Thursday, January 21, 2016
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...