarounds for parsing access according to what amount to clearances. Life is much too short for such things.

Depending on the job for which you're applying, the degree to which you'll need to be an ERP jockey can vary widely. I'm guessing that if they bothered to specify it, they're expecting something. Each system has its quirks, but if you can navigate your way around one, you can learn another. To the extent that you can demonstrate that you're not a technophobe, and that you're capable of working with a system sufficiently to get what you need, you'll probably be okay.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any good ERP stories out there?

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: Internships

A new correspondent writes:

Recently I've noticed an increase of reports in the popular press
proclaiming an "internship arms race" among graduating seniors in four
year colleges. "Internships," according to these reports, are becoming
a critical way to get a leg up on the competition in landing a job,
especially now with the economic crisis.  This got me to thinking if
this scenario is playing out the same or differently at the two-year
colleges.

I recognize that a lot of vocational and technical programs at two
years probably have well-structured pathways to employment through
apprenticeships, etc., but what about those fields who don't, like
say, business or communications, etc?  Is there a growing demand on
career placement offices and administrators to recruit employers for
internships?  Do career placement offices at two-years even focus on
things like internships, given that, theoretically at least, their
students will be either getting a vocational degree or headed off to a
four-year? I'd be very curious as to any insights you have on how the
role of career placement in this regard is the same or different at
two years?


I'll start with the obligatory “your mileage may vary,” since that's particularly true here. Depending on the focus of the individual cc and the vagaries of local economies, a perfectly true portrait of my college may ring absurdly false at another.

That said, I've picked up a few basic points about internships, co-ops, and the like at community colleges over the last few years.

First, they rarely transfer. We have some programs that are both 'career' and 'transfer,' in the sense that they're occupationally specific but require a four-year degree to get terribly far. (Engineering and Early Childhood Education leap to mind, but there are plenty more.) In those programs, there's a perfectly valid educational reason to have an internship or co-op experience at the cc level, but the four-year receiving schools don't give credit for them. They like to keep control of the experiential part of their program, so they take our classroom credits in transfer but reject our internship credits. Some students still go ahead and do them anyway, out of a correct sense that real-world experience is a great way to figure out if a particular field is really for them. (It was a summer internship that taught me that I really didn't want to be a lawyer. Better to figure that out at 20 than at 25 or 30.) But they do so at their own risk.

Second, unpaid internships are simply not realistic for many cc students. (Locally, we refer to paid internships as co-ops, and unpaid ones as internships. Not everybody does it that way, but it has the virtue of relative clarity.) For students who need to work thirty paid hours a week just to get through, the prospect of another 15 to 30 unpaid just doesn't compute. Annoyingly, the ability to work unpaid counts as a credential, allowing those with the most advantages to garner even more.

Locally, although we do a pretty good job with the economy we have, there's been a bifurcation in the labor market: most jobs require either a whole lot of education, or virtually none. The 'skilled manufacturing'/high-trade/high-blue-collar stuff – the stuff for which cc level internships make the most sense – is largely evaporating. (Interestingly, these are also the jobs that critics of the 'education bubble' usually cite as alternatives to college. 1950 is gone, and it isn't coming back. For verification, check the stats on the gender breakdown of job losses in the current recession.) The 'workforce development' people tell me that some of the companies we used to have great relationships with have either gone abroad or gone under, and some of the ones that are still here are much smaller than they once were. And the professional level employers have their hands full dealing with college juniors and seniors.

I've heard anecdotally of some employers trying to use unpaid internships to avoid actual hiring. There's an obvious short-term logic to that, but constant turnover carries real costs of its own. When a non-trivial part of your workforce is always in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve, the effects on productivity aren't hard to predict.

I've mentioned before that the distinction between 'career' and 'transfer' programs is becoming harder to sustain. This is becoming obvious in the internship area, since if you need a four-year degree (or more) to be taken seriously, it's not clear why you'd need an internship in your sophomore year. That said, I'm very sympathetic to the idea that some sort of early exposure to the world of professional work can do a world of good; it's just not yet clear what form that exposure can take. The old idea of shadowing a skilled tradesman for no pay just doesn't get the job done the way it once did.

Wise and worldly readers – what are your thoughts on the evolution of internships? I suspect that local conditions are strongly determinative here, but getting a sense of how things are done elsewhere might spark some useful experiments.

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

Friday, March 27, 2009

 

Insanely Proud of Both

Last night, after dinner, as The Wife, The Boy, The Girl, and I chat in the family room:

TW: You know, TB told me that the girls fight over him at recess.

DD: Really?

TB (smiling): Yeah.

(pause)

TG (puzzled): Why?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

 

Stopouts

In discussion with some colleagues from other colleges, I realized recently that different colleges handle 'stopouts' very differently. 'Stopouts' are students who interrupt their degree path, and then return.

From a curricular standpoint, brief stopouts during which curricula don't change are no big deal. Someone takes a semester or a year off, then picks up where she left off. We can handle that.

But sometimes curricula change. And when they do, there's a decision to be made: which set of rules apply to the newly-returned student? Should she be subject to the original rules, the new rules, or a hybrid?

Apparently, all three of these approaches exist.

The advantage of the 'original rules still apply' approach is that the student is already on track. She doesn't lose any previous credits. When stopouts are brief and changes relatively minor, this can be the most reasonable approach.

The downsides, though, are several. First, and most obviously, it requires the college to run multiple versions of the same program simultaneously. That usually means eating some small sections, and even those don't capture everybody. (That's especially true as the stopouts get longer. A year-old program may still have critical mass. A five-year-old program almost certainly doesn't.)

With longer stopouts in certain programs, there can also be an issue of dated-ness. In fields where the material changes quickly, I'm not sure I'd want to mint fresh grads based on old coursework.

Finally, if a curriculum changes relatively frequently, you can actually get into situations in which you'd have to run three or more different versions of a program at the same time. I've lived through this. Administratively, it's a honkin' nightmare.

The 'new rules' approach gets around the problem of running multiple versions simultaneously, but it raises issues of compatibility. Depending on how far along the student was, you may wind up with too few or too many credits in some categories, with incompatible prerequisites, and/or with a whole pile of 'course substitution' forms that make a mockery of both curricula.

The hybrid approach is often what actually happens, even though it's the least defensible theoretically (since it reflects a curriculum that nobody actually approved as such). It involves an individual chair or dean cobbling together a patchwork of the old and the new, working with whatever is at hand at the time. It's remarkably difficult to defend in the abstract, but on the ground, it's often the only reasonable way to actually get a student through.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen (or had) weird issues with stopping out? Is there an elegant way to handle them?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

 

Following Someone Nice

I'm increasingly convinced that one of the most common flaws of so many administrators is a misguided urge to be nice.

This often manifests itself in some long-undiagnosed but longstanding performance issues hitting a crisis level, but with a paper trail of relatively positive evaluations. The managers explain the positive evaluations with variations on “I didn't want to upset them.”

Grumble.

Yes, some performance issues are abrupt, and can properly be treated as such. But most of them are cumulative, so that any single instance may seem trivial. Lateness is like that. A single instance can (and does) happen to everybody once in a while, often for reasons for which they couldn't reasonably be held to account. When those happen to people with strong records, the occasions are properly understood as aberrant. But some people make lateness a way of life, forcing their coworkers to pick up their slack in their absence.

The problem is that, in an effort to be nice, some managers just look the other way long enough that the employee starts to think that nothing is wrong. Then when a straw comes along that breaks the camel's back, the employee screams that suddenly being held to account is arbitrary. Worse, there's a sense in which the employee is right. The law works on 'precedent,' which assumes that if hundreds of previous straws did no harm, then another one won't, either. That's a flaw in the law, but it is what it is.

It's especially bad when you're a new manager working with a longstanding employee whose previous manager wimped out on evaluations. Now you're trapped by somebody else's failures, and attempting to fix the problem will be held against you. Establishing an actionable paper trail in the wake of a previous manager's failures can take inordinately long, when it's possible at all. In the meantime, if you try to do the right thing, declining performance will almost certainly be accompanied by bad attitude and internal politicking. Whether it's worth the headache is often a very real question. But if you decide it isn't, be prepared to be challenged by other low performers you actually do address.

To my mind, 'niceness' is a much lower-order good than fairness. Fairness dictates keeping in mind the damage done to everybody else, and to the mission of the place, by the low performer.

Although we're paid far less than our counterparts in private industry, managers in higher ed have a much tougher personnel challenge. It's easy to maintain high standards when you have an at-will system. But when you have tenure and/or unions in place, weeding out the worst takes far more time, money, and effort, and the probability of failing anyway is dauntingly high. Any move you make will be challenged procedurally, the union will grieve you, and you will be charged with discrimination against whatever protected class the employee can claim. If the low performer is well-connected on campus, expect a popular movement to arise in opposition, and your actions to be taken as part and parcel of a much larger and more sinister agenda. And because the issues at hand deal with personnel, you won't be at liberty to rebut any of it in public. This can go on for years.

This is the stuff they don't tell you when you take that first administrative gig. Each newbie has to learn it for herself. Far too many deal with it by avoiding it entirely, and simply looking the other way when people fall short. That makes the job that much harder for the rest of us.

Yes, good communication can help. Yes, frequent feedback is a good thing. But those both take time, and both will quickly be challenged by an entrenched employee with street savvy. In some cases, they will even be challenged as violations of past practice. When the past practice in question isn't your own, that's particularly galling, but there it is.

It's great when managers are smart, and well-read, and cordial, and safely funny. But I'm increasingly convinced that most of it boils down to temperament. You need to be likable, but you can't need to be liked. If you need to be liked, you won't do it right. If you can't handle confrontation (or, to be fair, if you're a confrontation junkie), you won't do it right. If you're doing it right, some people won't like you. It's a harsh truth, but a truth. Nice is nice, but fair is fair.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

 

The One With Nudity

I use the gym on campus, since it's cheap and convenient to work. It's nicer than some private health clubs I've seen locally, and it seems like a nice 'campus loyalty' thing to do.

All of which is fine, but...

Well,

It's hard to be appropriately deanly after showering, standing in the locker room in the altogether drying off, when faculty colleagues walk in. “Hi, DD!” Uh, hi...

I'm not one of those guys who makes a point of just shooting the breeze while feeling the breeze. (I once belonged, briefly, to a gym habituated by some men who thought there was nothing better than hanging out in the locker room and discoursing earnestly on matters various and sundry while airing it all out. By contrast, I belong to the “dude, seriously...” school.) My economy of motion in getting from 'exposed' to 'not exposed' is almost Taylorist. And I don't care so much about being seen, say, tying a tie. But there's still an interval when there's just no getting around the fact of not really wanting to be seen.

Some of my admin colleagues have mentioned not using the campus gym for precisely that reason. They think it's tough to maintain an appropriate distance after being seen in all their glory. Admittedly, there's something to be said for that.

But that would be admitting defeat. And when you're supporting four people on a single community college salary, the prospect of paying for a private gym membership out of nothing more than modesty just seems a little tough to justify.

Wise and worldly readers – have you found a tolerable way to handle the post-shower dash at the campus gym?

Monday, March 23, 2009

 

Dodging Bullets and Crying Wolf

I'll admit that this can be filed under 'good' problems. That said, it's still a problem.

Between extraordinarily good work by our budget people, a few lucky breaks, and the likely support from the stimulus package, it looks like we might actually get through this year without any layoffs.

First, hooray!

Then, there's the issue of expectations and credibility.

Taking transparency seriously, we've done quite a bit of communication with the campus at large. Nobody out there could credibly claim to be surprised if layoffs ensued. We've eliminated some vacant positions and postponed filling others, even going so far as to reorganize certain areas to take advantage of some vacant administrative positions. (Yes, contrary to stereotype, we're streamlining administration rather than cutting faculty. Still some people object. Ya gotta wonder...)

All of those savings are part of what may make layoffs unnecessary. (I say 'may,' because there are still plenty of unknowns.)

My concern now is that it will be easy for people to interpret 'scarily near miss' as alarmism, and to discount future expressions of concern as crying wolf. If all these months of communication wound up being largely irrelevant on the ground, then why engage in more? Annoyingly enough, our success in dodging the bullet could actually lead to future credibility crises. If “this too shall pass” gets confirmed in practice, then it will be that much harder to get future warnings taken seriously.

I don't mean for this to sound whiny; again, it's a better problem that what I had been expecting to face at this point. I'd rather inadvertently confirm complacency than throw people out of work.

The communication hasn't just been “abandon hope, ye who work here.” It's been pretty specific about numbers, including specifying which ones are relatively predictable and which are effectively unknowable in advance. The idea has been to treat everybody like adults, on the theory that most will reciprocate. (There's always that ten percent or so who sing the old Groucho Marx song “Whatever it is, I'm against it,” but that's to be expected.) It hasn't been anything like the old Bush-era terror color code, in which shifts were based on hunches or poll results. We've shared such facts as we've had, as we've had them, and been honest about the limits of what we've known.

Now it looks like all may be relatively well, at least in the very short term. Which is great, but still. I can't help but wonder how many people will think that the entire thing was some sort of weird charade.

The stimulus funding is for two years. It would be easy to revert to a relieved business-as-usual, and just hope that the economy is up and running again two years from now. I hope we don't do that, though. In my best scenario, we take this two-year window as a chance to examine what we're doing more thoroughly, to emerge stronger overall when the crisis passes. This year's crisis has been harrowing, but it has basically been an acceleration of a much longer-term underlying trend of shifting the cost of public higher education from taxpayers generally to students (and, in a sense, adjuncts) specifically. When the crisis subsides, the pace should become less scary, but the underlying trend will still be there.

It would be a normal, natural, human reaction for people to wipe their brows, say 'whew!,' and try to forget the whole, scary thing. And maybe for a week or two, that's fine. But I hope that we don't just revert to habits that – it's easy to forget now – have been part of a longer decline.

Friday, March 20, 2009

 

After Transfer

A few months ago I mentioned a conversation with a contact at a respected private university who mentioned that her U only takes small numbers of cc grads in transfer because they've found that transfer students don't make the same level of donations as alums as 'native' students. The U doesn't like the impact on its fundraising, so it only takes enough transfer students to round out some upper-level classes. Anything beyond that it considers lost income.

Now comes a national report that claims that cc grads who transfer to four-year colleges and then graduate those make lower salaries, in the aggregate, than do students who start at those four-year colleges. The study apparently controlled for family income, age, and several other demographic variables, so this isn't just a function of comparing apples and oranges.

I have to admit finding this study disturbing. My first reaction is to want to know more about the various factors, to see if there's something we can and/or should address.

In the aggregate, community college grads are likelier to stay in the geographic area of their college. That may speak to occupational choice, though it may also speak to priorities. If staying in a given area is a priority, that may come at a cost of missed opportunities. If cc's tend to attract a more place-bound or place-loyal student body, I'd expect to see some aggregate impact of that. At my SLAC, students came from all over the country and beyond, and dispersed similarly upon graduation. The idea was to chase the best opportunities, wherever they happened to be. At my cc, that's not generally the pattern. We recruit mostly locally, and most of our grads remain local. We use that fact in pressing the case for state funding, since we can claim truthfully that the benefits of our services accrue locally. But it stands to reason that place-loyalty carries opportunity costs.

The academic in me also chafes a little at 'starting salaries' being taken as measures of educational quality. Academics as a group tend to be pretty well-educated – it's kinda what we do – but our pay scale doesn't match what you'd expect for that level of training. Good social workers make less than average pharmaceutical sales reps; does that mean our human services program isn't very good? There's a mismatch in the measure that needs to be acknowledged.

All of that given, though, I still can't help but wonder if there's a deeper issue. Do employers hold transfer status against graduates? If they do, do they have good reasons? And if they don't, then what? From whence does the difference come?

When I went from my pretty good public high school to the SLAC, the first semester was a bloodbath. It wasn't that I spent all my time partying – the 'nerd' tendencies were way too strong for that – but that the bar had been raised in a way that I hadn't seen before. It took me a semester to make the adjustment. Something similar happened when I went to grad school, and in my first semester became the punching bag for an especially brilliant professor who decided that I embodied a set of assumptions to which he took particular exception.

Those were both brutal experiences, and I still shudder involuntarily when I think about them. But they've served me well in certain ways. Most basically, I learned that I could be humbled intellectually, and still live to tell the tale. Simply put, I learned how to take a punch. This comes in handy in dealing with some faculty who like to try to use intellectual intimidation as a bullying technique. Once you've been beaten up by Mike Tyson, some street punk doesn't faze you in the slightest.

For the higher-achieving cc student, if there isn't a robust Honors or similar program at the cc, there may be a certain lack of sustained challenge. While that can lead to some eye-popping GPA's, it still shortchanges them in important ways. Being the tallest building in Topeka is fine if you never leave Topeka, but once you get to New York, the rules are different. I worry about the kid who has been the tallest building in Topeka all his life. He may be in for a rude shock.

Or not. The 'community college penalty' may be employer class bias, plain and simple. I'm not sure how to measure that, but it's certainly disturbing.

Wise and worldly readers, how might you design a question to discern whether the penalty is a reflection of actual ability or an artifact of prejudice? And if it's at least partially 'real,' what can we do about it?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

 

The Myth of the Online Cash Cow

According to a new survey from the League for Innovation in the Community College, enrollments are, in fact, increasing at community colleges across the country, especially in online programs. A quick and careless read could lead one to conclude that profits from growing online programs were being used to supplant losses in state aid.

There may be some college, somewhere, that's actually doing that. But I haven't seen it.

Online courses are not cash cows for us. Most of the cost of instruction is labor, and we don't pay any differently for online instruction than we do for traditional instruction. (We also charge the same tuition and fees.) We have full-time faculty who teach online courses as part of their regular load, and we have adjuncts who teach them for their normal pay. (We also have full-timers who teach 'extra' online courses, above the regular load, for extra pay.) Online courses require that we support Learning Management Systems, a perfectly awful term of art for web platforms designed for online courses – WebCT, Blackboard, etc. Those require licenses, server space, and helpdesk support. Class sizes for online courses here are either the same as their traditional counterparts or slightly smaller, depending on the class. Since students can't hide silently in an online class nearly as easily, the time demands on faculty for student interaction are high enough that overstuffing the class simply isn't an option.

By union contract, we also pay extra for the initial development of an online version of a class we already teach in the classroom. It isn't huge, but when you get a significant bump in interest, you feel it. As online courses have ramped up, and they have, we've also had to invest significant staff time in working out new course evaluation forms, new deadlines, etc. None of this is dealbreaking, but none of it is free, either.

The one area in which we actually 'save' with online courses is space. Since we don't have any open classrooms during prime time, new online sections can be safety valves for excess demand. To the extent that we don't have to build (and heat) new classrooms, or expand existing parking lots, it's fair to find savings. But on a per-section basis over the useful life of a classroom, that's a fairly small cost.

This might all seem obvious, but it seems like at least once a week I read or hear someone saying that the motive for moving online is profit. Yes, some for-profit colleges run online programs, but that doesn't mean that 'for-profit' and 'online' are synonymous. To conflate the two is simply a category mistake. There are for-profits that run classroom-based classes, too; does it then follow that traditional classes everywhere are motivated solely by profit? Just because the for-profits and online education grew during the same decade doesn't make them the same thing.

At my cc, which isn't unusual in this regard, student tuition and fees cover far less than our overall costs. The rest is covered through state aid and some federal or private grants. Another way of saying that is that we lose money on every student. That's true whether the student is taught in a classroom, over the web, or at a worksite. (I'm referring here to the academic-credit-bearing side of what we do, including remediation. The non-credit side – personal enrichment classes, some workforce training -- is altogether different.) Annoyingly, that means we can't just grow our way out of a funding crisis.

Like most of the colleges noted in the report, mine is facing higher enrollments and lower state funding. It's also growing its online offerings. But we're growing those offerings despite funding cuts, not because of them.

Anyone who has taken, or taught, or even closely observed an online class knows that it's far from automated. The burden on the instructor to get through as effectively in two dimensions as in three is considerable, and requires both effort and craft. That means paying for course development, and offering training and support, and aligning the student support services with the very different expectations of online students. Some of us believe that it's a worthwhile enterprise for educational reasons, even allowing for an unfortunate institutional learning curve in the early going. But it's not a cash cow, and done right, it won't be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

 

Grandfathering

The goings-on in Kentucky caught my eye, which shouldn't surprise longtime readers. In a nutshell, the Board of Regents of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System voted to eliminate the tenure track for full-time faculty hired from this point forward, instead offering them one-year or two-year contracts.

Though I'm hardly a fan of tenure, for the record, I'm not impressed. In my view, the Board erred in two fundamental ways. The first way was in the brevity of the contracts offered. As I've written before, a thoughtful and sustainable alternative to the tenure system should be renewable multiyear contracts with academic freedom stipulated in both the contract language and college policy. My preferred version has an initial contract for three years, followed by five year contracts, though the specifics are certainly not cast in stone. But single-year contracts are needlessly brief, lending themselves to one extreme or the other: either capricious firings, or no firings at all. Either is bad. If you've renewed someone ten times, then don't renew for the eleventh, there's a pretty strong prima facie case that you've been arbitrary. At that point, absent serious misconduct, they might as well have tenure. (The IHE article mentions that the Virgina system is officially without tenure, but has adopted de facto tenure after six annual renewals, so this isn't an abstract point.) If that same span of years only involves two or three renewals, the chance of considered judgment coming into play is much higher.

But that's easy enough to fix. All they have to do is rethink the contracts they offer, extend the terms, and the problem is solved. The more basic error is grandfathering.

Grandfathering establishes two tiers of faculty, depending on initial hire date. Two-tier labor systems are relatively common when an industry is in decline. They're a way of splitting the difference between external necessity and internal politics. Basically, you buy off the opposition of the old so you can exploit the hell out of the young. (Put differently, you exploit the hell out of the young so you can afford to buy off the old.) In various forms – the adjunct trend, increased tenure requirements, ratcheted-up employee contributions to health insurance and retirement accounts – this has been the MO of higher ed in America for the last thirty years. Everybody at the table agrees to screw over the folks who aren't yet at the table. This satisfies everybody at the table, but it does so at the cost of long-term sustainability and intergenerational fairness. Rather than solving the problem, it postpones it with interest.

The Kentucky system is looking down the barrel of several decades in which some faculty have tenure, and some full-timers never will. There is simply no way for that not to result in high drama. The impact on shared governance alone is likely to be devastating.

In the short term, grandfathering was probably a response to court rulings that have interpreted tenure as ownership of a job. If tenure is truly a property right, then being deprived of it is theft. I don't buy the 'property' theory of tenure, since it can't be sold, or leased, or traded, or even enforced if the college goes under, but my opinion is neither here nor there. At least with grandfathering, the college could make the argument that no existing property right has been violated. And since the possibility of future tenure is just that – a possibility – foreclosing it does not involve taking something away from anyone.

If the Board really wants to do away with tenure over time, it could simply construe tenure – correctly, in my view – as an employee benefit, a form of compensation. Then it could simply not give raises to anyone with tenure, and condition annual raises on forgoing tenure. Eventually, inflation would work its magic, and the problem would fade away. From what I understand, Kentucky doesn't enforce labor laws in any meaningful way, so the threat of retaliatory unionization is pretty low.

It's almost certainly true that doing away with tenure won't result in immediate short-term savings. If anything, it might actually cost a little in the short run, if prospective hires demand higher salaries to compensate for increased risk. (In the evergreen disciplines, I suspect that most prospective hires won't have the market power to make those threats stick, but it might happen in some niche programs.) But over the long term, a renewable-contract system at least allows the possibility of adjusting staffing levels to meet enrollment fluctuations, which a tenure system essentially doesn't. (Yes, you can close an entire program, but you can't shrink one without killing it, except by attrition.) What the defenders of tenure typically miss is that holding on to undead programs deprives living programs of resources. When you actually have the option of redirecting faculty lines from dying programs to growing ones, then you can actually hire to meet demand, instead of just adding ever more adjuncts. The defenders of tenure typically construe tenure as the alternative to the adjunct trend; they fail to understand that it's actually a root cause. The only way to afford overpaying some (relative to demand for their services) is to underpay others. And the siren call of tenure is part of what keeps replenishing the reserve army of adjuncts, who keep coming back hoping for their big break. It's a sick dialectic, and it needs to be shattered for everyone's sake.

All of that said, there are right and wrong ways to do this. The Kentucky system understands what it doesn't like, but doesn't seem to have given much thought to what it does like. And in this case, as in so many, a half-measure is worse than no measure at all. I'd send this one back to the drawing board. This is too important to get wrong.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

 

On Being On Campus During Spring Break

Erin Go Bleah.

Monday, March 16, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: Say My Name, Say My Name...

An occasional commenter writes:

I have a question about classroom skills rather than the job market or administration.

How do other teachers remember their students' names?  I confess, I am AWFUL with names.  My wife and I have gone to the same small church for 20 years and I still go blank on names of people we've been friends with for all that time.  ("you know who I mean honey, the tall guy who always wears that corduroy jacket.  His wife is in the choir.  You mean Tom?  yeah, Tom!")

This is a real difficulty for me in the classroom, even with a light teaching load.  I have one class this semester (I am an adjunct) and only 32 students and it's still a problem.  In every class some students stand out, for both good reasons and bad.  The one who does all the readings and asks questions is easy to remember, as is the goof-off who texts in class on those rare occasions he manages to stay awake.  It's the middle 80% that I struggle with.

I make little cryptic notes on my roster when I call roll  (WPSwt=always wear pink sweats to class) but that only helps so much and I have to be careful not to make observations that might be interpreted as inappropriate.  I can't see assigning seats in a college classroom, and it'd be a royal pain to enforce.  Name tags seem excessive.  I talk to students before class and that helps some, but so many of them rush in at the last second.  My university has several campuses and students ride shuttles between them so it's not unusual to have half the class arrive in the five to ten minutes after class starts and rush out again when it's over.

I even considered copying a method that I saw in the movie "The Paper Chase" where the professor put little photos (headshots) next to the students name on a seating chart.  However, it seemed a little creepy for a 50-ish professor to ask students for their photos, especially as my class enrollment is a good 75% female.

I thought about trying to schedule a time to meet with each of them individually.  Would that make me look like I'm one of those teachers who is trying to be their "buddy" and not their teacher?  I don't want that.  Nor do I want to look like a weird middle-aged male professor trying to meet with his female students alone.  I remind my students each class that I have office hours and am happy to schedule additional time to meet with them to talk about class material.  I even put a map to my office (it's very hard to find) on Blackboard for them, but to no avail.  I make a habit using the library and eating lunch on campus so students can come up to me to chat, but that only helps a little.

It's very frustrating to me as I want my students to understand that their education is important to me, and if I can't remember who they are it makes it look as if I don't care!

Ideas?  Suggestions??


Been there. And it's worse when you teach multiple sections, each of them full.

(Along similar lines, I'd like to hear pointers for pronouncing names correctly upon calling roll on the first day of class. Flagship U had a substantial influx of Eastern European students when I was a TA there, so I'd get names of thirteen random consonants surrounding a single, exhausted vowel. The occasional “D'Amico” or “Lopez” came as a palpable relief.)

I had a similar experience with faculty when I left Proprietary U for the cc. Deans are relatively public figures on campus, and in a low-turnover environment, a new Dean is immediately an object of scrutiny. But I'm awful with names, and suddenly had to learn hundreds of them. It was probably a solid year before a day went by without somebody I couldn't identify greeting me by name. (“Hi, DD!” “Uh, hi!...”) And while some people don't take offense if you guess wrong, some really do. This is one of the many reasons that I couldn't be a politician.

I've heard of mnemonic devices for names, but I, for one, haven't had much luck with them. And yes, your instincts about photos are probably correct. Several years ago I had complaints from some female students about an older male professor who took pictures of all of his students. He assured me that he had always done that as a way to learn names, but as a favor to me, he agreed to stop. (I couldn't get past the 'ew' factor, myself.)

It's not unheard of to have individual meetings with students, but if you do, try to pick a relatively public place and keep the meetings short. (In my TA days, I used a snack bar on campus, and I always picked a table surrounded by people.) Of course, that doesn't work as well if you have multiple sections, but for one, you might be able to get away with it.

Since I'm manifestly unsuccessful at this, I'll use a lifeline and ask my wise and worldly readers to help out. Wise and worldly readers, have you found reliable, non-creepy ways to learn students' names?

Good luck!

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

Friday, March 13, 2009

 

If It's True, It's Fascinating

According to this story in IHE, a retired Duke University professor named Stuart Rojstaczer has issued a study of grade inflation. His findings suggest that grade inflation is commonplace throughout higher ed, particularly at selective liberal arts colleges and at flagship public universities in the South, but is nearly unknown among community colleges.

The comments to the story are worth reading. Cliff Adelman suggests that Rojstaczer is not to be taken seriously. I tend to take Cliff Adelman very seriously, so I'm not going to endorse the findings of the study just yet.

Many of the other comments, though, are variations on “adjuncts are scared of bad student evaluations, so they inflate the grades.” I'm not convinced.

Selective liberal arts colleges tend to be expensive, and to have relatively low adjunct percentages. That's part of what they sell. Community colleges as a sector tend to have higher adjunct percentages than just about any other part of higher ed, yet the study singles them out as immune to grade inflation. If the study is correct, it pretty much blows the “scared adjuncts cause grade inflation” theory out of the water. The findings suggest that other variables – local culture, most likely – are far more powerful.

Anecdotally, at least, I'm inclined to support the 'local culture' theory over what I'll call Adjunct Determinism.

When I was at Proprietary U (the story doesn't mention whether Rojstaczer studied for-profits), grade inflation was rampant, and was almost official policy, but only on the low end. You could be as strict as you wanted with A's, but too many F's would get you fired. Although some of us objected strenuously to a fog-the-mirror standard for passing, when enrollments started to dip, it was made abundantly clear to the faculty that retention was to be pursued at almost all costs. Over time, naturally, students started to figure that out, with predictable results.

At Snooty Liberal Arts College, when I was a student, I don't recall too many people failing too many things. A's were tough, but B's were pretty common and D's or F's rare. And there was no such thing as an adjunct there.

At Flagship U, the TA's often graded much more demandingly than did the senior faculty. I interpreted that at the time as a form of insecurity on our parts. Frankly, I still do.

At my cc, I don't hear much talk of grade inflation, either from faculty or from students. (I hear plenty of complaints about other things – some valid, some not so much – but not about that.) That's not to say that we're unconcerned with student success – quite the opposite – but that we want that success to actually mean something. The adjunct percentage is far higher here than at SLAC or Flagship U, yet the grade inflation much less. That's why, despite my admiration for Cliff Adelman, at least this part of the findings sound right to me.

(On the flip side, the study singles out Princeton as having successfully attacked grade inflation. Did Princeton have a massive wave of adjuncts at some point?)

There are plenty of reasons to object to the adjunct trend, and plenty of reasons to object to grade inflation. But to assume that all bad things necessarily go together in a neat little package is a bit indulgent.

More likely, local expectations color grading, both for full-timers and for adjuncts. At the snootiest, high-end schools, where the adjunct trend is almost unknown, the culture of student entitlement is quite powerful. I haven't seen much of that at this level. If anything, the issue here is the opposite. Here, so many students come in with the emotional baggage of years of poor performance in the K-12 system that the challenge is in getting them to identify themselves as college material. At SLAC, getting a C was either an affront or a source of shame, depending on your mood; I've seen students here celebrate them.

I don't know if this study is actually valid or not, but it passes my gut test in a way that the 'scared adjuncts inflate grades' theory just doesn't. If Princeton has to issue a policy against grade inflation, but most community colleges don't, then I have a hard time pointing the finger at adjuncts. It's just not that simple.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

 

Transparent as Running Water

Tim Burke has a characteristically thoughtful post up about transparency and cost-cutting, and the various dilemmas that cost-cutting poses in the context of Swarthmore. Check it out.

He does a nice job of outlining the 'you first' dilemma in accepting cost reductions. Basically, if my area goes without in the name of austerity and your area doesn't, then my area has been played for a sucker. He suggests that detailed and rigorous transparency can build confidence that nobody is free-riding on anybody else's cuts, and that without that kind of confidence, small cuts are unlikely to stick.

I fully agree about the free-rider problem, and the inanity of a blanket 'use it or lose it' policy on line items. (Anyone who has endured multiple cycles of hurry-up-and-spend at the end of a fiscal year knows the insanity of that drill.) I tend to doubt that the level of 'granularity' he advocates will generate the clarity he envisions – in my experience, there aren't many more effective ways to make people tune out than to trot out the spreadsheets – but the theory is nice.

Burke's post is written from within Swarthmore, and it reflects that context. A private institution with high tuition, plenty of applicants, and a decent endowment can make its own decisions about all kinds of things. It controls most – not all, but most – of the variables relevant to its own budgets. That kind of year-to-year stability makes relatively fine-grained transparency realistic.

At my cc, and at every public institution I know, that's simply not the case. Our budget year starts July 1. We don't know yet what our allocation from the state will be, and we probably won't know for another month or more. The range of possible numbers is staggeringly wide. We don't know, either, how the money from the stimulus will be allocated, or what the rules for its use will be. (At this point, as I understand it, the money will go to the states. That means that we have to wait for the state to decide how to allocate it. What could possibly go wrong?) We don't cap enrollments, so we can't just pick a target population size and multiply it by tuition to get a magic number. The range of unknowns, usually wide, is particularly so this year.

When the genuine unknowns in your budget add up to millions, it's hard to have intelligent conversations about cuts of a couple thousand here and there. They may be absolutely crucial, or they may be helpful but not urgent, or they may be superfluous; there's really no way of knowing yet. By the time we'll know for certain, we'll have so little time to make decisions that we pretty much have to have already made them. And if you think getting everybody to accept a cost-cutting plan is difficult, try getting everybody to accept multiple contingency cost-cutting plans.

Transparency in cost-cutting gets even more difficult when it goes from 'let's take a look at staff retreats' to 'let's take a look at staff.' When you get to that second level, it's difficult to keep the conversation from getting personal and heated, since those are people's livelihoods at stake. If you decide to reduce the staff in the tutoring center from five to four, people will figure out pretty darn fast who the fifth staffer is. At that point, the dynamics of the conversation change fundamentally.

I've been as open as I can be, and so has the 'finance' side of the house, in discussing the scenarios as they look likeliest to play out. But the kind of conversation Tim Burke advocates – charging a few bucks to use a tennis court, say – is just not realistic here. Still water can be transparent. But the water here is rushing so fast that even purity doesn't make it clear.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

 

You Forget...

what the world looks like when you're seven. An actual exchange last night:

The Boy: You know, I try to hold in my farts around girls.

DD: That's a good idea.

TB: Yeah. If you fart around them, they won't want to be your girlfriend.

DD: Probably not.

TB: It's hard to convince them to marry you. Like, I want to marry Ashley, but I don't know how to make her want to marry me.

DD: Well, no rush. You've got time.

TB: I know that. But I want to marry her. How many more years until prom?

DD: About nine. But you don't get married at the prom!

TB: I know. But I can't wait to dance with her at the prom. Only nine more years!

DD: You know, nine years is a long time, and things change. Maybe you'll meet another girl in that time and you'd rather dance with her.

(pause)

TB: Yeah, but I don't want to wait that long. I don't want to have to worry about it.

DD: You know, deciding now won't help. You'll still have to worry about it anyway.

TB: I will?

DD: Yeah.

TB: Well, I still want to marry Ashley.

At seven, it all makes perfect sense...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

 

The Litany

For some reason, there's a persistent subset of people – both faculty and staff – who can't raise one issue without referencing ten more. Worse, they aren't raised in the spirit of “this connects to that,” but in a spirit of “and ANOTHER thing...” I call it the litany.

In my early, naïve days of administration, I used to attempt point-by-point refutations of the litany. I discovered quickly, though, that this just feeds the fire. If you're accused of ten things and only shoot down eight of them, some will assume that you've admitted to the other two. If you aren't careful, the emails start to snowball quickly, with responses to responses to responses, each farther removed from the actual issue at hand. And any infelicity of phrase will just make things worse.

Back then, I lived in fear of being accused of 'stonewalling.' Anything put out there, I thought, had to be responded to.

Over the years, though, I've found that it's often better just to ignore the litany, and either respond only to the single key issue, or to nothing at all. The distinction in my mind between that and stonewalling has to do with whether the actual issue at hand gets a response. Anything can be on the table, but not all at once. All the stuff that comes after “in the context of...” should either get its own discussion or not, but it shouldn't hijack the conversation at hand.

Worse, if you actually bore down beneath the layers of litany, it often boils down to “I'm still nursing a decade-old grudge, so leave me alone.” That's why responses that only address the current issue can seem so anticlimactic, yet still be oddly effective. (I've thus far resisted the temptation to end some of those with “happy now?,” but sometime before I retire...)

I've tried to figure out the mindset behind the litany, especially when it happens over and over again. I've come up with a few theories, but this is not meant to be comprehensive.

1.Perceived lack of opportunity. If I'm confident that I'll be heard over and over again, I can postpone discussion of one idea in favor of another. If I don't know when/if I'll get heard again, I'd better shoot my entire load now.

2.Inability to prioritize. If everything is important, then leaving anything out is unconscionable. Better cover every base, just to be safe.

3.Deep unhappiness. It's more of a cri de coeur than a serious attempt at problem-solving.

4.Arrogance/narcissism. My worldview is so all-encompassing that to share only a part of it wouldn't be right.

5.Showboating/Rallying the Troops/Waving the Bloody Shirt. The clue to this is when the email is cc'ed to half the known universe.

6.Attempting to Look Informed. 'nuff said.

I'm sure there are more. But whatever the thought process behind the litany, it's distracting and tiresome, and it prevents real conversation.

Wise and worldly readers – have you had experience with the litany? Have you found a reasonable explanation for it, or, even better, a really effective way of cutting it off?

Monday, March 09, 2009

 

Grow Your Own

This article from the Chronicle, about spousal hiring, and this one from IHE, about administrative searches in a recession, are worth reading together. They're both about the real-world friction that gets in the way of hiring the best people for a given job.

Spousal (or partner) hiring is a tricky business in the best of times. Any preference given to the trailing partner is a judgment call that the overall gain to the college from the primary hire makes up for the suboptimal second hire. (If the second hire weren't suboptimal, no preference would be needed.) In the best case for the institution, place-bound candidates settle for jobs that would otherwise be beneath them, and the college gets better than it pays for. (Historically, this was how sexism kept the cost of public education relatively low; educated women weren't allowed to do much else.) In the worst case, the college takes on a weaker-than-merit hire, and bleeds performance over time.

In a fiscal crisis, the stakes are much higher, since openings are fewer. If you're bringing in a half-dozen new people to a given program, you can tolerate one being a little behind the others. If you're only getting one for the next several years, though, you need to make that one count. And from the perspective of the denied applicants, to find out that you've turned down for sleeping with the wrong person (or nobody) just adds insult to injury. Oddly, that doesn't seem to register as discrimination, though I'd be hard-pressed to call it anything else.

Add to this chronic issue the new issue of nationally-recruited candidates being held in place by houses they can't realistically sell. Depending on when and how they bought, some folks are in a position where selling a house would involve a drastic upfront loss. Add a deadweight loss on the house to the uncertain prospects for a spousal/partner hire, and otherwise-attractive options suddenly become untenable. To the extent that smaller candidate pools result in suboptimal hires, I expect colleges to slowly bleed performance from this for many years to come.

I started hearing about dean and vp searches failing a few years ago, before the bottom fell out of the housing market.  At that point, the issue was mostly the lack of pipeline.  Now the lack of pipeline is compounded by people not being able to stomach the fiscal hit of moving.

Basic demographics suggest that higher ed is facing a leadership crisis over the next several years. Since the average ages of Presidents and Chief Academic Officers have moved steadily upward for decades, at this point, substantial numbers of both are creeping up on retirement. (The lack of faculty hiring has starved the leadership pipeline for long enough that it's starting to show at the highest levels.) If a college in a relatively less popular region doesn't have the internal candidates ready to step up, and nationally-recruited candidates are held in place by economic friction, then I foresee some real roll-of-the-dice hires coming soon, with predictable consequences.

There's no clean and easy way around these issues. Certainly I'd expect relatively farsighted colleges to start doing some more intensive leadership development of their own people -- the "grow your own" strategy.  When that's tenable, it's great.  But 'professional development' is usually one of the first cuts, and the more recent generation of faculty hires had to clear such high hurdles that many of them are single-mindedly focused on their faculty role.  That's individually rational, but over time, destructive to the underlying institution.  And there's something to be said for cross-pollination, for occasionally bringing in a new set of eyes that doesn't take longstanding local habits as given.  

I've mentioned before that one possibly beneficial side effect of the current crunch will be to put the final nail in the coffin of the idea of pure 'merit' in hiring.  For very different reasons, the same thing is likely to happen with administrative roles.  If there's an upside, maybe some of the capable-but-unsure newer hires will have more opportunities available to them over the next few years.  I hope they can overcome the knee-jerk disdain for the role and step up.  If not, things could get even uglier.

Friday, March 06, 2009

 

Pre-Emptive Layoffs

An alert reader sent me the link to this article from the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Apparently, the University of Massachusetts is sending out layoff notices to 60 faculty now, just in case it needs to actually go through with layoffs this Fall. If the stimulus package delivers enough, it will call some fraction of the 60 back.

On the face of it, this is insanity. To say “you're fired,” only to follow it weeks later with “never mind,” pretty much guarantees a serious morale issue. The message it sends to the affected employee is “you are on the absolute bottom of the totem pole, and your job is hanging by a thread.” There's a tremendous difference between “we may need to do some layoffs” and “you, personally, will be laid off unless we get more money.” It inflicts terrible stress on people for whom it may ultimately prove to have been unnecessary. My fearless prediction: if most of these folks do come back, I'd expect most of them to leave voluntarily over the next few years.

But the article suggests that this may not just be managerial tone-deafness. The key quote:

The university is contractually obligated to notify these lecturers, said UMass spokesman Edward F. Blaguszewski. The contract of the first group required longer notification.
 

Anyone who has managed in a unionized setting knows what this means.

Contracts usually contain notification deadlines for retrenchments or layoffs. Failure to comply with those deadlines is grievable, and may ultimately result in forced payouts. In other words, if the university decides in May or June that it doesn't want someone back in September, it may be too late. The penalty for late notification can be drastic, but there's no penalty for an early 'false positive.' So the fiscally rational thing to do, perversely enough, is to send out notices to as many as your worst-case scenario suggests you'd need to, and then to call back the ones you can.

The irony, of course, is that this is a side effect of a contract provision usually favored by the union. A workers' protection clause winds up generating unnecessary pink slips.

At my campus, we're facing a variation on this. It isn't yet clear how the federal stimulus money will affect next year's budget, but we're coming up on some hard contractual deadlines. Our state money has been cut severely, but some fraction of that cut may – or may not – be restored for July. People on campus are nervous and jumpy, and looking for answers, but “I don't know” is the truth. Budgets are always based on assumptions – if we assume two percent enrollment growth, then we have x dollars – but the range of plausible assumptions this year is unusually wide. We keep waiting for the dust to settle, hoping to gain some clarity, but the contractual deadlines don't give us much wiggle room.

It would be easy to bash the University of Massachusetts for this, and there may be other valid reasons to do that. But this is a (perversely) rational response to an insane situation. For everybody's sake, I hope we can get some clarity soon. Until then, I expect to see more stories like this.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

 

Wondering Aloud

Wondering Aloud

- How is it possible that the comforter is warm, the blanket is warm, and the sheets are freezing? The sheets are under the blanket and comforter. Shouldn't they keep the sheets warm? I'm perplexed.

- A few days ago, some readers called me out on my claim that the average age of cc students is dropping. Apparently some national statistics suggest otherwise. I was surprised, since all of my counterparts across the state report the exact same thing I've seen. A quick search revealed a raft of different statistics, none of which were transparent about their methodology. Our local stats, which fit with my wandering-the-hallways observation, suggest that the average age is closer to 21 than to 29. In discussions at national conferences, cc admins from all over have reported drops in average ages. I'm beginning to suspect that there's a really basic measurement issue here. The national stats that popped up on Google don't describe any on-the-ground reality I've seen. I don't know if it's regional, or if it hinges on the definition of student (credit vs. non-credit would yield two wildly different numbers), or if some of the national numbers are of the “Mikey was killed by pop rocks and Coke” variety, but it's got me wondering. You'd think this would be straightforward, but it doesn't seem to be.

- Surest sign of recession: our Admissions staff reports that it's raining men. Culturally, we aren't entirely prepared for this. Just out of curiosity, over the last week and a half I've been keeping informal track of the gender breakdown at the meetings I've had. In every group of ten or more, the men are outnumbered, usually by at least two to one. At a recent meeting, I raised the question of supports for male students, given their sudden enrollment spike and their historically higher attrition rates, only to be answered by an extended silence. I'm not entirely sure what will happen when the Fall class gets here, but I think we're in for some awkward cultural moments.

- Why do people on shows like “The Bachelor” propose?

- This one's for people who understand economics better than I do, and who are invited to comment. Right now the government is flooding the banks with money, hoping that some of it, somehow, will find its way out of banks in the form of consumer or business loans. It doesn't seem to be working yet, and even optimists seem to think that recovery is some time away. My question: once recovery kicks in, and all that loose money is sloshing around in the system, won't all that loose money be inflationary as all get-out? And if it is, would that be an entirely bad thing? A hearty round of inflation would do wonders to fix all those 'underwater' mortgages and to cheapen the cost of servicing existing debts, since they could be paid off in depreciated dollars. At a certain level, inflation seems more equitable than unemployment, since inflation hits everybody but unemployment focuses most of the pain on the unlucky few. Is this all part of the plan? Anyway, my fearless prediction: once the recovery kicks in, watch gasoline prices skyrocket.

- Why doesn't Apple have a netbook? As a former colleague of mine used to say, this ain't rocket surgery. And don't give me that “the iphone is a netbook” crap. If I can't touch-type, it's not a netbook. An inexpensive, elegantly-designed Apple netbook could blow the doors off (what's left of) the market. In my walking-the-hallways observations, netbooks have turned this year's crop of students away from Apple, which is new.

And now back to the regularly scheduled blog...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

 

Reserves

The story in the Chronicle yesterday about California paying its community colleges in IOU's got me thinking about reserves, and the conflicting roles they play.

In good years, some cc's are able to salt away some money and put it into reserves. (It's also commonly called a “rainy day fund.”) The idea is that public funding is notoriously and viciously cyclical, so having a pile of stray money can minimize the damage you have to endure in down cycles. Given how much of our budget is fixed cost, there's a real logic to this.

But reserves are a tricky business.

If they get too high, they become very tempting targets for state governments and/or employee unions. It's hard for an employer to plead poverty at negotiation time if it's sitting on a big honkin' pile of money. And it's hard to make the case for sparing a college from cuts during recessionary crises when the other institutions with which they're basically competing for funds – prisons, K-12, etc. – don't have reserves.

Boards of Trustees also frequently have conflicted attitudes towards reserves. On one level, they love reserves, since they signify good financial management, and they buffer against abrupt cuts. But there's also a commonly-held view that reserves aren't to be used for 'operating' expenses, since that's interpreted as feeding a structural deficit. Depending on how strongly the Board feels about this, it's possible for a college to find itself spending reserves on construction even while it lays off employees. Even if it's generally understood as a rainy day fund, it can be nearly impossible to convince some Boards that it's raining.

(In their defense, using reserves for operating expenses can get you into a 'percentage' trap. If, say, three percent of this year's budget is covered by 'excess' reserves, then next year you either drain the reserves more, or ask for what looks like an astronomical percentage increase in your appropriation (an inflationary increase plus three percent). In very real ways, do it once, and you never stop paying for it. The percentage trap comes from an annoying fact of arithmetic: say your budget is 100. Take a ten percent cut, and you're down to 90. Receive a ten percent increase, and you're only back to 99. In the public mind, you've been made whole – ten percent down, ten percent up -- but you're actually behind where you were when you started.)

Then there's the sensitive, but very real, issue of how reserves are kept. Most people imagine a great big savings account, but that's often inaccurate. In most cases, they're invested in market securities. Put differently, over the last six months or so, the value of our reserves has been dropping like a rock. Just when they're most needed, they're least valuable. “Buy high and sell low” isn't a very good investment strategy, but buffeted by circumstance, that's what we've been doing.

I'm concerned that, when the dust settles, colleges will emerge from this crisis having learned the wrong lessons. When the value of your reserves drops by thirty or forty percent in a single year, it's easy to question the value of saving in the first place. This is doubly true when reserves become political cover for legislators cutting your operating aid. And when using your reserves results in very real percentage decreases to future appropriations as far as the eye can see, the argument for just-in-time budgeting becomes more persuasive by default.

I really hope that doesn't happen, though. Our degree programs are supposed to take two years, and often take more than that. When budgets are on annual cycles – that is to say, less than the normative amount of time to complete a degree program – flexibility is severely limited. Academia is not a just-in-time business. Yes, drawing down reserves in a bad year is a bad idea, but sometimes the alternatives are worse. I'd rather have some tense conversations with the President than leave a bunch of students high and dry in the middle of their degree programs. (To his credit, my President agrees.)

When enrollments are up and appropriations are down, reserves draw natural scrutiny. I just hope we're able to get it right this time.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: What's Your Motivation?

A new correspondent writes:

I've been doing some reading in economics lately and started wondering
about higher education. What are the incentives to do administration
well? Sure, there's personal satisfaction in a job well done. But what
about it more broadly? How does change work into this? Without a
simple goal like profit, I'm finding it hard to get even little
service changes in administration. Maybe I'm simply not understanding
the incentives at play? I understand (I think) the incentives at play
for faculty and students, but what about administrators?

I'm hoping for something grander than "keeping the doors open" but
maybe I should adjust my expectations in the recession.


It's a great question, but it presumes a lot. Most strikingly, it assumes that “do[ing] administration well” is a relatively transparent task. It isn't.

I'm frequently struck at the measures that people will use when assessing how good or bad a given dean or vp is. Frequently it comes down to a really vulgar materialism -- “I get what I want, so I've got no complaints.” These are the same people, typically, who adopt the “advocate” or “champion” model of deans, then wonder why they're constantly disappointed. They're getting it wrong. That's not the job.

I frequently envy the folks in the private sector, for whom measures of success and failure are relatively uncomplicated. Did the project make money, or not? (Yes, that's oversimplified, but at least there's an identifiable 'bottom line' to measure.) The jobs themselves are often hellaciously complex, but the underlying goal is fairly straightforward. Based on the last several years of results, for example, I'm fairly confident in saying that Honda has been better managed than Chrysler, and I say that with no privileged inside information about either.

In the non-profit world, this isn't true. Public colleges serve many and conflicting purposes, and many and conflicting publics. Handling that well involves first acknowledging the basic truth of the situation. The government wants low-cost, high-prestige, high-job-placement, low-maintenance institutions that generate economic growth and stay out of trouble. Students want that, plus plenty of choice, plus interesting amenities, plus plenty of good parking, and maybe some fairly predictable sorts of trouble. Faculty want low teaching and service loads, high salaries, life tenure, an untenably expansive definition of 'academic freedom,' and plenty of good parking. The public at large wants low taxes, low tuition, high prestige, high job placement, and sports. The accreditation agencies want copious paperwork, planning and assessment out the wazoo, and student learning outcomes for every little thing calculated to three decimal places. Destination colleges want well-prepared graduates, but not too many, and not so well-prepared that they compete favorably with native students. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Then there's the short-term/long-term decisionmaking. It's not unusual that doing the right thing for the long term involves some short-term unpleasantness. (We're facing that now.) If all you use is “what have you done for me lately?,” you're implicitly ignoring the long term. Colleges do this at their peril.

Just to keep things interesting, there are the cultural issues unique (or nearly so) to higher ed. The concept of 'shared governance' is nearly unknown outside of higher ed, and very poorly understood within it. The premium on 'process,' independent of result, has its merits, but it certainly slows the pace of change. One of my current headaches involves trying to negotiate between a state mandate with a 'fast track' for implementation and our local governance process, in which any meaningful change takes at least a year. How, exactly, I'm supposed to honor both 'get it done in a month' and 'respect our local yearlong processes' is left unspecified, because it's objectively impossible. But almost nobody outside of academic administration even sees the contradiction.

All of that said, I'll grant that there are plenty of 'thou shalt nots' for administrators, and some of them get violated with disheartening frequency. I file most of them under the “It's All About Me” fallacy. In some ways, administration is like film editing. Done well, you don't really notice it; things just sort of work. Done badly, it's painfully conspicuous.

So why should someone with a doctorate in a real discipline, a record of successful teaching, a relatively flexible schedule, and the respect of his peers step into a job in which success is partial and mostly vicarious, blame is ample, tools are absurdly inadequate to tasks, and the faculty immediately hold you in suspicion, if not contempt?

Sometimes I wonder that myself.

I'll start with the wrong reasons. Some people do it for money, or for the opportunity to feel important, or out of personal ambition. Yes, Presidents as a group are well-paid, but the dropoff below that level is pretty steep. (This is especially true in the cc sector.) If you're in it for the money, you'll make decisions based on their likely impact on your future career, rather than for the good of the college. Sometimes people succeed this way, but it's a parasitic kind of success. And in the entry-level administrative positions, the per-hour rate works out to be far less than what you made when you were on faculty.

The better administrators I've seen – and again, I'll admit that this is a subset of the whole – understand their role as subservient to the mission of the college. That's not the same as being subservient to any one subset of the college, as much as some would like that. It involves sublimating your own ego to get the various elements of the college to work in constructive and collaborative ways to benefit the whole. That's both ambiguous and imperative, and people who can handle both sides of that are few and far between. Doing the job well involves patience, belief in the mission, patience, a thick skin, patience, an ability to handle ambiguity, and patience. If you shoot from the lip, for heaven's sake, stay out of the dean's office.

The rewards are real, if subtle. If you take pleasure in problem-solving, you'll have plenty of opportunities for that. If you enjoy intellectual challenge, you'll find plenty. If you've seen idiot administrators do horrible things – and if you stick around long enough, you will – you'll take some satisfaction in knowing what you've prevented. Sometimes you can help foster the creation of something really positive, and actually see it bear fruit; that can be incredibly satisfying. Once in a while, you can even win respect through a particularly nice bit of problem-solving. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's worth savoring.

None of that lends itself to easy economic or statistical measure, for better or worse. But what gets me going isn't a bottom-line number; it's the satisfaction in seeing a difficult situation improved, the better to fulfill the college's mission. If you can't draw satisfaction from solving other people's problems, for heaven's sake, stay out of administration.

One admin's take, anyway. Wise and worldly readers – how do you know a good dean when you see one?

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

Monday, March 02, 2009

 

Spinach

Dr. Crazy has a nice discussion over at her place about battles over curriculum.  As she details it, her department has basically broken into two camps: the "eat your spinach" camp and the "let them take what they want" camp.  I'm quite taken with the metaphor.

Basically, the "eat your spinach" camp assumes that students won't take anything non-sexy unless coerced, but that the non-sexy stuff they skip is inherently worthwhile.  So to get the students to take the worthwhile stuff requires coercion.  The "well-rounded meal" camp assumes that most people, when offered a comprehensive menu of choices, will naturally take stuff from across the board.  Dr. Crazy sides pretty cleanly with the second camp, though she makes a real effort -- to her credit -- to understand the first camp.

I'm not as sure which side I'm on.

I've been on both sides of this one at various times, and I say that without apology.  It depends on the case.  (This is true as a parent, as well.)  Certain disciplines are naturally sequential.  I don't want a pharmacist who doesn't understand how to calculate dosages, and I don't want an architect who doesn't understand geometry.  (Back at PU, I once had an engineering student ask me why he had to take math.  I told him it comes with the gig.)  From a cc perspective, there's also the reality of what our destination schools accept in transfer, so many requirements are effectively hand-me-downs.  

Outside of the fairly obvious cases, though, there's the question of whether we should assume that students already know everything they need to know when they get here.  If the answer is no -- and it is -- then it's not absurd to think that maybe they need to be exposed to some things.  Course requirements are a time-honored way (not the only way, but a pretty clean one) to ensure that some exposure happens.  Intro classes, survey classes, and prerequisite classes can introduce students to ways of thinking, or bodies of inquiry, that they simply don't know existed (or at least, not in the forms they do). Without a push, many students would unwittingly cut down the future to the size of the present.  In my Proprietary U days, I was constantly barraged with students asking why they had to take anything non-technical.  (They had less charitable terms for it.)  I took it as a personal triumph when I won them over by the end of the semester, but I wouldn't have had the chance had they not been required to be there.

Of course, taking that position requires being able and willing to explain, in some reasonably thoughtful way, why students need this class but not that one.  That's not easy.  

And it's certainly true, too, that conversations about required courses often quickly become conversations about turf, and about jobs.  If we decided to make freshman composition optional, what do you think would happen to its enrollments?  Consequently, what would happen to the resources available to the English department?  This shouldn't be a driver, but it is.

That granted, of course, it's possible to be right for the wrong reasons.  I'm quick to smell self-interest behind Principled Positions, but the principled positions can still be valid anyway.  

In defense of laissez-faire, any experienced instructor can tell you that interested students make better students.  A class full of students who have to be there is a tougher row to hoe than a class full of enthusiasts.  That's one reason why pass rates are usually higher in upper-level classes, even though they're 'harder.'  And it's certainly true that not every requirement makes sense for every student.  The usual pragmatic compromise is a Chinese menu, in which students take two from column A, one from column B, and so forth -- build choices into each category.  It works about as well as most pragmatic compromises do.  Invariably, over time, some departments find relatively fluffy ways for uninterested students to fill distribution requirements ("rocks for jocks"), though the social utility of that strategy is certainly questionable.

The food metaphor can work in either direction, too. American eating habits don't generally comport with the “leave them alone and they'll naturally pick well-balanced meals” ideal. This is, after all, the home of the whopper. A quick glance at, say, television viewing habits should put to rest any idea that people will naturally balance the edifying with the, uh, let's say 'less edifying.' A few will, but the vast majority won't, and rules are – and must be -- written for the vast majority.

This post is wishy-washier than I usually like to be, but I think it's an accurate reflection of the issue. Pushed hard enough, I'd probably land somewhere in the 'distribution requirement' – that is, Chinese menu – realm, mostly by default. Yes, all requirements are somewhat arbitrary, and some of them are pretty silly. But I'd hate to abandon students to what they know fresh out of high school. We owe them more than that, even if they don't always agree.

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