Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Place and Climate


In college, entirely by accident, I discovered that the laundry room in my dorm made an excellent study space.  Something about the white noise of the dryers provided just enough external stimulation to allow my restless self to focus, without getting distracted.  I carried that into grad school, where the local laundromat became a favorite study spot. Something about it just worked.

A good study space is a real find.  I always had trouble studying in my dorm, mostly because it always seemed like I should have been hanging out with friends instead.  The library could be a great spot, or not, depending on my mood and the time of day. I even found a few nooks and crannies around campus that did the trick.  

The key wasn’t so much the presence or absence of other people as it was the overall feel.  It had to feel distant enough from the dorm that the distractions of the dorm weren’t there to compete for attention, but still familiar and safe enough that I could relax.  

I thought of that in reading the latest report about student success and community college libraries.  It speaks not just, or primarily, to the published or electronic resources that libraries offer, as important as those are, but to libraries as spaces.  For students who don’t have great alternatives for study spaces -- laundromats notwithstanding -- libraries are lifelines.

At my previous college, my one architectural contribution was getting the library to set aside one room -- previously used for periodicals -- as a quiet study space.  It attracted a small, but consistent and self-enforcing, clientele. For all of the tech toys out there, sometimes students just need a quiet space with a clear purpose.  At my current college, we were able to leverage donor money to renovate dozens of small study rooms around the library. At the end of each semester, they’re so popular that the library had to devise a signup system.

Quiet is part of it, to be sure.  But I was taken by this line from a student:

“I’m a procrastinator so I need to be in a public space where other people are doing work as well.  It really helps me focus in on what I have to do and it feels like that’s the rhythm that everybody already is in in this space and so it’s easier for me to concentrate in those spaces.”

That climate is hard to replicate online, particularly when students don’t have quiet spaces at home.

On a commuter campus, as opposed to a residential one, libraries become that much more important.  On a cold or rainy day, it’s often one of the few places that students can go between classes, along with the cafeteria.  Typically, the cafeteria is a social space, and rightly so. The library can be the one place that allows students to focus.

Wise and worldly readers, what were your favorite study spaces in college?  Have you seen a campus develop a really successful one?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Venue


Subtraction is a nasty trick.  This week I did the math and realized that, a few weeks ago, I passed my ten-year anniversary as a chief academic officer at a community college: seven years at the first, three and counting at the second.  Add five years as a dean at another community college before that, and it has been a while.

After all that time in tenured, unionized, and badly underfunded environments, I’ve noticed a few things.  For today’s post, I’ll focus on venue and conflict.

The same issue can play out in very different ways, depending on the venue.

One-on-one conversations tend to lend themselves to nuance, since they make it easy to hear tone and see body language.  However, they’re often hard to arrange, and can easily run over their allotted times and/or purposes. That’s often a good thing -- I learn a lot from the asides in conversations -- but with only so many hours in the day, there are limits.  It’s also easy to convey the same message differently to different people without even realizing that you’re doing it, which can lead to heartache later.

Small group meetings offer the best environments, generally, for hashing out solutions to complicated issues.  You want enough -- and diverse enough -- people at the table to see the issue from enough angles, but also few enough that everyone can have a meaningful say and you can have constructive crosstalk.  “Standing” groups -- that is, the same membership over an extended period -- can fall into ruts if there isn’t enough renewal or turnover. I’m a fan of ad hoc groups, though the politics of assembling them are not to be underestimated.

Big, theatrical meetings don’t lend themselves to nuance or real discussion.  That’s especially true when the group doesn’t change much over time. Combine widespread risk aversion with widespread stage fright, and you have a recipe for immediate, widespread retreat when confronted with anything new or charged.  (Nina Eliasoph’s classic “Avoiding Politics” is excellent on this.) Add a few devotees of Outrage Theater to the mix -- they’re always there -- and actual conversation is sacrificed to troop-rallying or attempts at “gotcha.” These meetings are best used instead for affirming and uplifting, rather than challenging.

Anyone who objects that New England town meetings are glorious exercises in democracy is reminded that they often last into the wee hours.  I’m talking here about meetings with predetermined ending times.

Email can work well for disseminating information, but can be tricky for nuanced discussion.  If you’re ever brought in on an escalating email chain, going back to the beginning and reading through it is like watching a game of “telephone” played by adults.  When the game of “telephone” is a series of cordial misunderstandings, sometimes the actual telephone is the way to go. It’s not unusual to discover that two people are using the same word to mean two different things; each is correct in its own way, but they wind up writing past each other.  Stopping to clarify definitions and terms can go a long way.

Once in a while, someone will fire off a nastygram late at night, cc’ing all and sundry.  With those, avoid the temptation to respond either in kind or point-by-point. It amounts to feeding a troll.  Instead, take a deep breath and don’t respond at all for a while. Then, reread it and consider your options coolly.  You can take the high road, you can respond minimally, or you can invite the aggrieved to an in-person meeting. It’s harder to demonize someone who’s looking right at you, especially without a crowd to play to.

Keep in mind that emails can be forwarded to whomever, kept forever, and even subpoenaed.  If that happens, you can’t assume that a reader down the line will have any sense of context.  (Or, worse, will have an agenda.) Delete that clever, cutting line. You know the one. Write as if an imaginary third party will read it six months from now.

At some point, if you value shared governance, you have to decide whether you value deliberation, or would just rather defer to first instincts.  If it’s the former, then venue selection matters tremendously. If it’s the latter, well, I hear Kahoot works pretty well.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Simple Stick


In response to a piece I did last week on the value of clarity and simplicity, a longtime reader wrote to say that one of her favorite moves, when presented with a program proposal, is to “beat it with a simple stick.”  I immediately thought of the line from Spinal Tap, “sometimes in this business you need a good piece of wood.” The idea is that simplicity is more than just a preference; it adds value by itself.

She was right, and we got confirmation that she was right in a report about New York State’s Excelsior scholarship.  

The Excelsior is New York’s take on free college.  But it’s complicated. In addition to the paperwork involved in any “last dollar” program, it comes with an income cap, a credit-per-year minimum of 30, and a post-graduation residency requirement.  As a result, at most community colleges throughout the state, Excelsior covers between two and four percent of students. More than two-thirds of the people who applied for the scholarship were denied.

Admittedly, it’s still early days for the program, so the numbers may drift upwards a bit.  But with complicated paperwork requirements, an extraordinarily high credit requirement, and a post-graduation residency requirement in place, it’s not surprising that the impact has been minimal.  

You’d think something like “free college” would be a game-changer.  From what I’ve read, in Tennessee, it has been. But the strike zone has been narrowed to such a point that it’s only making a marginal difference.  In terms of preparing the workforce of New York State for a high-tech future, it’s having much less impact than it could have.

My ideal model for free college is the public library.  Libraries don’t have income caps; Jeff Bezos can use one, if he wants.  They’re open to everybody. There’s typically a residency requirement to borrow books, but it expires as soon as the books are returned.  Some libraries are even doing away with overdue fines, especially for children’s books, because they wind up being more trouble than they’re worth.  By keeping it simple, libraries are able to keep bureaucratic costs to a minimum, and patrons know that using the library won’t be a hassle. Perhaps not coincidentally, public libraries don’t have the image problems that many other public institutions have.  

The more complicated a program is, the more of its resources will be devoted to compliance.  Put differently, the more complicated a program is, the fewer of its resources will be devoted to its mission.  Simplicity allows efficiency.

Of course, that’s assuming a single goal.  A more cynical read would be that minimizing use was the point of all of those restrictions in the first place.  If someone wanted to be able to claim “free college” for political purposes, but didn’t really want to pay for it, offering it on such terms that almost nobody qualifies would make sense.  If it was only ever intended to be window-dressing, then the restrictions serve a purpose.

As a political culture, America has a problem with anything means-tested.  Once a program or institution is identified with the poor, it gets starved of resources.  A truly open version of free college -- meaning simple, uncluttered, and transparent -- could appeal to enough people to keep adequate funding flowing.  But once you start screening out people with options, they tend to reciprocate.

I’ll agree with my friend here.  Beat the program with a simple stick.  Get rid of income caps, post-grad residency requirements, and unrealistic credit requirements.  Over time, make it as free, open, and easy to use as a public library. The future is worth it.



Thursday, August 09, 2018

A Day in the Park


The Wife and The Girl made the trip to Lidgerwood Park in Morristown, NJ, on Thursday -- about an hour and a half each way -- to take part in the Road to Change rally.  It’s organized by the March For Our Lives group, including several of the survivors of the Parkland High School massacre. It’s all about encouraging young people to register to vote so they can change some laws and stop the epidemic of school shootings.  

It wasn’t their first foray into activism.  As regular readers know, TG and a few of her friends organized a walkout at their middle school this Spring on the day of walkouts across the country, to the consternation of their principal.  When the massive rally took place in D.C., all four of us went, along with TB’s girlfriend, my brother, and his wife and daughters.

The middle school walkout was smallish.  The DC march was enormous, which was great, but which also involved real distance from the speakers.  Thursday’s rally was big enough to draw some muckety-mucks, but small enough to meet them. TG did.

She met Governor Murphy, who actually listened to her while she spoke to him.  (She commented later that he was wearing the same shoes she was. She didn’t quite know what to make of that.)  She met David Hogg, and reported that he “seemed very serious.” She was most excited to meet Emma Gonzalez, though -- whom she called “our Katniss” at the DC rally -- and called me at work, giddy, after she did.

She introduced herself to Emma, thanking Emma for her leadership and telling her about the walkout she led here.  Emma gave her a hug and congratulated her on stepping up. Later, as TG reported, most of the teenagers there started dancing to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and she had what she called the “dreamlike” experience of dancing to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” about ten feet from Emma, who was doing the same.  

It’s easy to forget just how young they are.  Which is, at a really basic level, the point.

She also managed to finagle her way to Senator Cory Booker, who took a selfie with her.  She had psyched herself up to ask him for his vote in 2040, but the moment passed. I suspect she’ll get more.  

Years of debate tournaments, along with just being her, have given her the poise and confidence to walk right up to people she admires and introduce herself.  (Or, to ignore an overmatched principal and just do what’s right.) The odds that I could have done even a fraction of that at her age are approximately zero. It simply would not have happened.  She just plants her feet and does it.

The tour of rallies is moving northward, to conclude in Newtown, Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre happened.  It’s horrifying that there have been enough massacres to constitute a tour, but at least this group of kids is stepping up.

Political change isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s not a bad way to start.  The kids are alright.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A Honker of an Asterisk


This story should be required reading for every state legislator in the country.

Far more community college students transfer prior to completing the Associate’s degree than actually complete first.  According to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about 350,000 transfer before completion, compared to about 60,000 who complete first.  

That matters in several ways.

Most basically, it suggests that measuring community colleges by their graduation rates misses the point.  A student who does a year at Brookdale before transferring to Rutgers, and subsequently graduating, got what she wanted, but she shows up in our numbers as a dropout.  In states with “performance funding,” the community college could be punished for her decision, even if it was what she intended to do all along.

It also contributes to an ongoing stigma against community colleges.  People who only look at “headline” numbers, and don’t bother with the asterisks, look at graduation rates and assume that something is going horribly wrong.  But a ratio of 35 to 6 is such a honker of an asterisk that failing to account for it amounts to misrepresentation. (And that’s before considering the impact on the IPEDS cohort of the spread of dual enrollment and early college programs, among other things.)

The Voluntary Framework of Accountability helps to compensate for that, but the IPEDS rate remains the coin of the realm among non-specialists.  

My preferred measures of community college performance would be based on actual student behavior.  For example, does the percentage of bachelor’s grads in a given area with community college credits roughly match the percentage of undergrads who are enrolled at community colleges?  (Nationally, it does.) If so, then the idea of community colleges as dropout factories is hard to sustain. For programs not built around transfer, how are the employment outcomes? I wouldn’t look at loan repayment rates, just because the percentage of students with loans is so low; it’s a skewed sample.  I would look at achievement gaps by race, sex, age, and income. I would look at ROI for public investment, as well as at local reputation.

If we wanted to get really specific, I’d hire the folks who calculate the “wins above replacement” statistic for baseball players and have them apply something similar to colleges.  The WAR number takes into account the productivity of a given player, and compares it to the productivity of the average replacement player for that position. (For baseball geeks, I’d expect Mike Trout’s WAR to be strongly positive, and Jose Reyes’ to be strongly negative, even without accounting for his pitching.)  Applied to colleges, a similar number could calculate expected results for a given set of students with a given academic profile, then measure whether a college exceeds, meets, or trails that result. That’s very different from a raw graduation rate, because it accounts for the profile of students coming in. Selective colleges screen out anybody high-risk, so their entering freshmen should be expected to do very well, almost regardless of what the college actually does.  Open-admission colleges take on much riskier students, which suggests that the expected outcomes would be different. Failing to account for that is a basic measurement error.

Of course, any measure applied to community colleges should also be applied to the rest of higher education.  Without that, there’s no basis for comparison. Parity of funding, parity of measures; fair is fair.

Better than that, I’d like to see similar ROI analyses applied to, say, regressive tax cuts.  Fair is fair. Compare the social payoff of low marginal taxes and public sector austerity to the social payoff of progressive taxes and a robust public sector.  Because if we’re serious about improving institutional performance at scale, we’ll need to provide resources to do it.

That’s a long-term goal.  In the short term, I’d be happy just to see policymakers and opinion leaders connect the dots and stop taking the headline graduation rates literally.  The level of error is far more than we should ask an asterisk to carry.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Clarity and Sophistication


I remember raising an eyebrow when I learned that “sophistication” and “sophistry” share a root.  They both refer to the Sophists, a school of thought in pre-Socratic Greece who were known for their facility with language.  As I learned it, they were sometimes understood to prize the style of a statement over its actual truth; the point of language, for them, was persuasion.  Truth was only one tool among others, and often, not the best.

I was reminded of that in reading Jessica Calarco’s hypothesis on Twitter this week.  She suggested that “bad writing plays a key role in impostor syndrome,” by sowing doubt in the reader that s/he’s not smart enough to understand what’s going on.  

That certainly described grad school pretty well, in my experience.  I was there during the mature phase of the postmodern wave, when clarity was considered a sort of complicity.  That’s not a caricature, either; several theorists argued (as near as I could tell) that the reason that radical theory can be so hard to read is that it the capillaries of power inhere in language itself.  If discourse is shot through with power, and some discourses are more favored than others, then it shouldn’t be surprising that a more egalitarian politics would initially lead to moments of linguistic uncanniness.  Decentering the subject is rough on subject/verb agreement.

Which isn’t necessarily absurd in a vacuum, but doesn’t do much to empower anybody.  

(To be fair, postmodernists had no monopoly on opacity.  I remember being struck that Habermas, the great theorist of communication, couldn’t write to save his life.  For that matter, I’ve long suspected that Hegel is some sort of elaborate prank.)

I tried valiantly to play along for a while, with varying degrees of success.  Then I started teaching, and quickly realized the radical power of clarity. Students didn’t need their subjecthood “problematized,” as we used to say; they needed to feel entitled to subjecthood in the first place.  After all, the alternative to being subjects is being objects, and they’ve had plenty of that. But regaining a sense of subjecthood required some basic understanding, which required clarity. Being inscrutable just felt mean.  

Moving into administration, my suspicion of gratuitous complexity grew.  Colleagues know that “keep it simple” is one of my go-to phrases. The more complicated a plan is, the likelier it is to be misunderstood.  (Related: the longer a strategic plan is, the less likely it is either to be read or to be used.) The trick is being simple without being simplistic. That takes craft.

My pet theory is that there’s a bell curve of the relationship between understanding a situation and describing it clearly.  In the early stages of learning, the previously-simple picture is, well, problematized, and the language goes along with that.  But as understanding progresses, it becomes easier to separate the essential from the inessential, and therefore to express clearly what matters.  If you understand an idea well enough, you should be able to explain it clearly to a non-expert, at least at a metaphorical level.

Calarco’s invocation of impostor syndrome, I think, captures well the feeling of being overwhelmed by a wall of language.  It also implies some of the effects: disempowerment, self-doubt, paralysis. They may share a root, but sophistry and sophistication are not the same thing.  Real sophistication lends itself to clarity, and even to brevity. Now, about that strategic plan...



Monday, August 06, 2018

I Read This One Completely Differently


Years of working in academic administration, and writing about it, have taught me the wisdom of reader-response theory.  Statements that seem almost tautological can be interpreted entirely differently, depending on what the listeners or readers bring to the table with them.  

I had a flash of that in reading this story in IHE about financial aid administrators in New York State.   One of them asked a series of questions about the Excelsior program, generating a scolding response from the state.  

Excelsior is New York’s version of free community college.  It comes with a number of strings attached, and the thankless task of local financial aid officers is to figure out how to navigate those strings in ways that help students and keep everyone out of trouble.  That’s particularly difficult with a “last dollar” program like Excelsior, because its own compliance demands come on top off, rather than instead of, compliance demands for other existing programs.

According to the article, a statement by Sarah Buell, from Erie Community College, actually generated a pointed response from Kristina Johnson, the Chancellor of the entire SUNY system.  Reader comments after the article were mostly variations on the theme of Governor Cuomo being an autocrat, the emperor having no clothes, and the like.

I read it completely differently.  I didn’t even realize that I read it differently until I made my way through the comments.  

I won’t offer an opinion on Governor Cuomo.  It’s an election year, and I don’t live or work in New York.  And that’s not really the point anyway.

I recognized the frustration of the officials who snapped back.  It has to do with what managers call “pushback.”

Pushback comes in many, many forms, some more straightforward than others.  Some degree of it is the price of change, and is simply to be expected. Sometimes it’s well-founded, and based on a philosophical objection or empirical information that the one pushing back suspects was either unknown or too deeply discounted.  Sometimes it’s theatrical, based on rallying the troops against a common enemy, facts be damned. Sometimes it’s selfish, masking a general “I don’t wanna” in elevated language.

One of the more annoying versions is the surface-level agreement masking fifteen operational objections.  “I’m with you, but what about…?” What can look like rigor or attention to detail can often be passive-aggressive resistance; foot-dragging is a way of saying ‘no’ while trying to maintain deniability.  That deniability serves to prevent an actual discussion of the merits of the idea. See it enough times, and you start to recognize it. If you don’t want to go to dinner unless and until I spell out the distance to the restaurant in both feet and kilometers, the name of the waiter, today’s specials, what everyone there will be wearing, and the average windspeed on the way, then you don’t want to go to dinner.  I would rather simply have had a “no” and been done with it.

It’s a particularly difficult move to counter in the public sector, which is much more rule-bound and, often, unionized and/or tenured.  Take someone to task for engaging in evasive maneuvers, and you’ll get a disingenuous “but I was only asking questions!”

I don’t know whether Ms. Buell’s questions were genuine, weaponized, or somewhere in between.  But I recognize the SUNY response. SUNY took it as weaponized, and responded accordingly.

The problem with doing that, of course, is that it relies both on a sort of mind-reading, and on a faith that others will see what you see.  If they were wrong about Ms. Buell’s questions, or if most of the other people there thought they were wrong about them, then SUNY comes off as a bunch of intemperate bullies.  It’s not a good look, especially when it feeds into an already widely held impression of the governor.

I’ve mentioned before that one key skill of academic management, even more so than in most other areas of management, is strategic naivete.  You have to be willing to pretend not to “know” things you strongly suspect, at least until you can prove them to the satisfaction of people who probably aren’t paying much attention.  That requires real self-control, as well as the ability to entertain the possibility that, in any given case, the questions may be at least partly genuine. SUNY dropped the ball on that one, whether the questions were genuine or simply looked like it.

The commenters at IHE didn’t recognize the possibility that what seemed like innocent questioning -- and may have been -- could have come across as a common and deeply frustrating form of passive-aggressive pushback.  Spend enough time in these roles, though, and you can’t not see it. It’s obvious enough that it’s genuinely surprising when others don’t see it. Score one for reader response...

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Department Chair Training


This one is particularly intended for faculty who’ve served as department chairs, are currently serving as department chairs, or are considering it.

What would you find (or what would you have found) most useful, in terms of training for the role?

Based on distant memory and recent observation, I’d assume that there’s some local, logistical stuff that everyone would need, such as copier codes or textbook orders.  I’m looking for the less obvious stuff.

To put it differently: for those who recently made the leap, what surprised you the most?

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Friday Fragments


The Boy returned from Honduras last Sunday.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; so far, the biggest effect seems to be a wildly compressed schedule of makeup sessions for the week of EMT classes he missed.

Still, I had to smile at the things he noticed, as opposed to what I might have.

After four days of manual labor, the kids were supposed to get a beach day to decompress.  That didn’t happen; apparently mass protests blocked off the main highway, and the organizers were afraid that if they went, they wouldn’t be able to return.  TB noticed the weather, and the loss of the beach day; it barely occurred to him to ask what the protests were about. That would have been my first question.

I was impressed at how composed he remained, even after an 18 hour airport wait for the flight, and a 5:00 a.m. arrival in Newark.  (They left the camp in the middle of the night to dodge the protests.) As parents, we never rewarded tantrums; I was proud to see how pragmatic and cool he was able to remain, even in the face of travel frustrations that could have been maddening.  It’s a running joke in the family that the motto on the family crest should be the Latin version of “walk it off!” I’m thinking that as he deals with the stresses of college, that will serve him well.

--

The Girl, meanwhile, went with a few of her friends to see Mama Mia II.  I had pickup duty, so I got to hear their spirited rendition of “Dancing Queen” all the way home.  

When we got home, she mentioned that there was a row of adult women behind them who stood and danced through the last ten minutes of the movie.  The showing was nearly sold out. When I asked if she saw any men in the theater, she paused, considered it, and answered with a “no” in a now-that-you-mention-it tone.

Bless her, that a stereotype didn’t occur to her.  I actually feel guilty about asking.

--


I’m glad to see transfer students finally get some respect, even if it remains patchy.  

They should.  They’ve shown the ability to complete a program, which makes them good bets to complete subsequent ones.  We’ve pre-screened for success, so the receiving schools know they’re getting strong students. And from the perspective of the receiving schools, they do a nice job of compensating for attrition from the freshman and sophomore years.  

Of course, those have always been true.  The real change of late is market demand.  With declines in the population of new high school grads, higher ed is becoming much more of a buyer’s market.  Students who used to be seen as surplus are suddenly in demand. From the perspective of a “feeder” school, I say, it’s about time.

--

Melinda Anderson has a smart piece in the Atlantic about the harm that the myth of meritocracy does to students of color in junior high.  My only caveat to the piece is that it’s too narrow; the damage done by the myth is far more widespread than that.

The culture of higher education is largely defined by myths of meritocracy, and their shortcomings.  The damage plays out in a fairly direct way: if the best people rise to the top, and I’m on the bottom, what does that say about me?  That can lead to a self-doubt that becomes imposter syndrome even when you do succeed.

The easy defense of meritocracy boils down to “as opposed to what?,” and there’s truth in that.  To the extent that the myth offers a battering ram against identity-based exclusion, that’s to the good.  But as an industry, and a society, I’d like to see us recognize more clearly the roles of structure and of luck.  We should make a distinction between “people who lose” and “losers.”

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Parity


I attended a liberal arts college as an undergrad, and, as someone with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, have a soft spot for folks who think there’s still a point in reading Plato.  As an academic, I hate to hear of students being stranded, and faculty and staff losing their jobs.

That said, some alarms ring a bit more off-key than others.  That was my response to the recent IHE story about Earlham College, a respected private liberal arts college in Indiana.

The short-term provocation for the story was the unexplained resignation of its president after a single year in office.  That’s certainly weird, and newsworthy, in itself. The story goes on to explain the fiscal challenges facing Earlham.

Apparently, for a student population that hovers around 1,000, it has slashed its budget to $42 million per year.  Its endowment has been drained to slightly under half a billion dollars.

(cough)

For comparison, Brookdale has over 12,000 students -- not even counting non-credit programs -- and a budget of $84 million.  That means that even after cuts so drastic that a president skipped town rather than endure their effects, Earlham is still spending about six times more per student than we are.  The savings it’s drawing down are over $480 million. Ours are under $3 million. And we have five unions on campus, which I think is about five more than Earlham has; that makes cost control more complicated.

Yes, Earlham has dorms and Brookdale doesn’t.  But even remove dorms from the equation, and the spending imbalance remains staggering.  Yes, Earlham is technically “private,” but between tax exemptions and financial aid, so much of its funding is public that the distinction is weakening. (For that matter, even as a “public” community college, Brookdale gets far more of its budget from tuition than from state and local aid combined.)  Besides, simply calling an institution “private” doesn’t automatically make it better. DeVry is “private” and the University of Michigan is “public,” but most of us consider the latter more impressive. Tax status is not an excuse.

The tax exemption on Earlham’s endowment, by itself, is a larger public subsidy than our state and local subsidies combined.  That’s before counting work-study, Title IV, or anything else.

Why is Earlham’s austerity newsworthy, while ours is simply accepted as part of the natural order of things?

Again, I don’t mean to pick on Earlham specifically.  It’s a symptom of a much larger issue.

Are Earlham’s students six times more worthy than Brookdale’s?  If so, I’d like someone to explain to me why. In writing, preferably.

Ivy Tech, Indiana’s community college system, serves far more people than Earlham, and at far lower cost.  Yet it goes unmentioned in the story.

We get worried about year-to-year cuts, and rightly so, but we accept catastrophic differences of resources as normal and natural.  

It isn’t.  It’s a political choice that could be made differently.

For example, what if public support in all of its forms -- subsidies, tax exemptions, and the rest -- were allocated equally on a per-student basis across sectors?  More to the point, why aren’t they? There’s a strong argument to be made that they should actually be allocated in inverse proportion to the wealth of the students there, but in the spirit of comity, I’d settle for parity.  Earlham is spending $42,000 per FTE; we’re spending 7. What if we each had 25?

If you’re attached to Earlham, substitute any other national “private” liberal arts college you want; the outlines will be the same.  In some cases, the multiples will be much higher.

I don’t wish Earlham ill.  There are far worse uses of money than supporting liberal arts colleges.  I would just like to know what makes its students worthy of six times more spending each than ours.  RIght now I suspect the argument is circular: it has more money because it’s elite, and it’s elite because it has more money.  

I’m thinking there’s an easy test of whether that’s true.  Add up all of the tax expenditures on students -- including exemptions on endowments and real property -- and divide by the number of college students in America.  Then, allocate on a per-student basis equally. Try that for a decade or two, and see what happens.

Without that, the double standard for austerity amounts to little more than punishing the struggling for struggling. A half-billion dollar endowment allows plenty of room for error.  Our students don’t have room for error. They should. They’re worth it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Do the Giant Scissors Actually Cut?


I don’t even want to speculate as to the total combined years of education represented at the meeting at which all of these questions, none of which I am making up, were asked.

“Do the giant scissors actually cut?”

“Where’s the mascot?  Is it in Marketing? Athletics?”

“What if the mascots met?”

“Can the statue actually support a person?”

The challenge of academic administration is balancing large questions about mission and academic integrity, basic economic sense, political savvy, and personnel management, with remembering where somebody left the mascot’s head.

As we like to say in administrative circles, “other duties as assigned…”

Monday, July 30, 2018

Driverless Cars and Directionless Politics


I just finished listening to Annie Lowrey’s new book “Give People Money,” which is about the policy idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and it got me thinking.  What if many of the jobs for which we prepare people now are going away in a few years, to be replaced with AI-driven automation?

The question could go in several directions, of course.  Some supporters of UBI, especially some of the tech evangelists, see it as a sort of life support for the many who will have been rendered economically valueless by the robots.  If we have self-driving trucks, the argument goes, who needs truck drivers? That’s a lot of jobs eliminated in a short time. The economic danger is that if machines generate most value, then most money will accrue to the owners of the machines.  (For present purposes, “machines” could be defined to include something as ethereal as an algorithm.) Staving off mass starvation, or revolution, would require throwing the masses some bones. UBI could theoretically accomplish that.

Some libertarians advocate UBI as a wholesale replacement for public institutions.  Do away with public schools, public roads, food stamps, and the rest of it, and just send people money to use as they will.  (Charles Murray is a well-known advocate of this argument.) Let the market provide; just make sure that everyone has enough to participate in it, even if at a low level.  Murray might respond to the idea of free community college by proposing instead giving people money and letting them pay for the education they want, selected from the marketplace.  I’m not a fan of this perspective, but it’s out there.

From my perch at a community college, though, I’ll take a narrower view.  If many jobs are soon to be doomed to go the way of elevator operators, then what should we be preparing students for?  At a basic ethical level, we shouldn’t do the equivalent of training buggy-whip makers in 1910.

But when I think about the jobs for which we actually train, I don’t see where most of the AI would go.  We train K-12 teachers, but I don’t see that moving to automation anytime soon; children need human interaction.  We train law enforcement officers, whose work increasingly relies on technology, but who are still going to be human beings.  Nursing draws on tech, too, but is a decidedly human field. Yes, some restaurants have gone to touch screens to reduce waitstaff, but the back of the house is still human.  Management remains a human endeavor, at least when it’s done right. And the jobs for which students transfer to four-year schools remain largely bound to humans. Even better, some fields will require more humans with higher skills; anyone who thinks that self-contained systems are seamless hasn’t lived through software system updates.

Even that, though, strikes me as a second-order question.  Picking winners ten years in advance is a bit of a fool’s errand, even if we’re reasonably sure that winners will exist.  If I knew what the next big thing would be, I’d buy stock in it.

This isn’t the first time that technology has led to fear of mass unemployment.  Lowrey notes, correctly, that John Maynard Keynes extrapolated from trends prior to the 1930’s to predict that we would have harnessed increased productivity to reduce the workweek to fifteen hours by now.  Other thinkers made similar arguments in various ways. Oscar Wilde suggested in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that the best use of improved productivity would be greater leisure. David Riesman argued in “Abundance for What?” that the great social crisis of the late 20th century would be the explosion of leisure time made possible by rampant productivity gains.  (He even predicted a need for “leisure consultants,” which I think explains the emergence of the various Real Housewives series.)

I mention those not just to bemoan missed opportunities, but to suggest that there’s a more basic task at hand.

Production is largely a technical issue.  Distribution is very much a political one.  The former can be automated; the latter simply can’t.  The latter calls for engaged citizens with the skills, knowledge, and perspective to wrestle with large questions like these.  It calls for people with skills in critical reading, persuasive writing, and effective public speaking, along with an affective sense that it’s reasonable and proper for them to step up.  Aristotle suggested that manual laborers were too consumed with the stuff of life to ask big political questions, so only the elite should make such questions their business. We’ve built a country on the assumption that Aristotle was wrong.  

The economy has not rendered the classic liberal arts irrelevant.  It has made them more important than ever. Fifty years from now, there may or may not still be community colleges.  But there will absolutely still be a need for an intelligent, engaged citizenry that can control its own destiny. Yes, I’m worried about AI making certain jobs obsolete.  I’m more worried that we’ll let panic over that get in the way of developing the skills collectively to ask if there’s another possibility altogether.

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.