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...