Friday, May 28, 2010


Program Note

I'll be off next week, returning to the blog on June 7. The book keeps on refusing to write itself, oddly enough, so it's time for some woodshedding.

And those fact-checkers are brutal! Okay, technically, I never actually had an affair with Ashley Judd, but you have to admit it livened up chapter three! I mean, sheesh.

Back to the drawing board. See you in a week!

Thursday, May 27, 2010


A Nerdy Academic's Tech Wish List

All that discussion of 'unbundling' and new technology in yesterday's post got me thinking about some gadgetry I'd like to see. Since I know some of my readers are also pretty tech-savvy, I invite their suggestions too.

- An e-reader that isn't too heavy or expensive, and that makes citing pages easy. We academic types like to be able to annotate and cite page numbers when we quote.

- An internet plan that covers home, mobile, and a smartphone for one price. Failing that, could we at least get the smartphone to serve as a wifi router, and not get charged extra for it? Honestly. And I don't want to have to use WebOS to do it, since it's an afterthought in the app-development world. Also, a battery that doesn't die or catch on fire after two hours would be lovely.

- Something close to a la carte pricing for cable. Let me pay a dollar per channel per month and choose my own channels. Failing that, let's get the video streaming services to a level where I can drop cable altogether without losing the kids' programs or The Big Bang Theory. We nerds love Sheldon, and he's not on Hulu.

- A "gong" app to use for meetings that have just gone on too long. Carrying my own analog gong is unwieldy.

- An open-source ERP program that actually works.

- A day on which the academic world agrees, en masse, to switch from Word to OpenOffice and/or Google Docs. Kill Word Dead. I, for one, will dance on clippy's grave. ("It looks like you're doing a celebratory jig. Would you like some help?")

- Room scheduling software that is cheap, customizable, and easily updated. You would not believe what room scheduling software goes for these days.

- A podcast platform structured similarly to Google Docs. As it is, if I'm halfway through a podcast at the end of the day but I need to update the other podcasts for the next day, I have to return to the same computer or the ipod will lose the memory of where I was. But if the podcast manager were on the cloud somewhere, it wouldn't matter which computer I used.

- Choice in home broadband providers. Either break the monopoly or regulate the hell out of it. Unregulated monopolies -- my local one rhymes with "bomb blast" -- are not pretty. (What's their customer service like, you ask? Bend over and I'll show you!) For that matter, meaningful choice in mobile broadband would be lovely, too. That cartel-like 60 dollars a month uniform charge needs to go.

- How about cheaper monthly rates for unsubsidized (or paid off) phones? If the rates are what they are in part to pay for the equipment, but the equipment is already paid for, shouldn't the rates be lower?

- A program that allows administrators to do inquiry-driven Institutional Research data slicing ourselves.

- A search engine that would work on my actual desk.

- Some sort of voice identification software for the phone.

- Some sort of name-recollection software plugged directly into my brain. Maybe a really inconspicuous version of "google goggles" that could be nano-engineered directly into contact lenses.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you have the techies generate next?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Thoughts on DIY U

Anya Kamenetz' new book, DIY U, is a celebration of "edupunks" and of the corrosive effects of new technology on traditional higher education. It's a quick read on a great topic, and it makes some worthwhile points, but I just couldn't get past a fundamental flaw in its argument. It mistakes elitism for liberation.

Before getting to the big point, a few smaller points. I don't know her personally, but Kamenetz' authorial persona is of someone who attends a lot of conferences in far-flung places, has access to some highfalutin' people, and can't be bothered with the details. That's probably a lot of fun, but the details matter. Every time I read something like this:

(Referring to BYU-Idaho) -- "the faculty is asked [?] to teach four credits per semester for three semesters. That's twelve classes per year..." (p. 76)

or this:

"They charge minimal fees on a sliding scale...from $15 to $100 per credit, adding up to $4,000 maximum for a full four-year degree program." (p. 117)

I can't help but notice that she doesn't understand the distinction between "credits" and "courses." When your argument is largely economic, that's a crucial distinction.

She also can't seem to decide what she thinks of community colleges. Without any apparent awareness, she glides from

"Community colleges fill the gaps by taking all comers, yet the product they offer is generally acknowledged to be a substitute for the real thing." (p. 16)


"Expanding access to higher education begins at community colleges..." (p. 40)

That would be access to a substitute for the real thing? How would that help?

But the economics of it, which are supposed to be the point of the whole enterprise, are a mishmosh. She veers from

"States, too, should direct more resources to institutions that enroll needier students." (p. 40)


"To truly progress in education, and in our society as a whole, we need to redirect our resources and energy from institutions toward individuals." (p. 48)

So "society" should direct resources away from institutions, but "states" should direct more resources to the institutions that enroll needier students. You know, the institutions that are generally acknowledged to be substitutes for the real thing.

After a while, following every twist of the narrative thread becomes crazymaking. Instead, her pronouncements are more productively read as riffs on themes. When you boil it down, her argument is that the "unbundling" of the package of goods offered by colleges will free up students to become their own field guides, bravely traversing the open and free internet to get the information when they want it, how they want it. After all, she gets "incredibly generous" free responses by famous people to her own emails, so it's all there for the taking! Just get those distribution requirements and climbing walls out of the way, and look out, world!

Um, no.

Foundation support underlies most of the "Free" offerings, since they aren't free to produce. The "incredibly generous" responses she gets to emails are underwritten, admittedly indirectly, by the institutions that pay their salaries. That's how it works.

The innovators that Kamenetz celebrates almost uniformly rely on either foundation funding -- she notes correctly that the Hewlett foundation has outsize influence in this field -- or on colleges and universities. Companies won't do it themselves, since they need a shorter-term payoff. People won't do it for themselves, since most don't have the capital and leisure. (And even if they did, they'd lose access to lab facilities, peers, experts, and potential mates.) It took an explosion of educational institutions, from the K-12 system to land-grant universities to community colleges, to attain the level of mass literacy we have today.

Economists teach us that institutions exist to lower transaction costs. Yes, they're prone to all manner of pathology; longtime readers may have seen me refer to some. But if you're looking for a place that combines geographic propinquity of teachers and students, the availability of financial aid, lab and studio facilities, philanthropic support, tax support, and some level of quality control, you're looking for...a college. You could try to cobble together something on your own, of course, and some of that is to the good. But to assume that turning loose tens of millions of high school grads to email random and now unpaid professors for "incredibly generous" emails that will prepare them for the twenty-first century is just silly. It does not work like that. It will not, and it cannot.

Kamenetz unreflectively buys into the anti-institutional prejudice that infects and discredits so much techno-utopianism. The whole "edupunk" conceit -- represented on the cover by a clenched white fist clutching a pencil, and a black wristband with a "DIY U" logo -- is based on the image of the heroic loner sticking it to The Man by going it alone. But when you look at the examples she cites, they're all economically parasitic on the institutions they propose to supplant. (To her credit, Kamenetz actually acknowledges this in passing, though she doesn't go anywhere with the observation.) They're like the punk rocker living in Mom's basement. I'd be a lot more impressed if he paid his own rent. (Old joke: what do you call a drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless!)

She also suffers from Liberal Arts Blindness. Some majors don't lend themselves to just looking at screens. Reading on your own is one thing, if you have the skills to do it well. (Experience tells me that undergraduates often wildly overestimate their own reading skills.) But access to chemistry labs requires institutions that own them, maintain them, supply them, and explain them. A Nursing major who never actually sees patients is not prepared to be a nurse. Art studio time isn't free, and neither is access to cutting-edge technology. The 'signaling' function of higher ed is all well and good, but sometimes students also actually learn something. And sometimes the something that they learn requires real-world facilities.

Colleges as institutions can also provide passable substitutes for Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own." This is where you find libraries, and study groups, and tutoring centers, and all manner of clubs and organizations. (I learned a lot about organizational behavior from my time on the college radio station.) This matters the most for the most disadvantaged students, whose home lives are often tumultuous. For many students, a separate college campus is the only realistic option for being able to focus on anything at length. This is where they discover other people who are interested in the same things they are; it's where they form new social connections that do a world of good.

Part of the maddening inefficiency of colleges is precisely that they don't capture the gains from what they do. That's by design. Although they have budgets and payrolls and all of that, they operate largely on a 'gift exchange' logic. (Kamenetz nods obliquely to this with her 'secular religion' analysis.) They're eleemosynary (or what she calls "welfare") by design. Professors who are paid by colleges often share some of their expertise with the public at large, out of a sense that it's just a good thing to do. (For the first several years I did this blog, I didn't make a cent from it.) That's great, and to the extent that some enterprising types can use that generosity to pursue their own quirky ideas, go for it. But if you take out that institutional underpinning -- by which I mean "salaried job" -- the whole thing collapses. I can write this blog because I have a day job.

The alternative to eleemosynary institutions isn't a sudden epidemic of autodidacticism; it's for-profits. That's the direction in which we're actually moving. The for-profits have their strengths and their weaknesses, but at least they recognize that you can't scale up without infrastructure. For all the mistakes they make, they grasp the fundamental importance of institutions. They just build (or sometimes buy) their own. To the extent that "society" redirects resources away from institutions and towards individuals, it plays directly into the for-profit model. Kamenetz correctly notes that for-profits rely heavily on Federal financial aid, but somehow never connects these dots.

Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."

Kamenetz' framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we're honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don't do it as an alternative to college; they've already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it's just information. And those skills come from somewhere.

If you're serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I've never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn't changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn't that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It's that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Unionizing at For-Profits

This is one of those "yeah, but" stories. The impulse is good, but the details are tricky.

Apparently, the faculty at the Art Institute of Seattle, a for-profit college, is doing an underground drive to unionize with the American Federation of Teachers. The idea, according to the IHE story, is to put in place safeguards that will allow faculty to give honest grades without fear of reprisal. (The 'fear of reprisal' part also explains the 'underground' part.)


First, it's great to see the academic unions start to make some forays into the for-profit side of higher ed, even if it's somewhat accidentally. It could theoretically curb some of the worst workplace abuses in that sector. It would also put the unionized public colleges (hi!) at less of a competitive disadvantage.

As regular readers know, I spent years in for-profit higher ed, both as faculty and as administration, and I heard periodic rumblings there about unionization. The party line there was that if the faculty voted to unionize, the company would simply shut down that campus. (It had enough campuses all over the place to make the threat credible.) The issues that riled up the faculty there were mostly around teaching load (twelve months per year, fifteen credits at a time, and only a week between semesters), though there was also some concern about grading standards. The salaries and benefits were modest but not ridiculous; the killer issue was workload, both for faculty and for administration. Extreme workloads were central to the business model.

Although I keep reading about for-profits with all-adjunct teaching corps, that wasn't how this one worked (or works, for that matter). I don't know why that myth persists.

As far as workload goes, the AFT drive strikes me as all to the good. And I like the idea of some sort of due process for terminations, even if my preferred method would be far, far, far less cumbersome than the M.C. Escher-inspired processes at my union shop.

The grading thing is another issue.

Yes, there can be pressure for grade inflation at any enrollment-driven institution, whether for-profit or not. (I've heard of it at some struggling private non-profits, too.) Depending on the form and level it takes, it can be a real problem. (The major problem was with student expectations. The 'entitlement' mentality I saw at Proprietary U was far greater than anything I've seen in the cc world.)

But at a really fundamental level, grading is an academic issue, much like curriculum or outcomes assessment, and academic issues are not properly subject to collective bargaining. We don't negotiate curriculum, and we don't negotiate grades. Nor should we.

Making grading negotiable could cut both ways, after all.

In the absence of really rigorous outcomes assessment measures, grading is largely self-generated by faculty. That makes it prone to manipulation in either direction, depending on what the incentives are at any given time and place. I knew some people at Flagship State who made a point of draconian grading in the first few weeks in order to get their class sizes down. There was nothing to stop them, even though it was -- to my mind, anyway -- a clear abuse of power. Although "teaching to the test" is rightly anathema to many, there's something to be said for a third-party standard for grading. It takes the conflict of interest out of the equation, and makes external pressure on grades difficult to sustain. A law school can say what it wants about the quality of its instruction; if only ten percent of its students pass the bar exam, it has something to answer for.

If the unionization drive at the for-profits leads to some meaningful measures of learning that avoid the conflict of interest problem, then everybody wins. But if all it does is introduce grading as a subject for collective bargaining, we could all lose. (Alternately, if it just introduces speed bumps into the process for judging faculty by pass rates -- an entirely likely possibility -- we all lose.)

Here's hoping...

Monday, May 24, 2010


Escape from New Jersey

According to this story from the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger (motto: "Not Dead Yet!"), the New Jersey Senate has passed a bill that would require all newly-hired public employees, including faculty and staff at public colleges, to live in New Jersey as a condition of employment. Apparently, an early draft of the bill would have given existing employees a brief window during which to move, but it has since been amended to 'grandfather' current employees, as long as they don't change jobs.

Wow. Where to start?

As a rule of thumb, any law that has to be 'grandfathered' is probably a terrible idea. Were it up to me, we'd retire that word from the language, and replace it with something like "eat the young." But never mind that.

I've heard of laws like these applied to police and sometimes firefighters. They strike me as questionable there, but I suppose one could make an argument based on emergency response time. Firefighting can't be telecommuted, and you're needed when you're needed. In the case of police, it's usually a racial issue.

But college faculty? Really?

As students of geography know, New Jersey is directly across from both New York City and Philadelphia. It has long borders with both Pennsylvania and New York, and a short one with Delaware. (Nobody has a long border with Delaware.) It has the highest population density of any state, which results, predictably enough, in the highest property taxes of any state. How requiring more people to live in the state will undo the damage done by excess density isn't entirely clear.

As a practical matter, the proposal is absurd. In the age of dual-career couples, what happens to couples in which one member crosses the border to work? If, say, Pennsylvania were to respond with a similar law of its own, a dual-career couple would have to separate. Then there's the issue of housing cost. Although the Great Recession has taken the edge off somewhat, real estate in New Jersey is still indecently expensive, especially when compared to assistant-professor salaries. Some of them have managed by trekking out to Pennsylvania. Take that option away, and they'll just have to leave altogether. How that helps isn't clear. The struggling adjunct who crosses bridges and tunnels from New York is now completely out of luck, as is the prominent musician or artist who used to come out once or twice a week to teach.

Tying the peasants to the land is an abuse of power. Tying them to the land for no particular reason is a stupid abuse of power. The closest thing to an argument presented in the article was that people on the state payroll shouldn't spend that money out of state. But that confuses salary with expense accounts. Subjecting my expense accounts to public scrutiny is fair enough, but my salary shouldn't be less my own than anyone else's is. When I go home, I'm off the clock.

I'd expect to see NJ colleges start to suffer some recruitment issues. The high-salaried superstars who would like to live in New York City or Philly won't come; the low-salaried everyone else who made ends meet via long commutes will just have to find other jobs. The net gain to the state is...what, exactly?

If New Jersey is worried that its employees are taking their paychecks and spending them elsewhere, it should try to make itself more appealing so people will choose to stay. Punitive measures are not the way to go. ("You are hereby sentenced to live in New Jersey." "NOOOO!!!!!") Micromanaging employees' private lives won't solve any of the underlying problems, and will only cause unnecessary stress on the employees. And the message it sends about the state isn't exactly flattering. New state motto -- New Jersey: There Is No Escape.

Friday, May 21, 2010



This past weekend, TW and I left the kids with her parents, got on a plane, and went out of town for a couple of days. I hadn't realized how much we needed to do that until we did it.

We love our kids dearly, but sometimes it's healthy to slip out of 'parent' mode. And with the end-of-semester insanity on campus in full swing, the change of scene did some good. We even managed to keep the calls home to a reasonable minimum.

Benefits of leaving the kids at home:

-- We went to restaurants that don't even serve chicken tenders.

-- Nobody had to be carried when we walked any kind of distance.

-- We got reacquainted with our frontal lobes. We went to a huge art museum, and actually got to look at the art! We didn't have to take anyone to the bathroom three times in an hour, and we didn't have to content ourselves with crayon-based activities. We didn't even have to corral anyone from running through the gallery, or listen to variations on "I'm bored!"

-- Two plane tickets, rather than four. It adds up.

We love our kids. We really do. They're wonderful, bright, warmhearted, sweet, smart, and charming. But yumpin' yiminy, sometimes you just need a break.

The break didn't last long; at the baggage carousel in the airport when we got back, we got the call that TG had thrown up. We returned to a sick kid, flashing digital clocks from a power outage the day before, and a clogged toilet. Since then, t-ball, doctor's visits, more sickness, and graduation.

It's all fine. But reconnecting with our adult selves was huge.

It gets easier, right?

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Adjusting to a Union Shop

A newish dean at a new institution writes:

Adding to the coming in from the 'outside' pressure is the fact that the faculty have a union. When a colleague tried to begin an assessment program to meet the [agency] accrediting revisions, the faculty union point man and union pooh-poohed the measure. As of now, the assessment process consists of an open-ended "how do you assess student learning" question for each faculty member. It's my new job to get things where they need to be--identify, measure, report, use, repeat.

In [previous state] we had neither a union no shared governance. How do I balance the needs of the faculty with the needs of the institution? I don't know if you care to turn this into a column, but a word from the wise would be most appreciated.

Managing in a union environment is very different from managing in a non-union environment. (I've done both.) From this side of the desk, the clear disadvantage to a union shop is that you have a structural antagonist with material incentives to make your life difficult from time to time. Even if you're doing well, union leadership has to draw the occasional blood just to keep winning elections. This means that there's a certain level of conflict that will never go away. It's the price of admission.

Depending on your particular union and contract, you may also find yourself boxed into some very weird corners by past interpretations of stray contractual clauses or past practices. You may also find, depending on the vagaries of local history and culture, that the union leadership may be disproportionately populated by the crankiest of the cranky. (I'll admit to having been pretty lucky on this count.) If the contract is particularly complicated and/or 'mature,' you may find yourself hard-pressed to dot every 'i' in every case, just because there are so many. Sometimes you'll find contractual clauses contradicting each other, which is just a huge bundle of fun.

That said, though, I actually prefer managing in a unionized setting.

For one thing, they give you an official person to talk to when you need to get the pulse of the faculty. In a non-union shop, there's always someone, somewhere, who will claim not to have been consulted. In a union shop, if you 'impact bargain' a change with the unit, you've met your obligation. If the union isn't sufficiently representative, that's the union's problem, not yours.

Union shops also tend to have much more explicit procedures for many things, which means that you don't have to invent them all. That can be a pain, but it can also insulate you from post-hoc legal challenges. Anytime you can start a discussion with "per clause such-and-such of the contract...," you're in good shape. And I've had great luck using the contract as an excuse to avoid cutting side deals. "Gee, that's a good argument, but I can't set that precedent. If you want to bring that idea to the negotiating table, of course, you're welcome to..."

I've had good luck treating the union as a sort of colleague. I assume that both sides want to do right by the students, to stay out of needless legal trouble, and to have a fair enough working environment that people spend relatively little time on internal politics and more time actually doing what they were hired to do. When the union raises a point about a workload inequity, I take it seriously and try to resolve it quickly so that we don't lose months in unproductive conflict. The union has realized that it can get much of what it wants without going ballistic, so it doesn't go ballistic as often. I consider that a win-win.

Reading the recent dust-up in blogland about spousal hiring and salary compression, I can attest that having across-the-board raises and mechanistic determinations of starting salaries actually takes a host of issues off the table. Since nobody has discretionary money for merit raises -- what's a merit raise? what's 'discretionary money'? what are these words other people use? -- there's no discrimination in their application. Women here make what men make, which may explain why the full-time faculty here is majority female. (Most of the deans are women, too, for that matter.) When everybody gets the same raise -- or everybody gets the same big fat zero that we got this year -- you don't have to deal with accusations of infernal motive. Across-the-board raises are remarkably easy to administer. They're too low for the really terrific performers, and frankly too high for some folks who do juuust enough to not get fired, but they're easy to administer. (Predictably, that pretty much destroys any connection between "performance" and "reward," which leads to other issues.) We don't even do counteroffers, so the idea that counteroffers amount to a form of sexism -- on the theory that men are less place-bound than women -- is moot here. If you want to go, go. We pay what we pay. The whole "good girls don't negotiate" thing doesn't mean much here, either, since the negotiation that really counts is collective.

(Reading the dustups in blogland, I sometimes feel like I live on Mars. I'm in a public, teaching-intensive, unionized institution in a blue state. Context matters. The kinds of shenanigans that FSP wrote about would last about ten minutes here.)

Shared governance is a separate, though related, issue. Some colleges with unionized faculties forego faculty senates (or anything similar), on the grounds that the union already represents the faculty. I'd argue that that's a mistake. A union is supposed to deal with issues around compensation, terms and conditions of employment, due process, and equity. It is not supposed to deal with curriculum. A faculty senate or a similar venue can serve as a useful venue in which to have discussions of curriculum, outcomes assessment, and other, properly academic, issues. If you have a venue like that, I'd start there; if not, I'd suggest helping to establish one. What you absolutely cannot do is tell your accrediting agency that you can't do assessment because the union won't let you. That won't fly, and the union should have nothing to do with it. It's not a collective bargaining issue. Faculty need to be central to it, but not in that venue.

In terms of making actual headway on assessment, I'd advocate a step-by-step approach. Start with some pilot programs, and trumpet their successes to the entire campus. Be sure to address the usual anxieties that assessment programs tend to raise: workload, sub rosa performance evaluation, standardization, etc. If you don't address those anxieties, they'll likely overpower you. It will be a slow process, and you'll have to settle for half a loaf more often than not, but it needs to be done.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who've managed in union shops, what would you add (or correct)?

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

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Performance Reviews

We're coming up on performance review time for the administrative and staff ranks. That means I have to have my annual internal debate about performance reviews. (Apparently, it's "ambivalence week" here at Dean Dad HQ.)

As many folks have pointed out, performance reviews are deeply flawed in the best of times, and often just destructive. There's no end of reasons for that.

- They only occur once per year. That leads to predictable temporal distortions -- the most recent stuff outweighs the older stuff -- and some unavoidable discontinuity.

- They reflect only what the manager sees, and/or how the manager sees it. Depending on the manager, this can be a real problem.

- They're "one size fits all," even though jobs are very different. In many cases, there's only one person in an entire job category, so any basis for comparison will necessarily be arbitrary.

- Clean measures of performance are often absent. Managing creative people is not like selling cars.

- They're undeniable sources of tension.

And yet, we keep doing them. Why would otherwise intelligent people keep using such a flawed system?

Because performance evaluations aren't just for the benefit of the employee. They're also indispensable elements of the paper trail you'll need if you need to rank people, whether for promotion or for termination. They give the organization protective legal cover.

That's why the oft-heard suggestion of "just replace them with regular informal coaching," which sounds nice, rarely gets picked up. Informal discussions don't show up in personnel files. That means that if you have to lower the boom on someone, there's nothing in the file to defend a claim of arbitrary and capricious (or discriminatory) decisionmaking.

As with outcomes assessment and student grades, there's a tension between the formative and the evaluative functions. Yes, it's great when an evaluation serves as a teaching moment and results in better performance. I actually had that happen to me at my last job once. My boss made a negative comment that struck me as random and mean at the time, but as I stewed for a few days, I gradually figured out what was behind it. Subsequently I made some adjustments, and we both noticed the improvement. So yes, it can happen.

But when that doesn't work, and someone just isn't working out, you'd better have a paper trail.

The usual rebuttal to that involves documenting incidents as they occur, but that presumes that individual incidents are the issue. Sometimes they are, but frequently the issue is a longstanding pattern. Showing up late once means nothing; it happens to everyone from time to time. Showing up late every day is something else altogether. A single awkward or hostile interaction could be the result of crossed wires, but a pattern of them usually indicates something more fundamental. By definition, patterns only show up over time. A document specifically intended to cover a span of time can capture that in a way that a single-incident document just can't.

So these awful, draining, semi-accurate documents survive. They're not my favorite task -- not by a long shot -- but I know that if they don't get done, there'll be hell to pay. They're almost as bad as not doing them.
We're coming up on performance review time for the administrative and staff ranks. That means I have to have my annual internal debate about performance reviews. (Apparently, it's "ambivalence week" here at Dean Dad HQ.)

As many folks have pointed out, performance reviews are deeply flawed in the best of times, and often just destructive. There's no end of reasons for that.

- They only occur once per year. That leads to predictable temporal distortions -- the most recent stuff outweighs the older stuff -- and some unavoidable discontinuity.

- They reflect only what the manager sees, and/or how the manager sees it. Depending on the manager, this can be a real problem.

- They're "one size fits all," even though jobs are very different. In many cases, there's only one person in an entire job category, so any basis for comparison will necessarily be arbitrary.

- Clean measures of performance are often absent. Managing creative people is not like selling cars.

- They're undeniable sources of tension.

And yet, we keep doing them. Why would otherwise intelligent people keep using such a flawed system?

Because performance evaluations aren't just for the benefit of the employee. They're also indispensable elements of the paper trail you'll need if you need to rank people, whether for promotion or for termination. They give the organization protective legal cover.

That's why the oft-heard suggestion of "just replace them with regular informal coaching," which sounds nice, rarely gets picked up. Informal discussions don't show up in personnel files. That means that if you have to lower the boom on someone, there's nothing in the file to defend a claim of arbitrary and capricious (or discriminatory) decisionmaking.

As with outcomes assessment and student grades, there's a tension between the formative and the evaluative functions. Yes, it's great when an evaluation serves as a teaching moment and results in better performance. I actually had that happen to me at my last job once. My boss made a negative comment that struck me as random and mean at the time, but as I stewed for a few days, I gradually figured out what was behind it. Subsequently I made some adjustments, and we both noticed the improvement. So yes, it can happen.

But when that doesn't work, and someone just isn't working out, you'd better have a paper trail.

The usual rebuttal to that involves documenting incidents as they occur, but that presumes that individual incidents are the issue. Sometimes they are, but frequently the issue is a longstanding pattern. Showing up late once means nothing; it happens to everyone from time to time. Showing up late every day is something else altogether. A single awkward or hostile interaction could be the result of crossed wires, but a pattern of them usually indicates something more fundamental. By definition, patterns only show up over time. A document specifically intended to cover a span of time can capture that in a way that a single-incident document just can't.

So these awful, draining, semi-accurate documents survive. They're not my favorite task -- not by a long shot -- but I know that if they don't get done, there'll be hell to pay. They're almost as bad as not doing them.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


"Community" College

I don't make a habit of doing reruns, but this story in IHE generated a flurry of requests to comment on illegal immigration and public higher ed. I did a piece on that back in 2005, and it still pretty much reflects my thinking on the issue. I've made a couple of technical corrections, but the core of the piece still stands as it did five years ago. Would that we had made more progress since then...

Every so often I’m reminded that the term ‘community college’ is less transparent than I’d like to believe.

There’s an ongoing debate here about how to handle ‘undocumented’ students. It flared up again this week.

A little background: our funding comes from the county, the state, and the students. (Much of the student money is indirectly Federal, and there's some private philanthropic support, but the basic point still stands.) What that means is that tuition covers less than the full cost of the education the students receive, even if they pay full tuition out-of-pocket. Taxpayers make up the difference.

Like many public institutions, we charge lower tuition for residents of the areas we rely on for tax support. The theory is that residents have already paid to support the college, so they should get something back, like discounted tuition. People coming in from other jurisdictions are charged higher rates, to make up for the taxes they didn’t pay in our county.

The system works tolerably well with typical students from neighboring counties. A student who decides that my cc is stronger than the one in his county has the option of attending mine, as long as he’s willing to pay a higher tuition rate for the privilege. Many do, which I take as a sort of institutional compliment. (The premium is waived if the student’s home cc lacks the major he’s taking with us.)

The system breaks down, though, with students who are in this country illegally.

Many of those students were brought here as young children by their parents; they’ve grown up here, and gone to high school here. Since they aren’t legally county (or even state) residents, we have the option of charging them our out-of-state tuition rate (which is even higher than the out-of-county rate), or even of excluding them altogether. Or, we could simply look at their current domicile, and decide that they’re in-county.

The K-12 system doesn’t look at immigration status, so these kids can (and do) go all the way through public high school without issue. Come graduation, they may find themselves stranded, depending on how the local cc interprets the rules.

In the past few days, I’ve heard multiple permutations of this issue. Honestly, I see merit in every one of them, which makes me damn glad that I’m not in charge of this policy.

The argument for letting local undocumented students in as local students is simple: if they got local high school diplomas, they’re local. If they came here as young children, it hardly seems fair to punish them for what was, in reality, their parents’ decision. As a society, we don’t believe in a caste system, so we shouldn’t consign whole populations to working at Burger King for their entire lives. It’s a waste of talent, it’s an immoral visitation of the sins of the father upon the son (in these cases, that’s literally true), and it’s not as if our federal immigration system makes sense anyway. Let us educate, which is both our mission and our human inclination; other branches can worry about the niceties of green cards and the rest.

The argument for letting them in but charging extra is also simple: they shouldn’t be stuck in a low-wage ghetto forever, but they also shouldn’t be rewarded for breaking the law. If a kid who was born in the neighboring county, went to public school there, graduated, and comes to us gets charged extra, then surely the illegal immigrant shouldn’t get a discount! It’s bizarre to suggest that the kid from Ecuador has a higher claim on local tax dollars than the kid from the next town over.

The argument for banning them altogether is also, alas, simple: we shouldn’t reward breaking the law. More coldly, we shouldn’t tax the folks who play by the rules to enhance the earning potential of folks who don’t. If they want to get naturalized, then fine; if they can’t be bothered, for whatever reason, then let them live with the consequences of that decision. Depending on how one reads the various statutes, it’s possible to argue that this is a mandatory position.

Most of the people on campus I’ve discussed the issue with have clear, firm opinions. They seem to believe that the logic of their view is self-evident. While I’ve been accused of that in other contexts (smirk), I have to admit lacking confidence on this one. On humanitarian and educational grounds, I’d like to side with the open-door policy. But it’s an awfully hard policy to defend to the angry parent of a kid from the next town over who has to pay double tuition, or the angry politician looking for explanations for runaway budgets. As a community college, we’re bound, in meaningful ways, to the community. We just need a defensible definition of who that community includes.

It would be easy to defer the dilemma by kicking it upstairs – blame the federal government for arcane, inconsistent, and downright weird immigration rules, call for reform there, and wash one’s own hands of it. There’s certainly some truth to that position, but it doesn’t help when a kid shows up in the Admissions office.

(At a conference a couple of years ago, I devised a theory that states in which counties or localities directly fund community colleges will have more angst on this issue than states that rely on state funding. Any enterprising social scientists out there are invited to pick that up and run with it!)

My previous school was a proprietary, so the issue of differential tuition didn’t come up; since the local taxpayers were no more burdened than any other, they got no special break. As a cc, we don’t have the option of flat pricing.

I think this is a painful variation on one of the eternal dilemmas of the left – how to reconcile universalist ethics with local allegiances. When ‘community’ is in both your name and your mission, this conflict can’t be brushed away lightly.

How does your school handle this? Are there angles/arguments that could help clarify the issue? I’m honestly conflicted, and the issue is getting harder to ignore.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Handling an Offer

A returning correspondent, in the late stages of a few interviews, writes:

If I do get that happy phone
call from any of these schools, what’s the next step on my end? I’m
obviously going to be super excited and will be holding in my screams
of joy until I get off the phone, but I won’t want to accept anything
officially until I hear from all three of these schools. How do I say
“maybe” and yet still get across the point that I’m really excited?
Is it common/acceptable to ask for a contract before I give them my
final decision? Is it appropriate to give full disclosure that I’m
also waiting to hear from other schools – or will that put the kernel
in their minds that they are not my first choice? At what point do
negotiations occur – before or after I give the official yes?

And, following up on the negotiation aspect, I know that at cc’s there
is often little room for negotiation since most of the salary is
typically formula based, and the course load is pretty much set in
stone (5/5 at each of these schools – typical for a cc), but where is
there wiggle room? Also, I’m ABD and am planning on an October
degree. Can I work into the contract that my salary goes up as soon
as I have that degree in hand?

This is a good problem to have.

It's typically fair to ask for some small amount of time to think about an offer after receiving it. In this employer's market that amount of time probably isn't very long, but a few days to a week should be easy enough. That's especially true if the job involves relocating.

If you already have an offer in hand, of course, it's much easier to bargain with the second offer. Holding one offer open while waiting to hear from someone else is tougher. My experience has been that offers come on their own schedules, and sometimes can't be rushed. Although it's tempting to read all sorts of psychological issues into that, it's frequently a function of process and/or personnel. (One oddly-timed vacation can delay an entire process.) If you have an offer in hand from College A, of course, you're entirely free to call College B and tell them that you've promised College A an answer by fill-in-the-date. Just be prepared to be told something like “well, then, you have to do what you have to do.” In this market, I'd be surprised to hear of competing offers at the entry level. It's possible, but unless you're bringing something really unusual to the table – a bilingual Nurse, say – I'd be surprised.

Salary negotiations are also pretty limited in this market. I haven't had a job candidate even attempt to bargain salary in two years. (Some could have.) That has made my job easier, but I'd expect that to fade a bit when the Great Recession recedes.

In a collective bargaining environment, salaries are usually pretty formulaic. Union contracts typically include a host of criteria that amounts to a de facto 'point' system. It's important to get the best deal you can upfront, because once you're in the system, future raises are done in increments and percentages. That means that over time, a small initial difference will compound. I wouldn't expect a lowball offer to get meaningfully adjusted after the fact unless you're in that rare setting that does “counteroffers” and you have another offer in hand. (Mine doesn't do counteroffers, mostly for fear of salary compression or inversion.) Even then, though, there's always the chance that your attempt to leverage another offer won't work, at which point you'll be left either accepting the low increment or moving.

The most effective way I've seen to get the best opening offer has been to ask if there are any criteria in the salary calculation that you didn't address in your initial application. For example, I've seen contracts that award salary points for prior military service, even if the service had nothing to do with the job for which you were hired. (In your case, I'd definitely ask about a 'bump' for doctoral completion. Don't make the mistake of baking that into the cake initially; get the best offer you can upfront, and then get the bump on top of it. Whatever you do, don't make a binding promise about a completion or defense date; I've seen too many earnest ABD's hit the wall over the years.) You have nothing to lose by asking, and even a small difference now will compound over time.

There may also be some wiggle room for non-recurring expenses, like relocation. Unlike salary bumps, relocation costs don't carry forward into future budgets, so you may sometimes be able to swing something there. It may or may not work, but you have nothing to lose by asking.

Don't give away more power than you need to. Although it's easy to feel like a peon in this market, any first-choice candidate has at least a modicum of power simply by virtue of being the first-choice candidate. If you don't take the job, they'll have to settle for the next choice, which they generally don't like to do. With late-season hires like these, that's particularly true.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on salary negotiating in the current climate?

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

Friday, May 14, 2010


Financial Literacy

What's the best way to convey meaningful lessons in financial literacy to 18 year olds?

I'm consistently struck at the disconnect between "what's supposed to be true" and "the real world."

For example, if you use the 'retirement planners' online, you'll routinely see statements like "assuming an 8 percent return..." Over the past ten years, the average return on the IRA I opened in 1998 has been...wait for it...negative. Not just after inflation, either; literally (or 'nominally') negative. One could argue that twelve years is a small sample, but it's a significant fraction of the average adult's working life, and I would have been better off putting the money in a coffee can. So telling young people that stocks always pay off over the long term just seems very...twentieth century. Assuming an 8 percent annual return, I'd have at least twice as much as I actually have. That must be a lovely world.

I grew up hearing that renting was throwing your money away. That position was sustainable until about 2003.

I've heard and read that you should "pay yourself first" and set aside, say, ten percent of income in savings. But what does that actually mean? Is that ten percent after the retirement deduction? (If so, we're really talking twenty percent.) And when you're just starting out and making next to nothing, just how realistic is that? Do you know what young men are charged for car insurance?

It's certainly true that I've seen students make some bizarre economic decisions. A few years ago, my office had a particularly great work-study student who helped my administrative assistant with various routine tasks. When she graduated, we gave her fifty bucks and a card. She responded "you guys are great! Now I can go tanning!"


At the risk of being the crotchety old guy, isn't sunlight free?

I've heard students refer to financial aid money as if it were all grants, even though it's frequently borrowed. That worries me, since they'll be hit with surprisingly large loan payments while making entry-level money. And failure to grasp the idea of compound interest will make you a patsy for Visa.

Although I like to think I'm a relatively educated person, many of my financial lessons have been accidental. A passing comment to my brother-in-law led to the lesson that putting two married people's cars on a combined insurance policy is dramatically cheaper than carrying two separate policies. I could have gone years without knowing that. And that's without even mentioning the depression caused by pairing the concepts of 'opportunity cost' and 'graduate school.'

Real world economics should acknowledge that many of the Sound Financial Principles we've been taught are either outmoded or irrelevant, but the new rules are hard to pin down.

If you had a chance to teach a financial literacy course to youngish college students, what would you focus on?

Thursday, May 13, 2010


The Advising Handoff

To get a sense of the stuff that drives administrators crazy, see if you can spot the hole in the three decision rules:

1. Students need academic advisors from day one.

2. Students' academic advisors should be faculty in their chosen majors.

3. Students shouldn't have to change advisors.

If you guessed "but students don't always know what they want to major in," you win! (I'd also give credit to "but students change their majors all the time!")

Over the past couple of years, I've heard plenty of complaints about academic advisement. I had thought -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that the major student complaint would be advisors who didn't know their programs, and/or who gave incorrect information about degree requirements. In fact, the primary student complaint was having to change advisors upon choosing a major.

Who knew?

The students drew a distinction between the advisor and the advice.

I had made the mistake of thinking of advisors the way I thought of them when I was a student: someone who could clarify rules if I needed it, but who was otherwise useless.

The students, by contrast, see the advisors as something closer to sherpas, helping them climb the mountain. They form a bond of trust, even if a relatively light one, and any time the advisor is changed the bond is broken. Given how tenuous the connection between the student and the college can be, especially in the early going, that light bond can mean a great deal.

It would be easy to square the circle by stipulating that every advisor would be an expert in every program, but that's just not gonna happen. Given some degree of specialization, it's pretty much inevitable that the first-guess assignments will include some mismatches. But to many students, the cure is worse than the disease.

Shows ya what I know.

Wise and worldly readers, I assume that many of you have dealt with this too. Have you seen a relatively seamless way to execute the advising handoff?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The Undisclosed Dance

Much of the campus discussion about students with disabilities has revolved around ways to provide accommodations that are both effective and appropriate for the course. I've been struck by the goodwill exhibited (most of the time) on all sides.

That said, I'm seeing more of the flip side recently.

The policy on students with disabilities (including learning disabilities) says that they present themselves, with whatever documentation is appropriate, to the Office for Students with Disabilities. The OSD works with the student to determine which accommodations to ask for in which courses. The students then self-identify to their professors, and ask for whatever accommodations are needed. If the professor agrees, then that's that. If she doesn't, then sometimes there's some back-and-forth with OSD to determine a mutually acceptable accommodation.

The system works pretty well when students get in early and self-identify at the outset of the semester. It works less well when students wait until halfway or later to self-identify, but even then the faculty are usually able to do something.

The wrinkle comes when students exhibit all manner of symptoms, but refuse to self-identify. This can put the professor, and the college, in an awkward spot.

In discussions locally, we've come up with what I call the Undisclosed Dance. It's an attempt to balance concern for student success with respect for privacy and recognition of limited expertise. But it's pretty roundabout, and I have to admit that it feels a little silly.

A professor who sees a student struggling with what she suspects to be a learning (or other) disability can't just diagnose the student, or even ask the student if there's something he'd like to disclose. That's too invasive, and legally suspect. But a professor can suggest that the student seems to be struggling, and might want to talk to a counselor on campus. After meeting with the student, if it seems appropriate, the counselor is empowered to refer the student to OSD, which can discuss disabilities openly. Ideally, the student could then work out a request for accommodations, which he could take to the professor.

It's a multi-step process that involves a whole lot of pretending-not-to-know, and that's maddeningly inefficient, but it seems to keep everyone out of trouble. It relies quite a bit on a student's willingness to jump through hoops, but we haven't found a more elegant way around that if the student isn't willing to volunteer anything.

In microcosm, this little dance encapsulates much of what's awful, and great, about "bureaucracy." It's roundabout, and slow, and expensive, and redundant. But it respects privacy, it allows the student to opt out at any moment, and it allows the student who really needs help to get it. It reduces the chances of one big error, but multiplies the chances of little errors. And it's a pain to track.

To someone unaware of the various constraints at hand, I'm sure the whole dance just looks absurd. At some level, it is. But those constraints are real and valid, and disregarding them could do real harm.

So we dance. Grudgingly, awkwardly, and sometimes unwillingly, but we dance. The students are worth it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Serious Subjects vs. Frills

This post at Mama Ph.D. raised a number of worthwhile issues. It's basically about people making distinctions between the 'essential' subjects -- the ones at which your performance really matters -- and the 'frills.'

I've heard students talk about this more times than I care to remember. But I have to admit that there's something to it.

My personal sense of it is that the distinction between core and periphery is largely a function of purpose. If your goal in life is to be an exhibited artist, then you might well decide that art is essential and history a frill. If your goal is to be an engineer, I could understand valuing a math class over a psych class. Since different students have different purposes, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that one student's frill is another student's priority.

But the questions go deeper than that. How do we decide what it's okay for people to suck at? And when do they get to start?

In high school, I remember feeling very strongly the pressure to be "well-rounded" for the sake of my college application. I felt like I didn't have the cultural permission to suck at anything. That didn't stop me, of course -- I'm still convinced that geometry is an elaborate prank, and I can't carry a tune in a bucket -- but it didn't feel okay to admit those.

Even in college, 'distribution requirements' came across as yet another postponement of the time when I'd finally get to write off certain things. I was eager to get down to the stuff I considered important, but first I had to do penance by fulfilling various curricular requirements (including phys ed). While I understood some level of abstract argument in favor of well-roundedness, the simple fact of the matter is that I never enjoyed lab sciences. I just didn't. Call it a character flaw if you want, but it's true, and I resented having to slog through some cookbook chemistry in order to get to the stuff I actually cared about. (And yes, if science is your thing, you could flip the variables; the structure of the argument still stands.) It felt more like hazing than like education.

I worry, too, about the effects on motivation of making college students slog through courses about which they just don't care. Patience is a virtue, but real achievement comes with passion. And in an age in which the big safe structures of the past are falling down left and right, it seems to me that we should encourage idiosyncrasy at least as much as well-roundedness. Well-rounded people can do well in established structures, but they aren't the ones who'll spend fifteen hours a day on the next big breakthrough. Innovators tend not to be well-rounded; if anything, they seem generally to be a bit unbalanced. At this historical moment, we need innovators.

All of that said, though, I recognize that students may not know what they need, and that there's a valid educational purpose served in exposing them to subjects they wouldn't have sought out on their own. (Pragmatically, I'm also aware of the requirements for transfer.) Given the choice, plenty of students would probably bypass composition classes, even though most students need them pretty badly. In my teaching days, I always counted it a personal triumph when a student admitted that she took my class to fulfill a requirement, only to find that it was far more interesting than she imagined it would be. If not for the requirement, that 'aha!' moment wouldn't have happened.

My own sense is that it's reasonable to make distinctions between serious subjects and frills, as long as we recognize that the difference is more about the student than about the subject. The trick is in recognizing that difference without sliding into 'anything goes.' On the ground, we use distribution requirements to do that, which is a second-best approach that annoys nearly everybody without mortally offending anybody.

The harder part is the cultural part. At what point do we start telling students that it's okay to be awful at certain things, and why? And how do we choose what's okay to write off, as opposed to the stuff everybody should do at least passably well?

Monday, May 10, 2010


Final Exam Formats

Without giving too much away, I'll just say that my college uses one format for final exams, and is considering switching to another in a couple of years.

I've been thinking about the relative advantages of different formats, and would love to hear from my wise and worldly readers about their experiences with the different schedules. I'll admit being pretty agnostic on this one.

The various formats I've seen:

1. Run the regular class schedule right up to the bitter end; let each class schedule its own final, if any.

Advantages: No schedule conflicts, no issue with some classes preferring papers or projects instead of exams.*

Disadvantages: Doing 'common' finals across multiple sections of the same class becomes impossible, and exams are limited to the length of a class period.

2. Use an entirely separate exam schedule, with every section of a given course (i.e. every College Algebra) having its exam at the same time.

Advantages: It's easy to give 'common' finals, which helps for both consistency and outcomes assessment. Exams can be of any length. In a perfect world, you could build in a 'reading period' before finals start.

Disadvantages: Scheduling conflicts (for both students and faculty) are pretty much a given; this is especially true for adjuncts who teach at multiple colleges, each with its own schedule. Also, professors who give final papers or projects may have an effectively shorter semester, creating considerable resentment among those who don't.

3. Self-scheduled or take-home finals.

Advantages: Scheduling conflicts are eliminated. Exams can be of any length.

Disadvantages: Who proctors them? Every student needs a different exam, or cheating will be insanely easy.

Different courses seem to lend themselves to different formats, which makes any collegewide scheduling choice likely to disappoint somebody. For lower-level math classes, I can absolutely see the utility of a common final. For English classes, I usually assume a final paper or portfolio. For music and theater classes, juried performances (which require long blocs of time) are the norm. But when it comes down to scheduling, either we have a 'final exam period' or we don't; we can't mix and match. (It's like the old joke about England converting to driving on the right: "the change will be made gradually." Uh, no.)

Wise and worldly readers, can you shed some light? Are there considerations that make one format a clear winner? Alternately, is there another format you've found (or imagined) that would square the circle?

* For simplicity's sake, I'll include "portfolios" under "projects" and "juries" under "exams," since I'm just looking at scheduling.

Friday, May 07, 2010


End of Semester Haiku

beautiful weather
cranky students and teachers
exam week is coming!

breakfasts and dinners
celebrate great and good things
every frickin' day

Surprise departures
resignations out of blue
like mushrooms in spring

students transfer to
amazing places, stop for
thanks, smiles abound

profs in grading jail
the one part of teaching that
I really don't miss

temper tantrums fly
yet are mercifully brief
who has energy?

papers on desk seem
to achieve self awareness
I name pile "Skippy"

search committees try
to wrap it up before June
so, good luck with that

amazed at colleagues
miracles on a shoestring
take a bow, people

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Dropouts with Loans

In thinking some more about the Frontline episode, and reading through all the comments, it occurred to me that I had left out two major issues.

The first I've addressed before: the pyramid scheme of graduate education has produced the faculty to work in the for-profits. If the for-profits couldn't find faculty, they wouldn't be able to do what they do. They can, because the non-profits have failed to bring their training in line with their hiring. Seems to me a smart critter wrote something a while back about a system sowing the seeds of its own destruction; that seems to be the case here. It's why I worked at Proprietary U in the first place; the only gigs I could get at traditional colleges at the time were adjunct, and I needed to support myself. Now that the proprietaries are moving into graduate education, an accidental mechanism is starting to look like a perpetual motion machine. Any proposed reform that doesn't address the surfeit of qualified prospective faculty won't get the job done. Regional accreditors, I'm looking at youuuu........

The second I haven't really addressed before in any serious way, and I should have. It's dropouts with loans.

Graduates with loans often have issues repaying them, but at least we can say that they got something for their debt. A degree is no guarantee of a job, as plenty of recent grads found out in the Great Recession, but that isn't the fault of the college. And when things bounce back, a degree in hand will often count for something, and sometimes for quite a bit.

But a dropout with loans is just hosed. Student loans are tenacious and often quite high; carrying that debt load while working high-school-diploma jobs can't be easy. Most of the time, I'm still comfortable saying that a college degree is a good economic idea. But dropping out after a few semesters could easily leave someone much worse off financially than never attending in the first place.

That matters because such a large number of students who start degrees don't finish them. This isn't a problem confined to a few people who spent their time shrooming when they should have been studying (even conceding that some of those folks exist). And I'm not referring to the community college student who does a year at a cc and then transfers to a four-year school and graduates. (That student shows up in our numbers as attrition, which is kind of annoying.) I'm referring to the millions of students who get some semesters behind them but never get the degree.

From a student loan perspective, if you're going to drop out, the best time to drop out is your first semester. This may help explain why first semester students drop out at much higher rates than students who are farther along. (There are plenty of other factors, of course.) At least at that point you haven't lost nearly as much time and money as you would if you had stuck around for another year.

I'm not sure if there's a good public policy answer to this.

Presumably, in the name of harm reduction, public systems might try charging less for the earlier semesters and more for the later ones. In a sense, that happens now with students who do two years at a cc followed by two years at a state college or university. Or they could weight financial aid differently, with more scholarship or grant aid frontloaded and loans comprising larger percentages towards the end. (Interestingly, that's the opposite of the way Snooty Liberal Arts College did it. There, the senior year got a better aid package than the year before. The idea, I suspect, was to cultivate future alumni as future donors.) A former colleague once suggested that matriculating students put down "graduation deposits" of enough money that they actually feel it; when they graduate, they get it back. I doubt that we could actually get away with it, but to the extent that it incentivizes graduation, I could see the appeal. (To get around a conflict of interest, the college couldn't keep forfeited deposits; I imagine they'd revert to the state.)

Alternately, we could greatly reduce access to college in the first place. Highly selective colleges have much lower attrition rates, generally speaking, than do open-admissions ones; if you just screened out the higher-risk students in the first place, you could solve most of the dropout problem.

That argument makes a certain limited sense, until you imagine being told that you don't get to go to college anywhere, ever. Given the very shaky predictive validity of tests given in high school, I'd be wary of banning anyone for life. Some people who were screwups at 18 come back as motivated go-getters at 28, having been kicked around by life in the intervening years. I'd hate to take away their second chances. Second chances are inefficient by definition, but they serve a valid social purpose.

The downside of letting people have a chance to fail is that some of them will take you up on it. They'll walk away without credentials but with student loan payments. That's a real burden, and one that shouldn't be left out of these discussions.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have a better idea for the problem of dropouts with loans?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


First Thoughts on "Frontline"

Last night "Frontline" did a show on for-profit higher education.

It was a disappointing episode in many ways.

First, and most obviously, it created clear good guys and bad guys. Investor Michael Clifford was clearly intended to be the bad guy, mixing "money, management, and marketing" with a druggy past and a born-again Christianity that I couldn't quite square with his Del Mar beachfront home. (I don't know if the correspondent quite caught the New Testament overtones of Clifford's story of converting prostitutes into students, but it would have made for a fascinating conversation.) The mostly absent traditional colleges were supposed to be the good guys, though the only significant talking head I caught from a traditional college was LaGuardia's Gail Mellow. (For the record, I'm a fan of hers.) Although the show didn't mention it, Mellow is in a unique position to comment on for-profit higher ed. Fun internet exercise: go into your favorite maps program, and navigate a path from the main campus of LaGuardia to the New York City campus of DeVry. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Things that make you go hmm...

Second, the episode was terribly sloppy in what it attacked. It conflated 'online' with 'for-profit,' which is simply false. There are plenty of nonprofit colleges, both public and private, running online classes, and it isn't hard to find for-profits with classrooms. The former Phoenix exec who spoke dismissively of tenure was taken as shocking, even though tenure has been waning in traditional higher ed for the last forty years. A discussion of the connection between regional accreditation and financial aid eligibility led quickly to stories of financial aid fraud at a college that didn't have regional accreditation, leaving the viewer to wonder exactly what point was being made, if any.

Third, despite a glancing reference to a lack of measures of instructional quality across all of higher ed, it approvingly fell back on arguments from "ineffability." I guess that's all you have when you don't actually have evidence, but it really doesn't resemble an argument. Is the quality of instruction in, say, Business Management at a Phoenix better, worse, or similar to the quality of instruction in Business Management at Compass Direction State? I don't know how to answer that, and neither did the show. In the absence of an answer, it's hard to get terribly worked up either way.

But most fundamentally, it failed to get to the 'why.' Why are for-profits growing?

At a really basic level, the for-profits' advantage is that they put (more than) the entire cost of their operations on the students. That means that growth more than pays for itself. They don't have subsidy income, endowment income, or philanthropic income. It all comes directly from operations. The reason that their students consume a disproportionate amount of federal financial aid -- and they do -- is that unlike the private nonprofit colleges (whose tuition is often higher), there's no offsetting revenue stream.

The publics, on the other hand, set tuition deliberately lower than the cost of operations, using subsidies and (a little) philanthropy to make up the difference. When those subsidies lag, growth becomes a cost.

To recap: for the for-profits, growth more than pays for itself. For the publics, growth is a cost. Now which do you suppose will grow faster?

If you really want to change the equation, you have to do several things.

First, as the show clearly indicated, stop the outright sale of regional accreditations. Any transfer of ownership of a college should automatically trigger a new evaluation by the accreditor. That's just basic. I have to give the show credit on this one.

Second, adopt some of the reforms that the for-profits have shown clearly work. Drop the agrarian calendar as an absurd holdover from a bygone era. Help students navigate the financial aid process. Abandon the ridiculous "tenure or adjunct" model in favor of something closer to regular employment. And for the love of all that is holy and good, abandon the credit hour and go to outcomes-based measures. Until you do that, you'll be stuck in a productivity trap and its resultant cost spiral forever, by definition.

Third, set subsidy levels high enough -- and tie them closely enough to enrollment -- that growth will more than pay for itself for the publics. Until you do that, the various institutions will simply follow their own imperatives: for-profits will grow, and publics will cut.

When I refer to subsidy levels, I'm not referring to financial aid. Financial aid ties money to individual students, which is exactly the for-profit model. I'm talking about operating subsidies that go directly into institutional operating budgets. The more we shift costs from institutional budgets to students directly, the less will differentiate the two sectors. If you want the publics to add enough capacity to compete more effectively with the for-profits, you have to give the publics the resources directly. Given the choice between a college getting infusions of private capital and a college taking significant budget cuts, which would you choose?

I found myself agreeing quite a bit with Arne Duncan, who argued that the issue isn't some sort of moral purity about keeping education separate from money, but that it's really about the rules of the game. If you're serious about changing the game, change the rules. I just wouldn't expect that all of the changes will be on one side.

I'm curious to see how others reacted to the show. Wise and worldly watchers -- what did you make of it?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Hiring Without Searching

A cagey correspondent writes:

A former colleague of my husband (at another college) tells my husband that she was just offered a tenure track position in the new department at a small public college. She tells my husband that the spouse of a colleague of her husband got her the opportunity to apply.

Let's give them fake names:

Yuppy: the small local public college expanding with a new department
BigMed: public grad school with tons of money where my husband used to be research track

Leftout: let's call my husband Leftout. Leftout used to work at BigMed public college but he was research track and his grant ran out so he is now teaching at another public college as an adjunct.
Lucky: Lucky is Leftout's ex collegue at BigMed. Lucky is like a post doc but was given title of Assistant Professor
BigShot: BigShot is Lucky's husband and works at BigMed too. He has his own lab.
LabBuddy: LabBuddy works with BigShot at BigMed.

Now let's tell the story again...

A few weeks ago, Leftout met Lucky and she announced that she had received a tenure track offer from Yuppy College.
She was really surprised because she only started looking 2 months ago. She said her husband BigShot has a colleague LabBuddy whose spouse works at Yuppy and that's how she heard of the opportunity and sent her CV through to the Provost before there was even a search. She was invited to give a talk and BANG she got the offer letter for a tenure track position.

An Interim Chair has just been hired for the new Department at Yuppy and he is very unconfortable about this hire. But this was done before him he says to his defense.

How can Leftout challenge this hire? Leftout already called the Equal Opportunity Office and placed a complaint. And they came back with the Provost Hire policy. The one that says 3 exceptions for not having a search are Opportunity Hire, Spouse Hire, and Exceptional Candidate, but they did not even say which of the 3 exceptions the provost is claiming...

We know it cannot be Spouse Hire since BigShot does not work at Yuppy; cannot be Exceptional Hire since Lucky is not exceptional.
Opportunity Hire? Lucky was not going anywhere....

There's no shortage of issues here, but to my reading it boils down to the wisdom and legality of impulse hiring.

"Legal" is a funny word. In common usage, it refers to stuff you can't get arrested for doing. I very much doubt that the provost would get arrested for this, unless it came out that the impulse hire was a family member or a blackmailer. But there's another sense of 'legal,' which refers to stuff for which you could lose a lawsuit if someone bothered to bring one.

In that sense of 'legal,' it's possible to get away with all manner of things as long as nobody challenges it. But if/when someone does, you're in a world of hurt.

Different states have different guidelines, and different colleges have different policies and practices. And I'm not a lawyer. All of that said, I'd be concerned that any administrator who made 'snap' hires without formal position announcements, let alone searches, would be incredibly exposed to discrimination lawsuits.

The HR department gave you three categories, of which one and a half make sense to me. "Spousal hire" I understand, though it doesn't seem relevant in this case. (I'm conflicted on the ethics of spousal hiring preferences, but that's another issue.) "Exceptional candidate" seems awfully elastic, and therefore awfully open to challenge, but I suppose one could come up with cases in which it might apply. I have no idea what an "opportunity hire" is.

In my own world, where collective bargaining is the order of the day, every full-time hire is published and searched. (The only exception I can imagine getting away with would be to fill in for a professor who had an abrupt medical emergency at the start of a semester.) That comes with costs of its own, mostly in committee time, but it prevents any one person from exercising undue influence and it insulates the college from liability. Every posting includes language about equal opportunity and affirmative action, and the college affirmative action officer meets with each search committee before it starts interviewing to make sure that everyone knows the various shalts and shalt nots. The idea is to ensure that decisions aren't made arbitrarily, and that everyone has a fair shot at jobs that are ultimately funded through public and student dollars.

In bypassing all of that, the provost puts himself in a shaky position if challenged by a candidate from a protected class. (If you're not in a protected class, or if you're in the same protected class as the person who got hired, you're out of luck.) Assuming that the impulse hire was white, a qualified minority candidate who never had a shot at the job would have a pretty good basis for claiming discrimination. Good luck defending that.

What many people don't get is that the claim above doesn't need to show intent. The provost may not have had racial animus as a motive. But if the impact is the same as if he had, he's toast.

Academia is prone to legal challenges like these, I think, mostly because the job market is so bad. In hot industries in growth spurts, impulse hiring can go unchallenged for a long time since a disappointed candidate can quickly and easily find something good somewhere else. But in a market in which any job is precious, missing out on one is a very big deal.

But getting in trouble for this stuff is contingent on someone with the right legal standing actually following through on a claim. Unless that happens, it's what a lawyer once described to me as "mind over matter: if nobody minds, it doesn't matter."

Good luck. Cases like these just make me shake my head.

Wise and worldly readers, I suspect you've seen some impulse hires in your day. Is there a good argument in their favor that I've missed? Or should they be reserved just for abrupt emergencies?

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

Monday, May 03, 2010


The Girl Plays T-Ball

This Saturday The Girl had her first t-ball game.

T-ball, for the uninitiated, is a version of baseball in which the batter hits the ball off a stationary tee, rather than trying to hit a moving (pitched) ball. It's a chance for little kids to get some exposure to baseball before developing the eye-hand coordination to hit pitches.

If you haven't seen five-year-olds play t-ball, add it to your bucket list.

They don't have much concept of 'positions,' as in 'you cover first base and I'll cover second.' It's more like 'whoever gets the ball first wins.' For the first two innings, the boys on the team were like puppies climbing over each other to get the ball, arms and legs flying wildly in the scrum. (The Girl kept her distance from the pile, only going after balls that were relatively close to her. I took heart in that.) The Girl was the only girl on the team, and formed a sort of Margaret Dumont to her teammates' Marx Brothers (or, if you prefer, a sort of Sigourney Weaver to their Ghostbusters.)

The rules were pretty humane. If you made contact, you automatically got first base, and every runner advanced a base. Everyone batted once per inning, and the last batter cleared the bases. Whichever fielder got the ball was supposed to throw it to first base, which sometimes almost happened. (Frequently, whichever kid won the ball in the scrum would just hold it up over his head triumphantly.) Had they waited for actual 'outs,' we would still be there, so this was a sort of mercy rule for the parents.

Attention spans being what they are, the game deteriorated a bit in the third inning. The other team's third baseman, if you want to call him that, decided to sit cross-legged while the game went on around him. I enjoyed his calm, Buddha-like presence as he watched a grounder roll past him. Several outfielders got into a wrestling match, which the coach decided wasn't worth the effort to defuse.

You don't really appreciate how complicated baseball is until you watch five-year-olds imitate it. Baserunners missed cues with some frequency, often not running until the baserunner behind them told them to. Parents became impromptu third-base coaches. The sidelines were bedecked with parents in lawn chairs, many with dogs and/or babies. One kid on TG's team made a point of running to his parents every time a half-inning concluded, to give them an update on what was happening. ("and then this kid hit the ball, and we tried to get it, and Kevin got it again, and that's not fair 'cause he's bigger, and I gotta go now!") A local ice cream shop sent a couple of teenagers to the game, one dressed as an ice cream cone and the other distributing fliers to the parents advertising free kiddie cones for kids in uniform that day.

The Girl handled herself well. She didn't let the boys intimidate her, and she didn't try to act like them. She just played her position, more or less, and made pretty good contact when she hit. The batting helmet didn't work well with barrettes, but live and learn. She seemed to enjoy it, and I hope she's able to remain unfazed by the boys long enough to learn something in the years before softball starts. She has already learned the field patter that coaches use; last night she yelled at The Boy to "use the muscles God gave you! If you didn't have them you'd go splat!" The Boy was a good sport about being there to support his sister, which seemed only fair after all the soccer/basketball games she has endured.

Given my distinct lack of athletic talent, I'm just tickled that she's out there at all. And we're right there with her.

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