Monday, June 16, 2014

 

Calling Visionary Philanthropists


I follow a fair number of academics on Twitter, and I’m consistently amazed at the travel schedules of those who don’t work at community colleges.  They go to far more conferences than their community college colleagues do, even when the conferences are focused on teaching.  That tends to lead to a certain insularity at conference discussions; when the only people there are people with the travel budgets to be there, a certain frame of reference goes uncontested.  This explains a lot.

That’s unfortunate on several levels.  Obviously, it’s unfair to the community college faculty, who are denied opportunities to see what others are doing.  If conferences are of any value at all, then over time, that has to lead to missed opportunities, missed improvements, and the like.  It’s also unfair to their colleagues, who lose valuable perspectives.  It stunts the discussions at many conferences, which means that certain questions don’t even get asked.  

The major reason for the lack of travel, of course, is money.  Earlier this week I had a conversation with a student from Amherst College.  He mentioned that Amherst spends something like $100,000 per year per student.  We spend approximately one tenth of that.  It’s true that we don’t have dorms or football, but even allowing for those, we can’t come close to the kind of professional development budgets that other places can.  It’s mathematically impossible, given the dollars we have to work with.

Which is where philanthropists could come in.

Here’s what I’m thinking.  A philanthropist who wanted to help community college faculty join the larger discussions around teaching innovations, student success, the completion agenda, and the rest of it could sponsor a travel fund specifically for community college faculty.  To have maximum impact -- and I know this is counter to the major trends in philanthropy, but a guy can dream -- it should not be competitive or program-specific.  It could, and probably should, have rules about a maximum per person per year, disallowed expenses (i.e. alcohol), and the usual safeguards.  But beyond that, it should be open to folks who aren’t used to competing for travel funding.  

The beauty of a program like this is that it’s almost infinitely malleable.  If the Big Muckety Muck Memorial Travel Program only wants to run for, say, five years, then it can.  If it wants to include adjuncts, it can.  If it wants to focus first on a few key disciplines, it can.  Unlike publicly funded programs, it has a great deal of freedom in how it defines its mission.

But wait, I hear you thinking, that wouldn’t be transformative!  It wouldn’t be disruptive!

I respectfully disagree.

It’s much easier to get innovations to stick when faculty are involved.  They’re the folks on the front lines, and they’re the ones who dominate curriculum committees.  With them on your side, you can accomplish quite a bit.  With them indifferent or hostile, you have much more of an uphill battle.  And they have a vantage point that can inform many proposals in useful ways.

At this point, waiting for community colleges to fund them directly is a fool’s errand.  With budgets as tight as they are, significant increases in travel funding simply aren’t going to happen.  But a philanthropist with a vision could move mountains by moving professors.

Philanthropists, what say you?  Is anyone up to the challenge?  If you are, I’d be happy to discuss it offline in more detail...

Comments:
Aren't conferences the wave of the past? Especially when you consider the very heavy carbon footprint of air travel?

Perhaps you'd have more luck finding a philanthropist to fund creation of an online substitute for conferences to facilitate communication among faculty at many institutions.
 
You think CC is bad, try getting any meaningful PD at a school (elementary or high school).

In my system, the only way teachers get PD* to to pay for it themselves, use sick leave to get the time off, and hope they don't get fired. (Parenthetically, it makes it hard to advocate for using helpful new techniques when you can't admit how you learned them.)

The frustrating thing is that there is money in the system for PD, but it is never spent on the people in the front lines.

*Other than from expensive and useless consultants hired by the school board, who haven't been in a classroom in decades if ever.
 
I also think part of the problem is that people at CCs think conferences aren't relevant to them. But I am part of a fairly robust teaching and learning section of APSA (yes - the political science APSA). We have numerous teaching panels at APSA and other conferences and are looking for ways to engage more community college faculty, particularly those who live near where some of these conferences are and so have lower costs to attend.

Right now, I am developing the program for the teaching and learning section of the Southern conference. I already have the makings of at least one community college panel, but any advice you'd have for engaging more community college faculty would be appreciated.
 
It would be awesome if someone wanted to fund adjuncts for conference travel as well as CC people.
 
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