Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Recent True Quotes

Two wonderful true quotes from my world over the past week:

1. The Boy, watching a weatherman in front of a map of the United States:
"Is he in space?"

It makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

2. One of my students this semester, on the final exam, introducing a paragraph:
"According to me,"

I really liked that. She cited her source, the statement is self-confirming, and it nicely blends humility and narcissism.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Incentives and Intentions

Yesterday I endured one of those “how-do-we-do-this” operations meetings that drive managers to drink. (Happily, I was an invited guest for one meeting, as opposed to a member of the committee.) Without going into too much gory detail, the gist of it was how to get ‘continuing’ students (those who have already been here for at least one semester) to register online, rather than in-person. It’s fairly important for the college, since online registration saves a tremendous amount of labor. Most students have already made the switch, but there’s a non-trivial contingent that has steadfastly refused.

Leaving aside the dreary which-screen-is-which and which-bugs-can’t-we-fix discussions, the drift of the conversation was towards how to convince the holdout students to go online. Revealingly, everybody’s first instinct was to hold a series of workshops to teach the students how to navigate the website.

The group spent about a half hour discussing the logistics of the workshops, who would run them, and the like, while I sat in mute disbelief. When I finally couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked why we don’t just charge the in-person registrants an extra fee; premium service justifies a premium rate. Line up the incentives, and the behavior will follow.

There was a pause, followed by a round of “oooo.” You’d think I had landed from Mars.

In the years that this committee had been meeting, nobody had ever raised the issue of incentives. I was amazed.

Students who like to register in person do so because they don’t want to be bothered to learn another way, and/or because they like to be served. Workshops won’t change either of those; those who don’t want to be bothered certainly won’t be bothered to go to a workshop, and those who like to be served won’t attend, either. Workshops make sense if the desire is there but the know-how isn’t; with this population, it’s (almost) entirely the other way round.

The conversation that ensued was much more animated, but also revealing. As educators in a nonprofit setting, we’re so used to the ‘service’ ethic that the idea of intentionally creating an inconvenience is almost blasphemy. (That’s not to say that we don’t create inconveniences – we absolutely do – but they’re byproducts, not goals.) I argued that the same students who bitch, moan, and whine about having to navigate a website when in-person is available will miraculously get over it when it saves them fifty bucks. Those who are simply too prima donna-ish to bother are welcome to pay extra.

I’m not generally a fan of the run-it-like-a-business school of thought, but a little attention to motivation seems like a good idea.

The idea didn’t carry, of course – much too radical, and the Board of Trustees would have to approve it, which they wouldn’t, because it looks like a tax or it might disadvantage somebody or it’s just too complicated – but at least it shifted the discussion for a moment.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Film Editing Theory of Administration

A friend at another institution emailed me with a story of his dean there, who is raising the tenure bar substantially for people already in the pipeline. My response to him follows:

Some deans think that raising the tenure bar dramatically is a way of
"raising the academic profile" of an institution. It's kind of like
being "tough on crime" by supporting silly sentencing rules; nobody really believes it will work, but nobody has ever been thrown out of office for being too tough on crime, either. It's a way for an insecure dean to pick up cheap points by toying with other people's careers. Unless it's part of a larger, coherent plan for the entire university, driven by the President, it's simply an arrogant career move by a mediocre manager. (It also saves money over the short term by making sure that nobody moves above the Assistant level. Some of those lines might go adjunct, and the rest can be doled out as favors to favored departments. It centralizes power in the dean's office.)

My philosophy of management, of which I am slowly becoming conscious,
is that it's like film editing; when it's done well, you shouldn't notice it. The job of administration, esp. at the middle level, is to put the conditions in place for faculty (and students) to be able to flourish, given the resources available. Part of that is being predictable. If everybody knows the rules, and has faith that the rules will be applied consistently, they can redirect their energies away from internal politics and towards actual productive work. Save the Bold Strokes for things that will actually help, like starting new programs, identifying new funding sources, or fixing the inevitable glitches in the machine.

For example, if I wanted to push a diversity hire, I would make that clear to the dept. chair BEFORE the search began. Agreement to that would be a condition of getting the line. Then, let the work proceed. Changing the rules in the middle, absent some sort of drastic change in the environment, is amateurish.

*After sending this, I came up with another hypothesis: Nixon's "Madman" strategy.
If a culture is too intensely static, a dean might be justified in overreaching simply to get a point across. That said, the "Madman" strategy is high risk, and only viable over the very short term. Long term, people have to know the rules.

Pinata Therapy, or, The Defenestration of SpongeBob

The Boy was invited to a birthday party this weekend, so we all went. It was held at a sports complex – basically, a big bubble that housed an ice rink, a video arcade, and a big indoor playground. Most of the guests were either three or four years old.

Most of the party was unremarkable, but there was a wonderful moment when they brought out a piñata of SpongeBob and had each kid take a whack. One kid knocked off one of the legs, sending it through an open glass door (okay, not technically a defenestration, but pretty durn close). I realized that adults could use piñatas, too. Let me take a few whacks at some carefully-selected characters, and reward me with chocolate at the end. I’d feel much better. Really.

Monday, December 06, 2004

December is the Second-Cruelest Month

One of the major differences between managing in a community college and managing at a for-profit is the greater importance of ceremony at the community college. Since the mission here is more diffuse (and altruistic) than at the for-profit, the college sustains any number of extra-curricular groups for the benefit of students and faculty. December and late April-early May are when every last one of these groups has end-of-the-year dinners, celebrations, performances, exhibitions, and the like, and one of the jobs of the dean is to attend as a way of giving the college’s impramateur to the event.

The late April-early May swing is the worst, since every single end-of-the-year event happens then, as do most of the faculty retirement dinners (a few happen in December, but most faculty wait until the end of the academic year.) Still, December has quite a few holiday-themed events, concerts, performances, etc., each of which is terribly important to the people involved. Attendance by the dean is noticed, and non-attendance is noticed, too. The only excuse I’ve had for non-attendance that anyone accepted was when two events happened at the same time – even administrators are subject to those pesky laws of physics. Short of that, it’s time to see and be seen.

While most of the events are enjoyable in their own right, the sheer number can be wearing. The late Spring rush is insane; last year, I averaged four nights a week for about a month; you can imagine how that impacts on parenting time. December is less severe, but it does put a dent in attempts to do holiday shopping, as well as in parenting time.

The etiquette involved is reminiscent of the old science of Kremlinology in the 1980’s. Dress must be appropriate; you must sit in the right place, with the right people. You must be light and companionable, remembering always that anything you say can and will be used against you at any time. You must greet the organizer upon arrival and again before departure; sneaking out the back is not an option. Late arrival is verboten, since it precludes the meet-and-greet beforehand. You have to remember that while this is the third event this week and next week will be worse and you really just want to go home and play with the kids, it’s the culmination of months of work by whomever, and anything less than ebullience will be forever remembered as both a personal and professional insult. (“The administration just doesn’t care about…”) Opinions are welcome, as long as they are positive.

The next day, thank-you notes are mandatory, as are effusions of spontaneous praise in the hallway.

In many ways, this should be filed under problems-you-want-to-have. Most of the performances, dinners, etc., are quite good, and it’s terrific that so many people at the college spend so much time and energy on ways to help the students. I’ll just say that if it weren’t for online shopping, I’d be sunk.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Observation Etiquette: The Chuckles the Clown Episode

Observing a class is always at least slightly awkward. As the observer, I’m acutely aware of walking into an already-formed group and, at some level, trespassing. Some professors introduce me to the class, others pretend I’m not there; either way is fine with me. I never speak, beyond a ‘hello’ if introduced.

This semester I had a situation I’d never seen before. In three-plus years of observing classes, I’ve never before had to struggle to keep a straight face. This time, I had to, and it was close. The students were a small, tightly-knit group, obviously intelligent and clearly irreverent. The professor could fairly be described as humorless.

The class reminded me, in some ways, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Beavis and Butthead; it consisted of a running commentary, often quite funny, by the audience/students, on the lecture/movie/video. The standard puerile elements of student humor were there – bathroom references, crude sexuality, etc. – but it was laced with a knowing self-consciousness I don’t usually see. (One student, after a particularly silly remark: “I love taking arguments to ridiculous extremes.”) Highlights included the ethics of testing new medicines on prisoners, rather than animals (“what if the guy on death row has a boyfriend?”); wordplay (Prof: “Your argument buttresses his.” Student: “Huh-huh. Buttress. Huh-huh.”); and an entirely gratuitous reference to gay penguins (“gay penguins can be used to illustrate anything!”).

The professor didn’t react to any of it, which is either to his credit or a sign of being utterly humorless. I struggled throughout the class to keep an appropriately straight face, resorting several times to covering my face while I bit my lip.

Strikingly, the students who joked the most (and the most effectively) were also the ones most in command of the material. If anything, I got the impression they kept the patter going so they wouldn’t get bored.

Thinking that much of the interaction might have been affected by my presence, I asked the prof. after class if the students were always like that. He said they were.

This was a new one. I’ve seen great classes, so-so classes, and some not-very-good classes. I’ve seen new profs with stage fright, PowerPoint that didn’t, and student comments from the sublime to the ridiculous. But this was new.

It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when your face is bright red from stifling laughter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

My First Hire

This morning, while working out at the campus gym, an English professor in her 50’s confided that her nickname for me is “my son, the dean.” She is still one of the younger members of her department, and she started in the 1970’s.

A quick scan of the list of faculty in my division (over 80 full-time) revealed that exactly one fits the profile of a married white guy under 50. One wonders what a diversity officer would make of that. (The conservatives who constantly gripe about ‘liberal bias’ among college faculty somehow miss this point. I don’t know why.)

A study published by the American Association of Community Colleges looking at administrative pipelines at community colleges made an interesting point: in 1986, the average age of a Chief Academic Officer (one step below a President: usually titled either Vice President for Academic Affairs or Dean of Academic Affairs) was 49. In 2000, it was 54.

The AACC has issued a series of studies bemoaning the coming leadership crunch for community colleges, pointing to the diminished pipeline that typically leads to Presidencies. Yet there has been almost no systematic effort to connect the dots between the thin administrative pipeline and the lack of full-time faculty hiring.

Today was a banner day for me; I made my first hire. This after 15 months on the job, and as I’m about to lose numbers four and five. The new hire is, himself, over 40.

What’s especially striking about the top-heaviness of academia is that it stands in such stark contrast to, oh, I don’t know, EVERY OTHER INDUSTRY IN AMERICA. In the private sector, people can rise (and fall) quickly, based on a combination of skill, politics, economic waves, and dumb luck. While it’s a brutal world in many ways, it does, at least, produce some opportunity for new people with new approaches to break in. Academia stopped trying to do that sometime in the late 1970’s, and still hasn’t even attempted to come to grips with the implications of that.

Alas. On to turkey day.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Thank You Emails, or, How to Get Into Heaven Sooner

This morning I received an email from a former student who had taken classes with me back in 1997-98. It was gracious and kind, thanking me for making a real difference in his life. He has found a way to make a career out of what I had taught him.

As an educator, that absolutely made my day. I’m sure it didn’t take more than a few minutes to write, but I’ll be dining out on that one for weeks.

There’s a proverb attributed to Henry Adams, to the effect that a teacher never knows where his influence ends. It’s true, but it’s easy to lose sight of that in the quotidian flow of events.

Ironically enough, given the direction many of my posts have taken, this student’s first course with me was when I was an adjunct. I got hired full-time after that, and he took a second course with me when I was on staff. My adjunct semester was very much an audition period, so I gave it everything I had. Somehow, I think that’s different from ‘perpetual adjunct’ status, which so many academics find themselves consigned to now.

I remember hearing a theory that student course evaluations should be given about three years after the conclusion of the course – see what held up over time, rather than how entertaining the course was. There’s something to that, even if it would be institutionally more-or-less impossible.

Last year I did something similar, sending a thank-you email to my 9th grade English teacher. She was incredibly demanding – I used to refer to her as the ‘Grammar Nazi’ – but I never learned more in a class than I did in hers. Remarkably, twenty years later, she was still at the same school, with the same name. 9th grade English pretty much exemplifies “Thankless Job,” so I thought she deserved thanks. It didn’t take long to do, but I felt like I had made a small payment on a life debt, and her response was sweet and touching.

Teachers’ pay is famously underwhelming, but once in a while, the benefits can be really something.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Conference Revelations

Conference travel, at this stage of my career, feels very much like a field trip did in elementary school. We’re all let out of our cages, roaming free on the bushveld, with no idea what we’ll find.

Last week I went to a mini-conference on the grant that I’m administering. It was useful in several ways, some intended, some not. Getting a night in a hotel, away from The Boy and The Girl, was a nice break; there’s still something wonderfully decadent about hotel stays. What was useful about the conference itself was discovering that many of the issues that plague my campus are, in fact, common. I was a little annoyed at the way that some people used “college” to mean four-year institution – the majority of college students in America attend two-year schools – but these things happen.

One of the things that struck me was that I was clearly the youngest manager in the room. Most looked like they were in their 50’s. There were a few people younger than me, but they were either postdocs working for managers, or office staff. The pipeline is looking thin.

A generational gap quickly emerged in the discussions, though it wasn’t really addressed as such. The 50-somethings take ‘diversity’ to mean ‘race,’ which, in turn, means ‘African-Americans.’ The office staff, the postdoc, and I took ‘diversity’ to mean sexual orientation, religion, and international students, with race and gender as secondary categories. I raised the point once, to no apparent resonance, but when a 50-something raised the same point later in the context of what an undergraduate had told him, it seemed to strike a chord. (A prophet in his own country…)

The disconnect between the generation in charge of higher education and the students in it is getting worse, only because the generation in charge isn’t reproducing itself. To a kid raised on “South Park,” what would diversity education actually mean?

I’d love to see a shift to honest questions, as opposed to pre-approved sermons. How (if at all) should we tolerate the intolerant? What does tolerance mean when it isn’t reciprocated? As student religious groups become more fundamentalist, evangelical, and/or self-confident, this is becoming a real issue. (That they draw aid and comfort from the Republican Party doesn’t help matters any.) It’s a stickier issue than just saying all races are equal, but honestly, aren’t sticky issues the ones where progress happens? I’m tired of students claiming that someone else’s free speech rights end at their own threshold of taking offense; I’ve scanned the Constitution, and I don’t see anything in it about a right to never be offended.

If we don’t get out in front of these questions, instead of repeating comfortable lessons of the 1960’s, I’m afraid we’ll just lose the attention of the young altogether. They’re already fleeing the liberal arts in droves, in favor of fields they consider more marketable. Our market niche is the pursuit of truth. Once we’ve found Truth, we’ve lost our reason to exist. If we aren’t intellectually honest in our own realm, the students are probably well-advised to go with something vocational.

One way or another, this train will leave the station. I’d just rather be on the train than under it.

Monday, November 08, 2004

I'm Officially a Soccer Dad

We signed The Boy up for a soccer class on Saturdays. This past weekend was the first meeting, and I took him. It meets in a gym at the Y.

The class is mostly 4-6 year olds, all boys. The warm-ups alone were worth the price of admission – watching 4 year olds try to negotiate jumping jacks is almost painfully funny. The Boy, true to his genetic heritage, struggled mightily to get the concept. Other concepts like not using your hands or kicking the ball to your partner (“I want my own ball!”) were a bit fuzzy, too. Still, he persevered valiantly, and even enjoyed himself, and I have to admit that it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

His unique style of push-ups should be patented.

This week, I’ll have to give him some home tutoring on the whole jumping-jack concept. The Wife will probably have to shield her eyes to save the marriage. I hope the neighbors are away…

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Downside of Working in Higher Education

I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that many college students are in their late teens or early twenties. What you forget, as you get older, is just what the world looks like at that age.

I did (yet another) class observation today. The professor referred to the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996; from the student reactions, she could just have well have been talking about Cromwellian England. I was a little surprised until I did the math – 8 years ago, they were 10 or 11 years old. One male student, towards the back (I was almost directly behind him), spent most of the period text messaging on his cell phone. Having the dean behind him didn’t slow him in the slightest.

I don’t think of myself as old, but the students certainly do. (Remember how old 30 seemed at 18? Me neither.) Simply having conscious memory of major world events before the year 2000 makes me old to them.

On the way to my office this afternoon, I passed a male student in a blue oxford shirt, khakis, and bright red sneakers. There was an age at which I would have worn the same thing. You forget.

I envy them their forgiving metabolisms and their thick heads of hair, but not much else. In Plato’s Republic, Cephalus, a successful older man, tells his young charges that aging is actually liberating: the animal instincts subside somewhat, leaving you free to think before you act. I’m beginning to see the wisdom of that. As a professor, I could be leading a discussion on something I consider insanely interesting, and I’d wager that half of the male students of traditional age are spending the bulk of the period thinking about girls. You just forget. (This also explains the quality of some of their papers.)


Working around so many young people can be great, of course. But sometimes it just makes you feel old.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Dilbert Budgeting

If Scott Adams hasn’t won the Pulitzer yet, he should.

The budget director for academics recently informed me that we’re heading for trouble, because several departments are on pace to exceed their annual budget line for adjunct instructors. We’re spending too much on adjuncts. When I calmly replied that that’s because we haven’t replaced any full-timers in over a year, so of course the adjunct line would go up, he informed me that those are two separate budget lines.

(Insert forehead-slap here.)

Currency beats the barter system because currency is fungible. Whoever invented the concept of budget lines didn’t quite grasp this.

We can’t replace full-timers who leave, because adjuncts are cheaper. But we can’t increase our total allotment for adjuncts. We are, literally, trying to replace something with nothing. This, while trying to increase enrollment, presumably by offering students more options.

Basic arithmetic suggests that we’re at cross-purposes.

Dilbert Budgeting (hereafter DB) takes as a premise that no two budget lines are related in any way. Therefore, according to DB, cuts in one should have no impact on any other. If we reduce the number of full-timers, but we don’t reduce the number of classes, DB suggests that we should be shocked to find that we’re spending more on temps.

DB operates at many levels. Over time, DB actually rewards profligacy, since one of the tenets of DB is “use it or lose it.” Savvy department chairs figure this out, and find ways to blow through whatever they’re allocated, whether they really need to or not, because they know that a real need will come along eventually and previous frugality will be held against them. In the meantime, they build secret stashes of blue books, copier paper, etc., to make sure they hit the golden zero at the end of the budget year.

(In an earlier blog entry, I explored the implications of ‘use it or lose it’ on faculty hiring. Simply put, a department that believes that it will lose a line if it denies someone tenure will avoid hiring anybody ‘risky’ – anybody doing anything new, taking a different approach, etc. Short-term rationality, long-term devastation to the academic mission.)

DB completely overlooks the concept of incentives. For example, it’s common for academic managers to support new initiatives by faculty (say, running the student newspaper) with ‘release time,’ which is a reduction in courseload. The idea is that running the newspaper takes a significant amount of time, so the only way to keep the professor’s workload reasonable is to drop a class. In practice, the cost to the institution is the cost of the adjunct who has to be hired to cover the class dropped by the full-timer.

DB sets ‘release time’ as a separate budget line, and cuts it every time the budget gets sticky (which is, more or less, always). Over time, the star performers (the full-timers who actually take initiative) are punished for their leadership by having the course reductions go away while keeping the extra tasks, while the cynical, punch-the-clock types are confirmed in their ‘wisdom’ of doing the absolute minimum to not get fired.

The tenure system raises the stakes of DB exponentially. Low performers with tenure are a chronic nightmare. DB, because it fails to understand incentives, relies on a strategy of ‘working around’ the low performers. Like Dr. Seuss’ north-going Zax and south-going Zax, low performers quickly learn that by just standing their ground indignantly, they can make everyone else do more work to compensate. The high performers are effectively punished, since their extra labor is usually uncompensated (or, to the extent that it is compensated, the compensation is cut, over time), and the fence-sitters figure out pretty quickly on which side they’d rather sit. Since the low performers are tenured, and indignant people with job security can cause no end of headaches, the temptation to simply indulge them is real.

Alternatives are easy on the micro scale, but hellishly difficult on the macro scale. Since our subsidies are increased (when at all) by fixed (and small) increments, there’s a temptation to suspend all ‘special pleading’ from various departments and simply implement ‘across-the-board’ freezes, or increases, or cuts. It’s easier than thinking, and it looks, from a distance, like fairness. The problem is that it fixes existing unfairnesses in place, more or less permanently.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed had a piece a year or two ago about a regional university in what I think was Tennessee, where the budget director suspended the ‘use it or lose it’ rule and allowed departments to carry over unused surpluses from one year to the next. Overall spending went down, which makes sense – with the incentive to waste suspended, department chairs put the kibosh on their local boondoggles. A move like that requires a certain leap of faith in the departments, and, over time, a leap of faith in the legislature that it won’t simply regard unused funds as excuses to cut appropriations. If each side holds up its end of the bargain, the result should be more bang for the buck. The test will be to see what happens after a few years, if external funding tightens. Those sitting surpluses could make awfully tempting DB targets…

Monday, October 11, 2004

Retention, Part 73

As a public institution, much of our budget depends either directly (tuition) or indirectly (state aid) on enrollment. When enrollment goes up faster than inflation, we have more resources; when enrollment is flat or down, we have less.

Enrollment is pretty much a function of two things: admissions (new students) and retention (keeping current students around until they graduate). Dropouts are a real problem, ethically, financially, and educationally. Like most community colleges, we have a high dropout rate. Some of that is simply the nature of the beast; I’m not bothered by students who attend four-year schools out of state who come home for the summer and take a course or two here to get a jump on their B.A., or ‘non-matriculated’ students (those who aren’t pursuing a degree) who just take a course or two out of pure interest. They count as ‘attrition’ when they leave, but they always intended to leave, so I don’t see that as failure.

Some students take a year here, then transfer to a four-year school for their sophomore year, rather than finishing the associate’s first. It’s irksome, but I can’t really blame them; if they just wanted to compensate for a sketchy high school record, and they really wanted to be elsewhere, that’s just the way the cookie bounces.

Still, a major chunk of attrition is students who wanted to stick around, but couldn’t. Some of them just don’t have the academic wherewithal for college work. Again, these don’t bother me much as a dean (though they’re incredibly irksome as a teacher), because they didn’t really belong here in the first place. The troubling ones are the ones who leave for financial reasons, or personal reasons, or because they just never connected emotionally with either the institution or the goal of graduation.

Some of those personal reasons are beyond anything we can influence: drug or alcohol issues, family crises (you wouldn’t believe some of the family crises!), mental illness, etc. As an open-admission institution, we take all comers, including those with high-drama personal lives. Financial issues are tricky. I used to have a student worker in my office (she graduated) who was constantly struggling to make ends meet; I was sympathetic, until the day she complained that she didn’t have money for lunch because the tanning salon raised its rates again. The tanning salon!

You can lead a horse to water…

From what studies have shown, students who get involved in campus organizations (whether teams, or clubs, or the radio station, or whatever) stick around at much higher rates than those who don’t. I don’t know to what degree this reflects self-selection, but it at least suggests an institutional strategy to improve graduation rates. At a commuter school with students who have jobs, though, there are natural logistical limits to how much club activity there will be. If we had dorms, it would be a different ballgame, but we don’t, and we won’t.

The upshot of all this is that retention is devilishly hard to influence in a sustainable way. So much of it has to do with the ambitions the students brought with them, the level of academic preparedness they bring with them from high school (again, you wouldn’t believe…), their family circumstances, and so on. We can try to minimize some of the bureaucratic inconveniences students face, and we can sponsor clubs and organizations, but most of the low-hanging fruit has long since been picked.

Republicans in Congress have recently sponsored several bills to rank colleges based on their graduation rates. I don’t know where they went to school, but nobody who has ever seen an open-admissions institution would ever make that mistake. If we wanted to increase our graduation rates, the first thing we could do is to ban part-time students. That would eliminate the drop-ins who just take a course or two over the summer. We could also become much more selective; if we screen out the low-achieving students at the door, imagine what it would do for our graduation rates! These moves would completely eviscerate our mission and our usefulness to the community, of course, which means that raw graduation is a rotten metric, but Republicans will be Republicans.

On campus, we’ve been debating the merits of requiring a study skills class for students who show need for remediation in both English and math. It looks good on paper – if they students are ‘double developmental,’ it’s a pretty safe bet that they aren’t very good at studying – but it’s remarkably hard to sell to students. They don’t want to take anything that “doesn’t count,” and they’re often remarkably focused on getting out as quickly as humanly possible. You’d think that a ‘double developmental’ student would welcome the opportunity to improve her study skills, and a few do, but some odd combination of pride, overestimation of ability, and short-term cost considerations leads most to get very snarly about it.

We’ve also started a program in which faculty reach out personally to ‘double developmental’ students during their first semester, to try to establish some sort of connection. Anecdotally, these students don’t return calls.

I think the root of the problem is the loss of decent jobs that don’t require a college degree. Not all that long ago, a kid who just wasn’t the college type had plenty of other options that could lead to a decent life. That’s not as true as it used to be, and the ubiquity of college-degreed folk out there has ratcheted-up hiring requirements even in jobs where it’s not clear that a degree should be relevant, so now the kid who hated every minute of high school comes here (or is dragged, via his nose ring, by his parents) by default, and performs accordingly. Factories aren’t hiring, retail pays squat, and joining the military isn’t as safe as it used to be (again, Republicans will be Republicans).

Making college as ubiquitous as high school runs the risk of turning college into high school. I’m all for second chances – educators, as a species, usually are – but the kid has to want the second chance. Some do, and they make good on it, and those students are why we’re here. I’m just tired of being punished for the rest.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Software, Prescriptions, and Higher Ed

One of the joys of budgeting for an academic division is trying to accommodate the software requests from the various departments within the same operating budgets as the several years before. Few of the requests I get are frivolous – it’s not shocking that the photography program wants Photoshop, or that journalism wants Quark, or that music wants ProTools – it’s just that they’re hellaciously expensive, and they don’t save us anything.

In private industry, technology pays for itself or better (if you’re using it right) by increasing productivity (reducing unit labor costs). If computers reduce the need for secretaries, then $400 for the Microsoft Office package is a good deal. A company can buy the software it thinks will help, and ignore the rest.

In education, though, software is pure cost. Updating Photoshop doesn’t save me any money. All it does is keep us current with potential employers of our graduates, who now want students who are fluent in both film and digital (meaning that I get to keep paying for the infrastructure for both). Adobe can charge us pretty much whatever it wants, and I just have to find the money to pay them. Meanwhile, my operating budget remains flat (since our govt. support remains flat), so every new purchase or increase means something else gets cut (usually, replacing f-t faculty with adjuncts.)

It’s incredibly frustrating. Copyright law, which the software companies use as a cudgel, was never intended to hamper education. There’s a doctrine in copyright law called fair use, which allows for limited non-profit educational and scholarly use of copyrighted material without a fee. (The classic example is quoting a sentence or two from a book in a book review. You can do that without asking or paying.) The idea was to foster a healthy exchange of ideas, which can only happen when ideas are allowed to escape the confines of intellectual property. Fair use has limits – as soon as you cross into for-profit territory, the whole doctrine collapses – but that’s okay. The idea is to balance the need to reward creators for their work with the need for an educated public.

For reasons that escape me, there’s no fair use doctrine for software. Non-profits don’t get any special treatment, except at the discretion of individual vendors. What that means is that I can’t afford to keep up with the technology as much as I’d like, and to the extent that I try, it comes at the expense of other things (like, say, faculty).

Politicians love to make hay by attacking tuition increases, but what else are we supposed to do? The public sector has utterly failed to even try to maintain its historic levels of support, and our non-optional costs keep going up. I think it’s similar to the situation in the medical field with prescription drugs. I can’t choose to ignore the internet revolution without dire consequences for my programs, any more than a psychologist can afford to pretend that anti-depressants never happened. Since we allow drug companies to charge whatever they want for purchases that – let’s face it – aren’t optional in any meaningful way, they do. That drives health insurance costs up (and gives us yet another incentive to go all-adjunct, all the time). If I’m running a photography program, I can’t pretend that the digital revolution didn’t happen. (Kodak tried, and it’s bleeding badly.) I just have to eat the costs, continually raiding other parts of my (overall static) budget to pay for it. We pass on a limited portion of the increase as tuition, to the scornful howls of all and sundry, and we split the rest between a gradual erosion of purchasing and a gradual erosion of faculty. The only winners are the software companies, who have us over a barrel, and know it.

Why there’s no non-profit fair use doctrine for software is utterly beyond me. There’s an unimpeachable argument for it – by making sure the next generation is technically savvy, we’re creating future customers – but it just hasn’t happened. (The internet wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been nurtured in the non-profit defense and higher education sectors!) Meanwhile, my division’s software requests exceed my annual budget line for software by a factor of ten, and some departments’ requests aren’t even in yet.

Back in the day, our budgets had to cover classrooms and faculty. Now, they also have to cover computers, software, tech support, etc., but our marginal increases over the years have simply not kept up. (In truth, just about the entire tuition increase each year gets swallowed up by health insurance. Our operating budgets have been flat or declining for years.) The software part, at least, should be an easy fix, if we could just get the law right. Until then, we’ll just keep hollowing ourselves out.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Philanthropy, Part II

Watching the "analysis" of last night's debate, I was again struck by how much craftier the Right is than the Left when it comes to philanthropy. As David Brock pointed out in his confession/expose "Blinded by the Right," it's simply easier to make a living as a conservative "analyst" than as a liberal one. Why? Because conservative philanthropists understand what they're investing in, and liberal philanthropists don't.

Liberal philanthropists want to give money once, see it used up, and see what they created outlive their actual support for it. Seed money. Sort of a deadbeat dad model, writ large. Create, then leave.

Conservative philanthropists understand that while the check might be made out to a particular "think tank," the think tank is a tool, not a goal. The goal is political power. They underwrite the ongoing operations of right-wing think tanks for decades on end, because they aren't the least bit concerned about creating dependency. They want power, and they understand that when you're in the business of politics, a certain amount of philanthropy is simply a cost of doing business. They get it.

That means that conservative think tanks don't have to spend all their time figuring out how to survive. They pay well, they move quickly, and they shift the terms of public debate. The liberal side is too busy staging fundraisers and churning out dreary social science to really hit back, so the center keeps moving farther and farther right.

Sadly, most higher ed philanthropists follow the 'seed money' model, with predictable consequences. If we had the same kind of philanthropy that, say, Richard Mellon Scaife provides for no end of conservative talking heads, we could stop chasing grants so much, and actually focus on the business at hand. Maybe we could even hire faculty!

Never underestimate the power of opposition research...

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Philanthropy and "Seed Money"

My college is a public institution, so it enjoys the blessings of public subsidies and the curses of government rules and procedures.

Like all public agencies, it’s chronically underfunded, since econ 101 teaches us that anything ‘underpriced’ (i.e. subsidized) will be overused. Since our mission is to provide access to students who might not otherwise have access to higher education, we have to shoulder a wide range of programs while keeping costs as low as possible, without sacrificing too much quality. To call it a balancing act would be generous.

As a chronically-underfunded institution, we are drawn like moths to philanthropic donations. One of the hats I’m wearing now is co-chair of one of the larger grants we’re using.

Between the vagaries of government funding and the vagaries of donor taste, I’m beginning to realize that there’s a giant hole in the funding schemes that support us.

In a nutshell, we have two main budgets: capital (fixed assets – buildings, computers, etc.) and operating (salaries, office supplies, etc.). The government likes to fund buildings and, to a lesser extent, computers. You know, Things. Governors, state senators, and the like love to stand in front of buildings at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. They don’t want any part of paying the people who work in those buildings.

Donors come in three flavors: those who like buildings, those who like scholarships, and those who like events. The ones who like buildings, (who I think are more common at the research-university level) like to be immortalized in brick. The ones who like scholarships at least understand the importance of sustaining funding over time, even if the criteria they select are often maddeningly arbitrary (must be flute majors of Irish ancestry, from one of the following boros…). The ones who like events see themselves as entrepreneurs of ideas, distributing seed money and walking away, always keen that whatever they started with their money is sustained later with ours.

None of these comes without severe issues for the college. The ones who like buildings tend to prefer cutting-edge, sexy buildings, which may or may not be what is needed at the time. (I’ve never heard of the Big Muckety-Muck Memorial Snowplow Shed.) The ones who like scholarships undoubtedly accomplish some good for some students, but most of those students would have come here otherwise anyway, so from an institutional perspective, they’re largely a wash. The ones who like events, such as the one I’m dealing with now, may actually do some long-term harm.

The problem with Events is that they require the time and effort of full-time staff to pull off, they establish expectations and precedents, and then they go away. There’s a special circle of hell reserved for whoever coined the term ‘seed money.’ Events donors like the idea of starting something, but hate the idea of sustaining it. They want whatever they helped create to outlast their donation, which means that, once the initial grant expires, it becomes yet another drag on operating expenses.

That’s not to say that many of the events lack merit; obviously, some of them are quite wonderful. That’s not the point. The point is that over time, operating budgets become laden with the overhang of long-ago funded projects, at the expense of our core operations. We can build new student centers, buy computers by the gross, and stage a never-ending series of Events celebrating All Fashionable Good Things, but we can’t hire faculty or buy toner cartridges. (Maybe we need to develop the Muckety-Muck Memorial Toner Cartridge.)

Politically, this is understandable. Donors like to see ‘results,’ which means, roughly, enduring commitments to continue to hollow out our core to gratify their tastes. Politicians like Big Ticket Items that look good on camera and sound good in speeches; saying “I made possible the hiring of three new history professors” just doesn’t have the oomph of cutting the ribbon at the new computer center. Different levels of government also sometimes make “matching funds” available for construction – I’ve never heard of matching an increase in operations.

Even if, somehow, some exceedingly insightful and generous donor were to set aside an endowment to fund continued operations, the legislature would simply reduce its contribution accordingly. We can’t win for losing.

Educationally, this is a disaster. Whatever else we do, at the core is the interaction of student and professor. That’s the one thing I can’t get money for.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Class Observations

One aspect of my job involves doing observations of classes taught by full-time faculty. As a teacher myself, it still feels somehow indecent, voyeuristic. Sure, there’s nothing ‘private’ about getting up in front of 30 students, but it’s hard not to feel a little out-of-place judging other teachers when I know I’m a flawed teacher myself.

Some instructors videotape themselves in the classroom, then watch the tapes later as a form of self-critique. I think I’d rather be doused with honey and tied to an anthill. It took several years of teaching to get past a paralyzing self-consciousness; my not watching tapes of myself is sort of like an alcoholic not drinking. I’m much too prone to self-consciousness as it is; seeing myself on tape would take it to a whole new level. Maybe some people can get away with it, but I suspect no good would come from it.

I try to be the kind of observer I’d want to have – big picture, forgiving of small quirks, couching criticism (when it exists) as suggestions for improvement – and I’ve been lucky in my own teaching that those are the observers I’ve had. Still, it’s not hard to understand why teachers recoil in horror from the idea of ‘merit’-based pay. Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it,” which is pretty close to my notion of good teaching. I can define elements of it (subject matter knowledge, organization, projection, addressing multiple learning styles, exemplifying critical thinking, not being unspeakably boring, etc.), but there have been cases where I could check off every box on my mental list, but somehow the class didn’t work. (The converse is also true – the instructor made some basic technical mistakes, but it worked anyway.) There’s just too much art involved. An observer more attuned to the checklist than to the art is every teacher’s nightmare.

That’s probably part of what is behind the movement for ‘outcomes assessment’ – since it can be so difficult to measure inputs, let’s measure outputs. If students succeed, we should assume the instructor is doing something right. This approach has a certain common-sense appeal, but it overlooks what any good teacher can tell you, which is that some students could learn from a rock, and others resemble rocks. I’ve had students so bright and driven that all I had to do was throw some assignments at them and jump out of their way; others, I’ve wondered how they feed themselves. To blame or credit the teacher for either just doesn’t make sense.

I do what I can – look for obvious no-no’s, praise obvious successes – acutely aware that these judgments are, at some basic level, intuitive. I know there’s a literature out there about how the gender and race of the instructor affect student perceptions of the professor’s performance, and I try not to fall into that, but there’s just no way to be sure. (From what I recall, students punish instructors who don’t fit the role that students like to assign – female professors are supposed to be nurturing classroom Moms, male professors are supposed to be intimidating authorities. As Dr. Seuss put it, everything’s fine when a moose dreams of moose juice, and nothing goes wrong when a goose dreams of goose juice, but when mooses go dreaming of juices of gooses…)

There’s also a basic question of motivation. In an institution with a unionized and tenured faculty, and without merit pay, how much do observations really mean? If someone with tenure and union protections does a merely workmanlike job, there’s really nothing I can do about it, other than look vaguely disappointed. Some have enough pride that that’s enough, but some don’t.

Thirty observations in the next thirty days. Ugh.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Wit and Wisdom of The Boy

I may be biased, but I think The Boy has an extraordinary verbal sense for a three-year-old. It's funny, though, because the thoughts he conveys are no more sophisticated than what you would expect from a three-year-old; he's just better at it. The effect can be jarring.


Dad: Eat your veggies and you will grow up to be a big boy, just like Daddy.

T.B.: You're not a boy, you're a daddy.


T.B.: How was your day at work, Daddy?

Dad: I had a good day, thanks. I had a committee meeting, but we got a lot done.

T.B.: What's a committee?

Dad: A committee is a bunch of people who sit down and talk about things, and sometimes even do things.

T.B.: Yeah, like you shouldn't eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub.

Actually, that would be a better decision than many made by committees I've seen.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Fun with Faculty Meetings

My ‘division’ (the academic departments of which I am the dean) had a meeting yesterday, so I got to stand in a lecture hall in front of 80 faculty and try to set the agenda for the coming year. These are people whose full-time job it is to stand in front of lecture halls, so a certain amount of stage fright is justified.

It went relatively well, actually, but I was surprised at what struck them as important. When a professor complained about students committing plagiarism with impunity, I offhandedly noted that he should just refer the student to the college disciplinary committee, and that would be the end of that. He (and many others) expressed surprise, and asked if I wouldn’t hold the reporting of students against the faculty.


I reassured him that I considered reporting cheating simply part of a professor’s job. Later, he sent me an email asking to have that comment in writing, so he could paste it into the faculty union newsletter.


These people are really scared. Somewhere along the line, they got the impression that they would be punished for enforcing the rules. (I gave him the blurb, btw).

The student-as-customer mentality has seeped even deeper than I had thought. A little of that is probably a good thing – to the extent that we can streamline the Byzantine registration procedures, we’ll all be happier – but to extend it to legalized cheating is just a bit much. It’s the difference between a store competing on price and a store putting out a sign saying ‘Shoplifters Welcome.’

Some of this existed at my previous school, but that was a for-profit, where ethical and scholarly imperatives competed (at a disadvantage, frequently) with stockholder returns. This is a community college; profit is off the table. Yet the pressure, apparently, is still there.

I wonder to what extent this is a sign that we’re using the wrong measures. If our sole criteria for measuring institutional success are enrollment numbers and graduation rates, faculty have every incentive to take it as easy as humanly possible on the students. (This is, more or less, the situation in American high schools.) What makes our higher education system the envy of the world (as opposed to our secondary education system, which is fairly broadly pitied) is that colleges are allowed to flunk people out. We are allowed to have standards – that’s why college degrees carry weight with employers. Not everybody can get one. To the extent that we define student attrition as institutional failure, rather than a cost of doing business, we are hollowing out our reason to exist.

Anyway, I reassured the surprisingly-frightened troops that I’d back them. We’ll see if it works…

Friday, August 27, 2004

Registration, Speed Limits, and Whining

Part of the sheer joy of being a manager during registration is manipulating the course caps (enrollment limits on any given section). By definition, this pisses absolutely everybody off, and is absolutely necessary.

Faculty want the smallest classes possible, both to increase potential attention to each student and to keep the grading load down. Students want small classes, as long as they, personally, can get in. (When they’re excluded by a low cap, they suddenly convert to fans of open enrollment.) VP’s of finance love huge classes, amortizing faculty salaries over the most tuitions possible. The fire marshall has something to say about class sizes, as does the dean of students, the marketing committee, etc.

About once a month, some highly-placed official asks me why we set a given cap at, say, 30, knowing full well that we’ll gradually inch it up to 35. Why not just start at 35 and not change it? That way, you’re not inadvertently punishing early registrants.

That’s the kind of superficially sound logic that seems compelling unless you actually know what you’re talking about.

One of the first laws of registration is that certain time slots are universally popular. (At my current institution, that’s Monday through Thursday, late morning to early afternoon.) They will fill immediately, no matter at what level you set the cap. Given limited faculty and limited rooms, you can run only so many of these. The next law of registration is that there is always some non-trivial number of students who will show up after you’ve hit the limit who absolutely, positively have to have that particular time slot, lest they fail to graduate, lose financial aid, lose their off-campus job, miss their carpool, question their faith, develop tremors, or have to get up before 9:00 a.m. These students say (sometimes sincerely) that if they can’t get that time slot, they can’t attend school at all.

Given the reality that most colleges are enrollment-driven, we really aren’t in a position to tell those students to take a hike. So we bite our lips and squeeze them in.

So initial course caps function like speed limits – you set them with the assumption that they will be broken. If you want people to drive 65, you post 55. If you want classes of 35, you set limits of 30. It’s sort of an opening bid. If I started at 35, I’d get 40.

By raising the burden of proof for the 31st student, I can drive some of those potential 31sts to take other sections – Fridays, early mornings, late afternoons, etc. – without which we’d be in deep trouble. Those who simply can’t take the other sections are invited to try their luck at a peculiar version of ‘queen for a day.’ In essence, we wind up rewarding student whining, which I’m convinced bleeds over into the classroom.

This makes absolutely nobody happy. I feel like a sellout every time I raise a cap, but I know that holding the line isn’t a realistic option. The faculty get mad because they take the initial caps literally, students get mad because they have to jump through multiple hoops or take less convenient times, the staff get crabby because this is a very labor-intensive method, and I get blamed all the way around. Yet nobody has the stomach to try the alternative, which is to tell the desperate students to come back in the future when they can get their stuff together.

This is part of the reason that administrators are so high on online courses. It isn’t that you can put more people in any given section – the amount of written feedback required really precludes that – but that you can get around the timeslot games. Since online courses are asynchronous, and don’t require classrooms, you can eliminate the timeslot shuffle. It’s hard to overstate the appeal of this to a harried dean.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with the ethics of all this – I’d much rather give the conscientious early registrant that 35th seat than some talented last-minute whiner – but until I’m allowed to tell students to take a walk, that’s the way it has to be.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Fun With Registration

The students are back, which is good and bad. This is the time of year – the last in-person registration before Fall semester – when the emergencies crop up. This is also the time of year when I get blamed for not being psychic: how come I didn’t know that there would be a sudden surge in demand this year for Japanese? Don’t I care about the students? They’re paying a lot of money for this! And it has to be between 10 and 2, no Fridays…

Nothing is quite so humbling to the idealistic academic as in-person registration. The sheer let’s-make-a-deal quality of the interaction is off-putting; any illusion of programmatic coherence becomes impossible to sustain when you see, up close, just how many decisions are made on the basis of what doesn’t conflict with some kid’s job at the bagel shop.

I’d estimate I get lied to about once every ten minutes at registration. I had this at another college – what do you mean you need to see a transcript? It’s not fair that I have to pass algebra before taking engineering – you’re trying to bilk me! And – my personal fave – I took that course before (so what if I failed it?)!

In the spirit of public service, here’s a hint to all the prospective students out there: don’t make a major life decision with less than a week to go. It doesn’t do wonders for your options.

The whole student-as-customer mindset comes crashing headlong into reality at registration. What do you mean I can’t take 15 credits in nine hours? Why can’t I have the most popular time slot at the last minute? Do you have anything really, really easy? I don’t want to have to read. Does that class have homework? I carpool with my friend who works part-time with different hours each week – is that a problem? I have to miss the first three weeks of class – is that a problem? I know it meets on Tuesdays and Fridays, but I have to work on Fridays – is that a problem? I took something sorta similar to that at my old school in Uzbekistan 15 years ago, and left the transcript at home – can’t you sign me in?

Ugh. Times like these, The Boy seems almost grown up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Adjunct Nation

Why is it that higher education is the only industry with highly-credentialed pieceworkers?

Adjuncts at colleges and universities hold graduate degrees – usually master’s, but increasingly doctorates – and get paid peanuts. Someone teaching at my current institution could teach 8 courses a year and total $13,000, without benefits. That’s less than a part-time secretary with a high-school diploma makes. The shocking thing is how many adjuncts are around and available. From an administrative perspective, such cheap labor solves some short-term financial issues quite neatly, even if, I suspect, it slowly erodes the intellectual capital of an institution. (In saying that, I don’t mean to impugn the intelligence of adjuncts, but merely to echo Aristotle’s observation that contemplation requires leisure.)

The financial logic is compelling. Yet only higher ed seems to have latched onto it. Why not other credentialed professions?

Imagine adjunct surgeons. For about $35 an hour, they will perform surgeries on an as-needed basis. Finally, a solution to the rising cost of health insurance! Doctors who couldn’t afford health insurance seems like poetic justice.

Or adjunct cops. Whenever a crime wave breaks out, or a political convention comes to town, local bruisers would join the force at a low hourly rate to wield what Max Weber called a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. What could possibly go wrong?

Adjunct attorneys! The key issue here is pay. Lawyers are often paid by the hour now; why not drastically lower the rate? After all, there’s no shortage of lawyers! Let the market work its magic. $45/hour, tops. If you don’t like it, work at Burger King. As with professors and surgeons, the pay only covers hours actually ‘at work’ (i.e. in the classroom, in the courtroom, in surgery) – preparation is strictly on your own time and your own dime.

Adjunct airline pilots! How many kids grow up wanting to be pilots? $50/hour, covering only time spent in the air. See how long they linger on the tarmac now…

As with our adjuncts, low performers (defined however their managers choose) can be dropped without notice, new people called in at the last minute, etc. Keep a few full-time positions around, just to keep hope alive, so the adjuncts don’t go into a more secure line of work, like show business.

For some reason, academics with doctorates are willing to tolerate conditions that no other trained professionals would even dream of accepting. If academic adjuncts used the same billing logic as, say, business consultants, they would insist on reimbursement for preparation time, travel, meals, and course materials, and would quintuple their rate.

You’d think smart people like professors would have figured this out by now. Colleges pay adjuncts so little because they can. But why can they? Why are Ph.D.’s willing to allow themselves to be so badly exploited, often for years on end?

Monday, August 16, 2004

Bob Frickin' Vila

I’m an academic, a recovering nerd, a devotee of the life of the mind. Last week I could be found in the basement, frantically bailing out the French drain while waiting for the power to come back on so the basement wouldn’t take on water again. (It worked, btw. The power came back about two hours before it started to rain.)

Sometimes I wonder about science and engineering in America. For all of the tremendous advances we’ve made, I’m still in the basement, bailing water frantically, hoping that the telephone pole repair folk finish before the rain starts. Why? Because the house is made of termite food (and highly flammable, at that!), the basement features lots of wallboard that is easily destroyed by water, and we haven’t yet mastered DRAIN technology.

I question our priorities. We’ve got the best minds of a generation devising ever-more-pornographic computer games, but we’re still building our houses out of termite food and protecting them with sump pumps that haven’t changed meaningfully for decades. As near as I can tell, neither water nor gravity has changed in any significant way since before we developed the concept of ‘shelter,’ so you’d think we would have made some progress by now.

My barometer for when things get desperate is when I start to know what I’m doing. I’m not Bob frickin’ Vila, and I don’t pretend to be; I’ve dealt enough with basement-drain issues now that I can knowledgably critique sump pumps. That ain’t right.

I hereby challenge the engineers of the world: how about less time dealing with ever-faster ways to deliver pornography to desktops, and more time dealing with WATER? It covers the majority of the globe, so this isn’t quite special pleading. Samples are relatively easy to find. It falls from the freakin’ sky. Heck, check your basement.

Monday, August 09, 2004

"The Tallest Three-Year Old I've Ever Seen"

The Boy had a pediatrician appointment last week, during which the doctor pronounced him “the tallest three-year-old I’ve ever seen.” I believe him, too – The Boy is a moose. I’m not short, and neither is The Wife, but The Boy is much taller than either of us was at his age.

At one level, this is kind of cool. Certainly, he wouldn’t be growing that quickly if he weren’t basically healthy, and to the extent that his size can deter bullies, I’m all for it.

Still, I can’t help but feel a slight trepidation for the kid. Big kids are expected to be athletes, which I just wasn’t. If he gets his coordination from me, he’ll fall prey to the Jeff Goldblum syndrome.

Gender expectations die hard. If he stays as tall-for-his-age as he is now, he’ll be a conspicuously big guy by high school. With that, he won’t have the option of blending in.

I wasn’t very good at boy stuff. I was gawky, slow, introverted, and generally awkward. (I still am, but it matters a lot less now.) Between nature (my chromosomes) and nurture (my general cluelessness about guy culture), the kid could be in for a rough patch.

We’re going to sign him up for some classes at the Y, on the theory that early intervention may help. Still, and as much as I reject much of what I consider the stupid brutality of guy culture, I don’t want The Boy to go through what I went through. There’s no need to contribute another hammerhead frat boy to the world, but I know enough about adolescence to know that some protective coloration could spare a lot of pain. Let him get ironic distance on it later – first, arm him to get through it.

Kids at those ages are the shock troops of gender roles – girls who aren’t hot and boys who aren’t athletes never stop being reminded – and they aren’t shy about enforcement.

The schizophrenia of parenting hits home. Even though I reject many of the values those age groups hold, I want him to be able to hold his own on the terms I know he’ll confront. Even though I was among the least athletic kids I knew, The Boy will be counting on me to prepare him for guy culture.

Here’s hoping some double-recessive genes slipped through…

Monday, July 26, 2004

Why Postmodernists Make Lousy Speechwriters

On the eve of the Democratic convention, I started to wonder what would happen if Kerry hired some of my old professors as speechwriters…

My fellow Americans, in simply addressing you that way, “hailing” you in the Althusserian sense, I am reinscribing the normative masculine trope of ‘fellow’ while ironically appropriating the discourse of fellow-ship in a frankly hegemonic context; yet still acknowledging the rhetorical power of the nation-state even as attempting to recast it, despite its always-already being implicated in relations of power and domination, as a liberatory force on behalf of those subaltern who bother to vote, ‘voting’ itself as the performance of an idea of ‘citizenship’ built on the denial of same to those ‘others’ who are not hailed in my introduction...

Friday, July 23, 2004

So much for the 'calmer baby' theory...

The Girl decided last night to really stretch out her lungs.  She started fussing around 7:00, picked up steam around 9:00, and did a full-on banshee wail from 10:00 to about midnight.

The good news is her lungs are obviously strong.  And it could have been worse – the cycle could have started at midnight. 

Still, in just the few years since The Boy was born, I’d forgotten just how draining those screaming fits can be.  It’s sort of like forgetting pain.  Today The Wife and I are pretty zombified, and we’re both dreading tonight’s performance. 

Miraculously, The Boy managed to sleep through it. 

It isn’t just the noise that drains you.  It’s the not knowing – not knowing how long it will go, what’s bothering her, or what to do about it.  We did all the obvious things – feeding, swaying, singing, swaddling, etc. – to no effect.  The Girl isn’t fooled by pacifiers, usually spitting them out within seconds.  (“This one’s defective.  No milk!”)  When I hold her with her head on my shoulder, she can push her head off, but she can’t support it, so it’s anybody’s guess which way it will loll.  The only way to prevent that is a sort of knuckleball grip, but that isn’t so good, either.

It’s hard, too, to stay sane and patient with The Boy when The Girl rubs your nerves raw.  He has been great, but an active three-year old boy is a handful in the best of circumstances, let alone when you’re already drained. 

After a few hours, you start to think about alternatives.  Would a doghouse in the backyard really be so bad?  It’s the summer, and it’s not like we have dingoes running around the neighborhood…

But nooooo. 

Idea for birth control: film a two-hour infant banshee wail, and show the film, in real time, to teenagers.  Keep the sound up good and high.  Nobody leaves the auditorium.  Attendance at the screening (say, a midnight show on a Tuesday) is mandatory.  Amnesty International might object, but I bet it would work…

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

collaborative management?

I’ve just returned from a brief paternity leave, tired, pale, and happy.  The Girl is a much mellower baby than her brother was, for which we are already grateful.
My employer has recently engaged in a search for a high-level administrator, and I’ve been in on some of the interviews.  Without giving anything away about anyone, I was struck by the applicant etiquette that seems to have emerged.
Everybody has a collaborative management style, whatever that means.  (From what I can see, it means whatever the applicant says it means.)  Everybody is committed to diversity, which, in my mind, is sort of like being committed to gravity.  Everybody is committed to exploiting the opportunities made available by technology, whether through online courses, online courses, or online courses.  Everybody avoids micromanagement, consults with relevant stakeholders, gets involved with the community, eats their vegetables, flosses daily, and helps old ladies across the street.
Of course, the sameness of each of these categories renders them useless as screening mechanisms.
The most annoying repetition, though, is that everybody has the same new brilliant idea.  “Let’s be proactive in forming partnerships with private industry.” 
Well, let’s just stop and think about that.
The surface-level appeal is obvious.  As the bank robber Willie Sutton put it, “that’s where the money is.”  As decades of Republican rule have hollowed out the great mid-century achievements of the public sector, any public institution will be chronically starved for resources.  Higher ed takes it especially hard, since most voters seem okay with the idea that tuition should be proportionately higher than it was when they were students, and because education is, by definition, labor-intensive (and therefore uniquely impervious to productivity gains).  Since loose money is to be found only in the corporate world, strapped institutions should look there.
Or not.  In my time in the for-profit sector of higher ed, where the corporate ethos was accepted without question, I noticed some real shortcomings of the “let’s ask employers what they want” school of curriculum development.
The first, and most obvious, is that most employers have absolutely no idea what they want.  Five years ago, most of the private sector would have been happy to see every college in America convert to a computer training school.  Now, IT workers are a dime a dozen, and many of the employers my old school used to ask for advice no longer even exist.  Corporations have extremely short time-horizons, and, when asked, they reflect that. 
More significantly, a company that may be very good at designing buildings, or making cars, or bundling mutual funds isn’t necessarily very good at designing curricula.  Education is not simply a matter of presenting information; anyone who has taught can testify that what you say and what students hear can be vastly different.  Figuring out how to reach students is a skill in itself. (This is why I regard most efforts at “character education” as simply embarrassing.  They tend to adopt a Platonist pedagogy – to know the good is to do the good.  That Socrates got himself condemned to death by an angry city suggests limits to this strategy.  Socrates was a legendary teacher, foundational to Western thought, and even he had to drink the Kool-Aid.)
Most importantly, though, the interests of the employers are not the interests of the students.  Employers want more students in high-demand fields so they can lower the salaries.  By expanding whatever program tickles the Fortune 500’s fancy that year, we are complicit in watering down the life prospects of the more dedicated students.
A firm wants inputs it can use.  It doesn’t give two hoots about inputs that other firms can use, except in the very broadest (read: irrelevant) sense.  Hamburger University, at McDonald’s is built on this model – it generates managers for McDonald’s.  McDonald’s has no interest in employees’ portability to other firms, and rightly so.  When we track students into narrow, career-specific fields, we make them more vulnerable to the vagaries of a given industry (and, sometimes, a given company).  Employers like that, and they should.  Educators shouldn’t.
If we truly care about educating our students, we should give them the tools to, at the very least, chart their own paths.  That is not necessarily an argument for all philosophy, all the time – too much abstraction is as bad as too little – but it is an argument for maintaining a robust distinction between education (which we do) and training (which employers do).  Only by building the ability to compare, critically, different kinds of industries, companies, cultures, and the like, can students hope to be the ‘self-managers’ who can actually do well in a mercenary economy. 
And that’s only the economic argument.  Add the broader political argument – one of the purposes of higher education is to produce citizens capable of participating in a functioning democracy.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but workplaces (with rare exceptions) aren’t democracies.  Knowing how to take orders, shmooze bosses, and the rest is all fine and good, but at some point, today’s students will be tomorrow’s voters (or not, which may be even worse).  Employers, again, don’t give two hoots about this, and there’s no reason they should, but we should.  If that means including some history or politics in a program of study, rather than the umpteenth course on business communications, so be it.
Someone with political literacy might look at the “let’s beg for corporate money” model as a Trojan horse – the more money public colleges can raise from the private sector, the easier it is for legislatures to simply cut our appropriations.  Those cuts can fund tax cuts for corporations, from whom we can beg for some back, if we remake ourselves in their image.  It’s a losing strategy, long-term.  Better to stake a stronger public claim, to assert our own, independent mission, and to negotiate, when at all, from strength.
I don’t know if that counts as “collaborative,” or even “new,” but I think it’s right. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Girl is Here!

The Girl was born on Sunday! She checked in at 8 pounds even,
and she's absolutely beautiful. The Wife is doing well; The
Boy is even being a good sport.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Viewpoint Diversity

Conservatives have taken up the slogan of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to force colleges to hire more politically-conservative faculty. David Horowitz has gone so far as to draw up an “Academic Bill of Rights” guaranteeing students the right to be free from political indoctrination in higher education, and mandating exposure to diverse points of view.
One member of Congress, whose name escapes me, just drew up a “sense of the Congress” resolution to give this idea the blessing of the government.

I admit that my first response involved an unattractive combination of gagging and giggling. But, upon sober reflection, I realized that the idea has considerable merit. It just needs to be more fully fleshed out. As a public service, I’ve taken the task upon myself…

Start with the religious colleges. Their faculty are disproportionately religious! How can students possibly expect to be exposed to differing points of view? I’m pleased to hear the Republicans in Congress urge Lynchburg College to hire more Jews, liberals, and homosexuals. Catholic colleges and universities tend to have disproportionately-Catholic faculties; this too must stop! How can anyone fully embrace a faith until exploring the alternatives? I join the Republicans in calling upon every Catholic college in the U.S. to start a stepped-up hiring program for secular liberals immediately.

Some of the displaced Catholic faculty could find work at, say, Brandeis…

And what about the military colleges? The faculty at West Point could use some openly gay, vegetarian pacifists. The women’s studies department at the Army War College could use some beefing up…

Too many History departments teach World War II from an anti-Nazi point of view.

Business schools are vastly overrun with Republicans. Obviously, a purge is in order. To make sure all points of view are represented, we could mandate that every other hire come from, say, the leadership of a labor union. One for business, one for labor. That’s fair!

What about the proprietary sector? Since the very nature of proprietary schools is capitalist, they need a counterbalancing faction of socialist faculty. After all, students mustn’t be indoctrinated. Dispatch the University of Phoenix to the MLA, stat!

In fact, why should we limit viewpoint diversity to colleges? Why not other important public institutions?

Over half of Congress is comprised of millionaires. That’s not representative! Let’s get a representative sample of Wal-Mart workers in there. Let them vote on tax policy. For that matter, let’s get the median income of Congress down to the national average. That might have some interesting effects on the laws about parental leave, health care, tax distributions…

And what about the judiciary? Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas – outta there! 7 out of the 9 current members of the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans – no wonder they threw the election to Bush! Make it an even split – hell, while we’re at it, let’s extend the income-diversity rule there, too. Let’s see what someone making $25k has to say about equal protection of the laws…


Apparently, affirmative action is only okay when it benefits conservatives.

The idiocy of the law is even deeper than it looks. Leave aside the question of higher-ed exceptionalism; what’s even more disturbing is the idea that everybody’s political thinking has to fit cleanly in certain boxes. If I’m hired to be the token liberal, and my thought evolves, I could lose my job! If I stitch positions together in ways that don’t reflect the approved categories (say, a Daniel Bell type – socially conservative, but left on economics), I don’t count, so I can’t get hired. Best to avoid thinking anything new.

For the idea of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to make any sense, we have to assume that all possible viewpoints are already known, as is the proper numerical distribution of viewpoints. We also have to assume that all of the interesting questions have already been asked, all answers to all questions coalesce into only two or three possible constellations, that political preference colors all knowledge (“Democrats argue that the atomic number for hydrogen is 1, but Republicans…”), and that students are perfect sponges for what their professors tell them. In other words, we have to be morons.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

"Use It or Lose It" and Risk Aversion

When a tenure-based institution needs to cut costs, the easiest way to achieve significant savings is through reduction by attrition – just don’t replace people when they leave. It prevents layoffs, it prevents difficult decisions about existing programs, it forestalls difficult questions about why some departments get to grow while others get cut, and it saves search costs. The short-term appeal is clear.

If the cost-cutting environment lasts too long, though, it starts to create some perverse incentives. Departments who don’t tenure an assistant professor figure out that they may not get another shot with someone else – if they don’t tenure the mediocre assistant professor, they will lose the position (or “line”) altogether. Tenure-track assistant professors, who had to surmount insane odds to get the position in the first place, ironically face a much easier tenure hurdle, since the choice between Smith and nobody is much easier than a choice between Smith and Jones.

Once that mindset takes hold, the implications for the future searches that do happen are dangerous. If a line is a terrible thing to waste, and it is, departments will become almost pathologically risk-averse in their hiring. Better to hire the clean, non-threatening fit than to take a chance on somebody in a more exciting, but harder to pin down, area. Nobody has ever been denied tenure, to my knowledge, for fitting in too well.

Candidates who stick to safe, mainstream topics, and who manage to get along with everybody, are strongly favored in this environment. Candidates who take intellectual risks, who experiment in the classroom, or who have strong (or interesting) personalities are strongly disfavored. When a department has hundreds of applicants for a single tenure-track position, it faces the contradictory challenge of finding the standout who least stands out. Someone outstandingly average. No wonder searches are so hard!

Interestingly, the opposite dynamic can hold at elite institutions, since departments there can be assured that if Smith doesn’t work out, they can try again later with Jones. Affluence allows the luxury to experiment.

A colleague of mine from graduate school is an outstanding researcher and teacher, but his work straddles subfields that aren’t usually straddled. He has attracted strong interest at elite institutions, but has received the brush-off at third- and fourth-tier institutions. He’s good enough for Elite New England College, but not quite up to South Carolina Ag and Tech College standards.

On any straightforward scale of merit, that’s absurd. But it makes sense, sort of, when the department at South Carolina has to consider the possibility of forever losing a line if his higher-risk projects don’t work out.

Why does this matter? It matters for graduate students, because their choice of subfield and dissertation topic can pre-select the type of institution that will take their candidacy seriously. It matters for departments, because how do you defend a discrimination lawsuit when ‘merit’ wasn’t really a criterion? It matters for higher education generally, since one of the major reasons we exist is to generate new knowledge. The whole point of sponsoring bright minds outside of private industry to do self-directed research is to cover those areas of inquiry that private industry is less likely to get around to, either because the risk is too high, or the profits too hard to confine to one firm, or the market simply too small. We exist, in part, to compensate for a market failure. When we start punishing higher-risk research and rewarding simple replication of what has been done before, we defeat our own purpose.

For colleges to be able to maintain high levels of teaching, departments need to be able to roll the dice on potentially high-payoff hires. For groundbreaking research, this is even more true. The alternative is to widen the gap between the few, elite institutions who can afford to gamble, and the rest, who can’t. To maintain quality, colleges below the elite level have to be able to commit to given staffing levels, and to hold to those commitments. Departments need to know that they can try again.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Sappy Dad Moment

Last night The Wife and I raided the attic to retrieve the bassinet, in preparation for The Girl. (She’s due any time now.) We assembled it, and it’s sitting in what will be The Girl’s room.

Okay, I admit it. It’s hard not to get a little weepy seeing the bassinet again.

This morning, as I was trying to herd The Boy out the door, The Wife decided to show him the bassinet, and to put a teddy bear in it. The Boy made the requisite “aww…” sounds, but it was all I could do to stay composed.

He’s taller than the basket now. I remember when he looked so small inside it.

I’m inordinately proud of The Boy, and take delight in each new step forward (last night he “read” books to us! He memorized the words, and even threw in commentary, pointing at pictures!), but something about going back to the beginning like that just puts a lump in my throat. It’s hard to believe he was ever that small.

Sorry. I just couldn’t focus on much else today.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Thoughts on 'Diversity'

I’m a diversity officer’s worst nightmare. I’m married, with biological children. I’m white, heterosexual, male, right-handed, from the East Coast, and left-liberal in the way that liberal-arts academics tend to be. Nobody who hires me can check off any boxes on affirmative action forms.

And yet, I’m one of the few of my kind around here.

Logically, those can’t both be true. How can The Majority be so small?

The answer, of course, is that the categories we usually count in ‘diversity’ initiatives don’t begin to capture the diversity of actual human experience. In fact, their omissions can be quite glaring.

For example, my current employer is located in an extremely Republican county, with an overwhelmingly Catholic workforce. Neither political nor religious preferences are counted, though, so my secular/Unitarian Democrat status, while certainly adding to the intellectual diversity of the place, flies below the radar.

More interestingly, almost nobody on faculty or in administration has young children. Many of the more senior faculty have adult children, which is to be expected, but nearly nobody else here has kids under, say, 10. We recently lost one of our few young full-time professors when her first child was born; after trying for a few weeks, she decided that balancing full-time faculty with mothering a young child was too much, so she quit to stay home. I don’t blame her a bit – hell, my wife is doing the same thing – but it does tend to homogenize the folks who stay.

Oddly, we’ve lost several young faculty in the last few weeks. I suspect that cost-of-living is the hidden killer; salaries here go up 3-4% per year, while property values have been rising 20-30% per year for several years. Entry-level people are simply priced out of the county. (In fact, I recently met with the leader of a local philanthropic organization that deals with affordable housing, and discovered, to my bemused horror, that an assistant professor here, living alone, would qualify for ‘moderate income’ housing. Stay in school, kids!).

Where are the faculty brats?

The major issue, obviously, is the overall lack of young faculty. With the recent departures, we now have fewer than 10 full-time faculty under 40. Among those, the only one I knew to have children just left. None of the others, to my knowledge, has kids. In administration, I know one other person (a director of a campus center) with young children. This at a college that enrolls (many thousands of) students.

I have to chuckle whenever the Chronicle of Higher Education runs a piece bemoaning the sexism of the academy, using as evidence the fact that the tenure clock ticks synchronously with the biological clock. From that (true) observation, we are supposed to conclude that women faculty need extra time to get tenure.

I say that’s half right. Parents of young children need extra time. Not all women want to be parents, and many men do. And from what I’ve seen, men in their 20’s and 30’s simply can’t slough off housework the way men used to – women simply wouldn’t allow it, even if we tried.

The even larger point, really, is that there was supposed to be a reciprocal change in home and work. When women started moving into the workforce in large numbers, and men started (belatedly and halfheartedly at first, I’ll admit) doing more at home, the more sophisticated thinkers argued that it was time to make work more family-friendly. The old 40-hour week was based on the model of a husband working and a wife staying home. With the wife working, we’d obviously have to recalibrate work hours, right?


It hasn’t happened, of course, and we’re beginning to see the fallout of that failure. (Arlie Russell Hochschild has written several excellent books on this topic, The Time Bind being my personal favorite.) In order to get benefits (read: health insurance), you have to count as full-time. Employers’ insistence on this point is rational, in the sense that health benefits are hellaciously expensive and rapidly rising, so keeping a largely contingent workforce is necessary to keep costs in line. Employees, then, who have two-job relationships, find their parenting time squeezed beyond reason. Add to that the factors unique to higher education (the extended poverty of grad school, the terrible national job market, and the aforementioned tenure clock), and many of those intent on being parents simply chuck it all. Either they just don’t have kids, or they leave higher ed.

Imagine what national single-payer health care might do to make
employers more willing to hire, to redefine 'full-time' along more
family friendly lines, to allow parents to spend time with children and not starve...

Conservatives like to bleat about how evil liberals dominate higher education in America. They’re wrong and basically silly, but there is something of a cultural divide between college faculty and the rest of the country. I’d wager that much of that divide is based on the almost-complete absence of young parents from college faculty. To the extent that that means that higher ed is unusually open to gays and lesbians, that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but wonder what the almost complete absence of talk about sippy cups, Sesame Street, and carseats means for the cultural climate of the place. Certainly, it drives distance between college faculty and the rest of the country.

When was the last time you saw a minivan in a faculty parking lot?

I’m glad that issues of racial and gender diversity are getting their due. I’m just concerned that reducing ‘diversity’ to those easily-counted variables is missing a fundamental point. In becoming more representative of the population in a few ways, we’re becoming much, much less so in others.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Thoughts on Tenure...

At my new deanship, I’m confronted again by the same silly economics I’ve seen throughout higher education. In the face of a budget crunch, we can buy computers, hire secretaries, and expand our most expensive programs (the ones students are breaking down the doors to enter), but we can’t hire full-time faculty.

There’s something fundamentally wrong about this. If college provides nothing else, it should provide opportunities for students to interact with professors. Professors are the one category of expense I am expressly forbidden.

How did this happen?

Part of it has to do with the availability of alternatives. We can ‘adjunct out’ classes – hire adjunct instructors at $1600/course to teach what used to be taught by full-timers – much more easily than we could hire temps as secretaries. Ph.D.’s with teaching experience are thick on the ground, but do you know how hard it is to find a good secretary these days?

Stay in school, kids…

Part of it has to do with the fatal combination of tenure and the repeal of the mandatory retirement age (last set at 70, until the Supreme Court killed it). Despite what the AAUP says, tenure really does effectively guarantee employment for life. Unless the professor commits a felony (or sexual harassment), the cost of the process necessary for actually discharging someone with tenure is so extreme that it’s simply not worth it. Whatever the merits of the tenure system as a way to protect freedom for controversial research (its original purpose), it kneecaps institutional flexibility. When you combine it with the lack of a retirement age and seniority-driven raises, a college can easily find itself laden with an expensive, unproductive, top-heavy full-time faculty, whose costs it can’t cut.

All of the cost cuts, then, are borne by the next generation. Since we can’t trim costs on the high end, we simply stop hiring entry-level full-timers instead. Young scholars are frozen out of full-time employment, despite frequently having better qualifications than their elders (and being willing to work for about half as much). The institution is stuck with unmovable, expensive employees at one end, and highly mobile (because badly exploited) casual labor at the other.

There’s a fundamental dishonesty at work here. The idea of tenure is considered sacrosanct, but the institutional costs of tenure have become intolerable. Rather than facing the dilemma squarely, colleges have been taking the easy way out for the last twenty years by effectively grandfathering one generation and exploiting the next. Tenure isn’t being repealed; it’s simply being rendered inaccessible. Repealing it would run the risk of dampening the enthusiasm of prospective professors, who might turn to more lucrative fields, and thereby dry up the pool of available adjuncts. Better to hold out the mirage, to keep the desiccated survivors crawling across the desert floor. After all, someone has to teach freshman comp.

The dangers of continuing down this path are several. Obviously, the more adjunct-heavy an institution gets, the more difficult quality control becomes. With constant turnover, a department chair frequently has to roll the dice to staff that last section. Students lose, since their younger instructors come and go (making them useless as sources of letters of recommendation, academic/personal advisors, etc.), and the older ones taper off as they head towards the finish line. The younger generation of scholars loses, as it has to try to pay off its student loans on adjunct or “visiting assistant” (read: temporary) wages.

More subtly, it’s not at all clear where the next generation of deans, provosts, and presidents will come from. Historically, they have come from the faculty. However, most of the current full-time faculty have either already been there and done that, or have reached a stage in their careers where additional responsibility simply holds no interest. Behind them, the pipeline is dry. So few tenure-track faculty have been hired over the last decade or two (and the few who were got those jobs by being single-minded research machines) that new candidates are simply not developing.

Presidents can come from many different areas, including outside of academe altogether, and I expect that non-academics will quickly become the norm. As college presidencies have become defined almost exclusively as fundraising positions, it makes a certain amount of sense to look to people who are well-connected to wealth, as opposed to teaching. Deans and provosts, though, deal with the internal machinery of the institution, and really need to be conversant with academic realities. They need to have taught.

My own career path is an anomaly. I was able to move quickly into administration because I did an (unintentional) end run around the usual procedures by working first in an institution that was not bound by a tenure system. Since nobody had to die before I could move up, I was able to gain relevant experience at a fairly early age. That experience got me hired at an institution where I am younger than 90% of the full-time faculty in my division. (Literally. I counted.)

This year I’ve lost (to retirement) four tenured professors from my division and one secretary. We’re replacing the secretary.

The tenure system’s pathologies are so deeply entrenched by now that it’s hard even to imagine alternatives or solutions. The obvious answers – long-term (3-5 years) renewable contracts; national single-payer health care (health insurance is the budget-buster for hiring full-timers); a return to a mandatory retirement age – are just not politically feasible, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

From a budgetary perspective, labor is such an overwhelming part of the budget (over 90 percent) that there just isn’t another way to achieve meaningful cost cuts. By the time you factor in fixed overhead (electricity, HVAC, office supplies, etc.), the remainder is trivial. Technology doesn’t help, since computers don’t grade papers. Unlike most private-sector enterprises, technology is almost a pure cost center for us.

What makes all of this more than just idle ranting is the simple fact of mortality. Mandatory retirement may have been repealed, but physical frailty hasn’t been. When the current crop of full-timers starts dropping in large numbers, colleges will finally have to start making the tough decisions they’ve been putting off for twenty years. My worry is that we’ve grown so accustomed to adjunct-ing everything that we’ll simply continue to do so. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, we won’t even notice as we boil to death.

Better to step up now.