Friday, October 30, 2009
Thoughts on Community
I've opined before that academic deans, and community colleges, need more glamorous portrayals in the media. Dean Wormer from Animal House had one great line ("fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son"), but he was generally held up for ridicule. Larry Miller's "dean" character in the Nutty Professor movies got sodomized by a giant hamster. (Make 'faculty senate' joke here.) And community colleges have been almost completely invisible.
So, along comes Community. It even has a youngish dean!
On the plus side, the show is funny and humane. The students are pretty realistically diverse, if skewing a bit older than you'd usually see in daytime classes. (I'd also add a Latino character or two.) Senor Chang is a great character (though he doesn't help with the Latino factor), and I like seeing the juxtaposition of Joel McHale's "young Chevy Chase" to Chevy Chase's "old Chevy Chase." The status-bickering between John Oliver's character and Senor Chang at the academic dishonesty hearing was uncomfortably close to true, and funnier for it.
(Readers who want to imagine a slice of administrative life are invited to imagine trying to manage Senor Chang once he has tenure. Welcome to my world.)
Still, the show so far strikes me mostly as a missed opportunity.
First, there's the annoying tv habit of making colleges into high schools. I've never seen a community college with 'morning announcements,' or a dean's office with a microphone prominently displayed on the front desk. That's high school. For that matter, I've never seen a community college with a football team, though I'm told a few exist.
The dean character seems to be a dean of students, as near as I can tell. I enjoyed his flubbed 'welcome' speech on the first episode, but since then, he's been played for slapstick. His invocations of the Ivy League, and of diversity, could have been far more clever -- and biting -- than they are. (Okay, I'll admit laughing at his explanation of the "Greendale Human Beings" mascot. "If we make the Human Being a white male, what message would that send...?" I've almost had that conversation.)
But the most annoying part has been the study group.
I guess it's theoretically possible to gather a bunch of community college students who don't have outside jobs, but I'd be hard pressed to do it. Their meeting table feels much more like The Breakfast Club -- again, high school -- than any recognizable community college setting.
The writers are missing a chance to flesh out the student characters. Give each one -- except old Chevy Chase, since he's retired -- an outside job. Now you can juxtapose the demands of the job, of the classes, and of the logistics of daily life. Have one kid work at Arby's. His coworker is a burned-out hippie. They're running the meat slicer. The hippie speaks. "I don't know, man" (slings beef) "what does economics have to do with life?" (slings beef). They could vary the settings whenever they need more jokes, and still stay true to the premise. So far, they haven't, but it wouldn't be that hard. At least one student in the group should have kids. Show one taking the bus to class, and dealing with the various indignities of that. Having them just appear at the table every week is lazy writing.
Still, it's early yet, and the show seems to have a sense of humor about itself. If it can just drop the high school trappings and roll with the promise of the premise, it could really be something. And nobody will have to get sodomized by a giant hamster.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
In Praise of Collaborative Answers
He lists several, including the daily wear-and-tear of living with a siege mentality, the real damage that idiotic decisions can do before they get reversed, and the cost (in time and money) of litigation and/or open conflict. (These arguments also apply to union leadership, for all the same reasons.) I'll add another: the wild card of third party solutions.
In many cases, discussions that don't get resolved internally get referred first to mediation, which isn't binding, and then (if that doesn't work) to arbitration, which is. While arbitration can settle a given question, it's usually a little like using a shotgun to kill a mosquito: it works, but there goes the living room window.
When The Administration and The Union discuss an issue, they both (usually) have at least some sense of what's involved in it. Much of that won't have to be spelled out, since it's common knowledge. But when a third party comes in from the outside, empowered to settle the question, the ever-present danger is that the settlement will inadvertently go far beyond the issue at hand. And if it does, both sides will be stuck with it.
That usually happens with the arbitrator invokes some sort of principle or general rule behind the decision. In a large and complex system with layers of history, statements tend to have ripples of meaning far beyond the intention (or even knowledge) of the speaker. That's why it's so maddeningly hard to pin down a single interpretation of a contract. Implementing a contract involves far more than simply reading it and trying to follow it; if it were that easy, we'd all be much better off. It also involves "past practices," past grievances, past settlements, and different interpretations of words like "reasonable" or "customary" or "terms and conditions." I've had people flip out when I've used the word "program" when I should have said "initiative." ("That's an initiative, you jerk! Since when did that become a program? Has it been vetted through the program review process?" Honestly, life is too short, but I've actually had this conversation.) And heaven help the poor soul who refers to "student affairs" instead of "student services," or vice versa.
Language is a minefield for people who live with it every single day. Bring in an outsider whose knowledge is pretty much limited to single presentations by opponents, and I'd be surprised if she didn't set off a few landmines without even knowing it.
I read once that part of the reason that most criminal cases are plea bargained is that juries are just too hard to predict. Now imagine if jury verdicts carried the force of precedent.
Smart administrators who are lucky enough to have smart union leadership will seize the opportunity to work things out between them whenever possible, even if it sometimes means swallowing a little more than they think they should have to. A bad agreement can be revisited, but a bad arbitration settlement is forever.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
I won't go off on the evil of banning critics from campus, since I take that as given. And I won't do the usual administrators-are-the-source-of-all-evil rant, either, because it's neither true nor helpful.
Instead, I'll offer a critique as a college administrator. Simply put, Southwestern's administration is looking amateurish. This is not how it's done.
Anyone who has held an authority position during a budget downturn has faced criticism. Some is probably fair, some is clearly not, and much is highly emotional. People who don't deal with budgets for a living often don't understand the constraints within them, erroneously thinking that money from column A can simply be shifted to column B at will. Worse, rather than taking the time to learn the rules, they immediately leap to the moral high ground and start passing judgments, loudly and publicly, based on misinformation. Being on the receiving end of that can be wearing, and you'd have to be pretty impressive -- or pretty out-of-touch -- for it not to affect you. Some of your less-balanced critics will even make it personal.
This is where leaders need to step up.
Depending on your estimate of the situation, and the direction you want to go, you have several options.
You could enlist the aid of the union (and/or the students) in making a common pitch for more resources. Admittedly, California may not be in a position to respond, but that approach has been known to work in other settings.
Or, you could call the union's bluff on the moral high ground, invite its leaders to the table, explain the very real constraints, and ask them what they would do. Admittedly, some of them will get squirrelly at this point, but the smarter ones will see a chance to actually achieve something and jump on it.
Or, you could divide-and-conquer, finding some sort of fault line within the union itself and hitting it with surgical precision. This takes skill and some creativity, but it can be devastatingly effective.
Or, you could take the crisis as an opportunity for a thorough reinvention of the college as a whole. This combines 'divide and conquer' with 'fiscal realism' and 'good PR.' Done well, this can lead to the college coming out stronger -- at least in relative terms -- than before.
Or, you could take the "cut off the head" approach, purge your senior staff, and refill your top admin positions with the union leadership. That way, you deprive the union of its strongest leaders in a way that they can't grieve. ("How dare you promote proven leaders?" won't get them far in court.) You also get the satisfaction of watching the firebrands who used to know everything discover constraints.
Or, you could simply ignore the criticism and go about your business as best you can. It's not ideal, but it's not the worst approach, either. If questioned, just affirm your belief in freedom of expression and go back to what you were doing.
Or, you could do your best imitation of Dr. Evil, go out on limbs that will be sawed off quickly in court, and make yourself look like an idiot in public. That seems to be the strategy here.
From high office, pettiness is amplified. That can be frustrating, since leaders have all the same human failings as everybody else, but less license to indulge them. That's the price of leadership. There's a real and generally unacknowledged unfairness to that, but there it is. If the best response to generally fair criticism you can come up with is to kick the critics off campus, you're probably in over your head. (I say 'generally fair' to distinguish this from, say, slander. Slander is not protected by academic freedom, and those who commit it are fair game.) Worse, playing the heavy in such an obvious way simply galvanizes the other side. One of the easiest ways to get a disparate group to cohere is to unite against a common enemy. Making yourself that enemy simply plays into their hands. It's an amateur's mistake.
I expect that the bans will be overturned posthaste, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this President's tenure end quickly. In a situation as bad as California's, you can't afford ineptitude at the highest levels. This is not how it's done.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Ask the Administrator: Should I Remain Pure?
I've just started my first quarter as a part-time English instructor at a community college near Big City, and I was lucky enough to get a full load. Next quarter, however, that probably won't be the case, as enrollment at our school goes down in the winter and spring. I've applied to a few other community colleges in the area, but I haven't heard back from anyone. At any rate, I was wondering if I should apply to Big City University as well, since I've taught at Private College (where I got my MA, and where I taught for a bit after grad school). But would teaching at a university work against me if I want to continue part-time at CCs and eventually apply for full-time jobs at CCs?
First, congratulations on your first teaching gig! I hope it treats you well.
And I'm heartened to hear that you consider a full-time cc gig a worthwhile goal. I happen to think it is -- okay, I'm biased, but still -- and the students deserve professors who actually want to be there, rather than professors who are 'settling' for it. You've picked a tough year to hit the market, but you know that.
All of that said, your question really goes to purity. If you teach at different kinds of places, does that somehow compromise your candidacy at a cc?
In my observation, the short answer is no. The longer answer is no, as long as you have some cc experience.
Since cc faculty jobs are really about teaching -- and teaching the students we actually have -- candidates who have experience with students akin to those at the cc have an advantage. But that experience doesn't have to be exclusive. If you've taught at both Tony Private U and Local CC, you've gained experience with different sorts of students. I'd be concerned if your only experience were at Tony Private U, but that doesn't look to be the case here.
In fact, there's a pretty good argument to be made for gaining exposure to different campuses, and even to different sectors of higher ed. You'll be better prepared to tell students what to expect when they transfer, for example. You'll also have a better sense of which quirks are local and which are just endemic to the academy. (Hint: there's more commonality across institutions than many academics suspect.) You'll pick up more contacts, which can't hurt, and you'll be less at the mercy of a single hiring manager. If you're mixing public and private institutions, you're better able to smooth out the fluctuations in enrollment at each. (For example, in my area the non-exclusive private colleges are hurting for enrollment right now, and the publics are bursting at the seams. That's pretty common during recessions.) Yes, there are limits to all of these, and you need to factor in extra transportation time and money. But I certainly wouldn't turn down a good private U gig out of fear of some sort of impurity on your c.v.
Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think? Have you seen private college experience held against someone at a cc?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Tim Burke's piece details the issues of self-presentation among Swarthmore students. The piece about Morehouse college details measures taken to change the self-presentation of students at Morehouse College, a historically black all-male campus. And the piece about professionalism details the failings of self-presentation that employers perceive in their (few) Gen Y hires.
Although each piece is context-specific, if you read them next to each other, you'll quickly be struck by how little context matters.
I've never been a huge fan of Golden Age arguments. One of the consolations of aging is that I've been around long enough to remember some of the Golden Ages to which people sometimes refer, and they didn't seem that way at the time. That's because they weren't.
Anyone who remembers carbon paper in typewriters can tell you that talk of a Golden Age is hooey. Remember the Ford Maverick? The Brady Bunch Variety Hour? Roach clips as jewelry? Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft? Remember the homophobia? It's not gone now, heaven knows, but it used to be so much purer. Remember the smoking? That was some fine lung cancer back then. And wow, was the racism ever more impressive back then. My Dad, who grew up in Memphis in the 40's and 50's, lived long enough to vote for a black President. You can call that a lot of things, but cultural decline isn't one of them.
Okay, I'll stop.
Unfortunately, the gratuitous nostalgia gets in the way of what could be a very valuable discussion.
While the ritualistic hand-wringing of elders beholding youth is about as useful as cursing the sun for rising, there's still some truth to the claim that styles of self-presentation that can work for students won't work for employees. Professional jobs have certain expectations and codes of conduct that nobody is born knowing, but that new employees can pay severe prices for not knowing. And it makes some sense to expect students to learn some of those expectations in college.
At Proprietary U, we attended to that in a mandatory career development class. Students were coached on what to wear to an interview, how to conduct themselves, and the like. Despite the name, the class was mostly confined to 'getting a job,' as opposed to 'doing a job,' but at least it was something.
In the cc world, though, we haven't done a lot of that.
Part of that is based on a sense of what counts as 'academic' and what doesn't. Part of it is based on the reality that most of our students who will go on to professional jobs will first transfer to four-year colleges, and the immediate task at hand is giving them what they need to succeed there. Part of it is based on the very real heterogeneity (or 'diversity,' if you prefer) of 'real world' work environments. A cultural style that works well in a sales position might not work well at all in a medical position, for example. ("What can I do to get you in our vasectomy clinic today?" Gee, look at the time...) Part of it is based on a sense that attempting to overpower students' sense of identity upfront will shut down any meaningful attempt at learning. And part of it is based, honestly, on unthinking tradition. You know, stuff that dates back to the Golden Age.
(True story from my student days at Snooty Liberal Arts College: my then-girlfriend reacted with shock and horror when she learned that another student was also an English major. When I asked her why she reacted so strongly, she replied -- correctly -- "but he's so...inarticulate!" The major didn't require any sort of speech courses.)
Back in the day, of course, Snooty Liberal Arts Colleges and their ilk didn't really need to socialize students into the ways of the upper classes, since nearly all the students sprang from them. But that doesn't help from the perspective of an open-admissions public college today.
It's not entirely clear just what would be involved in grooming students for future employment. Public speaking courses are well and good, but speeches on the job are exceedingly rare. I'd guess that most people would benefit more from lessons in "how to conduct yourself in group meetings," or "how to keep your cool while being attacked." You'd think that academic seminars would prepare students for that, but they really don't; the cultural norms of academia are too different. (I sometimes reflect that some of the cultural pathologies of higher ed come from hiring employees based on their success at being students. The skills don't always translate.) Some basics are always welcome: expect students to show up on time and ready to work, model preparedness for them, and reward performance rather than effort. But beyond that, the questions get much more complex than is generally acknowledged.
Strip away the narrative of cultural decline, and there's still real work to be done. I'm just not sure how to do it.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Netbooks for All?
We've given that some vague thought on my campus, too, focusing mostly on netbooks. The idea has its advantages.
- With good wifi on campus, students could do work just about anywhere, not just in dedicated labs.
- Netbooks now are much cheaper than laptops used to be, and if they're required, they could (I think) be covered by financial aid. Some even have full-size keyboards.
- We could spend less on dedicated labs, and take fewer general-purpose classrooms out of circulation for them. This is not to be underestimated.
- Lower-income students would have a more even playing field with their more affluent peers.
All of that said, though, we haven't pulled the trigger. The reasons?
- Part-time students, non-matriculated students, etc. Only about half of our students are full-time. Does it make sense to require someone taking just one course to buy a netbook that costs more than the class? If not, then some students in a class will have the mandatory netbooks and some won't. From an instructional standpoint, that reduces the 'level playing field' effect.
- Managing expectations. Netbooks are built for net access. Even if we could get the campus wifi system to the level it should be (cough), students will only have access off-campus if they can afford it. A typical usb broadband modem runs about sixty bucks a month, which is quite a chunk of change for a student working at minimum wage. I also wouldn't be surprised if students decided that college-issued netbooks were up to the college to maintain and troubleshoot. Our IT department is struggling now, without the added burden of liability for thousands of free-floating netbooks.
- What about students who already have laptops or netbooks? It would be silly to require them to buy new ones, but financial aid gets tricky when some students need computers and some don't.
- Special programs and special needs -- macs for graphic design, say. Candidly, though, this objection strikes me as the weakest, since we could still have some specialized labs.
- This would be yet another cost item added to students' bills. Given how much some of our students struggle economically, adding a three-hundred-dollar 'nice to have' item to the 'mandatory' list should not be taken lightly.
Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think? Would it make sense to push campus computing (where possible) from fixed labs to student-owned netbooks? Are there good arguments for or against that I've overlooked?
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Where Enrollment is Down
Locally, our credit-bearing programs are bursting at the seams. The library is literally standing-room-only at peak hours; veteran staff tell me they've never seen that before. English as a Second Language is through the roof.
But our non-credit courses are dramatically down. The profit-making classes -- pottery, French for travel, that sort of thing -- are cratering. Contract training for local employers is also down. The only increases are in the money-losing pro bono area of adult basic education. (ABE is sort of a pre-remedial track. Think 'basic literacy,' as opposed to 'developmental writing.')
Over the years, we've used the profit-making courses to pay for the pro bono stuff. But with the Great Recession making itself felt ever more strongly, the folks who used to take classes like 'wine appreciation' are finding them relatively easy to skip. And companies that are struggling to stay afloat find it easier to eliminate training than to do other cuts.
Annoyingly enough, we don't even get the minor compensating benefit of easier parking for everyone else, since the non-credit courses typically run during off-peak hours and/or offsite.
A decline in revenues from personal enrichment classes isn't a huge crisis, since they were never a huge part of the budget. But every little bit helps (or hurts), and the difference with the credit programs is striking. The personal enrichment courses have historically been our connection to the 'affluent adult' market, which is small but politically important. Meanwhile, the student body on the for-credit side gets progressively younger and more non-white. I'd like to think that won't matter politically, but history isn't encouraging on that front.
So yes, our enrollments are up, but it's a bit more complicated than that.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The Hard Part of Transparency
But now the process is hitting a wall.
When you ask people "what's crucial for student success?," you can get some wonderful responses. When you ask "what could we do better?," you get some great ideas, some of which could only come from people on the front lines. So far, so good.
But when you get to "and what would we be willing to reduce to pay for it?," the silence is overwhelming.
I get some of the reasons for that. I don't want to start a needless fight by saying that somebody else's job isn't important. I don't know what some people actually do in the course of the day, and presuming to pass judgment without that knowledge would be rude at best. Throw someone under the bus, and you'd better hope the bus does its job; if it doesn't, now you have a righteously pissed-off coworker for many years to come. And it's easy to envision a meeting quickly degenerating into a shouting match, with all that that entails.
But in a very real way, this is where transparency and inclusiveness are the most important. If we get these decisions wrong, the pain will be felt for years to come. This is where we need the most help.
One professor I spoke with suggested moving from a 'public brainstorming' model to something closer to an 'either/or.' He basically suggested that The Administration come up with two or three options -- call them plans A, B, and C -- and asking for the sense of the college as to which made the most sense. That way, you get around both the 'first mover' problem and the 'otherworldly proposal' problem. Instead of asking people whose self-image is based in excellence at critical thought to venture something, you're asking them to compare things, which is a much more comfortable position for them. It plays more to their strengths.
I'm intrigued by the idea, but experience tells me that their first move will be to look for some unspecified plan D. (Something similar happens anytime you present statistics: the first move is always to question the methodology behind the data.) Someone will invoke 'false dilemma,' someone else will propose forming a committee, and you're right back where you started.
This is one of those message-in-a-bottle posts in which I hope someone has a better answer than anything I've seen or surmised. So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Is there a productive way to engage the campus community in a discussion of what to cut?
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
How Not to Balance a CC Budget
According to this article, several state university systems are now considering making deliberate moves to increase the proportion of out-of-state students, specifically to capture the tuition premium. The idea is to replace lost state subsidy support.
I won't address the logic at the university level. But at the cc level, this would be political suicide.
In most states, out-of-state students pay higher tuition at public colleges and universities than in-state students do. This holds true all the way from the flagship university to the community colleges. (In states where community colleges are based in counties, out-of-county students usually pay a rate in between in-county and out-of-state.) The idea is that the taxes they've paid by living in that state have subsidized the cost of education there, so in-state tuition is a form of payback. Out-of-state students haven't subsidized that state's colleges, so they pay more.
The idea isn't perfect, of course. One could easily make a case that to the extent that Federal money is involved, my taxes support higher education in every state. But it's certainly true that my state and local taxes go to my state and local systems in a way that they don't go to the systems of a neighboring state. And to the extent that public institutions are reliant on the goodwill of their taxpayers -- which is to say, for their very survival -- there's something to be said for keeping the locals happy.
The out-of-state premium is supposed to be enough to make out-of-state students at least a break-even proposition. But in practice, many systems treat them as cash cows. They don't have the legislature's ear like in-state students do, and the fact that they're there anyway indicates a certain level of desire. They can even add a certain kind of diversity to a student body, at least in theory, even if in practice they tend to be upper-middle-class or just plain rich.
(The exception to that is undocumented students who are treated as out-of-state. But that's an entirely different issue. There, the students in question are effectively local, often having graduated from a local high school; they're undocumented because they came over as kids. In that case, the issue isn't interstate poaching; it's federal immigration policy, which is much more complicated.)
In discussions I've had with state legislators, the issues that prick up their ears are the number of students who live in their district, the number of employees who live in their district, and the relationships we have with employers in their district. Out-of-state students don't count. And I don't want to have the conversation in which I try to explain why our scarce marketing dollars are being spent out-of-state.
Even leaving the politics aside, there's a basic irrationality to the entire idea. If we simply traded a third of our student body with a counterpart school across the state line, what, exactly, would we have achieved? As near as I can tell, we'd simply shift more of the cost of instruction onto students, thereby effectively licensing our home state to make even more cuts. If the students keep paying, why not? And it's not like those students vote here anyway.
No. It's not what cc's are for, and the long-term cost would dwarf any short-term gains. I get the 'premium tuition' argument -- this week, more than ever -- but some premiums just aren't worth it.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Sabbaticals and Layoffs
First, some context. My college doesn't have a publication requirement for faculty. Most faculty here don't publish with any frequency, and nobody has ever been fired here for lack of publishing. It's a teaching-centered institution, and the promotion and tenure requirements reflect that. So denying someone a sabbatical might put a dent in his overall plans, but it won't put a dent in his tenure or promotion application. In a research university, or a college that styles itself as research-driven, the context for the question is markedly different. I'm talking about a community college.
We have a process for deciding on sabbaticals, and a set of published criteria. Without giving too much away, I can share that the point of sabbaticals is supposed to be to develop or focus on something that will be of benefit to the college over time. They aren't intended for personal renewal, and they aren't entitlements or compensation. (The faculty union contract acknowledges this.) They're basically purpose-driven course release taken all the way out. They're paid, which distinguishes them from leaves of absence.* They're discretionary expenses meant to reassign a professor to something that is supposed benefit the college as a whole. (Since the proposals come from the affected faculty, of course, that rule has been applied with varying degrees of stringency over the years.) The effective cost to the college is the cost of the adjuncts to teach the courses the sabbatical recipient would otherwise have taught. Although the college has a history of awarding a few sabbaticals per year, the number has fluctuated over time, and there has not been a past practice of everybody getting one every x years.
That said, of course, sabbaticals are interpreted differently by different people.
Some professors see sabbaticals as inhering in the role of 'professor,' or as moral (if not technical) entitlements. Others see them as irreplaceable elements of their long-term professional development, arguing (reasonably) that maintaining currency with changes in their fields, or technology, sometimes requires stepping off the teaching treadmill. And there's a perfectly valid objection that in the current climate, anything taken completely off the table is unlikely to reappear for a long time, if ever.
That said, though, there's something fundamentally difficult about explaining why some people are being paid for a full release from their regular job while others are losing their jobs entirely. I can just imagine the headline in the local paper – staffer x loses job while professor y gets full salary without even showing up on campus for months. Ouch. As a public institution, we ignore public opinion at our considerable peril.
The timing cycles don't match up well, either. We have to make decisions for next Fall's sabbaticals, if any, by mid-winter. But we won't know the full extent of state cuts until next summer.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is it reasonable to juxtapose the two categories, or would it be fair to do both at the same time?
* We also have a category of reduced-load-for-reduced-pay arrangements that can be offered by mutual agreement. Since those involve unpaid intervals, they can be used for personal purposes. I consider those a variation on unpaid leaves, even though some people call them sabbaticals.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Seeing Like a Student
To better promote success, it appears that not only do particular student support services need to be in place — including in-depth orientations, proactive advising, early warning systems, and well-organized tutoring and other academic supports — but those services must be well coordinated among themselves and with academic programs. Seamless integration of programs and services from the student’s perspective and collaboration among faculty, staff, and administration are what seem to contribute most to student success. (emphasis added)
It sounds obvious, but it's incredibly hard to implement.
Like most large organizations, colleges are organized into silos. Each silo has its own function and its own imperatives. Although that sounds obviously perverse, it actually makes sense; each area has its own specialization, and the idea is that the gains from a division of labor will accrue to everyone involved. The physics department doesn't package financial aid, and the facilities department doesn't grade papers. That's not because those functions are unimportant; it's because they're complicated. Specializing allows for considerable expertise in each area, without expecting anyone to be superhuman. (Of course, with recent budget cuts forcing job consolidations, that's becoming less true in some areas. But the basic idea hasn't changed.)
But the students don't experience silos. They get everything as a big, messy whole.
I remember noticing that in my first semester teaching at PU. A number of students, including some relatively good ones, asked if I'd mind if they left class twenty minutes early every day to catch the bus. They explained that the next bus wouldn't come for two more hours. (I later found out they were telling the truth.) I objected, of course, and even took some offense at the question. But from their perspective, there was something to it; they were looking at total time on campus, rather than time in class, and they judged the cost of twenty more minutes of class to be out of line. In that case, the local bus schedule was drawn up without an eye to our class schedule, and it put all of us in a series of no-win situations.
In administration, of course, silos are the bane of my existence. It's one thing to meet enrollment demand by running more class sections at non-traditional times; it's quite another to get the financial aid office, counseling, tutoring, and the other areas to stay open in support of those times. This is especially true when the number of sections at a non-traditional time is relatively low. The marginal cost of adding a section balloons if you suddenly have to add staff hours in the various support roles, but if you don't, some students will be left marooned.
Even if you have the money, though, it isn't that easy. In a unionized environment, "terms and conditions" of employment can only be changed through bargaining. That means that anything that materially affects somebody's work environment -- reporting lines, hours, etc. -- can't just be changed because it's a good idea. The speed bump undoubtedly prevents some lousy ideas, but it prevents some helpful ones, too. And don't underestimate the resistance of an employee who has maximized her corner-cutting in her current role. Those folks will trot out every argument under the sun to protect their sinecures, and will usually go on offense when they don't have a good defense. All of that internal energy then gets diverted from actually helping students.
In a for-profit setting, there's a relatively straightforward rationale for organizing the enterprise around the student's perspective. Dollars follow students, so if students don't get what they want, the dollars walk out the door with them. But in a nonprofit setting, where the mission is diffuse and the funding complex, that kind of clarity is harder to maintain. That's especially true when students come and go, but employees stay for decades.
Still, if we don't take the students' perspectives seriously, others will. And there's something to be said for remembering why we're here.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways for efforts to 'see like a student' actually succeed at your campus? I'd love to steal an idea or two...
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Local Economic Indicators
I've heard a number of good ones locally of late. My local economic indicators for Fall of 2009:
- usual utilization rate of work-study money on campus: 75-80%
- amount by which our work-study allocation increased this year: 50%
- this year's utilization rate for work-study money on campus: 100%
On the bright side, we're able to fill every work-study position on campus, including some long-neglected ones. (Every computer lab is staffed!) We've also vastly increased our work-study allocation for off-campus community service. On the down side, that's because we no longer compete with off-campus jobs. There aren't any. For most of our students, we're the only game in town.
- this Fall's total enrollment gain relative to last Fall: approx. 15%
- this Fall's tuition increase relative to last Fall: approx. 6%
- this Fall's increase in financial aid money relative to last Fall: slightly over 30%
The proportions tell a story.
- number of quarterly cuts we took in our public funding last year: 4
- number of quarterly cuts we've taken so far this year: 1 and counting
When you plan on a yearly cycle, and you sell a two-year degree if everything goes right, this cycle is devastating.
- proportion of our budget covered by state/local funding three years ago: half
- proportion projected by this July: one-third
Luckily, our students are wealthy, employed, and easily able to afford the difference. Oh, wait...
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I remember having that the first few times I taught. But I sort of expected that, and there was a year of T.A.'ing to help me get used to the idea.
The surprise for me was how much more intense the syndrome was once I moved into administration.
Although a title like "Dean" carries with it certain symbolic baggage, the daily reality of the job is basically middle management. The two roles don't go together in any obvious way, and sometimes they conflict. I was fine with the management part, mostly, but found the symbolic stuff harder to negotiate.
Being a department chair, at least in my experience, was almost entirely about administrivia. You run a few meetings, but otherwise you basically take care of the details nobody else wants to. That made the transition to a role with considerable symbolic expectations that much harder, since there wasn't really a break-in period.
At the next level up the hierarchy, though, you're suddenly a part of The Administration. This means, among other things, that many people will abruptly start treating you as the enemy, and you will be held personally responsible for things your predecessors may (or may not) have done ten years ago. If you're feeling a little unsettled in the role anyway, finding yourself suddenly cast into the role of apologist for all manner of past sins, real or imagined, can be disconcerting.
It can be even harder to find your balance when you basically disagree with some of the directives coming from above. At that point, you have to walk a very careful line, both representing the decision and maintaining your own sense of integrity in the process. I'm increasingly convinced that candidates for administrative positions should look very, very closely at their reporting lines before deciding whether to take a job. If you aren't basically in tune with those above you, you're in hell.
The tragedy of the ceremonial baggage is that it sometimes attracts people for the wrong reasons. If you're going after the job because you crave deference or authority, I feel terrible for anyone who works with or for you. The best bosses I've had, without exception, have been the ones who know it's not about them. It's hard enough to sell a questionable decision when it's based on a sincere, if mistaken, sense of what's best for the college. It's much, much worse to try to sell one that's basically about someone's ego. If you're directly reporting to a narcissist, your sense of imposter-hood is basically correct. At that point, your job isn't what you thought it was. Your job is basically to be an extension of somebody else. At that point, the uncanny 'apologist' role is almost accurate; you might as well be a stand-in for someone else. Imposter-hood goes all the way down.
The most effective way I've found to balance the reality of a chain of command with the need for personal integrity is a strong sense of jurisdiction. If you have footprints on your forehead from people stepping over you to get to your boss to overturn whatever you say, you might as well quit. But if you have a relatively clearly defined area of jurisdiction, with an appropriate level of backing from above, then it's much easier to be both effective and sane. That requires a boss who's willing to delegate and mean it, but it's the only way I've seen to really 'own' the role. Without that, imposter syndrome is really another name for self-awareness.
Friday, October 09, 2009
These two stories from IHE, posted on the same day, are worth reading next to each other. They're both about for-profit higher ed, though they take very different angles on it. The first one notes that a quarter of all the Pell grants in America go to students in for-profit institutions. That's a significant increase over even just a few years ago, and it's revealing of the for-profits' student demographics. The second story notes that where community colleges are relatively well-funded, the appeal to students of for-profit alternatives declines.
To which I say, well, yeah.
As regular readers know, I used to work at a for-profit college. Having moved from that into the community college world, I can attest that both institutions made a point of serving populations that have traditionally been underserved. Both include some civic-minded people who believe their work makes a difference in the world, and both have flaws. I also recall a significant number of students moving back-and-forth between the local community colleges and the for-profit, often taking their gen ed courses at the cc and transferring the credits in to save tuition money. (For whatever reason, I don't ever recall reading a story about that, but it was pretty commonplace on the ground.)
With the public side of higher education taking ritual beatings in the various states, I'm not at all surprised to hear that students are flocking to for-profits. For-profits thrive in the cracks of the nonprofit system. As the system cracks up, the for-profits gain more room to move.
In my days at Proprietary U, the college liked to make a distinction between the 'tax paying' sector -- of which it was a part -- and the 'tax consuming' sector, with which it competed. The labels were always a bit overdrawn; as the Pell grant story correctly notes, if Federal student financial aid went away, so would the for-profit college. (From this side, I'd note, too, that direct support for public higher ed is a steadily declining percentage of our budgets.) I also couldn't help but notice how many of PU's faculty, myself included, came from various graduate programs at the state's public flagship university. Since public higher ed is remarkably good at producing new Ph.D.'s, and remarkably bad at providing jobs for them, the for-profits have a steady stream of applicants for faculty positions. In my darker moments, I recalled reading something about sowing the seeds of one's own destruction.
It was once possible to sneer at the entire concept of for-profit higher education. As recently as the early 00's, I attended the national conference of my academic discipline and saw the disdain on people's faces when they saw my institution on my nametag. But there's a fundamental reason that the for-profits are growing, and will continue to:
Someone has to grow.
The non-elite private colleges are economically unsustainable. Public higher ed is creaking. The elites, by definition, can only ever get so big. But the demand for higher education continues to grow, as the realistic alternatives for a decent living without a degree continue to shrink. (The gender breakdown of the Great Recession should finally put to rest the tiresome Charles Murray-esque glorification of manly male blue collar trades. Those jobs took the worst hits by far over the last year.)
Unlike every other sector of higher ed, the for-profits have a revenue model that allows for -- encourages, actually -- growth. My cc loses money on every student. PU made money on every student. Which do you suppose was more capable of growth?
One of the grand poobahs from Home Office once visited PU and gave a talk in which he referred to PU's "secret weapon: private investment capital." Although that was several years ago, the line stuck with me.
In my preferred world, of course, the public sector would have access to that capital through progressive taxation and the redirection of resources away from voluntary wars. But that doesn't seem to be the direction of things. And public higher ed is too busy plugging holes in the dike to think seriously about structural change.
If you don't like the concept of for-profit higher ed, support generous and sustained funding for the public kind. If you're really serious, condition that funding on basic structural change. Without both of those, traditional higher ed faces the fate of a declining aristocracy losing power to a grubby-but-aggressive rising merchant class. Snobbery doesn't pay the bills. At this point, the cracks reach all the way down to the foundation.
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Speaking on Behalf of...
I don't know what “respect” means in that sentence.
It could mean “obeyed,” but that conveys a serious lack of respect for the larger group. It could mean “held immune from criticism,” but that actually means either “obeyed” or “ignored.” I guess it could mean “considered,” but how you consider something without evaluating it is honestly beyond me.
(If I were an abrasive jerk, I suppose it could refer to demeanor. I'll just ask the reader to trust that my demeanor was civil.)
Moments like these are why I get impatient with the advocate/constituent model of meetings or decisionmaking. (For those keeping score at home, I'm siding with 'trustee' representation over 'delegate' representation.) Someone who feels bound to represent the Final Word of a given group has no real ability to compromise or to engage others in meaningful discussion about it; the Word is the Word, end of story.
But the real work of decisionmaking isn't just smashing people into each other and seeing who wins. It's about finding solutions that allow for the best considerations behind the various positions to find expression, even if not in the form originally imagined. It's about discerning the difference between 'spirit' and 'letter,' and being willing to sacrifice the latter for the former. But you can only do that if you're able to move beyond “I've said what I've said and that's what I've said.” You can only do that if you own your words enough to change them.
When confronted with “I've said what the group had to say, and that's that,” I feel like the meeting has been hijacked. Now it's not about whether x or y or some variation is the best idea; it's about the relative standing of the group that issued the dictat. Instead of solving problems, we're dealing with internal politics and wounded egos. At best, it's distracting. At worst, it leads to decisions made for all the wrong reasons.
I've seen a variation on this theme in customer service situations way too many times. A policy is enacted for a particular reason. The front-line people don't know the reason; they're just directed to enforce the policy. So a policy gets forced onto a situation where it makes no sense. The front-line people don't 'own' the policy in any meaningful way, so they don't feel entitled to make judgment calls, no matter how obvious they might seem.
Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a graceful way around this?
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Compare and Contrast
Posted on the same day, these two articles need to be read next to each other.
In essence, at the very moment that American higher education is facing its worst fiscal challenges in living memory, the Chinese system is expanding at a record clip. All over Asia, higher ed is a rapid growth industry. Asian colleges are building capacity and cutting-edge facilities at the exact same time that American colleges and universities are finding that even adjuncting-out the faculty won't balance the books anymore.
This is not good.
For the latter half of the twentieth century, we made a habit of importing the best minds from around the world for grad school. Many of them stuck around, and we're still living off the benefits of that. A few years ago, when post 9-11 xenophobia was at its peak and the Bush administration clamped down on foreign graduate students, Australian universities reaped the benefit of wonderful Asian grad students who, in sunnier times, would have come here. Now those graduate students will have the option of staying closer to home, and bestowing the spinoff economic benefits on their home countries. We won't be able to import the world's best talent as easily anymore.
Nor, apparently, will we be able to grow our own. The University of California's fiscal troubles are well-documented. The scarier part is that they aren't unique. Lower-tier schools are feeling the pinch, too, and for a whole host of structural reasons that I (cough) may have mentioned once or twice. The IHE piece details the shift at San Joaquin Delta College, where they've moved from 'across the board' cuts to individual program eliminations. They've decided -- correctly, in my view -- that it's better to do some things well than to do everything badly. But what a horrible choice! And the class sizes mentioned in the article are simply nuts.
There's a larger historical undercurrent here that's easy to miss. For a while, the U.S. had an effective monopoly on manufacturing, since Europe and Japan were bombed out and the other great powers labored under the illusion that a single Minister of Production could take care of everything. Now, Europe and Japan have more modern facilities than we do, in many instances, and China and India are modernizing at breakneck speed (even if, in China's case, it still pays lip service to an old ideology). Europe and Japan are free of the deadweight cost of an idiotic health care system, and China and India have ridiculously low costs of production. We no longer have the monopoly profits to pay for both guns and butter, and for reasons I still don't understand, we'd rather fight two wars of choice at the same time than educate our young.
For a while, we were able to be both thoughtless and successful. But that was a historical fluke. It wasn't sustainable, and the infrastructure of that society is coming apart.
It's easy to blame this administrator or that provost for getting something wrong, and there's surely no shortage of examples of bad decisions. But these changes go well beyond any individual campus or system.
If we're going to avoid the fate of the American carmakers in their encounter with Asian companies, we'll have to change the game, and quickly. That will mean letting go of some historical survivals, and recasting some fundamentals. Otherwise, we're General Motors, circa 1972 or 1999. It's rarely as obvious as it is now.
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
The Shuffle, or, The Hidden Cost of Savings
In the world of small private businesses, it's a matter of saying “Steve, you pick up this half of Mike's job, and I'll pick up the other half.” Or, “we just won't do that.” Or, “Steve, do Mike's job and your own.” Notice how short each of those solutions is.
What follows is a list of issues that come up when a unique staffer leaves a unionized public employer in a down year. It could also be titled “corporate managers are a bunch of sissies.” It works like this:
Back-office function done by one person. That person leaves. We don't have the money to hire. We have to reallocate that person's duties to other people. Various others have some competency in some aspect of the original job, though it's variable and scattered. Some are currently swamped; others are part-time and want to be full-time.
Some of the duties fall under a different pay grade. Some fall under a different bargaining unit. Some are grant-supported, and can only be changed in very specific ways, or with written dispensation from the grantor. Some duties fall under a different supervisor. Any of these changes have to be negotiated with the union/s (“impact bargained”). Does this constitute a minor change – and therefore something that can be done internally – or is this now a new position that requires a new pay grade determination and an external posting, complete with a search committee? If the latter, is the interim eligible to apply? What if s/he loses?
Making a change here would make sense, but we need time to figure it out. In the meantime we'll patch it. But patching it the easiest way sets a precedent we don't want to set. Solving it the right way would take a few months, but the person is out the door next week and things are happening.
The job descriptions need to be changed in HR. In midyear, the year's performance review criteria will have to be rejiggered to reflect part of the year doing job version 1 and part doing version 2. Any reclassifications have to be run through that process. Of course, reclassifications have to be consistent with statewide practice and any settled grievances.
The whole thing makes my head hurt. But it's a dance we've had to go through several times recently, and I foresee several more. All in the name of efficiency.
I couldn't make this stuff up.
Monday, October 05, 2009
For, Against, and That Elusive Third Category...
Prof: So this is why I think we should do this. Will you pay for it?
DD: I don't know. The budget picture is still in flux.
Prof: So you're opposed to it?
DD: No, I like it. I just don't know how much wiggle room I'll have after this year's midyear cuts.
Prof: So you'll support it?
DD: I'll consider it.
From the prof's perspective, I'd guess this reads as doublespeak or evasion. From my perspective, it's actually about not making promises that can't be kept.
At any given time, dozens of proposals are floating around, looking for funding in one form or another. (Course releases a form of funding, since we have to pay an adjunct to teach the course from which the full-timer has been released.) Contrary to stereotype, most of these proposals are individually good ideas. I don't often actually oppose one. But it rarely comes down to 'support' or 'oppose.'
It's really about ranking. For all intents and purposes, I have to rank them. Then it's a matter of guessing where in the ranking the cutoff will fall, which is almost entirely a matter of budget. In a fat year, maybe six or eight get funding. In a lean year, maybe three or four. In a catastrophic year, one or two. So asking whether “I like it” means “yes” is asking, in part, for a guess as to where the cutoff will fall. Ranking a given proposal fourth may or may not mean it gets funded. That's largely out of my control.
(The best proposals are the ones that tie, concretely, to something beyond an individual person or department. And I don't mean "excellence." Excellence and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. To the extent that a proposal connects to other things the college is known to care about, its odds of success are better. "Because that's the way we did it in grad school" really doesn't carry much weight as an argument.)
Of course, proposals don't all come in at the same time. They come in when they come in. Asking me in October whether I'll be able to pay for something next Fall is asking me to guesstimate the number and quality of other proposals I'll receive in the meantime, the number and severity of midyear cuts, the size of next year's cut, who else will leave and not be replaced, and any number of other unknowables.
In an ideal world, my budget would be set at the beginning of the year and wouldn't change for the entire year. Between years, we would get predictable incremental increases. Then I could plan, and make promises knowing I could keep them. In that world, clean 'yes' or 'no' answers are at least plausible.
But last year we got multiple midyear cuts in rapid succession – basically, one per quarter. We're about to get another one, and we have every reason to believe that we'll have more before this year is done. I don't know how large each one will be, but I'd be unconscionably naïve not to expect them now.
Midyear cuts are much worse than normal cuts. Normal cuts commence with the new fiscal year. You have less to work with than the year before, but you have what you have, and you work with it. Midyear cuts effectively move the goalposts during the game, which wreaks havoc even on a good gameplan. Multiple years with midyear cuts are that much worse, since there are only so many contingency plans you can make before you start making yourself, and everyone else, nuts. Uncertainty rolls downhill, and gets bigger and scarier as it goes.
In this context, categories like "support" and "oppose" come with too many asterisks to mean much.
Friday, October 02, 2009
Thoughts on Hiring Outside Academe
The piece starts by noting that more than half of the college Presidents in America are over the age of 60, and that more than half of the chief academic officers (usually called vpaa's, daa's, or sometimes provosts) are over 55. (Chief Academic Officer is the most common previous position held by new Presidents.) It doesn't go into why that's true, though. The short answer is that the traditional pipeline to CAO positions starts with full-time faculty status. It then runs through department chair and dean positions. With the long-term trend of adjuncting-out the full-time faculty, the pipeline has run relatively dry over the last couple of decades. Now the people who weren't hired 10 or 20 years ago as faculty aren't in deanships or cao positions. The trough has moved up the ranks.
Middleton responds to these developments with a twofold strategy. First, allow some professional development opportunities for people at lower levels, and take some risks on internal people with obvious talent but not so much experience. Let them grow into mid-level jobs.
So far, so good. Yes, internal hires can lead to inbreeding and tunnel vision, but they can also be wildly successful. And leaving an obviously talented person on the shelf to instead bring in a mediocrity from the outside doesn't make sense. Besides, everyone with experience lacked experience at some point. They all got their first big break somewhere. Paying it forward can make sense.
But Middleton advocates a different strategy for the senior positions. Growing your own registrar may be reasonable, he suggests, but growing your own Vice President for Student Services isn't. For positions like that, he suggests, you're often better off looking outside academia.
I'll admit finding the disjuncture mystifying. It's certainly true that academia has no monopoly on talent. Some of the most effective administrators at my cc came from outside academia, though interestingly enough, they came from other nonprofits.
That said, though, it's notable that Middleton's examples don't include the academic side of the house. A fundraiser who previously worked for a symphony might make sense, but a CAO without academic experience is very likely to fail. The culture of the faculty, even at the cc level, is unique. (In how many industries is the "crossing over to the dark side" line used so extensively?) And someone who hasn't lived it will likely have a rough time learning it from on high. There may be cases in which that has worked, but it's an exceedingly risky strategy.
All of this is by way of suggesting that faculty -- including younger ones -- with good academic priorities and even temperaments are exactly the folks who should be recruited into administration, and not stopped at midtier levels. The de facto glass ceiling that Middleton proposes is both mystifying and counterproductive. I wouldn't want a CAO who has never taught a class, any more than I'd want a financial VP who has never managed a budget. To the extent that Presidencies five or ten years from now will reflect vice presidencies now, I'd hate to see too large a shift away from the academic heart of the mission at the highest levels.
We stick to the "dark side" rhetoric at our own peril. If people with academic backgrounds don't step up to leadership, others will. In some areas of the college, that may not matter much. But as Middleton correctly points out, future Presidents have to come from somewhere.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Ask the Administrator: Buying the Cow
You mentioned having too few faculty for student advising... do you or would you use "adjuncts" for this? My gig is asking me (and other adjuncts) to do de facto full time duties: attend weekly meetings, advise students, etc. They pay a decent stipend for this which is nice but my fear is that by using us in this manner they are able to able to not commit to hiring more full timers. Also because they're not offering me a full time course load I have to moonlight elsewhere and often can't attend these meetings I'm now supposed to attend. Is this like the dating adage "why would you buy the cow when you get the milk for free"? Would love the admin's perspective on this.
(signed) Adjunct Human
This strikes me as related to the post from a couple of months ago about permatemping.
Yes, my cc uses adjuncts as academic advisors. They're paid for their time, they're trained, and some of them are among the best advisors on campus. We do that because the full-time faculty contract stipulates a maximum number of advisees that f-t faculty can be assigned, and if we didn't augment that somehow, about two-thirds of our students wouldn't have advisors at all. It's born of necessity.
(There's also the sheer fact of the academic year. We can't require f-t faculty to show up in August, but many of their advisees show up in August looking for help.)
As I mentioned in the permatemp post, I've tried to maintain a bright line somewhere distinguishing adjunct work from full-time work. While it's sometimes inconvenient, and educationally suboptimal, it's a way to prevent 'permatemp' lawsuits that would bankrupt the college. I won't pretend for a minute that it's an ideal solution, but given extraordinarily limited resources and a litigious climate, it's the best we can do.
In terms of the cow/milk metaphor, I'll make a distinction between the individual cow and the collective cow.
I've been doing this for a while now, and I can say that one statement I've never heard is "Jen is such a great adjunct -- let's not hire her!" That's simply not how it has played out.
On the individual level, doing a great job at every aspect of the work makes you more valuable to keep around. I have hired incumbent adjuncts to full-time positions, and on those occasions, their excellent track records locally were major selling points.
On the collective level, though, it's true that the more that can be done on the cheap, the more will be. There are limits to that, but the force of economic gravity is strong. So behavior that's individually rational -- doing the best job you can -- is collectively destructive.
In the case of cows, where the best milk producers are valuable but too much milk on the market reduces the worth of each cow, the paradox is resolved through an expensive and complicated system of farm subsidies. Excess cows are subsidized; extra faculty aren't. I choose not to devote too much thought to this, since it's pretty depressing.
A couple of weeks ago, the academic blogosphere got all worked up about a college that turned down retired faculty teaching on a volunteer (that is, free) basis. The bloggers assumed that it was The Administration not wanting anybody they couldn't control. I don't know the situation on that campus, but I can say that when we've had volunteers offer to help with advising or tutoring here, the union objected. They were afraid that the volunteers would allow the college to get by with fewer union jobs. A similar logic applies here. When facing both a double-digit budget cut and a double-digit enrollment increase, the short-term temptation to get work done on the cheap is very compelling. Blame whomever you want; the math speaks for itself. If your income dropped twenty percent and your rent increased twenty percent, wouldn't you cut your spending on other things?
This situation didn't develop overnight, and it won't be fixed overnight. Elements of a fix could include widespread work stoppages by organized adjuncts, greatly reduced numbers of people going to grad school in the evergreen disciplines, and/or a substantial and sustained infusion of money into colleges' operating budgets. I'm not holding my breath on any of those. Unless supply comes more into line with demand, the overall situation will remain bleak. I don't like it either.
Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on the paradox of the collective cow?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.