Thursday, January 21, 2016


Friday Fragments

The quote from the president of Mount Saint Mary College about “drowning bunnies” went viral for the obvious reason that it’s almost cartoonish in its apparent villainy.  For full effect, I have to picture him twirling the ends of his handlebar mustache and cackling as he says it.

But aside from his catastrophic choice of metaphor, he’s trying (gracelessly) to do something that many places do.  He’s trying to game the numbers.

The “bunnies” to whom he referred were students whom he considered high-risk, and the reference to “drowning” them (or “put[ting] a Glock to their heads,” if you prefer that one) was about kicking them out of college before they’d count in the denominator of the college’s retention rate.  It’s a variation on the well-worn high school strategy of suspending the low-achieving kids right before a statewide standardized test.  

Any performance-based funding system will create incentives to game the numbers.  I’ve heard of community colleges that build schedules specifically to preclude students who need developmental courses from taking a full-time schedule; that way, they don’t count in the “first time, full time” graduation rate, which is the rate that ‘counts.’  Ethically, I consider that cheating, but it isn’t breaking any rules.  In this case, as in so many, the scandal isn’t that someone is doing something illegal; the scandal is that it’s legal.

In a zero-sum performance-based system -- which they tend to be -- those who successfully game the system effectively starve the honest ones of revenue.  Over time, that leads to declining performance among the honest ones: they get sucked into a death spiral of funding cuts leading to worse performance leading to more cuts leading to even worse performance, until either something breaks or the whole thing crashes.  

Mount Saint Mary’s is a private, Catholic institution, so it isn’t subject to performance funding in a direct way. (Though it does raise the question: who would Jesus drown?)  But that doesn’t make it immune to pressure to show the numbers.  

I hope that anyone in a position to influence the shaping of performance funding systems keeps the drowned bunnies in mind.  Mount Saint Mary’s president may have been uncommonly stupid in the way he did it, but what he did isn’t rare at all.


Sherman Dorn has a thought-provoking post up about questions he’ll ask candidates for deanships.  But the one that jumped out at me was:

“What can you tell us about ourselves that we cannot see from the inside?”

How to put this delicately…

People often don’t really want to know the answer to that.  They’re looking for praise, possibly coupled with a variation on “and you could be even better if…”  Old habits may not make much sense from the outside, but in many cases, incumbents consider them sacred.  They may be dreaming, but a candidate wakes the sleepwalker at her peril.

I can see what Dorn is getting at; he wants to know what new thing the prospective hire would bring to the party.  That’s a worthy goal, but this question is radioactive.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way to ask that?


We’re bracing for a repent-your-sins level storm, which highlights differences in perspective.  Upon hearing that the “winter storm watch” was upgraded to a “blizzard warning,” we reacted as follows:

The Girl: It’ll be fun!

The Boy: Sweet!  I hope I can go sledding with my friends.

The Wife: Cool!  So far this winter has been a big, dull dud.

Me: Ah, %^#*!%&#%

I suspect it may have something to do with who has to clear the driveway...

Meanwhile, some of us back in the Pioneer Valley are upset that the 8-12 inches of snow we were promised have dwindled to possible snow showers. We're prepared for snow and don't get any, while the places that aren't ready will get socked. At least Bostonians are thinking, "At last, a reprieve!"
Although the president of Mount Saint Mary College certainly put it rather crudely, I can see the sort of pressure that he is probably under. He needs to make sure that his school “meets its numbers” and doesn’t slide downward in the ratings. As Matt points out, he is probably under pressure to increase his school’s graduation rate. One way of doing this is to “game the numbers”, by eliminating at an early stage those low-achieving students who are imagined to have little chance of graduating because they fail the first couple of tests, they don’t do the homework, they party too much, or they don’t even show up for classes. If these “at-risk” students are quickly eliminated from the rolls, they won’t count as full-time introductory students, and they won’t drive the graduation rates down. Yet another example of the perverse influences that can arise when a school is too strictly managed by the numbers.

Looking back at my own experience, I remember that my freshman year at a SLAC was rather trying. I failed the first couple of tests, probably because my high school had not prepared me very well to do college-level work. Under such an environment that is proposed by the president of MSN, I could have been kicked out after only a few weeks at college. Fortunately, I was able to turn things around more favorably as I developed more familiarity with what was expected at college, and my exam results began to improve, and in the last couple of years that I was there, I ended up on the Dean’s List.

I note that the president of Mount Saint Mary College has a Wall Street background, rather than any extensive academic experience. This points out the conflict that can often exist between business and academe. The purpose of a business is to make a profit, whereas the purpose of academe is to educate the next generation of students so that they can become informed and productive citizens in a democracy. It is often difficult for someone brought up strictly in a business environment not to let bottom-line issues become dominant over academic concerns.

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