Friday, July 29, 2005

These People Have Tenure

This actually happened.

I got a call from a tenured professor who was upset that she was being charged for destroying her college-issued laptop. She destroyed it by running it over with her car.

She. ran. it. over. with. her. car.

In what context would this even happen? Under what circumstances, other than sheer malice, would you actually run over your laptop with your car? How would the laptop get under the wheels in the first place? Did the car drive itself into the dining room, hop up onto the table, and accelerate?

I’m baffled.

I’ve spend the last few weeks going over this in my mind, again and again.

Did the laptop have a death wish? Was it struck with the ‘Darwin’ virus, causing it to grow legs? Maybe the laptop lost its will to live after a particularly insipid email?

The tenured professor insists that it is grossly unfair that she be charged. After all, the laptop was relatively old.


She has tenure, and I don’t. And I’m supposed to manage her.

I’ll just avoid her in the parking lot.

The Results Are In! (And They're Terrible!)

The results of the 2005 Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest are in! (There's a link to it in my list of links.)

Try not to read them while eating. Bad things can happen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Vindication! Or, Music and Nursing Revisited...

IHE reported today that, as I've been arguing in the posts about music and nursing, some disciplines really do cost more than others for colleges to run. (The article is here.)

Sweet, sweet vindication.

Doesn't help, really, but I'll take what I can get...

Public Service Announcement: Advice to Job Candidates from the Dean

Having gone through many searches over the last few years, I’ve developed a list of hints for job candidates (both faculty and administrative). If they seem obvious, you’re in good shape. If they don’t, PLEASE print them out, keep them, use them.

Proofread! There is simply no excuse for typos, poor grammar, or geographical howlers in a cover letter. (At my old school, also in the Northeast, we had a candidate who declared in the second paragraph of his cover letter that he never applies to schools in the Northeast. That was the end of that.) I’ve seen far too many Ph.D.’s send letters that look like they were written by distracted high schoolers.

Respond quickly. We are sometimes up against external deadlines of our own, and I’ve seen otherwise-viable candidates get rejected simply because they missed the window. (Corrolary: never, never, never take seriously the announced deadline. Always beat it by a wide margin. For reasons I’ll never understand, I’ve seen far too many committees jump the gun and simply lose patience with applications that arrive at the last minute.)

Don’t cop an attitude at the interview. You may, in your heart of hearts, think that my college is beneath you. I don’t, and the professors here don’t, either. We will not be intimidated. If you think you’re doing us a favor, don’t do us any favors.

Check the college website! If you couldn’t be bothered to do a little preliminary scoping, I get the message that you aren’t serious about working here. Ask questions that show that you’ve done your homework.

Don’t trash your previous employer. Even if everything you say is true (and it may well be), we’ll wonder if it just reflects a hyper-critical or high-maintenance personality. Even if you’re escaping a sinking ship, make clear that the attraction to the new position consists of more than ‘it’s not the old position.’

Keep it mind that, appearances notwithstanding, it’s not all about you. I’ve had interviews with intelligent, accomplished, charming, winsome candidates I couldn’t hire. At the end of the day, it’s about what the institution needs. If that’s you, great. If not, it’s not usually because of anything you could control. (Exceptions: if you commit the gaffes above. The cover letter gaffe will prevent you from even getting to the interview stage.)

Good luck!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Thoughts That Ran Through My Mind Last Night at 3:00 A.M., as The Girl’s Crying Jag Entered its Third Hour

- She’ll never sleep again
- I’ll never sleep again
- I hope The Boy doesn’t come in again to calm her down
- I’ll look like hell tomorrow
- When I meet with the Vice President
- To discuss personnel matters
- That require serious professional judgment
- And I look hung over.
- Maybe coffee will help
- What the (#(@&(($# is she CRYING about?
- The Wife is judging me
- for not going in there, again
- it didn’t work the first three times
- What the ((#)_@(#& is she CRYING about?
- Is that The Boy kicking my back?
- Oh, crap.
- Is she getting new teeth?
- Would it help if I knew the answer to that?
- *()^^^*&*^%^, I thought we were done with this.
- Won’t she just run out of gas soon?
- Even grad school was better than this.

This morning, I look like Reverend Jim, from Taxi.

I have no bleeping idea how single parents do it.

Monday, July 25, 2005

In Praise of Long Commutes

Since I took this job a few years after we bought our house, we had to make a decision whether to move or to stay. The commute is 35-40 minutes without traffic (i.e. on the way in), and close to an hour with traffic (i.e. on the way home).

At the time, we decided to stay put for a little while, and see how it goes. Now, when The Wife and I engage in one of our periodic episodes of house lust (“did you see the big deck on that one?”), the houses we have in mind are close to our current neighborhood. While they might be bigger, newer, or on quieter streets, they’d carry the same length of commute as I have now. (Since she stays home with the kids, there’s no counterbalancing commute on her side.)

Years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed this. One of the (only) joys of graduate school was living within walking distance of campus, so on days when I taught, I could roll out of bed, make myself presentable, walk to class, teach, walk home, and have lunch. It was eco-friendly, easy, and good exercise. I may have been poor, but dammit, I was virtuous.
Bin Laden didn’t make any money off me!

Now, I’m an ecological nightmare: a single-driver commuter over a significant distance. Gravity’s pull on me is stronger than it once was, and I spend a disturbing amount of time listening to satellite radio.

Yet, when scoping out new places to live, I don’t shorten the drive. Why?

Part of it is the ‘decompression’ function of the drive. At work, I’m at work. At home, with two young kids and a wife in desperate need of relief from two young kids, I’m at a different kind of work. In the car, I’m just cruising along, listening to the weird music I like and not thinking very hard.

But there’s more to it than that.

Lots of people at my college live fairly far from work, driven mostly by the mismatch between a public sector pay scale and Northeastern housing costs. But most of them live far away in a different direction than I do. (I have no idea why.) So when I’m puttering around town, it’s very unusual that I see anybody I work with. And I’ve come to the realization that I kind of like that.

In fact, the few times that I have run into someone at the grocery store or while walking downtown, it felt like an invasion. WorkWorld isn’t supposed to invade HomeWorld.

Usually, when I’m puttering around town in the warm weather months, I’m dressed like a grad student, with young children in tow. I’m not looking very deanly. My guard is down, and my neighbors just treat me as the nice guy next door. I don’t have to wear my game face. I’m just a suburban dad. (That’s the reason for the web address of this blog. It was originally entitled “confessions of a suburban dad,” until I realized that that sounded like it would be about seducing the babysitter or some such.)

In the 90’s, I took a number of seminars in feminist theory. One of the ‘tropes’ (ah, memories…) of the time was breaking down the public/private distinction. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I’ve come to treasure my own public/private distinction. I don’t want to have to be The Dean at the A&P. Too much work. I’m willing to be all kinds of professional at work, but at home, I’m too busy being a Dad to have to worry about that, too. The long commute affords the luxury of a kind of anonymity.

The next car will be a Prius (with satellite radio). My concession to ecology.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Summer Registration

I love the smell of registration in the morning…

Summer in-person registration is a different animal. The students (all too) frequently come with their parents, treating those of us working registration to a disturbing glimpse into family dynamics. (I once saw a mother slap her daughter on the head while the daughter was filling out her schedule. What are they thinking?) Some of the 18 year olds apparently have mistaken the college for a beach, judging by their clothes. Students let down their guard at summer registration, often using a disarming frankness in saying things like “I don’t want any hard classes,” “I’m usually too hung over for a morning class,” or “I’m just taking classes to stay on my parents’ health insurance.” (All true quotes, all said to my face.)

(Come to think of it, the last quote may be an argument against national health insurance. If we keep private health insurance too expensive for the young, unless they’re in school, they’ll go to school! Hmm…)

Faculty make a point of blowing off summer registration, but reserve the right to complain about any decisions made there. (My favorite, which wasn’t even a complaint: last Fall, one professor dropped by to thank me for stocking his classes that semester with good students. Apparently, I’m a game warden, and students are trout.)

This is when I get blamed for not being psychic. Why didn’t I know that we’d have a sudden groundswell of demand for Urdu, and why didn’t I know that Anthropology was suddenly going to flatline?

(A close variation on that is the emergency request to build a new lab. “All the bio sections are full. Can we add some?” Sure, I’ll just dip into the spare several million I keep around the office, draw up some blueprints, put it out to bid, clear the permits, break ground, process the change orders, hire the faculty, and have it all up and running in six weeks. No problem. Would you like the power of prophecy with that?)

It’s tricky, too, because we start making decisions about which sections to run and which to close. Since students stubbornly refuse to take the classes that would be most convenient for us, we have to trim our sails to what the market will bear. (Don’t try mixing metaphors like that at home.) Inevitably, that entails changing some faculty teaching schedules. Oh, the hue and cry! How could you possibly have me come in on Tuesdays? I never come in on Tuesdays! (Unspoken, but desired, answer: yeah, full-time jobs are like that.) You’re taking my course away from me! (what do you mean, your course?) Given how many of our classes are staffed by adjuncts, sometimes we have to base decisions on when the better adjuncts are likely to be available (and their schedules can get pretty idiosyncratic). That creates the odd dynamic of moving a full professor’s schedule around to make room for an adjunct. I can justify it on the grounds that it’s best for the students (and, for what we pay the adjuncts, we’re lucky if they show up at all), but the tenured types have long memories. I get accused of autocratic tendencies, since I didn’t run the decision by a committee first. (Of course, if I assembled a faculty committee in July, the ‘autocratic’ accusations would get even worse.)

This is also when the department chairs’ special pleading starts. Can we run this class with an enrollment of five? Sure, it’s small, but Professor Longdead is really looking forward to it, and his health isn’t what it used to be…

The advent of online teaching has complicated the picture, since relatively few faculty have tried it so far. If one of the regulars has to switch out, we frequently don’t have enough depth on the bench for a replacement. (And it’s tough to use adjuncts, since different schools use different web platforms – webCT, Blackboard, e-college, etc. -- and adjuncts can’t make it to training workshops.) Similarly with the half online, half in-class ‘hybrid’ courses – if someone with one of those classes gets switched out or disappears, staffing it at the last minute is a nightmare. It’s an entirely different preparation, even if the content is familiar.

Alas. If it were easy, anybody could do it…

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Internal Candidates

IHE recently had a piece on "The Mystique of the Out of State Applicant." While it wasn't wrong, it missed some key points.

I’ve been involved with several searches recently – for both faculty and administrative positions – in which internal candidates went up against external candidates. It was awkward for all involved. The committee is faced with trying to be fair when there’s an obvious disparity of knowledge; simply put, we know the internal person better. We know when we have a winner, and when we don’t.

But that knowledge doesn’t solve the problem. Federal equal-employment and affirmative action guidelines force us to post openings and solicit applications from all qualified candidates, so even if we have a strongly positive impression of the favorite son, we still have to bring in all and sundry. No matter what we do, it’s awkward.

If the internal candidate is an obvious star, there’s a question of fairness to the outside candidates. How fair is it, really, to put people through the paces when the conclusion is effectively foregone? If the internal candidate is obviously weak, we face the awkwardness of the new person coming in with someone already here strongly resenting her. If the internal candidate is solid but not spectacular, there’s an element of both.

A strong argument against internal candidates, even strong ones, is that a pattern of hiring them can lead to false hope among the adjuncts (or lower-level administrators). In practice, some departments create quasi-positions for favorite adjuncts, hoping to put them first in line for a tenure-track opening. This system, which I call a farm team, strikes me as the worst of all possible worlds; it exploits the hell out of the favorite adjunct, creating false expectations, and it needlessly hamstrings future decisionmaking.

If we must deal with 'apprenticeships' at all, we do so in the context of graduate school. I don't buy the position that someone years out of graduate school still isn't ready for a real job. If that's true, we need to seriously revisit graduate education.

Another strong argument against internal candidates is the need to change a department’s culture. An adjunct who has been loyal to a stale pedagogy for many years may feel that a position is owed her, but the greater need of the department is for new blood. This isn’t as mercenary as it seems. If a baseball team has six first basemen and no shortstops, the last thing it needs is a seventh first baseman, even if he’s good. It isn’t only about the quality of the candidates. It's about the needs of the institution.

The argument for internal candidates, of course, is that you’re getting a known quantity. If someone has loyally served a program for many years, performing well and creating no drama, there’s value in that. It can be hard to tell from a day of interviewing whether someone from the outside will turn out to be a pain in the neck; with someone who has been around for years, you pretty much know.

It would be nice if we could establish some sort of ‘exception’ system for the stars, so we could at least spare innocent outside bystanders the effort of a Potemkin search. The problem, of course, is that every internal candidate would be an exception. It wouldn’t help.

Diversity is a real issue here, too (and not only in the legally approved sense of race or gender). If an entire department was hired within a few years of each other back in the 1970’s, and some of the loyal adjuncts have been hanging around since the 1980’s, I see an awfully strong diversity argument for bringing in some kid fresh out of grad school. Good luck getting that to hold up in court (they’d call it age discrimination), but it’s true. If nothing else, you’d bring in a new way of looking at things, a new set of contacts, and a new energy level. But we’re not allowed to look at that.

In the business world, this is generally less of an issue, since turnover is much more rapid and jobs much more easily found. In truth, abundance would make this issue go away. But that’s not where we are.

Any thoughts out there?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Viewer Mail

I’ve received a number of thoughtful comments and emails recently. They’re good enough that they deserve a full response, rather than just a passing comment.

In response to my piece about shooting the hostage, Dictyranger astutely encapsulated the cross-purposes at which my college (and many community colleges) is working. We want to be low-tuition and high quality, open to all, with every program available to every student, without differential pricing by program, without plunging students into debt, without either flooding the market with graduates or leaving gaping holes in the labor supply, and without unduly burdening the taxpayers. No wonder we’re struggling!

As she points out, some schools abandon the low-tuition principle, some abandon the ‘every program’ principle, and some simply ignore the labor market (Ph.D. programs, I’m looking at you…). Assuming that the taxpayers aren’t exactly itching to pony up more money, and assuming that fundraising among alumni continues to lag (an annoying truth at the two-year level), my personal choice would be to abandon the goal of ‘comprehensiveness.’ I’ve made this argument before about midtier four-year schools; it’s only fair that I apply it to my own. Being all things to all people just isn’t tenable; better that we focus on the main goals, even if that means letting some of the smaller ‘nice to have’ programs fade away. Of course, implementing that is the hard part. The last time my college eliminated a program was in the 1980’s; the last time before that was never.

In response to my piece about a draft and its impact on colleges, RTO Trainer corrected a mistaken assumption of mine about stop-loss orders. Apparently, they can’t be repeated. He also asserted that a draft would require a complete retooling of the DOD, and would therefore be untenable. I’m not so sure. Yes, it would be politically unpopular, and yes, it would flood the forces with untrained and unwilling recruits. But I haven’t yet seen the Bush administration deterred from a bad idea simply because it was impractical.

Jo(e) mentioned that the teenagers in his/her world are obsessed with the possibility of a draft. A friend of mine recently asked me how I would react if, when he’s old enough, The Boy were to be drafted under similar circumstances. I didn’t sleep much that night.

Jubal Harshaw suggested using market mechanisms to fix the military recruitment shortage – if you pay them, they will come. Maybe. That’s already being tried, and it isn’t working yet. (It also, at least implicitly, worsens the class gap in military service, and relies on tax increases.) I think Jubal is on the right track, but I’d suggest a different angle. Using market logic, the younger generation simply isn’t buying the war. Perhaps we should stop producing it.

(And maybe, just maybe, if the military manpower shortage is so bad, we could stop kicking career soldiers out just for being gay. Just a thought…)

In response to the piece about The Girl’s birthday party, Russian Violets and The Wife left lovely comments. Thanks to both.

Honesty compels me to admit that Cold Spring Shops posted quite a snark about my piece on scheduling meetings in the summer. You make the call.

As always, thoughtful comments and emails are highly welcome. One of my purposes in blogging is to air out what ideas I have, and to glean ideas from other people. Feedback makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Go, Canada!

I heard this morning that Canada’s Senate passed a national same-sex marriage bill, which the Prime Minister will sign today in Ottawa. (I think I got those details right.)

Go, Canada!

Regular readers know that I value my wife and kids tremendously. I literally can’t imagine life without them. The Wife, who outclasses me on every level, is lovely, sane, incredibly smart, and a fantastic mom. I’m lucky to have found her, and lucky to have been able to marry her.

To be deprived of the right to marry the love of your life would be devastating.

Incredibly, in America, the sentence above marks me as an elitist blue-state liberal.

It’s common sense.

Elitism has nothing to do with anything. My support for gay marriage isn’t elitist; it’s humble. I don’t have the right or the power or the moral standing to decide with whom others should take comfort when the world is cold. The gay couples I know, and there are many, are couples. They do things like shop at Home Depot and complain about property taxes and have mixed success growing tomatoes.

To the extent that America notices, and can be inspired by example, the Canadian law gives this straight American hope. The contrast with our new Supreme Court nominee is striking, and saddening. Tonight, I tip a Molson’s in honor of our neighbor to the North.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Another Dad Moment

We had the big family gathering first-birthday party for The Girl last weekend. It went really well – any parent can tell you that watching a one-year-old try to eat cake is sheer glory – but it was also a little sad. To make room for her new stuff, The Wife and I had to go through some of her old toys and decide which to keep, which to give away, and which to toss. The Girl will be our last, so we can’t just store everything in the attic, like we did with The Boy. It’s hard to say goodbye to stuffed animals, teething toys, and the twirlin’-whirlin’-garden.

She’s a remarkably happy, even-tempered baby. She smiles easily (showing all six teeth!), and loves watching The Boy run his crazed-mongoose laps around the house.

We brought down a few of The Boy’s old toys from the attic, since The Girl is the right age to enjoy them now. One of them was a little dumptruck with a standing handle (like a shopping cart), to use like a walker. He used to love careening into the kitchen cabinets with it. Now the handle comes up to his knees.

(The pediatrician told us that The Boy is on track to be about six-four, but admitted that it’s a conservative estimate. He’s astonishingly tall for his age. I hope he gets his mother’s coordination.)

They’re great kids. The Boy can try us to our last nerves and beyond, but it’s not malicious – he’s just incredibly energetic, inquisitive, and well-spoken. High-maintenance, heaven knows, but for the right reasons. And The Girl is a sweetie, with an endearing cackle when she does something she’s not supposed to.

We’re very lucky. It’s nice to be reminded of that from time to time.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Disaster Recovery, and Disaster Recovery

My cousin’s fiancée (who is 35) is in Iraq now; one of my brother’s oldest friends (who is 31) has been deployed, and is due into Iraq this week.

The American military is lowering its entrance standards, and its recruiting targets, and it’s still falling short of its recruitment goals. My cousin’s fiancée has already been nailed with a stop-loss order, and the rumors are swirling that it won’t be the last. Meanwhile, the London bombings showed us that al-Queda recruitment is doing quite well.

In the absence of a sudden outbreak of common sense, I can’t help but wonder if a draft is the next step. As a college administrator, the shape of a draft is a very real issue.

Until the early 1970’s, students enrolled in college (or graduate school) were given draft deferments until they graduated. Not surprisingly, as the Vietnam war dragged on, college enrollments skyrocketed. The student deferment was eliminated on the grounds that it was elitist (as opposed to the demographically-representative volunteer army?).

In the absence of a student deferment, and depending on the size of the draft, we could face the decimation of our college. If the student deferment were to return, we could double our tuition and still have to beat back applicants at the door. Since we’re an open-admissions school, we would be the deferment of last resort. (Honestly, given a national network of low-tuition, open-admissions colleges, the ‘elitism’ argument strikes me as a bit threadbare. But then, I’m hardly impartial.)

We’re utterly unequipped for either scenario. Students getting drafted out of classes would wreak havoc in any number of ways; people enrolling just to get deferments would wreak havoc in others. We’ve had limited experience recently with students’ Guard units getting called up mid-semester, but that’s less disruptive because the numbers are smaller, and students signed up for the Guard.

It’s hard to do long-term planning with a variable this large just hanging out there. I assume that a draft would be politically unpopular, and I assume too that the politicians know that. That said, I wouldn’t put anything past these people.

Sometimes I’m glad The Boy is four.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that we’re able to extricate ourselves from Iraq with peace, honor, and justice, and that Anna and Wes will come home safe. But hope isn’t a policy. On campus, we refer to disaster-recovery plans in the context of power outages, floods, and computer crashes; this kind of disaster, we can’t plan for.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Brinksmanship, or Shooting the Hostage

There’s a scene in the movie Speed in which cop Jeff Daniels tries to teach cop Keanu Reeves how to handle a hostage situation. Keanu Reeves suggests shooting the hostage to simplify the situation (“isolate a variable,” as they said in algebra class). Jeff Daniels, horrified, gives up.

In response to my rant about how the nursing program is bleeding us dry, some folks emailed to suggest taking the Nursing program (or some other high-cost, high-profile, much-loved program) hostage. Loudly proclaim that, in the absence of a serious influx of cash from the state or the county, the beloved program dies. Sort of like when high schools in the Midwest threaten first to eliminate football.

Leaving aside the ethical issue (I actually think there’s nothing unethical about asking for support for programs that serve the public, or even for outlining the consequences of a lack of support), my fear is that the county or state would choose simply to shoot the hostage.

Community colleges (and most of the lower-tier, non-flagship state colleges) are in a tricky position. We provide badly needed services in an era in which the concept of a ‘public good’ has almost vanished, but our very usefulness and accessibility hurt our reputation (and therefore our ability to raise funds from other sources). Groucho Marx’ line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member has obvious implications for the public image of an open-admissions school. Yet, if we were to try to ‘raise our academic profile’ by appealing to the snootier sorts, we’d lose our reason to exist.

For reasons known only to them, big philanthropists prefer to give to organizations that don’t need it. Success breeds success, and they like to be associated with ‘excellence.’ Since we’re resolutely open to all comers, we don’t have the cachet of exclusivity. Since we focus on teaching, we don’t have the cachet of huge research grants or Nobel prize winners on the faculty. (At UC Berkeley, I once saw a parking space near a science building with a sign saying “Nobel Prize Winners Only.” Puh-leeze.) Our relative lack of cachet drives the philanthropists to the flagship state universities or the Ivies, which don’t need it.

(Thorstein Veblen nailed this over 100 years ago, in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that people show wealth and power through ‘honorific waste,’ or what he also called ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Horses are higher-status pets than dogs because horses are both useless and costly to maintain. Therefore, only the wealthy can afford them. Ties convey status because you can’t work with your hands while wearing a tie. To my mind, this is still the single best description of the appeal of SUV’s -- their excess is precisely their appeal. It also explains why universities with large philosophy departments are more prestigious than community colleges with large nursing or criminal justice programs.)

Since we can’t raise money with philanthropy, we’re left to raise money by raising tuition, (which has natural limits, esp. with our population) or by pleading poverty to the county and state. Having done that for several decades now, we’ve fallen victim to the ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome. At this point, even when the wolf is real, we get tuned out.

Sometimes we’ve taken the opposite tack, making an ‘economic development’ argument, but economic development funding is devilishly cyclical, and we’re tenure-based. We can’t afford to pay full freight during the down cycles.

If the public were more attuned to the value of community colleges, the hostage strategy might work. But it isn’t, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Faced with the choice between higher taxes and pulling a Keanu, I think the public would shoot the hostage.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Actual Dinner Table Conversation

The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl went to a park yesterday afternoon. They narrated the experience last night.

The Wife: [The Boy] just laughed and laughed when [Another Boy] got his diaper changed.

The Boy: (laughing) I saw his winkle! (More laughing) It was the size of a PEANUT!! (Roar of laughter)

It starts early...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Summertime, and the Scheduling is Tricky...

Summer is a funny time to be an administrator. Faculty love nothing more than dashing by in baseball caps and shorts to wish me a nice break, followed by a theatrical ‘oops!’. But I am above resentment, having successfully repressed the urge to tell them what to do with their sunscreen. Mostly.

The tricky part of summer work is trying to put meetings together. Since academia is allergic to the concept of a single manager doing anything on his own intiative (that would be running the college like a business! Horrors! What’s next – tying pay to performance?), everything requires consultation and collaboration. In practice, everything requires meetings.

The logistics of assembling meetings are challenging enough during the academic year, when everyone’s calendar is full already. In the summer, simply finding days when everyone is in the state at the same time is tough. I recently got the summer schedule for one of the more important committees I’m on, and the list of who can attend when isn’t the same twice. On a day-to-day level, staggered vacations create a weirdly tense ‘hurry up and wait’ atmosphere; there’s plenty to get done, heaven knows, but most of it is impossible until some key players get back from wherever they are.

It’s not all bad. The parking lot is much less crowded, certainly, and so is the cafeteria. And the dress code loosens up a bit, which is nice. Still, it’s frustrating to sit in a sporadically air-conditioned office, staring at a long to-do list, knowing that most of it can’t be done because people with tenure and higher salaries than mine are spending this month at the beach.

July and August are definitely the worst. June has a flurry of end-of-the-fiscal-year activity, and the faculty who do teach summer classes teach them in June. July and August are just slow.

It could be worse, certainly. July and August are just when the entire concept of ‘faculty governance’ really crashes and burns. They can’t govern when they're not here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Tenure: The Nuclear Option

With the Supreme Court up for grabs, and the conservatives looking likely to win the trifecta with their (admittedly well-executed) Br’er Rabbit strategy on Alberto Gonzalez, I’ve been thinking about the likely fallout for academia.

Picture a tenure-based, unionized, public college. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that it has chronic budget issues. (Hard to imagine, I know, but bear with me.) Imagine that a non-trivial faction of its tenured faculty are low performing, highly-paid pains in the neck. (Again, an obvious counterfactual, but let’s go with it.) Imagine that there are lots of good young Ph.D.’s out there looking for work. (Inconceivable, yes, but let’s try.) Imagine that the faculty contract is expiring, and the round of negotiations for the next contract is starting.

The administration makes the union an offer it can’t accept. (“Mandatory calisthenics at 7:00 a.m. every day, no pay raise, and every office computer will play the alma mater when you log on.”) The union tells the administration to perform an anatomical impossibility. The administration shows good faith by compromising a little (“Okay, 7:30. Sheesh, there’s no pleasing you people!”). The union goes on strike.

Here’s the good part.

With a rock-solid right-wing Supreme Court, and with the PATCO precedent on its side, the administration hires “permanent replacements” for all striking faculty. Presto, change-o, budget problems solved, low performers purged, faculty renewed with new blood. The tenured faculty are suddenly unemployed, the young freeway flyers jump at the chance for full-time employment, and budgetary equilibrium has been restored. With Republican appointees throughout the judiciary, and a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the union stands about as much chance of winning as Harold Stassen.

This could actually happen (not the Stassen part).

Admittedly, it would take a pretty confident administration to try it, with a Board of Trustees willing to endure some pretty serious flak, but it could work. And if it works once, in just one place, the legal precedent would be set.

Your thoughts?...

Monday, July 11, 2005

A First Birthday Wish, for The Girl

May I always at least approximate the father you deserve.

Happy Birthday.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Thoughts on the Anti-Blogging Movement

A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed brought a specifically academic voice to the nascent anti-blogging movement. The piece, a pseudonymously-written airing of a search committee’s dirty laundry, is a warning against the airing of a workplace’s dirty laundry.

So there’s that.

The AP had a lengthy story this morning making many of the same points, although not just in an academic context. The argument, such as it was, boiled down to “blogs can be used for bad things, so best to avoid them altogether.”

Following that logic, of course, job seekers (and holders) should also avoid use of the telephone, the word processor, email, and their own voice, since these could also be used for nefarious purposes. Indeed, best not to form any human attachments whatsoever, since, in the logic of the piece in the Chronicle, they might lead to non-peer-reviewed activities.

Leave aside the breathtaking lack of logic or history in the argument. From a legal perspective, we’re being told that free speech is a luxury available only to the tenured. Which, from a legal perspective, is a lie.

Public institutions, such as state universities, state colleges, and community colleges, are bound by the first and fourteenth amendments. For hiring committees in any of these settings to use extracurricular speech against anybody is a violation of federal law. Blogging is covered by freedom of the press. It’s as simple as that.

The anti-blogging argument is so absurd on its face that the only reasonable response is something close to psychoanalysis. Given that the argument has no merit whatsoever on its own terms, why is it so prevalent? What felt need does it meet?

I think the gist of the anti-blogging anxiety comes from the displacement of the gatekeepers. What makes blogging different from, say, publishing a pseudonymous airing of dirty laundry in the Chronicle is that the Chronicle has editors. It has people to say ‘no,’ people to make sure that the only speech that gets through is speech that doesn’t threaten anybody important. In that sense, the best analogy for bloggers might be the pamphleteers of the Revolutionary era. Just as King George wanted to shut down the seditious pamphleteers, the folks who control the means of (dissemination of) intellectual production want to shut down the seditious bloggers. After all, given free access to an audience, unfiltered, people might say objectionable things! We can’t have that! (Maybe I should change my nom de web from ‘Dean Dad’ to ‘Publius,’ or ‘Federal Farmer.’ Nah.)

Free speech is under enough assault from the Patriot Act as it is; we certainly don’t need to give the movement the intellectual cover of academia. In fact, if academia loses free speech, it loses its uniqueness and becomes simply a really low-paid P.R. firm for the existing order. No thanks.

I blog anonymously to protect the innocent, not out of guilt or shame. Around family, I brag about blogging a great deal. It has allowed me to develop (in bite-size chunks) a more nuanced sense of the academy and my own position in it, and has put me in touch with some extraordinary people. (I'd hire Bitch, Ph.D. in a minute, if I knew who she was...) If some nobody who doesn’t understand the Constitution objects to that, well, that’s really their problem.

Blog On!

Friday, July 08, 2005

More on Music, Nursing, and Why We're Going Broke

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last entry! Working in the trenches, I forget that from the outside, it might not be clear why (say) we’d lose so much on every nursing student.

It’s easiest to answer by a comparison. Compare, say, a section of Nursing 1 to a section of General (or “Intro to”) Psychology (one of the most popular courses we teach). Nursing 1 requires a student/teacher ratio of no more than 12:1 (and works better below that), a dedicated room, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of capital equipment (which, luckily for us, can be amortized over each section we teach). So for 12 (or fewer) tuitions, we have to cover equipment overhead, room overhead (specialized labs can’t really be used for any other purpose, so they sit empty when a particular class isn’t meeting), and instructor salary. (Nursing is devilishly hard to adjunct out, for both labor-market and accreditation reasons, so we pay full fare.)

General Psychology, as we teach it, easily runs with a student/teacher ratio of 35:1. (Our flagship state university runs it at 300:1!) It can run in any general-purpose classroom, and requires no special equipment. It’s also easier to adjunct out. So we take in more revenue per section (more students means more tuition), and spend much less to do it (no specialized equipment, any room will do, instructors can be paid at adjunct rate). In the trade, we call these the ‘chalk and talk’ classes, and they help us pay the bills.

In a perfect world, we have enough demand for the ‘chalk and talk’ classes that the profit can cover the losses we incur in the specialized programs. The entire college is set up on the presumption that this will be true. When demand for the specialized programs is relatively modest, it works fairly well.

What’s killing us now is that demand for the specialized programs has skyrocketed, while demand for the ‘chalk and talk’ classes has plateaued, or even dropped a bit. To make matters worse, the pace of technological change in the specialized programs is accelerating, so we get less time to amortize the cost of equipment than we used to.

My colleagues in the specialized program areas like to point out that students in nursing (or engineering, or radiography, or photography) also take some ‘gen ed’ classes (meaning some ‘chalk and talk’ classics, like freshman composition). That’s true, but that was true in the past, as well. That’s part of the baseline. When student demand shifts towards the specialized majors, our overall costs go up.

Most community colleges in the U.S. were founded in the 1960’s. At that point, many of the expensive technological advances in specialized areas hadn’t happened yet. (Some fields didn’t even exist yet in anything resembling their current form, like IT.) The bulk of the teaching was of the chalk-and-talk variety, which is cheap. Since then, we’ve had to keep up with technological advances, but we’ve had to do it with declining public subsidies and low tuition. (All the headlines about skyrocketing tuition refer to the elite schools – community colleges are still quite cheap.) It’s getting harder.

Certainly, new revenue streams would help. To be fair, a few local hospitals do some limited cost-sharing with us, and it helps. But the scale of it is nowhere near enough to make up the difference.

(The hospitals argue, correctly, that they’re being squeezed by the managed care companies. What if we confiscated some of the managed care companies’ windfall profits, and poured that into the service-provider pipeline? Make sure the colleges can cover the cost of educating nurses, raise nurses’ pay, and put the money where it actually does some good? Hmm…)

I’ve written in the past about differential tuition for different majors. While the specialized programs do assess some ‘lab fees,’ the lab fees come nowhere near making up the difference in the cost to the college. In theory, we could decide to stop cross-subsidizing, and charge tuition for each program based on its costs. Psych would get cheaper, and Nursing much more expensive. While I’m broadly sympathetic to this, on the grounds that it would provide a more sustainable revenue stream to the colleges (independent of legislative whims), it’s hard to get around the fact that it would almost certainly reduce demand for the nursing program in a time when we have a shortage of nurses. It’s that pesky ‘mission’ again. If we ‘ran the college like a business,’ it might be an option. But we don’t, because that’s not our purpose. It’s about the music, man; we serve the public good, even at considerable (and rising) cost to ourselves. Keeping a program like Nursing artificially cheap is a way of providing access to upward mobility for students who struggle even to pay what tuition we do charge. (It also prevents an already bad nursing shortage from getting even worse, and thereby driving health care costs even higher.)

Raising nurses’ pay might provide the incentive to make the tuition premium seem worthwhile, but that’s not in our power. We control tuition; we don’t control the salaries that hospitals pay.

On the Bush tax cuts: a quick check of the historical record shows that the tax cuts were sold, initially, on the premise that it was immoral for the government to run a surplus (“it’s your money!”). Give Bush full credit on this one: he solved the ‘what to do with the surplus' issue very quickly. In fact, by the end of Clinton’s second term, economists were worrying about deflation as a consequence of a rapidly dwindling national debt. Suffice to say, we don’t worry about that anymore.

When the recession kicked in (which, in fairness, would have happened under President Gore, too), Bush switched rationales, suddenly becoming a regressive Keynesian. (He later pulled a similar bait-and-switch with the Iraq war. Remember WMD’s?) Bush pushed through tax cuts that take effect in 2007, 2008, and 2009 on the (sudden) argument that they would solve the recession of 2001.

Puh-leeze. The cuts, which really do skew towards the wealthy, have nothing to do with the state of the economy at any given time. They’re motivated by a belief that, in the words of Grover Norquist, the morally right thing to do is to ‘starve the beast.’ (He also had a charming line about ‘drowning it in the bathtub.’) If you disagree, show me the set of circumstances under which Bush would agree to raise taxes. During a boom, to stave off inflation? Nope – he argued for cuts during the Clinton boom. During a recession, to stimulate consumption on the lower end? Nope – he argued for cuts during the recession of 2001. If the cuts had anything to do with economic stimulation, Bush’s support for them would change when the economy did. His support for tax cuts is ideological, not pragmatic. That’s why he’s so willing to change his arguments. He’s a true believer, which negates the need for true facts.

But enough of that. Macroeconomic and political arguments can be found anywhere; my contribution, to the extent I make one, comes from a focus on community colleges specifically.

The long and the short of it is that without a serious change in the prevailing political winds, we won’t be able to count on public subsidies catching up to public needs. If the government kicked in the difference when demand for nursing went up, in recognition that nursing education is truly a public good, the entire issue for us would go away. But I don’t see that happening.

Sorry for such a long post – this topic really touches a nerve for me. If anyone out there has any ideas that might help, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE share them!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

It Used To Be About the Music, Man...

A few years ago, I was hopelessly addicted to Behind the Music. Every episode was the same – rags-to-riches, followed by sin, fall, and redemption. Music, sex, and drugs; why it went off the air is beyond me. One of the clichés (and there were so many!) was that at some point in each episode, a disgruntled band member would be seen in archival footage, complaining to the lead singer that “It used to be about the music, man.” Upon achieving success, the band lost sight of its muse, indulged in most of the deadly sins, and lived like 70’s Elvis. Perfidy, conflict, and (worst of all!) weight gain ensued. Rehab, redemption, and comeback (often in Branson) by the end of the hour.

Although academia is a good bit less colorful (and less well funded!), there’s a similar dynamic here. Public colleges and universities were usually founded (or absorbed by the state) to serve some sort of larger public purpose. This is especially true of community colleges, where the mission is more focused than at the ‘comprehensive’ midtier colleges and universities. The particular purpose varied from college to college – many were started to train teachers, others focused on agriculture and technology, and others developed specialties in lower-pay professions, like training police officers or nurses. As public institutions, they had to keep it cheap in the beginning (hence all the cinderblock), and funding increases over the years have, predictably, fallen behind the pace of technological advance in the areas in which we’re supposed to train students.

Most of the community colleges in my state (and I know my state isn’t unique in this) are facing a conflict between the public purpose for which they were founded, and their own needs for institutional survival. It used to be about the music, man…

Nursing is the clearest example. There’s a terrible nursing shortage in this state (and across the country), and we’re the single largest producer of new nurses in our area. Providing a steady supply of well-trained nurses is a valuable public function; nurses are socially useful, they often come from the ranks of the marginally-employed, and the demand isn’t likely to fade away anytime soon. When we take a struggling single mom who works at Jiffy Lube and train her as a nurse, we improve her life, as well as the quality of life for everyone in our area. Everybody wins, except…

We lose a staggering amount of money on every nursing student we educate.

In flush times (such as they were), we could eat the loss. When the state was taking in more tax receipts than it knew what to do with, we had enough of a cushion that we could absorb the losses and still maintain the rest of the college tolerably well. Moreover, in flush times, demand for nursing programs is relatively low, since other (less strenuous) options for making ends meet are available.

Since Bush took office and the economy tanked, though, demand for the nursing program has skyrocketed, and our state funding has been dead flat for several years.

So we have a conflict: we can expand our nursing capacity to meet the expressed public need (and the hospitals are strongly in favor of that), or we can pay our bills.

In the early stages of the conflict, we go after the low-hanging fruit: adjunct-out the positions of liberal arts faculty when they retire, and pour the savings into the gaping maw of the nursing program. Cut out-of-state travel, make the office holiday party potluck, that sort of thing. This buys you a year, maybe two.

We’re past that. You can only adjunct-out so far before you begin to see a tailspin in quality (and a consequent jump in student attrition), and I suspect that, in many departments, we’ve taken that strategy just about as far as we can. Food and toner budgets just don’t add up to much, and there are certain costs of doing business that you just can’t skimp. (“Who needs snow removal? Abraham Lincoln used to walk to school…”)

(Annoyingly, health care also bites us on the other end: annual double-digit percentage increases in health insurance costs chew up the budget like Pac-Man run amok.)

We’ve hit the point where most of our academic decisions are predicated on profitability. If a new program looks likely to turn a profit, that will help us feed the beast. If not, well, sorry.

This, at a nonprofit. It used to be about the music, man…

Historically, demand for nursing programs (and health profession programs more broadly) has been cyclical. We’re a tenure-based institution. That means that if we expand to meet the need at the peak of the cycle, we’re left with costly, unused overhang when the cycle contracts. When we mention this to outside agencies (hospitals, politicians), they usually mutter something about ‘flexibility,’ then quickly change the subject.

So we muddle through, expanding the program more than we can afford but less than the hospitals want, turning some good students away, and hollowing out everything else to pay for it. Meanwhile, just to pay the bills, we raise tuition by more than our mission suggests is a good idea.

Redemption? I don’t know how. A Democratic administration would be nice, since we’d stop blowing money on tax cuts for the rich and wars of choice and start spending it on infrastructure and services, but I’m not holding my breath. A sudden outburst of philanthropy would help, but every time we cut the top marginal tax rate, we reduce the incentive for charitable giving by reducing the value of the tax deduction. (I have never, never, heard this point made in national political debate, but it’s mathematically irrefutable.) An economic boom would help, but at this point we’d probably just spend the revenues on another war.

Maybe we could take on corporate sponsorships, like baseball stadiums. The Coca-Cola Community College seems unlikely to work, though, since as soon as some tenured professor said something controversial somewhere, the sponsor would pull the plug.

I don’t know what the community college equivalent of Branson is, and I hope not to find out. It used to be about the music, man…

Monday, July 04, 2005

Uh, Thanks...

Conversation in the car last night, on the way back from a cousin's birthday party:

The Wife (rubbing her forehead): I have a terrible headache.

The Boy (chipper): I don't!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sifting Unto Truth

The vacation was great, but I returned to the predictably impressive backlogs of email. The post-vacation email sift is always dispiriting. Some of it is easy to discard without reading: the usual spam, out-of-the-office notices, traffic alerts, etc. The dreary part is the urgent-but-not-important stuff that needs to be done Right Now, dated the middle of last week.

Every day brings some of that, but the post-vacation mail sort concentrates the process, bringing a deadening weight to something that’s usually tolerated via small doses.

Getting a week’s worth in one sitting is unnervingly clarifying. I hadn’t quite faced how much of the day-to-day part of the job consists of nudging people to do stuff that they don’t want to do (and that I know they don’t want to do). It’s particularly bad over the summer, when many department chairs decide that they’re really faculty for summer purposes.

The close variation on that is the dreaded carbon copy (remember carbons?). Email makes cc’ing people much too easy, and as a dean, I’m treated to a steady flurry of cc’s of heated email exchanges between verbal combatants (student-faculty, adjunct-chair, faculty-chair, etc.). Usually, they wait until the conflict has reached a certain level before one of the combatants starts to cc me; at that point, I get a copy of everything. My job is to read backwards, try to reconstruct just what the bleep they’re actually talking about (with the first volley of messages sucked into the ether), and then try to remember to take whatever action seemed appropriate (which is often either nothing at all, or a request for clarification, which generates yet more emails). It’s sort of an electronic palimpsest, except that it gets longer even as I read. Even more tedious is the thoughtful combatant who cc’d me, the VP, and the President. At that point, guessing whether it’s even appropriate to respond (and thereby, implicitly, to preempt my superiors) adds another level of complexity. As a result, occasionally, nobody responds. It’s the easy fly ball dropping between frozen outfielders. If you want a response, address your message accordingly.

One day at a time, it isn’t so bad; a week in a sitting ain’t for the fainthearted.

I’m constantly amazed at how many faculty haven’t mastered the idiom of email. While it’s true that email is remarkably fast to arrive, like speech, it’s also permanent, like memos. Too many don’t grasp the second point, and just fire away in email, with cc’s to all and sundry. As a student of human behavior, some of it is quite revealing, but as a manager, it’s just a pain. Note to young faculty out there: if you’re engaged in an email battle with anybody, remember that what you write can (and will) be quoted later.

I used to wait until the first day back in the office before trying to sift, but found that just sorting through the paperwork and dealing with drop-bys makes the sift take too long, and I wind up feeling overwhelmed and forgetting half of what I read. So I get a jump on the email from home, even at the cost of killing the vacation buzz, just so I won’t be blindsided the first day back. It’s not ideal, but I haven’t found the ideal yet.

Denial mechanisms are important. I hadn’t even realized that I used time-spacing as a way to not notice just how much of my work is dreary. Now I’m down one denial mechanism. Bummer.

Maybe if I wear sunscreen to the office the first day back, the smell will let me believe that I’m still on the sand. Hmm...

The Boy Waxes Philosophical

The Boy, towards the end of our sojourn:

"You know what I don't like about sleeping? It takes too long."

Parents of four-year-old boys out there, raise your droopy lids in solidarity!