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.