Monday, November 30, 2009
Ask the Administrator: How to Change a Culture?
I'm hoping your wise and worldly readers can shed some light on my
anonymous, and of course (despite its curiously detailed nature),
purely hypothetical problem.
I'm a grad student in a Prestigious Atlantic College where our
department is being a little bit roiled by the efforts of some faculty
and students to change the department culture. The specifics don't
matter, except to say that this isn't a case of one methodology or
approach being hailed as superior but rather of commitment to
academics instead of policy relevance as the departmental norm. The
shift is well underway, but the current push is, essentially, to
consolidate the academic side's gains.
My question, however, deals with broader questions of cultural change
in academia. I'd been in the "real world" for a few years before
coming to academia, and so I think that I'm a little bit more tolerant
of blunter, bottom-line assessments of situations and of direct forms
of communications than some of my colleagues. More to the point, I'm
also a little bit less interested in questions of personal style in my
interlocutors than I am in effectiveness and usefulness. That, however,
does not seem to be the case with others. And although I'm aware that
I may be incorrectly perceiving as "acceptable" what others see as
"unprofessional," the broader issue of how to broach cultural change
initiatives is what really preoccupies me.
How, in other words, do you change a culture without appearing to
blame people for what went before? Is there any way to do that? And
what are the best ways of coping with the problem and mitigating the
conflicts these processes seem to generate?
Nope, nothing tricky here!
I read once that philosophers never really settle a question; over time, they change the subject. That's how I see conscious cultural change working. (Unconscious cultural change is another matter altogether. That's the kind that sneaks up on you as a result of changed circumstances. It takes longer, but it tends to have staying power.)
Changing the subject will come across as rude, impertinent, and arrogant, at first. The people who have prospered under the old culture will often defend it beyond reason. Though dogmatic, they won't see the dogmatism in themselves; they'll think of themselves as open to any reasonable answer to the questions they consider important. Cultural change means considering different questions important.
Anyone who has switched workplaces has seen this. Issues that one workplace considered worthy of mortal combat, another won't notice, and vice versa. Since academics tend to stay rooted for extended periods, that comparative perspective is relatively rare. That's unfortunate, since getting some distance on local issues can bring helpful clarity. To give a concrete example, in statewide discussions of outcomes assessment, I've heard from some campuses that standardized measures are of the devil, and from others that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. I was struck at how far apart the two were, and at the relative shallowness of the arguments presented for both positions. It seemed that each campus chose a side and developed arguments later.
Back to your question. I'd be surprised to see meaningful cultural change occur without either internal conflict or a really massive exogenous shock. The perceived stakes -- whether rightly or wrongly perceived isn't entirely relevant -- are too high. The real questions are about how to manage the conflict, and how to calculate how much conflict is worth it. I'll address the first, and just suggest that the second is entirely too context-dependent to generalize.
If you want to try to push the culture without entirely upending it, I'd recommend starting with a serious inquiry into the perceived needs that the status quo serves. What, exactly, are the partisans of the status quo anxious about? What anxieties does the dominant culture address? (Alternately, what anxieties does it generate?) Some opposition will simply be fear of the unknown, or of change generally; that's annoying, but there it is. But if you can skip past the particular manifestations and get at the anxieties underlying them, you might actually be able to get somewhere.
You can also try to tie old rules to past circumstances. "That rule was developed when the program was struggling to survive, and it made sense. It served its function well. Now the program has outgrown the rule, and needs to change it to continue to move forward." If you can make some version of that argument honestly, you can simultaneously honor what came before and make a case for change. I've had good luck with that when I could use it truthfully. The more you can make the change look like a response to larger circumstances, rather than someone's pet idea, the better your chances. (Some people are good at a close variation on this: the "make them think it was their idea" model. If you can pull it off, more power to you.)
If the issue is subtler -- a longstanding practice, say, rather than an explicit rule -- then simply cultivating an alternative and letting its success speak for itself can work. It's hard to beat something with nothing, so it's better to have something to show.
In the best of all possible worlds, you'd be able to have long, connect-the-dots conversations in which both sides spell out exactly what their concerns actually are. Once in a blue moon, that actually works. It's rare, though, since it's risky, and since people aren't always aware of their own motivations. In my early days of deaning, I had several occasions in which people who expressed that they were fine with something at the proposal stage take great offense at the implementation stage. At first, I wrote it off to misunderstanding, then, later, to failings of character. Now I'm inclined to think that it's limited self-awareness. I don't always know how I'll react to something once it becomes real, so why should anybody else?
The books I've read about 'difficult conversations' and the like usually advise something like "make it safe." That's great when it works, but in this setting, it's a tad idealistic.
I've had my turn, so let me turn to my wise and worldly readers. Have you found ways to change a culture without provoking open warfare?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Looking Like Work
Now that computers are much more fun than they used to be, writing doesn't look like work anymore. It is, of course, but it doesn't look like it. When I'm at the computer typing, I might be doing something for my day job, or blogging, or reading, or shopping, or emailing, or tweeting. In any given hour, it's usually a mix. Chewing on an idea isn't a linear process. It's shaggier than that, which is necessary to get enough perspective on what's already written to make revising worthwhile. But if you swoop in from the outside and peek over my shoulder at a random moment, you might see a series of tweets or an article on heaven-knows-what, while I maintain with a straight face that I'm writing. And I am. It just doesn't look like it.
In my faculty days, class preparation time often had the same flaw. TW would assume that I was 'on call' at any moment that I wasn't actually in a classroom or grading. Thinking can look suspiciously like goofing off, and any honest account would have to concede that some amount of goofing off is an integral part of the process. But the process is real. The problem is that, from the outside, it's often indistinguishable from loafing.
I remember my Dad pounding away on the astonishingly loud electric typewriter when I was a kid. That looked (and sounded) like work. A typewriter didn't lend itself to anything else. Even in the early 90's, about the only substantial diversion on many computers was solitaire. (One of my favorite running jokes on The Office is that Creed and Meredith usually have solitaire on their monitors.) If you were actually hitting keys, you were probably working. Now, anything goes.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the visible part of the work is only a smallish part of the picture. A well-meaning friend in grad school used to tell me that all I had to do to plow through the dissertation was to write two pages a day. Typing two pages a day is easy; I'm a reasonably competent typist, and if I know where it's going, I can crank out the prose. But having two pages' worth of content is hard. Generating the ideas and thinking them through is the hard part, and it's fiendishly difficult to quantify or schedule.
I used to think that the expression "put on your thinking cap" was merely colorful. Now it's starting to make sense. It wouldn't have any inherent powers, but it could work as a signal to others: "I'm trying to think!"
Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a way to make writing look like work?
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
What I like about it is the acknowledgement that for all the lip service paid to shared governance, the pragmatic advice many of us received (myself included) during those formative years was to steer clear of committees, service, and administration generally. As an administrator, I'm constantly struck by the unacknowledged contradiction among many faculty between "consult us in all things" and "back off and leave us alone." It's not that I don't understand the impulse; depending on local practice, 'service' may or may not count for tenure or promotion. If it doesn't, then the duck-and-cover approach makes short-term sense. Certainly, anybody who has put in time in contentious meetings (hi!) can attest that they can be draining, that you'll sometimes see people at their worst, and that some great projects end with a whimper. All true. And that's before accounting for difficult personalities in powerful roles, people who don't know how to run meetings, and resource battles. It ain't always pretty.
I've mentioned before that at my current campus, as well as my previous one, most of the 'good soldiers' who are willing to put in serious time on 'service' are women. Weirdly, it seems to be getting ever more one-sided over time. (Admittedly, I'm dealing with a small sample, but it seems to square with what I've read elsewhere.) I haven't yet figured out an effective way to get more guys to step up, though I'm very, very open to ideas. (Within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement, I can't just start playing with the incentive system. I'm looking for ideas I could actually implement.)
The article suggests that graduate school is the time to learn a lot about governance. I'm not sure about that. Governance models vary widely from sector to sector, and in the case of publics, from state to state. What might be a perfectly accurate picture of an R1 might be otherworldly at a cc, and neither would accurately describe a small private college or a for-profit. Since graduate students often don't know where they'll land, it would be difficult to give contextually-relevant information. (When I signed up for grad school, community colleges weren't even on my radar.) Even if a given program managed to guess right, I'd be surprised if most grad students saw the relevance yet; at that stage, getting published counts for far more than learning how to navigate committees.
There's also the question of where governance shades into administration. It's probably not news that effective committee service can mark someone as a hot prospect for administration. Unfortunately, to too many faculty, "Administration" is a black box (or "the dark side"). I was several years into my first faculty job before giving a moment's thought to what various levels of administration do. I'd bet that only a small minority of grad students could explain, say, the difference between a vice president and a provost. This is basic stuff, but until you need it, it's just arcane.
My preferred approach would be somewhat different. I'd go after incentives and culture first, rather than information. Once the information seems relevant, people will seek it out. Colleges and universities that face a generational crisis in leadership, which is most of them, need to connect the dots and reward effective service. If it actually counts for something, then more people will step up and develop the skills and experience needed to manage a complicated and idiosyncratic institution. And if we could drop some of the knee-jerk demonization of "the dark side," that would help. If good people are scared away from administration, bad ones will fill the gaps. We. Do. Not. Want. This.
But I agree strongly that coaching newbies into the profession to steer clear of committee work, while still paying lip service to shared governance, is counterproductive. Kudos to Givens for seeing the problem clearly.
Monday, November 23, 2009
A Response to Michael Berube
Berube's post is a couple of weeks old, since I stopped reading his stuff a few years ago. I mentally consigned him to the same category as Stanley Fish, David Horowitz, and Marc Bousquet -- basically, predictable caricatures of their former selves who jumped the shark some time ago. When Berube did the Punch-and-Judy act with Horowitz, I stopped paying attention. I dimly remember him 'retiring' from blogging, which seemed about right. Apparently, though, he's back, and his ego has only inflated.
Berube, who is tenured, attempts to eviscerate my proposal for a contract-based system as a successor to tenure. I say 'attempts' because he never actually engages with it, or with the reasons behind it. His method seems to be to drip contempt from on high and hope that enough sophistry and attitude will make up for the lack of an actual argument. This, from someone whose job it is to teach textual interpretation.
He accused me of five "wrongisms." (He's an English professor? Really?) As near as I can tell, they're as follows:
1. He argues that "[T]he reason the AAUP is advising faculty to revise their handbooks anyway is that in the wake of a series of extraordinarily perverse court decisions, this is the best we can do. We have to look to written safeguards in internal institutional procedures because the legal climate is so very hostile. We are not looking for better legal ground. We are looking for matters of professional principle." Astute readers will know, of course, that the hostile legal environment was precisely my point. That's why I noted that "I'd guess that the AAUP would respond that this new initiative is a 'second-best' position, but the fact that it needs one proves the point." Berube neglects to address that. And if you think law is a shaky foundation for protection, I invite you to consider "matters of professional principle." Good luck with that. To make sense of Berube's view, you'd have to accept that laws are easily changed and faculty handbooks aren't. Alrighty then.
2. He notes that contracts are not always upheld. As opposed to what? "Matters of professional principle"? I'd take the protections of law over the protections of 'matters of professional principle' any day of the week, thank you very much.
3. He heaps scorn on my point that tenure has become the province of the elite, but doesn't actually refute it. That's because it's true. He notes that the proportion of faculty with tenure has dropped from a high of about 70 percent to a current level of about 25 percent, without drawing the obvious conclusion. How much more does the system have to fail before he'll admit it? Apparently I'm jumping the gun by noticing the decline after a mere forty years. Wouldn't want to rush into anything. Since Berube's powers of textual analysis apparently don't extend to data, I'll close-caption this one for him. THE SYSTEM IS DYING. You're welcome.
4. This one is so staggering that I won't even attempt to paraphrase. Berube writes: "Dean Dad assumes throughout the post that the AAUP position is that only the tenured faculty have academic freedom. This is badly mistaken. We argue that every single person teaching and researching in a university should have academic freedom.." Did you catch that? He moves from "have" to "should have" as if they were the same. The difference between them -- the difference between "is" and "ought," for those philosophically inclined -- is so foundational to Western thought that to conflate the two is typically considered either psychosis or sophistry. My discussion was based on the observation that whenever someone proposes an alternative to tenure, the first line of attack is always academic freedom. From that, I assumed that the AAUP connected the two. If it doesn't, then why is that always the first line of attack? If tenure isn't necessary for academic freedom, then why is tenure necessary at all? If academic freedom is crucial, yet not connected to tenure, then what, exactly, protects it? I propose law -- contract law, specifically -- and economics, described below. Berube proposes what, exactly?
5. The 'defuse the cheap shots' line. This is where Berube goes for the gusto. It's worth quoting. "I keep trying to imagine Roger Kimball saying, “I used to get all squicky about queer theory, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, bring on the fabulous challenges to heteronormativity.” Or Daniel Pipes saying, “I used to target anyone who didn’t toe the Likud line, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, let a hundred critiques of Israel bloom.” Or my old friend David Horowitz saying, “I used to have a list of dangerous professors, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, Bill Ayers is just all right with me, whoa yeah.” That's cute. But if you think that the real threat to academic freedom is David Horowitz, then you need to get out more.
The real threat to academic freedom isn't some wingnut in a think tank. It's economics. As I mentioned in the next day's post, it's easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision. If you want to make full-time status more available, the first thing to do is to lower the cost of a bad decision. Since tenure is forever but a contract is finite, a contract system reduces the downside risk of a bad hiring decision. Lower the cost of hiring, and there will be more. The reason that only a quarter of the professors across the country are tenured isn't that David Horowitz threw a hissy fit in the 90's. He's not that important. The trend started decades before Horowitz ever 'named' anybody. Of course, if you've made your professional name by duking it out with Horowitz, then there's a very good reason to overstate his importance. Oh, no, The Big Bad Horowitz is coming! Somebody save us!
Puh-leeze. Even Berube seems to sense the implausibility of this position. In the one glancing recognition of economics in the entire piece, he concedes that "Well, sure, tenure is always going to be a target of public ire and resentment, particularly when unemployment is rising, entire company towns are shutting down, and the banksters of Goldman Sachs, together with 25 percent of college professors, are making out like bandits." Okay, that's a start, let's go with that. (For the record, "public ire and resentment" captures pretty well the "cheap shots" to which I referred. I guess it only counts when he says it.) Let's add several decades worth -- again, predating anything Horowitz said about faculty -- of tuition increases beyond inflation, of increasing student loan burdens, and of idiotic political choices. Add 'hiring freezes,' cuts by attrition, and the pincer movement of more graduate programs (to generate TA's) and fewer job openings for faculty. Now we're starting to grasp reality. Even in the deep blue states of the Northeast, where gays marry legally and nobody gives a rat's ass what David Horowitz thinks, higher ed is taking it on the chin. It's not about culture wars. Those are just political cover, when they're even that much. It's about economics.
I'll grant that legal protections are imperfect. But compared to "matters of professional principle" and personal hauteur, they look pretty good. If Berube has an actual idea, I'm happy to hear it. But snark attacks do not ideas make, and to imagine that the status quo ante can be reanimated simply through appeals to principle is ludicrous. The only academic freedom the current system guarantees is freedom from full-time employment. If you're already tenured, I guess that doesn't seem too bad. For everyone else, not so much.
Berube concludes with his interpretation of the Garcetti decision. "So remember, folks: if you’re going to speak out about something at your college or university in the course of your professional duties, first make sure that you have no idea what you’re talking about." By that standard, he should be just fine.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Politics of Hiring: Riffing on Profgrrrrl
It's all true.
Worse, it doesn't stop at the department level.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that your dean/vp didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Any chances that s/he might be wise to some of these factors? (Hint: Yes.)
Facts of life like these are why I have this much patience for the argument that the academic hiring market is some sort of meritocracy. It just isn't. That becomes much more true in the disciplines in which it's common to get hundreds of applications per position. After an initial screen for bright-line qualifications, you'll still have dozens of people who are fully qualified, many of whom will have strong letters, academic pedigrees, and experience. That's where things start to get, if not random, then at least situation-specific.
(And that's before even counting recessions. Is hiring down this year because candidates suddenly got worse? Nope.)
I've been on any number of searches in which I've met extraordinary candidates who did everything right and still didn't get hired. Sometimes it comes down to niches. Smith may be a better hitter than Jones, but if Smith is a first baseman and Jones a shortstop, and I'm already set at first base, I'm going with Jones. Substitute teaching specialties for positions, and you get the idea. That's the non-sinister meaning of 'fit.' Departments usually hire because they have holes; the exact shape of the hole is specific to that situation. If this year's hole is different than last year's, then this year's winner will be different.
I've also seen committees try to rig the outcome by putting forward the one person they really want, and two obvious sacrificial lambs. I put a stop to that by threatening to hire one of the lambs. My position is that anyone on the finalist list is, by definition, fair game. That may sound sinister, but I see it as preserving real openness. If the fix is in anyway, why bother running an open search at all? Of course, good luck defending yourself in court when a rejected applicant from a protected class claims discrimination. Although forcing openness may look like administrative meddling, I'd argue that it actually offers the possibility of fairness to all applicants, which can only benefit the college in the long run.
The more difficult case is the committee member who feels threatened in her niche. I've seen a few iterations of this. One is the senior professor who doesn't want to give up a pet course, so he systematically tanks anyone capable of teaching it. Another is the queen bee who simply refuses to hire any women younger than herself. (I know it's an ugly stereotype, but I've seen it in action.) Since no candidate is perfect, it's always possible to find a flaw if you want to badly enough.
Most of these are symptomatic of the vagaries of luck, circumstance, and what Kant called the crooked timber of humanity. My sense is that good admins need to do what they can to preserve real openness of process, and to challenge what seem like arbitrary reasons. But as long as the demand for slots so drastically exceeds the supply, some wonderful people are going to be shut out for what seem like silly reasons. Common decency suggests that we shouldn't add insult to injury by telling those left out that they just weren't good enough.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Ask the Administrator: Let's Go to the Videotape!
At one of my adjunct gigs (where I teach just once a week) the HR department has sent me a 45 minute online training video about harassment in the workplace complete with a quiz I have to pass. Is this a reasonable thing to ask of a very part time employee? They tell me it's mandatory.
None of my other jobs make me do this kinda thing. I mean if it was one video that would be one thing, but I have a sneaking suspicion that an HR department that does this once is liable to do it repeatedly.
Plus I have this crazy theory that people can treat each other respectfully without 45 minute training videos.
None of what follows is intended to dismiss the concept of harassment. It's intended to explain the choice of measures used against it.
A few years ago I mentioned in passing that this sort of exercise is usually a preemptive strike against litigation. If a college doesn't have some sort of formal anti-harassment hoop it makes new hires jump through, and a new hire creates a hostile environment for somebody else, then that somebody else is in a stronger legal position than if there were some sort of hoop.
That's true, as far as it goes, but I'd add a few more considerations now.
Sometimes, it's a response to a case that actually happened. In the wake of a muddy case, I've seen colleges (and businesses) adopt measures like these as a sort of ritual penance. When that happens, the effectiveness of the program really isn't the point; going through it is the point. "Further, to ensure that any such misunderstandings do not occur in the future, the college agrees to..." While controlling every future act (and interpretation of every act) of every employee is obviously impossible, mandating workshops, quizzes, and videos is both possible and measurable. If something happens later, the employer can defend itself with "we took pro-active measures, including x hours of workshops and a quiz administered to every employee."
There's also the symbolic communication value. I'll assume that you're a decent person who treats others decently, and would do so even without a video and quiz. I'll also assume that you can read between the lines. While we all know that everyday life doesn't live up to the elevated speech of mission and vision statements, it's still possible to draw inferences from noticing what a given college chooses to highlight. By making a point of condemning harassment, the college is saying something. Incumbent employees who have experienced a felt climate of intimidation may welcome the gesture, even knowing that, by itself, it's unlikely to accomplish much. At the very least, it puts the college on record as making the issue important.
More subtly, it's usually the case that gestures like these aren't just stand-alone. They're parts of larger programs, often working to shift a long-ingrained culture. It's an annoying fact of life that measures like these are usually targeted at the people who didn't cause the problem, but so it goes.
Finally, there's the George Costanza defense. In an episode of Seinfeld, George was fired for having sex with the cleaning lady on his desk. He tried to defend himself by saying nobody told him he couldn't have sex with the cleaning lady on his desk, so how was he supposed to know? Putting new employees through workshops and quizzes can defuse the "I didn't know" defense, which can make disciplinary action easier. Yes, there's an element of "but what kind of idiot doesn't know that?" to it, but as a manager of people, I'll just say that you'd be surprised what some people consider obvious.
So I don't dispute that the videos can be kind of patronizing, and the hoops at hire can feel like wastes of time. That said, though, they serve larger purposes, even if they're largely ineffective on their own terms. And some of the larger purposes are worthy enough that I'd consider a bit of ritual worth the price.
Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
I didn't think that was true, but if it is, then I need to issue a correction.
I'm glad, and proud, to work where I do. The college has its quirks, as all colleges do. It has the full range of personalities, some structural issues I may have mentioned once or twice, and some very real financial challenges. I tend to write about those, since writing (and getting helpful feedback!) is how I process my struggles. I don't write as often about the victories, since I don't struggle as much with those. But they're many and legion, and if it didn't fatally compromise pseudonymity, I'd happily portray them in loving detail.
Instead, I'll just do a few glances of what a victory looks like in my world.
When a department comes up with an innovative idea that I never would have, and presents it in a way that I could help make happen, that's a victory. (That was earlier this week.) Or when two departments with a history of tense conflict come together to create a joint program that resolves the conflict in a way that puts students first, that's a victory. (That was yesterday morning.) Or when a conversation that everybody thought would be fraught with anxiety instead goes well because everybody involved acts as their best selves, that's a victory. (Yesterday afternoon.)
When a single Mom who thought she'd be trapped in an hourly job she hated for the rest of her life transfers successfully into a ridiculously prestigious college, that's a victory. (Last Spring.) Or when a management-labor conflict gets defused in the early stages with good-faith gestures of mutual respect, that's a victory. (Two weeks ago.) When we get a higher percentage of low-income students than we've ever had and our attrition numbers don't budge, that's a victory. (This semester.) When we're able to find enough economies in the budget to prevent layoffs despite what seem like the state's best efforts, that's a victory. (Last Spring.)
Community colleges get less funding per student than any other sector of higher ed, and the difference is far more than research lab facilities. CC's take all comers, even when their preparation levels suggest real challenges. That can be read as misguided or quixotic, but I read it as noble and democratic. On paper, that single Mom I mentioned didn't look like much before she got here. Here, she got to prove herself. Second chances are worth something.
That's not even counting the little victories, like seeing successful alums return to show off and share what they've done, or overhearing an intensely focused conversation in the hallway between two students trying to understand a chemical reaction.
Yes, I sometimes get frustrated at irrationalities large and small. But if the frustration is the only thing that I've conveyed, then I've painted a misleading portrait. This is a good place, doing good work, and doing it well. The frustration is borne of a desire for it to be even better.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Graduating Into the Great Recession
As frustrating as that was, I experienced much of it as the result of personal choices I had made. I chose to go to grad school, which involved, among other things, being poor as a church mouse while my age cohort made actual money. I didn't choose that the "great wave of retirements" would result in the great wave of adjuncts, of course, but I expected at least some struggle.
I'm worried, though, about our current graduates.
At a community college, there's the relative luxury of suggesting transfer as the next step. No jobs at graduation? Go on for the four-year degree instead. You can wait out the recession and build your credentials at the same time. It's one of those rare times when the convenient short term move and the wise long term move are the same move. The opportunity cost is as low as most of us can remember.
That said, though, I can't help but notice that grads of four-year colleges aren't exactly rolling in job offers, either. And their student loans burdens are even higher than mine was.
The first real job is always the hardest to get. I remember the sickening sense, at the end of my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, when I realized that I was all Phudded up with nowhere to go. I had to cobble together a living as an adjunct, later backing into my first real job at the last place I would have expected it. My brother graduated with a degree in an evergreen discipline from a respected college, and had to live nomadically for a few years before clawing his way into an unexpected career. That's kinda how it goes in the liberal arts.
Lately, the same seems to be holding true in some of the more vocational disciplines. And I'm starting to see some very angry graduates who don't understand why they did everything right and can't find work. When history majors have a hard time finding work, they blame themselves. When nursing majors have a hard time finding work, they blame others.
The last couple of recessions felt like somebody had hit 'pause.' When they ended, things came back in relatively recognizable forms. This one's different. If an 18 year old asked me what the hot occupation would be in a couple of years, I'd have no idea what to say. It's just not obvious.
Paradoxically enough, that actually becomes a kind of argument for the liberal arts. It's one thing to juxtapose the employable to the abstract. But if nothing's employable anyway, why not go with something that's at least fascinating? Or, if you go the business route, focus on the entrepreneurial side; if the established firms are shrinking, there's not much point in trying to conform your way up. You can't play it safe anymore; there isn't any 'safe.'
I had a rough economic ride in my late twenties, but not like this. My condolences to the latest graduates. I hope you all keep this time in mind the next time you hear someone say that the economy is meritocratic.
Monday, November 16, 2009
They weren't talking about public speaking per se. Entry level jobs generally don't involve a lot of speeches. They were talking about being articulate on the job. As one of them put it, the receptionist is the face of the firm to the new client. When the face of the firm is inarticulate, or scattered, or mumbly, real damage is done. One employer was particularly happy about a recent hire, whom he described as having it all. When pressed, he clarified that she doesn't seem to be any 'smarter' than others he's had, but that she always maintains a professional demeanor, even when things get hectic.
I'm not sure how to teach that, but I'm pretty sure that we don't really try.
We require at least two semesters of composition -- more than that for those who place developmental -- to make sure that students can produce readable prose that actually says something. That skill is reinforced in most of the upper-level classes in most majors. But we don't require speech courses of almost anybody -- theater being an obvious exception -- and in many classes students can skate by without speaking much at all. When they do speak, it's along the "don't speak unless spoken to" model, and very brief, canned answers suffice.
(A rough parallel may exist in hiring people based on their skill at research, then expecting them to just 'know' how to teach. The written word is assumed to matter; the spoken word is an afterthought.)
Students are routinely exposed to professional speech in class, but in a format that doesn't address what the employers wanted. What they seemed to be looking for was something like poise, an ability to banter in an upbeat way, and the ability to keep professionally cool in the face of stress. You don't really learn any of those by watching and listening to lectures, even if the lectures are good. The speaking they have in mind isn't speechifying; it's something closer to 'conversing,' but in a very specific style.
In a sense, a classroom is a uniquely awful venue for learning this kind of speech. In a workplace, the rookie will be outnumbered by the veterans, and will either raise her game or not. In a classroom, the veteran is badly outnumbered, so the students won't get the feel of it as easily. Worse, the classroom is only a few hours a week.
Internships and co-ops are helpful, but at the cc level, they're pretty limited. Four-year colleges rarely accept the credits in transfer, and relatively few students can afford to work for free. Depending on the placement, too, some of them may not lead to the kind of professional development the employers themselves say they want. (I got the Xerox tan over a few summers myself.) If the local economy were in better shape, we might be able to generate more traction here, but outside of a few specified programs, there isn't much.
So once again, I'll turn to my wise and worldly readers for advice. Have you found ways to help students learn the conventions of speech in the professional workplace?
Friday, November 13, 2009
Ask the Administrator: The Etiquette of Postmortems
When we start looking for a new academic dean, no doubt we will be enjoined to hire someone who is a people person, who has a clear vision of what a community college should do, who understands budgets, who shows a tireless concern for quality, whose organizational skills are stellar, who is able to work with diverse points of view, and so on.
But those are just the most general of bland categories. I understand that the president cannot tell us what went wrong between him and the cao, but when we start looking for a new cao, how can we have an intelligent search unless we've talked about what went right and what didn't in the past (more than five) years?
I don't mean gossip, backbiting, bitching, and breaching confidentiality.
He goes on to add that the erstwhile CAO will be returning to a faculty role, so she'll still be around.
It's a tricky situation. When someone leaves campus, it's easy to make her the scapegoat after the fact for all manner of things. But since she'll still be around, that won't be as easy. And that's probably just as well.
A study a few years ago found that the average length of service for a chief academic officer at an American college is three years. That's astonishingly short, but it makes sense when you consider the multiple and conflicting demands of the position. For someone to last as long as yours did, she must have been good at something.
Since you don't mention a change of Presidency, and you mention elsewhere in your note that the departure was abrupt, I have to assume either a conflict or a health/personal issue. A health/personal issue doesn't really tell you anything about the college, and a conflict could be about almost anything.
I'd try to steer the postmortem in a different direction. Rather than trying to guess what the CAO did wrong -- or what the President did wrong that the CAO wouldn't accept, which is also possible -- I'd use the opportunity to take a good, hard look at what the college needs now. Instead of playing 'pin the blame on the donkey,' this is a chance for the college to look at its own issues. Even if the last person was the right one at the time, what does the college need over the next several years? Figure that out, then draw up the desiderata for candidates later.
I have a pet theory that everybody has blind spots. From that theory it follows that having one person in a leadership role for a long time will lead to those blind spots getting neglected for a pretty long time. What are the long-neglected blind spots? The next person will have some of her own, but you should choose someone with different ones, just so nothing gets completely ignored for too long. Of course, that assumes a pretty high level of self-awareness on the part of the college as a whole. I've worked in places where the blind spots were so ingrained that people simply forgot they existed. If people at least know what they don't know, you have a chance.
From my own observation, I'll say that a CAO who can't work well with the President is in deep trouble. Someone who can both understand the academic mission and navigate the upper bureaucracy is a rare find. I wish you well.
Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an on-campus postmortem done well? Is there a graceful and productive way to do it?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Apparently, the President of the University of Toledo thinks he can judge the tenure-worthiness of a candidate in thirty minutes.
His comments in the IHE article don't inspire confidence. Among other things, he mentions that he examines "body language, facial features, [and] voice tone." Facial features? Really? It isn't a huge leap to imagine adding "skin color" to the list. (It also isn't a huge leap to imagine the lawyer for a denied candidate referring to the decision as "arbitrary and capricious.") I'd be surprised if a candidate for tenure, knowing that she has thirty minutes to either get job security for life or fired, weren't a bit nervous. It's worse than a normal job interview, since it's presumably the only job for which you're applying at the time. Look a little strained, sound a little nervous, and you're fired. Nice.
Given all that, though, I can see how the President talked himself into this. It's an admittedly hamhanded, but understandable, response to several absurd conditions.
First, there's the obvious absurdity of the forever-or-fired moment of the tenure system. No matter how you make the decision, or what criteria you use, it's forever. It's easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision. That makes the stakes higher than in speed dating.
Second, there's the extraordinary institutional cost of a lifetime commitment. Give someone tenure at 35, and she may well stick around, on the payroll, for another 40 years. That's a hell of a commitment to make to someone on the basis of a few memos. I can understand the urge to take a long, last look before approving that. That's especially true if you have doubts about the process or the people who generated the memos.
Third, there's the fact that the President is the one to take the fall if a tenured professor goes around the bend. The committee that recommended Ward Churchill got off scot-free. Don't think we admins don't know that. If we're on the hook, then making our own judgments is simply self-preservation. This urge can be especially powerful if the faculty making the recommendations routinely recommend everybody. I'd be much more inclined to trust the judgment of people who actually make distinctions than I would to trust the judgment of people who always say yes. If the latter holds locally, then some sort of reality check is obviously in order. Someone has to be the bad guy, and if nobody below the President steps up, then I could understand the urge to fill the vacuum.
Finally, there's the ambiguous definition of the word 'recommend.' Typical English language usage suggests that recommendations are not binding. But depending on local culture and the legal climate, overturning a recommendation may become a prima facie cause of action. I'd argue that you can't have it both ways. Either a recommendation is merely that, which allows room for the decision-maker to go either way, or it's binding, at which point it's the actual decision. Higher ed instead often defaults to a wink-wink nudge-nudge recommendation that is widely understood to be binding. There's a fundamental dishonesty to that, and it paints people into corners. When cornered, some people respond impulsively. In this case, the President is defaulting to the normal English language usage of the word 'recommendation,' and relying on his gut for the final decision. I think he's getting it badly wrong, but I can see how he got there.
My recommendation, using the word correctly, would be to make a fundamental choice and live with the consequences. Either live with the tenure system or go to something else. If you go to something else, like my preferred renewable-contract system, then you lower the cost of a bad decision and make it much easier to accept committee recommendations at face value. Or, you could decide to live with the tenure system but clean up the understandings of process, responsibilities, and criteria. Raise the bar to reduce the risk of false positives. Then restrict yourself to policing the process for irregularities. You should do that anyway, since irregularities are lawsuit bait, but stay out of second-guessing the merits. This is the default option for most of higher ed, and institutionally, it makes short-term sense. Over time, gradually replace retiring tenured professors with adjuncts, then keep raising the tenure bar for the few tenure-track positions that remain. It's a war of attrition, rather than a frontal assault, and you can do it without owning up to it. Better, you can paint yourself the champion of high standards and Excellence while you do it. For those keeping score at home, this is what most midtier schools in America have been doing for about the last forty years. How's that working out?
What you don't do, though, is make lifetime commitments based on facial features and a thirty-minute chat. The stakes on both sides are just too high.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
As the AAUP Turns...
As regular readers know, I've argued for some time that the tenure system is unsustainable and even unethical. I've proposed as an alternative a system of long-term renewable contracts with academic freedom stipulated in the contract language. (For the record, I envision an initial contract of three years -- consistent with current practice for most tenure-track lines -- followed by renewable five-year contracts.) That way, if academic freedom is attacked, a complainant wouldn't have to rely on an extra-constitutional and undefined legal doctrine; she could bring action as breach of contract. Academic freedom could also be stipulated in institutional policy. To the extent that employee handbooks and/or institutional bylaws are given the force of contract, the objection from 'expiration' is rendered moot. (The recent decision that non-renewal is tantamount to termination further buttresses this argument.) Contract law is well-established, so the claim wouldn't rely on the good graces of any particular justice. What might sound, at first, like a retreat would actually be a significant advance for academic freedom.
Whether you buy my interpretation of tenure or not, it seems clear that outside of the elite institutions, tenure is going the way of the typewriter. If the only alternative to tenure is temp gigs, then academic freedom becomes de facto the exclusive province of the elite. But if tenure can be replaced with a more sustainable system featuring long-term contracts and academic freedom, then we can keep the best elements of it without chaining ourselves to a dying system. And the accountability built in to a renewable-contract system would go a long way towards defusing the cheap political shots to which higher ed is now routinely subject.
What struck me in the AAUP announcement is that it implicitly acknowledges the core of my argument. By pushing for discrete policy language on academic freedom specifically, even the AAUP is implicitly admitting that it's simply not plausible anymore to argue that tenure is the sine qua non of academic freedom. And once you make that move, the strongest argument against a contract system collapses.
To be clear, I'm not saying that the AAUP would agree with my interpretation of its initiative. It almost certainly wouldn't. But the logic of the new initiative leads in this direction, and I'd argue that that's a good thing. We could put academic freedom on much more solid legal ground -- if the current legal ground were solid, the current initiative would make no sense -- and dispense with no-win arguments with the public. I'd guess that the AAUP would respond that this new initiative is a 'second-best' position, but the fact that it needs one proves the point. The link between tenure and academic freedom is contingent at best. And we could put academic freedom on a much stronger legal foundation without trying to turn back the tide of history.
Of course, there's a larger issue of the proper definition of academic freedom, but that's for another day. For now, I'm simply arguing that it's better protected by relying on a well-established body of law than by relying on enlightened justices.
(Anticipating the flaming: "Aha! So you're anti-faculty!" No. I just find it implausible that the strongest protection for academic freedom is to be found in a withering system with tenuous legal underpinnings. "Aha! You just want to get everyone fired!" No -- if I wanted that, I'd argue for employment-at-will, such as Proprietary U had. Alternately, I'd embrace tenure with my words, while quietly adjuncting-out openings by attrition, just like, well, most of American higher ed. The goal here instead is sustainability.)
For now, I congratulate the AAUP on belatedly, and perhaps accidentally, recognizing that contract law is a much stronger foundation for academic freedom than some extra-constitutional notion that it thinks inheres in tenure. I couldn't agree more.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Class in Class
I knew that enrollments were way up -- and they are -- and I knew that the biggest gains were among lower-income students, particularly men of color. What I didn't know was the degree to which we're also expanding our reach on the upper end of the income scale. If you were to plot our enrollment gains this year with 'class' as the x-axis -- okay, I'm a big nerd -- you'd get something close to a u-curve. The big gains have been in students who otherwise wouldn't have gone to college, and among students who otherwise would have gone to more expensive places. Facility in class largely correlates with parental income, so we're getting more students on both extremes of the ability scale.
Some professors who were in on the conversation said that they're seeing the tension in their classes. In the disciplines for which there are no developmental courses, the range of drive and talent in class is usually quite wide. The professors reported seeing an even wider range this year, with more people on either extreme. In some cases, it's actually becoming a class management problem, since the top students sometimes lose patience with the bottom, and vice versa. And there are enough in each camp that it's hard to write the tensions off to the stray outlier.
The growing disparity of ability probably explains the newfound enthusiasm among some professors for prereqs. Over the years, more intro-level courses have specified something like "English 101 eligible" as a prerequisite, on the grounds that the course assumes college-level reading and writing ability. As more courses have built those walls, the great waves of students who don't qualify instead hit the remaining courses in larger numbers. Those professors note with alarm the declining ability of their classes, so they, too, campaign for prereqs. It's individually rational, but it creates some weird side effects.
Among other things, it makes group work much harder. When the disparities within the group are just too wide, the students on each extreme can start to resent the others. In a perfect world, of course, everyone would appreciate everyone else's unique strengths, but it doesn't always work that way.
Although we have developmental classes on one end and honors classes on the other, most of the courses here aren't 'tracked' in the K-12 sense. Intro to Psych is Intro to Psych. If you've just come from a K-12 system in which most of your courses were 'tracked,' the sudden change of approach is probably pretty jarring. From out of nowhere, you've got peers who are much farther away from you on both ends of the scale. And the teaching challenge, which is substantial in the best of times, is that much worse as the extremes expand.
I'll admit being of divided mind on this one. On the one hand, I'm glad to see that we're offering something of interest to the entire community. Part of that is out of fidelity to the mission -- the college is supposed to serve everybody -- and part of it is out of self-preservation. To the extent that the middle and upper middle classes see the college as partly theirs, we're in a better spot politically. But it's still frustrating to see the increasing class polarization in the larger society -- which I generally think of as negative -- make itself felt here, too.
Wise and worldly readers who teach: have you seen the u-shaped curve develop lately in your classes? Have you found an effective way to deal with it?
Monday, November 09, 2009
- Best tech idea I've heard in a while: a laptop with a built-in printer. It could hold maybe 10-20 sheets, and would spit out printed pages through a slot in front, right below the user's wrists. It's basically the old Polaroid camera technique applied to a laptop. If the hinge holding the screen were external, the paper could slide all the way up. It'd be great for printing out directions from google maps, or for simple lists, or for anything relatively short that you'd like to edit on paper. You could get about three-quarters of the utility of a printer, plus mobility.
- Much of my office art is by prolific local artists, by which I mean The Boy and The Girl. They're getting more prolific, so this is starting to get awkward. I'm thinking of moving to a 'picture of the week' system. It matters because when they come to visit, they actually check.
- The H1N1 virus is hitting in weirdly concentrated patches. Some of the local school districts have had catastrophic absence rates; others have barely been affected. Luckily, so far, TB and TG's school has been mostly spared, but I'm at a loss to explain how the next district over, with pretty much identical demographics, has been knocked flat. A similar pattern is holding with local colleges. I would have expected a more even spread, given how much interaction there is across borders, but so far, not.
- Tenured Radical has a great piece up (and a refreshingly thoughtful set of comments) about the University of California's call for instructors to teach their freshman seminars for free. It's one of those moments (by the University) that's horrifically tone-deaf, but if you really dig into it, not as absurd as it looks at first glance. Apparently, these are one-credit classes taught primarily to improve the U's standing in US News. If I knew more about it, I'd do a post on it. Since I don't, and it strikes me as the kind of thing you'd need to know the details of to judge well, I'll just recommend dropping by TR's place and checking it out.
- The Girl announced that she heard "the f-word" in school last week. I asked her what the f-word was. Beaming, she replied "phonics!"
Friday, November 06, 2009
We were talking about college preparation, and the various options and obstacles. In reference to a program that seems like it should work, but somehow doesn't, she mentioned that so many students move during the course of a year that it's not unusual for a majority of a class to turn over during the year. When students bounce from town to town -- it sounds like most of the moves are relatively local -- it's hard for any single program to gain serious traction, no matter how well-run it might be.
That seemed hard to accept, so I asked around on campus for the last few days to see if others had heard or seen the same thing. They had. Apparently, one of the features of our local low-income community is extremely high transience.
In a way, that helped me understand some things I'd noticed recently on campus. Last year we started putting chairs in unused parts of hallways for students to use; they've been full almost without interruption, since literally before they were unwrapped. The library is standing-room-only. The outdoor benches are often full, even on cold days, and even without smokers. Although the college was built for commuter students, some students are starting to use it as a home away from home. If the regular home is precarious, that makes sense.
The stereotype of urban poverty is of an entrenched underclass that gets stuck in place. This seems to be the exact opposite; these students may be a lot of things, but 'entrenched' isn't one of them. They move a lot.
From the high school's perspective, constant churn in the student body makes meaningful educational interventions incredibly hard to sustain, since all that turnover defeats the sustained focus you need to make real progress. (In the era of mandatory statewide tests, this has direct consequences for the schools.) It's hard to form bonds with teachers or counselors when you switch schools twice a year.
From the students' perspective, of course, it's a disaster. I imagine that it's driven by delicate family situations and shaky economics, each of which brings issues of its own. And moving, in itself, is a major hassle.
I don't really have an easy solution for this. We don't have the money, land, or political will to build dorms. And even if we did, they wouldn't help the K-12 students. But I'm starting to appreciate the new chairs a little more.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
An Open Letter to the Department of Education
Thanks for the wonderful grant support you've offered recently to community colleges. With enrollments up and state support down, it couldn't have come at a better time.
That said, though, I wonder if a simple procedural change could save untold reporting and staff costs, and allow us to focus more resources on direct service delivery. I'm referring to “time and effort reports.”
As anyone who has worked on grant-supported projects can attest, time and effort reports are detailed accounts of how people who receive grant support spend their days. Personnel whose salaries are partly or entirely grant-supported are supposed to spend a proportionate amount of their time on grant-related activities. That means that someone whose salary is half Perkins funded and half college funded is supposed to spend two and a half days per week on grant activity.
While I can appreciate the idea behind time and effort reports – they're a way to prevent 'supplanting' college resources with grant money – they're untenably detailed, and they focus on the wrong thing. They focus on inputs, rather than outputs. They reward “but I tried really hard!,” as opposed to “I got it done.” And the paperwork involved in doing them is non-trivial.
Here's an alternative proposal. Instead of the quasi-Taylorist tracking mechanism of counting fractions of hours, measure and reward outcomes. And instead of worrying about 'supplanting,' worry about getting the job done.
We could make far more efficient use of resources if we didn't have to 'wall off' certain people at certain times, and produce timecards attesting to that. And the argument against 'supplanting' strikes me as misbegotten when the states are slashing our budgets. One could make a pretty compelling argument that the entire point of fiscal stimulus money is to 'supplant' money otherwise lost to the Great Recession. To the extent that we can redirect resources to core functions, rather than walling off everything new into isolated silos, we have a better shot at improving outcomes. And if the outcomes still don't improve, then by all means, do what you have to do.
I hope you read this in the spirit of making a good idea better. Grants are great, but they could be even more productive if they stopped focusing on the wrong stuff.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
If You Give a Prof a Project...
If you give a prof a project,
he'll want a course release to go with it.
If you give him the course release,
he'll want a budget.
Getting the budget will remind him that
other places are doing similar things
and he'll want to go there.
He'll ask you for more travel money.
If you give him more travel money,
he'll come back with guidelines and templates
and rubrics and technology.
He'll play with them all.
They'll remind him of nifty ideas he heard
at a conference you paid for.
He'll want to try them.
And chances are,
if you let him try them,
he'll want another course release to do it.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Although academics as a breed love to be idealistic, I'm increasingly convinced that economic class exerts a certain gravitational pull that can only be resisted with great and ever-mounting effort. Every institutional incentive we have is to go upscale.
If we dealt with the pincer movement of lower state aid and higher enrollments by imposing admissions standards -- say, by refusing to do remediation anymore -- the economics (and prestige) of the operation would take off. Blocking developmental students would, all by itself, result in a wealthier student body. We would have much higher retention, graduation, and transfer rates. We would have much less call for special services for students with severe learning disabilities. Our financial aid spending would drop dramatically, as would our spending on tutoring. We'd run proportionally more sophomore-level classes, to the understandable delight of the faculty. As our graduation and transfer rates went up, our standing as a college of first choice would go with it. And we could both impress our politicians and insulate ourselves from them, just like the University of Michigan has.
I've seen some public four-year colleges follow this strategy, and it almost always works. They decide at some point to become more exclusive, and a few years later, they're suddenly 'hot.' For whatever reason, they don't experience this move as a violation of their mission. If anything, they take pride in their newfound exclusivity.
(The marketing of something like that can get weird. "Your tax dollars at work, excluding the likes of you!" Tone is everything.)
Although I haven't seen cc's do this at the institutional level, many of them do it at the program level. Nursing programs often have competitive admissions, for example, and they have notably higher retention and graduation rates to show for it. One of the weird paradoxes of pass rates is that the more academically rigorous the class, the higher the pass rate. Developmental math classes have terrible fail rates, but calculus classes don't. Since most of us would probably agree that calculus is 'harder' than arithmetic, the difficulty of the material isn't the critical variable. In this case, the weaker students don't get to calculus in the first place.
Much of the angst cc's experience on a daily basis comes from the effort to fight gravity. Colleges were originally built for the second sons of the aristocracy, and the closer you get to that, the better it all works. Moving to open admissions in a society with increasing class polarization leads to some extremes for which the system wasn't built. As the K-12 systems from which many of our students come continue to founder, we spend more on tutoring and support services to try to make up the difference. Students who need those services notice that we're good at them, so they seek us out. Our graduation rates suffer, and we get flogged for it in the press and the political discourse. Meanwhile, the public four-year college down the street jacks up its standards and all is well.
(I still don't understand why there isn't a viable upscale proprietary college. Founders College tried that, but insisted on grafting an Ayn Randian political agenda to a model that otherwise could have worked. There's a HUGE market gap here. Any venture capitalists who'd like to take a flyer are invited to email me...)
If our politics and/or economics matched our mission, many of the issues that drive me to distraction would fade away. Until then, we're fighting gravity ever harder, and always with less.
Monday, November 02, 2009
Scenes with The Girl
At parents' lunch at TG's school, a little boy from her class came up and hugged TG.
TW: Does he do that a lot?
TW: Do you like it when he does that?
TW: Do you ever hug him back?
TG had a brush with sexism this week, but handled it well. She and TB went trick-or-treating together, TB as a mummy and TG as a veterinarian. (Some people thought TB was TG's patient. I thought TB's outfit made him look like a giant tampon, but decided not to mention it.) TG's costume combined green scrubs with a white lab coat with a nametag (Dr. TG) and a surgical mask that she wore loose around her neck.
They made quite the pair, and many of the adults at the doors couldn't help but comment on their costumes. A frequent exchange:
TB and TG: Trick-or-treat!
Adult at door: Ooh! A mummy and a nurse!
TG: I'm a doctor!
Adult: Oh, sorry, honey.
TG: I'm a vet-er-in-ar-i-an.
Naturally, once we got home, this became a teachable moment.
TW: You know, women can be doctors, too.
TG: I know.
TB: Yeah, I know.
DD: And men can be nurses.
TB: They can?
TG: And I'm a vet-er-in-ar-i-an!
DD: That's right.
She's only five, but TG is already more composed and self-possessed than many adults I know. Sometimes.