Monday, May 20, 2019

The Most Useful Observation Feedback You Ever Got

Part of my job involves reading the evaluations of full-time faculty as they come in.  (Admittedly, between graduation, the gas leak, and this week’s OER conference at UMass, I’m a bit behind.  But still.) I don’t actually write the evaluations or do the observations; the deans do that. But I read them and, when everything seems in order, sign off on them before they get filed.

In my teaching days, I got observed by deans.  In my deaning days, I did observations. Now I read hundreds of them.  But I’m still not completely sure what kinds of feedback faculty find most useful.

To be clear, usefulness to the professor isn’t the only function of observations.  If someone is going badly off the rails, they can provide documentation to support some sort of intervention.  On the flip side, if someone’s fitness has been called into question, an observation can help exonerate. They’re written in the third person for a reason.

That said, though, most are only read by the professor, the dean, and me.  Presumably, they’re usually read most closely by the professor; that’s who has the most at stake, and they only have to read one.  

So, this one is particularly for the faculty out there.  What’s the most useful observation feedback you ever got?

“Useful” doesn’t necessarily mean “positive,” although it could.  I mean it in the sense of “helping you improve.” What helped you get better?

Thinking back to the feedback I got as a teacher, the most useful stuff usually came from students.  The evaluative ones from deans were sort of...fine...but not terribly useful. Given how much time these take, and how many of them we do, I’d like them to be better than just fine.

So, wise and worldly readers, I (and the deans) look to you for guidance.  What’s the most useful feedback you’ve received on an observation? Alternately, what would be useful to receive?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Best Laid Plans...

On Friday morning, a construction crew that was installing a backup generator on campus hit a gas main, forcing an evacuation.

As dramatic as that was, at least it happened on Friday.  We had both of our graduation ceremonies on Thursday. An evacuation then would have been much worse.  Friday was a relatively light day, as far as people on campus go. It was “Scholars’ Day,” which is an annual professional development day on which faculty and staff present to each other some research or projects they’ve been working on.  It’s a relaxed, collegial day between graduation and the start of the first (and highest enrolled) summer session the following Monday.

That means there weren’t any students on campus, and even the staff was light.  That made both the evacuation and the subsequent communications easier.

The problem with a gas leak is that the danger is mostly theoretical until it very much isn’t, at which point the damage is done.  I saw that as folks gathered in the parking lots on the opposite side of campus. They (we) were discussing when and whether to actually leave.  People were still showing up, so there was some redirecting to do. The president was off campus, so I was the ranking person on campus, and I noticed people looking to me for cues.  When I told them to get off campus, they stayed put because I did. When I figured that out, I set the example by driving across the street to the parking lot of a neighboring church; that seemed to open the floodgates.  Folks arrived quickly at the church.

The most frustrating part of the enterprise was the partial information and spotty communication.  I was in touch with the president, who was being briefed by county officials and, presumably, campus police.  For a while, it wasn’t clear how quickly the leak would be plugged. Had we known immediately that it would take as long as it did, we could have made the call to close for the day much more quickly than we did.  But at first, it seemed like it could be a relatively quick fix.

Worse, there wasn’t really a single designated area.  We were advised to go to the church; a subsequent RAVE alert directed everyone to a nearby park.  Others set up base camp at nearby Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s. I was with the group at the church, which included a few dozen people.  Happily, the folks working in the church were welcoming, and allowed us to use the facilities as needed. And the weather was perfect, which made hanging out much more pleasant than it could have been.

Initially, I had hoped that some of the discussions could happen outside.  (Fellow Williams grads know the old line about Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.)  But most of them required PowerPoint or similar tech, which wasn’t really an option. And with the prospective audience scattered among multiple sites, there wasn’t really critical mass in any one place.  

As phone calls bounced back and forth, it eventually became clear that even after the leak was fixed -- and nothing exploded -- there would still be an odor of gas lingering in various parts of campus.  Aside from the obvious aesthetic issue, it was a safety issue in itself; if there’s an ambient odor of gas anyway, nobody might notice a new leak. We closed for the day.

We postponed the presentations until the day after Convocation in the fall, which is usually devoted to meetings.  Because staff from the various branch campuses and offsite locations had previously been directed to close for the day and come to the main campus for Scholars’ Day, we just wound up sending everybody home.  

In moments like those, you discover certain things that you might not know otherwise.  For example, while it’s easy to send a “broadcast” email from my desktop, it’s impossible from my phone.  The communications team struggled a bit with notifications. And while people want immediate answers, sometimes those answers aren’t immediately available.  I’ve also never been quite as grateful that we have a non-smoking campus. One idiot with a lighter could have ruined the whole day.

The good news, aside from the fact that the leak was fixed without anything blowing up, is that people were generally on their best behavior.  “Disasterologists” -- people who study the responses to disasters, a field that I totally would have studied if I had known it existed -- like to point out that the stereotype of people immediately devolving into a Hobbesian war of each against all isn’t true; in fact, disasters tend to bring out the best in people.  (Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell” details that.) That’s what I saw. Everybody wanted to be helpful, and even the complaining was mostly in the spirit of offering solutions.

I had been slated to be the opening speaker for Scholars’ Day.  When I got the call that we were officially closing for the day, I stepped up on a curb and announced “we’re closing for the day.”  As soon as I stepped down, someone walked up and told me it was the best speech she’d ever seen me give. And entirely without a script!

Shortly after getting home, of course, the detail-y messages started coming in.  “Could this still count as a day on the annual faculty professional development report?”  Yes. “Some people couldn’t get to their offices. Could we have another day to turn in the grades?”  Yes. There’s always a loose end somewhere. I expect to discover a few more over the next few days.

Still, while there’s no such thing as a good gas leak, this was probably one of the least-bad kinds we could have had.  Nothing blew up. No students were around. It was the day after graduation, rather than the day of. The weather made waiting outside reasonably pleasant.  The neighbors were kind. Everybody was on their best behavior.

This week will bring the “what happened?” discussions.  I’m thinking step one will be figuring out how to do mass emails from my phone...

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Scenes from Graduation Week

Graduation week is the most affirming, and most tiring, week of the year.  A few scenes from this year’s version, all true:

  • At the morning ceremony, as one student crossed the stage to get her degree, a voice boomed from the stands: “That’s my Mom!”  The whole place muttered “awww…” in unison. Moments like those get me every time.

  • At the afternoon ceremony, as another student crossed the stage, the unmistakable squeal of a gaggle of young girls rang out.  I looked to my right and saw a row of three girls, probably ranging in age from about three to about six, screaming and waving at who I assumed was their Dad.  He acknowledged them, and they squealed again.

  • At the post-ceremony reception in the morning, as I was chatting with a professor, a student who had just graduated walked up and asked his parents to take his picture with her.  She obliged happily. He mentioned his plans for moving on to a local four-year school with a major in finance, and he thanked her for reaching him.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course.  This time of year can draw on some pretty specialized skill sets.

For example, walking back from a governance meeting, a faculty colleague related this with juuuuust a little too much gusto: “This time of year, grading is like battlefield medicine in the Civil War.  Take a shot of whiskey, bite a bullet, and saw off the leg!”

As an administrator, it can be helpful to have selective hearing.  Sometimes, dark humor is just dark humor. You have to know when to let it pass.

Happily, I’ve been in training for that since childhood.  As part of a devious plot to encourage me to read, Mom got me a subscription to Mad magazine as a kid.  I devoured every issue. The movie satires taught me about genre long before any English class did. Later, I discovered movies like Grace Quigley, Heathers, and Brain Candy, each of which -- especially the latter two -- consistently evoke belly laughs from objectively awful situations.  (The Addams Family movies are probably the best mass-market version of those.  Christina Ricci’s character fires off some instant classics.)   And my brother is one of the funniest humans on the planet, with a genuine talent for balancing the absurd with the morbid.

Dark humor, done well, can offer solace when situations are overwhelming.  It can cut down terrible obstacles to manageable size, even if only for a while. It also translates very, very badly into bureaucratic settings.  That’s where the selective hearing comes in. Imagine taking the above quote literally:

“I’m sorry, I’ll have to report your plans of giving students whiskey and chopping off their limbs to HR.”


“We can’t have that sort of thing around here.”

(bang head against wall)

Institutions don’t do dark humor well.  Actual humans have to pick up the slack.

Remarkably, the first summer session starts on Monday.  I tip my cap to the folks who can turn it around that quickly.  Social mobility waits for no one. There are more kids out there waiting to squeal for their parents crossing a stage.  

Monday, May 13, 2019

Red Flags

I don’t know the details of the Portland State presidential resignation beyond what has appeared in the press.  Having said that, one line in the IHE account jumped off the screen for me:

“In 18 months on the job, he went through four provosts.”

Flags don’t get much redder than that.  That, in itself, is alarming.

Some level of turnover is normal when a new president arrives, and some level of turnover is normal generally.  But four provosts in 18 months is preposterous. Absent some sort of natural disaster, it suggests something has gone badly awry.

Some presidents use provosts or vice presidents as shock absorbers, much the way that President Trump uses Cabinet secretaries.  (“I like ‘acting.’ It gives me more flexibility.”) In other cases -- not that these are mutually exclusive -- presidents (or Boards) create such toxic environments that people start bailing.  

Neither is positive.  In both cases, after a while, it becomes difficult to attract good people to those roles.  And even if you do, they become paralyzed, both because it’s impossible to build trust when people don’t expect them to last more than a few months, and because it’s hard for them to find their footing when they keep getting cut off at the knees by the folks above.  

Having stepped into vice presidencies following people who had burned bridges, I can attest that rebuilding them is a challenge on a good day.  Add mercurial or toxic leadership from above, and it becomes impossible. If the president or Board makes a habit of moving the goalposts, nobody will be able to be effective.  And it will play into existing narratives of distrust, making them that much harder to dislodge.

There’s a narrative popular in business circles of the “take charge/take no prisoners” leader.  That leader -- usually male -- “tolerates” no “excuses” in pursuing the “bottom line.” He often casts himself as a “change agent,” and casts existing employees as obstacles.  Trustees who come from the business world may find that style familiar, or even identify it as the only true form of leadership. But it’s a remarkably bad fit for education.

In this setting, much of what happens depends on people being willing to go above the minimum.  They have uncommon autonomy in how they work. Power is decentralized at a level inconceivable in many businesses.  Yes, there are rules, but much of what makes a college succeed or fail happens in how people view those rules. Are they ceilings or floors?  Is the college worth extra effort, or have you been burned enough times that you only feel like working just hard enough not to get fired? (And any self-proclaimed “change agent” is in for a rude shock the first time he tries to fire somebody with tenure.)

For a Board to let a president go as far as that one did suggests either inattention or a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the institution.  Undoing that damage will take time, but not only that; it will take some folks rethinking what it is they’re trying to do. After a rogue president, the temptation will be to clamp down and micromanage, but that’s exactly the wrong thing.  To the folks who’ve stuck around, it adds insult to injury. They need to bring in someone who understands the big picture, and then back off and let them work. That’s a tall order for people who think of themselves as hard-charging leaders, but it’s the likeliest way to get a good, sustainable outcome.

Or they can churn through another half-dozen provosts, looking for magic, and wondering why everybody seems angry all the time.  Their call.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Arkansas Steps Up

College affordability comes in different flavors.  An alert reader just sent me a new one from Arkansas, and I have to tip my cap.

The red state/blue state divide can obscure as much as it explains.  For example, Tennessee has the gold standard “free community college” program, doing a much better job of it than such blue strongholds as New Jersey and Massachusetts.  Now, Arkansas is stepping up with a remarkably simple vertical transfer program that recalls the best of what California was able to do back in the days of its Master Plan.

The Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship allows any in-state community college graduates to transfer to the University of Arkansas, at the same tuition rate that they paid at the community college.

This is so simple, straightforward, and retrospectively obvious that it might actually work.

It’s a pretty powerful incentive for prospective students to start at community college: not only are the first two years cheaper, but the last two are as well.  And it requires graduation prior to transfer, thereby encouraging the behavior we’d like to see.

I’m a fan of the “earned benefit” model, because it strikes me as more consistent with our political culture than anything that smacks of “handout.”  To get the discount for years three and four, you have to complete years one and two successfully; that’s no small achievement. We’ve long considered a decent jump shot to be a form of achievement worthy of reward.  Why not look at academic achievement as worthy, too?

Part of the elegance of the plan is its simplicity.  By changing the list price, the starting point from which financial aid is subtracted moves downward.  Moving below the Pell maximum means that some Pell money can be directed towards living expenses. For higher-income families, the lower list price means that even folks who aren’t eligible for financial aid will see a benefit.  That can go a long way towards political sustainability.

Anyone who has experienced the joy of FAFSA lately knows about that yawning chasm into which most of the country falls: too “rich” for much help, but too broke to cover the costs without much help. The folks who fall into that valley get mad about it, with good reason.  Yes, in theory, a high tuition/high aid model could work. But in practice, tuition goes up a lot faster than aid does, and has for decades. That’s why student loan balances have exploded. Applying an across-the-board discount to the “top” line benefits everybody, but particularly that large majority in the uncanny valley.  Politically, that makes a difference.

I don’t know how the program is being funded, which may be a concern.  If it’s funded out of general appropriations on a year-to-year basis, then it will probably be underfunded when the next recession hits.  The double whammy of decreased tax revenues and increased demand (driven by the reduced opportunity cost of education when nobody’s hiring) could lead to people being stranded, thereby reducing political support.  If the state is basing its cost estimates on current enrollment and funding levels, it may be in for a rude surprise when the next recession hits. Tennessee set aside a separate, dedicated funding stream. I hope Arkansas either did or will, too.

Yes, it could cover more.  But it’s a hell of a good start, and it might actually last.  Well done, Arkansas!

Thursday, May 09, 2019

When Inclusion Just Makes Life Easier

I have to hand it to Twitter; it has changed my mind on a few issues in the last month or so.  And no, I’m not referring to politics, at least in the usual sense of the word. I’m referring to some ways in which making a conscious choice to be more inclusive benefits not only the newly-included, but even the ones doing the including.  It makes life easier for everybody. It’s like applying “Universal Design” to daily life.

One is the third-person singular pronoun “they.”  I rejected it for a long time, on the grounds that it was plural.  Defaulting to the impersonal “she,” as opposed to the impersonal “he,” seemed sufficiently progressive for me.  And “s/he” always felt a little forced.

But some folks pointed out that both “he” and “she” exclude people who identify as non-binary.  I hadn’t made that connection, but when I read it, I really couldn’t disagree. So now if you catch me using “they” as a singular, know that it’s a choice.  It still doesn’t sound quite right to me -- old habits die hard -- but I’d rather err on the side of inclusion than inadvertently deny the existence or humanity of a bunch of people.  

(Somewhat less dramatically, I’ve also started using “y’all” a bit more than one might expect from someone who grew up in New York.  It’s not an attempt to pass as Southern. It’s because distinguishing the second-person plural from the second-person singular can be really useful, and the all-purpose “you” doesn’t do that.  If embracing “y’all” also helps bridge the red state/blue state divide, even better.)

The second is mandatory microphone use in public meetings.  I’ve been generally pro-microphone for a long time, both because I’m relatively soft-spoken -- not a character flaw, thank you very much -- and because I associate shouting with anger.  But recently, some folks have made the point that microphone use isn’t just for the people in the back of the room. It’s also for people who are hard of hearing. Asking a roomful of people “can you hear me?” puts the burden of self-identification on people with trouble hearing.  That’s not fair to them. And from a speaker’s perspective, microphones level the playing field between the naturally blustery and the rest of us. I’ve gone from “generally in favor” to “strongly supporting.”

Microphones are also getting both better and cleverer.  Last year I gave a talk at a college in Kansas at which the audience had a microphone embedded in what looked like a plush beach ball.  When someone wanted to ask a question, the person with the ball would throw it to the one with the next question. It made the “pass the mic” ritual much more festive.  

The next frontier in microphones should be improving on the lapel mic.  Their audio can be uneven, and they’re designed on the assumption that the speaker is wearing a man’s jacket.  That can lead to some awkward moments. But I have faith that sooner or later, someone will figure out a better way.  The potential payoff is too great not to.

Most recently, someone tweeted out support for captioning of movies in theaters.  The major goal is to make viewing friendlier for people with trouble hearing, but it can also help everyone else when the dialogue is muddy, or overlapping, or whispered, or unfamiliarly accented.  At home, when we watch “Sherlock” on Netflix, we turn on the closed-captioning. It helps more than I care to admit. There’s even some occasional bonus comedy when the captioning says something like “jaunty music,” which is more entertaining than the music itself.  

Each of these is a variation on the benefits of inclusion.  Using “they” means not having to specify a gender, which is both inclusive and sometimes helpful.  (Guessing wrong is mortifying;
“they” means not having to guess.)  Microphone use makes it easier to everyone to hear, and for everyone to be heard.  And while captioning may be most useful for people who are hard of hearing, it can be helpful for everybody.  Making it universal would get around some awkward moments about deciding what needs to be subtitled and what doesn’t, and would make it easier to follow complicated plots when characters are mumbling.

As long as changes like these are presented as impositions, they’ll generate resistance.  But in each case, after the initial adjustment, they actually make life easier for everyone.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere...

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Against Application Fees

Why do most colleges charge application fees?

I’m not referring here to the selective places that operate in a different world.  Presumably, they have to pay people to comb through applications and try to sort out the actual coxswains from the ersatz ones.  (Apparently that’s harder than it seems.) I’m referring to community colleges and open- or nearly-open-admissions state colleges, where the applications are straightforward enough to lend themselves to instant decisions.

I’m at a loss to explain why we do that.

Yes, there’s the obvious answer of “we need the money.”  But the amount of money raised is relatively trivial compared to what comes from tuition and course or lab fees.  And I’m guessing that the applications deterred by a fee would more than make up the difference. (Quick Q for readers -- has anyone studied this formally?)  

Worse, application fees tend to be flat, regardless of the number of credits taken.  For someone who just wants to take a single class, either as a self-contained goal or to test the waters, that seems regressive.  Application fees aren’t typically covered by financial aid (unless they’re applied later to tuition, like a deposit), and qualifying for a fee waiver involves jumping through hoops that can be intimidating to many of the folks for whom fee waivers were intended.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” makes the point that for students on the edge of economic disaster, thousands of dollars in tuition and loans can seem like Monopoly money, but a $25 cash-on-the-barrel application fee represents a week’s meals.  That’s why most for-profits never charged application fees. But we do.

A few years ago, at Holyoke, the admissions office asked to be allowed to assess an application fee for applicants from outside the United States; they said that there was a huge group of students in China who blanketed the US with college applications wherever it was free, with no intention of actually attending, and that a modest fee would deter frivolous applications.  I don’t know if they were correct, but it sounded plausible; to the extent that’s a thing, I wouldn’t object to a modest fee for international applications. But for folks here, I don’t see the argument.

Community colleges are often ‘backup’ options for students who expect or hope for a better financial package at a four-year school than the one they receive.  Inevitably, some of them go trundling off to four-year schools, leaving us behind. That’s frustrating, but I don’t see it as worth excluding people to avoid.

Cynically, the presence of application fees allows for waivers of application fees for special programs.  But if we accept the top 100 percent of our applicants, why discriminate? Why not give everyone the same chance?

Admittedly, application fees are a much smaller issue than, say, allowing late registration.  But that also makes them easier to change.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a good argument for application fees at community colleges that I’m missing?  Or should we just recognize them as cases of unconscious imitation and consign them to the dustbin of history?

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The Annual Extra-Credit Warning

This one is somewhere between a blog post and a public service announcement for faculty.

Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s final exam season, and some things bear repeating.

This is when some panicked students have been known to start asking about extra credit.  It usually comes in the form of “is there anything I can do to improve my grade?”

There’s an understandable human impulse to take pity on a penitent soul.  In some contexts, that can be admirable.

But if you aren’t careful, a favor done for a sympathetic student can look to another student like discriminatory treatment.  “Why did he get a chance I didn’t get?”

If you don’t have a good answer for that -- one you could defend under oath -- it can get ugly.

So, some free advice from someone who has seen this movie enough times to know:

If you must offer extra credit, do it in writing, to the entire class.  Otherwise, don’t do it at all.

“But wait!,” I hear you thinking.  “You’re an administrator! Don’t you want high pass rates?”

Yes, but.  I want high success rates.  I don’t want failing performances dressed up as successes.  There’s a difference. The difference shows when students move on to the next semester, or the next school, or the next job.  

Over the years, I’ve presided over plenty of grade appeals.  When the professor sticks to their own rules, and enforces them evenhandedly, there’s never an issue upholding the grade.  The issues come when Mike gets a break that Michelle doesn’t, or when the professor veers wildly off the syllabus and starts improvising.  Those cases have been blessedly few in my career, but they’ve happened, and they’re not pretty. Worse, they’re entirely preventable.

If the extra credit assignment wasn’t built into the syllabus from the outset, don’t do it.  It will not end well.

Mercy is admirable, but so is fairness.

(climbs off soapbox)

Monday, May 06, 2019

A Plea to My Colleagues

Speaking as someone who has had multiple highly-charged conversations in the last week or so, a plea to academics everywhere:

It’s the end of the semester.  

Even more than usual, be kind to everybody.  

Some folks are paddling harder below the surface than you would guess.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Continuing Adventures of Free College

For those of us who follow the evolution of free community college as an idea, it has been quite a week.

Last week, New Jersey finally got around to extending “Free Community College” to all of its community colleges, instead of just the initial 13.  It was certainly welcome, even though awarding it retroactively creates a non-trivial task for the FInancial Aid office.

New Jersey’s version of free community college is somewhat attenuated.  Most basically, it sets a hard household income cap of $45,000, which, in this part of the country, leaves out a lot of people who are really struggling.  But it’s a start.

Meanwhile, Washington State is likely about to pass a much more progressive version.  Its version has a higher cap for “Free,” and a higher cap still -- up to the median income -- for extra help.  More encouragingly, it also sets aside new pots of _operating_ funding to “recession-proof” the state’s colleges and universities, and to add capacity in expensive and high-demand areas like computer science and health care.

Operating funds are the most important part of the budget, and the hardest to come by.  They’re what pay for salaries, utilities, and all manner of recurring short-term costs. (Capital funds, by contrast, pay for buildings, renovations, and the like.)  Any increase to enrollment that doesn’t come with operating funds shifts a larger proportion of the budget to tuition. Adequate operating funds prevent layoffs. Inadequate operating funds cause them.  Kudos to Washington State for recognizing that.

Sandy Baum and Sarah Turner argued in the Washington Post that free college, in just about every version that currently exists, is regressive.  Reading that piece, I was reminded of the distinction between policy analysts and political scientists. Baum and Turner aren’t wrong in some of the short-term impacts they cite, but they miss the big picture completely.  

Means-tested programs have higher overhead and less political support over time than universal programs do.  That makes them more vulnerable to shifting political winds. Public libraries, for instance, don’t means-test their patrons; Mark Zuckerberg himself could borrow books for free if he wanted to.  That saves them the cost of staffing an office to do the means-testing, and it saves patrons the hassle of proving they need help. It also prevents the inevitable disappointment when people who are just over the income threshold for help discover that they’re on their own.  I suspect that’s part of why we rarely hear full-scale political assaults on public libraries.

Or compare the political fate of Social Security to that of “welfare.”  Keeping it simple -- hit a certain age and you get paid -- keeps it popular.  Yes, Social Security is more graduated than public libraries, and it has certain gaps often founded on racial and gender exclusions, but it’s still built on universality.  That’s what makes it work, politically.

Baum and Turner’s critique holds political support constant, and instead looks at efficiency.  The argument is that with a universal benefit, some people who don’t “need” help will get help.  

Which is true at the micro level.  Mark Zuckerberg can afford to buy his own books.  But it’s false at the macro level. You can’t hold political support constant.  Programs for the poor become poor programs. Political support is not constant, but it is predictable.  Offering a benefit to the middle- and upper-middle-classes helps maintain their political support for that benefit.  (The ultra-wealthy generally ignore such benefits entirely.) It also gets around the deadweight costs and hassles -- inefficiencies entirely ignored in Baum and Turner’s analysis -- of income verification.

Given my druthers, what would a free community college program ideally look like?

  • No income cap.  Make community college as available as the public library.  Make living cost stipends available, and rely on progressive taxation* to tax them back from folks who are already wealthy.  This will have the benefit of greatly reducing financial aid bureaucracy, and of putting the FAFSA out of our misery.
  • No post-graduation residency requirement.  Let people go where the opportunity is, or where the future spouse is, or just where they want to be.  Tying the peasants to the land is not how a free society should work.
  • Significant _operating_ fund support for the institutions directly.  If price controls lead to continued watering-down of the quality of education, we will have missed the point.
  • Open to students regardless of age.  Let the new high-school grad take advantage, and let the returning forty-year-old single parent take advantage.  

Lest this sound like dorm-room philosophizing or a misplaced Scandinavian pining for the fjords, it’s a decent description of CUNY prior to the mid-1970’s.  It’s how CUNY worked under such raving socialists as William McKinley, Warren Harding, and Dwight Eisenhower. It’s American, and it’s entirely doable. We just have to choose to do it.

When stark raving communist Andrew Carnegie endowed all those public libraries, he was hoping to raise the educational level of the country.  The basic idea still applies.

Kudos to New Jersey for its tentative first steps, and to Washington State for its much more ambitious version.  Let’s not let superficially “rigorous” analyses that leave politics out of the equation distract us. Fairness is a conscious choice.  Let’s make it.

*or, if the MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) folks are correct, the Feds could support free community college without increasing taxation at all.  I don’t know if they’re right, but it’s a tough idea to refute. For a great intro, follow Stephanie Kelton online.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Friday Fragments

Free tuition (for low-income students) has finally come to Brookdale!

New Jersey introduced free tuition for students from families with household income below $45,000 for the Spring semester, but it included only 13 of the 19 community colleges in the state.  Those of us among the six excluded colleges were a little miffed. People in every county pays state taxes, but only people in certain counties get the state benefit? It didn’t seem right.

This week, Governor Murphy announced that there’s enough money left in this year’s allocation to bring the remaining six colleges into the fold.  Free tuition has come to Brookdale!

New Jersey is an expensive state: the average household income here hovers around $75,000.  (In Monmouth County it’s even higher.) An income cap of $45k leaves a lot of deserving and struggling people out in the cold.  And as Sara Goldrick-Rab would correctly note, it only covers tuition, which is far from the only cost facing students. A lot of parents who don’t read the fine print, but who consider themselves struggling, may be irked to discover that they’re too “rich” for the benefit, but still too broke to cover the cost of attendance.

Still, it’s a foot in the door.  If we can convince the state to fund it to a more representative income cap, it could make a real difference.  It’s nowhere near where it could be, but it’s a welcome start.


This story does a nice job of illustrating why free tuition, in itself, may not be enough.  It’s about a student at the University of Florida who had a baby in her freshman year. She’s about to graduate, thanks in large part to the help she got with childcare, food, and housing.

We’re not there, but I hope that someday, we are.  There’s just too much talent being left on the table.


One of the genuine pleasures of The Boy being almost-18 is that now when we talk about politics, he has a stake.  He knows that he’ll be able to vote in 2020, so he feels like his opinion actually matters for the first time.

It’s fun, too, because while there’s a family resemblance in our worldviews, his is definitely his own.  He’s not afraid to challenge me, or to make distinctions between us. I’m encouraging him; my view of parenting has always been that the point is to raise them to the point that they are their own, fully capable adults.  He’s rushing towards that.

The Girl has long been a political sort, but TB has largely shied away from it until the last six months or so.  (The one exception was the March for our Lives in D.C. For obvious reasons, he has a strong personal stand on school shootings.)  But now that he sees the relevance, he’s finding his way. And I get to veer between “Dad mode” and “Professor mode,” alternately encouraging him to develop his own thoughts and dropping in some history or the occasional “have you thought about.”  

It’s a role I’ve been training for since basically forever.

World, there’s an increasingly formidable almost-adult on the verge of storming the future.  You’re going to love him. We already do.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Just This Week

This week has had a theme to it that I never want to see again.

On Wednesday, we devoted a chunk of the Cabinet meeting to discussing various measures to ensure or improve the physical security of everyone on campus.  By necessity, that involved discussions of some pretty awful scenarios.

The police chief was called away from the Cabinet meeting upon getting word that our Long Branch location was on lockdown “due to a gun situation.”  When he returned, he reported that someone apparently had a gun “somewhere between our location and the elementary school.”

I have a hard time when the word “gun” is in the same sentence with the words “elementary school.”  
The situation was eventually resolved peacefully.  Thank goodness for that.

On Tuesday I saw this video on Twitter.  It’s of a young girl delivering a well-rehearsed talk on active shooter preparation at an adult workplace.  The adults clearly weren’t expecting someone her age. The man at the 1:30 mark pretty much captured it.

Of course, also on Tuesday, someone at UNC Charlotte shot and killed two people and injured more, for reasons unknown.  On Wednesday we learned that one of the people killed was killed while in the process of trying to stop the killer, following the “run, hide, fight” instruction that has become this generation’s version of “stop, drop, and roll.”  His sacrifice apparently saved others’ lives. The hero, Riley Howell, deserves to be remembered. The killer, whose name I will not use, doesn’t.

My kids, the older of whom turns 18 this month, don’t remember a time without lockdowns and active shooter drills in school.  That’s not an exaggeration. Here’s a post I wrote at the time about The Boy’s first active shooter drill, when he was five.

His first active shooter drill, when he was five.

He’s on his way in a few months to UVA-Charlottesville, which made news a couple of summers ago when Nazis in Dockers stormed the campus, and later, one of them sped a car into a crowd, throwing several people airborne and murdering Heather Heyer.  

I’m okay with sending him there because the Nazis don’t get to win.  We refuse to let them.

At one level, I’m glad that TB and The Girl see lockdown drills as normal enough that they don’t get traumatized by them.  But at a more basic level, I hope that none of this ever becomes normal for them, or anyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  For a long time, it wasn’t. It’s this way because somehow, we’ve made the choice to allow it.  

We have to stop allowing it.  This is madness, and, worse, it’s voluntary.  

The way to pay tribute to Riley Howell is to make his sacrifice the last one.  Let this week be the very last of its kind.