Thursday, December 24, 2009

 

Thanks

As the family and I settle in for a much-needed Christmas break, I just want to thank my wise and worldly readers for helping me work through so many conundrums (conundra? conundrii? conundrae?) over the last few years. This year, I can say confidently that the lessons I learned on the blog -- what sets people off, how things get interpreted, etc. -- made me better at my day job. It finally started to sink in. Thank you for that.

I'll be taking my annual Christmas blogging break, returning on Monday, Jan. 4. For the next week and a half, I plan to think a lot less about higher ed, and a lot more about how to hook up a wii to a ten year old television. How hard can it possibly be...?

For now, it's time to give the suits and ties a rest. Tomorrow morning is devoted to bathrobes, French toast, two very excited kids, and a mountain of wrapping paper.

It's good for the soul.

Best wishes for a restorative break,

DD

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: Is This the Job I Want?

A foreign correspondent writes:

I've been in and out of academia in my career in the creative sector, firstly with a five year stint in a small regional non-US CC equivalent where I learnt the ropes and helped establish a new programme and led development of some research infrastructure. Some family issues combined with a shift in my own research direction and some attractive consulting opportunities took me away for a while, and I began a PhD, which led me back to the academy and an enjoyable second teaching stint in a large research university which has recently come to a close. I've had advice that there is a viable book in the dissertation (which I am really enjoying); and my gut feeling has been to take on some sessional work or contract consulting or a permanent part-time gig at a CC which might be on the table and try and close out the PhD/book over the next two years, then go back to the job market when my partners' contract ends and we both have some geographical flexibility.

All this was disrupted by a call from a search firm representing a large local CC looking to appoint an administrator to develop a new centre in my field. The job description emphasises greenfields aspects including development of the business plan and developing stakeholder advisory groups to set a new strategy and develop new programmes, both of which I am experienced with through consulting work and previous employment. The commitment to innovative relationships with unique demographics and industries in the region is highly attractive. The catch is that the role is also charged with change management of the existing department and faculty who I understand are, with a few key exceptions, not well aligned with the new direction envisaged by the institution (the role description from the search firm includes the need to "rattle chains"). Everything I know about academic change management from experience and commentators like yourself tells me that bringing the group along will be very difficult.

Essentially I am unsure of the level of commitment of the CC to development of a new vision, when it seems that the search firm have incentives to play up the novelty of the role and undersell how difficult it may be to implement the necessary changes. My administrative bent is more entrepreneurial than bureaucratic, and my experience has more been in "off-the-ball" management support and internal consulting roles. Without long-term change management experience of a similar type I worry that for 3-5 years I'll be leaving aside the opportunity to solidify a research base (which would open future options) to take on a role which would be not only stressful, but may not be set up well to succeed.

I've had two phone interviews with the search firm and it looks like I'll be talking with the actual CC in the new year. What questions should I be asking to find out if I can succeed in the role and what some of the traps might be? A friend suggested finding out the approval process for new programmes to understand what the barriers were to getting them implemented (degrees are often partnered with the local R1 and offshore institutions). Any other questions that would help me understand what I might be getting into would be greatly appreciated, as well as any general thoughts on the larger career dilemma.


I'll start with the obligatory disclaimer: I don't know the specifics of higher ed organization in your country, so I'll trust that your descriptions are accurate, and I'll answer as I would answer someone in the American system. Keep in mind that something might get lost in translation.

To summarize your situation, it seems like the long-term plan was to cobble together a living for a couple of years while you finish the dissertation, and then to go on the market with your partner who, at that point, will be able to move with you. I like that plan a lot; it acknowledges the importance of finishing the dissertation, it sets you up to succeed over the long term, and it allows at least the possibility of combining a good career move with a good relationship move. It carries some risk, of course -- the dissertation may take longer than expected, say, or the market may not cooperate when you want it to. (We Americans have some experience with that.) But you have at least some control over the pace of your dissertation, and there's no such thing as a career move without economic risk. On balance, this plan strikes me as smart and plausible.

The alternative is to put aside the dissertation for several years, raising the very real possibility that it will never be finished. During those several years, you would spend most of your time engaged in a war of attrition between an upper administration that wants you to "rattle chains" -- !!!!!!!!!!!!!! -- and a faculty that wants the administration, and therefore you, to take a long walk off a short plank. Your own management bent is "entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic," but you'd spend several years trying to get long-entrenched people to change their stripes.

I don't like it.

The upside strikes me as obscure, and the downside daunting. If you do a good job, you'll gain largely non-transferable experience in an idiosyncratic setting, and you'll be at the mercy of the shifting local political winds. And that's the upside. The downside involves the dissertation growing stale, your emotional energy getting sucked into a vortex of no-win conflict, your partner sacrificing geographic flexibility, and you winding up in a much weaker position from which to find the next job when this one crashes and burns, which it is likely to do.

One of the truths of higher ed here -- and again, this may or may not hold in your location -- is that administrations come and go, but (full-time) faculty are forever. This means that it's incredibly difficult to walk into a situation as an administrator charged with being a "change agent." The faculty are already lined up to defeat you, and even if they aren't openly confrontational, they can simply foot-drag and outlast you. The upper administration may want to see if a particular change can happen, but may well decide after some battling that it just isn't worth the cost, at which point you're left twisting in the wind.

Savvy administrations don't fall into this trap. They'll acknowledge the truth that what matters in a message isn't what you say, it's what they hear. Since some people can only hear themselves, the trick to getting a new idea across is to let them think the idea is actually theirs. Then once they've decided that the idea is theirs and therefore brilliant, you bring in people to help them achieve it. Announcing that the new guy will Shake Things Up sets you up to fail from the very first day.

If you're more desperate materially than you let on, so you need a full-time job posthaste to make ends meet, I'd ask some pointed questions of the administration. How long are they willing to endure significant political resistance? Whose baby is this, and is that person sticking around? How long have people in similar positions lasted? Where is the funding for this coming from? (This smells like 'soft money' -- that is, grant money -- to me, which usually implies a sunset clause.) If you do well with this, where does it lead? To whom would you report, and how do that person's other direct reports see him/her?

But that's only if you're really desperate. If you don't absolutely need the job, I'd politely thank the headhunter for her interest and decline.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what say you? Is there more upside here than I've suggested, or is this a disaster waiting to happen?

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

 

Casting

I read somewhere that 90 percent of acting is casting. The idea was that plenty of actors are capable of performing well in the right role; the trick is matching the actor to the role.

I'm struggling right now with a mismatch between actors and roles.

For economic reasons, I need to reduce the number of roles in a given area. Most of the work in that area will still need to get done, so the responsibilities will need to be redistributed. That means the remaining roles will change, in varying degrees. But the alignment that makes the most sense on paper doesn't match the actors. In effect, I'd have to ask Meryl Streep to play Bill Clinton. Great actor, great role, but no.

One school of thought says that you play to the strengths of the people you have. When you have the right lineup, that can work really well. The catch is that people leave, and then you're stuck with roles that don't really make organizational sense. ("Wanted: The Next Dave." Good luck with that.) And you don't want to have to reorganize every time someone leaves.

Another school of thought says that you keep personalities out of it, and go with what makes sense institutionally. If that means firing Meryl Streep and hiring Tom Arnold, then that's what it means. But I have a hard time believing that the path to prosperity is to kick out the Meryl Streeps and to promote the Tom Arnolds.

So I'm stuck.

Obviously, I'd rather not have to go this route at all. But necessity is a mother, as they say, and it won't go away just because I wish it would.

Worse, in this situation, defining the roles is part of the solution. It would be easier if the roles were pre-defined. "Okay, who here does a good Arkansas accent?" But in this case, the roles themselves have to be changed. Tipping them one way or the other can affect the casting decisions. And while it's attractive, at one level, to define the roles to work around the best actors, the roles still have to cover the work of the plot. Even if I've got a bevy of heroes, someone has to be the villain.

I don't have a snappy conclusion to this one. Some decisions are just no fun at all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

 

Ask the Administrator: What Makes a Good Dean of Students?

An occasional correspondent writes:

I've applied for a dean of students position for which I know I'm unusually well-qualified and temperamentally suited. However, thanks to the economy and the desirability & location of this school, I also know there will be as many as several hundred other well-qualified applicants. The handful of us lucky enough to get an interview will be asked to campus for a full day.

If you or any of your readers have any suggestions for day-long interviewing for a dean position (as opposed to a faculty one), I'd be glad to hear them.

I have several friends and colleagues who have been deans, but all of them were pulled from within, appointed as Interim Dean of Whatever, then later made permanent (or not), so they never interviewed cold. In this case, I happen to know that an internal hire is less likely than usual, so there is a real shot for external candidates.

If you were building a perfect dean of students for a small four year college, who would that person be? If you were on the hiring committee, what could an applicant do to persuade you that they were the right fit?



I like this question a lot, though I have to stipulate upfront that the answer is very context-dependent.

Deans of students are different from academic deans. Academic deans usually come up through the faculty ranks, spending some time as a department chair or something analagous before moving into a deanship. (That's what I did.) Deans of students are likelier to come up through something like counseling, and to have Ed.D.'s (as opposed to Ph.D.'s).

A dean of students has to have a bit of a split personality. You need to be upbeat, outgoing, and comfortable with all kinds of students. Depending on the size and culture of your college, you may or may not be in charge of "student activities," which is the "cruise director" on campus. But you're also expected to handle disciplinary issues, appeals, very sensitive personal information, and all manner of conflict. (The dean on "Community" seems to be a dean of students, and for all his nebbishness, his scope of duties is pretty accurate.) On most campuses, deans of students will have to deal with issues ranging from athletics to extracurriculars to academic dishonesty dismissals.

The single best administrator I've ever seen was a dean of students. She had an easygoing manner that was somehow both welcoming and discreet. She had a gift for defusing conflict, but she could also convey a sense of comfort on stage. During the time that our tenures overlapped, I made a point of studying how she worked.

Faculty interviewees often have to show that they're incredibly good at a relatively narrow specialization. (That becomes more true as the institution gets larger.) Deans of students have to be generalists, and have to be okay with that. In terms of an ideal presentation, I'd look for a display of range. As always, be as specific as you can be without violating confidentiality. (Making a point of your awareness of the need for confidentiality can actually help.) Have you helped foreign students navigate the rules unique to them? Have you mediated difficult confrontations between students and faculty? How much experience do you have in constructing and following quasi-judicial processes? Have you made a point, in the past, of coming in on the weekends to watch games? Can you articulate a reasonable balance between respecting students' legitimate concerns and upholding the integrity of the academic process, including grading? (Some deans of students seem to think that the student is always right and the professor always wrong. This is the kiss of death.) Have you planned major events, like Spring Fest? Are you conversant in the ins-and-outs of FERPA, residency requirements, criminal background checks, and the various permutations of new student orientation? Have you developed (or helped develop) an enrollment plan for an Admissions office? How would you assess outcomes in, say, counseling or financial aid?

Fit is tricky, since so many of the variables are time- and place-bound. My approach to 'fit' as a candidate has been to try to get the most accurate possible sense of the kind of administrator I actually am, and then to go in there as the best accurate version of myself. If I fit, great. If I don't, I don't. (I went on one interview a few years ago in which I knew in the first ten minutes that it wasn't gonna happen. But going through the process helped me improve my presentation for the next one.) It may not maximize the chances of getting a particular job, but I think it maximizes the chances of succeeding in a job once you're there. This strategy requires some self-awareness, so most people can't really do it. But if you can, I recommend it highly.

On the bright side, a good dean of students can quickly become a respected figure on campus, and can make a positive difference in the lives of students, faculty, and staff. It's a great job if you have the background and temperament for it.

Finally, my generic interview tip for any professional position: don't wear something for the first time. If your shoes hurt or squeak, or the label from your shirt cuts into your neck, you'll be needlessly distracted and off your game. Besides, anything that looks too new will betray you. Dress in a way that gives you confidence, and that you won't have to worry about.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- what would you look for in a dean of students? Any useful presentation tips?

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

 

Chestnuts, Roasting in an Open Blog...

A new correspondent writes:

I'm in the market for for an administrative position in higher ed, and as I've been interviewing, I've noticed two distinct approaches to budget cuts. The first is an across-the-board cut: all departments (or employees or some other variation on this theme) get a 5% cut. The second is to pare underperforming departments and to spare the remaining ones any significant cuts. Any general thoughts?


I could have sworn I had done a piece on this old chestnut, but a quick search didn't reveal one. That's okay; it's worth revisiting anyway.

First, good luck walking into any new administrative role in which your first job is to make cuts. That's a hell of a first impression to make on a new campus. Although people should know better, and they do at some level, there will still be real political damage done. Think of it as skipping the honeymoon and getting straight to the arguments about money. You may be able to recoup some of the losses later when the budgets bounce back, but it's still a rough way to start.

That said, you play the hand you're dealt. Given the need to cut, which way to go?

The advantage to the across-the-board method is that it's quick and relatively easy. It doesn't require much specific local knowledge, which makes it especially appealing for a newcomer. It's unlikely to cause imminent disaster. It reduces the political infighting, at least in the short term, and it's easier to reverse when/if things rebound.

The disadvantage is that it doesn't do anything to improve the long-term strength of the college. When you cut the most productive programs as much as the least, you send a powerful message that productivity doesn't matter. Worse, you actually wind up rewarding waste, since the areas with histories of frugality have to cut bone, while the areas with histories of boondoggle can get away with trimming fat. Over the years, folks will figure that out, and your budget will get lumpy as people squirrel away resources in bizarre places so they'll know what to cut first when the next inevitable crisis hits. I've actually seen this. To add insult to injury, your best people will start leaving, since they'll sense futility on the home front, and your worst people will dig in and get incredibly defensive and bitter. Repeat the cycle a few times, and you wind up with a badly poisoned well.

It's a defensible response to an obviously short-term crisis, but it doesn't work well over time.

The actually-make-choices approach is much riskier in the short term, and it carries a higher risk of imminent disaster. But if you get it right, it opens the possibility of actually strengthening the college over time. Getting it right would involve the standard moves -- the SWOT analysis, environmental scan, etc. -- but also a serious and sustained public conversation with the college as a whole. When push comes to shove, what does your college really care about? (This could be a very tricky exercise for a newcomer, but if you can pull it off, you'll really achieve something.) Will future success require emphasizing a different set of programs, or doubling down on the existing core? What does your college offer that its relevant competitors don't? Is athletics the route to prosperity, a necessary part of local culture, or an afterthought? (Depending on context, it could be any of those.) Are there some historical holdovers, programs that were created in different times that just never quite worked?

The key thing here is that it isn't just about finding the right answer. It's about getting the college to find it with you. Involving more people in the process leading up to the decision will take time and patience, and you'll have to endure some not-very-much-fun moments. But if it works, you'll wind up with a better answer, and with one that might actually stick. You'll minimize the political backlash, and improve the chances of keeping your best people. It costs more time and effort upfront, but for a long-term crisis, it's the way to go.

One admin's opinion, anyway. Good luck on your search!

Wise and worldly readers, what advice would you give?

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

 

Still Gets to Me

TW has commented, correctly, that part of the reason I'm suited to academic administration is that I'm prone to repressing emotions. Although that can be frustrating in private life, it can work well in difficult meetings.

But some occasions manage to break through the repression, even when I know what's coming.

Although the main campus graduation ceremony occurs in late May, some of the specialized programs have December ceremonies. And since they're small, some of them allow the students to give little statements thanking people.

For the record, I consider this a remarkably civilized practice, and I'd love to see it generalized. Students' families make real sacrifices to get them through, and some public expressions of gratitude seem only fair. But one kind always makes me a little weepy: when parents thank their children for stepping up while Mom or Dad was too consumed with schoolwork.

Sometimes it takes a village to raise a parent.

When I can, I try to pick out the family in the audience. It isn't usually hard. They're usually the ones with searchlight-strength smiles and multiple cameras. The kids beam most of all.

I've seen it I-don't-know-how-many-times now, and it still gets me every time. I just can't imagine trying to be a parent and a student - especially in a demanding program -- at the same time. But people do it, and they do it with class and humility. The kids endure, and grow, and forgive, and burst with pride.

As a parent, it's hard to see that and remain unmoved.

Well done, people. Well done.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

 

Settling

You know you're grading on a curve when settling to pay out only $78 million causes your stock to go up.

The University of Phoenix has reached a settlement in a False Claims Act lawsuit, in which it was charged with violating Federal law by paying admissions recruiters based on how many students they recruited. It had set aside slightly over $80 million for a settlement, and came in slightly below that. In the Chronicle piece about it, DeVry and Grand Canyon Education are alleged to have set aside about $5 million each to settle similar suits.

To my mind, a settlement makes perfect sense in this case, since in a meaningful sense, both sides are right. And the stock going up makes sense, too.

Having worked at a proprietary, I can attest that the Admissions side was a sales force, and was unapologetic about it. Admissions reps did what they had to do to close the sale. On the bright side, that meant that students got terrific help in navigating the bureaucracy of financial aid and registration. On the dark side, and it was much more dark than bright, students frequently came in with wildly absurd expectations that they got from somewhere. I've heard complaints at the cc level about a student sense of entitlement, but this was an order of magnitude beyond anything I've seen here. Upon the handoff from Admissions to Academics, students were often vocally disappointed to discover that they had to take gen ed courses; many of them had chosen PU to dodge gen ed altogether. Students who enrolled in "accelerated" programs were indignant to find that "I have just as much homework here as I do in my real classes!" I heard many a complaint along the lines of "he assigns too much homework. Doesn't he know I'm a working adult? Isn't he supposed to work with me?"

At the Proprietary at which I worked, the Admissions staff didn't report to the campus President. It reported to Home Office (in another state), which set its sales quotas. The Admissions staff responded to its incentives, and treated the academic side of the house as a faint embarrassment. Meanwhile, we academic sorts had the unenviable task of trying to talk reality to students who had been sold a bill of goods. The job of Admissions was to maximize revenues, and it was regarded as a profit center. The job of Academics was to minimize attrition, and it was regarded as a loss center. Salaries and internal power were allocated accordingly.

As a real academic who had landed there as a port in a storm, I was never able to make peace with what I considered a fundamentally backward business model. Arguments from academic integrity had to be couched as "quality control." When I finally got the chance to decamp for a nonprofit, I jumped at it and never looked back.

So yes, I'm without doubt that laws against paying recruiters to do their jobs were routinely broken.

But from the perspective of each institution, the argument for paying recruiters for, well, recruiting, makes a certain degree of sense. When your entire revenue stream is based on tuition, you either put asses in classes or you don't. Those recruiters who do are worth more to you than those who don't. If you can't keep your most effective recruiters, you won't last long. You don't have state subsidies or endowments to get you through bad times; economically, the model is closer to a restaurant than to a non-profit college. Empty seats mean lost income. The logic is hard-wired into the business model. Unless you change the model, the behavior will continue in one form or another.

So yes, I understand why they were prosecuted. They routinely broke laws. And I understand why they settled -- they knew they were guilty, and a finite settlement is much easier to work around that an open-ended liability. Phoenix can write off the $78 million and get back to business. The stockholders can exhale, knowing that the piper has been paid. And the government can say, truthfully, that it got its pound of flesh.

"Settling" is exactly the right word.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

 

Ask My Readers: Getting Out of Dodge

A longtime correspondent writes:

Something that may spark some responses from your readers.

One of the things about our campus culture that gets to me now and then is the “It’s OK if you’re not on campus all that much” attitude of many of the full-time faculty. Historically, this has been an institutional thing. When I interviewed for my job here—in 1987—the chief academic officer told me that we tried to schedule classes so that the faculty only needed to be on campus two days a week. I was stunned into silence.

It’s not quite that bad now, but the attitude persists. I recently served on an appeals committee which had to deal with a situation in which a faculty member did not receive notice of something because he had left campus for the winter break immediately following his last final exam (on a Thursday; the final exam period did not end until Saturday and grades were due on Monday—and can be submitted electronically). After the break, the campus re-opened on the first Monday in January, for late registration, and so on. He did not return until the following Saturday, for a department meeting, which is when he received the notice. And which he received after the response date had passed.

His position is that expecting him to be around after his last final, or before the last possible moment before classes resumed, is unreasonable. That, therefore, he was not really notified. And, therefore, that the penalty he incurred from not responding should be invalid. Implicitly, his department also seems to take the position that he bears no responsibility for this.

My curiosity is aroused. Does anyone else work in a place in which this sort of culture exists? Is tolerated? If so, how do you work around it?


With variations, I've seen this enough times not to be shocked by it. Disappointed, yes, but not shocked. (And you get away with having department meetings on a Saturday? I'm impressed!)

This actually isn't the worst I've seen. At a school that had a designated final exam period, during which classes were not held and final exams were supposed to be given, I saw a dispiriting number of professors give their own finals the week before so they could get out of Dodge on the first day of exam period. It came to light when a student came by to complain about having three final exams on the same day, during a week when she shouldn't have had any. She was right.

At that time, final grades still had to be submitted on paper. The secretary in Academic Affairs mentioned in passing that she usually got about a dozen professors' final grades before exam period started. And those were just the ones brazen enough to hand them in.

In the case of my correspondent, it looks like the professor in question is reading every angle to his own advantage, then trying to claim the moral high ground. I don't think he's actually breaking any rules, but I wouldn't cut him much slack, either. At most colleges now, you don't have to travel to campus physically to get your email. If he really couldn't be bothered to check his email for a month, I'd have a hard time with the "but I wasn't notified!" argument.

As a cultural issue, though, this is maddeningly hard to address. If you don't have a formal attendance system for faculty -- and heaven knows I don't want to work anywhere that does -- then proving non-attendance becomes a nasty surveillance issue. The savvier faculty will eschew final exams altogether in the name of final projects or papers, then claim academic freedom if challenged. (To be fair, it's entirely possible to give final papers or projects without violating the spirit of exam week. I'm just saying that those who like to maximize their breaks often resort to this method. The honest ones will often use the designated exam time to return the papers or projects.) There's also the inconvenient fact that many students prefer the earlier end, too, so relying on student reports will tell you only a small fraction of what's going on.

At Proprietary U, one of the more civilized traditions involved free bagels and coffee for faculty during finals. One room was set aside as an impromptu lounge, and we could blow off steam there between rounds of grading. It was a small thing, but it helped, and it made the whole enterprise a bit less lonely. Food has a way of softening some rough edges.

I'm curious to hear from my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen an effective way to prevent people jumping the gun on the end of the semester?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator (and/or my wise and worldly readers!) at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, December 14, 2009

 

The Blonde Girl

On Saturday I took The Boy to a competition of various clubs of kids his age. His club was there, too, but not competing. I was there as chauffeur, but also as moral support. The competition was held in a high school gym. We sat on the bleachers. Actual exchange:

TB: I wonder if Madison will be here...

DD: Who?

(TB walks away.)

I spotted him shortly thereafter, sitting next to The Blonde Girl.

I'd been ditched. Not even so much as a "see ya, Dad."

The Blonde Girl has entered our world.

Bless his young heart, TB went for a girl who barely gave him the time of day. She teetered in little heels that I'm guessing she hadn't worn before. TB honed right in on her, fruitlessly.

Happily, the lack of progress didn't seem to faze him much. In the third grade, I'm not even sure what 'progress' would mean.

But he's off to the races now. And all those horrible lessons I had to figure out for myself, he'll have to figure out for himself. In one of nature's cruel tricks, they aren't really transferable. ("When I was your age..." Yawn.)

It's okay, it's even good. I just thought there'd be a little more warning. Something more than being abruptly ditched in the bleachers, anyway.

Apparently not.

Good luck, TB. Afterwards, I'll still be here to drive you home. I won't ditch you. Pay no attention to my smile on the drive home...

Friday, December 11, 2009

 

Friday Fragments

- This piece in yesterday's IHE about an abortive discussion of price caps for vocational programs made me smile. Apparently, the idea is to cap tuition for Title IV-eligible programs (vocational programs) at a set multiple of the starting salaries of recent grads. It's a horrible idea -- hiring and salaries have far more to do with the economy than with any given program -- but for a fun thought experiment, imagine applying something like it to graduate programs in evergreen disciplines. Cap the funding for graduate programs at some multiple of their recent grads' starting salaries, if any. If you really want to put the kibosh on the adjunct trend, this might do it. If nothing else, it might force a little more honesty.

- I've been involved in some ridiculous and highly unbloggable campus drama this week. Other than budgets, the most demoralizing part of administration is seeing the petty and awful things colleagues do to each other. By dint of my office, I'm not allowed to look away. It's not pretty. There's a reason so many super-villains have graduate degrees.

- Actual quote from a meeting this week: "Plain vanilla is our bread and butter." I'm not sure how that would work.

- You know you've reached a certain age when you consider 'cleaning the basement' a good way to spend a snow day. It's one of those tasks that has to be done, but that never quite seems urgent enough to displace something planned. But a snow day is 'found' time, and the kids were preoccupied with the snow, so I got the chance. When your main job involves so much indirect and vicarious effort, there's something gratifying in accomplishing a tangible task single-handedly.

- We had a conference this week with TB's teacher. He continues to rock the third grade. Sadly, we can't say the same for his school pictures. Why do school pictures always suck?

- TB has joined the local youth basketball group, which has twice-weekly practices and weekly games. He has a great coach, who understands the difference between trying to win a particular game and trying to learn the game itself. So far his team is 0-and-nevermind, but it actually runs plays. If any of them could actually shoot, they'd be unstoppable. Sadly, TB has his father's reflexes to go with the height. Poor kid. If I were him, I'd demand some sort of genetic refund.

- Genetic Refund would be a great name for a band.

- Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuce. Thus sayeth Springsteen: "Like many of you who live in New Jersey, I've been following the progress of the marriage-equality legislation currently being considered in Trenton. I've long believed in and have always spoken out for the rights of same sex couples and fully agree with Governor Corzine when he writes that, "The marriage-equality issue should be recognized for what it truly is -- a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law." I couldn't agree more with that statement and urge those who support equal treatment for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to let their voices be heard now." The Boss has spoken.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

 

Smoking

A regular correspondent stumped me with this one. Has your campus found a solution to smoking?

With record enrollments, my college has cigarette butts all over the grounds. There's a strong no-smoking policy inside the buildings, and so far, that hasn't really been an issue. Even the bathrooms have been remarkably smoke-free. The outdoors is another story. Smokers are supposed to stand x number of feet away from entrances, but in practice, they seem to interpret that part of the policy as advisory. That can mean that those of us who don't smoke (hi!) get to fight our way through a cloud of carcinogens to enter a building.

I'll admit that times have changed. Back in the 70's, when I was in elementary school, the public high school in my town had a smokers' lounge that was open to students. By the time I reached high school, that was gone. At SLAC, smoking was relatively rare; I think the class connotations were too powerful. (Back then, a common slur directed at community colleges was that they were "high school with ashtrays.") At Flagship State, it was common to see people smoke outside, but I don't remember it getting terribly out of control. The same held at Proprietary U, where smokers routinely went outside, but I don't recall any major issues either way.

Now, though, the non-smokers are getting a little testier, and the smokers somewhat less careful about cleaning up after themselves. I'm not sure which came first, but I've seen the two sides dig in their heels a bit over the last few years. (I recently heard "liberal" defined as "someone who wants to ban smoking and legalize pot." Not exactly right, but recognizable...)

One of the proposals floating around is a total ban on smoking on the entire campus. I can see the appeal, and if I thought it would work, I'd probably support it. But I can't imagine it really working. It's one thing to ask a smoker to step outside; it's quite another to ask her to just hang tight for the next several hours. I'd be concerned that someone in need of a nicotine fix would just go wherever was the most convenient.

(Full disclosure: I had a girlfriend in grad school who smoked off and on. During her attempts to quit, she morphed into She-Ra the Avenger. "I'm making some coffee. Would you like some?" "I'LL RIP YOUR HEART OUT AND SHOW IT TO YOU BEFORE YOU DIE!" "So, was that a yes or a no?" Ever since, I've had a healthy respect for nicotine fits.)

A few enterprising sorts have proposed setting aside designated smoking areas with little roofs, like bus stops. That one doesn't really sit right with me, either. It's one thing to look the other way while you spew that crap into the air, but now I'm supposed to subsidize it? I don't think so. Besides, in these parts, the winter months tend to get a bit nippy. Even if the smokers were good sports in September, I don't see them sticking to the plan in February.

It's fine to support smoking cessation programs for both employees and students, but by definition, those only reach the folks who are inclined to quit anyway. The problem is the conflict between the folks who just have to puff away on a regular basis, and those of us who'd rather not breathe carcinogenic air or step on the butts.

Wise and worldly readers, I'm hoping someone has seen this done right. Have you seen it?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

 

"Discipline"

Discipline is one of those words that can mean almost anything.

A few years ago, Gregg Easterbrook mentioned that when a football commentator wants to chide a team but doesn't know what else to say, he usually falls back on 'discipline.' If only the team were more disciplined, the theory goes, all would be well. The obvious flaw in that, other than vagueness, is what it takes for granted. Even a well-executed play won't save you if it's the wrong play. (Readers of a certain age may remember the Steve Martin bit about his brief football coaching career: "I liked to punt on first down.")

In higher ed, 'discipline' usually refers to an area of inquiry that has its own internal hierarchy, mechanisms for the production and distribution of prestige, and unwritten rules for what 'counts' and what doesn't. If you find yourself out of sync with what your discipline considers interesting at the time, you will likely suffer career damage. An economist who reads too much sociology, or vice versa, will pay the price. In certain protected settings, it's possible to be 'interdisciplinary,' but usually only if you have some other source of cachet.

Of course, those of us who did our time with Foucault have another set of connotations for 'discipline,' some more applicable than others.

The comments on this piece in IHE got me thinking about the football version of discipline as applied to higher ed. The piece is about a conference of higher ed lobbyists in Florida, at which the message delivered to colleges was "Stop Asking for Money!" (I'd imagine that lobbyists' lives would, indeed, be easier if we did that.) In the comments, several readers go back and forth on who needs more 'discipline,' the public sector or the private.

I'll admit that it's tempting to imagine some of Foucault's 'discipline' applied to lobbyists or investment bankers. But the whole question just strikes me as misplaced.

'Discipline' in the football sense has to do with sticking to a plan. It's sort of like willpower. Its lack is to be explained by moral weakness, or a character flaw. It conveniently locates the source of the problem in someone else -- the one who needs discipline -- and lends itself to the search for a tough-minded Manly Man coach to Make Hard Choices and Cut the Crap.

Which is to say, it misses the point completely.

If the failings of higher education were merely the result of personality flaws, then all we'd have to do is swap out a few bad people for a few good ones and all would be well. In fact, if the 'discipline' theory held any weight at all, we'd expect to see some institutions doing incredibly well on costs and others not.

Nope. Even conceding the usual range of human failings -- no argument there -- the problems are too widespread, uniform, and consistent to be explained with anything as evanescent as willpower. Bad outcomes aren't only caused by bad people. Just because you've been painted into a corner doesn't mean there's an evil painter out there. The problem isn't a lack of willpower in executing a plan. The problem is the plan. The problem is structural.

As long as high schools require less math to graduate than we require to start, we'll have a remediation problem. As long as we denominate learning in 'hours,' we'll have a productivity problem, and therefore a cost problem. This is true regardless of intention, dedication, or 'discipline.' We've avoided the structural issues for decades now, instead either raising costs to stratospheric levels or squeezing labor costs to previously-unimaginable extremes, all the while blaming individuals for lacking discipline.

Enough. That narrative has outlived its usefulness. It has survived because it's easy, and intuitive, and emotionally satisfying. But it's false. We can't win by punting on first down, no matter how good the punter.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

 

Battles You Don't Want to Fight

A savvy admin will pick battles carefully. I've seen too many cases of "you're right, but you're wrong to bring it up" over the years. So as a public service to any newbie administrators out there, I'll offer a few examples of battles you're really better off skipping, if you have the option.

1. The photocopier. You will never win the battle of the photocopier. Yes, Professor X will beat the poor thing into submission, running off copies like he has a grudge against trees. And yes, other professors who teach the exact same class will somehow manage not to. Yes, toner costs money, as does paper, and the environmental damage from excessive copying is real. But you will not win this one. I've seen too many deans or chairs come to grief trying to hold the line on copier costs. Prof. X will immediately leap to academic freedom, claiming that your inquiry into his thousands of copies is a thinly-veiled attack on his choice of instructional materials. Other faculty who normally think of Prof. X as a bit of a pain will rally to his side, out of fear that you'll start charging them by the page. No good can come of this. (Exception: if you have a department secretary who is longstanding, respected, and ferocious, s/he might be able to pull it off. But you won't.) The only concession I've seen successfully wrested on photocopying has been a grudging willingness to do double-sided, to save paper. If you get that, call it a win and move on.

2. "So-and-so doesn't attend the meetings of the committee he signed up for." This falls victim to the "what about everybody else" problem. Unless you're willing and able to do surveillance on every single committee, and to cross-reference every absence, you're typically best off leaving this one alone. Yes, it's unfair to the 'good soldiers,' but any system built on honor and discretion will have some holes in it. Given the distastefulness of the alternative, you're typically best advised to let this one slide. If the faculty want to own governance, let them own non-participation, too.

3. "It's unfair that Prof. X is such a harder grader than Prof. Y!" This is another of those "yes, but" situations. Yes, it's unfair (if/when it's true), but you don't want to go there. This is why colleges have Procedures. Refer the student to the Grade Appeal Process, and leave it at that. If there's a consistent stream of students about the same professor, talk to the department chair about grade norming workshops. But don't expect much. This one combines the academic freedom issue with the surveillance issue, making it a no-win twofer. Unless you can show a double standard based on some sort of identifiable discrimination, walk away. Professors are allowed to be strict. Don't take the bait.

4. The decades-old grievance. Let the past pass.

5. "Everybody knows." You'd be surprised how difficult it is to actually prove what "everybody knows" to be true. Widespread belief is not proof. Be prepared to be accused of condoning whatever it is that everybody knows. ("The Administration knows about it, but doesn't do anything!") In the absence of actual proof that you could defend in court, hearsay is just hearsay. In my observation, don't be surprised if the very people urging you to action scatter abruptly when asked to sign their names to a complaint. It's called cowardice. Walk away.

Wise and worldly readers -- what would you add?

Monday, December 07, 2009

 

Make it Look Planned

I need a word that falls between 'serendipity' and 'strategy.' (And no, I won't use 'strategery.')

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting at which a colleague described an innovation that she had basically backed into, but that worked really well. (It had to do with scheduling certain classes in unaccustomed ways.) The initial impulse for the experiment wasn't entirely 'what the hell,' but it was close. When the 'what the hell' worked, she scaled it up, and it worked even better. Now we're all doing something like it, and succeeding wildly. It's that rare case of a lark that became a monster, but in a good way.

Our strategic planning person was in the room for this meeting. She wanted us to reconstruct the narrative to make the successful initiative appear to have been a data-driven, advance-planned intervention based on the previous year's strategic goals.

It reminded me of high school chemistry lab reports. The idea was to impose retrospective order on something that was actually far more chaotic.

Order makes for a lovely narrative, but the fact that it has to be imposed sort of defeats its purpose. I'd love to say that every good idea on campus has emerged from careful planning, data mining, and rigorous experimental controls. But that's not true, and if the college limited itself to those, nothing would ever get done.

Part of the fetish of extreme planning, I think, derives from misunderstanding the alternative. I've been asked, with a straight face, "if you don't have a plan, how do you know what to do?" If plans were handed down directly from God, I guess that objection might hold water. But plans come from the same people who produce perfectly well without them.

Randomness is not the only alternative to step-by-step planning. There's something in between. And that in-between space is where real leadership takes place.

In that in-between space, certain things are made prescriptively clear: boundaries of jurisdiction, a few thou-shalt-nots emitting from various sources (law, contract, regulations, strings attached to grants, etc.), available resources, and big-picture directions ("we want to open a satellite campus," say, or "we need to emphasize our allied health programs"). At that level, I'm all for a certain prescriptive clarity. If people think there's a magic money tree, or that rules are merely advisory, they're likely to pursue unproductive avenues.

But once those bases are covered, people need room to move. If somebody's 'what the hell' inspiration falls within the bounds above, and seems like a good idea, it wouldn't make sense to rule it out on the grounds that it wasn't part of the Plan. That's self-defeating. It limits the brainpower in action to what was in the room when the Plan was drawn up, which is never a good idea. And it doesn't allow for change during the course of the Plan. Sometimes the defense lines up differently than you thought it would, and you have to call an audible. That's not planned, but it's not random, either. If you anticipated a small enrollment increase and instead got hit by a demographic tsunami triggered by a Great Recession, it doesn't seem unreasonable to make some adjustments on the fly. Pretending later that they were what you intended all along is just silly.

I just haven't found a really elegant, one-sentence way to say that. Wise and worldly readers, I need your wordsmithing skills. What's the word for this?

Friday, December 04, 2009

 

The Home Stretch

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the home stretch. This is the time of the semester when most professors' and students' fuses are the shortest. (In administration, the late April to mid May stretch is the worst.)

It's predictable -- hell, it's annual -- yet somehow, it's always a little surprising. Like pain, it's easy to forget until it returns.

For students, this is when deadlines and reality hit. Since all the classes are on the same cycle, they all culminate at the same time.

For professors, this is when the grading starts to snowball, the student confrontations escalate, and the various end-of-semester deadlines loom. It's also time to prepare for the holidays. And it gets dark early. And cold.

I miss teaching, but this is the time of year I miss it the least. Oddly, it's also the time of year when having a teaching background is most important. This is not the time to go to anybody with a time-consuming request, or to bring up a controversial new topic. It's the time of year to shift to pure 'support' mode. There's enough stress going around without my office adding to it.

So, since I don't say this nearly often enough, let me just send some gratitude to all the faculty, t.a.'s, and staff who are among my wise and worldly readers. Your readership means a lot to me, and your daily work is what makes mine matter.

Hang in there! You can see the finish line from here...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

 

Early Birds

Though I'm not sure I'd want to try it, I'm intrigued by the move proposed by Daniel Klaich, the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. According to IHE, Klaich is considering a statewide enrollment cap on community colleges to preserve quality in light of diminished budgets.

It's a risky move. Legislatures have been known to be spiteful, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it respond negatively to what it could perceive as high-handedness. ("If you have fewer students, you certainly won't need as much money...") It could also leave a lingering bad taste in the community for years to come. ("Just when I needed college, it closed?") For those of us who find the 'open access' part of the community college mission an asset, rather than a source of shame, the idea of closing the doors early cuts against the grain.

Still, with a minor tweak, I could imagine some serious upsides.

To his credit, Klaich appears to reject academic selectivity as a criterion. I say "to his credit" because the more 'able' students also already have other options. It's the students who need cc's the most who would be shut out entirely if selectivity became the norm. (Of course, selectivity would also immediately improve retention and graduation rates, and would also cut costs for tutoring and remediation. The force of economic gravity and the core of the mission are in constant tension. 'Tis the fate of the nonprofit in a for-profit world...) Instead, he's going with something closer to first-come, first-served.

Even first-come first-served might actually improve the results on the ground, though. And for mostly good reasons.

Anyone who has ever been responsible for getting sections staffed (hi!) knows the headache of the last couple of weeks before the semester starts, when you have a few sections running low-ish, and you're trying to guess which ones will make the cut. An instructor backs out, a tiny section is composed mostly of students who need the class for graduation, you hit the wall looking for that one last adjunct for that one outlier section. In the last few days, you play the percentages and hope for the best.

A numerical cutoff could kick in at any moment, which doesn't help much with predictability. But if you went with a calendar cutoff instead, you could achieve the same numerical goal with much more benefit. If you could shut the doors for September enrollment by, say, the end of July, then you'd know several weeks in advance exactly what's running and what isn't. You'd actually have time to tend to those last-minute staffing issues. The bookstore would have time to get the orders exactly right, instead of ballparking it and running a few copies short in each section. The financial aid office could reallocate manpower from the front desk to the back office and actually package everyone's aid before the semester starts. Since everyone would already be registered before Orientation started, the student affairs staff could focus on one task at a time.

These sound nitpicky, I know, but they matter. When the financial aid voucher is delayed or the bookstore gets the order wrong, some students start the semester without books. For students who are already overwhelmed and academically shaky, that doesn't help. When staff try to do three things at once with a line of people waiting for them, they're likelier to get snippy and to make mistakes. Students get sent to the wrong rooms, class schedules get mixed up, and a panoply of small-but-annoying mishaps create needless drama. Even without doing anything about the academic preparedness of the incoming class, Klaich could probably move the needle a bit on retention and graduation simply by reducing the operational static that new students face when they start.

(Of course, 'initial registration date' and 'academic preparedness' aren't entirely independent variables. The folks who have their stuff together tend to register earlier. Without addressing preparedness directly, an earlier deadline will probably raise the preparation level of the incoming class. And that's without even addressing the benefits of smoother orientation, etc.)

If a college wanted to try an earlier cutoff date without being cruel about it, it could resort to a 'raincheck' system. Tell the prospective student who shows up just before Labor Day that she's too late for Fall, but she'll get first dibs on first semester classes for Spring. Have her tested and oriented during the Fall, and get started on remediation during intersession. It isn't as immediately gratifying as 'you start tomorrow,' but it sets the student up to succeed, which is really the point.

Admittedly, an earlier cutoff isn't exactly the same thing as a numerical cutoff, but I'd be more comfortable with it. It would be easier to communicate in advance, and would seem less arbitrary. It would allow for better planning and execution on the operational side, so students would have fewer obstacles preventing them from focusing on their classes. There's the risk of leaving a few seats empty while turning prospective students away, but I'd hope that after a few years the college could get the date basically right. And doing a better job by the students, who would be better prepared to do better work themselves, seems like a pretty good benefit. It's not an entirely free lunch, but it's a pretty freakin' cheap one. I'll be watching Nevada with fascination.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

 

Delayed Openings

We're heading into snow season again. That means we'll probably have another round of snow day decisions to make.

Luckily, I don't make that call personally. I don't envy the poor soul who does.

Snow days aren't so bad. If the college simply closes for the day, then that's that. It creates some issues with missed material and makeup classes, and it's a &*#$@! nightmare if it happens during final exams, but otherwise, it's manageable.

Delayed openings are far worse.

The idea behind a delayed opening is to give the road crews some time to plow, and to give the storm time to die down or blow over. When the worst is over by the morning rush hour, there's a superficial argument for opening around, say, ten.

But it never really works out right.

First, of course, there are the students and employees who have school-aged children. Typically, if a storm is bad enough to cause a delayed opening at the college, it's bad enough to cause closures at many of the local school districts. That means that substantial numbers of parents are effectively forced to stay home. The resulting absenteeism creates weird inequities. Students who brave the snow anyway are often upset to discover that their professors didn't come in. Professors who did come in might have half their students out, making certain class activities (group work, say) impossible, and others (exams, introduction of new material) problematic.

Then there are the extended hands-on classes. If you have a three-hour chemistry lab, and the college is closed for the first hour or two, you may not be able to get anything meaningful done in the remaining time. Lab and studio classes, and their variants, are often all-or-nothing propositions. A lecture or discussion can be truncated on short notice, depending on the agility of the instructor. But a chemical reaction takes the time it takes.
Miss too much, and you've missed it all.

When you have multi-section lab classes, and the early morning sections fall a week (or two) behind the other ones, the logistical demands on the lab assistants become fearsome. In many cases, the only way to keep the labs humming along is to keep everything in sync. Get something out of sequence, and it gets ugly.

For students who bunch their classes early in the day, there's often the very real dilemma of whether it's worth doing battle with the road conditions on the off chance of the last hour of class actually meeting. I admire the ones who tough it out, and feel bad for them when the professor either couldn't make it in, or substituted a placeholder activity for the substantive class because of time and attendance issues.

This year I'm hoping every day is either on or off. Those in-betweens are just no fun at all.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

 

The Turkey Trot

Anyone with kids, or a long memory, knows the story: pack the whole clan into a car for hours on end, pray to the traffic gods, hope you didn't forget anything too important, and spend days shuttling from extended family to extended family.

When things go wrong, they go very, very wrong. But when they don't, it's lovely.

This year we pulled off the equivalent of a hole-in-one. Everything worked, and it was lovely.

The traffic gods were surprisingly kind, by Northeast standards. Even the states that usually give us fits -- I'm looking at you, Pennsylvania -- were smooth. We didn't forget anything irreplaceable, the kids behaved beautifully, and seeing the families was a joy.

This has not always been the case.

In past years, I've had nasty car troubles, awful traffic, strained step-family issues, and once, the longest train ride in recorded history. (My one-step process for making train travel more appealing: speed it up. Okay, Stephen, have at it.) Until that adventure, I would have felt guilty about driving as much as we did. Now, not.

I'm glad that my kids get off a little easier than I did. I remember the twice-yearly seven-hour drives in the Ford Maverick, bereft of such 21st century luxuries as DVD players. The best we got was Chilly Willy, with the magnets to make beards. Now, the kids spent much of the drive watching DVD's of Tom and Jerry or Charlie Brown holiday specials. On the late-night drive back, when I wanted them to sleep, I played a podcast of Marketplace. Lest that be considered child abuse, I was subjected to Paul Harvey -- Paul Harvey! -- in the car as a kid. And that's the rest of the story.

When we got there, all was good. The Girl and The Niece picked up where they left off last summer, gleefully hiding under blankets together and squealing at frequencies that could shatter glass. My brother and I had a few of our patented conversations, which I enjoy and which TW manages to tolerate. My Mom had both sons and all the grandkids under one roof at the same time, which is rare these days.

But that wasn't all. We also saw TW's parents, who are the rare in-laws you can actually like. We even caught up with some old friends, which is good for the soul. No Black Friday runs for us, though we did get to participate voyeuristically; our hotel was next to a Toys-R-Us, so we got to see people standing outside in line at 7:00 for a midnight opening. As far as shopping goes, I loves me some internet.

Several days away from office politics, higher ed, blogging, and the usual routine is good for the soul. I don't want to spend that much time in the car again for a long while, but I'm grateful to have places to go.

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