Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Live from the League, Day 3

The theme today seemed to be generational change, but in a good way; instead of the hand-wringing about leadership crises that I heard two years ago, this time there was much more of a sense of embracing new possibilities. Granted, those possibilities are emerging against a crippling economic backdrop, but hell, we Gen X’ers know all about that. If anyone can handle it, we can.

Day 3 highlights:

- Gail Mellow, from LaGuardia, led a panel on the Global Skills for College Completion initiative, funded by the Gates foundation. It was entirely too complex to summarize; I’ll just note that it blends social networking for handpicked developmental ed faculty in 14 states with moderated and peer-validated “tagging” (like the hashtags on twitter), and it seems to employ a very complex system of data analysis to derive inductively the presence of “latent patterns” of innovation in classrooms across the country. This, at 8:00 a.m. Dear reader, you’re welcome.

- Today’s keynote was by Paul Lanning, who heads the Foundation for California community colleges. That means he’s the fundraiser-in-chief who deals with philanthropies, alumni, and certain granting agencies. I thought it revealing that the League chose a professional fundraiser to give a keynote; in a nutshell, that encapsulates the times. (Before the speech, the CEO of the League did a brief infomerical for Cappella’s higher ed leadership program. Cappella is a for-profit. Again, sign of the times...) The keynote address set off some audible grumbling in the audience, since the gist of it was “here’s how we can make ourselves more palatable to corporate givers.” I understand why he gave that speech -- that’s his job, and we need the money -- but it can be a little deflating to hear after hearing about all the pedagogical and curricular breakthroughs happening elsewhere.

Anyway, he argued that corporate givers are concerned with the return on investment (ROI) of their gifts, and that they would prefer projects that are replicable, scalable, and sustainable. I was glad to hear him use the rhetoric of ‘sustainability’ in the context of institutions; in my observation, we do far too little of that. And I don’t have any issue with the three desiderata he outlined; I’ve written before myself about the tendency to create expensive ‘boutique’ programs that serve a few dozen students while leaving thousands in the cold. It’s just a little too easy to move from “here’s what corporate leaders say” to “therefore, that’s what we should do.” Oddly, he wrapped up the talk with a plug for Hands Across California in April, for which they’ve engaged the endorsements of famed community college alums Mark Harmon and Ryan Seacrest. Yes, Ryan Seacrest. I went for a long walk after that. (“Dean Dad, out!”)

- Happily, matters improved as the day progressed. Two deans from North Carolina did an entertaining panel on “Leadership in a Dangerous Time,” riffing on an old Bruce Cockburn song. The theme was the different leadership styles that Gen X will bring to old roles, if it takes those roles at all. In essence, the concern was that the established premia on ‘face time’ and single-minded focus on work just don’t jibe with the more family-centered X’ers. I’ve seen that play out on my own campus, and can attest that this isn’t just stereotyping. Whether the jobs will change quickly enough to appeal to this cohort, or the cohort will just have to adjust, is the open question. My sense is that the former would be better, but the latter more likely. I’d like to be wrong on that.

- A delegation from Scottsdale did a nifty presentation on the use of ipads on their campus, and they even passed out a few ipads for the audience to play with. (Yup, I got my paws on one. Unfortunately, we had to give them back at the end.) The presentation was a little more technically sophisticated than I am, but the gist of it seemed to be that the college uses “virtualization” to host all kinds of software and data on its own servers, and it uses ipads as dumb wireless terminals. That way, the college doesn’t have to install specialized software on computers in a lab, and then maintain them all; it installs the package once on the mothership, and then people use it as needed. That way, something with the puny processing power of the ipad can use, say, AutoCAD. I was mightily impressed. They actually wind up saving money and space, and students love it. They also use ipads as readers for e-books, since kindles and nooks aren’t “disability compliant.” Well done, Scottsdale.

- Finally, I silently observed a panel on “to chair or not to chair,” run by three women from Monroe Community College. I wanted to get a sense of the reasons that smart and capable people shy away from quasi-administrative roles. There weren’t any shocks, but I laughed out loud when one of the women answered a question about her “most surprising moment” by saying that she was surprised to discover that “admins are people.” I smiled ruefully when somebody asked about the leadership training that new chairs get; the dirty little secret of academic administration is that it’s learned almost entirely on the job. Other than a few procedural matters -- here’s how to fill out a purchase requisition -- most of it is on the fly. Still, it was encouraging to see a healthy turnout, and as with the pre-presidency panel, I noticed a more than two-to-one ratio of women to men in the audience. Change is coming...

And now, in good Gen X fashion, it’s homeward bound. Thanks to the good folks at IHE for making it possible to play “roving reporter” again; for a few days, it’s a lot of fun. By the end of today, though, nothing seems more appealing than home.

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