Sunday, July 29, 2018

Godzilla Attacks!

Back during the first Clinton administration, I spent more time than I should have playing Sim City.  It was a very early version, chock-full of 16 bit goodness; it was nowhere near as sophisticated as later versions were, but the outlines were there.  Sometimes as a city matured, the game would start to fall into a rut. When that happened, every so often a Godzilla-like monster would appear, stomping through the city and wreaking general havoc.  It was a sort of “reset” button that immediately mooted any plans you were making, and that forced some rapid adjustments on the fly.

I haven’t played the game probably since Clinton was reelected, but the mental image of the random Godzilla attack stayed with me.  A prehistoric fire-breathing lizard has a way of abruptly forcing a rethink of whatever was happening before.

Substitute “the state legislature” for “a prehistoric fire-breathing lizard,” as one does, and you get a sense of what’s happening now.

The New Jersey legislature recently passed a bill mandating a hard cap of 60 credits for all associate degree programs, other than those with specific program accreditations.  The prior rule was a range of 60-66, with exceptions granted up to 72. (It also passed a hard cap of 120 for bachelor’s degrees, with similar rules.) The idea is to speed up time to completion, and to reduce costs.  

Which are valid goals.  But the timeline is ambitious, and the scope comprehensive.  It means suddenly putting existing plans on the back burner, and starting over on some other ones, all while hoping that Godzilla doesn’t double back and stomp something else.

For example, we’ve been moving in the direction of a combined student success/”meta-major” course in the first semester for most students.  The objective there is to help students identify their career goals, and to map out both course pathways to get there and academic strategies to be successful in those courses.  A foray into that model in the health sciences area has been encouragingly successful.

But the new course adds credits, which means taking away something else to make room for it.  When the credit total of a program is zero-sum, any new requirement has to come at the expense of something already existing.  That will now be a harder sell than it already was, especially given that we may need to come back to the well twice in two years just to meet deadlines.

I’m hopeful that the state will give us some breathing room on the deadline, which would certainly help.  But there’s no getting around the fact of zero-sum credit totals.

New Jersey isn’t the first state to see legislative mandates in curricula, of course.  Connecticut did a sweeping (and later somewhat amended) ban on remediation, and Florida declared by fiat that all high school graduates were college-ready, by definition.  In each case, you could see a reasonable motive, but the facts on the ground were somewhat more complicated.

Sometimes, of course, those intrusions wind up being beneficial over the long term, even if they’re disasters in the short term.  The rebuilding process means that you wind up with some new stuff that probably fits current realities better than some of the entrenched, legacy stuff that was there before and was politically immovable.  What Hegel called “the cunning of history” worked, even when the individuals involved weren’t especially cunning.

I’m hoping that’s true in this case.  The goals are good ones, and over time, we may wind up stronger.  I just wish there was a less drastic way than unleashing Godzilla.