Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Ask the Administrator: A Tale of Two Campuses

A cc student writes:


How can a school with drastically different campuses bring them together? One of our campuses is in the middle of a very "diverse" city that has a bad reputation in the region (the city, not the college). The other campus is located right off of the highway and is in a more isolated, suburban setting. The suburban campus has a brand new building and is home to the health professions programs at the school. The city campus is run down and since it is in the city it's in, it is seen as crime-ridden. The city campus also has a large portion of the minority students at the school compared to the suburban campus where an entire class could contain only Caucasian people. Students usually pick their campus and never go to the other campus even though they are only 20 minutes away from each other. These things have fostered resentment between the campuses students and sometimes even the staff. Have you heard of this happening at other cc's and do you know how they fixed the problem?

This one is more complicated than it appears.

Since accessibility is a key part of our mission, and one element of accessibility is geographic convenience, many cc’s have either branch campuses or off-campus centers where classes are held. (The difference is that a branch campus has most or all of the services of the regular campus – financial aid office, library, etc. – if in a scaled-down form. A center might have classrooms and labs, but little else. Students conduct the ‘business’ of being students at the main campus.) Sometimes the expansion is a result of demand, and sometimes it’s intended to produce demand. Sometimes it’s the result of historical legacies or political compromises. Sometimes nobody can really explain it, but it seems to work, so it’s left alone.

It’s not unusual for different campuses to specialize in different programs. (You mention health sciences, but one could also specialize in IT, or automotive repair, or anything else relatively capital-intensive.) When a college does that, some degree of student sorting is to be expected.

Still, I think you’re right to be concerned about racial and class segregation. If one campus is seen as the stepchild, the effects on the college culture are likely to be corrosive. Students won’t get the chance to learn to deal with people from other kinds of backgrounds (and that works in both directions).

It’s a tough nut to crack. On paper, the easy fix would be to schedule classes in such a way that most students would naturally have to commute between both. In reality, students hate the inconvenience, and what should generate diversity instead generates attrition. Nobody wins when that happens.

A common approach is the feelgood event. Have something like “Community Day,” have speakers from various virtuous nonprofits, display ethnically diverse artwork, and publish pictures in the school paper. I’ve found the ratio of self-congratulation to actual achievement at these things to be a little out of whack. In reality, with rapid turnover and a commuter population, any gains from something like this are ephemeral. The cost of an event like this is that it allows campus leadership to feel like it has addressed the issue, but the reality on the ground is unchanged. That’s actually worse than doing nothing.

My own campus isn’t a terribly useful case study in this regard. The county is sufficiently monolithic (in demographic terms) that the student body at the main campus looks pretty much like the student body at the branch campus.

Faithful readers: have you seen an effective solution to this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.