Thursday, December 23, 2010
They started on Monday at about 4:00. Other than a brief break for dinner, they kept writing until about 7:30. TB didn’t even want to stop then -- he mentioned that once he found his groove, writing was really fun.
They both made their teacher the center of the story. TG’s version made her teacher a bird, and told a story of a family of birds looking for food. TB’s version made his teacher the captain of a spaceship, with the class going from planet to planet. When they finished, they made covers and dedication pages; TB even did an “about the author.”
Their teachers loved the stories, but not nearly as much as I did. TB and TG loved the process of writing. They lost themselves in the flow of it, and took obvious glee in elaborating the plotlines. When they finished, they were justly proud of what they had done, and didn’t even notice that they hadn’t watched tv all day.
As a father, I was absolutely thrilled. They intended their gifts for their teachers, but I felt like I had received a gift, too. They’ve discovered one of my greatest loves. They’ve had the experience of losing themselves in the flow of writing, and of writing just to write. They’ve discovered a craft we can share, one in which I can actually be of some help. (I’m completely helpless when it comes to TB’s basketball or TG’s gymnastics.) And for their ages, they’re already pretty damned good at it. I can’t wait to see what they can do as they get older.
Writing really is fun. Thank you to all of my readers for giving me an excuse to keep writing. May your holidays bring you as much joy as mine already have.
I’ll take a brief break from writing for the holidays; the blog will be back on January 3. Happy holidays, everyone.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Ask the Administrator: Marked for Life?
This is something I have been thinking about for about 6 months, but your two columns about administrators and faculty really reflected the observations I've had about both positions. I am currently an administrator at a good sized community college in an urban/suburban area (we are in a county wrapped around a major city). I am not an academic administrator, but work in professional development. I have been in this position for [a few] years, and before that spent [more] years teaching at this same college, in a variety of pt/ft positions, but never tenure-track (proves you don't have to be tenure-track to move into the administration...)
My experiences are really very similar to what you noted in your columns- and while able to do it quite well, I really don't enjoy being an administrator. I am hoping to return to the ranks of the teaching faculty. I am adjuncting again for my former department, and enjoying the teaching and students, and the elemental differences in the job itself.
The question really is: is my administrative experience a hindrance to finding a tenure-track teaching job? I think this experience has been very valuable, and has informed my understanding of teaching, as well as my understanding of a college as a whole. But not everyone thinks the way I do...
Any thoughts? I know that any tenure-track job is a rare prize... I just wonder if I am now at even more of a disadvantage.
Based on the few cases I’ve seen, I’ll give two slightly contradictory answers. One, it depends. Each search committee is different. Some would treat administrative experience as toxic; some would see it as an asset; and some wouldn’t care much one way or the other. Since there’s no way to know in advance which committees are which, I say just go for it and see what happens.
The second answer, which may be in slight tension with the first, is that administrative experience is likelier to be held against you at your home institution than at a new one. At the home institution, you carry the baggage -- fairly or unfairly -- of association with The Administration and all that entails. At another campus, though, you have skills and experience that you’ve gained in that role, but without the baggage.
The advantage for a department in hiring faculty from administration is that the department knows that you have the skills. You can be counted on to step up for projects when needed, which means that the incumbent faculty won’t have to. Having a workhorse around can come in handy.
From my side of the desk, the great appeal of former administrators is both the broader skill set and the broader perspective they bring. Having seen the world from here, they’re much less likely to fall into the exaggerated expectations/exaggerated blame cycle that so many do. They have a more realistic sense of how colleges actually work, which means they’re less likely to generate drama and more likely to get things done. Yes, those are broad strokes, but they’ve held pretty consistently in the cases I’ve seen.
As with graduate students from elite programs, the great danger is in giving the impression that your return to teaching is a form of stepping down or slowing down. Search committees at this level are keenly attuned to attitude, and will shoot down otherwise-desirable candidates on the basis of perceived arrogance. As in any job hunt, the focus shouldn’t be on the job you had, but on the job you want. What is it about teaching that calls to you? And are you willing to put in the level of effort consistent with a new vocation, rather than a consolation prize?
Good luck! I hope you’re able to find a role in which you can be happy.
Wise and worldly readers, I suspect that a candidate like this might be received differently in different settings. What counsel would you offer?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
A Good "School" Friend
That happened again, and it never gets old. TB and TG are doing great, and we’re thrilled.
That said, though, I heard a couple of things that gave me pause.
TG’s teacher said approvingly “I can see that you read to her.” Well, yes, but it’s a little unnerving that that’s worthy of note. Would you say “I can see that you feed her”? Shouldn’t that be a baseline expectation?
The more disturbing one, though, was a comment about one of the girls in TG’s class. We asked who TG plays with the most, and whether we should be concerned about any of them. Her teacher replied that one girl -- I’ll call her Jennifer, which is not her name -- is “a good school friend.” Apparently Jennifer has a rough home life, and the teacher was trying to warn us away from letting TG go to Jennifer’s house for fear of what she would be exposed to there.
(Apparently, “Jennifer” was specific to Generation X. Growing up, all of my classes had at least two Jennifers in it, and often more. Now I don’t think there’s a single Jennifer in the entire school. “Madison” is the new Jennifer.)
I don’t know the specifics the teacher had in mind. We didn’t press, and got the impression that we would have been overstepping our bounds if we had. And I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge some gratitude in keeping TG away from what could be a bad situation. The teacher isn’t generally alarmist, so I assume there’s some reason for what she said. Since TG is only in first grade, there are limits to what I expect her to be able to handle. There’s enough darkness in the world, so there’s no need to rush to it.
But I couldn’t shake the sense that by spreading the word, the teacher was consigning poor Jennifer to even more isolation. Assuming some truth to what she said, the poor kid has a rough time already, but manages to rise above it at school; appending an asterisk to her efforts puts a sort of ceiling on them. If her home life is rocky, then limiting her exposure to other visions of home life seems like it wouldn’t help.
TG likes Jennifer, and so do we. We had her over once, prior to the conference, and she played well with TG and another friend who was also here. TG has asked to have her over again, and we’ll do that.
I don’t know the best way to handle this. At some level, I feel like the teacher did Jennifer a disservice, but as TG’s Dad, I’m glad to keep TG out of harm’s way. I don’t want Jennifer isolated, but I don’t want TG in a bad situation, either.
One of the hardest parts of parenthood is seeing some of the ways other adults treat children. Some children aren’t read to, or fed breakfast, or allowed to feel safe at home. It’s one thing to know that in the abstract, but something else to see it in your kid’s class. I’m just not ready for TG to know that yet. She’s six, and her world is still safe and secure. I’d like her to have that a little while longer. The bad stuff will still be there when she’s older. It can wait.
Monday, December 20, 2010
If at First You Don’t Succeed...
Apparently, California is considering amending its policies on allowing students to repeat courses as many times as they want. It’s looking at a cap. The idea is that seats in classes are not infinite, and once someone has whiffed several times, someone else should have a shot.
Okay, but to me, that leaves out the most interesting and compelling reason. On my own campus, as well as nationally, we’ve found that the pass rates on second attempts are well below the pass rates on first attempts. The pass rates on third attempts are lower still. There comes a point at which there’s a compelling argument to be made that by allowing students to register for a course yet again, we’re just taking their (and the taxpayers’) money.
Pass rates are largely counterintuitive. The ‘easier’ the course content, the lower the pass rate. Basic arithmetic has a much lower pass rate than does calculus, even though calculus is ‘harder.’ Similarly, third-time course takers have much lower pass rates than first-time course takers, even though the third-timers should have the advantage of previous exposure to the material.
Of course, that observation may be flawed in that most people taking developmental math for the first time aren’t really first-timers. They’ve had it before, in high school, and it didn’t ‘take.’ Part of the great tragedy of remediation is that we’re taking students who have (generally) had thirteen years of exposure to the K-12 system, where standard methods didn’t work for them, and we’re giving them a fourteenth year of standard methods. The fact that it often fails really shouldn’t be so surprising.
But that strikes me as an argument for trying different teaching methods in developmental math, rather than giving up on it altogether. To give up would be to write off anybody who went to a crappy high school. Second chances are worth something, and enough students actually do something positive with the second chance that throwing it away would feel like a crime.
Of course, there are second chances, and then there are fifth chances. There comes a point...
Community college faculty and administrators, as a group, tend to believe in open access. So even when there’s a good argument for restrictions, it cuts against the cultural grain.
Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to deal with the balance between access and, well, futility?
Friday, December 17, 2010
And I thought, hmm.
They didn’t seem to be posturing for my benefit. I’ve entered middle-aged invisibility. At this point, if I’m not wearing antlers, I walk unseen. The reactions of the other students, and their quick commiseration and offerings of stories of their own, seemed credible. I’m pretty sure I was hearing something at least mostly true.
Like many colleges, mine ends the semester with an official final exam week. The idea is to allow professors to give exams longer than a single class period. (It also facilitates “common” finals in departments that choose to give them.) It also gives students a chance to focus on finals without also having to worry about other assignments. Tonier colleges build in a “reading period,” or what we call a “weekend.” But the idea is to give students a chance to synthesize (or, less charitably, cram) without having to deal with having classes at the same time.
Some courses don’t use final exams, and that’s fine. Depending on content, a final paper or portfolio or performance might make more sense. There too, though, the idea behind the final exam week is to give the students the benefit of the full semester.
Which is why I get a little annoyed every year around this time when I discover anew that substantial numbers of professors are simply moving their finals up a week and going on vacation early. Based on my accidental eavesdropping, as well as personal observation every year, the empty hallways during exam week aren’t entirely a function of term papers.
It’s annoying on several levels.
At one level is basic workload equity. The faculty all adhere to the same union contract and the same academic calendar. For some to simply shave off a week while others work until the bitter end seems unfair. But the level of surveillance that would be required to suss out who had legitimate alternatives and who was just shirking would be both culturally and personally offensive.
Fairness to students complicates the picture. The students are supposed to get a full semester of instruction, followed by a week of evaluation. They’re getting less than they were promised. Worse, they’re often compelled to take more exams in a single day than would have been the case if the rules had been followed. I’m willing to guess that by the time you get to your third final of the day, you probably aren’t performing at your best.
I don’t want to be the exam police. But at the same time, it’s hard not to notice that the rules are being abused on a regular, and even predictable, basis.
Since mine is a commuter college, this isn’t mostly about flying back to wherever. Nor is it a principled exercise in defiance, since nobody owns up to it in public. It’s just cheating, hiding behind the folks who actually do use final projects.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively small. But as someone charged with establishing and maintaining fair treatment for employees, it’s annoying.
A few months ago, I floated the idea of just cancelling the final exam period altogether, and having classes run right up to the bitter end. That way, we could ensure equality across the board, and nobody would have to guess at anybody else’s motives. But the conscientious folk who actually do common, two-hour final exams objected. From their perspective, I was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. And while nobody offered a principled defense of shirking, I did notice an odd silence from certain corners...
Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to deal with premature examination?
Thursday, December 16, 2010
How to Read Student Evaluations
In a phrase: look for outliers. It’s really about spotting the folks who are badly trailing the rest of the pack. Putting much weight on the difference between the lower middle and the upper middle is missing the point. There’s considerable normal variation, and all kinds of irrelevancies can push one instructor slightly above or below another. But when the same few names show up at the bottom of the list semester after semester, it’s difficult to write that off to random variations.
That’s where comments are useful. Some comments suggest ideological or cultural antipathy at work; those discredit themselves. (About once a year I get a student complaining that his professor is gay, and wanting to know what I’m going to do about it. “What would you suggest?” usually ends the discussion.) But some comments are actually revealing. I tend to discount references to “arrogance” or “full of himself,” but I take seriously comments like “he takes two months to grade papers” or “he’s incredibly disorganized.” When clusters of students make the same basic comment, there’s usually at least a conversation to be had.
Some professors like to say that student evaluations shouldn’t exist, or at least shouldn’t count for anything. I have to disagree. When a dean does a class observation, she observes one class meeting. Things like “speed of grading” simply won’t show on the radar, and of course, anyone can have an uncharacteristically good or bad day. But students see every day, so things that might seem inconsequential (or be entirely invisible) in a single moment take on their full significance.
Students also have different ‘eyes’ than faculty peers or deans, and reaching them is really the point. Inferential leaps that may seem obvious to someone with a doctorate in a related field may be entirely opaque to a freshman encountering the subject for the first time. It’s hard to fake ignorance, so we need to ask those who don’t have to fake it.
That said, I’m often struck at faculty paranoia around student course evaluations. They’re part of the picture, but they’re far from dispositive. In my student days at Snooty Liberal Arts College I remember a young professor -- maybe second year -- handing out the evaluation forms and then just sitting there and staring at us as we filled them out. He seemed paralyzed with fear that we’d be lukewarm and get him fired. After an uncomfortable silence, we started filling out the forms, wondering when/if he would leave. Another student -- I can’t take credit, though I wish I could -- raised his hand and asked “how many m’s in ‘incompetent?’” It broke the tension, even if it seemed just this side of cruel.
Of course, most student comments aren’t quite so clever. I don’t know why students feel compelled to comment on professorial hotness, and I wince whenever I read something like “he helped me write more better.” (I actually got that one once.) My brother reports that he once had a professor in the later stages of his career, perfectly fine in class but long past caring about evaluations. The students decided collectively to write their comments as baseball metaphors. “Although he’s lost a little on his fastball, he makes up for it by painting the corners.” Okaayyyy....
Wise and worldly readers, have you ever read anything on a student course evaluation that stuck with you? Is there a right way to read these things?
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
"It's Not the Dark Side. It Just Sucks."
Some other commenters made similar points, if with different emphases. One put it quite bluntly, asking just what, exactly, makes this job worth doing.
I had to think about that one for a while.
It's certainly true that the day-to-day work of deaning is very different from the day-to-day work of faculty. There's far less autonomy, whether in terms of choosing tasks, making decisions, or even setting your own schedule. I didn't realize how much I valued time flexibility until I had lost it. Suddenly even banal stuff like oil changes and haircuts took planning.
Several people mentioned a lack of mentoring, which I've absolutely found to be true. Even more astonishing to me was how quickly people expected me to know things. I got asked “what's the procedure for...?” for things I didn't even know happened. (I also got the opposite – “how was this decision made?” – whenever someone didn't like the answer.)
Academic culture tolerates a level of open insubordination and contrapower harassment that simply does not exist in any other established field. That can be rough on neophytes. Reading the blogs, you'd think that so many “gadflies” would made academia the sanest, justest workplace in the whole wide world.
I'll just let that one sink in for a minute.
Worse, new deans and chairs often discover, sometimes quite quickly, that many people with lingering grievances against an institution or an entire industry will treat you as a synecdoche, and unload on you. I get this on the blogs all the time. As the only academic administrator who actually writes about adjunctification in a serious and sustained way, I get treated as some sort of class enemy by armies of embittered adjunct activists. They're deeply wrong – anyone who has read my stuff for the last several years knows that I'm opposed to the tenure/adjunct dyad, and anyone who works with me IRL wouldn't recognize the caricatures – but the libel serves a political purpose, so it survives. Someone has to be the common enemy, whether he’s actually an enemy or not.
Similar things happen on campus. If you like being accused of things you had no part in doing, go into administration. If I had a nickel for every conversation that went like this:
Prof: Why did you make this awful decision?
Me: I didn’t. One of my predecessors did. In 1980.
Prof: Well, The Administration did this...
I’d be a wealthy man.
So with all of that said, why do I keep doing this? And would I encourage others to do it too?
For all the doom and gloom above, I actually like my job most of the time.
Some of that is location-specific. It took a couple of tries to find the right college. Some wells are simply toxic, and need to be abandoned. There is such a thing as cutting losses.
But some of it is real gratification at seeing a culture change for the better.
Success in administrative roles is often more vicarious and subtle than in the classroom. My most satisfying moments are when people realize that the climate has changed to the point that it has become safe to act as their best selves, rather than cowering in fear of the next (often sideways) attack. When I see people actually tell truths, rather than adopting the usual poses, I see it as a win. When people come out of their silos and work in productive collaborations that they simply would not have a few years ago, it’s a win.
It’s frustrating to work towards that kind of change on campus, only to have state budget pressures intrude. But one can do only what one can do.
I’m increasingly convinced that good leadership is as much about temperament as about anything else. My sense of administrative “vision” is not “we will have the highest graduation rate in the state,” or “we will have the best program in X in the region.” It’s more like “we’ll have a workplace in which the best ideas can win, and experimentation is rewarded.” Actually seeing that start to happen has been gratifying. The most appealing part is that it’s cumulative; cool experiments lead to more cool experiments. We’ve got one on campus now that’s so )$#(*^%^%_! cool that if it wouldn’t blow the pseudonym, I’d spend a full week writing about nothing but that. It’s the fruit of years of deliberate climate change, and it’s sending an unmistakably positive message to the rest of the campus. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, and I take real pride in that.
Would I recommend this to others? In many settings, no. But if you have the right local climate, and the right vision, and serious tenacity, and the ability to distance yourself from personal attacks, and a strong sense of why you’re doing it, then maybe.
Which may explain the small applicant pools...
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
This Year's Market Indicator
The administrative applicant pools, by contrast, have been markedly thin. After filtering out the clearly underqualified, we were left in the single digits.
If administrators were as wildly overpaid as some like to claim, I’d imagine the ratios would be reversed. That hasn’t happened. I won’t deny that some folks at elite places make staggering sums, but at my cc and at every other cc in my state, this is simply not the case.
People with longer histories here tell me that administrative searches weren’t always so difficult. Ten years ago, administrative postings generated floods of quality applications. Now, not.
I’m guessing the cause is a combination of things.
The most basic is the lack of a pipeline. With so few associate professors running around, the pool of potential applicants is simply smaller than it once was. A faculty hiring shortage eventually led to an administrative candidate shortage.
The housing market is probably also at play. Many of the people far enough along in their careers to be credible applicants own their homes; in this market, you don’t sell unless you absolutely have to. Yes, some folks rent, and there are some local-ish applicants, but the housing market may be exerting some serious drag. (The same would be less likely to apply on the faculty side, since folks fresh out of grad school don’t usually own their homes.) I’d guess there’s less job-hopping when making the leap requires taking a serious loss.
There’s also the ongoing cultural taboo against “crossing over to the dark side,” though I think that taboo predates the last few years. (Notably, many of the same people who resort to “dark side” rhetoric with the most vigor are also the first to complain about administrators coming from outside the faculty ranks, yet they rarely notice the contradiction.)
At some level, though, I wonder if part of the issue is a growing sense -- largely correct -- that succeeding in these roles is getting objectively harder. Resource constraints are far worse than they were even a few years ago, and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. (I get periodic emails soliciting applications for positions in California; I delete them unread. No way am I going to board that sinking ship.) When your first task in your new administrative role is to cut budgets, you’ll have a rough time lasting.
With more no-win decisions to be made, there’s also more litigation to be endured. Since our judicial system has yet to embrace the fundamental fairness of “loser pays,” there’s little incentive to forego retaliatory lawsuits when someone doesn’t like an outcome. Labor relations are always hard when budgets are tight; walking right into a flurry of grievances is no fun. And as bad as regular budget cuts are, midyear budget cuts are inexcusably brutal. Walk into that propeller once, and you will go out of your way to avoid it thereafter.
There’s also increasing external pressure to do things that internal constituencies simply don’t want done, like outcomes assessment. Every time a college replaces operating funding with grant funding, it takes on a new set of reporting requirements and criteria, and a new set of judges for whom to perform. I tolerate rubrics, but have never developed a love for them.
I don’t think it’s anything terribly specific to my college, since it’s pretty well respected in its niche. And its geographic location hasn’t changed in the last ten years, so I hesitate to blame geography.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything similar on your campus? Any contributions to a general theory of administrative candidate shortages?
Monday, December 13, 2010
Cost-Effectiveness, or Cost?
The goal of the study -- which is entirely to the good -- is to encourage colleges to base resource allocation decisions on actual effectiveness, rather than on what sounds good or what has usually been done. The authors break out two-year and four-year sectors -- thank you -- and actually define their variables. (Notably, the productivity decline over the past forty years has been far more dramatic in the four-year sector than in the two-year sector.) Even better, they acknowledge that most of the research done on various programs are done on those programs in isolation, rather than in comparison with each other. If we’re serious about dealing with limited resources, we have to acknowledge that money spent on program A is money not available to be spent on program B. It’s not enough to show that a given program helps; it needs to help more than its alternatives would have.
Broadly, the paper finds that outside of call centers, there isn’t much low-hanging fruit. It tackles the “fewer adjuncts or smaller classes” conundrum directly, finding that more full-time faculty leads to greater bang for the buck than do smaller classes. (It notes, correctly, that the evidentiary basis for this claim is thin, but at least it’s something.) Given the choice between full-timers teaching large sections and adjuncts teaching small ones, this paper suggests the former. Strikingly, it notes that the bang-for-the-buck of most student services and student service programs is terrible. The TRIO programs look particularly bad, with Upward Bound standing out as a conspicuous boondoggle.
I’m not sure I buy every argument in the paper, but it’s a great start.
It leaves out a critical factor in administrative decision-making, though, which is the sources of money for the various programs. If every dollar came from the same pot, then the bang-for-the-buck measure would be significant. But some dollars come from pots of their own. If a program is entirely grant-funded, and those grant dollars can only be used for that program, then the fact that those dollars could have been more productively used elsewhere is of only theoretical interest. (Put differently, if the choice is between program A and program B, that’s one thing. If it’s between program A and nothing at all, that’s something else.) As long as, say, Federal dollars will pay the entire cost for a given program, then my only concern is whether the program makes any positive difference at all. The question of relative payoff may make sense at, say, the Congressional level, but not here.
There’s also the question of the financial relevance of cost-per-degree. (I’ll leave aside the educational relevance, since that’s too easy. Yes, a degree should actually signify something. That’s why we need robust outcomes assessment. Noted.) My college, like most, doesn’t get funded by the degree. It gets funded by a set amount given by the legislature, plus student tuition. (It also subsidizes the credit-bearing side by profits from workforce development contracts, but that’s neither here nor there.) Tuition is by the credit, and the state appropriation is by the whim of the legislature and governor. In other words, while I can acknowledge the inherent goodness of student success, improved success may not pay for itself locally. In fact, it almost certainly won’t, since tuition covers less than the cost of educating a student, and graduation rates don’t affect our appropriation in any intelligible way.
That’s why I can understand the argument about full-time faculty, but not be able to do much with it. The dollars simply aren’t there. (Of course, we could try to divert money from, say, counselors to faculty, so the analysis isn’t entirely useless.) This is in contrast to the for-profits, where tuition more than pays for its attendant costs. That’s why the for-profits are as focused on student success as they are, and why they pioneered call centers. They capture their own gains. We don’t. Cost effectiveness is great, but if the cost accrues to the college and the benefits don’t, we can expect underinvestment. Doing otherwise would be irrational.
Notably, the study notes that the underlying “cost disease” of higher education as currently defined -- broadly, denominating currency in units of time -- more than swamps any savings to be had by adopting even the most rigorous use of comparative measures. (It also assumes, I think falsely, that call centers and similar “intrusive advisement” models have no negative effect on academic quality. Based on what I saw at Proprietary U, I’d suggest that students who discover that the college needs them more than they need the college will adopt attitudes of entitlement that will make academic rigor more of an uphill battle.) In other words, it addresses more intelligent short-term decisionmaking, rather than fundamental structural change. That’s useful as far as it goes, but it only goes so far.
Still, caveats noted, I have to give thumbs-up overall. Subjecting the claims of various campus constituencies to evidence-based analysis strikes me as worth trying. Diverting money from boondoggles to productive uses may not make all the difference, but it would certainly help. As someone who actually has to make certain budgetary decisions, I say thanks.
Friday, December 10, 2010
It mentioned that a recent study found that over the last several years, there has been a net of zero job growth in companies five years old or older. All of the job growth – all of it – can be accounted for by startups. “Mature” industries don't power growth.
And I thought, hmm.
How many colleges can you name that are under five years old? And of those, how many are nonprofit and tenure-granting? How many are slated for opening in the next year or two?
A very different world is in the living memory of many of the people at the top of the profession. In the 1960's, community colleges opened across the country at a rate of one per week. Many of the people who entered the field then are still around. An astonishing number of college presidents got their start in the 1960's. (A few weeks ago I attended a workshop with a big muckety-muck and high-level administrators from colleges and universities in my area. The big muckety-muck made a comment that started with “in the sixties, when we were in college...” I coughed.) If you got in when things were expanding, opportunities were thick on the ground.
Obviously, this is no longer the case.
My own career got a jump start when I signed on to a for-profit during a growth spurt. The growth spurt opened administrative opportunities much more quickly than would have been the case elsewhere. In this part of the country, it was one of the only academic settings that was actually growing. There, the 'startup' part was indirect: when the company started another campus not terribly far away, it raided my campus to staff it. The resulting staffing gaps created opportunities. In the nonprofit sector, moments like those have become vanishingly rare.
Since public higher education is basically a mature industry in the U.S., any efforts at growth are already swimming upstream. There will be programmatic and geographic pockets of growth, but they'll be matched (or exceeded) by other areas trimming. Retirements will help here and there, but the unrelenting cost pressures on colleges limit what can be done there.
I've seen some of that on my own campus. We have plenty of position requests, the vast majority of them more than worthy, but we can only afford to fill a few. Saying 'yes' to one necessarily involves saying 'no' to several others. At this point, new requests can only be approved by bumping off other requests in the queue.
Because I am a giant nerd, I used to play SimCity from time to time. I always enjoyed the beginning, when things were growing rapidly, but tended to lose interest when the city went from youth to maturity. There usually came a point at which the best you could do was to maintain, and that just wasn't much fun. Public higher ed is looking like that now.
IHE reported a couple weeks ago that half of the academic jobs created in the past few years were at for-profits. That sounded both right and shocking. That’s where the growth is -- or was, until very recently -- so that’s where the jobs are.
The Chronicle's story a few weeks ago on the brief life and death of Founders College gave me hope, oddly enough. For about ten minutes, Founders College was a shot at a niche I consider the next big thing: the upscale proprietary. It botched the attempt in any number of ways, not the least of which was grafting an overlay of Ayn Rand on top of the ‘upscale proprietary’ concept, thereby muddying the brand. But if you take out the Randian stuff, and staff and market it correctly, I could see an upscale proprietary really taking off.
In a way, I hope that turns out to be true. If nothing else, some area of growth would at least open up some opportunities. And growing on the high end of the market would get around many of the issues faced by the schools that compete with community colleges but charge five times as much. Mercedes U is lighting waiting to strike. I’m just sayin’.
Without startups, the prospects are bleak. Here’s hoping...
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Let’s say that you’re a newish dean, and that you have a department that’s resisting something that you believe needs to be done. You get the sense that it has a strong contrarian streak, and that it rather enjoys making deans squirm just for the hell of it. Which of the following would you consider a victory?
a. Cajoling them into doing the task.
b. Bribing them into doing the task.
c. Picking off one or two semi-sympathetic members to start the task.
d. Getting them to the point where they admit that something needs to be done.
In my early days of deaning, I would have gone with a or c. Now, I’m sold on d.
A or C will usually result in an underwhelming performance, followed by a return to intransigence. It may or may not be enough to meet the very short-term need, but afterwards you’ll be right back where you started, arguably with less political capital. B just rewards intransigence, and thereby generates more of it. D takes longer, and may or may not result in a viable short-term solution, but it lays the groundwork for actual improvement.
The trick with D is letting go of the specific remedy. Instead of “I want you to do x using method y,” you have to be willing to be satisfied with something like “I need your help in coming up with a sustainable way to address issue z.” Then defer, whenever it’s even vaguely reasonable, to what they develop. The victory is in moving from intransigence to engagement.
The great thing about faculty is that they’re bright as hell, and they know more about their fields than you do (since your jurisdiction goes beyond your academic field). They’ll often use those advantages as battering rams, but if they get involved in constructing the solution, those advantages suddenly become incredibly valuable. The key is in staying at the level of ‘why,’ and leaving the ‘how’ alone. Respect their ability to come up with better methods than anything you would have thought of anyway. Give up ownership, and don’t even try for control; if you can get agreement on the general direction, and find enough resources that it isn’t all abstract, call it victory.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Reserves to the Rescue?
I’ll admit laughing out loud at one passage, citing chapter Vice President Peter Brown:
Brown said the school could keep “every single program and employee here” if they used millions of dollars in reserve funds stored in over 400 accounts.
Though he said he does not know how much funding is available and if that money could legally be used, Brown said the time to use “rainy day” funds for emergencies is now. (emp. added)
That’s cute. I don’t know how much there is, of if we can legally use it, but I’m just sure it’s enough for every single employee and program here! I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I just know I’m right!
It’s a student paper, so he may have been misquoted. Even still, there are some pretty serious reasons that just patching deficits with reserves is dangerous.
I’ve written before on public college reserves, and how they differ from ‘endowments’ as usually understood. The short version is that endowments are supposed to produce income which can be used for various reasons, but reserves are supposed to be liquid and available either for capital projects (buildings) or short-term budget gaps. Reserves aren’t about generating income, even though it’s nice when they do; they’re there for emergencies and opportunities.
Of course, that refers only to general college reserves. It’s also common for various programs to have reserves of their own, earmarked for specific purposes. The college foundation might have reserves dedicated for certain scholarship awards. Some grant-funded programs will have reserves for specific functions and only for those functions. (In the context of multiyear grants, for example, it’s common to have ‘carryover’ of excess funds from one fiscal year to the next. That’s frequently allowed, but that doesn’t give license to transfer the extra grant money to the general college budget.) In cases like those, money comes with strings attached, and violating the terms of the money involves forfeiting the money. You can’t just move it around.
Still, most colleges have some ‘general’ reserves over which they have at least some level of control. Should they use reserves as alternatives to budget cuts?
Sometimes. Times when that would make sense would include:
- A short, sharp shock to the budget that isn’t likely to reoccur anytime soon. Recovery from a natural disaster or fire would fit this bill.
- When the reserves have grown so large that the state legislature is starting to see them as an excuse to cut your appropriation. If you’re in a “use it or lose it” situation, then use it.
- When the survival of the college is at stake.
- When you’re covering a short-term cost that will lead to long-term savings: severance/buyout packages, say, or installing energy-efficient lighting. You’ll take a hit upfront, but save money over time; reserves give you the flexibility to do that.
Times when it absolutely would not make sense would include:
- When the budget shortfall looks chronic or structural, rather than fleeting. If you burn cash to feed a structural deficit, you are on the path to insolvency. Institutions that do this for very long usually die.
- When you’re using reserves to postpone the inevitable. You’re actually paying for your own gradual loss of agency in determining your fate. This is madness.
The downsides to spending reserves on operating expenses are several. For one, once the reserves are gone, they’re gone. If you haven’t cut costs yet, now you really have to, and all at once.
Second is what I call the percentage trap. To keep the math easy, put this year’s appropriation at 100. You take a 20 percent cut, so you’re down to 80; you make up the 20 from reserves. Next year you “get it back” with a 20 percent increase. But because math has a sense of humor, a 20 percent increase from 80 only gets you to 96. Even after you’ve been “made whole,” you’re still in the hole. Now you’re paying 4 out of reserves indefinitely just to get back to even.
Of course, the percentage trap is much worse than that in real life. In real life, you never get “made whole,” even at that level. And the rate of health insurance increases is another kind of percentage trap that makes any budget squeal like a pig. But that just amplifies the point: if you use reserves to paper over a shortfall, and you don’t address the root causes of the shortfall, you’re just setting yourself up for disaster.
Finally, there’s the annoying truth that reserves are typically kept as securities, rather than as cash. If your shortfalls coincide with market declines, you force yourself to ‘sell low’ after having ‘bought high.’ Financially, this is suicide.
Most public colleges below the elite level have markedly small reserves -- a month or two of operating expenses, usually. If you used that to cover a structural deficit, you’d burn through it in a year or two. Yes, there are exceptions among the elites, and I have no argument with anyone who says that Harvard’s endowment has taken on a life of its own. But Harvard’s endowment is simply irrelevant to most community and state colleges. At this level, fantasies of self-funded bailouts are just fantasies.
I don’t know the particulars of the New Paltz case, so I won’t address it specifically. I’ll just suggest that the relevant criterion shouldn’t be whether budget cuts suck -- yes, they do -- or whether you care about “quality.” There are perfectly valid “quality” arguments on both sides. The relevant question is whether the shortfall is fleeting or structural. If it’s fleeting, then spend away. If it’s structural, then make the changes that need to be made.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
He hasn’t actually said as much, and heaven knows I don’t want to plant the seed just yet. But last weekend when the four of us went out to see Santa -- and stand in a line two hours for the privilege -- I couldn’t help but notice a telltale indifference.
The Girl was excited. To her, Santa is still real. She gave serious thought to the questions she would ask him, and got a little shy when she finally saw him. (She asked if he had any children. He responded that he thinks of the children of the world as his children.)
But not TB. He seemed a little sullen as we went, and even when we finally saw the big guy, he was no more than ‘game.’ He allowed TG to enjoy the moment, but didn’t seem to care much himself. He wasn’t snarky or contrary or brittle about it, though; he respected the moment, even if he didn’t feel it.
I was proud of the way he handled it. Although he can be goofy and frenetic, he can also show surprising poise. This summer, when I had the first Sex Talk with him, he was almost preternaturally calm. He asked the questions he had, and asked questions as I explained things, but never got silly or jumpy or shy. He knows what not to talk to his sister about, which is a relief. He seems to understand that just because you know something exciting and new doesn’t mean that you immediately have to share it with the world.
Here, too, he showed that maturity that he otherwise seems to hide. He didn’t do anything to interfere with his sister’s enjoyment of Santa. Santa may not be real, but she is, and he knew enough to respect her joy. I was immensely proud of him for being so classy.
As proud as I was of him, though, it was hard not to miss the little guy who lit up when Santa came to the house on a fire truck. There was a time when the combination of “Santa” and “fire truck” was just about the coolest thing he could ever imagine.
Now, that little boy is a tweener, and he wants an ipod for Christmas.
Unlike his sister, he always had one of those faces where you could see from toddlerhood what he would look like as he got older. As much fun as it is watching him grow into himself, the surprises have been few and far between. He’s a sweet, handsome kid who is on his way to being a sweet, handsome teenager, and eventually a sweet, handsome adult. For all of his goofiness and random obsessions -- the kid knows more about hurricanes than anybody I know -- he already has a bit of an old soul. When things are difficult or delicate, he suddenly shows a maturity that many adults can’t muster. He understands that his actions and statements affect other people, and he takes care to protect them when he can. Though tall for his age, he’s a gentle giant.
Merry Christmas, TB. Thank you for letting TG savor the gift of wonder that you’re slowly outgrowing.
Monday, December 06, 2010
Research Design in a Recession
The folks putting the survey together rejected the question, on the grounds that too many of our students are homeless, and the question assumes a home. They thought it would be insensitive.
I hadn’t thought of that.
In conversation with one professor who has several homeless students, she mentioned that they’re actually doing reasonably well academically. When she asked them how they do it, they told her -- individually -- that they saw academic success as the way out of homelessness. One of them told her that classes were the only positive thing in her life at this point, so she enjoys focusing on them. Everything else is just depressing.
It’s getting cold at night this time of year.
Colleges were never built for this. They were originally built for the second sons of the aristocracy, and even now they work ‘best’ for students with all of the usual advantages. Community colleges are much closer to the ground than most of the rest of higher ed, but even here, the assumption has always been that students have a place to go. The term “commuter college” at least assumes that students have a place from which to commute.
The assumption of a home runs deep. Professors assign ‘home’work. Tuition levels vary depending on residency, which assumes the existence of a residence. The campus is able to close on Sundays and late at night because it assumes that everyone has somewhere else to go.
Invalidate that assumption, and things get tricky. When the library becomes a shelter of last resort, it loses its availability as a study area for many students. (We’ve had evenings this year in which every single seat in the library was taken, and students actually stood around.) Students living on the margins are vulnerable to predators of any number of stripes; one of the cruel truths of our society is that the people with the least to steal are the likeliest to be robbed. Proposals like “make netbooks mandatory” look different when you imagine the netbook as thiefbait in the car in which a student lives.
And, of course, some of these students have kids. I can’t even imagine.
Part of me wants to just open up the gym at night, but the issues there are legion. What about non-students? What about safety within? What, exactly, does the college know about running a homeless shelter? We have a hard enough time just maintaining the basic functions of a college.
In this setting, debates like whether or not to extend tax cuts for millionaires make me stabby. It’s the wrong question entirely. Even addressing it respectfully feels like a lie.
In the meantime, we’ll use a different survey question.
Friday, December 03, 2010
When Internal Adjuncts Apply
Internal candidates have been on a winning streak lately at my college, though there are no guarantees. Are the rules different for them?
No, but some of them think they are. That’s how good adjuncts can torpedo their own candidacies.
Don’t approach the interview with the attitude, either stated or implied, that we already know you and you have nothing left to prove. I’ve seen this a few times, and it’s always the kiss of death. The interview is a performance. It’s a chance for us to see what you can do when you have our undivided attention. If you can’t even take an interview seriously, the message you send is either an overweening sense of entitlement -- no thanks -- or basic cluelessness.
References can also be an issue for longtime adjuncts. If your references are primarily from the department to which you’re applying, you’re hurting yourself. I’ve had candidates list members of the search committee as references, which is a glaring conflict of interest. Even if they aren’t on the committee, members of the home department often find the role ambiguous at best. There’s also an obvious issue of inbreeding. Even if you’ve been adjuncting primarily at one place for the last ten years, you’ll need references from other places.
Since full-time lines are rare, colleges will often try to use them to bring something new to the table. That can put adjuncts at a disadvantage, since they were usually hired to fill already-existing slots. There are exceptions to that, of course, but know that you may be competing with people who’ve done things elsewhere that have not been done here, and that we might want here. To the extent that you can show that you have more in your bag of tricks than you’ve been asked to share thus far, you’ll be in better shape.
The role of full-time faculty is different from the role of adjunct faculty. In the full-time role, there’s an expectation of college citizenship, which involves participation in committees and shared governance. There’s a fuzzy but real expectation of a sense of responsibility for a program. Since full-time lines are so rare, they’re often used to add to or transform a program, rather than simply to do more of the same. Be prepared to address how you’ll step into those roles.
Finally, and I know this is hard, think about how you’d handle it if you don’t get the job. This is a real risk. We’ve had cases locally in which a half-dozen adjuncts applied for the same job; even with one of them winning, five lost. Most handle it well, at least in public, but some choose to go ballistic. “I”m good enough to teach, but not good enough to be full-time?” The fallacy in that statement is that the decision is not about you in isolation. It’s about you as compared to other candidates. The obligation on the hiring end is to choose the person who best fits the needs of the college at the time. In getting the adjunct gig, you may have been up against one other person; in going for the full-time job, you may have been up against fifty or more. I know that sucks, and it isn’t much comfort, but it’s true.
I don’t pretend for a minute that the current adjunct system is fair, just, or reasonable. It isn’t, and I’ve been saying so in public for years. But structural critique is one thing, and job search tips are another.
Wise and worldly readers, do you have any special tips for adjuncts applying at their home institutions?
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Ask the Administrator: Partial Pay for Small Sections
I have been offered a course at a reduced rate because the enrollment is not 100%. My objections to this go beyond mere self interest (I think). Here are some potential issues:
#1: Instructors have little control over enrollment, but do have some. For example how many students pass a 100 level course has a direct impact on how many students move on to a 200 level course we might teach. If our rate is based on warm bodies might not an instructor be tempted to pass students just to increase enrollment in a higher level course?
#2: Advising, in either an official or unofficial capacity can only be affected by an instructors financial interest in the outcome of what classes a student signs up for.
#3: Is it really less work to teach a smaller class? Same commute, same lecture, same lesson prep, etc. At best there's some reduction in the amount of grading. I like to think we'd all give 100% for 50% pay, but there's some risk there. There's a message being sent by the college if they know it or not.
Obviously I can just turn down the class, but then I'm the guy that turns down classes... they will find someone to take the class and maybe that someone will get the next class at the full rate.
It’s a great question, since there are arguments on both sides.
Point three, above, gets details right on both sides. Yes, all else being equal, the grading for a small class is less work than the grading for a large class. (That’s why we cap sections for English Composition lower than for, say, Intro to Psych. Grading all those papers takes serious time.) But most of the other time and work is still there. The preparation is substantially similar, the class time doesn’t change, and so on.
Points one and two strike me as applicable mostly in smaller schools. They don’t apply very often here, though they could in some settings.
From an administrative perspective, small sections raise an obvious concern and a less obvious concern. The obvious concern is cost. If you only get three or four students in a class but you pay full freight anyway, you bleed money. If that class uses a classroom that otherwise would have held a much larger section, the opportunity cost is significant. (Yes, even last-minute sections can fill when the demand is high enough. It happens every semester.)
The less obvious concern is precedent. Every department or program has favorite courses (or favorite instructors) that it would love to run with low numbers. If I say yes to the history department’s pet project, then I have a hell of a time saying no to the psychology department’s pet project. Multiply that by departments across campus, and the logic behind bright-line minima starts to make sense.
The argument for pro-rating pay in low-enrolled sections is that it gets around the ‘precedent’ problem. If you’re willing to accept half of your usual salary to teach a smaller section, then I have an answer for the next department asking for the same thing. Assuming that there’s some sort of minimum beneath which people just won’t teach, this lets the market decide.
Of course, it still fails to address the opportunity cost problem -- itself a deal-breaker on my crowded campus -- and the plausibility of expecting the same level of effort at a pittance.
My college doesn’t pro-rate; either the class runs or it doesn’t. That necessarily means that certain classes simply don’t run, or at least not very often. Every semester we have multiple ‘triage’ meetings in which we try to guess which sections will hit the magic number that time.
This is a necessary and unavoidable side effect of endorsing the full-pay strategy. If your program is chock-full of required classes but doesn’t have enough students to run them, then your program either changes or dies. We can have full pay, or we can have lots of tiny sections, but we can’t have both. We’ve chosen the former.
Whether it makes sense to say ‘yes’ in your case depends on any number of things. I don’t know how staffing decisions are made at your college. It may be that turning down a class would be held against you, or it may not. I’d pay more attention to whether this class makes sense for you. If it’s something you’ve taught before, and the timing works with whatever else you’re doing, and you enjoy it, then I’d say go for it. If it’s a new prep, or an awkward time, or otherwise unpleasant, and if you can afford to, I’d turn it down. Obviously, your mileage may vary.
Good luck. It’s an unpleasant situation, though I can see how it happened.
Wise and worldly readers, what’s your take on partial pay for small classes?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Hints for Job Seekers
If you’re applying for a full-time faculty job, you can assume that the folks who read your cover letter will be academics. For all their quirks, academics tend to be pretty good readers. That means that your cover letter will actually get read closely, probably several times. Craft counts.
Please don’t open with “My name is...” We’ll figure it out when we get to the signature line.
Extended explanations of your personal life are out of place. Employers don’t hire to solve people’s personal problems. They hire to solve their own problems. Explain how you will solve the employer’s problems. If you can’t even get through a cover letter without invoking major personal drama, I have a pretty good indication of what I’d have to handle. No, thanks.
For fresh-out-of-grad-school faculty applicants: letters that focus lovingly on your dissertation are red flags. Community colleges hire people to teach. I don’t want a frustrated researcher; I want a terrific teacher who is conversant in her field. If you also happen to do research, that’s great, but it’s not the job. If that sounds hellish to you, don’t apply here.
For corporate-refugee applicants to administrative positions: Tread lightly on the “real world” stuff. It’s condescending, and it suggests that you don’t have the foggiest idea how higher education works. If you’re coming in from the outside, you’re much better off focusing on your listening and adapting skills than on your take-charge personality. Otherwise, I can anticipate that you’ll be the bull in the china shop for the one year that you manage to survive here. And whatever you do, don’t give the impression that you see a move to academia as semi-retirement. That’s instant death.
If you make it to the interview, congratulations! Keep in mind that the point of an interview is not necessarily to get the job; it’s to find the right match. A few tips, based on what I’ve seen personally:
If you’re at a distance and are offered the opportunity for a phone or Skype interview, understand that no matter how much the committee may protest otherwise, you will be at a disadvantage relative to candidates who can actually show up. If it’s at all possible, get there. In my dozen years on searches, I can’t remember a single time that an applicant won a job without showing up in person. Remember: you’re competing with people they’ve actually met.
Never, under any circumstances, refer to yourself as “phenomenal” or any synonym thereof. It screams “Ego Monster,” and honestly, I stop listening at that point.
Do not suggest that you are far superior to the people we currently have in the department. See “Ego Monster,” above.
Assume that you’ll be asked why you want to work here. A good answer is one that suggests that you’ll roll up your sleeves and get to work on problems that matter to the college. “It’s near (desired location)” is not a good answer.
Assume that you’ll be asked if you have any questions for us. Have some. And don’t go immediately to course releases and sabbaticals. Asking about college priorities is a safe fallback if you don’t have anything else.
This one may be me, but I’ve never been offended by candidates who work with a single page of notes. Don’t read anything at length, and never go rifling for anything, but a few keywords to help you remember major topics are fine. This comes in handy at the “do you have any questions for us” stage. Better that than the deer-in-headlights moment as you go blank trying to remember what you wanted to ask. If nothing else, it suggests preparation.
Know how to read “salary ranges.” In a collective bargaining environment, salary ranges are based on the lowest-to-highest earners at a given title. The highest earner at a given title may have thirty years’ experience here. Don’t assume that you’ll be coming in anywhere near the top of the range, no matter how objectively wonderful you are. And no, fifteen years of experience elsewhere doesn’t count as much on the salary scale as fifteen years of experience here. Whether that makes sense or not, it’s the way it is. For a new hire, the lower-middle portion of the salary range is realistic. Harvard can play by whatever rules it wants; for us, these are the rules.
This one may sound cruel, but it’s based on direct observation. If you live with your parents, give us a cell phone number that applies only to you. Trust me on this one. Somewhat less urgently, if your email address ends in “aol.com,” get a new email address. And please let your references know that they’re your references. I once called a candidate’s reference to say that I was calling about so-and-so; the person said “who?” Not impressive.
Finally, and I know this is hard, know that it’s really not about you. Expect some rejections along the way. If nothing else, try to learn something through each interview you have. From my own experience, I can attest that interviewing is a skill like any other, and that you get better with practice. An interview that doesn’t result in an offer at least gives you more practice. I wouldn’t have landed my current job if I hadn’t gone through several unsuccessful interviews elsewhere first. It’s part of the process.
From this side of the desk, hiring is something like casting. The college is trying to fill a particular role. Depending on the needs of the college at any given time, the role will change. Those changes have nothing to do with you, and are no reflection on you. If you accept that reality going in, you can let go of the fantasy of perfection, and instead focus on presenting the best accurate version of yourself. If you get a position based on an accurate presentation of yourself, you’ll have a great chance of being successful in it.
Wise and worldly readers, do you have any tips to share?