Sunday, April 09, 2017

Building and Rebuilding

“President Jones grew the campus by three buildings, ten programs, and a thousand students.  We wish him well.”

That’s the way that retiring or departing presidents have historically been measured.  How much did they grow the college?  How many buildings, programs, students?  Did s/he do something to “put the college on the map”?  Legacies defined by construction are common enough to give rise to a common pun: the edifice complex.  

For a long time, that way of measuring presidents made some level of sense.  Most community colleges in the US were founded in or near the 1960’s, and most of them grew rapidly for decades after they started.  New colleges, especially then, needed buildings.  And buildings are easy enough to measure and count.  The same is true of enrollments and programs.

But outside of a few lucky high-growth environs, that method of measuring presidents really doesn’t make sense anymore, to the extent that it ever did.  It’s certainly not the challenge that new presidents are facing.

The new challenge is rebuilding, rather than building.  

In areas with declining numbers of 18 year olds, adding physical capacity isn’t the major challenge.  Improving student success is.  That’s a very different task.

A president with connections, an appetite for partnerships, and a taste for construction management didn’t need to have much of an academic sense.  He could find money for buildings, get them built, and leave it to the provost to figure out what to do with them.  To the extent that presidents were measured by the square footage they added, that’s exactly what they did.  If students churned through those buildings, well, so be it.  

The task at hand now requires much more knowledge of what actually goes on inside those buildings.  How do we reduce achievement gaps among different groups, the better to fulfill both a social justice mission and an economic development challenge?  How do we prevent students from getting lost in the systems?  And, with students covering more of the costs than they ever have, how do we keep the institution afloat?  

Those questions may or may not be harder, but they’re clearly different.  To the builder, higher education is a sort of black box; the task at hand is to make the box bigger.  Once demand starts falling, though, the skill set of the builder becomes largely irrelevant.  We can’t treat learning as a black box anymore.  

In fact, too much building can become counterproductive.  When Burlington College went bankrupt, the proximate cause was an ambitious land deal that never led to enough enrollments to pay the debt service.  Empty dorms or classroom buildings still generate costs, even when they stop generating revenue.  Between demographic headwinds and an increasing turn to online learning, this is not the time to judge presidents on how much square footage they add.  Supply doesn’t always create demand, but it does create cost centers.  

The challenge facing community colleges now is to refine and improve what goes on in those buildings.  We may not need to be the construction managers that our predecessors were, but we need a much more finely-tuned educational sense.  We need to pay attention to labor and transfer outcomes of students.  We need to be comfortable addressing the academic, extracurricular, and economic obstacles that get in students’ way.  The next 25,000 square foot facility may matter less than the next food pantry, or the next schedule adjustment that helps more students stick with their programs.

Oddly, the sector as a whole is moving in the other direction.  It’s recruiting presidents from outside of higher education more often, usually based on a misplaced faith that the outsider will bring magical fundraising powers to make the problems go away.  That doesn’t work.  At this point, we need people who know the details.  And we need to let those people do what they know how to do.

When my career is over someday, I’d rather not be referred to by the square footage I generated.  I’d prefer to know how many more students succeeded than otherwise would have.