Thursday, February 23, 2017

 

Friday Fragments


The story of the College of New Rochelle is horrifying.  Apparently -- and I have no knowledge beyond the press account -- the college skipped payroll tax payments for a couple of years.  Now that those have come to light, the college is in dire straits.  Even with a huge anonymous donation to deflect the wolf from the door, it’s still engaging in cascading cuts, with planned layoffs of tenured faculty as the next step.

The tax evasion aspect is unusual, but the larger contours of the story aren’t.  Going broke happens slowly, until it happens quickly.  By the time there’s widespread awareness, it’s usually too late.

Assuming the story is true, I have a hard time imagining how auditors could have missed something so large and basic for years.  At best, it would require a series of catastrophic system failures.  I’m guessing there was a conscious effort to hide it from the auditors.

The story suggests that there’s still hope for the college, even though its next step is layoffs of tenured faculty (!).  Here’s hoping it’s able to survive, and that the layoffs aren’t as bad as they could be.  

--

Someone I trust told me once that my leadership style involves a lot of leading with questions.  I do a lot of “what if” and “why,” as opposed to declaring.  She was right.

I was reminded of that in reading this interview with Valerie Smith, the president of Swarthmore.  It’s always nice to see very successful people using an approach you recognize.

Leading with questions -- as opposed to “leading questions,” which is a form of manipulation -- requires establishing a context in which it’s okay to be wrong.  It’s hard to create a new reality all at once; progress is necessarily partial and halting, with a stream of course corrections along the way.  It requires the audacity to declare “it doesn’t have to be this way,” along with the humility to admit “I hadn’t thought of that.”  My best staff meetings resemble writing workshops, in which everyone has license to bat ideas around, and the lowest-ranking person can contradict the highest-ranking one without fear.  

It only works when everyone is operating in good faith.  But when they are, the ideas that come out tend to benefit from having had more eyes on them.

The biggest cost I’ve found is that some people expect Leadership (capital “L”) to involve lots of pounding on tables, loud declarations, and visible assertions of alpha status.  Done differently, they don’t recognize it.  If your image of the Leader involves lots of scenery-chewing, the questioning style can look aloof or passive.  Over time, results speak for themselves, but that presumes the presence of time.  

--

Rumor has it that summer Pell may have bipartisan support.  Let me add my voice to the chorus.  If we want to encourage students to finish, we need to enable them to attend year-round.  Forcing interruptions causes unnecessary delay.  The Pell fund has the money to cover summers.  Here’s hoping Congress does the right thing.

--

Carrying on in the family tradition, The Boy is a big Michigan fan, so I took him to the Michigan-Rutgers basketball game on Wednesday.  It was great fun, and some good father-son bonding time.  But it was a little unnerving to see the Busch campus after all these years.

I went to grad school at Rutgers in the 90’s, when the Busch campus was pretty undeveloped.  Now it’s almost entirely new, along with the access roads leading to it.  (That’s a good thing; the traffic on the old Metlars Lane used to be horrific.)  Even New Brunswick looks a lot spiffier than it did when I lived there.

It was sort of shocking to see the money that had been spent there.  Coming from a community college stuck in an austerity trap, the resources on display at what is still a state school were hard to believe.  I don’t begrudge them that, but I wouldn’t mind seeing at least some of that wealth shared…

Comments:
New Rochelle:
If the auditors and others with a fiduciary responsibility for financial matters (VP for finance, comptroller, presicent) are not held to have civil and/or criminal responsibility for this, one wonders why they even bother requiring audits or highly paid financial administrators.

Summer Pell:
You only focus on the months lost when students could be taking classes, but overlook the significant forgetting that takes place over summer in sequential courses like math. Summer is long enough for a student to enter course 2 knowing less than they did when they started course 1. Those at greatest risk need to take math every semester until they complete the graduation requirement.

Univesity Appropriations:
I can see that sort of spending any time I want to, so I know that our students are being shortchanged by the legislature ... and that the entire collection of CC Presidents in my state are happy to stay silent and let it continue. They don't dare tell folks in their region, some quite far from a flagship or regional that is getting construction and per-pupil money that you can only dream of, what is keeping their kids from getting the education they need so they can transfer from the local CC after paying reasonable tuition.

Leading with Questions:
That is how I try to lead from below. Do you ask them up, as well as down, the command chain? I wish my Dean would ask the questions we ask, about why some systems don't work any more and whether there is any value at all in the things that take hours of our time away from instruction.
 
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Thу taxation problem is real for the college. I am not sure this will end well for the institution.
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