Friday, May 29, 2009

 

Top Ten Tips for Graduation Speakers

1. Brevity


2-10. See #1

Thursday, May 28, 2009

 

The Boy Turns Eight

The Boy is eight today. He looks ten, but he's eight. It's a fun age to watch, since it's still very much part of childhood, but he's starting to show signs of noticing more than his family.

Last night I took him to get a new bike, since he had outgrown his old one. On the way home:

TB: Dad, I think the girls at school all like me and Ian.

DD: Why?

TB: Well, they're always asking us to be princes in their games. And I'm like, “can't you see that I'm fighting Darth Sidious?” It's annoying!

DD: Hmm.

TB: And they're always asking me to double date.

DD: To do what?

TB: You know, dating.

DD: What do you mean?

TB: On the swings. When you're swinging with somebody, and you line up with them so you're going up when they're going up, that's double dating.

DD: Oh. I didn't know they called it that.

TB: Yeah, it's fun. But it's annoying when I'm playing a game and they want to date.

There's an age at which fighting Darth Sidious is serious business.

Cynicism hasn't occurred to him yet. I don't know how much longer that will be true – with half my chromosomes, I'm amazed he's made it this far – but I'll take it. He still gives me enthusiastic hugs when I get home, and means it. He's remarkably mature with his sister, and genuinely considerate of other people. Even when he's annoying – usually, when he has more energy than he knows what to do with – there's no malice to it. He just bubbles over.

He's always been that way. Back in the crib days, he couldn't fall asleep in less than an hour, and someone had to be with him. I spent many hours lying on my back outside his crib, my arm vertical, holding his hand through the slats. Eventually I'd head downstairs – usually starting with a crawl, so he wouldn't notice I'd left – only to be stopped cold by his bellowing “MOMMAY! DADDAY! GOT POOPAYS!”

Luckily for us, he's sometimes able to channel all that energy at a single point for a while. Last Christmas we got him one of those elevendy-godzillion piece Lego kits. He absconded with it to the basement, emerging eight hours later with a fully-realized airport, complete with revolving doors and airline stickers. I couldn't do that now. Since his parents are hopelessly retro, he has an overflowing bookcase in his room, but no tv or computer. Combine 'long attention span,' 'tired parents,' 'lots of books at hand,' and 'strict limits on tv and computer time,' and the kid has developed insane reading habits. He blasts through books faster than we can keep up. At this point, a standard every-other-week library run nets about ten books for him, mostly on tornadoes or UFOs. He also writes his own stories, mostly in the adventure genre. Each new story is a family event, read aloud to all of us.

Underneath all the energy, he's a disarmingly sweet kid. He still thinks his parents are cool, and he's touchingly unguarded in his affections. I know those will change soon enough, and each birthday brings that change closer, but I'm in no hurry. Eight is still safely in kid territory. Mom and Dad are still cool. School is still fun. UFOs are still real. Battles with Darth Sidious still trump swinging with girls.

I'll just hold onto that a little longer. Happy birthday, TB.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

 

Men

Last week, IHE had a story about a conference dedicated to addressing the relatively low rate of college attendance by men. Apparently, suggestions from the conference included gender identity workshops run by Student Life. And the comments to the article quickly became rants against gender studies, liberal academics, and the dangers of perverting the Timeless Truths.

Uh, no.

I mentioned a little while back that it's raining men here. The percentage of male students here has been climbing for the last several years, and the recession seems to be giving it a conspicuous boost. Male students are still a minority, though mostly in the over-21 age group. In the traditional-age cohort, it's almost even. I've asked our local IR people to run some numbers, since we have several trends going on simultaneously, and I'm not sure how they're related: our students are getting younger, more male, and more non-white. I'm not sure if, say, 'more male' is mostly a function of 'younger,' or if the trends are independent. Anecdotally, it seems like the age shift is driving everything else, but I couldn't prove it at this point.

(The AACC fact sheet doesn't disaggregate the numbers at this level, so it's hard to tell if my cc is typical.)

To the extent that the gender imbalance is mostly among the non-traditional ages, the line of comments that draws on Eternal Truths about Young Manhood seems misplaced. It's the older guys who aren't here. And even that group seems to be starting to find its way here, though the numbers are still low and somewhat sketchy.

When I was at Proprietary U, the student body was primarily male and about half non-white. There was a palpably different feel to the culture, though I don't know whether the chicken or the egg came first. The students – a self-selected lot, to be sure – were bracingly pragmatic and career-focused, and often struggled with the nuances of 'professional' culture. Speeding tickets were a constant topic of conversation. Teaching there involved spending a significant amount of time getting students past their knee-jerk cynicism about anything new.

It's hard to know how representative that is, though, given how aggressively the school marketed itself as career-focused. Aspiring history majors didn't go there.

The culture here is different, though to what extent that reflects gender, as opposed to a wider range of majors, is anybody's guess. Some of the issues still hold, though.

Rather than postulating Grand Unified Theories of Masculinity, the line of inquiry I think might actually be useful would involve figuring out how to improve the chances that the growing cohort of young minority men on campus will succeed. This is the group with the historically-highest rates of attrition, so the payoff from successful interventions could be quite high.

Going out on a limb, my first guess is that the most successful interventions won't be particularly based on gender. If anything, they'll be based on developmental math. That's where the attrition bloodbath always hits. (Women's Studies has little, if anything, to do with it. Basic algebra is the killer. Attrition is highest in the first semester, when nobody even takes Women's Studies.) Get past that, and all things are possible.

I've seen the Great Recession called the “he-cession,” since it has hit the historically male-dominated industries hardest. To the extent that's true, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see increasing numbers of men coming back to school in the next few years. The unionized blue-collar aristocracy has taken a direct hit in this recession, and there's no sign of the hit being temporary. What was once a fairly viable alternative to college, isn't anymore. Yes, far too many men will be diverted into the criminal justice system – that's another post entirely – and some will find success through the military or small business. But the huge numbers who used to be able to make a decent living working for somebody else without first getting a degree are losing that option. We're already seeing more of them here, and I'd be surprised if the trend didn't continue.

All of this is by way of asking that we get past the silly and tiresome pc battles and look at facts on the ground. This isn't about feminazis or Jungian verities or literary theory. It's about math, and jobs, and financial aid, and alternatives. Get serious about addressing those, and the political kabuki will be revealed for what it is. The men will find their way here. The trick will be in enabling them to succeed here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

 

Learning Not to Answer

I've had variations on this conversation several times recently:

Professor: There's option A and option B, and I guess technically there's option C. This clique wants A and that clique wants B. What do you think we should do?

DD: I really don't care, as long as the decision process is valid.

Professor: But what if they choose C?

DD: Then they choose C.

Professor: But C is terrible!

DD: Could be. But if they need to discover that for themselves, so be it.

At a certain level, this could be read as 'evasive,' and in a way, it is. But when things haven't been that way in the past, it actually leads to a hell of a lot of work. The inevitable follow-up conversation goes like this:

Professor: So our process is, the chair chooses.

DD: That's not a process.

Professor: I know. But so-and-so can't be trusted, and such-and-such filed a grievance umpteen years ago, and...

DD: (sigh) Okay, but it's still not a process. You need a process that you could describe in the newspaper and defend in public.

Which leads to a frustrating series of conversations about 'past practice,' and personalities, and long-forgotten administrative decrees, and several layers of policy sleuthing. We get the union involved, and the usual political machinery starts to grind. Which leads to this conversation:

Prof.: This is taking forever! Can't we just decide A for now, and finish setting up the process later?

DD: No, because then you've established a past practice. The precedent is toxic.

Prof.: So you want B instead?

DD: You're missing the point. We have to set up a valid process and honor its result.

Prof: We just need a decision!

DD: All the more reason to finish setting up the process.

Prof: AAARGH!

DD: I know the feeling...

If your horizon of caring is limited to the decision at hand, my responses are probably just maddening. But if you understand that decisions lead to other decisions, the process focus makes sense. I've been doing this long enough to know that the standard countermove when somebody 'loses' is to trot out the old warhorse “how was this decision made?” All those picky little process points that are so tempting to skip are precisely what keep you out of hot water once the call is made. Cut corners on process, and you're wide open to charges of favoritism or worse.

(The issue of timing is a no-win. If there's an urgent issue at hand, there's not enough time to clean up the process. If there isn't an urgent issue at hand, there isn't the political will to address the process. Either way, it's never the right time. Comes with the territory.)

The easy way around all that is the Corporate America solution of empowering managers to actually make decisions. But higher ed as a culture is based precisely on not doing that. I like to think that the truth lies somewhere in between – corporations easily succumb to ADHD, while within higher ed, I've seen 'institutional memory' become dead weight – but in the system we have, a process focus seems like the best we can do. It's just a whole lot harder to execute than it looks.

Friday, May 22, 2009

 

Fun with Cognitive Dissonance

Both of these stories make sense on their own terms. But taken together, they neatly capture the basic dilemma in my world.

I've mentioned before that I don't live or work in California, and right now, I'm feeling pretty good about that. The state budget there has tipped from 'tragedy' to 'farce,' with devastating consequences for public higher ed. From what I can tell as a non-native, it looks like a pair of structural flaws in state government -- two-thirds majorities needed for budgets, and a non-system of government-by-referendum -- have collided with the Great Recession to force a crisis. Since cc funding there doesn't apparently include local tax support, and the colleges themselves can't raise tuition individually, the only path left open to them is to reduce capacity to what the voters are apparently willing to pay for.

Yet at the exact same time, there's a crying need -- and a political push -- for an educated workforce, and cc's are often the lowest-cost and most accessible avenues to create that.

I see this in my own state. We don't export oil, and the old manufacturing base isn't coming back. If there's going to be a sustainable middle class in the future, it will have to have skills. But the very places adults can go to get those skills are taking nasty cuts.

The disjuncture between national policy and state control leads to some very weird outcomes on the ground. In many states, 'stimulus' funding is being consumed almost entirely by existing deficits, since states aren't allowed to run deficits. (Some do, but they aren't supposed to.) When the Feds are pushing the accelerator while the states are slamming on the brakes, it shouldn't be surprising that we're experiencing some jarring fits and starts. There's a really basic structural flaw here, and California just happens to be highlighting it.

Why don't we have a national system for higher ed?

In a way, local or state reluctance to invest in higher ed makes a certain degree of sense. Young, newly-educated people have a way of leaving. At the national level, that's a good thing; we want the talent to go where the opportunities are. But locally, explaining to the folks who aren't going anywhere why they should subsidize other people getting the hell out of Dodge can be a tough sell. ("Let's face it -- this place is a real shithole!" You don't hear too many campaign speeches saying that.) Why, say, Buffalo should prepare its best and brightest to get out of Buffalo is a real question.

But the "we don't capture the gains" objection largely fades away at the Federal level. Most of the new grads who leave the state of their alma mater -- itself a minority -- don't leave the country. On a national level, we do capture the gains.

In a way, we're backing into a Federal system. As the percentage of public higher ed budgets covered by state support has decreased, most of the costs have shifted to students. Since so much of student financial aid is Federal, we're effectively replacing state money with Federal. But we're doing it in a context in which states set the ground rules. A Keynesian burst at the Federal level gets neutered on the ground by state-level deficit hawks. (I don't know if it's possible to neuter a burst, or if hawks know how to neuter anything, but bear with me.) Nationalizing the system would allow the rules to match the emerging logic of the system. And it wouldn't be 'socializing,' since these are public institutions already. It would just relocate them to a level of government that can actually handle them.

So, wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should we move public higher ed to a national system?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

 

The Platinum Rule

Twice in the last month, I've been in meetings at which somebody suggested that the solution to some ongoing dilemma was to use “the platinum rule.” As it was explained to me, the platinum rule is understood in contrast to the golden rule. The golden rule is to do unto others as you'd have them do unto you; the platinum rule is to do unto others as they'd want done unto them. In other words, reject reciprocity as an ideal, in favor of something like empathy.

There may be settings in which this makes sense. But as a guideline for academic administration, it's a howler of the first order. It's a spectacularly bad idea. It's so deeply wrong that I have to wonder if I'm missing something, since no intelligent person who gave it a minute would knowingly endorse an idea of such colossal wrongitude. Yet it persists.

First, and most obviously, some wants are simply inappropriate. They're selfish, or unrealistic, or antithetical to the direction of the organization. Applying the platinum rule to a 'me-first' employee is a train wreck waiting to happen. Prima donnas want exemptions to general rules, on the grounds of their own inherent specialness. The platinum rule suggests indulging them. If you've ever managed people, you know what happens when you say 'yes' to selfish and/or idiotic requests: you multiply them. When you reward prima donna behavior, you'll get more of it. Good luck with that.

Second, wants are not fixed. They're contextual, often relative (or 'positional'), and somewhat malleable. Sometimes they're even internally contradictory. Henry Ford once said, correctly, that if he'd asked the public what it wanted, it would have said faster horses. Any parent has lived through the kid indifferently rejecting an activity, only to love it once pushed into it. Which was the true want?

Too, some people are so acutely attuned to status that they want whatever their coworkers have, plus one. (It's a variation on the teenage girl who wants to be just like all her friends, but a little bit prettier.) If you have more than one person like this – and you do – then want-fulfillment is literally impossible.

Besides, how do you judge one person's wants against another's? Assuming finite resources, what basis would you have for judging competing claims? Whose wants count? Students want more and faster service, but staff want shorter hours and lighter workloads. Whose wants count? Adjuncts want full-time jobs, but taxpayers want lower costs. Who wins?

No. This is nonsense on stilts. Appeasement is not an ethic.

Managing expectations is a basic part of managing people. I've known some cc faculty who believe that they're properly entitled to the 2/2 teaching load of the faculty at Flagship State, though they're curiously silent about the research expectations. I've seen employees who honestly believe that the college is run for their benefit. And yes, I've seen administrators who manage out of ego, which can never really be satisfied. No matter how sincerely these wants are held, they're inappropriate. The mission of the college is the point. If your wants are contrary to the mission of the college, then you should probably find someplace else to work.

In this role, the ethical guideline I've found most useful isn't gold or platinum; it's newsprint. If a given action or decision made the local paper, would I be able to defend it? I don't define 'defend' as 'get universal agreement,' since that's just not reality. But responding to requests with something along the lines of "what would this look like if it were generalized?" can bring a certain impersonal clarity, and can take personal preferences out of the equation. If the biology departments gets special treatment, how will the math people feel about it when it comes out (which it inevitably will)? That necessarily entails saying 'no' to some wants, but most people have shown themselves capable of adapting their wants to some basic parameters.

Am I just getting the platinum rule wrong? Is there some validity to it that I'm just not seeing?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

 

When the Boss is Awful

In response to yesterday's post, several commenters asked variations on "well, okay, but what if the dean is a jackass? What then?"

It's a fair question.

My first response would be that designating somebody an asshat should be a 'residual' explanation; in other words, don't resort to that until all other reasonable explanations have failed. In my observation, it's too frequently the first assumption rather than the last one. But yes, sometimes it's true. Some people gravitate towards these roles for all the wrong reasons, and they play out their psychodramas in ways that poison the organization. And one inarguable downside of tenure is exceptionally low mobility for non-superstars, so it's hard to just walk. Given a low-turnover environment, a petty tyrant can hang on for years, with his victims effectively trapped.

Although lousy bosses come in a bewildering variety of flavors, the most common ones I've come across in academia have been the Raging Narcissist and the Church Lady.

The Raging Narcissist -- usually male, but not always -- thinks that it's all about him. Although they're sometimes selfish, their real calling card is an inability to tell where they end and other people begin. That's why they can be incredibly invasive, and yet easily wounded. If everything is either 'by' them or 'to' them, then bad outcomes must be the result of bad people doing bad things to them. These guys will turn on you in a moment if they feel betrayed, which is their usual reaction to disappointment. Generally, they're incredibly dangerous, and to be avoided whenever possible.

If you're lucky, the raging narcissist can be appeased or distracted. If not, then the choices boil down to 'walk' or 'war.' The most effective weapon against these folks is usually their own indifference to official policies and equal treatment. Since they think in terms of 'friends and enemies', rather than, say, 'reciprocity,' they usually indulge in some pretty blatant favoritism. As soon as that crosses a protected class, you've got them.

The Church Lady -- usually female, but not always -- is the micromanaging control freak who mistakes 'means' for 'ends' without even knowing it. They live and die by administrivia, and love nothing more than holding grudges for years on end. They can usually be spotted by their use of the word 'integrity' to oppose any change, ever. They derive actual glee from being able to say "gotcha!," and they live in terror that someone will do it to them.

Church ladies can be useful support staff, since they're detail-oriented in the extreme, but they should never be entrusted with power. I've seen well-meaning church ladies utterly crush the people who report to them, through the sheer weight of micromanagement and blame. They're deathly afraid of the loss of control, and underlings with ability represent threats to their control.

I've had slightly better luck in dealing with the church ladies than with the raging narcissists, because I've discovered -- entirely by accident, but still -- that in most cases, nothing bad happens after the 'gotcha!' When you react to a 'gotcha!' with 'yup, my bad. I'll fix it,' they almost physically deflate. There's simply no follow-through, since their worlds are almost entirely imaginary. My nearly-foolproof method for handling these is to call their bluffs early and often. It drives them nuts, but that's because it works. (In fairness, this strategy may work more easily for men. Church ladies are often weirdly deferential to men who don't take them very seriously. I'll leave the reasons to the psychologists.) Once you've called their bluff a few times, and realized that the sky won't fall, they quickly move from scary to just annoying.

Of course, each lousy boss brings a fresh flavor of suckitude to the world. Wise and worldly readers -- what types of lousy deans or bosses have you had?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

 

Speaking Like a Hedgehog, Hearing Like a Fox

If you haven't yet seen Tenured Radical's wonderful post on how to think like an administrator, check it out. Most of it seems like common sense, but for some reason, it isn't.

(I'm especially taken with her friend's memoir, entitled I Am Outraged That!. It's probably possible to come up with a less productive posture than moral indignation, but it would take work.)

Much of her piece is devoted to the idea that faculty should educate their administrators, rather than just attacking them. I'll add that it goes both ways.

In the old story of the hedgehog and the fox, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing really, really well. By the hedgehog's standards, the fox is a dilettante. By the fox's standards, the hedgehog is hopelessly provincial. In a way, they're both right. Substitute 'faculty' for 'hedgehog' and 'administrator' for 'fox' and you've pretty much got it. If hedgehogs want foxes to understand them, getting mad at them for not being hedgehogs is unlikely to help.

(This is also probably why good academic admins are relatively rare, and why wonderful professors often crash and burn in the dean's office. The skills of the hedgehog and of the fox are different in some fairly basic ways. Some people are good at both, but fewer than we'd hope.)

For example: a professor makes a request for an expense on behalf of her program. She's convinced, based on years of experience in the trenches, that the purchase would make a real difference for her students. The administrator in question sees the request as setting a problematic precedent for other programs, so he says no. What should be her next step?

1.Sullen carping, secret drinking, depression, etc.
2.Indignant pouting, and/or impassioned yelling, taking the position that The Administration doesn't care about Excellence or Virtue or Beauty or Truth and that it's all of a piece with corporatization you suits are all the same and blah blah blah.
3.Petitions, whispering campaigns, 'mobilizations,' etc.
4.“Really? Why not?”

It should be easy, but far too many fail this question. Answer one renders you irrelevant. Answer two gets you typecast as yet another overentitled narcissist, to be humored occasionally but not to be taken seriously. (Astute readers will notice here that one form of typecasting begets another.) Answer three starts a war of attrition. (Notice, too, that one, two, and three all fail to address the concern about precedent.) Answer four actually provides the possibility of conversation. Better, answer four allows for each person to teach the other.

I've been lucky enough to have had several variations on four recently. In each case, real conversation helped us distinguish between “no way” and “not this way,” and to find other ways to address the actual underlying concern. After some back-and-forth – usually several times over a week or two – a new solution emerged that still addressed the original animating concern, but without the red flags. Although some would call that 'compromise' – and sometimes that's accurate – at its best, it's closer to something like 'refinement.' The resulting idea is measurably better than the original, because it won't trip over itself in ways that the fox would see and the hedgehog likely wouldn't. It takes time, and a certain self-awareness (“why do I want this in the first place?”), and mutual good faith, but it can result in solutions that can actually hold up over time.

The great thing about the 'refinement' option is that it plays to the faculty's signature strength. These are blisteringly intelligent people; when they have all the relevant information, they can come up with amazing solutions. The catch is that, in the course of their jobs, they rarely have occasion to get all the relevant information. Given what the fox can see, and some time, and a sense of being taken seriously, all that intelligence can work wonders. But that can only happen if both the fox and the hedgehog are willing to actually listen to each other.

Thanks, TR, for getting this discussion going. As a hedgehog-turned-fox, I have a soft spot for visions of the two actually working together.

Monday, May 18, 2009

 

Dispatch from Suburbia

(Readers with pronounced visceral objections to suburbia might want to skip this post.)

This weekend we went to the first minor-league game of the year, which is always a glorious and welcome event. As regular readers know, I consider minor league games one of life's great pleasures. For eight bucks a seat, we were about eight rows from the field, closer to home plate than to third base. (By contrast, the New York Yankees attempted to sell comparable seats for $5,000 each this year. I'll admit some schadenfreude when that plan crashed and burned.) The home team was victorious, the hot dogs cheap, the fries crispy, the weather glorious, and the parking easy. One of TB's classmates was there, too, so TB and his friend spent most of the game clowning around with each other, which is as it should be.

Actual exchange between The Wife and me, about halfway through the game:

TW: That pitcher has really long legs!

(pause)

DD: I think you and I watch the game differently.

Inspired by the example, TB and I spent the next morning playing catch in the backyard. Catching a baseball is about the only athletic skill I actually possess, so I gloried in my unaccustomed competence as I taught him which part of the mitt to use, and how to block a grounder with his body. We both had fun, him in the learning and me in the sense of passing something along. My grandpa played semi-pro ball in his youth, and I remember him trying valiantly to teach me to pitch. It didn't work, but I enjoyed the attempt, and I think that's about where TB and I are now. There's something comforting in that.

Sunday afternoon was devoted to car shopping. TW's car is eight years old and showing its age, and we have some travel coming, so it was finally time. (We both subscribe to the “buy it new and drive it into the ground” school.) I'd been doing some background research for about the last six months – 'nerd' plus 'internet' plus 'well-honed procastination skills' equals six months, apparently -- but this time we bit the bullet and actually went to a dealer.

The first part of our decisionmaking process went like this:

DD: Chryslers and Chevys suck, so they're out.

TW: I don't like Fords.

So, off to Honda we went. I mention this just to shed some light on the whole 'bailout' thing. None of the big three was even in the running. Until they are, I just see the bailouts as throwing good money after bad. “We must save them, or the Sebring will be no more!” I see the situation, but I don't see the problem.

Apparently, it's very much a buyer's market for cars right now. I've never been terribly adept at dealing with salespeople in the past, but this time they were falling all over themselves to make the sale. Simply 'looking vaguely uncomfortable' became a successful negotiating tactic. Just tell them you're off to another dealer to comparison-shop, and watch the price drop. I'd never seen anything like it.

For TB and TG, of course, cars in a showroom are basically jungle gyms. They immediately gravitated to the gargantuan SUV, taking turns pretending to drive while TW and I pantomimed being run over. Somehow there's nothing funnier to a four-year-old girl than sitting behind the wheel of an SUV the size of my grad school apartment, watching Mommy and Daddy silently scream in terror before flopping on the hood. I hope she doesn't recall the scene in some future therapy session.

Returning home, TB went to work on his diorama of the South Pole, complete with styrofoam glaciers and two-tone clay penguins.

Thus concludes this week's dispatch from suburbia. Tomorrow, we return to our regularly scheduled ironic detachment.

Friday, May 15, 2009

 

Cuts and Morale

Yesterday's IHE had an article about faculty and staff morale during budget cuts. It's worth reading, but the comments are even more so.  They're a pretty good microcosm of what can happen in the absence of trust.

Longtime faculty and staff have been through previous rounds of fiscal crisis, so there's a sense in which some of them know the usual drill.  This time is different, though, both for its depth and for its uncertainty.  When you combine rapidly-plummeting tax receipts at the state level with a Federal stimulus that's sort of being made up on the fly, it's harder than usual to get your bearings.  Fear plus uncertainty can equal low morale.

The comments to the article reflect some schadenfreude, some class hostility (both ways), and some poorly thought out comparisons to the corporate world.  Most of those largely miss the point.

Education is a creative enterprise.  As Jeff Angus likes to say, for us, the talent is the product.  In this kind of setting, the job of management is to set the conditions in which creative workers can do their best work, given obvious resource constraints.  (And yes, part of the job involves finding new resources.)  When times are flush, that means fostering good growth.  When times are tight, or declining, that means affirming the value of the people there even while doing the necessary triage.  

I've been struck on my campus by the degree to which morale has held up.  There's some grumbling, but the odd virtue of the Great Recession is that it's so big and obvious that nobody can credibly claim that budget cuts are merely the fault (or whim) of local management.  In fact, it's given us an admittedly perverse opportunity to show that we're all in this together.  

To the extent that we've been able to cushion morale from the kind of blows it could have taken, some of the measures have included:

- unprecedented openness with faculty and staff about priorities, processes, and the vagaries of the state budget.  Annoyingly, some of the openness has included saying "we don't know," because so much of the external picture is in such flux.  But it has the virtue of being true, and telling the truth at least shows respect (even when it's not the truth you would have preferred). In terms of venues, we've had all-campus meetings, online discussions, multiple committees, and repeated and sustained opportunities for people to contribute ideas.  The good news is twofold: people from all corners of the college have come up with useful ideas, and they have appreciated being asked and listened to.

- avoiding (most of) the stupid little symbolic cuts that generate more anger than savings.  We haven't cut chalk, or paper, or photocopying allowances.  I've lived through that elsewhere, and it doesn't really help.  People often develop even costlier work-arounds, and the ill will generated far outlasts the moment.  Some things are just costs of doing business.  I'd rather cut one program entirely than starve every program of the basics that it needs to teach students.

- management pay freezes.  We're not getting raises until everybody does.  To follow 'cries of poverty' and 'tuition increases' with 'management pay raises' leaves a bad taste.  Besides, at a really basic level, fair is fair.  The credibility gain is well worth a couple percent.

The common denominator to all of these is a conscious effort to show respect. Gratifyingly, I'm seeing signs of it being reciprocated.  Telling the truth and sharing sacrifice are both signs of respect.  Listening is a sign of respect. Admitting in public when you're wrong is a sign of respect. These don't substitute for large infusions of cash, but they certainly help us weather the storm without turning on each other.  The faculty here is starting to trust that this time, nobody is crying wolf.  And nobody is using the crisis as an excuse to further some sinister agenda.  

Honestly, I have to thank my wise and worldly readers for having spent the last few years helping me get prepared for this.  The oft-repeated comments calling for inclusion and transparency finally started to sink in, and I'm finally able to do something with them on the ground.  Thank you for that.

Of course, if the economy would decide to stabilize, that would help, too.  But until then, we do what we can do.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

 

Seats at Graduation

Dear Students,

Thanks for all your hard work, sacrifice, and tuition. In appreciation of all you've done, we'll allow you to bring any three people you like to graduation. If your circle of family and friends is bigger than that, tough cookies.

Love,

College


Somehow, this just seems wrong to me.

It's true that community colleges sacrifice some of the trappings of The College Experience. There's less frisbee and hacky sack than might be found elsewhere, we don't do dorms, and 'frills' in general are pretty sparse. We don't get into controversy about Presidents as graduation speakers, since we don't get Presidents as graduation speakers. (Not that we wouldn't be open to it...hint, hint...) But even we usually like to give students the option of a real graduation ceremony, complete with academic regalia, Pomp and Circumstance, and beaming parents, spouses, and children bearing witness.

At my cc, as at so many others, graduation is held in the gym. Nobody is terribly happy about that, but it's by far the largest indoor venue we have. We could always risk going outdoors, but in my neck of the woods, you just can't guarantee nice weather on any given day. (Even with a huge wedding tent, you'd still have people crossing wide muddy fields on foot in their good clothes. Not good.) We don't have an arena like the major universities do, and renting civic centers and the like is often cost-prohibitive and a parking nightmare. (Actually, 'parking nightmare' is pretty much inevitable.) Besides, part of the point of graduation is to be on campus.

Unfortunately, the gym is only so big. In order to ensure that everybody's peeps get seats, we have to ration the number of seats per graduate. And something about that just rubs me the wrong way.

At colleges that attract students from hither and yon, it may be reasonable to assume that not everybody will be able to make the trip. But with a commuter student population, that's just not the case. And given the density of family and friend networks, we could probably double the capacity and still fill it.

Some universities do multiple graduations, broken down by 'college.' I guess we could adapt that to clusters of majors – allied health majors over here, liberal arts majors over there – but it would mean running the employees through the ceremony umpteen times, and the drain on the people behind the scenes would be considerable. Proprietary U used to have three graduation ceremonies a year, which had the distinct advantage of allowing students to walk when they actually finished. (In our system, January grads walk in May, just like May grads.) The downside, though, was that we all had to go through it three times a year, which gets to be a bit much after a few years.

Wise and worldly readers – has your college found an elegant solution to a shortage of seats at graduation?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

 

Career Week

TB came home today excited to invite me to speak to his class for career week.

I'm not exactly sure how to explain academic administration to second graders.

“Well, I go to a lot of meetings, and I try to get grownups to play nicely and share their toys.”

Somehow, I don't see that one capturing the room.

“I make sure we follow the rules.” Yawn. “I try to get teachers to behave.” Not bad, but I could see the discussion veering badly off-course. “I keep the college on an even keel despite years of public disinvestment.” Yeah, second graders are big on 'disinvestment.'

“I drink a lot of coffee, and read and writes lots of emails.” Pretty accurate, but it just doesn't fire the imagination.

I bet rodeo clowns don't have this problem...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

 

In Which I Ask My Readers For Wisdom

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there's a reorg afoot on your campus. And let's say that part of the purpose of the reorg is to reduce administration, and thereby to cut costs. And let's say that your faculty and staff are unionized, and place a great deal of value on process.

And just to make things interesting, let's say that the target date for the reorg to actually hit the ground is in a little over a year, so there's time to deliberate. But any change in 'terms and conditions of employment' – like, say, reporting lines -- requires 'impact bargaining.' And some people have improbably well-developed fears of almost any change at all, for reasons of their own.

I've been wracking my brain – and the brains of everyone around me – trying to figure out the mechanics of a process for public discussion.

To clarify: I'm not looking for the substance of the reorg plan. I'm looking for an inclusive process to develop a plan. At this stage, I'm fairly certain that any plan I develop on my own would be summarily shot down, simply because of the 'on my own' part. The goal here is to come up with a reasonable process that satisfies a few criteria:

- Affected parties have a chance for informed input. By 'informed' I mean having a sense of institutional context, legal constraints, and the bounds of the possible.

- Input is iterative. That is, instead of happening once and abstractly, it can happen repeatedly as ideas take shape. I've walked into the old “that's not what I agreed to!” trick too many times not to have the process circle back.

- Proxy issues are hard to sustain. This probably involves unusual mixes of people, so when person A starts in with his code words, person Q can ask “what the *(&%#^( are you talking about?” This is a key step, much too often neglected. Forcing clarity can make it easier to distinguish real battles from shadow boxing.

- It's possible to actually move from 'discussion' to 'decision.' Left unchecked, these processes can go on until people forget the original question. I have no use for that. The point is not discussion for its own sake; it's discussion to forge an actual decision. Ideally, even folks who aren't happy with the result will at least grudgingly acknowledge the legitimacy of the process. If I hear “that's a boneheaded plan” when it's over, I can live with that. But I want to put a sock in the usual “how was this decision made?”

So, since folks on my campus are tiring of me pestering them for ideas, I turn my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen a process that fit these criteria (or that came close)? How, exactly, did it work?

Thanks!

Monday, May 11, 2009

 

Dear Graduates,

Congratulations on your achievement.

I've heard some grumbling among you, and I have to acknowledge the truth: you're graduating into a nasty job market. It's a brutal time to try to break in. This isn't your fault, and it isn't your college's, either; sometimes the market just breaks that way. As painful as that is, it's worth giving some thought.

In boom years, I've seen some folks succeed a bit too easily, and draw some falsely flattering conclusions about themselves. It wouldn't matter, I suppose, if it didn't lead to a certain smugness about the failures of others. I've heard it said that success is a terrible teacher; no less a mind than Aristotle suggested that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. When circumstances conspire to flatter us, it's easy to lose sight of the breaks we've caught. Yes, we help create our own luck, but we do no more than help. You don't choose your parents, or your genes, or your time and place of birth. As hard as you've worked – and you have – others have worked, too, to make this possible for you. Ignoring that is both inaccurate and rude. Assuming that the chain of responsibility stops with you is arrogant and infantile. I've worked hard, but I was also born to educated parents of dominant ethnicity and culture in a world superpower during the age of antibiotics and abundant food. That gave me possibilities not available for a similarly hard worker in most other times and places in human history.

Among those who've been on the underside for too long, I've sometimes seen a fatalism that can curdle into misplaced rage. If nobody around you catches a break, it's easy to assume that the fix is in, that someone, somewhere, is masterminding a scheme to keep you down. Sometimes it's partly true. But jumping to that too quickly can defeat initiative. It can lead to habits that amount to self-sabotage, and to distrust even of the possibility of something better. Among unsubtle minds, it's a short path from that to rage and violence, usually against whomever is close at hand.

Both of these stories we tell ourselves are wrong. The world is far bigger than our puny efforts, as well as those of anybody else. The fatal flaw in both is the same; the idea that the world is organized around you, whether in the form of 'your oyster' or a conspiracy. It isn't. But our culture acts as if it is.

The gift you've been given, by dint of timing, is the possibility of awareness. In our culture, economic success or failure is supposed to be the direct result of individual fitness or weakness. One way to show fitness in our culture is to get education. You've done that – you've got the degree now to prove it – and yet, jobs for new grads are hard to come by. You've done what you were supposed to do, yet for many of you, the only economic impact you can see is student loan payments. You tried to follow the first narrative, yet, through no fault of your own, find yourself in the second.

Through no fault of your own. That's the key phrase. Through no fault of your own.

You can see the fault line, so to speak, in our culture. You're straddling it. It's staring you in the face. You didn't choose it – that's sort of the point – but you can choose what you're going to do about it.

You can take the nasty job market as a verdict on the worth of everything you've done for the last few years, decide that it's all a scam, and give up. Probably, some of you will. Or you can decide to double down on the cultural bet, to plow forward all the harder, and to take your eventual success as a sign that you were right all along. That's better, but it still falls short.

If you're really good – and I'm showing some actual hope here – you'll retain a memory of this moment as you plow forward. You'll remember the feeling of “now what?” and the sense of helplessness that comes from having done everything right and still coming up short. And you'll pause before passing judgment on people in bad spots, because you'll realize that, at some level, we're all just a few bad breaks away from there. If you're really, really good, you might even think about what a world might look like in which we tried to make 'there' a little less awful.

I remember vividly the end of my doctoral graduation ceremony, as the crowd started to scatter, and I realized that even with a PhD from a respected research university in a real field, I didn't have a job. There didn't even seem much point in leaving the auditorium. For months after that, the best I could do was hourly work, usually at a considerable distance. It did a number on my confidence, and I'll admit that some of those nights were long. When I did catch a break – the first of two big ones – I nearly didn't take it. To the extent that I'll give myself credit for anything, it's that at two key moments of my career, I was able to reject – consciously and with effort – some myths I had previously held sacred. I was inarguably lucky to get some breaks, but it also took conscious effort to shuck off the myths to allow myself to take them. I had to confront the fact that the world was utterly indifferent to what I thought, and to the stories I told myself. The 'rules' by which I had played – at length, with great effort and some skill – were really just someone else's guesses, and they turned out to be wrong. I couldn't move forward until I figured that out.

Some people don't have the moment of clarity until well into their lives, when they've already taken on commitments that don't allow for risk. Though you wouldn't have chosen this – and nobody could blame you for that – you've been given this moment early. Take it. Think it through, and think it through again. Remember its painful and awkward parts after it passes. Those painful and awkward parts – the parts the culture at large denies with such venom – are the truth.

Live in truth. Remember these long nights.

Congratulations, and good luck.

Friday, May 08, 2009

 

Dust Bunnies of the Mind

- Blackboard is buying Angel.  As soon as we got the news, we made an appointment to meet with some counterparts who use Moodle or Sakai.  Blackboard has been colossally unhelpful in its upgrade cycle -- Angel had been one of the more viable alternatives.  Now, not.  I anticipate a sharp spike in the use of open source platforms.
 
- Most mornings, my route to work involves a stretch of highway with traffic lights, shops, and hotels with varying levels of seediness.  One morning earlier this week, I saw a school bus stop at one of the relatively cheap hotels, and a boy about TB's age climb on.  I had never seen that before.  I admit not knowing the back story, but it's probably not good.
 
- Note to statewide consortia, initiatives, task forces, projects, etc.: Please, please, please stop scheduling statewide all-day workshops during final exams.  Thank you.
 
- I think "wrongitude" should be a word.  "I have not yet begun to explore the depths of your wrongitude."  "Your proposal's wrongitude is breathtaking."  "Wrongness" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
 
- Three weeks ago, the stimulus looked like it would give us two years to restructure.  Two weeks ago, it looked like it would give us one year.  Last week, it looked like two years again.  This week, even one year is in question.  I'm getting budgetary vertigo, and I'm not alone.  It's hard to live up to 'transparency' when things change this quickly, and for reasons entirely outside your control.  At this point, I just want a solid number for next year, even if it's bad.  It's getting impossible to keep postponing decisions.

- Apparently, NBC is planning a situation comedy this Fall featuring Chevy Chase, among others, leading a merry band of losers as they make their way through community college.

I'll just admit to being conflicted about this.

I'll start with the easy snark, just to clear my throat. NBC? Chevy Chase? I give it three weeks, tops. Anyone who saw Chevy's late night talk show in the 90's – all three of us, basically – won't be expecting much. Will it rock America the way Cops and Robbersons did? History will decide.

Okay, that's done.

Many years ago, Judd Apatow did a criminally underappreciated series called Undeclared, which was sort of Freaks-and-Geeks-Go-to-College. It was wonderful, it was accurate, it was ignored. (The same was true of Freaks and Geeks, which was one of my favorite shows ever.) Part of what made Undeclared great was that it didn't fall into the usual storylines of either Animal House or Dead Poets Society. (For the record, I prefer Animal House. “This is no time for thinking!” is one of the great lines of cinema, for my money, and Belushi's eyebrows still make me laugh.) Instead of either 'college is wanton debauchery' or 'heroic teacher saves souls,' it captured the combination of humanity and banality that actually exists on most campuses. Of course, dorm life is still a minority experience, and the show never really found an audience.

It's much more common to set tv shows in high school than in college, probably in part because high school is a much more common experience. If community colleges are starting to get familiar enough that a network is willing to gamble a mass audience, I see that as good.

The part about 'losers' gives me pause, but it's hard to make comedy about winners. And I have to assume that the losers won't be too far gone, since they have to be sympathetic enough for advertisers to tolerate, and successful enough that we could imagine them not immediately flunking out.

If anything, this is probably the time to get the requisite smartass comments out of the way, so we can take the high road when it goes on the air. The world really doesn't need another “would you marry a chinchilla?” reality show, nor does it need the umpteenth Gritty Police Drama. A show that portrays community colleges as flawed but basically good, full of flawed but basically good people gradually getting their stuff together, isn't such a bad idea. And if we retreat into the usual Stuffy Professor tut-tutting, we'll only confirm a really tenacious and unhelpful stereotype of higher education.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

 

Breakfast with The Boy

TB: Yesterday I was scared when I was in my room. I thought I saw an alien go by outside the window.

DD: Really?

TB: Yeah. I thought he landed on the roof.

DD: He couldn't land on the roof. It's slanted.

TB: Santa lands on the roof.

(pause)

TB: Santa has magic, though.

DD: True. Aliens would slide off the roof. And when was the last time you saw an alien lying on the ground, saying “that's gonna hurt tomorrow”?

TB: (laugh)

DD: Besides, aliens seem to like deserts better. There aren't any deserts around here.

TB (thoughtfully): I wonder if aliens fart.

DD: Probably. It might smell like cinnamon.

TB: I bet our farts smell like cinnamon to them!

DD: Yeah, they could follow us around, smelling us.

TB: Just like dogs! They could smell our butts!

DD: (robotic voice) TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER. (make fart noise) OOH, CINNAMON!

TB: (laugh) Yeah! They'd want us to eat lots of burritos!

DD: (laugh)

TB: I wonder if Barack Obama eats burritos.

DD: I hope so. He could save us all!

After that, a day of academic administration doesn't seem so scary...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

 

My First Million (or, Speaking of Statistics...)

The little 'apples' counter broke one million today. Back when I first put that counter on, I thought the idea that I would ever need six digits, let alone seven, was absurd.

Thanks, everyone!

 

Sometimes, Facts Actually Matter

A month or two ago, I got into a colloquy on the blog about average ages of community college students.

An alert reader send me an email exchange he had with the AACC on this exact question. The AACC Fast Facts page for 2009 has the following to say about average ages of cc students:

Average age: 29

21 or younger: 47%

22 to 39: 40%

Obviously, that can't be right. If 47 percent of cc students are 21 or younger, how could the 50th percentile be 29? The numbers don't make sense.

In the email exchange, Kent Phillippe, Senior Research Associate at the AACC, noted that the '29' figure is both several years behind the rest of the data, and a 'mean,' rather than a median. In other words, it's pulled upward by a small number of much older students. As he put it, the median age is “probably around 22 or 23.”

The word “probably” is revealing. It suggests that they haven't bothered to figure it out.

If the 47th percentile is 21, I'll go out on a big ol' limb and postulate that the median age is 22. This squares with the numbers at my own college, where the mean age is 25 but the median is 21.

This may seem pedantic, but it's actually kind of important.

If the public image of community colleges is based on thirty-year-olds returning to college after getting laid off, but the reality of community colleges is an increasing influx of traditional-aged students with the goal of transfer, then we'd expect to see policy interventions that don't mesh with the facts on the ground. We'd expect to see, for example, lots of federal grant programs geared towards quick-fix job training for displaced workers, when the real growth is in 18 year olds who struggled in high school math or whose parents don't have the money for Faraway State. We'd expect to see policymakers focus on short-term certificate programs, when the real need is in remedial math.

Ayup.

I'm not usually a fan of persnickety statistical critiques, but this strikes me as fundamental. The official public voice of community colleges in America, for reasons I personally can't fathom, is promulgating profoundly misleading data on our behalf.

It may be simple sloppiness – someone made an arbitrary data-reporting decision years ago and nobody has bothered to revisit it. It's not a very satisfying explanation, but I've been in administration long enough to know that sometimes, that's how things happen. If that's the case, I hope someone there reads this and issues some public corrections post-haste.

Or there may be some sort of PR/political calculation. If cc's present ourselves as focused mostly on retraining displaced adult workers, then we don't look like we're competing with four-year colleges. Or maybe the 'retraining' angle seems likelier to pay off in workforce development grant money. I'm all for workforce development grants, but we get far more students going through the English department than we get through all of our workforce stuff put together, and we need money for that, too.

We train, yes, but we also educate. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards the education side. That's as it should be, given that the Great Recession has hit hardest those jobs that pay well but don't require much formal education. These days, even many vocational programs require significant amounts of gen ed. The distinction is blurring, even though much funding is predicated on a clear boundary between the two. The policy assumptions are badly trailing the realities on the ground.

Locally, the demographic trends among our students show the average age going down, the racial composition getting ever less white, and the gender gap shrinking as the male population is increasing. (The students are still predominantly female, but only in the shrinking 25-and-over group. The youngsters are almost evenly split.) Although the press seemingly never tires of telling the story of the laid off 35 year old, the real growth is in young minority males taking traditional college courses. To me, this is a HUGE story, well worth telling, and an opportunity to accomplish something of historic significance. Young minority males are showing up at college in unprecedented numbers. (As I noted recently, it's raining men over at Admissions.) If we can succeed in getting those young men through college and into the land of good jobs at higher rates than we have in the past, we will have accomplished something with real impact. I just don't know why we're doing it completely below the radar, or why the AACC persists in telling a story that distracts from what's actually happening. Getting the story right could help get some of the policies right. There's too much at stake to get this wrong. Tell the truth, fix the policies, and get the resources where they're needed. If we miss this moment, we'll pay for it for decades to come.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

 

Appeals and Do-Overs

For reasons too sensitive to blog about, I've recently had occasion to revisit the idea of grade appeals. From this side of the desk, I'm convinced that a commonly-held student perception, and a commonly-held faculty perception, are both wrong.

(For the record, I'm referring here to grade appeals that go beyond just talking to the professor. This is the stuff that happens after the professor has already said 'no.' Whenever a student appeals a grade at this level, the first question is always "have you talked to the professor?" If not, the process stops until they do that.)

A small but non-zero group of students seem to think that a grade appeal amounts to a free do-over. Their preferred approach -- and I've seen this enough times over enough years to feel some confidence in saying this -- is to bring in a few examples of graded work, hide the grade, and ask "what would you give this?" I don't answer that, which seems to strike them as evasive.

My reasons for not answering are several. First, obviously, I'm not a subject-matter expert in everything. Second, I don't know the class average, or what the professor was trying to do. But third, and this is the point that seems to elude many, what I think isn't the point. It isn't about what I think.

To my mind, that's the key difference between 'grading' and 'judging an appeal.' An initial grade determination is the expert judgment of a student's work. A grade appeal isn't. For a grade appeal to carry any weight with me, it isn't nearly enough to show that the professor made a judgment call differently than I would have. They're allowed. A student has to show either that the professor made a provable mistake, or that untoward factors were brought to bear. In other words, show that the grade for student 23 was entered for student 24 -- I actually saw that happen once -- or show either disparate treatment or extreme favoritism.

In other words, if you got a C on a test that you and I agree should have received a B, the C stands unless you can prove far more than that. You'd need to show that the answer key was wrong, or that it was misapplied, or that the professor singled out one group for favored or disfavored treatment (and "those who studied" doesn't count as a favored group). If it came to light that the professor accepted money for grades, or completely disregarded the syllabus and just made stuff up on the fly, then you've got something.

The reason for that is basic. Across the college, every semester, thousands of grades are issued. I have to assume that they're right, unless proved otherwise. I'm not shocked to hear that some professors are harder graders than others, or that some do things in ways that I personally wouldn't. In an appeal, I'm not looking for whether s/he did it my way. I'm looking for a sign of malpractice so egregious that it's worth intervening in the professional judgment of faculty. That bar gets cleared once in a great while, but most of the time, it's not close.

The faculty perception that I battle is the idea that no grade should be changed, ever, without the consent of the professor.

Imagine this standard applied to any other kind of appeal. No defendant shall held accountable without his consent. It's self-evidently absurd. By the principle that nobody should be a judge in his own case, I find unethical the idea that the most that an appeal can lead to is 'reconsideration.' Otherwise, I could find that a given professor graded out of personal pique, then refer the grade back to that same professor for reconsideration. What do you think would happen?

No. For an appeal to mean something, it has to be enforceable. Enforcement should be rare, and reserved for exceptional cases, but the possibility has to exist. Otherwise, 'appeal' is just another word for 'run-around.' From the perspective of a wronged student, the idea that the best you could hope for would be a repeat of the initial injury is insulting at best. I can't imagine that holding up in court. I'd have no problem with remanding it to a committee of other faculty with the subject-matter competence -- that would get around the 'administrative power-grab' objection -- but to remand it to the very professor whose judgment has already been found compromised violates common sense and basic fairness.

Appeals aren't do-overs, and they aren't polite requests to take another look. They should be narrowly argued, sparsely applied, and enforceable. Administrators who go overboard are accountable to higher administrators and to the Trustees, so there's a check. That's not perfect, but the alternatives are either chaos or petty tyranny. In the absence of a better alternative, rare-but-enforceable strikes me as the best we can do.

Monday, May 04, 2009

 

Zombie Hunting

The popular press has been filled lately with references to zombie banks or zombie corporations, undead entities kept on life support for extra-economic reasons. Last week, IHE had a similar story about academic programs, and the difficulty in putting the final stake into zombie programs.

I took a first stab at this – no pun intended – several years ago. Several years later, in yet another funding crisis, it seems timely to revisit the question. What to do about zombie programs?

Killing them off is far harder, and often far less lucrative, than one might imagine. It isn't as simple as taking the overall instructional budget for the college, dividing it by the number of programs, and basing a kill quota on the current shortfall divided by the result. Even if you could get away with that internally – a belly-laugh counterfactual in its own right – it wouldn't work economically.

Most academic programs – especially at the two-year level – are comprised of courses from lots of different departments. Engineering majors take English 101, for example, and Art majors take math. To calculate the revenue impact of any given program, you have to account for that. (This also adds to the political difficulty, since even small programs have effective allies.) The converse is also true – most departments serve multiple programs. That's the bread and butter of Gen Ed departments like English and math, but it's also true in less obvious corners. In practice, that means that eliminating small programs might not involve any terminations, which means that any savings would be negligible.

There's also the matter of tenure. Depending on local conditions, tenure may be with a department or program, or it may be with the college. If it's with the college, then you're obligated to re-deploy any affected personnel to anything else they're qualified to do. (In some cases, you're even on the hook to pay to retrain them first.) In departments with multiple programs, someone whose pet program gets cut can usually find a full workload in another program. This usually eliminates any significant cost savings, making it cheaper just to tolerate the zombie.

Say that you're aware of those issues, but want to move forward anyway. You'll immediately hit the issues of criteria, process, and internal politics.

Simply put, there's no such thing as unobjectionable criteria. Some criteria strike me as more reasonable than others – enrollments, cost per student, placement or transfer rates, and graduation rates seem like decent first-round indicators – but as soon as you apply these to actual cases, the arguments for exceptions kick in. “The only reason this program is small is that it's underfunded – we need more money, not less!” “But this is the only program of its kind in the [state/region/country]!” “But this is an inherent component of Excellence and Virtue and Truth and Beauty, you Philistine!” “But this industry is cyclical, and when it comes back, you won't be able to regroup in time!” The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Then the in-house lawyers – you know the kind – will nitpick you to death on method. These are the folks who live to point out what they call 'irregularities,' and who love to invoke 'neutrality' as if it existed. When called to give a single, solitary example, in my experience, they change the subject. Their preferred solution is typically to conjure up more money from the magic money tree they imagine exists somewhere in the government, to make all conflicts go away. Although it's impossible to take these folks seriously on their own merits, they must be taken seriously as political headaches.

But suppose that you're absolutely superhuman at building consensus around methods and process. What would happen then?

Quick quiz: what would you expect to happen when governance is shared, and the question at hand could result in some of the people with whom it's shared losing their jobs?

Exactly. The conflict of interest is staggering.

The tragic flaw in most shared governance arrangements is that they exist in a resource vacuum, but the most important decisions almost always involve resource allocation. (This is why I'm not a fan of Hannah Arendt. Her separation of 'the political' from 'the economic' strikes me as starving 'the political' of content.) In the abstract, almost all academic programs have at least some value. The question of comparative value in a context of limited resources is altogether different. But 'program reviews' don't address that, and program self-studies are almost never suicide notes.

Short of declaring fiscal exigency and basically starting a fire to clear out the underbrush, the only way I can see to cull a significant number of programs is to move the decision to an entirely separate process, consisting mostly of people from off-campus. On campus, the conflicts of interest are just too deep. And that's not a criticism of any single campus or person; the issue is structural. The solution needs to be structural, too.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a successful, relatively uncontroversial, sustainable model of making program-elimination decisions that actually eliminates programs? Is there actually a way to rid the world of zombies?

Friday, May 01, 2009

 

Silly Season

'Tis Spring – almost finals – and you can tell on campus. The characteristic signs are there:

1.People walk much faster, and with visibly pinched expressions.

2.Student complaints about instructors are suddenly skyrocketing, and expressed with earnest urgency.

3.I've already inadvertently interrupted a few couples in the midst of, uh, expressing their couplehood, usually in stairways. What it is about stairways, I honestly don't know.

4.The rubber chicken circuit is back!

5.Lots of random sneezing, as every tree blossomed in the same 24 hours. It's getting to the point where I can identify certain people by their sneezes. They're like fingerprints.

6.Last-minute consultant visits for program reviews. Somehow, May always catches people by surprise. In my experience, it typically follows April.

7.Apocalyptic rhetoric at meetings. That usually peaks in the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas rush and between Spring Break and Finals.

8.The smokers linger longer outdoors.

9.Faculty have retreated to their offices, where they disappear under herniating piles of grading. I have occasional visions of some future archeologist finding the skeleton of an English professor surrounded by plastic-covered papers full of “could of” and “alot” and “Being that...”

10.Those last few purchases of the fiscal year always require multiple budget-line moves, each with three or four levels of approval. They're sort of like logic problems gone horribly wrong. A train with fourteen passengers leaves Chicago heading North at 60 miles per hour. How long before the passengers drown in Lake Michigan?

How does Spring play out on your campus?

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