Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vision and Decentralization

CUNY’s New Community College, in New York City, is attracting plenty of attention in higher ed circles.  It’s an attempt to apply a panoply of best practices in raising graduation rates to a population that desperately needs it.  Whether it becomes an exemplar of a new model, or withers on the vine as an expensive boutique project, remains to be seen.

That said, though, I was drawn to the part of this article at which it mentioned that even before it has opened, the new president has either fired or forced out a majority of the original faculty.  

I don’t know what the specific issues were, or the merits of the positions taken on each side.  To what degree each side was right or wrong, I can’t say.

But what struck me was the implied trade-off between vision and decentralization.

Whatever else you want to say about it, the New Community College reflects a pretty tightly disciplined vision.  Students all take the same classes in their first year, use of support services is mandatory, and students have to be full-time.  Remediation must be embedded in credit-bearing courses, if it exists at all.  Even student group work is mandated.  Academic departments don’t exist.  

The idea is to give the purest test case possible.  If a college does everything according to the literature -- whether incumbent employees believe it or not -- what would happen?  At that level, it could prove a very useful data point.

In a context of “shared governance,” particularly one that also includes collective bargaining, the level of control being exercised centrally at NCC is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.  Culturally, the default model in higher education is decentralized control.  That’s why so much decision-making on campus resembles town politics more than anything else; it’s the clash of various immovable interest groups who aren’t going anywhere.  (The exception, of course, is the students, who come and go and are therefore given no substantive voice, despite being the point of the whole enterprise.)  Everything from resource allocation to curricular requirements gets decided in part based on internal politics.  That’s the root of the old joke that being a college president is like running a cemetery -- lots of people under you, but good luck getting any of them to do what you want.  Add administrative turnover -- itself a factor in reinforcing silos -- and you wind up with a college as a collection of mostly-independent departments battling over resources.

The decentralized model worked tolerably well when there was enough money, and enough cultural deference, to contain the possible damage from conflict.  As long as student failure could be blamed on students, a patchwork organizational scheme might be annoying, but it wouldn’t be fatal.

As resources get thinner and results matter more, though, the argument for coherence within a college around a single vision becomes more compelling.  The contrast between the City College of San Francisco -- the reductio ad absurdum of decentralization, now in a death spiral -- and the New Community College is striking.  

To my mind, the right path for college administrators to take now is neither.  The CCSF model -- no administration, basically -- just results in unsustainable chaos.  The NCC model can make sense on a very small scale, but vesting too much power in a single office puts an awful lot of faith in one person to get everything right.  Nobody is omniscient.

Instead, a more productive path is for administrators to use the birds-eye view afforded by statistics and studies, combined with whatever material incentives are at hand, to set agendas.  Share the findings on developmental math with the math department, give it some course releases so it’ll have time to work, and task it with coming up with something better to try.  Then track the results, and let the results determine the next step.  Have the discipline not to try to intervene in the “coming up with something better” stage, other than signing off on field trips to places that are doing other things so folks can see how they work.  

That approach, I think, offers the best of both worlds.  It nudges people out of the provincialism that can easily develop over time when people get ensconced in their silos, but it doesn’t dictate content or delivery.  It respects faculty agency and expertise as problem-solvers.  And it refocuses the discussion from theology -- “This Is How It Should Be” -- to facts on the ground -- “here’s what worked.”  It also avoids the mistake of vesting too much authority in any one person, whether that person is a president or a department chair.  At the end of the day, the voice that matters is the voice of the results of the experiment.

The difficulty in that approach, other than tuning it right, is resources.  Incentives cost money.  But I’m willing to gamble that in the long run, sustained failure is far more expensive than a few course releases.