Monday, September 21, 2015


The Niche Conundrum

And no, the “niche conundrum” doesn’t refer to pronunciation.  I know I’m supposed to say “neesh,” but that just seems like it’s trying a little too hard.  “Nitch” is supposedly declasse, but it doesn’t feel quite so forced.  Anyway...

One of the joys of parenthood is watching children grow into themselves.  In the present, their future selves are unknowable, but looking backwards, their present selves seem inevitable.  It’s partly a trick of memory, but partly true; anyone who thinks that infants are blank slates has never had kids.  They’re born with personalities.

One of the consolations of growing older is watching old friends become purer versions of themselves.  Seeing some quirks melt away and others become more pronounced over time is oddly gratifying. I assume the same could be said of me, and probably with equal bemusement, but I choose not to think too much about that.

People have distinct identities, whether they want them or not.  It just happens.  Institutions, though, have to work at it.  If they get it wrong, eventually it catches up to them.

I used to work at the DeVry campus in North Brunswick, New Jersey.  When I got there, it still called itself an “Institute of Technology.”  Over the next several years, while I was there, it became first a “College of Technology,” and then a “University.”  It went from offering associate degrees to offering bachelor’s degrees, and the number of fields slowly grew.  Over the six years I was there, the blue toolboxes that students had originally carried in the hallways gradually grew scarcer.  

Now, over a decade later, it looks like the “University” brand is struggling.  

In trying to make itself a respectable higher education alternative, it gradually lost its niche.  If you wanted an “electronics technology” certificate, it was one of the only places to go.  If you wanted a bachelor’s in business, well, you could go just about anywhere.  Shifting from the former to the latter created a vulnerability. When many of the alternatives are cheaper, more respected, or both, the sales proposition is tough.  

Some for-profits -- okay, maybe most -- became more transparently mercenary as they grew.  Phoenix’ expansion to include traditional-aged students struck me even at the time as misguided; now it’s trying to recover respectability while keeping stockholders relatively pacified.  That won’t be easy, if it happens at all.  DeVry had an endearing “we’re the good guys” streak that showed itself in funny ways.  For a couple of years, I was allowed to team-teach a class on the history of political ideologies there, which wasn’t something you’d expect from the commercials.  A friend and colleague got to teach an entire course on different readings of Hamlet --- she’d show a single scene as performed by Olivier, Gibson, and Branagh, in sequence, and have the students contrast them.  The idea was that a real university would offer classes like that.  Admittedly, the New Jersey campus was a bit of an outlier in the system, but still, these weren’t dictated by employers.  

It succeeded, somewhat, for a while, in distinguishing itself from the Corinthians of the world.  But it also lost its distinctive identity.

That was partly a deliberate choice.  Niches can be limiting.  If you’re focused on growth at all costs, it can be tempting to discard the limits of a niche and try to grab everything you can.  But if you do that and then the winds shift, you’re in trouble.

Many small private colleges are facing a similar issue now.  For that matter, so are some “comprehensive” community colleges.  In a competitive and crowded marketplace, what do you offer that others don’t?  It might be prestige, if you have that option.  It might be demographic specificity, as in the case of HBCU’s, single-sex colleges, or denominational colleges.  It might be distinction in a particular major or field.  It might be location.  But it needs to be something.  

In an expanding market, being similar-and-almost-as-good can be enough.  In a tightening one, though, you need a hook, a niche.  You need a hook.  You need a personality.  

Whether DeVry will be able to pull it off, I don’t know.  But the rest of us ignore its lesson at our peril.

"Nitch" is perfectly fine, and by many accounts the more common pronunciation among biologists in the U.S. My anecdotal evidence supports this, but may be distorted by too much time spent on the East Coast and New York.
My wife and I, raised in the same region, have opposite pronunciations. Might reflect who you learned ecology from. And I think I've heard "nish" as a variant of "neesh".

In reflecting on the situation my college is in, one should not forget that species can evolve as a result of geographic isolation rather than finding some nook or cranny to call your own in a crowded area like the northeast. We do the Galapagos thing really well, which makes me worry about too much emphasis on expanding into distance learning. That is a field where we look just like (or worse than) everyone else on a national scale, but it is a necessary investment if we are to keep others from poaching "our" natural student base.
Guilty as charged, I think.

In my department, we face a conundrum in that our university has several niches (seems wrong as the plural), and I'm not convinced that we are one of them. On the other hand, I am also in favor of my own department continuing to exist, and we try to be good at what we do and deliver. This is definitely a topic for further thought.

I did meet people over the summer at a different school (R1-equivalent) who managed to focus their department to specialize in one subfield of physics (their discipline but not mine). It also took 20 years of focused hiring and gradual evolution.
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