Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Consultation and Conflicts

This piece in the Washington Post -- sent along by a few alert readers -- inadvertently draws attention to one of the consistent dilemmas of established colleges trying to make change.

The article is about helping students avoid, or at least minimize the cost of, the quagmire of remedial course sequences. It notes, correctly, national data showing that students who place into developmental courses but skip them anyway tend to do just as well as students who took them. Tellingly, it cites leaders of several local cc’s claiming that such findings couldn’t possibly apply to their own campuses.

I had to smile.

The first-person exception defeats many a great idea. “That’s probably true in other places, but we know better.” It’s the reason that some jaded administrators either skip the “consult with the folks in the trenches” step, or at least discount it deeply. In some cases, the folks in the trenches have such deep and fundamental conflicts of interest that their ability to respond thoughtfully to evidence is simply defeated. Program reviews, for example, tend not to conclude in suicide notes; they nearly always conclude with calls for more resources.

Worse, the folks in the trenches typically are in only one set of trenches. They see their own program. They don’t see the other programs competing for resources. It’s easy to criticize administrators for focusing too narrowly on numbers, but we have to make decisions about allocating limited resources among competing programs, each with its own passions, anecdotes, and virtues. You have enough money to pay for two new faculty lines, and you have compelling needs in six programs. How do you decide which two get what they want, and which four don’t?

The usual response -- “just consult with the departments” -- doesn’t help. Each department wants its own. That’s understandable, but it limits the usefulness of the input. (The other usual responses -- “say yes to everyone” or “consider excellence” -- are even worse.) At least with data on enrollments and/or adjunct percentages, you have something disinterested to consider. You have a common denominator. It shouldn’t be everything, but when other factors cancel each other out, it’s something.

Say what you want about virtue and academic excellence; at the end of the day, it’s silly to pretend that self-interest doesn’t play a major role in departmental feedback. Departments that rely on developmental courses to maintain their staffing aren’t likely to sign on to proposals to streamline those courses. As they see it -- often incorrectly, but still -- they’d be slitting their own throats.

Colleges with relatively robust traditions of shared governance, such as mine, are likely to fall prey to all the usual failings of interest-group politics. It would be surprising if they didn’t. Taking self-interested testimony at face value will lead to distorted results. Sure, the national data may be clear, but we’re special!

And that’s why I had to smile.

Real progress -- the kind that actually takes account of facts -- requires the willingness, or ability, to get beyond interest-group politics. That means accepting the possibility that a deeply-held and/or very convenient belief may be wrong. In other words, it requires a vanishingly rare set of conditions.

I have faith in the truth, but its progress can be maddeningly slow. In the meantime, we lose students in preventable quagmires.