Sunday, May 13, 2012

 

Less of the Same

This may be a little “inside baseball,” but here goes.  I’ll have to be a little vague just to protect the people involved.

In my state, as in many, there’s a move afoot at the state level to impose greater “accountability” throughout public higher education, but especially on community colleges.  (In the words of Spider-Man’s uncle, “with small appropriations come great responsibility.”  No, wait...)  A few legislators heard a few anecdotes, and bad ideas are starting to snowball.

Predictably, a countermove is also afoot, with some folks trying to develop a voluntary alternative that would have many of the same effects.  The idea is to beat the legislature to the punch, in the name of maintaining some level of control.

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of this strategy.

That’s not because I have great faith in the wisdom of the legislature.  The fact that we’re having these conversations in the first place is a sign that the legislature’s willingness to make rules based on apocryphal anecdote knows little bounds.  (“I know someone who knows someone whose nephew...”)  Its weird willingness, almost eagerness, to extrapolate from unsubstantiated trivia does not inspire confidence.

But there’s something really unsatisfying about trying to preempt bad ideas with just-barely-less-bad ones, justifying them on the grounds that they’re self-inflicted.  It may or may not work in the very short term, but it gives bad ideas political momentum and cover.  Over time, it shifts the political center towards bad ideas.  “Yes, we agree with every bad thing you say about us, but how about if we agree to get tough on ourselves and feel really, really bad about it?”  By agreeing to the spurious charge, even if insincerely, we’d give it political legitimacy.  I just don’t think that sniveling cowardice is a viable long-term position.

At some point, it seems like the right move is to confront the issues directly.  

There’s some risk involved in doing that, of course.  We could lose, a terrible idea could be enacted, and we’d have to live with it.  But if the preemptive compromise involves giving up most of what we care about anyway, the marginal downside strikes me as small.  And the possible upside is enormous.

Community colleges have nothing to apologize for.  You don’t like high unemployment?  An educated workforce might help.  You don’t like high student loan burdens?  Low tuition is always handy.  You don’t like palatial dorms with climbing walls, or scandal-ridden football teams?  No problem here.  

More to the point, if we’re going to improve in significant ways without significant infusions of money -- a tall order in the best of times -- we’ll need the freedom to experiment.  That means avoiding any sort of external mandate, whether legislated or “voluntary,” in favor of room to move.  Mandates that come with enormous piles of cash might be worthwhile, depending on the specifics, but if the funding is shrinking, I really don’t want to hear it.  “Less of the same” is not a serious answer.

Some fights are worth it.  It’s time to put those anecdotes on the table and hit back with truth.

Comments:
Wait, you mean that somewhere there are mandates that come WITH huge piles of cash? Is that somewhere over the rainbow or perhaps we hang a left at the third star to the right and go straight on till morning.

Perhaps, this is the time for your presidents (meaning all state cc's) to band together and do something presidential that isn't fundraising. Have someone write up what they should say and then send them out and say no to the state legislators.
 
I think, too, that preemptive compromise opens the door to being pushed even farther. A department I used to work in cut its own budget voluntarily, knowing that budget cuts were about to be mandated, thinking that they'd then be able to say "we already did that! Everything's fine now!" But then when the cuts came, our preemptive cuts counted for nothing, and we had to keep cutting just as much as every other department. Starting the bad planning ahead of time seems like just as bad an idea.
 
I'd add that the legislators aren't doing things because 'my nephew's friend's cousin knows somebody who...'; they're doing it because they want to. Politicians are experts at ignoring facts, data and expertise.
 
Your post is vague enough that I feel I've awoken in the latest version of Zork.

I agree that politicians don't need an excuse for their misguided policy prescriptions. I agree completely with your sentiment to avoid preemptive surrender.

OTOH, I wonder if your politicians are reacting to better-founded observations, such as these:

http://blogmaverick.com/2012/05/13/the-coming-meltdown-in-college-education-why-the-economy-wont-get-better-any-time-soon/

There is no doubt that real change is coming.
 
I think the big question here is, can you fight and win? If you can (and probably you only can if you get ALL presidents to fight together - and I'd say you need to get the presidents across institution types in your state to do that - and you probably need Board of Regents buy-in just as much), then the fight is worth it. If you can't, then the time and energy lost fighting when you could have been planning something that got faculty/staff buy-in and that would work in a less soul-killing way than the state mandate ultimately make the situation WORSE than it would have otherwise been.

If what you're talking about is accountability, you're also talking about assessment, and you're talking not just about the legislature, but also about accrediting agencies. I feel like the thing you want to fight already happened - like 10 years ago - and more like 20-30 years ago in P-12. Underfunded institutions are playing catch-up - there isn't actually anything that is left to fight that isn't already a done deal. In which case, you need to decide how to allocate the resources that you have - and here I'm not talking about money so much as I'm talking about people. If you want people to do the heavy lifting in a way that's productive, you need to decide whether taking a stand that you can't win on and then dumping a ton of work on people that needs to be accomplished by a crazy deadline is the best way to keep morale up and to get things done. (I have some experience with the scenario I just described, and it's UGLY.)

If so, then yep, fight the good fight. If not, put the power in the hands of your faculty and staff. Because they're going to have to address these demands on top of their regular workload either way.
 
I like that your example was vague enough that it probably applies in my state as well as yours!

Are you talking about a proposal that is absolutely, and without question, the best possible way to destroy the value of a college education, just as we have already destroyed the value of a HS education? Sounds like it might be one of many such ideas that are floating around these days.

If you have data that say the proposal is driven by bogus anecdote rather than fact, you should prepare a fact-based case to present to the legislature and urge others to do so as well. If you can agree on a common way to present the relevant data from ever college in the state, so much the better.

If the fight is fundamentally political rather than fact based, you may have no chance under any circumstances. In that case, you should plan quietly and off the radar on how to stay within the letter of the proposed law without destroying the quality of the education you provide.

That said, I am of the opinion that the best way to attack some things one reads about on IHE abd some blogs is to make a case to parents based on the effects of NCLB in the K-12 schools. Many parents are wildly unhappy with the minimal, and sometimes negative, effects of a total focus on teaching to a test rather than preparing students for a job or college. I don't know if this runs across party lines, but I see some indications in my state that it does. Politicians listen to parents in their own district.
 
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