Thursday, March 31, 2011
Dispatches from an Undisclosed Location
- The Boy and The Girl had an Ice Cream Social at their school last night. The cafeteria became a sundae bar, and the kids moved back and forth between that and the gym, where a dj played music and the girls danced. Anyone who wants to study gender in action should attend an elementary school ice cream social. The Moms are connected, buzzing with activity and emotion. The Dads drift, gamely but aimlessly, like cordial pinballs.
- The Wife is turning political. Our town gets aid from the state, which it pours into the public schools. The state is cutting the aid at exactly the time when local property tax revenues are down, so the schools are facing some awful cuts. Annoyed at the seeming apathy of the local PTO -- which seems more focused on ice cream socials than anything else -- TW started a petition to our state government to stop the local aid cuts and protect the schools. She already has several hundred signatures, and suddenly finds herself leading a local movement. Go, TW!
- Apparently Minnesota has joined the ranks of states making cuts of previously unheard-of magnitude to public higher education. In lieu of an educated workforce, now I guess it will rely on its sunny, warm climate to lure companies to move there.
- I’m raining bad juju on HP. I bought an HP mini-laptop, only to find the wifi slower than the dialup connection I had in grad school. (The ipod touch did fine, so I know it wasn’t the network.) I called tech support twice, spent several hours doing what they asked, and ended with the screen flashing at me “cannot find operating system.” Annoyed, I returned the &(%#& thing and got a cheap netbook instead. It’s slow and boring, but at least it doesn’t time out on gmail.
- In the meantime, I’ve solved the mystery of laptop mortality in the house. When TB is done with his turn on the laptop -- usually playing a game on a website -- he closes the program and hits the ‘off’ button. No intermediate step. I don’t even want to imagine the state of a hard drive after a few months of that. We’ve had a crash course in the mysteries of the “start” menu.
- Has anyone else noticed that the New York Times paywall, which allows you to pay for ‘mobile’ access, doesn’t support a WebOS app? Neither does the new Amazon cloud streamer. I’m starting to understand how Betamax owners felt. Come to think of it, HP owns WebOS now. I’m seeing a pattern here...
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
"Put It Through Governance"
But the outside world doesn’t really get that. The gap in understanding was brought home to me at a meeting last week with some “workforce development” people from the state.
From the perspective of the state, community colleges are arms of the state, and they are to be used to help get the economy back on track. Among other things, that means that they should be the front line in retraining displaced workers for the jobs that actually exist.
That’s great, as far as it goes. For example, there’s pretty good data to the effect that the jobs with labor shortages are mostly in the “middle skills” range -- jobs that require some post-secondary education or training, but not necessarily a four-year degree. Veterinary technicians fall into that category, for example, as do certified nursing assistants. These aren’t glamorous or high-paying, but they beat working at Jiffy Lube, and people who aren’t academic superstars can get these jobs.
In the face of a nasty and lingering recession, the state is getting increasingly concerned that we aren’t training people for the jobs that actually exist. So it’s establishing a series of grants for programs to prepare unemployed or underemployed people for those middle-skill jobs. It’s pretty clear that the state is envisioning quick-turnaround programs with fast results.
In discussion about the process for establishing new curricula, we were told to just “put it through governance” and get on with it.
And here’s the culture clash.
When the program doesn’t award academic credit, the conflict is moot. Noncredit programs don’t need the approval of the faculty, since they don’t “count.” That makes sense, given the content of most noncredit programs. Some of them are very narrow and tightly focused, like a “how to” class on a single software package. The target market for those is people who already have degrees, but who need to learn something for work. Other courses are more the personal enrichment stuff that people just take for the joy of it -- drawing, dancing, that sort of thing.
But the middle-skills jobs often require credit-bearing coursework, which means that faculty approval is needed. And that process is neither quick (cough) nor automatic. It can be neither rushed nor assumed.
The state isn’t terribly interested in hearing that. And I imagine that people who need work don’t really want to hear about the yearlong curricular approval process. They need to make money, and they need to make it yesterday.
It’s a difficult dilemma, since both sides are right. Yes, we should be responsive to the needs of the community, especially when the needs are as pronounced as they are now. The college still receives public funding; I’m comfortable with the idea of some sort of obligation to the public.
But it’s also true that giving a green light to top-down curricula -- whether the ‘top’ is the local president or the state government -- can lead to some pretty asinine outcomes. Faculty are hired, in part, for their content matter expertise. And they’re the ones who actually have to teach the content, so it makes sense that they should have a strong voice in deciding just what that will be.
The calendars the two groups assume are notably different. Beyond that, though, is a more practical issue. Curricular proposals stand or fall, in part, based on whether they have someone on the faculty who’s willing to go to bat for them. (We call those people “champions,” as in “the proposal needs a champion.”) Typically, the champion is someone in whose range of expertise the proposal falls. I’d expect that the proposal for a Psychology minor would come from someone in the Psychology department; if it didn’t, it would die on the vine. But the issues about which the incumbent faculty care the most may or may not align with the needs the workforce development people have identified. When they don’t, there may not be a champion willing to take up the cause, and the proposal won’t see the light of day.
Academic administrators are in-between, and therefore have the enviable duty of trying to find a way to address the valid concerns of both sides. And I have to admit that sometimes I get stumped.
So I’ll crowdsource it. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably fair and elegant way for a college to respond to identified workforce development needs without riding roughshod over shared governance?
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Worst Interview Responses
[I]f you are asked "how has your teaching changed over the years" or "how has your
management of people changed over the years" or "how has your interaction with clients changed over the years" the wrong answer is "it hasn't"
The best professionals are continually evaluating their performance and making tweaks to improve - no improvement = no evaluation of past performance in my book.
I can't believe the number of candidates who tell us, with a straight face, that they teach the same way now that they did 15 years ago.
Then again, maybe I want to KNOW this up front, huh?
That is amazing. (Though I guess it could save money on professional development. If you’re already perfect, what’s to develop? Over the years, the savings could add up!) And it raises the question of worst interview responses.
Several years ago a colleague at another college told me the story of an incumbent lab technician who applied for a faculty position. During the interview, when asked why she wanted to move to faculty, she responded “I’m getting older, and I’d like to slow down. Summers off is really appealing.” She didn’t get the job.
Another fave: during the interview for a full-time staff position, the candidate asked about a reduced-hours schedule, since she, and I am not making this up, didn’t “want to work too hard.” No, we certainly wouldn’t want that...
Job interviews require a delicate balance. You want to show yourself in a positive light, and a certain amount of tooting your own horn is both accepted and expected. But there’s a line between showing your strengths and coming off as over-entitled.
One of my favorite interview questions is “tell us about a time you realized that something you were doing wasn’t working. What kind of adjustment did you make?” I’ve seen candidates trip over this, since in a few cases, it apparently never occurred to them that they had made mistakes. I don’t believe in perfect people; I’m looking for people who are capable of self-correction. That necessarily involves a certain degree of self-awareness. Sadly, self-awareness is not evenly distributed across the population.
Wise and worldly readers, what’s the worst response to an interview question you’ve ever heard?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Monday, March 28, 2011
The leadership of the Republican party in Wisconsin has filed a Freedom of Information request to read all of the emails from the account of Professor William Cronon, a well-known historian and union activist at the University of Wisconsin. They’ve specifically asked for emails containing terms that would suggest relevance to union and/or political activity.
Technically, the request is legal. Emails at public institutions are considered public documents; that’s why I have a gmail account for my “dean dad” stuff, and another gmail account for things like Amazon purchases. Those of us in administrative positions are routinely advised that college emails can be subpoenaed, and that anything we write could later be used in court. That said, though, you’d have to be a special kind of stupid not to see that this request is an attempt to intimidate university employees. (Notably, tenure offers no special protection against this kind of snooping.)
The contrast to the rights of employees at private institutions is striking. The legal bar to clear for such a fishing expedition would be dramatically higher.
Already, public employees’ salaries and benefits either barely match or trail those of employees in similar jobs in the private sector. And that isn’t because of the profit motive, since most ‘private’ higher ed in America is still non-profit. (In my observation, the for-profits actually pay less than even community colleges for similar work. And by ‘observation,’ I mean ‘direct personal experience.’) The highest pay is reserved for the private nonprofits, though I don’t remember anyone ever raising that issue for a policy debate.
In the age of ‘gotcha’ articles that sink candidacies based on quoting controversial people, the idea of fishing expeditions in emails is particularly chilling. A single email, taken out of context, could be used to prove just about anything. (That’s especially true when others’ emails haven’t been searched, so there’s no sense of an average.) I have to assume that ‘chilling’ is precisely the point.
As bad as the Wisconsin kill-the-unions initiative is, this is actually worse. Unions are one vehicle for expressing concerns; this goes directly to expressing concerns at all. And it fails the most basic test of ethics, which is reciprocity. If the Republican party can read my emails at will, then I should be able to read theirs at will. Fair is fair. If public sector employees are subject to random harassment by anyone with a bat in his belfry, then so should private sector employees. Fair is fair. Let’s go fishing through the emails of, say, the Koch brothers, and scan them for terms related to matters of public interest. While we’re at it, let’s check the leadership of Goldman Sachs, GE, and the University of Phoenix. Fair is fair.
Or, we could be grownups and admit that this is the equivalent of wiretapping, and demand to see a warrant. That’s what the Koch brothers would do if this were applied to them.
Other than naked power, what underlies this is an abiding contempt for public work generally. To argue that public sector workers should have lower salaries than their counterparts in the private sector -- with the same qualifications and the same job descriptions -- can only make sense if you believe that the public sector shouldn’t exist in the first place. Otherwise, you are simply holding that government employees should be the least qualified, least capable people you can find. The only reason I can imagine saying that would be complete indifference to the quality of their work, and presumably to the very existence of it.
I can imagine an intelligent argument for effective public higher education. I can also imagine an intelligent argument for the abolition of public higher education altogether -- it’s certainly not my preference, but there’s an argument to be made. What I simply cannot imagine is an intelligent argument for poorly-done public higher education. If you’re going to have it, you should make realistic efforts to assure quality. Every time Wisconsin attacks its employees, it drives away the ones with options and leaves itself with those nobody else wants. Already, I’ve heard anecdotal reports of candidates for jobs there simply walking away, making the entirely reasonable decision that they don’t want to board a sinking ship. Stripping them of unions is bad enough; subjecting them to random politically-motivated fishing expeditions in everything they’ve ever written is something else altogether.
Nobody who actually wanted an effective public sector would do this. This is pure slash-and-burn, but without the guts to say so.
I wish the recall effort well.
Friday, March 25, 2011
The Girl Discovers Injustice
TG: The entire first grade had to miss recess!
TG: Because some girls were forming clubs to keep other girls out.
DD: Did you?
TG: Daddy, no! That would be mean!
DD: That’s true.
TG: So how come I got punished, too? How come they punish the good kids too?
Honestly, I’ve wondered the same thing. Here’s how I answered it in the moment.
DD: Well, I think maybe they were hoping that the good kids would get mad at the bad kids, and that the bad kids would know it, and so the bad kids would stop because they didn’t want the good kids to get mad at them.
TG: But I’m mad at the teachers! They should just punish the bad kids, and let the rest of us have recess!
TG is a great kid, and she actually thinks of others. (“That would be mean!”) But it’s only starting to dawn on her that sometimes, adults have blind spots. Sometimes the teachers won’t bother to try to suss out who did what, and will resort instead to blunt, clumsy collective justice. When that happens, and you’re actually toeing the line, you can start to feel like there’s no point; if you’ll just get in trouble anyway, why make the extra effort to be good? It’s frustrating, but worse than that, it’s demoralizing.
This will happen again. One of the frustrations of growing up is realizing that the people you’ve trusted to fulfill certain roles are just people. Sometimes the bastards win and the noble lose. Sometimes you’re the only one who knows you were good.
I empathized with TG, but couldn’t do more than that. Being right-but-wronged is part of life.
As a parent, I’m torn. I’m glad that her world has led her to expect fairness as normal. And I remember that same frustration, and how discouraging it was. But at some level, I want her to keep expecting fairness, and to keep feeling that frustration, as hard as it is. That frustration leads to action, and to change. In a way, it’s a source of hope. As hard as it is to see her upset, I’d be more worried if she were just resigned.
The Girl has discovered injustice. Injustice doesn’t know what it’s in for.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
In the Words of...
Where do I start?
I, too, have quoted Marx. And Nietzsche. And Will Ferrell. And Roseanne Rosannadanna. And Aristotle. And Sarah Palin. And Muttley. Also Paul Westerberg, Chris Rock, Homer Simpson, Max Weber, Tina Fey, Bill Cosby, Kristin Hersh, Roy Scheider, Monty Python, Fozzie Bear, Liz Phair, Jon Stewart, Ernest Hemingway, The Gospel According to Matthew, Sting, Steve Martin, Annie Dillard, Spinal Tap, Bob Uecker, George W. Bush, Lily Tomlin, Bill Murray, Miss Piggy, Stephen Colbert, Beavis and Butthead, Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Beatles, Eddie Murphy, Charlie Sheen, William James, SpongeBob Squarepants, Samuel Gompers, Richard Nixon, KC and the Sunshine Band, Bill Clinton, Joan Didion, Hegel, Duke Ellington, Thomas Jefferson, Arnold Horshack, Sarah Silverman, Howard Beale, and any number of students, colleagues, and family members.
Quoting someone does not necessarily imply agreement with everything they ever said or did. In fact, in some cases people use quotations ironically, or to show how deeply they disagree with someone. Sometimes it’s just a nice turn of phrase, or a sly bit of humor.
Hell, I’d be worried about anyone who only quoted people with whom he agreed. Too much inbreeding, whether physical or intellectual, leads to weakness. Sometimes, playing the devil’s advocate can be a valuable intellectual exercise. But that’s only possible when we aren’t playing “gotcha.”
The “gotcha” attacks do far more damage than the original quotes. They function to keep out people with lively minds. They restrict the range of acceptable discourse. They narrow fields to people who don’t have original or challenging thoughts. Then we wonder why some administrators don’t understand academic freedom.
It’s because we don’t have it.
I have far more respect for people who have come to a point of view having grappled with alternatives than I have for purebreds. Not only have the well-educated ones actually bothered to do some intellectual work, as welcome and necessary as that is, but they’re also had to develop the ability to see more than one perspective. That’s absolutely essential in any high-level role. Because the frustrating reality of these positions is that most of the time, you’re dealing with partial information and conflicts in which both sides are about sixty percent right. The ability to juggle multiple arguments, each of which is grounded in its own worldview, is crucial to reaching solutions that show respect for all sides. My own politics are basically social democratic, but I’d much rather deal with a sophisticated conservative than an idiotic liberal. At least with a sophisticated conservative, I’d have some confidence that the issue was understood, even if it got interpreted differently than I would have. With one-dimensional purebreds, I’m never sure they heard much more than a keyword.
Policing papers for quotes from suspicious characters is the rigor of small minds. It shows a basic inability to distinguish part from whole, or awareness from approval. I don’t want purists in power; they’re naive, and a little scary. Let me have people whose minds have some city miles on them. They might sound radical from time to time, but as Lenin put it, sometimes we have to be as radical as reality itself.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Do you use your office phone?
Office phone lines are much cheaper than they once were, thanks to VOIP, so eliminating them wouldn’t bring the savings it would have years ago. But waste is waste, and if phones have become about as relevant as typewriters, it may be time to ask the question.
In my role, I still use the phone, but it’s mostly to find out if someone has a few minutes for a face-to-face conversation. Serious business is conducted either face-to-face or via email. (Exception: phone calls can be useful if you’re trying to convey a message without leaving a paper trail.) But the calls I make to faculty could, conceivably, be replaced by ‘chat,’ since anything substantive requires a face to face discussion anyway. I get the occasional call from home, but there’s no reason I couldn’t use my cell for those. Phone calls can be helpful for urgent and complicated matters, like scheduling interviews with job candidates from a distance, but the number of offices that need to do that is pretty small. I can see having a phone in a department or division office, and some emergency phones here and there, but I’m starting to wonder if a phone in every office is a monument to 1977.
Thinking about how I use my cell, the one function that barely gets used at all is voice. Twitter? Yup. Email? Of course. Angry Birds? Check. Mobile hotspot? Sure. Web surfing? Yup. Texting? Not much, but occasionally. Voice? Barely -- other than calls home on conference trips, I think I’m averaging about five minutes a month. (They’re usually “I’m stuck in traffic” calls.) The fact that over half of my monthly cell bill is for “voice minutes” strikes me as disproportionate. I’d happily go with ten cents a minute for voice on top of the monthly data plan and be done with it. Fifty cents a month for the capacity to call 911 seems fair.
Other than personal calls, voice calls are pretty inefficient most of the time. There’s the etiquette involved, which stands in odd tension with the interruptive quality of the call itself. If you don’t take the call, voicemails are even worse. For reasons I’ve never fully understood, some people never got the memo saying that voicemails should be short. Unlike emails, you can’t skim them, and in some systems you can’t even delete them midway through. You have to listen all the way to the bitter end. (I’ll never understand why some people feel compelled to listen to voicemails on speakerphone with the volume ALL THE WAY UP.) They’re much clunkier to save than emails, and people seldom give them much thought as they speak. (My evidence for that is the occasional voicemail left in Spanish.) For my money, the old Replacements song “Answering Machine” was pretty much the last word on them. When they were the best technology available, we lived with them, but they seem archaic now.
I see students use phones on campus all the time, but almost never for actual calls. They’re constantly tap-tap-tapping on them, or sometimes listening to music with them, but almost never talking into them.
Any loss is a loss, of course, but say that you were given a choice: you could keep your office phone, or you could shift that money to conference travel. What would you choose?
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
A Response to a Reader
[commenter]: It seems to me like you're missing a big opportunity. As you've noted, there are a growing number of voices challenging the conventional wisdom on the value of college. Some of these argue that college doesn't do what it advertises, like _Academically Adrift_,and other studies that show how little students learn. Economists demonstrate that the value of a degree boils down to a credential, not what graduates learn. Others use BLS statistics to show what a large percentage of college graduates go on to get jobs that don't require a college degree. There is a growing chorus that American higher ed depends on unsustainable loans--in many ways it resembles the housing bubble of the late 2000s. There are even philosophical arguments like the one in _Shopcraft as Soulcraft_ about rediscovering the value of working with our hands instead of intellectual jobs. These critiques (as you've noted) come from all across the partisan spectrum, from Krugman on the left to Murray on the right--the idea that "the right hates education and the left loves education" is a shallow fantasy that lazy thinkers use to protect themselves from having to address the critiques.
On the other hand, I have yet to hear any coherent response to these critiques, either from you or on IHE, the Chronicle, or in print. I hear lots of "OMG those Tea Partiers are anti-intellectual idiots"--from you, your commenters, and elsewhere. I hear lots of "OMG, if we don't get more money we'll have to change"--from you, your commenters, and elsewhere. But both of those responses totally miss the point. Even if you believe that Scott Walker and all those Tea Partiers who want to take your money are troglodytes (and your posts certainly create that impression), all the sneering in the world can't refute the host of intellectual critiques listed in the previous paragraph. While critics gain in sophistication, evidence, and scope over time, your responses have become progressively less mature--sometimes stunningly so, like the post in which you predicted that the whole state of Wisconsin will wither away because K-12 teachers can only collectively bargain for salary instead of salary and benefits. Or your post about the coming of "carnivorous" higher ed (try comparing Penn State (4% state funding) and UNC-Chapel Hill (31%) and try to find any meaningful difference in the way they treat tenure or the "student faddishness" of their curriculum--if your post is even remotely close to reality, there should be a huge difference, but I bet you don't find one). I say this as someone who has read your blog daily for years, who has learned a lot from you, and is bewildered by your turn away from reason.
You know a lot about higher ed and are skilled at expressing yourself. Instead of bumper-sticker platitudes and sneering about how people who disagree you are stupid, why don't you become a leader in offering intelligent, evidenced, coherent responses to the critiques? Alternatively, since you also believe that higher ed needs reform why don't you become a leader in saying "yes, those critiques are correct, and X is the kind of reform that will fix it, and our fixed/rejuvenated higher ed will deserve more money?" (Yes, you do that with your anti-"seat time" and anti-tenure writings, but you don't connect those points to meeting the critiques in a coherent way) If people like you--who could offer meaningful responses to the critiques--continue to put their head in the sand and insist that if the right people win elections everything will be good again, you're going to wake up one day and find that the (very real) intellectual strength behind the critiques will have swept the field and you (and me) along with it, no matter who gets elected.
Thanks for your note.
Your critique is the exact opposite of what I usually get. I'm usually accused -- also falsely -- of being anti-faculty, of wanting to run the college like a corporation, etc. Here, instead, I'm being accused of being an ideological fellow-traveler with the tenured liberals who usually accuse me of being an ideological fellow-traveler with their enemies.
Perhaps I've been unclear.
I've addressed most of the critiques you've outlined: Crawford's book, Academically Adrift, etc. (I've also addressed Kamenetz' DIY U, which, for all its flaws, at least addresses actual alternatives.) I've conceded the truths I've found, and even amplified a few of them. (My review of Academically Adrift was hardly dismissive!) And as you note, I've repeatedly -- even to the exasperation of my core audience -- outlined the flaws in tenure, the credit hour, and the funding models of public higher ed.
(Btw, your point about Chapel Hill and Penn State doesn't persuade me, since both are research universities. Their primary focus is research, and their primary fiscal drivers are research grants and high-profile athletics. They have an entirely different business model than the increasingly tuition-driven cc's I inhabit.)
It should be obvious by now that I'm fumbling towards a more sustainable model. Having worked in both for-profit and public higher ed, I've seen the strengths and flaws of each. I'm trying to figure out a way to take the best of each and construct something that's both durable and worthy of support. And yes, my preference would be to have the existing public institutions remake themselves, rather than having someone else come along from the outside. I remain convinced that, skeptics aside, education adds real value; if I didn’t, I’d go into another line of work. But if it’s going to continue to add value, especially for the folks who don’t start out with a lot of advantages, it’s going to have to change. I'd like the system to bend so it won't have to break.
In that position, I'm vulnerable to the classic critiques of those who try to reform from within. Those who reject the existing structure wonder why I keep trying to save it; those who comfortably inhabit it wonder what I'm always bitching about. Meanwhile, folks with capital and business plans calmly go about establishing successor institutions, quietly but ravenously eating our collective lunch while we argue about intentions and rhetorical tone.
I don't have millions of dollars with which to put out a shingle and start my own alternative. (Any VC's or philanthropies who'd like to take a flyer are invited to contact me directly. I'm not kidding.) And contrary to your characterization, I'm increasingly convinced that even electing the 'right' people won't solve matters, since at their base, the issues are structural. The new crop of Republican governors is clearly making things much worse, but even electing a bunch of thoughtful liberals would only buy time. Eventually, we have to change. My hope is that we can develop worthwhile and sustainable models to change towards, and in the meantime, elect people who will give us the time and resources to do that. It's a narrow strike zone, vulnerable to criticism as idealistic, but as someone who believes in the mission of public higher ed -- even with all the critiques of its structure -- it's where I am.
That's why I'm so impatient with the Tea Party; it seems obvious to me that they simply don't believe in the mission of public higher ed, or public anything else, for that matter. As Grover Norquist memorably put it, they'd like to drown it in the bathtub; that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with NPR. And that's why I sometimes get impatient with folks in public higher ed, who strike me as being in very deep denial. If we're going to survive, we're going to have to admit that the usual playbook -- moral indignation at administrators, mostly -- comes nowhere close to the real issues. If that worked, it would have worked by now. If the Marc Bousquet/Cary Nelson strategy worked, we wouldn't see what we're seeing in Nevada, or Arizona, or California, or New Jersey, or New York, or Texas, or Pennsylvania, or...
My contribution, at this point, is a blog with an audience of smart readers. I use it to crowdsource solutions, at least in concept, to some of these dilemmas. That has obvious limits, and I don't pretend otherwise. There comes a point at which you need to establish some facts on the ground; I hope to get a chance to do that at some point. In the meantime, I hope that my contribution is a space in which smart people of goodwill -- who accept the validity of the premise that an educated citizenry is a public good -- can try to figure out what an ethical, effective, sustainable alternative would look like.
You can call that a flight from reason if you want, or a flight of fancy if you'd rather. I think of it as a gesture of hope.
Wise and worldly readers, I turn to you. Am I on a fool’s errand, or is there hope here?
Have a question? I’m at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Switching to a Single Income
I have queried the Internet, and there really is no good, definitive advice article on the topic of "how to maintain a healthy marriage when transitioning from a dual income home to a single income". We are aware that having a stay-at-home-mother will ease a lot of stress and make life easier, but life assures us that every situation will have its obstacles. I am very curious on what your obstacles were, as well as your wife's.
I hate to disappoint, but I don’t have that definitive advice in me. Every marriage is different. That said, I have some thoughts to share based on our experience, and I’ve included some comments from The Wife as well. As always, your mileage may vary.
- Money as quantity. There’s the issue of going without a salary, of course, and there’s a longer term issue of going without adding to retirement savings. One of the drivers for us moving to the stay-at-home Mom model was the realization that once The Girl came along, TW’s entire paycheck would go to daycare. It didn’t make sense to us. (In writing that, I’m very aware of being American. Folks in countries with reasonable parental leave and daycare policies probably have no idea what I’m talking about here.) That said, though, we’ve found that attempting to re-enter the workforce after several years away is much harder than we had expected, even with a graduate degree. Recessions happen when they happen.
- Money as control. One sanity-saver for us -- and every couple is different -- has been a tripartite division of checking accounts: hers, mine, and ours. My paycheck is directly deposited into three accounts, each with its own sphere of responsibility. “Our” account pays for house payments, car payments, utilities, groceries, insurance, kids’ clothes, and just about anything else that’s clearly intended to benefit the entire family. “Her” account is under her undisputed control, and goes for her clothing and whatever else she sees fit. “My” account is under my undisputed control, and works the same way. The idea is to prevent either of us from having to ask the other for permission for stuff that adults shouldn’t have to ask permission for. An economist might argue, with technical accuracy, that these boundaries are artificial and contrived, but who wants to be married to an economist? Good fences make good neighbors, and clear boundaries make for adults who feel like adults. That’s worth a little paperwork.
- Isolation. The stay-at-home parent, well, stays at home. It can lead to real isolation from the adult world. She’ll need to make a conscious effort to get involved in daytime activities in which she can meet other Moms. (In my observation, stay-at-home Dads are far less common, and the few who do exist are often unwelcome in the circles of Moms.) That’ll benefit both of you in any number of ways. She won’t go stir-crazy. You won’t have to carry the burden of being her sole connection to the adult world.
- “Make life easier” Well, yes and no. It makes certain kinds of logistics easier. Dual-career parents of young children quickly learn that a sick kid throws the daycare routine into chaos, since you can’t take a sick kid to daycare. Having an adult at home helps with that. As the kid grows into the school years, having a stay-at-home parent helps with all the random holidays, half-days, school vacation weeks, and summers. But don’t be too quick to assume that she’s just always there. Public schools are so starved for help, at this point, that any parent with time will be dragooned into ‘volunteering’ until they break.
- Remember it’s not 1950. Thinking of job-plus-home as ‘our’ work that just happens to be divided a particular way can be helpful. It’s also true. I’ve turned down job interviews in locations where TW didn’t want to be, and have never regretted doing it. And don’t do the piggish-male thing of foisting all the childcare onto her. When you watch the kids, you aren’t ‘babysitting’ -- they’re your kids! Change diapers, play Candyland, give baths, spend time routinely. You know that awful headache you get after a hard day at work when the kids are being difficult and you’re in charge of bathtime and bedtime? She gets that, too.
I asked TW for her perspective; what follows is from her.
- Find other stay-at-home parents in the area with same-aged kids. ASAP. There are some national groups that exist solely for this reason, so you can find local chapters. If you can't find a local group, go to a park and try to meet other parents, sign up for Gymboree classes, take turns hosting playdates. I know probably everyone has already given you this advice, but there’s a reason for it and I can’t stress it enough. Just....find....other.....parents. You need to get out and be with other adults. It's good socialization for you - and your baby.
- Along the same lines, get out of the house once a day even if it's to go for a walk or to buy milk (bring the baby along, of course). There were some days where I was even more chatty than the cashier at the grocery store whom I'm sure wished I would just shut up and pay.
- If you can't get out of the house, make it a point to talk to another adult besides your husband every day. You can’t always depend on him for socialization. It’s too much pressure.
- Don’t rub it in. I mean the fact that one stays home and the other goes out into the world. I can’t remember how many times I wanted to throttle DD when he came home from work and said, “We all went out to Friday’s for lunch today.” Meanwhile, my hair was a mess, I hadn’t showered, and I had breast milk down the front of my shirt.
- Yes, you will now be responsible for more of the household chores, but doing a little each day really helps. I like to be organized, so making a chore schedule worked for me. Vacuum downstairs and launder towels on Monday, clean kitchen on Tuesdays, clean bathrooms on Wednesdays, etc., etc. Once the chore for each day was finished I could concentrate on other things. If on Sunday I noticed that the kitchen floor was dirty, I didn't run to get the Swiffer. The day to clean the kitchen was Tuesday and it could wait until then. Friday was (and still is) my day for myself. By then the chores are done and the house is clean. I put on a little makeup, my nice jeans and run errands, take the kids to the library, etc. This may not work for you exactly, but you get the idea. You can't do it all in one day.
- But save some chores for your spouse. Besides being good for both of you, it's a good example for your kids. I truly believe that your parents set an example for you of how a marriage should and shouldn’t be. For instance, I had a friend who married an “Italian prince” (can I say that?). Anyway, this guy went from his mom’s house to a house with his wife and expected her to do everything for him just like his mom did. And you know what? She did. He didn’t lift one finger except to cut the grass and that was just so the neighbors would think what a wonderful family man he was. But the bigger problem is that their son is growing up to be just like his dad and will probably look for a woman who will treat him the same way. Even worse, their daughter will most likely look for another “prince”. I am lucky that my wonderful mother-in-law taught DD early on how to take care of himself, and the fact that he had been on his own for a long time when I met him helped, too. He already knew how to do laundry, vacuum, go grocery shopping, etc. because he had to. Yes, his idea of “clean” is a little different from mine, but I can still count on him. TB and TG see their dad loading/unloading the dishwasher, doing his own laundry and cooking on the weekends (our rule: one cooks and the other cleans up). I like to think that seeing some division of labor will be a good role model for their own relationships (way, way into the future). TB will learn not to expect a wife to do everything for him and TG will learn not to do everything for a husband. Both will look for a partner who will split things equally.
- Just a thought: since your wife is a teacher perhaps she could tutor 2-3 days a week at home? It will help keep her mind sharp and enable her to continue to do what she was trained for. Then when she is ready to go back to work she won't have a big blank spot on her resume.
- Finally, I know I can always count on DD to have my back everytime. He is my superhero.
Again, every situation is different, but I hope you’re able to glean something useful from our experiences.. I’d also like to hear from any of my wise and worldly readers who’ve learned some of those “I wish I had known then...” lessons.
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Friday, March 18, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Post-Tenure Review
In your latest blog post you lament the lifetime employment nature of tenure. Yet many of your commenters keep bringing up "post-tenure review" and that firing a tenured person for gross incompetence should be, if not easy, at least possible. I've read enough of your blog to know that you consider post-tenure review a joke and a fig leaf, like all performance reviews in academe, and that the firing standards are much higher than people assume. Here's what I'd like to know: in your time in higher education, have you ever heard of someone tenured actually being fired? In your experience, has post-tenure review ever actually led to any substantive outcomes?
The question should be directed at the readership as well -- how often have you heard of someone tenured actually being fired for non-criminal activity? Given the size of the academic world, there has to be a decent number of incompetents with tenure out there. They can't all be rock stars. In your experiences, has anyone deserving of the boot ever gotten the boot for being a terrible prof?
I'm far enough outside of the academy that I have no idea what the truth is. Maybe canning for incompetence does happen from time to time, and DD exaggerates the strength of tenure due to its aggravating effects on his job. Maybe it doesn't happen, and the cries of "but there's post-tenure review" and "firing can't be that hard" are weak rationalizations for a defective system.
Anybody know of tenure being lost for incompetence or quitting on the job? Is it that every college has to do it once in a while, or once every few decades, or is it like a Bigfoot sighting, where some guy heard once from a dude that there's a rumor it happened once long ago in another town? Can you name people who've had tenure and been canned for non-criminal reasons? The answer to that will illuminate the real effects of tenure on job retention, rather than its theoretical effects.
How often does "firing the tenured for being really lousy" really happen? Just how bulletproof is a tenured prof in reality?
In my own experience, I’ve never seen a tenured professor terminated. Nor have I ever seen a meaningful change as a result of a post-tenure review. Nor have I seen a post-tenure review used to nudge someone towards resignation or retirement. So yes, I consider it irrelevant at best. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then post-tenure review is hypocrisy.
But it’s a big world out there, so I’ll pose it to my wise and worldly readers. Have you ever seen actual, significant, on-the-ground consequences from a post-tenure review?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Progressive Discipline and the Tenure Clock
(To be fair, in extreme cases you can skip steps. If an employee commits a felony, you don't issue a verbal warning.)
That model makes sense when the clock isn't ticking. When someone's employment is at-will, or contractual, or even tenured, the model can apply. But it doesn't work well with the tenure clock.
From the employer's standpoint, there's a basic asymmetry in life tenure. The institution is bound for the life of the employee, but the employee can leave at any time for any reason or no reason. In practice, the best ones are the likeliest to leave, since they're the likeliest to get other offers.
For all the folks who call for 'transparency' in the life tenure process, the basic fact is that life tenure is really a decision about the future, and the future isn't transparent. The fundamental asymmetry means that the employer is forced to roll the dice, based on whatever information has come to the fore during the pre-tenure period. Since there will never be enough information to predict the future with any certainty, hunches necessarily come into play. Those hunches will be partial and flawed, but in the absence of a crystal ball, there's no way around that. In that setting, the best that can be done is to use the pre-tenure period as broadly indicative, even though it may not be.
And that's one way that progressive discipline creates a problem. You're trying to get a pure sample to predict future behavior. Progressive discipline contaminates the sample. It's the difference between seeing how someone drives when no cops are around and seeing how she drives when there's a trooper in the rear view mirror. Even if she obeys the law in the latter case, you've lost the predictive value of the sample. The presence of the trooper distorts the information.
Logistically, there's also the issue of running out the clock. Walking through every step of progressive discipline takes time. Tenure decisions happen on a timeline, and they're up-or-out. There's no such thing as “let's give a couple more years for the dust to settle and see where we stand.” That is simply not an option. The person is either granted lifetime tenure or fired. If that fish-or-cut-bait moment comes in the middle of the series of steps, the employee could plausibly claim that an adverse decision was premature; after all, she was entitled to more steps. But adding time would automatically trigger tenure, which defeats the purpose. By that logic, a marginal tenure candidate could force the decision her way simply by committing the right level of misconduct at the right time, and riding out the clock. It would be absurd.
I'd argue that the issue here isn't so much progressive discipline, which strikes me as generally reasonable in non-extreme cases, but life tenure itself. A single high-stakes, up-or-out decision creates serious distortions, no matter how it goes. It can't not. Sometimes the most reasonable and fair answer is neither ‘up’ nor ‘out,’ but rather ‘we need more time to decide.’ But that’s off the table. So with ‘waiting for the dust to settle’ ruled out, the most important thing is to get the clearest possible read of the person prior to tenure. Offer orientation and mentoring in the first year, but after that, leave them to their own devices for a while. See how they drive without a cop in the rearview. I don’t like it either, but with a short window prior to an irrevocable lifetime decision, it’s what has to be done.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Dust in the Wind
Which of the following represents the greatest danger to the equipment in high-tech “smart” classrooms?
a. obsolescence, since technology moves so quickly
b. chalk dust getting in the vents
d. ever-shifting ADA requirements
The correct answer is b. But b is harder to remedy than one might think.
Tearing out chalkboards and replacing them with whiteboards raises several issues. What to do about the volatile organic compounds in dry erase markers? Can we get hypoallergenic markers? Is there asbestos behind the chalkboards in the older buildings? If so, how many asbestos remediation projects can we afford, and with how much notice? Can we get them done over the summer, or will they bump up against semesters? And what about the agreement with the math department not to mess with chalkboards in their classrooms? Would this constitute a change to the “terms and conditions of employment,” requiring impact bargaining?
Alternately, if we go with ipads or netbooks, can we be sure that the wifi can handle it? Do the students pay for the workstations? If not, where do we get the money? How do we ensure compatibility? Since we can’t afford to hire many more IT staff, who would be responsible for responding when something doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t work for a night class, or on Saturday? Who would be on call?
I am not making any of this up.
A problem that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to solve -- if chalk dust is a problem, just replace the chalkboards and be done with it -- becomes a chain of issues, each with side effects of its own. A decision that looks simple and obvious from the outside is anything but.
I have much more fun thinking about “the direction of higher education in America over the next twenty years” than I do thinking about “chalk dust in the vents,” but on a day-to-day level, the administrivia swamps the Big Ideas. A roomful of smart and dedicated people with graduate degrees spends an hour discussing the amelioration of chalk dust, finally landing on “let’s investigate some more.” Easy answers require resources. Let us tear down the old buildings and put up shiny new ones, and we won’t have chalk dust or temperamental wifi or rooms with tables in unmovable rows. Let us hire a full IT staff, and we can respond to emergencies as they arise. But in the absence of money, this is what we have to do.
It’s enervating, and a little absurd, and disturbingly reminiscent of the kind of inwardly-focused nitpicking that has doomed other institutions over time. It’s also what actually happens in closed-door meetings, even when everyone involved knows better. Starve institutions of money long enough, and the decisions will get progressively smaller and harder. In a setting like this, the easy default is to stick with chalkboards and junk the technology, hoping to hold the future at bay for just a little longer. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere...
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
A World Without Community Colleges
That wouldn’t necessarily involve closing all the colleges, though it would some. I’m imagining instead what would happen if community and state colleges were essentially cut loose from public funding, and treated as private nonprofits. Since that’s clearly the direction we’re heading, it may be worth looking down the road a bit.
After all, one could argue, we have a large and impressive network of private colleges and universities, and a rapidly growing infrastructure of for-profits. Land-grant universities were a concoction of the mid-nineteenth century, and community colleges were a development of the twentieth. (By general agreement, the “first” community college, Joliet Junior College, was established in 1901.) So a world without public higher ed has existed before.
Private nonprofits still have a few advantages over their for-profit competitors. Even in the absence of direct subsidies, nonprofits enjoy tax-exempt status. My college, for instance, pays no property tax on its multi-acre campus. That’s a considerable savings, and I haven’t heard anyone go after that yet. Nonprofits can also solicit tax-deductible donations, which I expect will become more important in the coming years.
Presumably, the end of public subsidies for colleges would involve some thinning of their ranks. The combination of spending cuts and price increases would eventually become unsustainable for many. For others, survival would be a function of one (or more) of the following: geographic monopoly, clear programmatic identity, and/or narrowing of mission. (By “narrowing of mission” I mean mostly price increases that compromise the “access” function, though presumably it could also mean going selective.) I’d expect to see an enormous shift of enrollment from campus-based to online courses, with campus-based learning becoming a boutique product for the wealthy. The already-expensive, nonselective private colleges will drop like flies, as they just won’t have the value proposition to compete in the market.
As financial aid shifts from institutions to students, the colleges will necessarily become more market-driven in their offerings. The balance of curricular power will shift, first slowly and then quickly, from the faculty to the students, whose “votes with their feet” will determine what survives. Tenure will fade away, and unions will have a much harder time. Programs like ESL will suffer disproportionately, since their students tend to be the least lucrative. Non-elite students would either go without college, or would go in even greater numbers to the for-profits, where their loan burdens will be dramatically higher than they are now.
As with the for-profits now, I’d expect to see a much faster pace of change in both curriculum and method of delivery. That’s both good and bad. Any reasonable observer would have to concede that the pace of change in much of traditional academia now is absurdly slow, but based on what I saw at Proprietary U, it’s also possible to go much too fast. Since the hot jobs at any given moment can change quickly, curricula will have to change to keep up. Anything that functions as a speed bump will get steamrolled.
Prices will go up much faster than they do now in absolute terms, since the annual percentages will be from a much higher base. That will remain true unless and until financial aid dries up, at which point the entire model will come crashing down. The students who are the most vulnerable will suffer the most, since “every man for himself” naturally favors the strong over the weak. Over time, colleges will be seen less as philanthropic and more as carnivorous, because they will be.
Over time, I’d expect to see serious issues around accreditation and transfer. Once states lose the leverage to mandate the transferability of credits within state systems, I’d expect to see newly autonomous colleges get much more idiosyncratic in their transfer decisions. Accreditation based on the credit hour will become hard to sustain, since the prominence of online courses will throw “seat time” into question. As colleges become more frankly competitive with each other, I’d expect to see much of the “gentlemen’s agreement” culture that underlies much of the industry, including regional accreditors, to fray badly.
In the short term, I’d expect a dramatic runup in student costs. Over the longer term, as the industry first fragmented and then collapsed, I’d expect to see the “varying prices for the same degree” model collapse, leading to a “varying prices for varying certificates” model. We’d have a Tower of Babel of degrees, at least until a few market-dominating behemoths were able to enforce a new standardization by virtue of size.
Or, and this would be my preferred option, we could try to make the public education model sustainable. What do you think?
Monday, March 14, 2011
On March 3, IHE reported that the University of Nevada at Reno was considering eliminating programs (and firing faculty, including those with tenure) in German Studies, French, Italian, interior design, and the entire College of Agriculture. Eight days later, IHE reported that Nevada was looking at closing four of its eight public colleges -- Nevada State College, the Desert Research Institute, Western Nevada College, and Great Basin College -- entirely.
Both reports were in the “quick takes” section, and neither elicited much response. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with the national outrage at smaller cuts at SUNY-Albany.
Late last week, it came to light that the newly elected governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, has proposed dealing with budget shortfalls by unilaterally appointing “emergency managers” for cities or towns in financial trouble. These “emergency managers” would have the legal ability to fire elected officials (!), nullify labor contracts, and even dissolve the governments of entire cities without so much as a public meeting. (In case that’s still too subtle, the state Senate rejected an amendment that would have capped compensation for emergency managers.) As I read it -- and I invite readers from Michigan to shed light here -- the emergency managers target municipalities, as opposed to public colleges, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see a precedent developing. To the extent that Gov. Snyder has offered anything resembling an argument, it has been that desperate times call for desperate measures. Though one would imagine that if they were that desperate, they wouldn’t leave the salaries uncapped.
Higher ed in Michigan has already taken some lumps, but I can’t imagine that a governor who is willing to have elected officials fired -- seriously, is that even legal? And aren’t conservatives supposed to be fans of making decisions at the lowest levels of government? -- would stop short at the prospect of a ticked-off Board of Trustees. If Ann Arbor gets hit, Washtenaw Community College is unlikely to remain unscathed.
Meanwhile, Texas has discussed closing four community colleges, and Gov. Brewer of Arizona proposed cutting public higher ed by fifty percent in a single year.
Even the relatively “blue” Northeast isn’t immune to the fetish of privatization. SUNY’s issues are well-known, but aren’t the worst in the region. Chris Christie, in New Jersey, has taken to hunting the NJEA for sport. Like Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, he’s after more than just cost-sharing on health benefits; he’s gunning for absolute control, using cost-cutting as an excuse. (In New Jersey’s case, we know it’s a pretext because he actually eliminated an existing tax on millionaires. If one is truly desperate for money, one does not voluntarily forego revenues.)
It’s tempting to write any one of these off as the quirks of a given state. Michigan has been circling the economic drain for so long that a certain vertigo is to be expected. Nevada has never been known for higher ed, outside of the UNLV basketball team. Arizona is so distracted by chasing down brown people to check their papers that it can’t devote time to much else.
But when one comes after the other so quickly that the national press actually loses track, it’s hard to plead ‘fluke.’
Part of me still hopes that much of this is the result of a pendulum swing, and that it will swing back quickly when the economy starts breathing again. But I don’t recall the pendulum ever swinging this hard before. There have been recessions before, and there have been Republican governors before, but the level and seriousness of the assault on all things public is new. A party that was once known for ‘conservatism’ -- that is, the thoughtful preservation of the best traditions, combined with a skepticism towards utopian reformists -- has become far more ideologically absolutist than its opponents. To apply the label ‘conservative’ to someone who wants to upend laws and institutions all at once, just because, is to do violence to language. Conservatives conserve; it’s what they do. These people destroy, in the expectation that the new thing that emerges will somehow justify the destruction. They would almost have an argument, if they ever bothered to specify what the new thing would be.
Yes, we -- defined here as “people who care about public higher education” -- need to fight this trend politically like we never have before. But ultimately, you don’t win on defense. My guess is that the best outcome we can hope for, outside of an economic miracle, is to buy enough time for a new, more sustainable model to emerge. The Tea Party’s fortunes may wax and wane, but the underlying tensions that allowed it to thrive will remain. If we allow the evisceration of the current model before building a new one, an entire generation of students will be lost. It’s time to envision and build new models from the ground up. That, or we can keep responding to 911 calls until there’s just nothing left.
Friday, March 11, 2011
- Governor Walker, in Wisconsin, is managing to get absolutely everything wrong. He apparently got his way on the bill to kill public employee unions, but he has proposed replacing contractual protections for workers with civil service protections. I’m perplexed. He’ll keep the single worst aspect of the status quo -- the inability to get rid of terrible performers -- while effectively lowering pay and scaring everyone to death. The predictable result is the best performers simply leaving, and the state being stuck with underpaid, crabby low performers that nobody else wants. Yuck, yuck, yuck. Wisconsin doesn’t have oil, and it can’t compete with other states based on its sunny, warm climate. It used to have a pretty strong educational system; there was a time when Madison was a draw for people with choices from other states. Giving that up is suicidal. My condolences to the public workforce there, and eventually, to the entire state.
- CYO basketball is finally ending. I’m glad TB participates, but I’d forgotten just how punishingly long basketball season actually is. Sports build fitness in kids and endurance in parents. Luckily, we’ll get a break before baseball season begins.
- The worst part of my job is having to make a difficult and terribly unpopular decision for reasons I can’t disclose. There’s no way around it, but even knowing that, it still sucks.
- Administrative positions have life cycles. Mine has hit the point where I have to start doing more community-relations stuff, and developing my ‘development’ (fundraising) skills. The one undeniable upside to the for-profits was that you never had to fundraise. It’s for a good cause, but for the introverted among us, it does not come naturally. This will be a major step.
- The ipad 2 leaves me just as confused as the original. Okay, they’ve added a camera and taken off a few ounces. As my college girlfriend used to say, big whoop. Add a &^%(#^* KEYBOARD! While you’re at it, a USB port might be nice, so I wouldn’t have to buy a new printer. Until then, it seems fun, but I’d still need a laptop to get anything substantive done.
- Note to any Ed.D.’s out there: there’s a groundbreaking book waiting to be written on how public colleges can best respond to severe budget cuts. Work to be done...
Thursday, March 10, 2011
I tried that stuff on for a while, but it was never a great fit. After a little while, I shrugged it off and moved on.
Now, strategic naivete one of the best tools I have. The sin of my early twenties is really helpful in my early forties.
Anyone with some experience and intellectual honesty knows that people’s motivations are often complex, and sometimes imperfectly understood by the people who have them. And anyone with experience and honesty knows that many actions have mixed results, some unforeseeable. From those two observations, it follows that claims of pure motive or certain success are to be doubted. And at some level, that’s a healthy move.
But it’s also true that knee-jerk cynicism can be both self-defeating and self-fulfilling. Sometimes, it can even be inaccurate. If realism can be naive, so can cynicism.
There’s something to be said for holding yourself open to being pleasantly surprised. When it happens -- when someone you were tempted to write off as shortsighted and self-interested actually comes through with something genuinely good -- it’s humbling, and life-affirming, and gratifying. It suggests that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, and a good thing, too.
I recall learning in high school that fiction required a “willing suspension of disbelief.” The same can be said for administration. I tweeted a few days ago “must...control...snark...” because I was struggling with exactly that. After watching people for years, it’s easy to decide that you’ve figured them out. When someone you’ve pegged negatively comes to you with yet another variation on “here’s why you should upend the world to give me everything I want,” it’s easy to write it off. But reminding myself not to do that has led to some pleasant surprises. In a few cases, I’m pretty sure the folks who proposed something wound up surprising themselves.
Failure, partial or total, is easy to forecast. The harder thing is to be aware of that, and to choose to be naive anyway.
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
Gen X as Transitional
In thinking through some reader feedback on the notes about Gen X in higher ed last week, I saw the same thing. The public academy in its classic Boomer-era form is crumbling, but its successor isn't entirely clear yet. We X'ers are getting here just as things are winding down.
That puts us in an odd position, which isn't unusual. The cohort born from, say, the mid-60's to about 1980 is smaller than the cohorts on either side of it, which is why we tend to get overshadowed culturally. This was the group that ‘pirated’ music on cassettes; it wasn’t until the next cohort came along that the entire music industry model was destroyed. This was the group that entered grad school being told of a forthcoming great wave of retirements that required our presence, only to find ourselves freeway flying. (And yes, dear readers, I did time as a freeway flyer myself, in a hatchback without air conditioning.)
Being the transitional group can kind of suck. You fight like hell to board a sinking ship.
Now I’m seeing a frustrating number of talented, intelligent, well-respected Gen X types on campus walk away from leadership roles for family reasons.
I can’t blame any of them. At this point, many of the institutional constraints on leadership roles are so thorough, and so encrusted with history, that any thinking person would chafe under them. On the personal side, a generation raised mostly by divorced parents can be forgiven for not wanting to pass on that particular tradition. Given the option of generating family tension for not very much money and a whole lot of stress, there’s something to be said for walking away. But I’m concerned about the vacuum they leave behind.
I see an increasingly desperate swirl of the same cohort hanging on, with nobody stepping up to replace them. The transition that needs to happen isn’t happening.
I recall many years ago hearing some big muckety-muck proclaim that “rotation of elites” was a sign of institutional health. Presumably, a lack of rotation would indicate the opposite. If that’s true, then I’m seeing some pretty severe signs of ill health. Smart people with options are opting out of a system that doesn’t meet their needs. The generation whose needs it met is still largely here, but on the way out.
The tragedy of it is that given the chance, the X’ers could be damn good at running institutions. They’re (we’re) notoriously pragmatic, and far less likely to get caught up in the futile chase for Next Big Things. I see a lot less moralizing in this cohort than in the boomers, which strikes me as a general improvement. In the best case, the X’ers could change colleges to fit the realities of people’s lives as they’re lived now. That would be a real contribution, worthy of celebration.
But then, I recall forecasts that the influx of women into corporations would make corporations more humane and aware of work/life balance. How did that work out?
My free advice to colleges that hope to survive over the long term: bring in the X’ers, and bring them in now. Reform while it’s still a matter of choice. By the time it’s not optional, it will be too late. Disruptive changes are remarkably unforgiving; you can bend now, or break later. This group offers your last, best chance to bend.
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Paul Krugman, of whom I am a fan, noted correctly this week that the “education leads to good jobs” storyline – which he introduced with a nice riff on Jane Austen – is true enough on the individual level, but not on a societal level. The argument that an educated workforce will necessarily generate good jobs is getting harder to sustain in light of the experience of the last twenty years or so. The direction of the economy over the last few decades has been towards greater income polarization, with a small group at the top raking it in and a great many on the bottom struggling badly; the middle is hollowing out.
Those of us who got Ph.D.'s in evergreen disciplines over the last few decades have seen this firsthand. A surge in doctorates did not bring with it a surge in full-time faculty positions; to the contrary, the availability of well-qualified adjuncts has made it easier to hollow out those jobs. Something similar is happening now throughout the economy, with college graduates struggling to find middle-class work. The latest changes are apparently happening in the legal profession, where software is making the 'discovery' process much faster and much less labor-intensive, thereby requiring fewer attorneys. “Brawn” jobs were the first to fall victim to automation and globalization, but now “brain” jobs are falling, too. To the extent that colleges have been able to sell access to those “brain” jobs and the higher salaries they once brought, college grads are discovering a hole in the narrative.
As a community college administrator, I'm conflicted about this.
On the one hand, Krugman is descriptively correct. Clear and legible pathways to good jobs are fewer than they once were, and many jobs that used to provide a family wage are now either gone altogether or hanging on only by paying new hires much less than their predecessors. (GM and Ford still hire, but new hires get a lower tier of salaries than their seniors. Even as they accrue seniority, they will never catch up.) On my own campus, folks who were hired ten or twenty years ago pay far less toward their pensions than I do; in a few years, it's an open question whether pensions as such will exist at all. The oft-noted trend of college grads living at home, I suspect, is largely driven by the relative lack of good-paying jobs for folks who didn't have the foresight to have been born twenty years earlier than they were.
Krugman's thesis – again,correctly – also suggests that the “colleges will save the economy” narrative is oversold at best. We can prepare students to take advantage of opportunities as they come along, but we can't generate most of those opportunities ourselves. If you graduate into a nasty recession, the fact that you got good grades may not save you.
And that's where the ambivalence comes in. Yes, too many college grads and college dropouts are languishing on the economic sidelines. (So are too many PhD's, for that matter.) And I'm convinced that Krugman is right that a more intelligent set of economic policies could go a long way toward improving matters on the ground. But I'm concerned that in this political climate, people will hear only the diagnosis and ignore the prescription.
One response to Krugman's observation is to say “yup, we need policies that will encourage the growth of middle-class jobs.” Another response would be “yup, college is a colossal waste of money.” Both can take the same observation as a starting point, even as they move in very different directions.
My sense of it is that education is a good in itself, and one that frequently – though not always – leads to economic payoff. Between technological advances and the ramping-up of the former third world, I'm guessing that we can either try to move up the value chain, or we can move down. Staying where we are is not an option. If we move down, incomes will move down, too. If we move up, we have a choice about those incomes. Education gives us the raw material to put ourselves in a position to move up and thereby to have choices, but it doesn't guarantee that we'll make the right ones. We could, for instance, train a few wildly successful innovators and then let them hoard the wealth, thereby largely defeating the purpose.
My fear is that as the population of underemployed graduates grows, so too will resentment towards higher education. Certain of our politicians are very, very good at exploiting resentment – Gov. Walker actually used the language of “haves and have-nots” – and will not miss the chance to do it. The resentment misses the point, of course – the real issue is jobs, not education – but people can take a long, long time to figure that out. In the meantime, the damage done can be irreparable.
So yes, Krugman has a point. I'm just concerned that folks with very different agendas will use that point to do once-in-a-generation damage.
Monday, March 07, 2011
When they cut budgets for police, the phones ring off the hook. When they cut budgets for fire departments, the phones ring. When they cut budgets for K-12, the phones ring. But when they cut public higher ed, nobody calls. (Naturally, when they raise taxes, the phones never stop ringing.)
It bothered me because it rang true (no pun intended).
It's disturbing on a number of levels. Most basically, it suggests that public higher ed will be at a consistent disadvantage, relative to other parts of the state budget, for the foreseeable future. It's hard to argue that we don't need police or elementary schools, and neither of those has significant alternative revenue sources. (Yes, some towns raise entirely too much via speeding tickets, but the basic point still stands.) Colleges and universities do. From the perspective of a legislator trying to cut spending somewhere, higher ed is a relatively easy target.
(To his credit, and correctly, he also noted that the real budget-buster is health care. The rate of cost increases for health insurance is so catastrophic that over the long term, almost nothing else matters. Since Obama blew his chance at a rational single-payer system, I foresee serious financial hurt for the rest of the public sector in the coming decade, even after the economy recovers.)
Why doesn't anybody call?
Yes, some of the unions do, but I'm talking about the public at large. (I don’t live or work in Wisconsin, so we don’t have the mixed blessing of a governor feeding us red meat.)
Part of it, I think, is the delicate balance of people in a reputational business. You don't want to come out and say “after all these years of cuts, the college simply sucks now.” That pretty much invites campus closure, even if that's the opposite of the intent. Once word gets out that a college is circling the drain, enrollments crater, public support vanishes, the best staff start to leave, and the death spiral accelerates. Yet you don't want to be too blithe, either. If you put a happy face forward no matter what happens, you make the path of least resistance entirely too obvious. If cuts don't hurt, and the state needs cuts, then what do you think will happen?
Since higher ed leaders can't give candid accounts of the damage already done, and are too smart to pretend that nothing is wrong, they fall back (by default) on warnings of future harm. “We're still good, but further cuts will erode...” That way they can protest the bad stuff without inadvertently jeopardizing their own viability as a student and staff destination.
But after years of that, the public has grown jaded. We've had warnings of imminent apocalypse for decades, yet it never seems to happen. The damage manifests gradually, with enough lag to make it difficult for casual observers to connect the dots. (Those of us in the trenches see it, but most people's attention is otherwise engaged.) Since reputations are both imperfect and lagging indicators, it can take many years for real damage to alter public perceptions. By then, you’re too far gone to rebuild easily, and enough other things have happened that it’s difficult to pin the blame cleanly on any one thing.
After so many years of cuts, college leaders start to sound like the boy who cried ‘wolf.’ In this case, the wolf is real, which just makes matters worse.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found a realistic and practical way to get the phones ringing?
Friday, March 04, 2011
Ask the Administrator: New Job, New Baby, New Town?
I have been very stressed trying to figure out my job for next year. I
was offered a tenure-track position at University B during the month
of February. My husband and I were extremely happy, because it was a
good position in a great city with a very reasonable salary. I have
been working for University A for 8 years as a lecturer. I really enjoy
working at University A, but the fact that they cannot offer me a Tenure
Track position has been bothering me, therefore I decided to go to the
job market last January and find a more secure position, which
fortunately I found.
To make the story short, we just found out that I am pregnant and the
baby is due mid September. Human Resources web page at University B
states that they do not have the obligation to pay maternity leave to
faculty members who have not been in the institution 12 months or
more. The FMLA protects me, and I would be able by law take 6
weeks off, but of course, with no income, in a new city, where
everything will be new to us.
At University A, because I have been here for so long, I have
accumulated 12 weeks of sick leave paid which can be used towards my
maternity leave. After that, I will be on my own, because the
department will not let me come back and teach at week 12. I would
have to wait for the following semester. Obviously, I have my doctor
here in this city, my friends, and I just feel more protected within
my comfort zone.
My ideal situation, if I could choose, would be to postpone the Tenure
Track position at University B one year and stay one more year as a
lecturer at University A, even though I would not be teaching
Fall 2011. After Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 I would love to move to
University B with the baby, who will be one year old.
My question is: Can I ask for a year deferment at University B, how
do you think they will take it? Will that be offensive?
What if I take my maternity leave during Fall at University A and
start my Tenure Track job at University B during Spring? How do you
think University A will react? Is that ethical or should I stay with
them the whole academic year?
I’ll start with the easy one. Congratulations on the baby! In the grand scheme of things, a new baby and a new job offer are both good news. I know that’s slim comfort now, but it’s true.
And I’ll just put it out there that I’m not a lawyer. So I’ll just go with “what I would probably do,” and hope that my wise and worldly readers have something to contribute.
Tenure-track hires are time-consuming to select. By the time you’ve been selected, the department has made a significant effort to land you, and has quite a bit invested in actually reeling you in. Nobody likes losing their top choice. If you were the second choice and they lost you, they’d have to reopen the search (and take the risk of losing the position altogether).
In other words, you may have more bargaining power at this moment than you think.
It’s worth noting, too, that “due dates” are approximations. “Mid-September” could mean September 15, or September 1, or August 27. These things happen. It’s probably best not to assume too much precision here. A plan that relies on you being in place on, say, September 2 is not without risk.
You don’t mention your husband’s job, if any, so I don’t know how the economics of it all play out, but I believe you when you say that the Fall semester without pay in a new city is probably a bad idea. Those first few weeks are especially harrowing; being detached from support networks then would be really hard. People do it, of course, but we found it hard even with support.
All of that said, my first move would be to talk to the department chair, and possibly dean, about deferring your start for a year. University B wouldn’t be violating its FMLA policy that way, since it wouldn’t be granting you leave; it would be deferring your hire. The worst they could do is say ‘no,’ in which case you’re no worse off than you are now. I don’t imagine they’d rescind the offer, since you’d have a doozy of a discrimination argument if they did, but they could refuse the deferral. At that point, you could play the ‘failed search’ card and simply let them know that an unpaid semester in a new city is not an option for you, so if they can’t find a way to work with you, they’ll have to find a way to work without you.
The best negotiating position is always “willing to walk away.”
The risk, of course, is that they just might call the bluff. At that point, you’d have to either accept the awful deal or stay where you are now and take another crack at the market next year. Between those options, I’d go with the latter, though obviously your mileage may vary.
Wise and worldly readers, I suspect there are good options and angles that I’m not seeing. Do you have any thoughts that could help?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thursday, March 03, 2011
Thoughts on California
The first is the gradual accretion of levels of remediation at community colleges. I'll address that one in a subsequent post of its own.
The second is rampant “reserves” growth at California community colleges.
I hadn't fully appreciated just how badly designed the California system was until I had a chance to overhear an exchange with Dr. Constance Carroll, the chancellor of the San Diego community college district. At this point, I have some sense of why I didn't understand it before, and I can say with confidence that if the California cc system were a stock, I'd short it.
In the states in which I've worked, the community colleges were formed as colleges. They were understood as locally accessible portals to higher education. As such, they were staffed by people from higher ed, and they drew on recognizable higher ed models. For example, tuition and fees are used to support the costs of instruction. This is so basic and so much a part of my world that I simply took it as the way things are.
In California, though – and in some other states – community colleges were initially established with structures and strictures much closer to the K-12 system than to higher ed. (That's why some states have community college “districts,” complete with superintendents – sometimes called chancellors – and campus principals, usually called presidents.) Like the K-12 system, it was initially tuition-free, and its per-credit charges are still improbably low by national standards. Its costs of instruction were initially covered either by the state, or by the state and the local district. Tuition/fees were later add-ons, but the system was not structurally changed. To this day, the colleges send their tuition/fee income to the state, where it gets absorbed into the general fund. (As we used to say in the '80's, it gets sucked into the void.) Funding from the state is allocated by the legislature, which itself works within a largely plebiscitary budgeting system. (When in doubt, pass a referendum.) One outcome of that is that any increase to tuition and/or fees looks, to tax-averse politicians, like a tax increase.
The consequences of this system are several, all of them awful.
First, and most basically, colleges have no meaningful control over their own operating income. Dr. Carroll noted that her district has managed to build up its reserves even over the last couple of catastrophic years; the reason it did that is to cover the four-month stretches during which the state doesn't send any money to the colleges. (I think Illinois does that, too, though I'm fuzzier on Illinois.) The California legislature has a habit of passing its cash-flow problems on to others by simply not paying them for long stretches. Since colleges have payrolls to meet, and people get kind of cranky when they don't get paid, the district has had to build its reserves unusually high by diverting money that could have gone for instruction; the alternative would have been insolvency.
This is madness. In the models with which I'm familiar, tuition/fee revenue has always gone directly to pay the costs of instruction. In the beginning its share of the costs was relatively small; it has gone dramatically higher of late as state subsidies have been kneecapped. But that, at least, offers a survival strategy for a strapped college: tuition hikes. As tuition covers a progressively greater share of the overall cost, a combination of adjunct staffing and enrollment growth can generate enough revenue to offset at least some of the subsidy cuts. Better, colleges in this system can keep smaller reserves and get away with it, since they're less dependent on the state to make payroll. Even when the dollars coming in are too few, these colleges are at least spared the expense of having to build up ever-higher reserves to compensate for ever-longer funding droughts.
Too, colleges in the states I know not only get to keep the money they bring in, they actually get to set their own tuition/fee levels. Over the past few years, as the state has reeled from the Great Recession, we've been able to offset at least some of the state cuts through higher prices. Stripped of that option, we would have had to go the California route and simply turned away thousands of people.
California's tuition level is so low that it actually loses money on a typical adjunct class, let alone one taught by a full-timer. The only option campuses have for solvency is to shrink.
And that's where I take fundamental issue with the knee-jerk equation of low tuition with access.
At first blush, “cheap” and “accessible” seem to make sense together. It's easier for a student to pay, say, $26 per credit than to pay $126. But that's misleading. Pell grants and other forms of financial aid are available for low-income students to deal with tuition increases for the classes they need. But when the class they need doesn't exist in the first place, there's no financial aid for that. Students who get waitlisted or turned away altogether take longer to get their degrees, incurring severe (if unbudgeted) opportunity costs in lost time. When a two-year degree suddenly takes four because classes aren't offered, there's a real human cost to that.
Beyond the existence of the class, obviously, is the quality of it. Having 'access' is only worthwhile if the thing you have access to is worthwhile. Maintaining good facilities, reasonable class sizes, and qualified employees costs money.
I'm lucky to work at a college that charges something closer to reality, and that mostly gets to keep what it makes. That means, among other things, that we've been able to keep running quality programs without turning people away. Yes, we have had to cut costs, and will have to cut more, and that sucks. But there's at least some level of agency at the campus level to make those decisions. In California, the campuses are told what they'll get, and that's what they'll get, unless they don't.
This is no way to run a college, let alone a state system of colleges.
Please understand that none of this is intended as a shot against the people who work in the California cc system. I was impressed by many of them I met earlier this week, and I happily stipulate that there are great and wonderful people throughout. The issue is structural, not personal. The solution has to be structural, too.
With the supermajority requirement for tax increases and a crazy quilt of referenda hemming it in, I wouldn't put much faith in the California legislature to step up. The slow bleed from Prop 13 and the earlier tax revolts has become acute. I'm guessing that the solution is to get away from the state-system model, and to double down on localism and autonomy. Let campuses set their own tuition and fee levels, and let them keep the money. Let them work with local governments and/or taxpayers to establish local funding; after all, folks in, say, Oakland may not care much about a college in L.A., but they'll probably care about one in Oakland.
More broadly, break away from the K-12 model of 'districts' and state dependence. Community colleges are colleges. Let them act like it. Either that, or watch the community college system shrink to irrelevance, and leave the fate of the next generation to the for-profits, who actually understand the concept of a business model.
Wise and worldly readers, is there a cause for optimism that I'm missing?
Wednesday, March 02, 2011
Live from the League, Day 3
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.