Tuesday, November 30, 2010

 

It Made Sense on Paper...

A few years ago my college tried one of those ideas that makes sense on paper, but that crashed and burned in the real world. I was reminded of that today in discussing a proposal that would have repeated the same mistake.

We treated a group of new students as a single cohort. They all took the same sections of every class together, and the instructors for the various sections coordinated assignments for maximum reinforcement. The idea was to bundle everything good into a package, and to see how successful we could get a given cohort to be. They got some of the best instructors, they had opportunities to bond with each other, and they even had special group exposure to various extracurriculars. In theory, they should have been super-integrated into the life of the college, what with all the bonding and suchlike, and their success and satisfaction rates should have gone through the roof.

They hated it.

It was one of those (retrospectively) glorious exercises in perspective. From the college’s perspective, the idea of group bonding, integrated instruction, and deliberate exposure to extracurriculars should have added ‘good’ to ‘good’ to ‘good.’ To the students, though, it felt like High School II. In high school, they saw the same people over and over again from class to class; they were actually eager to break away from that at college. Instead, they ran into this program which made them feel like they had walked into the 13th grade. While their course-level academic success was actually pretty high, they bailed from the program (and the college) at the first opportunity, transferring early.

I feel bad for the students, of course, but as a learning opportunity for the college it was extraordinary.

The college had taken for granted that anything that helped students succeed was good. If the research suggested that student bonding helps, then let’s encourage that. If the research suggested that linked courses were good, then let’s link everything. If some is good, then more must be better!

But the students themselves made a distinction between high school and college, holding the latter to a different standard. While some level of support may have been helpful, too much became infantilizing. They wanted some autonomy, even if that came at the risk of some level of distance. In fact, the distance was a bit of a selling point.

We’re having a similar issue with some faculty and some dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment programs come in many flavors, but the ones that raise hackles are the ones that offer struggling high school students from struggling districts a chance to take classes here. The idea is to get them out of a dysfunctional setting, and to whet their appetites for college. It’s a way to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase our enrollments at the same time.

The jury is still out on that, but some of the college faculty have started objecting that it makes the college feel like high school. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something to that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had projects on campus that looked good on paper but that just didn’t work? And for that matter, in the age of writing on screens, is there an updated way of saying something looks good on paper?

Monday, November 29, 2010

 

Context

Over the break I finally had a chance to read Higher Education?, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. It was yet another in a long line of pieces that purport -- at least in title -- to address higher education generally, but that assume a daily reality that simply excludes community colleges. (At least Hacker and Dreifus had the good grace to admit it.) Suffice it to say that it seemed to mean well, but was so scattered in its presentation that I was just left shrugging.

I had a similar sense reading Historiann’s recent post on what she takes to be the roots of the casualization of academic labor. In response to a snarky line by Thomas Frank, she defends the honor of the tenured faculty: “No tenured faculty in any department I’ve ever been a member of has cackled with glee at the prospect of seeing our ranks depleted and populated instead with adjuncts.” I presume this is true, though it’s a way of implying a contrast. Who, exactly, is cackling with glee?

She answers:

Here’s how the adjunctification of a department happens: when my senior colleagues retire or a colleague resigns to take another job, we lose not only the tenure line but we also lose the money. The Dean’s and Provost’s office–or some other entity farther up–hoovers up the salary savings, and my department gets nothing...


Well, “hoovers” certainly sounds sinister enough. But in case that was too subtle, she swings for the cheap seats in the next paragraph:

Administrators are the authors of this shift from tenured to casual labor, and they’re the ones who benefit from it directly. (emp. in original)


Those would be the administrators who are cackling with glee, I assume. The villainous glee derives, I’m guessing, from the direct benefits that accrue to deans and provosts.

It’s a genuinely stupid theory, and one so far removed from any reality I can recognize that I honestly have to wonder at the professional competence of anyone who would believe it, let alone write it. Yet intelligent people write this stuff, and other intelligent people seem to believe it.

This January will mark a solid decade in academic administration -- approximately ten years more than Historiann, if my math is correct -- and I can attest that in those ten years I have never seen or heard a dean or provost cackle with glee at the prospect of hollowing out a department. Not once, not ever. In my decade of personal observation, at multiple institutions, it has never happened. In discussions with my counterparts at other cc’s in my state, the same is true for them. Nor do the benefits accrue directly to deans and provosts. Where does the money go?

This Washington Post article sent to me by an alert reader gives a clue. Here’s some reality I can actually recognize:

Even as community college enrollments have climbed during the recession, 35 states cut higher education budgets last year, and 31 will cut them for next, according to survey data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Those shortages are expected to worsen next year when federal stimulus money that had plugged holes in state budgets is no longer available.


Aha! Could it possibly be that deans and provosts have constraints, too? Might it be the case that those of us at community colleges are facing budgetary realities far beyond the imagination of folks at research universities? WaPo continues:

That's partly because community college budgets have grown more slowly than at other institutions, according to an analysis of federal education statistics by the Delta Cost Project. In 2008, the education-related spending for an average full-time student at a community college was $10,400 while it was about 20 percent to 50 percent higher at public universities and at least 50 percent more at private four-year colleges.


Hmm. And yet, we have administrators, too. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

To combat the budget cuts, the College of Southern Nevada has increased the proportion of cheaper adjunct faculty, closed two of 11 learning centers in the community, and held classes at midnight to maximize the use of class space.


Aha! A direct causal link between decreased funding and increased adjunctification. No cackling with glee here.

Here in Las Vegas, state funding for the College of Southern Nevada has dropped more than 17 percent while the number of students, on a full-time basis, has risen 12 percent. While a federal stimulus bill provided funding to community colleges, that money is about to run out, too.
"In Nevada, we have to accommodate state budget priorities such as Medicare, public safety, including corrections, and K-12 education," Richards said. "Higher education comes in fourth or fifth in the list."


And there we have it.

Administrators may be the bearers of bad news, and sometimes the people who have to choose among terrible options. But to assume that we’re sitting on piles of money, cackling with glee while exploiting adjuncts and pocketing the savings for ourselves, is just otherworldly. It assumes a context completely out of keeping with anything I can recognize as reality. It’s so far afield that the only truly fitting rebuttal is a sigh.

One could object, I suppose, that the adjunct trend goes back much farther than the Great Recession. But the drivers behind the trend go back farther, too. I’ve written at length about them over the years, and (spoiler alert!) have devoted a chapter of my book to them. The screwy economics of higher education come from all kinds of sources: the credit hour, tenure, public funding constraints, and ever-increasing technological demands each play a part. Management can help or hurt, but it can’t explain the main direction. Private industry has managers -- lots of them -- many of whom make far more than any dean or provost I’ve ever met. Yet our costs are increasing much more quickly than theirs. A serious explanation requires different variables.

The only way I can imagine the “Provost as Dr. Evil” theory making any sense would be if you never looked beyond the confines of a single academic department. If your context is any broader than that, the theory quickly falls apart.

At some level, I suppose, none of this matters. If some bloggers want to go off into la-la land, that’s their business. But if higher education is going to make any kind of recovery, let alone headway, it will have to do so cooperatively, and with collective acknowledgement of Objective Fucking Reality. The issues are endemic, severe, and increasing. Coming to grips with that will require, among other things, letting go of the fantasy that the deans could just fix everything if they would only see the light. The first step is to acknowledge that colleges exist in a much larger world, and are subject to it in important ways. Without that context, there’s really nothing to say.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

 

Microbenefits

“Why them and not us?”

Managing the different impacts of microbenefits is a surprisingly large part of my job. I’m still getting used to it, and still shaking off disbelief at some of the issues people will choose to fight about. This week brought that home to me yet again.

Like many colleges, mine sometimes closes a little early on the last day before a holiday break, such as the day before Thanksgiving. It’s a goodwill gesture to the staff, many of whom will be traveling, and an acknowledgement that the last few hours before a long break are typically unproductive anyway. I think of it as a civilized gesture.

For the office staff folk who work 9-to-5-ish hours, that’s precisely what it is. They can get a jump on travel or other holiday preparation without burning personal time. It’s a small thing, but it it makes a palpable difference in attitude and loyalty. For most faculty, you either hold class or you don’t. Labs can be awkward -- when closing time happens in the middle of an extended lab period, you have to make a judgment call -- but they’re generally manageable.

But it isn’t that simple.

Some staff people work nontraditional hours -- for the sake of example, take evening librarians. (I prefer that to “librarians of the evening,” which suggests something entirely different.) When the college closes early, the day librarians have grounds to argue that the evening librarians are getting more paid vacation than they are. The same holds for building maintainers, lab technicians, etc; if the evening shift gets a microbenefit that the day shift doesn’t, or vice versa, you can expect grievances from those who don’t. (Everybody here is unionized, so the term ‘grievance’ is used literally.)

This isn’t a major issue with planned holidays, precisely because they’re planned. The college is closed for Thanksgiving day all day, and we all knew that when we put together work schedules. It’s the semi-spontaneous generous gestures that cause angst and wailing. The objections of “why them and not us?” start flying, even though the ‘special’ benefit costs them absolutely nothing. The fact that someone else is getting something they aren’t -- even if it makes no material difference to them -- is offensive in itself.

In a large and complex organization that encompasses all manner of job functions, it’s a safe bet that nearly anything will have unintended consequences. One of my more gratifying moments recently occurred in a meeting with faculty from several different disciplines in which we were trying to set next year’s academic calendar. Someone from a social science took umbrage at one proposal, only to have someone from a lab science respond by explaining why that proposal worked so well for lab sciences. If I had said it, it would have been discounted immediately as a ruse of The Administration for its nefarious blah blah blah. But coming from a faculty colleague, there really wasn’t much to say. He apparently hadn’t thought of that objection, and the tirade that I could see was coming was short-circuited. I enjoyed that more than I probably should have, but it so cleanly encapsulated the rush to judgment that seeing it stopped in its tracks was glorious.

I understand that much of the umbrage taken at microbenefits derives from a sense of fairness violated. But when the umbrage is strong and repetitive, the result is a gradual fading away of all those civilized gestures that make the world a little less Dilbert-ish. If letting people get a head start on Thanksgiving brings a flurry of grievances, then it’s easy to default to keeping everybody to the bitter end. In the name of fairness, everybody gets just a little bit worse.

We’re not there yet. We probably will be, but not quite yet. So for now, at least, there’s still a little bit of humanity in the machine. I’m thankful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving. The next post will be on Monday.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

 

College Bookstores and the Internet

Anecdotally, it looks like the new Higher Education Act is doing a number on college bookstores, and on bookstores in college towns.

A dirty little secret of higher ed: bookstore proceeds are revenue sources for many colleges. When the bookstore is in-house, it’s usually either a direct arm of the college (and therefore a direct revenue source) or a national chain with a contract that pays for the privilege. (Follett and Barnes and Noble are fairly common in these parts.) Either way, it represents a revenue stream. Over the years, colleges with those revenue streams come to rely on them.

In other settings, colleges contract with local bookstores as textbook providers. Sometimes this is done formally, and sometimes individual faculty do it. When I was at Flagship State, faculty had their choice of several different bookstores as textbook suppliers. The upsides of that were several: it gave faculty some competitive force, since they could switch from any bookstore that dropped the ball; it allowed for at least some level of price competition, even if muted; and it contributed to the College Town feel of the place by sustaining multiple bookstores simultaneously. The downside for students was that it sometimes took trips to three different stores to get your books for the semester, depending on which classes you took.

In an attempt to help students do battle with ridiculous textbook prices, the new Higher Education Act requires colleges to post textbook information online as soon as practicable. The idea is to make it easier for students to comparison-shop. Why pay a hundred bucks at the college bookstore for your Psych book when you can get the same book online for eighty?

At one level, of course, it’s a great idea. Textbook costs are severe, and there’s no loss of quality in buying the same book online as you would have bought onsite. (Admittedly, that’s debatable for used books, but it’s true for new books.) I use Amazon and Powells quite a bit for my own reading, and I can attest that the cost and convenience are often better than trekking to a store. Given how burdensome college costs are, I can absolutely see the appeal of saving a hundred bucks a semester on books. No argument there.

Of course, when a college revenue stream is diverted, the college has to adjust. The money that used to come in from the bookstore, but doesn’t anymore, has to come out of something else. And those local independent bookstores that relied on textbook revenues to stay afloat are struggling even more than they already were.

In a sense, the prices of books under the old system reflected a certain bundling. In paying a premium, you were either supplementing your tuition or effectively subsidizing the college town. With the book and the premium unbundled, the rest of the bundle has to either find new revenue or fade away.

I’ll admit to mixed feelings on this. The typical in-house bookstore is nothing glamorous, and wouldn’t be particularly missed if it went away. But its subventions to the college would be missed, and will have to be replaced one way or the other, either with tuition hikes or service cuts. You can pay now, or you can pay later.

The local independent bookstores, to me, would be a real loss. They’ve always functioned as social centers, hideouts, and guilty pleasures. Those of us of a certain age can tell tales of some of our greatest obscure bookstore finds. (Mine was a long out-of-print title by someone central to my dissertation. The copy was 99 cents, and it was wedged among random crap. It felt like prospecting and finding gold.) Those stores have nearly always been economically tenuous, and many of them have relied on a cut of local textbook revenue to get them through. With that largely supplanted by internet shopping, I suspect many of them will die.

I don’t think that raising tuition and killing independent bookstores was the intention of the Higher Education Act, but it’s starting to look like those will be major effects. I don’t begrudge students their online savings at all -- in their shoes, I’d do the same thing -- but even savings have costs.

Monday, November 22, 2010

 

The Sick Kid Shuffle

This weekend The Girl got hit by a nasty stomach bug, so nobody got much sleep and our Sunday plans were discombobulated. It brought back memories of those times when TW still worked outside the house, and we had to do the Sick Kid Shuffle.

When your kid normally goes to daycare, a sick kid is a major crisis. Suddenly your first line of defense is down, since you can’t take a sick kid to daycare. (I’ve seen parents try it, though.) Most days, we had to choose among several imperfect options:

1. TW’s parents. They were retired by that point, and close enough by that they could sometimes step in. They have lives of their own, though, so there was a limit to how often we could go to this well.

2. Split the day. We did this one a lot. TW worked a six-hour day at that point, and PU was open until the wee hours, so sometimes she’d come home a little early and I would take the night shift at work. My boss was okay with it on a limited basis, and we got pretty good at the handoff. Here, too, you didn’t want to go to this well too often. Once in a while, it was fine, but it had limits.

3. One of us stayed home that day. This was the when-all-else-fails option, and we used it a fair bit in those early years. (When I left PU, my last half-day was actually unpaid, since I had more than used up my sick time with a few delightful bouts of daycare-sourced pinkeye.) I recall a week before an accreditation visit, bargaining with TW as to who could be the last-ditch option on each particular day.

It was unbelievably draining. Even good daycares are petri dishes, and young children don’t have the immunity that adults have. The sick-kid shuffle was an ever-present fact of life. Each day that was split incurred another debt to coworkers and supervisors; each day the grandparents took incurred a debt there. Some days were more easily missed than others.

Since TW started staying home full-time, the sick kid shuffle has become easier. It can still wreak havoc with errands and appointments, but we’re dealing with fewer variables than we once were. We’ve also experienced much less pinkeye, which is all to the good. One salary doesn’t go as far as two, of course, which is why I’m still rocking the hatchback, but I can’t say that was a surprise.

The sick-kid shuffle must be particularly hard for single parents, or for people without local extended family, or for people whose kids have chronic conditions. The only way to make parenthood sustainable is with routines; throw those routines into chaos repeatedly, and something has to give.

On the workplace side, the sick kid shuffle raises difficult issues of fairness. Presumably, most of us would agree that basic decency requires at least some level of flexibility. On the other side, there’s a point -- hard to quantify, but real -- at which someone becomes unreliable. People without children have been known to attack sick-kid leaves as inherently unequal, and there’s a certain point at which they are.

I’m wondering if any of my wise and worldly readers who don’t have a stay-at-home partner or retired nearby grandparent have found elegant ways to handle the sick kid shuffle. I know we’re not the first to do the dance, and we won’t be the last. As a manager of people, I’m wondering if there’s a reasonably equitable way to acknowledge that not everybody’s needs are identical, without just defaulting to treating children as one consumer option among others. (“Your kid, your problem,” just strikes me as unethical.) Has anyone found a reasonable approach?

Friday, November 19, 2010

 

Meeting Pinball

Since Thanksgiving is next week, nobody wants to have meetings next week. That means that this week was doubled up.

On Tuesday I had 8 meetings. On Wednesday, 6. Yesterday, 7.

By the end of yesterday, I’ll admit getting a little punchy. That’s dangerous, because punchiness leads to snark, which leads to drama.

I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Geneva Convention maxing out daily meetings at 6.

Most of the meetings were relatively productive, with a relatively low meltdowns-per-minute quotient. But still. By the end of yesterday I felt like a pinball, just being bounced from here to there and back again. At one point I was halfway across campus when I realized I had no idea where the next meeting was. Good times.

I know one thing I’ll be giving thanks for next week...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

 

Permanent Austerity

In a discussion last week, I realized that the common denominator to so many of my personal hobbyhorses is fatigue with the climate of permanent austerity that seems to have settled upon public higher education.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with several reasons why we seem to be stuck in permanent austerity mode..

First, there's the basic open-endedness of mission. How much education is enough? How many programs should we run? How small should we let sections get? Which services should we provide? Whose salaries are too low?

That's in contrast to, say, heat. We spend money heating buildings, but there's an upper limit to the amount of heat that's desirable. Above a certain point, it's actually destructive; there is actually such a thing as enough. With a mission like “meeting the educational and workforce needs of the area,” though, it's hard to say how much is enough. In practice, we tend to let the budget set the definition of enough. From the perspective of any given program – or any prospective program – there's always more need. And from the perspective of anyone with a particular interest, there’s always a new program to add. This is also part of why adding programs is sooooo much easier than subtracting them.

Second, we're caught in a vicious pincer movement. State aid keeps dropping, but health care costs keep going up at several multiples of the rate of inflation. Over several years, these twin movements can beat even the most elegant budget into submission. Both trends are essentially out of the college's hands, which makes them that much harder to handle. When health insurance costs go up, say, ten percent a year for a decade, but state aid is actually moving backwards, the squeeze is real.

I'm not terribly hopeful for a short-term reversal of either trend. State aid is reliant on a combination of tax revenues and allocation decisions. Tax revenues still trail what they were a few years ago, and other areas of real need in the state budget don't have alternative revenue sources (like tuition). It'll be a long time before we climb out of that, if we do. And since Obama chose to forego single-payer health insurance in favor of trying to appease the private insurers, and the Republicans are resurgent, I don't see any improvement here either.

Third, we've defined what we do in a way that defeats productivity improvements. We measure learning in units of time. Until we stop doing that, no amount of efficiency-tinkering will make enough of a difference. A three-credit class required forty-five hours of seat time thirty years ago; it still does. On the employee side, pay raises based entirely on seniority mean that labor costs are almost completely divorced from performance. Add seniority-driven raises to lifetime tenure to the lack of mandatory retirement, and you have a perfect inflationary spiral. Any industry without productivity improvements is in for a world of economic hurt sooner or later.

Fourth, unlike almost every other sector except health care, we have to invest in technology even when it doesn’t improve our own productivity. IT is a monster expense that just keeps growing, and many of the more specialized programs have to spend megabucks to keep current with developments in the field. (Do you have any idea what patient simulators cost these days?) All that investment doesn’t show up in our own productivity, in “dollars per hour” terms.

Fifth would be the various unfunded mandates. “Compliance” is one of those magic words that diverts money from other things. In the 1980’s, the college didn’t even have an office for students with disabilities. Now it encompasses a series of offices, with several full-time employees and lots of assistive technology. The money for that is purely internal. Similarly, with every new reporting requirement we need appropriate software, usually with consultant costs.

Sixth, though, and I know some folks don't want to hear it, is flat-out plutocracy. In the worst recession in several generations, the main political debate is over how much to cut taxes on the very wealthiest. That's so staggeringly obtuse that even pointing it out seems futile. The recent New York Times budget widget was inadvertently revealing; when I used it, I got a surplus in 2015 and a tiny deficit in 2030. All I had to do was to raise taxes on the wealthy back to Clinton-era levels -- we’re not exactly talking Sweden here -- and stop fighting wars of choice. That’s it. That’s all it took. Doing nothing more than that, I could put the budget in surplus, which could go, say, for aid to the states to preserve basic services. This ain’t rocket science.

But those choices are considered so far out of the mainstream in American political discourse that you’re considered self-discrediting for even bringing them up. The budget widget’s first several options all involved cutting money to the middle class and poor -- that’s what gets you taken seriously now. Suggesting raising the retirement age marks you as a sober realist; suggesting pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq makes you a loony lefty.

Yes, public higher ed has some severe internal challenges. Some are self-inflicted, like tenure and the credit hour; others are externally imposed, like state cuts and the repeal of the mandatory retirement age. The internal culture only works when there’s growth; when there isn’t, we exploit the hell out of adjuncts to maintain the comfort of the superannuated. But even granting all of that, it’s hard to get ahead of the curve when the political culture beats up on any public servants who don’t carry guns. As long as wars, health insurers, and financial services companies keep bleeding us dry, no amount of internal reform will make up the difference.

Sorry for the rant. Every so often, I just get tired of beating my head against a wall.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

 

Mini-Me

Academic administrators get tired of hearing the “cross over to the dark side” line. It’s tired, it’s arrogant, and it picks the wrong villain. Darth Vader isn’t the real villain; Mini-me is.

Fans of cheesy-bad movies will remember Mini-me as Dr. Evil’s sidekick/mascot in the Austin Powers movies. Dr. Evil had his share of great lines (“the Diet Coke of evil”), but his true awfulness shone forth in his creation of Mini-Me. Mini-me was exactly how he sounds -- a smaller, but recognizable, version of Dr. Evil himself.

I’ve seen managers hire Mini-me’s to help them, and I really have to wonder what they’re thinking. It’s much smarter to hire your opposites.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Mini-me’s have the same strengths and weaknesses you have. That means that certain tasks will either get ignored or will get done badly, since they fall under everybody’s weaknesses. Hiring people with similar priorities to yours, but different strengths, makes delegation easier and far more effective. If I can play to my strengths and my staffers can play to theirs, and among us we get most things done, then everybody wins.

Differentiation also allows your people to have distinctive work identities. This doesn’t matter much in the early stages, but over time, it comes to matter quite a bit. Being seen as somebody else’s Mini-me is demeaning, and it doesn’t do much for one’s credibility. Being seen as the go-to person for (whatever) gives you some standing, though, and lets you carve out your own identity without having to sabotage the team effort. You don’t have to be contrary to draw notice.

Opposites will also be able to see in your blind spots, and you’ll be able to see in theirs. It will be much harder to fall into groupthink with people whose orientation to the world is different.

In committee settings, it’s easy to default to ‘consensus,’ which typically means the least-different candidate. This is a serious mistake, and it’s easy to make. Hiring opposites requires a certain level of self-awareness, as well as a certain level of self-confidence. As rare as those traits are in individuals, they’re that much rarer in groups. Academic departments frequently try to clone themselves in hiring, rather than looking for what isn’t already there.

Making opposites compatible takes some doing, but it can happen. Back when creatures called “Associate Deans” still roamed the earth, I had an associate dean whose training (and temperament) were as an accountant. It was wonderful. He handled some of the things I have to force myself to do, and I handled the icky personnel stuff that made him jumpy. Between the two of us, we covered most of what needed to be done, and we never had conflict over who should do what. My preferences and his were almost mutually exclusive, so we could each play to our respective strengths and still get the job done.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found successful and elegant ways to get search committees to reject the evil temptations of Mini-me?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

 

Business or Town?

Tenured Radical’s thoughtful post on elite presidential salaries got me thinking about the “run the college like a business” canard.

Most of the people who use that phrase, whether approvingly or damningly, haven’t personally worked in a college that was actually a business. I have -- you’ve heard of it -- and I can report confidently that it’s the wrong metaphor for the community colleges I know.

Having been in all three settings, I’m convinced that community college administration is much closer to town or municipal government than it is to for-profit business. If the place were run like a business, you’d know it.

Like a town, a community college has members with wildly disparate agendas and preferences. It has a myriad of missions, but no distinct bottom line. It has people who stick around forever, and people who are just passing through. It has multiple and conflicting power centers, some more powerful than others, and the most effective leaders are the ones who can get the various centers to work with each other towards common goals. It has some basics that need tending -- keeping the lights on, say -- but tremendous disagreement over priorities and resource allocation beyond that.

When the college has both tenure and unions, the likeness is that much stronger. A city manager can’t get rid of her most annoying constituents, and a dean can’t get rid of her most annoying faculty. If anything, the constituents tend to outlast the officeholders. There’s a certain line of authority, but the officeholder takes that literally at her own peril. Instead, the effective officeholders use their positions to help people achieve their various agendas, within the limits of multiple layers of law, chronically limited resources, and the realities of personalities.

As in politics, diplomacy matters here. The peremptory “my way or the highway” style that can work in certain business environments -- not all, certainly, but some -- tends to crash and burn here. People have long memories and thin skins; getting the climate to the point where discussions can be productive requires acknowledging both without getting paralyzed.

It’s easy to snark about municipal government -- and people do -- but the difference between a well-run city and a poorly-run one is dramatic. You notice it in any number of ways, from the efficacy of official channels in solving problems to the presence or absence of graft. There isn’t much glory in municipal management, but when it’s done right, things work. The trash gets picked up, the snow plowed, and the bills paid. When those things are done, citizens can focus on other things and use their creativity productively.

If you try to run a city like a business, you’ll run into the basic contradictions pretty quickly. The same is true here. Yes, community colleges as a group have to be cost-conscious and budget-conscious, as to most cities and towns, but that’s not the same as running like a business. Businesses spend freely -- and without regard to “equality” -- to make even more. While most municipalities and most colleges would certainly welcome more money, and certainly pay attention to costs, making money isn’t the point.

Proprietary U was a business, and the differences were stark. Turnover was rapid, enrollment fluctuations were dramatic, and the academic calendar ran twelve months per year. Programs that didn’t cover their costs got eliminated. The idea of programmatic cross-subsidization, which is simply considered normal here, was verboten there. Making money was exactly the point.

The difference in metaphors matters, I think, because using the wrong metaphors leads to misunderstandings that generate unnecessary and unhelpful conflict. The best deans aren’t ruthless profit-maximizers, and they wouldn’t last long if they were; they’re local diplomats who balance all manner of conflicting pressures. The ones who can do that without forgetting the point of it all are valuable, even if inconspicuous. The good ones run colleges like the small cities that they are.

Monday, November 15, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: Falling Behind on Grading

A new correspondent writes:

What constitutes “falling behind” on grading in a college classroom and what are the consequences?

It strikes me that there are two parts to this issue:
1. Pedagogically, timely feedback is crucial, most would probably agree. But what, exactly, constitutes “timely”? ASAP is far too simplistic an answer. I teach English FT at a CC, and I have between 120 and 150 students, depending on the semester. What is a reasonable amount of time to take with grading given such a workload? And on the other side, what constitutes “poor performance”? Where is the line?
2. Realistically, FT professors, at least at the CC level, often need to balance the demands of the grading and teaching workload with commitments outside the classroom, including committees, student clubs, faculty senate etc… Often, both inside and outside my particular institution, I hear that the path to tenure and promotion for CC profs has more to do with visibility to admin outside the classroom than with effectiveness inside it. I would love to hear about the ways others have managed these parts of the job in ways that allowed them to continue to be successful inside the classroom.


It’s a great question, and I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on it.

In my teaching days, I set a self-imposed deadline of a week. Sometimes I’d beat that, but it ensured that even in the worst cases I’d have a weekend to grade. It required me to stagger assignments across my various classes so I wouldn’t have every class turn in a pile of papers at the same time, but that wasn’t prohibitive.

In my current role, though, I draw a distinction between “good practice” and “minimally acceptable practice.” Good practice would be something like a week. The next class would be even better, though that’s not always realistic. Minimally acceptable practice -- not great, but enough to keep you out of trouble -- would include the students having at least two graded assignments back before the end of the withdrawal deadline (usually around the 10th or 12th week of the semester), and adhering to any self-defined deadlines you’ve set. The latter could mean two weeks or even more, as long as the students know it’s coming. What gets them upset -- and I can’t entirely blame them -- is when they have no idea when their papers will come back, and the time just seems to stretch.

It’s largely about managing expectations. If a realistic timeframe for you is two weeks, say so upfront, and plan accordingly. The students may grumble a bit, but from my perspective, as long as you live up to it, you’re okay. (The same holds with student attendance policies. I can defer to almost anything reasonable in a syllabus, as long as you stick to it. But if you start making it up on the fly, or applying different standards to different students, I’ll have a harder time backing you up.)

In terms of promotion and tenure at cc’s, each context is different, but in the ones I’ve seen, the default assumption is that people on the tenure track will get tenure. Since there’s no publication requirement, and teaching quality (or lack thereof) is hard to prove legally, most people make it. In my years in administration, I haven’t seen anybody denied tenure yet. Admittedly, it could happen; I’ve heard of past cases on my own campus. But in those cases, there was usually either an over-the-top incident -- thou shalt not sexually harass students when angling for tenure -- or conspicuously awful teaching.

Promotion may be a different issue. Depending on how it’s handled on your campus, there may be a heavier burden of proof on you to show that you’ve earned it. If that’s the case, then greater visibility may matter.

For what it’s worth, neither I nor any admin I know buys the argument that excessive college service demands should excuse excessively slow grading. Your colleagues have the same obligations you do, yet they manage. If you’ve been put on so many committees that you simply can’t handle it -- this can happen to the first minority hire in a long time, who is suddenly put on every committee under the sun in the name of diversity -- ask for either a course release or a free pass to resign from a few. But don’t half-ass your teaching and then blame college service for it. Not impressive.

I imagine that different people in different contexts view this one very differently, so I’ll open it up. Wise and worldly readers, how would you define a reasonable amount of time to return graded assignments?

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

 

Friday Fragments

Actual dinner conversation:

TW: So-and-so is dumb as a rock.

TG: Rocks aren’t dumb!

TB: Yeah! Rocks tell scientists lots of interesting facts.

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A counselor on campus mentioned today that she’s working with several homeless students, including a few who have young children. As she detailed some of the ways they cope -- you really don’t want to know -- I realized again that I could never be a counselor. How anyone could do that job without succumbing to depression is beyond me. And there’s something profoundly, deeply wrong with a country that will spend hundreds of billions on wars of choice while relegating single mothers with young children to sleeping in tents on the edge of town.

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This story is sooooo true. To my mind, the obvious medium-term solution to the dilemmas of reallocating within a college is to reallocate beween colleges. Let college A have a healthy theatre program and college B have a healthy engineering program, instead of asking each to sustain both on insufficient resources. It’s politically radioactive, but it’s the truth. Getting there from here is the tricky part. Of course, we could always tap into the aforementioned hundreds of billions, but that doesn’t seem to be working...

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The Boy was mad that his copy of the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book didn’t arrive until Thursday, since some of his friends got it on Tuesday. Apparently, most of the kids in his class read the series, and several brought in their copies on Wednesday to show them off. After his copy arrived, TB devoured it immediately. It pleases me to no end that the hot ticket in the fourth grade is a book.

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I read somewhere that one of out every ten undergrads in the US attends a for-profit college or university. IHE noted recently that last year, half of all the new hires in higher education were at for-profits. I’m glad to see them finally drawing some meaningful scrutiny, but I’m concerned that much of the discussion has thus far missed the point. They’re growing because they can; public higher ed is cutting because it has to. As long as those remain true, I can predict with some confidence the direction of the trendline.

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What would happen if the “gainful employment” rule were applied to graduate programs in liberal arts fields?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: Encouraging Junior to Stay Home

Ask the Administrator: Encouraging Junior to Stay Home

A new correspondent writes:

My children are about to “leave the nest” and head off to college. I have been on a number of college visits now, gone on campus tours, and listened to presentations from admissions staff. In many cases, the university has a “College of General Studies” for those whose major is “undecided”. Tuition for those enrolled in the College of General Studies is considerably less than for those, say, in the College of Engineering. The admissions representatives quite blatantly point out that, for the first two years, everyone is taking the same general education classes, but those enrolled in the College of Engineering are paying several thousand dollars more for them. Of course, no one can get a degree in General Studies. Those in the College of General Studies are expected to transfer into something more specific by the time they have achieved Junior status. The point is that there is a common theme in these presentations; “gen ed classes are gen ed classes.”
Of course, no university representative is going to suggest that prospective students save money by taking some of those gen ed classes at a community collegeand transfer in later. Still, we all know that tuition at a community college is much less than tuition at a university. One of the perks of being a full-time faculty member at a community college is the free tuition benefit for my dependents. Now, the question is…. how does one successfully promote the “live at home for another year and save $40K in tuition” to the senior in high school? It is very hard to combat the high school graduate’s desire to go away to a university, have the dorm experience, and feel independent. The argument of my economically unaware child is, “I can just take out student loans. Other people do it all the time and they manage.”
Of course, we as parents will help pay for some of the tuition, but we also feel that the college student should also be paying a portion of his/her tuition. Still, as one who had student loans hanging over my head for a VERY long time, not taking advantage of the affordable, transferrable, quality classes available at a community college seems like a poor plan.


You’ve stumbled upon one of the great unspokens of higher ed. Those huge freshman classes taught by T.A.’s are cash cows for universities. They subsidize other parts of the operation.

In terms of convincing your kid, I think the first question would be whether convincing your kid is actually a good idea. It may be, but each kid is different. What’s the motivation for starting at the university? If it’s little more than “that’s what’s next,” then a cc transfer program can be an excellent choice. If it’s “to get the hell away from my parents,” then talking about student loans would largely miss the point. Does your kid want the whole dorm experience, as you seem to imply?

Thinking back to my decision-making process in late high school, I remember thinking of college not just as a credential or a set of classes, but as a phase of life. It promised many things, not the least of which was getting out of the house and having The College Experience. (I defined that as including smart new friends, tremendous daily freedom, and visions of sex that seemed shameful back in those pre-internet days.) I ruled out any colleges within easy driving distance specifically to prevent falling back into old habits. Distance was a selling point. If you kid is thinking along those lines, then stressing the cost advantages of living with Mom and Dad probably won’t make much of an impression.

Some parents use bribery. They explain the cost savings to the kid, and offer to split the savings with him. This usually takes the form of a car. I always found that vaguely creepy, but your mileage may vary.

If your kid is thinking about distance as a virtue, one way to go might be to find a good cc relatively far away. Depending on where you live, the tuition penalty for being out-of-area may not amount to much, so you could still save on that while giving the kid some freedom from home.

If you do decide (or convince your kid to decide) to take a cc seriously as an option, I would VERY STRONGLY recommend making an appointment to talk with that cc’s transfer counselor before making a decision. Find out which universities have agreements with that cc, and how many credits they’ll take for a given program. You’re right that most of the basic gen eds transfer without issue -- Intro to Psych is Intro to Psych pretty much anywhere -- but some universities have quirky variations that you’d only know if you asked upfront.

At this point, my recommendation would be to look at a cc as a safety school. (They don’t get much safer than open admissions.) Apply to several places, and apply for financial aid at each. Then compare the post-award costs of the various places. Some private colleges rely on “Presidential Scholarships” (that is, discounting) to give everyone a break off the sticker price that nobody pays. Public universities tend to do much less of that, but you can’t always predict the post-aid cost just from looking at the sticker price. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking of loans as aid. Loans are loans. You’re looking at the cost after any discounts or scholarships. Depending on the offers you get, you may be surprised.

As to how you get teenagers to take the future seriously, I have absolutely no idea.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Is there an argument that might persuade the kid who has romantic visions of dorm life? Is there a way to get a 17 year old to take future student loans seriously?

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

 

When Good Actors are Miscast

Have you ever seen a good actor struggle in the wrong role? I’m thinking here of, say, Laura Linney in Mystic River, where she tried to play a tough working-class Bostonian. I’ve enjoyed her work in any number of other things, but she was just unconvincing in that. As good as she usually is, it wasn’t the role for her.

Over the last year or so, we’ve had a few instances of that on campus: talented and hardworking staff people who were just slotted into the wrong roles.

It’s different from the more straightforward “low performer,” since you can see signs of real ability and drive. Every so often, circumstances align to let the talent shine through, but it doesn’t last. The random blasts of talent make the overall mediocrity that much more frustrating.

Sometimes the miscasting is a result of economic need; this was the job available when she needed one, and she interviewed well. Sometimes it’s a personality clash between a staffer and a supervisor. And sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint, but hard to miss -- something is obviously not quite right, but it’s just not clear what it is.

There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing a situation like that get fixed. When a talented person who just isn’t clicking in office A moves to office B and becomes a star, everybody wins. Office A loses its headache, office B gets a winner, and the staffer is suddenly happier and more effective. The budgetary impact is a wash, but the impact on productivity and morale is substantial. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times now, and I consider those moments pure victories.

On the faculty side, the most common version of miscasting is the wonderful professor who becomes an ineffective department chair. Although the skill sets overlap, they’re not the same; someone who may be great when autonomous may have trouble in a “first among equals” role. Alternately, some professors who excel at upper-level classes struggle when teaching developmental ones, or vice versa.

Low performance isn’t always about miscasting, of course; some people just suck. But when it is about casting, and you’re able to rectify miscasting and see the person suddenly blossom, it’s really gratifying. It’s that rarest of birds, the pure win. Let Laura Linney play the repressed-but-mischievous WASP; it’s a better use of her, and we’re all happier.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

 

When Presidents’ Eyes Wander

In searches at senior administrative levels, such as presidents and chancellors, it’s common practice to release the names of finalists to the local newspaper while the search is in process. In the age of the internet, even an out-of-state search can become common local knowledge in nanoseconds.

Since the most common job for new presidents is a previous presidency -- that can’t last forever, but it’s true now -- it’s not uncommon for a sitting President of college X to be revealed as a candidate for the presidency of college Y.

This causes ripples at college X.

It’s one thing if the president actually gets the job. She leaves, college X adjusts, and life goes on.

But when the president doesn’t get the job, and her unsuccessful candidacy has become common knowledge on the home campus, things can get awkward.

The rumors start to swirl. Why is she looking? What’s the scoop? Is she looking elsewhere too? (Answer: probably.) What will happen if she leaves in three months? Six months? A year? What if a new person cleans house? Which internal faction will win?

It can be remarkably unsettling. And that can do real damage.

Administrations usually evolve in a pattern of punctuated equilibrium. There’s relative calm for a while, then a huge wave of change, then relative calm again. Presidential change is usually a catalyst for a huge wave. Some of that wave will be initiated by the new president, since many of them like to start by bringing in their own people. (I’m not a fan of that strategy, though I’ll admit some bias there.) Some of it will happen when people leave preemptively, reacting to the writing on the wall. And some of it will happen when people start jockeying for position, perceiving the incumbent as a lame duck.

I don’t know an effective way around this. As long as search finalists are public knowledge, people will make of that knowledge what they will.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen someone handle that kind of disclosure gracefully? Is there a way for a president to regain local relevance after losing out on a search that the campus discovered?

Monday, November 08, 2010

 

Creak...

The retirements are nearly upon us.

My college, like so many, hired a bunch of people all at once, then relatively few for a very long time. In terms of age cohorts, it looks like a pig in a python, and the pig is getting near the end.

The dam hasn’t broken, but it’s creaking.

Looking ahead just a few years, I can see the majority of the administration changing. It’s alarming, because in many areas, there’s really nobody in the pipeline to come next.

If mine were the only college in this situation, it wouldn’t be so bad; we’d just import the talent we need and be done with it. But it’s not.

The usual pipeline for academic administrators is from department chairs or program coordinators, who themselves come from the full-time faculty. The idea is that higher ed is such an idiosyncratic creature that it wouldn’t make sense to import people directly from business or the military; they’d quickly run headfirst into what it means to manage contrarians with tenure. (I just finished Robert Sutton’s latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, and chuckled ruefully every time he mentioned that most of his advice is inapplicable in academe. It’s funny because it’s true. If only someone out there with decanal experience would write a book about how to be a dean. Hmm...) So we try to promote from within, to ensure that deans and their counterparts will have a personal sense of how colleges work, and of how faculty see things.

But a generation or two of adjuncting-out the faculty has left the pipeline thin. There just aren’t very many faculty here of my generation. Gen X’ers -- and even the younger Boomers -- are rare birds. Most of the faculty is either in the very early stages, or within a short shot of retirement. The middle is missing.

The “administrative farm team” argument (the official term is “succession planning”) strikes me as a very intelligent objection to the adjuncting trend, even though the opponents of the adjuncting trend tend not to use it. They should; as no less an academic unionist than Sherman Dorn has noted, competent administrators make unions’ jobs easier. (The same is true in reverse; good labor relations make my job easier.) Colleges need people to do the work that deans do; those people can have a sense of the traditional faculty outlook, or not. Better that they do.

Friday, November 05, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: Apologies

An occasional correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct at a local CC. This semester, I haven't been very good about grading assignments in a timely manner. One particular student has been constantly asking for an update on his grade. I finally caught up with everything last night, but came in this morning to find out the student had gone to my department head, his department head, and my department dean to complain about me. When my department head came to me with this information, he was very supportive about being on "my side" and letting me know the student didn't come across as very credible. I responded with "Well, it's too bad he went to this extreme, but it's reasonable that he would want to know his grade and he had a legitimate reason to be upset. I'm sorry about all of this." At this, my department head give me something of an incredulous look, sort of "I'm throwing you a line here, why are you doing this?"

So here's my question. Should one deal with student complaints the way one deals with a car crash? i.e. You never say "I'm sorry, it was my fault" because that admission can come back to haunt you. Is it better to reply, "Oh, those wacky students. I'll take care of it." I think this question applies to anytime one is blamed, justly or unjustly, for some workplace SNAFU. Is "I'm sorry" always an admission of guilt that automatically weakens your position?


I hate to default to “it depends,” but it actually does.

Smart managers will reward truthfulness. In a setting in which people are secure in the knowledge that messengers don’t get shot, people will be much more willing to come forward with uncomfortable truths. That’s a good thing, since it will bring hidden problems to light and make it easier to address them. It will also save a great deal of time and work decoding messages, since people will be likelier to deliver truths unencrypted.

However, not all managers are smart. Some of them, I hate to admit, will tend to either shoot the messenger or “solve” problems by finding someone to blame. In a pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey environment, admitting a mistake can be terribly costly.

I’ve worked in both settings. (Happily, right now I’m in the former.) Which more accurately describes your setting, I don’t know.

If you’re in a “find someone to blame” environment, the safest thing to do is to say as little as possible. There, if confronted with a partially true accusation, the prudent course is a noncommittal but dismissive expression, with as few words as possible. You’re essentially acknowledging receipt of the message, without even addressing its merits.

(In a really toxic setting, if you run out of other options, you can always resort to “HOW DARE YOU, SIR!” I should warn you, though, that anyone with experience will take that as an admission of guilt.)

Some people will try passing the blame on to someone else, but I don’t recommend that. It just makes an already toxic setting that much worse. You can also resort to blanket denials and/or webs of self-justifying lies, but again, you’re just digging yourself in deeper. The right to remain silent should not be underestimated.

Depending on the severity of the accusation, if you have a union, you might want to have your union rep with you. In most areas I assume this wouldn’t apply to adjuncts, but if you’re lucky enough to have an adjunct union, this can be a productive approach.

Interestingly, the strongest “pin the blame” culture I’ve seen was actually in a heavily tenured setting. Shaming was the weapon of choice for maintaining order. Over the years, it led to a beaten-down, hangdog culture. No, thanks.

One of the ways to tell if a local culture is functional or dysfunctional is by seeing what happens when someone actually does admit fault. Does it lead to problem-solving or blame-pinning?

I suspect plenty of wise and worldly readers have had experiences with this. Readers, what would you advise?

Good luck!

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

Thursday, November 04, 2010

 

Taxing a la Carte

This story about the election results got me wondering. (And everybody can put the knives down -- I’m not analyzing candidates here.)

In a climate in which government spending is generally considered suspect, and in which people who campaign on “tax cuts good, spending bad” do very well, ballot measures that supported higher education specifically did very well.

When taxes are considered as part of a lump sum, they’re despised. But when they’re earmarked for specific purposes, they seem to be more popular. Which makes sense psychologically, since the earmark makes it easier to see the point.

Would public higher ed be better off moving from being the “balance wheel” of state budgets (hat-tip to Jane Wellman of the Delta Cost Project for the phrase) to having its own dedicated tax?

I’m wondering if a dedicated tax would be harder to cut than an appropriation in an omnibus bill. Somebody may have done some empirical research on this, but I haven’t found it.

Social Security might be a decent example. Politicians routinely run on cutting income taxes, and some of them will enact substantial cuts on social programs, given the chance. But I literally can’t remember the last time someone ran on reducing the FICA tax. (Bush II floated a variation on that in 2005; it went over like a lead balloon.) As annoying as the FICA tax is, people sort of accept it, because they understand what it’s for. An “income tax” is an undifferentiated mass, but a Social Security tax is for one specific thing.

Higher education gets nailed badly during recessions, because state income tax revenues go down and unemployment claims go up, and the difference has to be made up somewhere. Since K-12 and prisons don’t really have alternate revenue sources -- okay, some prisons do, but that’s another post -- it’s easy for legislators to look at higher ed’s tuition stream and decide that cutting college aid would do less harm than cutting other things.

But what if that option were off the table? What if, instead, higher ed had its own a la carte tax? Call it the “college and university” tax, or something catchier, but make it clear (and enforce legally) that it can only go for the public colleges and universities in a given state.

Yes, the money would fluctuate with the economy, but it would probably fluctuate less than appropriations from general budgets do now. With relative predictability, colleges could actually make (and stick to) spending plans without constantly interrupting them to make up for midyear cuts.

Admittedly, the devil can hide in the details. Property taxes are probably easier to administer than income taxes, but they’re also probably harder to sustain politically. They would also establish an expectation of being used locally, whereas income taxes are more often used at the state level. But these strike me as surmountable.

I know that different states operate differently, so some wise and worldly readers may have seen something like this done somewhere. Those who have, how well did it work? International readers -- the worldliest of the worldly -- is something like this done where you are? Does it seem to be a safer haven for higher ed, or is it just as vulnerable? Is there a catch I haven’t seen?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

 

Telling the Future

The Boy's school recently had Back to School night, so the four of us went to see what there was to see. TB actually had 'greeter' duty at the front door, which taxed his patience a bit, but was a source of pride anyway. We wandered the hallways looking at various displays the kids had prepared, and talking with TB's and TG's teachers.

In TB's class – he's in the fourth grade – the kids had done essays on what they want to be in fifty years. The essays were left out on the tables for parents to read. As an exercise in shoe-leather sociology, it was striking.

Out of a class of a little over twenty, only two kids mentioned college, and only one – TB – had any recognizable professional aspiration. (He declared that he will get his doctorate in civil engineering at MIT, so he can build bridges and highways. About a year ago he asked me what the best place was to study civil engineering, so with my layman's knowledge of engineering, I suggested MIT, and that was that.) One other boy mentioned the state university, though he seemed more interested in the sports than in anything else. Every other kid wrote some variation on “I will finish high school, get a job, and get rich.” The teacher mentioned that she had to push some of them to mention finishing high school.

None of the boys – TB included – mentioned anything about getting married and/or having kids, though all of the girls did. (My favorite: “After graduating high school I will get married and have kids. The way I will accomplish this is by meeting a cute boy and falling in love.” It's phrased like a mission statement.) Several kids mentioned getting rich, though only one of them had any idea how. (She declared that she would become a celebrity, though it wasn't entirely clear what she would be celebrated for.)

I was proud of TB, of course, but also quietly horrified at how early and how cleanly class divisions are reproducing themselves. The gender split surprised me a bit in 2010; if nothing else, I would have expected at least a couple of the girls to mention college. The vagueness of the aspirations was striking, too. I expected to see prospective astronauts, baseball players, doctors, presidents, inventors, whatever; there was none of that. For all of the mentions of getting rich, none of them had the foggiest idea that money was somehow connected to a job. (I don't count 'celebrity' as a job, Kardashians or no Kardashians.)

TB's school is public, in a working class/middle class suburb. It's not tony, by any stretch, but it's hardly a disaster. If you were doing a documentary on failing schools, it wouldn't occur to you to look here. TB is thriving, and so is his sister. The class divisions weren't so apparent in her class, though to be fair, she's in first grade. The divide seems to occur somewhere between first and fourth grades.

I’m not sure where that kind of vision is supposed to come from, other than parents. I know the schools shouldn’t teach that college is somehow mandatory; it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. But it should seem like a realistic aspiration, especially in the fourth grade. And even for those who don’t choose the college route, some kind of “I want to be a...” sentiment should be there somewhere. (This being the Northeast, none of the kids mentioned the military, either.) If nothing else, I’d expect some sort of method to the “getting rich” goal.

I’m glad that TB has us to fill in some of the blanks, and to help him see beyond the confines of his town. I just worry about the ones who don’t have anyone to do that.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

 

A Response to Marc Bousquet

As regular readers know, Marc Bousquet and I are not each other’s biggest fans. That said, he has really outdone himself this time. In a remarkable tirade on InsideHigherEd – sheesh, I take a week off and the standards drop – Bousquet wrote:

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plans for higher education are evident in their attraction to community colleges. All of the features that most educators deplore about community colleges are what the current administration likes about them: top-down control of curriculum, disposable instructors, automated courseware, a training model of education, and management highly responsive to local employers.

Until now, to my knowledge, Bousquet has restricted his attacks to administrators. Now he’s setting his sights on the public institutions that teach over forty percent of America’s undergraduates.

I'll take the charges individually before getting around to the larger point.

“Top-Down Control of Curriculum.” This is just false. At my cc, and at every one I know, a curricular change -- a new course, a new program, a change to a prerequisite, anything of substance -- has to be proposed by a faculty member in the department responsible for the course(s). It has to be approved by Curriculum Committee, which has a faculty majority. It then goes to the College Senate for approval. I couldn’t impose a program if I wanted to.

“Disposable Instructors.” We have tenured faculty who started teaching here before I was born. Literally. I am not making that up. The people here who live in fear of their jobs are the administrators, among whom turnover -- mostly involuntary -- is much, much higher. Even the adjuncts are unionized, and can’t be dismissed without process.

“Automated courseware.” What does this even mean? We don’t have robo-faculty. We have tenured faculty teaching in learning communities. We have tenured faculty on paid sabbaticals. At least with the previous charge, I can imagine what Bousquet probably meant. This one just leaves me scratching my head.

“A Training Model of Education.” Our largest major is liberal arts transfer. Our largest academic department is English. Our enrollments in transfer programs dwarf our enrollments in career programs. While we’re at it, I’d like to point out that our transfer students graduate their destination colleges at higher rates than their native counterparts. If you want to beat up on someone...

“Management Highly Responsive to Local Employers.” This one is partially accurate. Yes, when considering new vocational programs, we look at local employment needs. I don’t know why we wouldn’t. But to suggest that we’re somehow slaves to market dictates is both slanderous and ignorant of the transfer function.

The specifics of Bousquet's charges are laughable, but I doubt that would bother him. There's a larger worldview underlying his drive-by attack on public institutions that serve low-income students. This, in a column in which he attacks Michelle Rhee (whom he feels entitled to call “Micky”) for trying to reform public institutions that serve low-income students.

If you read Bousquet's stuff often enough – hell, I even slogged through his book – you see a single theme emerge above all others. Faculty are Special, and their purity of motive deserves substantial material reward. Never mind the contradiction. Community colleges are bad because they don't convey enough status to those who are above the need for status. Alrighty then.

That's how Bousquet can assert, simultaneously, that colleges are run by evil and overpaid administrators who glory in the degrading of the faculty, and that those administrators should be entrusted with far larger budgets – with which to pay tenured faculty -- on the public dime. Never mind the contradiction.

There’s a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of Bousquet’s position. He asserts with metronomic regularity that “working conditions are learning conditions,” from which it should follow logically that higher faculty salaries will equate mathematically to better education. (Interestingly, he fails to apply that same logic to administrators. Do higher salaries equate to better management? Goose, gander, whatever.) But he never bothers actually engaging real world economics.

Say that you have a finite budget. Which of the following scenarios will lead to better learning conditions?

1. A full-time professor teaching five sections of fifty students each.

2. Five adjuncts teaching two sections apiece of twenty-five students each.

That’s a pretty clean approximation -- simplified, but recognizable -- of the choices administrators face. Here’s another one:

1. Two programs, each forty percent full-time.

2. One program, eighty percent full-time.

I can envision principled arguments on both sides. But to assume that these dilemmas simply don’t exist, that they’re just smokescreens behind which administrators hide their nefarious agendas, is just silly. And to assert that talk of costs is real but talk of revenues isn’t, is just fantasy.

Bousquet’s tendentious agitprop simply doesn’t allow for a diversity of priorities, a mix of institutions, or the existence of difficult choices. It’s a Manichean morality tale; you are either Good and Pure and Noble or you are Evil. And as with most moralists, the longer he goes on, the larger the category of Evil becomes. It used to ensnare only the administrators and legislators. Now it ensnares an entire category of public institutions, and anybody who dares to suggest that decades of sustained failure might just warrant trying something different.

Community colleges do wonders on a shoestring. I would have expected him to be a supporter of community colleges, since they’re nonprofit and they serve underrepresented populations. Instead, in a climate in which many of us are facing the third consecutive year of state budget cuts and the political winds are cold, he piles on. When those funding cuts come, from whence, exactly, are those faculty raises supposed to come? And is the AAUP seriously in agreement?

It’s an appalling performance, and it couldn’t be less timely. Now I’ll return to crossing my fingers and watching the election returns, hoping against hope that the choices we’ll have to make don’t get even worse.

Monday, November 01, 2010

 

Culture of Poverty

Sometimes a little cognitive dissonance can be helpful.

In the last two weeks, I’ve read two lines of argument from the same political camp, and I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t seem to mesh. Which is a shame, because there’s actually an intelligent argument to be made.

Several commenters have noted the New York Times’ recent announcement that sociologists are once again considering “culture of poverty” arguments within bounds. Broadly, in the wake of the Moynihan report in the 1960’s, it became taboo for left/liberal policy analysts ever to suggest that one cause of persistent poverty was dysfunctional behavior by poor people. Doing so was considered blaming the victim. Now, forty-plus years later, it’s apparently okay to suggest that some common behaviors -- drug use, unstable home lives, etc. -- are not just symptoms of poverty, but also causes of it.

There’s some truth to that. Anybody who has taught has seen students sabotage themselves. People engage in self-defeating behavior all the time; why the poor should be uniquely exempt from that isn’t immediately obvious.

Then I read this piece by Charles Murray -- the high priest of ‘culture of poverty’ arguments, who actually goes so far as to suggest a genetic component to the culture of poverty -- excoriating some imagined liberal elites for losing touch with “real” American culture, which he takes to include NASCAR, The Price is Right, and the Left Behind series.

And I thought to myself, hmm.

I grew up outside a dying Northeastern industrial city that I sometimes call Northern Town. In the schools I attended -- public K-12 systems -- nearly everybody was white. The primary social division was class -- the working-class kids had one set of preoccupations, and the professional class kids had another. (I fell in an odd nether zone -- culturally of the professional class, but financially of the working class.) Among the working-class kids was a subset everybody called “the burnouts.” They wore heavy metal t-shirts with 3/4 sleeves, wore their hair like hockey players, worshipped Pink Floyd, and interrupted their weed smoking only for occasional sex or fights. Beavis and Butthead got the look right, and much of the attitude, only these kids weren’t funny.

The burnouts were ubiquitous, aggressive, smug, and mean. They were the kids who kept pet snakes because they enjoyed feeding them live rats. They often seemed surly and bored, but were always up for “whaling on” someone else. Many of them eventually dropped out, and those who didn’t went straight to work or the military after high school.

Some of us who managed to escape Northern Town had an inchoate, but visceral and pronounced, aversion to burnout culture. We didn’t know the term, but at some level, many of us would have agreed that the burnouts had a culture of poverty. They lived in ways seemingly designed to keep them working-class or poor forever. Worse, they seemed to take pride in it. They sneered at ambition, and went out of their way to cause real physical fear among those of us who decided that the best response to life in a northern town was to get the hell out of it.

The cultural affectations of the leaders and sympathizers of the Tea Party should be familiar to anyone who had to navigate his walk to school to avoid the burnouts. Jingoism, defiant ignorance, pride in self-defeating behaviors, arrogant stupidity -- it’s all there. When the guy with the “don’t tread on me” t-shirt stepped on a woman’s head, I recognized the gesture.

My disregard for the Charles Murray line of argument is based on any number of things, but one of them is precisely the recognition of a culture of poverty among the people he claims to valorize. They’re proud of their ignorance. Ignorance is not a principled position. (I would expect any self-respecting conservative to know that. The entire point of conservatism -- its valid reason to exist -- is to remind us of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Conservatives conserve; it’s what they do. The Tea Partiers are not conservatives; they’re pure plutocrats.) Petulance is not constructive. And manipulating the ignorant with appeals to their worst instincts so you can rob them blind is disgusting.

No, I don’t watch ultimate fighting, or follow NASCAR. Instead I advocate (and vote) for health care for everybody, and education good enough to help the next generation of kids like me to get the hell out of the backwater in which they’re stuck. Best case, I’d hope that some of the kids who might have been confined to burnout status back in the day might find some constructive reason to actually care about something. Give them something to lose, and maybe they’ll actually step up. If they don’t, at least they had a shot.

I’m just struck that the same behaviors that get dark-skinned people tagged as deserving of poverty get romanticized when they’re done by white folk. Black parochialism is considered toxic; white parochialism is considered authentic.

No. Parochialism is toxic either way. Ignorance is the enemy. There was once a time when conservatives knew that. Liberals have finally and correctly realized that some behaviors are self-defeating, even when done by their core constituency; I look forward to the day when conservatives can drop the redneck fetish and do the same. The stakes are too high to base policy on a noble savage, even if the noble savage looks like you.

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