Thursday, April 30, 2009
The Inbox Police
That said, I have no patience for the inbox police.
My email inbox at work (hint: it ends in 'edu') strains mightily under the weight of, well, nothing actually, but it's huge. It's well into the thousands at this point – I've honestly stopped paying attention – and it just keeps growing. Although I haven't seen anything formally published on the links between email messages and tribbles, I consider it only a matter of time.
There are those among us who believe that inboxes, like desks, should be kept neat and tidy at all times. And then there are those among us, like myself, who believe that the first group needs to back off.
At least with desks, there's a non-trivial risk of fire, and sometimes things slide around and get lost. (I'll admit to having branded the occasional memo with Dilbert's 'brown ring of quality.') But with email inboxes, as long as you have a decent 'search' function, I'm at a loss to explain why ritualistic purging is somehow a good thing.
Purging an email inbox takes an astonishing amount of time, especially once you're into the four or five figures. That's time that could have been spent doing almost anything else, like maybe earning your salary. It also makes things harder to find, since executing the search function on a single folder is so much faster than doing it on a whole series of subfolders.
A couple of years ago, a colleague who got dragged into a ridiculous legal case asked me, in sheer desperation, if I still had an email he had sent me a few years earlier. I called it up right away and sent it along. Had I faithfully purged everything not obviously necessary, it would have been lost to the sands of time.
I like to think that I'm doing future generations a favor by meticulously maintaining a documentary record for historical purposes. Note to future generations: you're welcome.
This is reason #763 why I like Google. Gmail offers...wait for it...unlimited storage! Better yet, unlimited storage with a rip-roarin' search function! For packrat nerds like me, that's crack laced with nicotine and dipped in chocolate. Add that it's free, and available anywhere, and sheesh. My 'deandad' inbox dwarfs even my work one, but somehow, Google doesn't mind. I find that endearing.
Back in the dark ages, I'm told, the issue was 'server space.' To this I say, pshaw. If we need more server space, we can ^%*# well switch to gmail and be done with it. Electronic storage is vaster and cheaper than it has ever been, and getting more so all the time. Email messages aren't getting any longer.* This objection may once have been valid, but no more.
I delete spam, and room-change notifications, and an astonishing number of solicitations for webinars. But I do those as soon as I see them. There's no going back and purging; the 'live or die' decision is immediate and permanent.
It may be partly generational. Email was a fixture of office life by the time my career got going, so I never developed habits with paper that I just carried over to email. If anything, I much prefer email to paper, since the computer can do searches far faster than I ever could. The desk ain't pretty, but the inbox works just fine, thank you very much.
Wise and worldly readers – have you had any dealings with the inbox police?
*I'll admit sometimes longing for the days before most people understood the 'attachment' function. On a typical workday, I get probably 100-300 pages of attachments. That's the real time-suck. Sometimes I think the most important PhD skill I actually use is speed reading.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Boy, On Scientists
My hero is a scientist. Every day they mak EXITING discoveries. They also make AWESOME potions, space probes and cool new ships. They launch rockets and space ships. I like it when the Space Shuttle goes up. It always makes me think of the scientists who made it. Scientists are really cool!
Potions and space probes. That's my boy!
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Project-Based Education? A Response to Mark Taylor
It's a frustrating piece, since it moves quickly from 'insightful' to 'crackpot' and back again.
I'll start with some glaring blind spots that made it hard for me to take the piece seriously. As is often true of faculty who have never worked in administration, Prof. Taylor takes existing institutions for granted, even as he claims to move past them. For example, if colleges redid their curricula every seven years or so – his suggested lifetime for the project-based constellations he favors – that would involve every seventh year putting entire new programs through the shared governance process, coming up with entirely new job descriptions, hiring committees, student learning outcomes, assessment mechanisms, articulation agreements, catalog copy, advisor training, and the rest. Who, exactly, would do all this in the absence of departments or permanent faculty goes unmentioned. Lest this seem like an unfair summary:
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
Alrighty then. Who would evaluate them? Who would define them? (And don't tell me 'the faculty in the program.' They would be hired based on the answers to those questions, not the other way around.) Who would make the decisions to 'abolish, continue, or significantly change' them? Who gets to stay after the sun sets? In the absence of continuity, how would standards develop? Who would define them? What happens to a student who enrolls during, say, the fifth year of a seven year program? Would credits from other programs articulate? If not, would students be unable to transfer from one college to another?
These may sound picky, but they're fundamental.
Yes, the common currency of 'credit hours' is reductive, and I've gone on record saying that until we move away from seat-time-based measures, the upward cost spiral won't go away. But you don't replace something with nothing. If we do away with recognizably transferable credits, what do we replace them with? You might be able to get away from it at the toniest of SLAC's, but the residential-students-with-no-attrition model describes only a very narrow niche of higher education in America.
Then, obviously, there's the matter of graduate training. I agree with Taylor that grad school in the humanities and most of the social sciences is a pyramid scheme. I also agree that mandatory retirement ages and a renewable-contract system for faculty would be vast improvements over the landed aristocracy we currently support at the adjuncts' expense. But I'm at a loss to explain where all these interdisciplinary experts will get their disciplinary expertise. Yes, a significant part of grad school involves exploring new questions. But another significant part – the part he skips – involves getting grounding in the history of a given line of inquiry. Call it a canon or a discipline or a tradition, but it's part of the toolkit scholars bring to bear on new questions. Abandoning the toolkit in favor of, well, ad hoc autodidacticism doesn't really solve the problem. If anything, it makes existing grads even less employable than they already are. I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable? How the hell do I know? (And even if I think I do, can I convince an accrediting agency?) Am I taking the chance? In this market? Uh, that would be 'no.'
(His proposed solution of extending the change to undergraduate programs actually makes it worse. “Sorry, 'water' grad, that expired last year. We're into 'money' now. Your graduate work is so last year.” In the absence of disciplines, we'd have nothing but fads.)
So we'd have faculty hired by nobody in particular, based on ever-shifting job descriptions written by nobody in particular. They would teach, uh, whatever, to students who happen to start at the right time, and who never drop out or transfer. (“Sorry, kid, we aren't accepting new students this year. Try again next year, when the theme will be cyborgs and we'll have all new faculty to teach it.”) And the graduate students would have to hope that whatever theme they studied in grad school would happen to roll around at the teaching colleges to which they'd apply for work. Unless they didn't. Which is fine, since there's no hotter ticket on the job market than an unemployed, esoteric Ph.D.
Yes, the existing structures are clunky and overtaxed and frequently asinine. They survive because they address certain problems. The way around them is not to wish those problems away or to postulate a world in which every college is modeled on a graduate seminar at Columbia. It's to come up with alternatives that solve those problems better. Prof. Taylor's model could be a lot of fun on a very small scale, like a think tank. But as a blueprint for higher ed across America, it's a farce.
The reality of higher ed in America is mobility. People move from one institution to another all the time. We've developed an admittedly frustrating common language to make that kind of movement possible. Replacing that common language with a babel of tongues is not a serious answer, and replacing what little common knowledge that clusters of scholars share – canons or classics or traditions – with whatever seems convenient at the time would only make matters worse. Disciplines are arbitrary and flawed, but random fads are even worse. And incompatible random fads at different institutions would be disastrous.
I have a recurring dream that someday, somehow, the New York Times will hire a columnist on higher education who actually understands what s/he is talking about. Maybe we could start a graduate program on 'dreams'! Let's see, upon graduation, students will be able to...
Monday, April 27, 2009
Education and Health Care: Connecting the Dots
As longtime readers know, I've been linking the two for years. (For example, see here.) The fact that folks in a position to matter are starting to make the connection gives me hope. They haven't really cracked it yet, but the fact that they're at least connecting the two suggests the possibility of eventual progress.
Orszag's argument, which is true as far as it goes, is severalfold. First, education is a key driver of economic productivity, and of economic equality. When access to quality education becomes the province of the elite, we should expect to see economic polarization accelerate. Second, education competes for tax dollars with other expenditures, notably health care. As the costs of health care have increased relentlessly, government support for higher education has been squeezed to make up some of the difference. Finally, the Obama administration is committed to 'bending the curve' (love that!) of cost increase in health care, specifically to free up resources for higher ed. Since a healthy and educated population is more productive than a sick and ignorant one, these policies are both 'hard headed and soft hearted.'
Okay, cool. But even though I'm sympathetic, Orszag is only scratching the surface. To make real and lasting progress, you have to go deeper.
Both health care and higher ed have been subject to incessant cost spirals, and for many of the same reasons. And our current political debate gets those reasons almost completely wrong. Leaning on one to feed the other is a defensible short-term political choice, but it doesn't get at the underlying drivers of cost increase. It doesn't solve the long term problem.
First, and most basically, health care and education are exceptions to the rule that industries only spend money on innovations that are likely to pay off. (Law enforcement is another exception; the cost spiral there is also incessant.) In most industries, a given firm will spend money only on those experiments or innovations that seem likely to generate more money (in either increased revenue or decreased costs) than they cost. That's why local auto repair shops often have ten-year-old computers with dot matrix printers. They don't see the payoff to getting something cutting-edge, so they don't.
In health care, innovations typically add cost; they're justified instead by their results. We've made a judgment as a society – and I'm on board with this, by the way – that extending good life is worth serious money. That's true even when extending that life involves both expensive treatments now and additional treatments later for the afflictions that the patient now lives long enough to get. In olden times, fatal heart attacks at 50 were common. Now, many people who would have died from those live long enough to get cancer, too. That's not to deny for a moment that this is a net gain for humanity. It's just to say that the cost spiral is a direct and predictable consequence of medical success.
In higher ed, similarly, we adopt innovations not because they pay off for us, but because they pay off for other industries. We prepare students to work in the current economy, at jobs as they're currently configured. That means not just professors and libraries, but human patient simulators, multimedia labs, imposing IT infrastructures, and the lab technicians to tend to it all. We don't capture any of the economic gains from these investments. Our students do, and the economy as a whole does, but we don't (at least not directly). We upgrade even when it isn't 'efficient,' because we couldn't do our job otherwise. So we have the normal inflationary cost increases, plus the cost of backfilling decreased public support, plus the cost of health insurance in a labor-intensive sector, plus the cost of keeping up with industries that keep changing. That adds up. We take the edge off by exploiting the hell out of adjunct faculty, but there are limits to that.
(We also have an ever-increasing number of unfunded mandates for which we have to hire, and pay, staff. It's our version of 'defensive medicine' – unproductive spending made necessary by arbitrary external interventions. I shudder involuntarily whenever I hear the phrase “reporting requirements.”)
Second, both industries are paid by their input. Hospitals and doctors are paid by the procedure. Colleges are paid by the course. A cynical view would suggest that procedures and course requirements would multiply. A more nuanced view would suggest that from the institution's point of view, innovations that might save money by getting away from input-based payment will get strangled in the crib. (In my darker moments, I imagine that this is part of the subtext of the opposition to outcomes assessment.) When you're paid by time – whether seat time or bed time – the only way to increase productivity (I said productivity, not quality) in economic terms is to raise prices. There is no other way. So we do.
Third, in both industries it's extraordinarily difficult for the novice consumer to judge the quality of one institution against another. To compete for students or patients, both have to spend money in ways that novices will notice. That may or may not correlate with the core function. To the extent that it doesn't, it's yet another cost item. In a competitive environment, expect those to increase continually.
Fourth, and predictably, both sectors are beset with parasites. In health care, they're called “HMO's.” In education, they're called “private student loan providers.” These parasites crawl into the interstices of the system and suck the lifeblood, growing fat on diverted nutrients. They must be expunged. By replacing profit-seeking middlemen with, say, single-payer systems, tremendous recurring savings can be realized. For proof, compare the administrative costs of Social Security to the average administrative costs of 401(k)'s. The math is irrefutable.
'Bending the curve' of cost increase in these two sectors without just watering down the product won't be easy. It will involve upending some longstanding arrangements, and tackling head-on the 'productivity' problem without which no progress can stand. (Interestingly, public support through progressive taxation solves the 'capturing the gains' problem elegantly. If a given institution's public support were correlated, say, to the taxes paid by its graduates...) I'm happy to see a commitment to increased Pell grants, but over the long term, that doesn't bend the curve. The problem is far deeper than a mere moral commitment will solve, as welcome as that commitment is. The political debate, up to this point, has elided the productivity point completely, but it's key to the entire enterprise.
Still, I'm glad to see that folks in the halls of power are finally starting to connect the dots, even if only in a basic way. After so many years of darkness, a glimmer of light is remarkably refreshing.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
What the Stimulus Looks Like From Here
With the state budget suffering badly from declining tax revenues, the Federal stimulus money directed towards K-12 and higher education is coming at a wonderful time. In very short order, we shifted from relatively panicky discussions of layoffs to more thoughtful discussions of long-term restructuring. To my mind, this is clearly to the good; we're likely to make better decisions when we have time to include everybody in them, and if we really get lucky, we may be able to effect long-term savings through actual efficiencies, rather than dilutions or work speedups (stuffing classes fuller, say). And I don't mind admitting that I don't want to lay anybody off. Been there, done that, no thanks.
In my state, although K-12 has claimed a generous portion of the money, there's still a substantial amount left over for higher ed. The amount we've been quoted by the state for next year is more than I had dared hope.
That's the good news.
The rest of the news isn't bad, but it's complicated.
At the Federal level, the stimulus money has been specified as lasting two years. It has been earmarked for education, though states can apply for waivers to that. My state has indicated to us that we should only count on the first year; depending on the state of general revenues next year, it may or may not ask the Feds for permission to divert second-year money from education to, say, aid to cities and towns. Based on current projections, absent a neck-snappingly vigorous economic recovery, we're looking at one or two years of stimulus-funded decent numbers, followed by a drop off a cliff.
In other words, it makes no sense for us to use stimulus money to hire permanent (or tenure-track) employees, since the funding will go away in a year or two. (Some of us happen to believe that hiring people is the very definition of economic stimulus, but never mind that.) The directive on campus, which we're working on developing an inclusive process to actually execute, is to treat the stimulus money as a grant. For our purposes, we're assuming that the purpose of the grant is to position the college to better weather difficult times in the future. So the kind of spending that would be privileged is the kind that involves an upfront cost, but that leads to long-term savings or improved efficiency.
Those tend not to be the first things people on campus think of when asked “what should we do with this windfall?” They tend to think first of restoring cuts, of adding to what's already here, and of hiring. Those are all fun in the moment, but they'd make the fall off the cliff that much harder when it happens.
Instead, we're starting to discuss relatively unsexy stuff, like software for room scheduling. Yes, it's boring, but an upfront investment in the software would probably lead to increased operating efficiency over time, putting us in a slightly better position than we'd otherwise be in when the stimulus money goes away. So far, we haven't done it, since we haven't had the loose cash at any given moment to absorb the upfront cost. Now, it may make sense.
We're also looking at using some of it for upgrading the campus wifi, so we can meet increasing 'hybrid' course delivery needs with netbook carts, rather than fixed 'smart' classrooms. The idea there is that it's far cheaper, over time, and improves access for everybody. It also means that we don't have to make existing classrooms clunky with lots of fixed equipment; when you need the carts, you wheel them in. When you don't, you have the basic classroom, so students don't have to look over monitors. It won't solve every need, but it will work well – and cheaply – for many.
And yes, there's professional development. If budgets are going to get tight in a year or two, all the more reason to improve the existing employees' skills now, while we can. Best case, some carefully-defined professional development leads to improved student performance and retention, which puts us in a better position over the long term (and serves our mission nicely).
So far, popular press treatments seem to have subsumed stimulus money under 'avoiding layoffs' or 'general aid.' There's some of that, but it's better to use what amounts to a breather to position a college strategically, rather than to just postpone the inevitable by a year or two. For once, we actually have the slack in the budget to stomach the upfront costs of some long-term investments that we probably should have made by now anyway. It's not as satisfying immediately as hiring faculty, but if it prevents laying off even more faculty in a couple of years, I'll take it.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I just finished another go-round of policy sleuthing. It usually works like this:
A: So it's settled. We'll implement policy x this Fall. Good job, everyone!
B: Wait a minute. Isn't there rule y that forbids implementing something like policy x unless it's a leap year?
C: Yeah, I remember that. Did that pass the Senate?
B: I think so. Remember that huge fight?
D: I still have nightmares about it.
A: (sigh) So can we get a copy of rule y?
A: Who would have a copy?
C: I think H might.
(later that week)
A: H, do you have a copy of rule y?
H: Why would I have that?
A: Uh, didn't it pass the Senate?
H: No, that came out of the VP's office. Try that.
A: Do you have a copy of rule y?
VP: Rule what?
A: Rule y. The one that forbids implementing something like policy x unless it's a leap year.
VP: (chuckling) Nooooo...
A: Well is there a rule y?
VP: I've never heard of it.
And so it goes. I've seen it before, but somehow, it surprises me every time.
(This is part of why I'm skeptical of many conspiracy theories. They assume a tightness of ship that often just isn't there.)
Over the years, policy sleuthing has led to any number of results. Sometimes the alleged rule actually does exist, but has been intermittently ignored over the years. Sometimes it exists, but in a much narrower form than recently claimed. Sometimes it was proposed but defeated, or proposed but tabled. And sometimes there's just no discernible trace, even though multiple people swear up and down that they remember something about it from several years ago, usually involving somebody pitching a fit.
(The really puzzling part is that the alleged rule is often not in the interest of the person recalling it. So I can't just write it off to wishful thinking or strategic lying.)
I've become a little bolder over the last few years, increasingly calling for a copy of the alleged rule in writing. Sometimes that works, but the ghosts of 'past practice' can be hard to exorcise.
Wise and worldly readers – have you had any particularly weird experiences of policy sleuthing? I'd like to think I'm not alone in this...
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I'm surprised to discover how much they've meant to me.
Monday, April 20, 2009
My Dad died Friday. He was 69.
He was at home. He had battled ALS – Lou Gehrig's disease – for the last several years, and had been in hospice for several months.
The last time I saw him was a few months ago. I had brought a camera with me, but when I saw him, realized that using it would be wrong. He deserved better than to be remembered that way.
He knew it was coming. At the last visit, he made a point of showing me a pile of old family photos, and inviting me to take the ones I wanted. I took several from back when he and Mom were still married.
Toward the end, the blog was the major way he kept up with me, since he had lost intelligible speech to the disease. The last time we tried to talk on the phone, his wife had to put me on speaker, and she translated him for me as best she could. This for a man who once had a voice so rich and gentle that he did public service announcements on a local radio station. Until the disease took speech from him, he never really lost the Tennessee accent, despite living almost fifty years in the Northeast.
When I think of him, though, I don't really think of the last thirty years or so. I think of my first ten, when he was still around a lot, and before the tensions grew. I'm older now than he was then, which seems both obvious and inconceivable.
I remember wrestling with him in the front yard once, laughing as I flipped over his back. He seemed impossibly large, though he wasn't. He took my brother and me to see the local minor league teams play. He thought of himself as a gifted photographer, for reasons known only to him, and I remember him posing us for all kinds of ridiculous shots. In the very early years, I have clear memories of him dancing with Mom in the family room to the Fifth Dimension on the record player. I remember hearing the electric typewriter at night from the dining room while I was trying to fall asleep upstairs.
He was once a night owl, and he always snored like a champion, so he frequently fell asleep almost as soon as he sat down. It used to drive Mom nuts. I once pranked him by putting my Batman talking alarm clock behind the easy chair as he slept, and setting it off. I thought I'd be in trouble, but Mom enjoyed it more than I did.
He took me on several ill-fated camping trips with the cub scouts. I'm not sure which of us hated them more. We could make it rain just by camping.
I remember vividly the day they told us they were divorcing. I can describe where everybody sat. It was the summer before I turned 11. I wasn't much older than TB is now. My brother wasn't much older than TG is now. He told me once that he has no memory of them together.
The years after that were harder. I was the latchkey older kid, so I had to watch my brother until Mom got home. They both remarried, her briefly and him permanently. All that change, plus the usual nerd-goes-through-adolescence stuff, made for a bumpy ride. Sometimes I was able to be reasonably decent about it, and sometimes not. We did the 'joint custody' thing, which is tough in the teen years when you'd really rather be with your friends. To this day, I get a little weird sometimes around packing.
Dad meant well, but some things just weren't in him. He could be courtly, and I don't know if I ever heard him raise his voice. But there was a defeatism in him that could drive me to distraction. There's a brilliant scene in the movie Parenthood where Steve Martin imagines his adult son in a clock tower, shooting at a crowd. Steve Martin grabs the megaphone from the cop to try to talk his son down, and the son shoots it out of his hand. Trying to be encouraging, he yells “good shot, son!” That was Dad. He was maddeningly quick to assume the worst, and to accept it. And the whole “understanding the other person's point of view” thing just didn't take, somehow. Some of the blind spots were so ridiculous that it was hard not to assume malice. But it wasn't malice. He was just blind to some things that most of us consider basic, like grandchildren. The abrupt bull-in-a-china-shop cluelessness never seemed to fit with the gentle and courtly manner. He was always nice to whomever happened to be in the room at the time.
Now he's gone, and I'm a father. TB and TG barely knew him. Much of what I try to do as a father is defined, in part, by awareness of what he did. Having seen the 'divorced dad' thing up close, I want no part of it. And while God knows I've got my flaws and my blind spots, defeatism is not one of them. I will not teach my kids to settle. To deal, yes. To settle, no. There's a difference.
Now he's gone. And for all the ways he left me perplexed at some of the things he did, he was my Dad. He did what he was capable of, and some of it was very, very good. He was once the gentle giant who sat with my Mom on the front porch on a warm night, his hand on her back as they watched the sun set. Maybe nobody else remembers seeing that, but I remember.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Ask the Administrator: The Most Effective Faculty Protest
I'm writing because my large urban public university recently hired a high-profile person who, in a previous job, lost an equally high-profile civil lawsuit against him for sexual harassment, and I wanted to ask for your views on what kind of faculty response to what some of us consider a troubling hire would be most likely to get administrators' attention.
There is some thought of writing a kind of protest letter and making protesting noises to the press -- indeed, some have already been approached by the media for comment.
I was thinking that some kind of "constructive engagement" might be more productive: that is, we might draw more positive attention to the issue of sexual harassment and the need, for example, for effective awareness training and enforcement, if we invite the administrators and the new hire to attend an event on the subject or to issue some kind of supportive statement. (Then, of course, if they refuse, we could, perhaps, decide to make hay of that.)
I'd like to think that with the right approach, the administration could be prompted to meet us halfway, rather than giving a public slap in the face to anyone who thinks that sexual harassment really is a problem in the workplace and that this hire sends the wrong message to a university with a majority female student body.
Are either of these courses likely, in your view, to get us anywhere?
My first thought is a lot depends on the specifics of the case. Presumably, there's the "he was an idiot" level, which is remediable, and then there's the "he's a borderline felon," which isn't.
Assuming we're talking about something closer to the first than the second, you're probably right about constructive engagement.
I'd guess that the people who made the hiring decision were aware of the suit, and took it into consideration. Attacking them now is likely to generate defensiveness and possibly a bunker mentality, neither of which is healthy. (I don't know enough about the case to judge whether their judgment that his talents outweighed this incident is right or not, but it's sort of moot anyway.) If you take the high road and treat it as a teachable moment for the institution, though, you could leverage residual guilt into some very helpful, very public discussions of sexism and sexual harassment generally. On a more Machiavellian level, that would keep a cloud over this guy's head and allow you to come out smelling like a rose.
There's also a question of letting the punishment fit the crime. By indicating a willingness to help the guy do a form of public penance and then move on, you might be able to harness whatever positive talents he has while effectively keeping his weaknesses in check. From this side of the desk, I can attest that anyone can get sued at any time for any reason, and any given case can go in any direction. If a single loss is an automatic career-killer, I'd expect to see some extremely heavy-handed behind the scenes pressure brought to make cases go away. If it's possible to do penance and move on, though, then a lot of that pressure subsides. At that point, the cost of a coverup is probably higher than the cost of revealing it.
I don't mean any of that to make light of sexual harassment. Depending on the specific case, what he did may be beyond what a new institution should be expected to tolerate. But a certain kind of forgiveness – the kind based on memory and publicity, rather than forgetting and secrecy – can actually elevate the climate overall.
And if your attempt to take the high road is spurned, then you have a much stronger case for going nuclear. Savvy administrators will understand that meeting you halfway is much cheaper and easier than going toe-to-toe in defending an idiot.
This approach may or may not work, of course; the administration might just circle the wagons and wait for everything to blow over. If it's stupid enough to do that, then you have the moral high ground for doing all manner of high-cost stuff. But you've got the chance here to turn a bitter conflict into a moment of real cultural change. I say take it.
I suspect opinions and emotions may run strong on this one, so I'll just ask my wise and worldly readers to assume good faith in their responses. Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Ask the Administrator: Chairperson Interview Questions
I was wondering if you could share some questions you might ask a chairperson candidate. Thank you.
Context is huge here. At some cc's, department chairs are elected by the departments, so interviews are either pro forma or nonexistent. At others they're appointed by deans, but wise deans usually take the pulse of the department first. I've also heard of colleges where department chair positions are externally posted, and people are hired into chair positions. I've never been anywhere that has done that, other than one-person departments, but I'm told they're out there.
Chair duties also vary by college and department. I've seen systems in which chairs formally evaluate faculty, and in some they're even responsible for allocating merit raises. In others, faculty evaluation is left to deans, and the chairs primarily tend to class scheduling, adjunct hiring, and administrivia. At some colleges, chairs effectively serve for life; at others, there's an expectation (sometimes formalized) of a fixed and finite term. Sometimes the positions are hotly contested, and sometimes actively avoided. (In the latter case, interviewing is more about recruiting than about screening.)
Those distinctions matter a great deal in determining interview questions. Rather than phrasing questions, I'll address qualities.
To the extent that I have a say in choosing candidates for administrative positions, I tend to focus mostly on motivation and temperament. Intelligence is great, but most college professors have more than enough of that. Great professors become lousy chairs (or deans) where the motivation and/or temperament isn't right. Red flags include:
The resigned “I could really use the course releases.” Run away, run away. If the candidate sees the chair position as a chance to relax, you don't want him. I've actually seen this.
Any sign that the candidate is power-hungry. I've mentioned before using the waiter test, or the secretary test. If the candidate is obsequious during the interview, but cold or cruel to the waiter or secretary, run away. The “kiss up, kick down” personality is toxic to the entire organization. (To my mind, the difference between this and a more constructive ambition is in the focus. Is the drive to be the center of attention, or is it to get things done?)
Thinness of skin. It's possible – difficult, but possible – to have a thin skin and still succeed in the classroom, since there's an element of control there. But in any administrative position, you will be attacked vigorously and repeatedly, often in breathtakingly unfair and/or personal ways. Academia seems to encourage this, for reasons I still only vaguely understand. To be effective over the long haul without resorting to a reign of terror (or giving away the store), you need to be able to maintain relative equanimity while being put on the spot. You have to be capable of refusing the bait. This is related to, but somewhat different from, 'conflict resolution' as it's usually presented. The relevant skill is resolving a conflict to which you've been made a party.
Too much idealism. See 'administrivia,' above. Yes, good chairs bring out the best in everybody. Yes, they provide academic vision and a key leadership role in the trenches. But they also have to get classes staffed, assessment outcomes reports done, budgets balanced, labs or studios maintained, and the like. Nobody enjoys all of those, so I look for people who are capable of, for lack of a better term, sucking it up when necessary. I've seen a few wonderful, successful, well-meaning, widely-respected professors wash out as chairs because they just couldn't be bothered with the little things. I could sympathize, but dealing with those little things is an essential part of the job. This is sometimes disparaged as the 'management' part, as distinct from the 'leadership' part, but it's important. In my first quasi-administrative role at Proprietary U, I quickly drew positive notice by dint of being the first person from the academic side of the house to actually get people information when they wanted it. You'd think this would be basic, but for some reason, it isn't.
Those should be fairly portable across most contexts, I imagine.
Speaking of contexts, I'd like to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen in successful (or, perhaps more importantly, unsuccessful) chairs?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Why I Don't Envy Colleagues at Four-Year Colleges
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.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Getting It Right
It seems like a simple enough point, but it took me years to figure out. Some of that had to do with context, but some of it was a function of visibility.
Bad decisions are hugely and embarrassingly visible. (They're also in the eye of the beholder, much of the time, but that's another issue.) And problems that linger seem to loom larger over time, so the temptation to do something dramatic, or just to do something, can overwhelm deference to procedural niceties. Hear variations on “the administration knows about this, but doesn't do anything about it” enough times, and the temptation to just get stuff done by fiat can be strong.
Thanks largely to some pretty persistent commenters on the blog over the years – I'm thinking of you, Sherman Dorn – I finally started to figure out that some decisions are poisoned by their source. In far too many cases, something coming from the dean's office is automatically suspect simply because it comes from the dean's office, even if it's perfectly reasonable on its own merits. When that's true, there's no such thing as getting it right. That can be terribly frustrating – I may have vented some of that once or twice – but it's also sensible in a certain way.
Thinking in terms of 'jurisdiction,' rather than 'outcome,' has some obvious costs. The most basic is time. Running proposals through inclusive processes takes a whole lot longer than just coming up with an answer yourself. While there are occasional issues where the time issue is simply prohibitive, I've started to notice that most issues that feel urgent at the moment, aren't. Or, to put it differently, they're chronic, and much more amenable to long-term improvement than to a quick fix. (There's a difference between 'important' and 'urgent.' That one took me a while.) When that's true, then setting a process in motion actually counts as progress in itself.
In some settings, too, entrenched players can make a mockery of any process. When too many people are too jaded, and too quick to reduce any new proposal to a set of winners and losers, then the payoff to openness is likely to be limited, if not negative. When the uber-cynics have tenure and a majority, there may not be much to be done about them. That's why God invented job listings. Some wells are just too poisoned to save.
But when the climate isn't prohibitive, a willingness to confine your efforts to process, rather than result, can work wonders.
I've seen this on campus over the last six months or so, and it has given me new hope. This is one of those 'sunspot' years when everything comes to a head at the same time, not the least of which has been the budgetary drama caused by the economy's free-fall and mediated through the state. Early on, some of the usual contours emerged, with the reflexively-cynical retreating to their usual corners before coming out swinging. But as we've been open about the rapidly-changing situation, some of the usual posturing has subsided a bit. There's no shortage of it, certainly, but I've seen a refreshing level of reciprocity recently.
Even in a few recent crises, a reluctance to act quickly has allowed time for the dust to settle, and for a picture that initially looked one way to change importantly. Suppressing the urge to act decisively allowed more time for information-gathering, some of which turned out to matter quite a bit. When confronted with someone all worked up about a perceived injustice, it's not very satisfying in the moment to respond with “let me get back to you,” but sometimes it's the best option. It may look evasive, but if you use the time to dig up more facts, get a more complete picture, and then follow through, it's time well spent.
Administrating is a marathon, not a sprint. The goal isn't to have instant answers, or, in some cases, to have answers at all. It's about improving the conditions, over time, so that people are empowered to develop answers. It takes time, and patience, but it's worth it.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Sunday Nights Since...
The same held true in college, and, weirdly enough, even in grad school. Then in my faculty days, Sunday nights were usually devoted to class prep and/or grading, so the dynamic didn't really change.
For a few years, after entering administration, Sunday nights were relatively calm again. Then I got the bright flippin' idea to start blogging five days a week. And now Sunday nights represent the return of deadlines.
You'd think I would have figured this out by now. But nooo...
Between my own overeducation, this career choice, and parenthood, I've been responding to 'school night' imperatives since 1973, and there's no end in sight.
Granted, there was a minor lull during the intense dissertating period, but that period really taught me that I have a choice in life. I can have deadlines, or I can be a sullen, unproductive lump wallowing in his own angst. I've chosen deadlines, which seems like the right choice about 80 percent of the time.
(I haven't had really good angst since my twenties. I agonize over decisions, but that's not the same thing. Decision agony isn't about what kind of person I am or where I fit in the universe; it's about solving an external problem. It can be stressful, but it's a kind of stress that doesn't shake my emotional center the way so many things seemed to in my teens and twenties. Whether that's 'maturity' or just 'angst fatigue' I'll leave to the psychologists.)
Between parenting and the job, I'm now very much a creature of habits, structures, and deadlines. When those fall away, there's a brief period of euphoric relief, followed quickly by a period of complete non-productivity and a sense of being lost. The blogging is very much a function of the job and the routines of daily life, which is why I usually suspend it for vacations. When it's one deadline among many, that's all it is. When it's the only active deadline I have, it feels oppressive.
Infants are no respecters of external routines, which is why early parenthood is unspeakably tiring. It's one thing to schedule yourself to within an inch of your life. It's quite another to do that, and then have the baby air it out for a few hours overnight. During TB's first year, I literally walked into walls at night. TW still laughs about the time I fell asleep in the middle of my own sentence. (In my defense, I wasn't very interesting.) When you're overcommitted, which early parents generally are, routines are the only thing keeping you from going completely around the bend.
The frustrating part of it is that I'm not the type who elevates (most) routines to Holy Writ. (I'll make an exception for the morning newspaper-and-coffee, which is what separates us from the animals.) The content of most routines is utterly unimportant, and amenable to change. But stuff that doesn't fit into routines tends not to happen, or at least not on any kind of reliable basis. I didn't start going to the gym until I figured out how to incorporate it into my routine; now it's fine.
I should be disturbed that I pay so much deference to constructs that are no better than any other, but somehow, I'm not. It just seems like the only reasonable way to get anything done. I've got four different routes I take to get to work; on any given day, there usually isn't any special reason to choose one over the others. But I do, or I wouldn't get there. It's not worth angsting over, and not worth vesting with any great significance. It's just the price of getting stuff done. Sometimes, even an arbitrary decision is better than no decision.
So I still panic on Sunday nights, facing those school night deadlines that have stood since childhood. And I still resent them, silently envying all the people who can just relax. The difference is that now, I know I just don't have it in me to be one of them.
Friday, April 10, 2009
The Death March
At most cc's that I've seen, students who don't have prior course credit or certain scores on AP or SAT/ACT tests have to take placement tests in reading, writing, and math. Most new students place 'developmental,' meaning that the test shows that they aren't currently performing the particular skill at a level appropriate for college work. (English as a Second Language may or may not be considered remedial, depending on the college. It typically has its own test, the TOEFL.) Depending on the degree to which the student missed the mark for 101-level courses, the student may need anywhere from one to three levels of remediation.
Although intro courses are fairly standard across colleges, developmental courses aren't. Part of that has to do with transfer. Developmental courses don't transfer, since they don't carry graduation credit, so individual campuses usually have considerable autonomy in customizing their own developmental sequences. I've seen some that combine reading and writing into a single course, for example. I've seen others that have three levels of each. In some, the ESL sequence feeds into the lowest level of developmental; in others, ESL is presumed to lead to English 101.
Developmental coursework is usually a tough sell to both the public and the students. The public often isn't wild about it, out of a correct sense that it already paid for that material to be taught by the K-12 system. There's truth in that, but we can either give up on the unsuccessful products of K-12, or not.
The students themselves often resent being placed into developmental classes, especially if they just came out of high school with decent grades. (For reasons that passeth understanding, states that have standardized tests for high school graduation and standardized tests for college placement don't align the two. If I were king of education for a single day...) Developmental courses don't count for graduation, and can be pretty tedious. And according to the national data I've seen, developmental math is often the first and last experience of college for a disturbing number of people.
For a student who shows up expecting a degree in four semesters, to be told that your math or writing skills are so poor that you'll need at least three more semesters before even getting started has to be demoralizing. Many students feel insulted by it, and many more feel ashamed, which doesn't do wonders for their motivation.
In a perfect world, every student would arrive at college literate, numerate, and ready to go. But until that happens, there's a serious challenge to address.
One of the great contributions of data has been to show that no matter the logical or content-based coherence of a sequence, too much remediation is self-defeating. If the march is too long, too many marchers drop out. Some of the expedients various colleges are trying include:
1.Compression of levels. This can be done by combining two courses (reading and writing, or arithmetic and basic algebra) into one course. It can also be done by teaching the courses in shorter formats, so the students can get through quicker. The acceleration approach can work particularly well when the issue isn't so much 'inability' as 'rustiness.'
2.Supplemental Instruction. This involves placing a tutor in the classroom to help students as the class is going on. With peer tutors, it can be cost-effective, though quality can vary. With professional instructors, the quality is high, but the cost is usually prohibitive on a large scale.
3.Cram courses. These are non-course intensive workshops taught in the week or two before a student (re)takes a placement exam. As with the accelerated remediation, they can work pretty well for the adult student for whom rustiness is the real issue, but they're less successful with kids who never got it in the first place.
4.Contextualized remediation. This is the flavor of the month right now. Many grant-funded workforce development programs that target low-income adults use this as a way to get students through certification programs in a relative hurry. The idea is that if you're really there to get a credential in, say, a culinary program, then any developmental courses you have to take should draw on culinary content for their examples. I haven't seen any good data on this one way or the other, although it certainly has an intuitive appeal. The catch is that it really only works in a tight-knit cohort model. If I've got 20 students all enrolling in the same program at the same time, and they all have the same developmental needs, I can do this. But it really can't be generalized to the college as a whole.
Part of my hope in doing this post is that some of my wise and worldly readers will chime in with different models they've seen succeed. My campus, like most others, is trying to improve the success rate of students in developmental courses, but finding it hard to get significant, sustainable results. Any ground-tested hints anyone could share would be greatly appreciated. So, my wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything work on the ground that might be worth a shot elsewhere?
Thursday, April 09, 2009
“DADDY!” Three flying-tackle hugs nearly knock me over.
For the rest of the night, the game was “who can hug Daddy the most.”
TG does those bear hugs that catchers give pitchers at the end of no-hitters. She's still small enough that she can get away with it. TB isn't quite old enough yet to be self-conscious about giving his Dad a big ol' hug after being away for several days. Even TW got in on the group, nearly getting bowled over by TB as he hopped with excitement.
There's something reassuring about that. After four flights in five days, there's something to be said for the scrum at the door.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
AACC Wrapup: A Discussion That Didn't Happen
(Like most people, I sometimes fall into the trap of present-mindedness. Counting backward – saying 'this is what I'd like to see happen in five years; what will I wish then that I had done now to prepare?' can be productive. Spending time with folks farther along in their careers can help answer the question while there's still time to do something about it.)
I heard a great deal about current budget struggles, some political struggles, some success stories, and a fair bit of pep talk. What I didn't hear, though I would have liked to, was a serious, comparative discussion of the best ways to get through recessions.
There's certainly no lack of relevant data. Beside the current one, there's the one-two punch of the 1970's, the batten-down-the-hatches one of the early 1980's, the Gen X “just try paying off your student loans now, beeeyotch' downtown of the early 1990's, and the dot-com aftermath of the early 2000's. With over a thousand cc's in America, most of which date back at least to the 1970's if not earlier, there should be ample evidence for testing plenty of competing hypotheses.
(One President made a passing reference to this with a snide comment about always cutting travel first. The audience chuckled knowingly. I wanted to hear more, but he moved on.)
Most of us have seen the default playbook emerge. You cut travel, and professional development, and replace retirees with adjuncts, and hope for the best. When things recover, you get back maybe half of what you lost. Whoopee.
After multiple iterations of this drill, its limits have become painfully clear. I'd love to see a serious, comparative study on the best ways to weather storms and come out stronger.
My hunch – and that's really all it is – is that the best long-term response will be to rethink the idea of a 'comprehensive' community college. The term was originally coined to describe cc's that include both transfer and career programs, but that distinction is getting harder to maintain in practice. As a guide to action, though, the 'comprehensiveness' ideal suggests trying to be all things to all people. While this was never really possible, it's harder even to sustain the illusion during downturns.
If it were up to me, I'd focus different cc's on different niches. The liberal arts/general education core would be everywhere, since it's needed for everything, but applied/occupational or niche programs would be distributed on a statewide basis. (In a state the size of California or Texas, a single state might have to be divided into multiple regions, but the basic point still stands.) If a single college can reduce its number of programs from, say, a hundred to something closer to fifty, it will stand a better chance of doing those fifty particularly well. If the selections were made on the basis of a multicampus system, the cost in lost 'access' for students could be minimized, and the gain in quality for all students could be significant.
Four-year colleges already do this as a matter of course, so it's hardly unprecedented. And it would allow cc's to stop spreading internal resources so thinly, when the major problem areas tend to be the same everywhere. (Math, science, math, writing, and math, pretty much.) If I could redirect resources from a few of the niche programs to, say, providing supplemental instruction and small class sizes for every math class, I'd expect to see broad gains in student success. The few students in those outlying programs might have to go to a neighboring campus with specialization in what they want, but that isn't the worst of all things. (And to the extent that those students need math, too, a case could be made that even they stand to gain.) As distance learning becomes more established, the transportation cost is probably somewhat reduced.
I could be wildly wrong on this, of course. It may be that if 100 programs are hard to sustain, the answer is to run 120. My point is that the question should be empirically testable. It hasn't been, but it certainly could be.
I don't share the implied confidence of many of my colleagues that this too shall pass, and all will be sweetness and light in a few years. The 'two steps back, one step forward' pattern of the last several recessions seems to have discredited that approach pretty thoroughly. Hint to any Ed.D.'s out there looking for a dissertation topic, or to any funding agencies (I'm looking at you, FIPSE...) looking for a new hook: comparative empirical study of colleges' coping mechanisms, and their long-term aftermath, could fundamentally shift the conversation. The conversations at AACC were great as far as they went, but they need to go a lot farther. We have the tools, the technology, and the talent; we just need the nudge.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
AACC Dispatch, Day Two: Danger Ahead!
In that spirit, I attended a panel on first presidencies, and how the experiences of first-time cc presidents aligned, or didn't, with what the AACC had identified as the core competencies of presidents. It quickly became apparent that several trends are on a collision course, but that we haven't come to grips with that yet. The panelists opened with some basic demographics about cc presidents, noting that their average age keeps increasing, and that 84 percent of them indicate plans to retire by 2016. I'm just old enough to remember the last time someone talked about a “great wave of retirements,” and I know how that movie ended, so color me skeptical. Still, I don't foresee colleges adjuncting-out their presidencies, so there may actually be something to this.
The lack of full-time faculty hiring, and therefore the lack of candidates in the academic pipeline, went unnoted. Nobody referenced the “great wave of retirements,” either.
According to the Iowa State study group, the most common job first-time presidents come from is chief academic officer, or academic vice president. Later in the talk, they mentioned that the fastest-growing area of presidential work is fundraising.
I'll pause for a moment while those two sentences do battle.
Particularly at cc's, chief academic officers tend to be focused within the organization. (I'm assuming a model without a provost. Provosts are sometimes different animals.) They deal with faculty and budgeting and student issues and curriculum, but they don't deal much with fundraising. To the extent that fundraising is coming to define the presidency, it's easy to see a mismatch between the usual path and the necessary skills. A few audience members raised that issue, but nobody quite knew what to do about it.
My fearless prediction is that if the academic side of the house doesn't get more conversant with fundraising, it will lose power to the non-academic side. He who gets the gold makes the rules.
In the four-year (and especially university) setting, this is old news. Many four-year colleges have moved to a model in which the President effectively reports to the development office, and the provost actually runs the internal operations of the college. (It's essentially a CEO/COO split.) But in the cc world, until fairly recently, fundraising has been relatively peripheral. The academic side will have to realize that the game has changed or risk losing standing.
“Follow the money” was very much the theme of the day. I overheard multiple hallway conversations about the relatively low attendance this year, which most attributed to cuts in travel budgets. Discussions of developmental education actually attached dollar costs to attrition, to justify in pure financial terms the cost of investing in strategies that might improve student success. Several vendors at the exhibition hall complained – when they weren't being drowned out by an absurdly loud PA system announcing a raffle or some such – about the lack of traffic. Even the panel on nifty tech tools made a point of noting which tools were free. Most panelists noted in passing that the combination of budget cuts with increased enrollments presents a distinct mathematical challenge, though nobody had a really good solution for it.
None of it was presented in any kind of sinister way. I didn't hear any discussion of union-busting, or how best to exploit adjuncts, or just how far to push tuition before students squeal like pigs. There was none of that. Money shortage was all just presented as matter-of-fact background. Nearly every discussion came back to money, and took a lack of money as an eternal given. I'd long since reached that conclusion myself, but it was still a little bracing to see it assumed so thoroughly.
I'll add, too, that I miss my family even more than I thought I would. Phone calls are great, but they're just not the same. TB extracted a promise of a hug when I get home, even if it's in the wee hours and he's already asleep. He'll get it.
Tomorrow, the last conference post. Then back to our regularly scheduled blogging.
Monday, April 06, 2009
AACC Dispatch, Day One
A few highlights:
- Kay McClenney's panel on Implementing the 'Achieving the Dream' initiative at two colleges was predictably outstanding. She uses a 'guided interview' format when she runs panels, in which she asks the panelists a series of questions that amount to a sort of narrative arc. Given how, uh, let's go with 'windy' college presidents can get, the utility of this format is not to be understated. By relegating them to 'commentator' roles, she was able to extract real value from them while still keeping a tight rein on time and relevance. I was very impressed.
- The highlight of that panel for me was a discussion of the remediation death march. Far too many students who enter the developmental math sequence at the lowest level never make it through. (Weirdly, math and English play out very differently. Apparently, students who fail developmental English usually try again, but those who fail developmental math disappear.) One President noted, correctly, the difficulty of constructing full-time schedules for students who need several semesters of remediation, since they don't have the prereqs to take very much, but they need to be full-time for financial aid and health insurance purposes. McClenney noted that increasing numbers of colleges are experimenting with ways to shorten the death march, whether by compressing levels of remediation, accelerating it, or moving to self-paced formats. This is worth a post in itself, which I intend to do in a few days.
- A panel of Presidents on 'leading during challenging times' ran out of time. This is what happens when Presidents don't have a strong moderator to keep them in line. Still, the substance of it was at least moderately hopeful. They each discussed the fiscal crisis at their respective schools, and the impact it has had on various areas. The panelist who discussed 'transparency' didn't mention the limits of transparency in an ambiguous or rapidly-changing environment; when I asked him about that afterwards, he admitted not having an answer for that. (It was worth a shot.) The highlight here was the discussion of morale. One president offered that “employees should not put leadership in charge of their morale.” It struck me as wise, in its way, though with some pretty obvious limits. Still, it was heartening to hear that my state isn't alone in its suffering.
- Scott Jaschik moderated a panel on immigration issues and community colleges. The major issue here was 'in-state' tuition for undocumented students. I'm developing a theory that says that states with 'county' funding systems for colleges will have more angst around this issue than will states with entirely state-based funding. Could be wrong, but it's probably testable, as soon as I figure out how to operationalize 'angst.'
- A panel on what trustees want in a college President presented dissertation findings on a study conducted of trustees in Illinois. Some of the findings were predictable – strong belief in the cc mission, good communication skills – but some weren't, like a preference for married candidates. (Apparently, some trustees at more rural cc's volunteered a belief that a married president would at least have a trustworthy confidant, and would be less vulnerable to campus intrigue.) In response to an audience question about race and gender, the speaker noted that some expressed preferences for women and/or minority candidates, depending on the needs of the service area and who the last president was. The speaker also recommended that any aspiring presidents in the audience finish their doctorates first. I was a little taken aback to realize that people can get that far on the track without having doctorates. Live and learn.
- The social media panel was fun to watch, but left unanswered the question of audience. If a college establishes a presence on, say, Facebook, does that mean that the Facebook-dwelling high school students of the world will seek it out? I'm inclined to guess not, but the question didn't get addressed. One speaker went to great lengths in outlining a protocol for a strategic plan for campus communications, seemingly missing the point that part of what makes social media interesting is its relative shagginess. Tweets composed by a PR flack are still PR. If students are relatively sophisticated users of social media, which I assume they are, then this strikes me as unlikely to work. We shall see.
- And good luck finding a place to have lunch in downtown Phoenix on a Sunday.
Today, it's once more into the breach, as I go foraging for wisdom in the convention center. Onward!
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Said and Unsaid
(The natives have been weirdly sympathetic. One confessed that although he likes the weather, “there's nothing here.” Another said that if you want an actual downtown, you should go to Tempe. The city has actually outsourced its downtown. As a fan of coastal cities, I'm utterly at a loss.)
The opening reception for the conference itself seemed more sparsely-attended than last year's, which probably reflects budget cuts at the member colleges. (My own college stopped paying for out of state travel several months ago. I'm here through the good graces of IHE.) On Friday I ran into a former colleague who asked who else from my college had come. I told her I was it, though I didn't explain how.
I registered relatively early, my metabolism still being on Eastern time, so I had a chance to read the program at some length. There's far more about leadership development than I remember seeing last year. The program even opens with a joint statement by the AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) which is ostensibly about diversity – it even came with a diversity lapel pin, so we can all be uniformly diverse – but is really about leadership development, mostly at the board and presidential levels. The program also contains a host of panels on leadership development, some emphasizing diversity, some not.
Although nobody is connecting the dots in public, it isn't hard to see what's behind all that. Sparse hiring for full-time faculty over the last few decades is making itself felt farther down (or up) the pipeline. Historically, key administrative leadership started out in the faculty, then climbed the ladder. If you don't hire faculty, you don't develop the farm team. (At my cc, we already have several departments in which chairs almost have to be drafted, since everybody has already done a turn and nobody wants to repeat.) A few years ago I started noticing searches at the dean and vp levels failing; now it's hitting the Presidential level. The short-term response has been a sort of musical chairs among existing presidents, but that doesn't do much to diversify the ranks. And here we are.
Of course, there's also the current funding freefall behind all this. As the CEO of the AACC, George Boggs, noted in his greeting, the current funding situation for cc's nationally is 'daunting,' and many of our responses are 'unprintable.' That's about right. In this situation, the usual narrow strike zone for good administrators – you want people smart enough to do the job, but dumb enough to take it – gets that much narrower, as even the dimmer bulbs figure out that it's largely un-doable.
In that context, Donna Brazile's keynote speech makes sense. I'd seen her from time to time on tv, but had never understood what the fuss was about. In person and at length, though, she's riotously funny. (The look on her face when she described the satisfaction of voting for a younger man – raised eyebrow, indulgent pause – was priceless.) She did a nice job of channeling what many of us have been thinking for the last few months – my favorite was “we finally have a President who understands how to multitask” – and showed real enthusiasm for community colleges and what we do. But the theme of her talk was basically “get up and get moving.” (She phrased it as “this is our moment,” which she repeated several times.) You could read it as the usual call for political involvement, and that was certainly a part of it. But in the context of this year's program, it seemed too like an acknowledgement that it's time for the next cohort to step up. In some ways, it's a remarkably difficult time to do that, but that makes it all the more necessary.
Now someone just has to connect the dots between hiring full-time faculty and developing the next generation of leaders. Hmmm...
Friday, April 03, 2009
The Roving Reporter, Redux
Thanks to the good folks at InsideHigherEd.com, I'll be posting from the American Association of Community Colleges conference over the next several days. The TSA-approved toiletries are packed, the netbook is charged, and The Wife is unpsyched about doing all the childcare for the next several days. Luckily, the AACC comes but once a year.
This is as close as I get to being a print journalist. Given the fate of print journalists these days, it's a nice job to visit, but I wouldn't want to make a living there.
In the interest of maintaining pseudonymity, I've adopted the disguise of a nondescript middle-aged white guy. Works like a charm.
Further bulletins as events warrant.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Canadian Cold Front
Apparently, in response to loss of endowment income, the University of Toronto is considering moving to a prix fixe tuition plan. Every student would pay a flat tuition rate, regardless of the number of credits taken in a given semester. Students are calling it a left-handed tuition increase.
That would soooooo not work at a cc.
I honestly don't blame the students for being upset. Flat-rate pricing may or may not be reasonably okay for traditional-age, full-time students. My SLAC alma mater did that, but with a rigidly traditional student body, it didn't matter much. But at a public institution, where access is part of the point, effectively charging a higher tuition rate for part-time students strikes me as badly misguided.
Part-time students already take a hit of sorts, in that per-credit tuition typically increases annually, so someone who takes four years to finish a 'two-year' degree absorbs three tuition increases rather than one. That's annoying, but there's a certain logic to it. This policy would pretty much eliminate part-time students altogether, and would encourage everyone else to take overloads so they could get through faster. That would lead to a very short-term increase in revenue, followed by a long-term decline, as students either drop out at higher rates (due to burnout) or graduate faster.
If part-time students leave, and full-time students take free overloads, then the university will actually have less revenue supporting the same amount of teaching. Even in purely mercenary terms, it's unlikely to work.
(And just imagine the howls of protest if students couldn't get into required classes, yet had to pay by the semester. "Sorry, kid, the senior seminar is full again. You'll have to try again next semester at full price." Yeesh.)
If the move is part of a deliberate strategy by the university to position itself as exclusively serving the upper tier of traditional students, it may make sense. But if not, it's singularly hamhanded, and exclusionary of the people who need services the most.
Demographic upscaling can be an effective survival move for an individual institution. Upper-income students use less financial aid, retain at higher rates, and are likelier to be plugged in to networks of potential donors. (All those social workers we've graduated over the years tend not to be huge donors, mysteriously enough...) If a particular university manages to gain cachet among the elite, it can leverage that into prosperity. NYU did that in the 1980's, for example. I'd argue that there's a low limit to the number of institutions that can do that, but if yours happens to pull it off, you get to live large for a while.
For cc's, though, even the attempt to do that would miss the point.
I'm happy to have elite students here, and glad that we have a rigorous and well-respected Honors program with an astonishingly good track record of transferring students to some places you've heard of. To the extent that the recession drives more high achievers here, if only for the cheap tuition, they may start to help us shed some of the cc stigma among the professional classes. That's great. And the teacher in me recognizes that sometimes it's refreshing to have a few high achievers in the class. I get that.
But those aren't the people who need public higher ed the most. If they didn't come here, they could go elsewhere. We're here for the people who have to work their way through school, for returning adults and kids who are the first generation to attend college at all. The whole point of taking public funding is serving the entire public, not just the ones who can afford to devote themselves to nothing but full-time study without economic strain.
I usually think of Canada as America with brains. But this idea is bad enough, and cold enough, that I think we're starting to rub off on them.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Thoughts on Libraries
The objection struck me as unfair – I have a day job and young children, people – but it's certainly true that libraries have changed in ways that reward close attention. Since I haven't been able to pay that kind of attention, I'll cheat and ask my wise and worldly readers to fill in some blanks.
I'm old enough to remember card catalogs, microfiche, periodical rooms, and photocopying journal articles from bound volumes for interlibrary loan. (For reasons I've never understood, bound compilations of journals were always really tight, and with no margins at all, so photocopies always lost several letters on one side of the page to the black stripe of death. Readers of a certain age have probably had the experience of trying to piece together the meaning of a badly photocopied article, mentally filling in the gaps created by that black stripe of death. Good times...) Back then, libraries were all about paper and desks. At Snooty Liberal Arts College, seniors writing honors theses got individual assigned library carrels, which became status symbols of a sort. In grad school, carrels in the graduate student reading room were almost totemic in their significance. Libraries were places for quiet study, though occasional undergraduate couples used them as makeshift hotels.
With the advent of electronic databases, laptops, social networking, generation Y study habits, and Starbucks, though, libraries' missions have changed in some pretty fundamental ways.
At my cc, the culture clash between the young techies who study in groups and always have, and the (largely older) students who use libraries as havens of quiet study, is getting worse. The younger group-study crowd isn't just shooting the breeze; it's doing the kinds of things that previous generations did more quietly, and often in other places. On a commuter campus, the library is often one of the only places (along with the cafeteria) where students can meet in neutral territory. The old 'shushing' model isn't a good fit here.
But by the same token, students with children at home, or from crowded homes, often need a quiet haven in which to study. I'm still enough of a throwback to think that sometimes, it just comes down to a student, a math book, some paper, and a whole lot of focus. If that kind of uninterrupted quiet isn't available at home, the campus library seems like a fair and reasonable place to look for it.
The encroachment of electronica into the library also brings noise issues. Everything beeps, or plays ringtones, or vibrates loudly. For libraries that still provide student computer labs – these seem to be fading, but they're still around – issues of noise, and space, and temperature, and tech support, and the inevitable pornography abound.
(A college librarian I used to work with mentioned once that the library saved thousands of dollars annually on toner and paper by instituting a penny-a-page charge for printing from the computers. The savings weren't primarily from the increased revenue, which was trivial. It came from the deterrent effect that even a nominal charge had on often-inappropriate printing. Some skin in the game meant much less skin in the printer. There's a lesson in there somewhere.)
When I wander the library now, which I've been known to do from time to time, I see plenty of students at tables and desks, a fair number in the lobby, and absolutely none in the stacks. It still gives me pause.
I've heard of libraries selling coffee and all the fashionable sorta-Italian offshoots of coffee as a combination revenue-enhancer and traffic generator. Back in the day, such a thing would have been unthinkable. At SLAC, the only place you could drink coffee in the library was a poorly lit back room in the basement, with furniture I would describe as 'hostile.' Nowadays, we reserve that kind of treatment for smokers. In the post-Starbucks world, though, the idea of mixing caffeine with laptops and/or books has become normal. For the record, I'm thoroughly on board with this change. Close reading and caffeine go together. This is all to the good. And if it makes a few bucks on the side, even better.
At the cc's I've seen, 'information literacy' and its subset, 'bibliographic instruction,' take up huge and increasing amounts of library staff time. I don't recall any of that happening twenty years ago. Anybody else remember index cards? (I'm feeling especially old this week.)
I know I'm just scratching the surface, and that the focus of a library at a community college is likely to be different than one at a research university, for perfectly valid reasons. But I'll throw this one out to my wise and worldly readers. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you're suddenly in a position to have some say over the future direction of the library at your cc. Given the directions of things, what positive changes would you support?