Friday, March 30, 2007

If You Have a Minute

drop by Danigirl's place. This is just about the loveliest, most heart-tugging thing I've read in a long, long time.

Hulk Respect Process!

An occasional correspondent writes:

Which superhero would make the best dean at a community college and why?

My vote is for Batman. His whimsical dilettante cover would make him
non-threatening to members of the establishment but his secret identity
allows him to be very effective in thwarting the forces of evil. That he's
used to doing things behind the scenes and getting little credit is a plus.
Also, since he's really really rich, he could probably solve some of the
college's problems by making donations to key departments / programs.

That's not bad, although if his “youthful ward” is actually an undergraduate, I foresee issues. And deans' cars aren't nearly that cool.

A few others have their virtues. The Flash would be able to go from rubber-chicken function to rubber-chicken function without being late. Superman wouldn't need a parking space. Reed Richards, from the Fantastic Four, has the necessary flexibility. (They could do battle with Mr. Freeze, the evil state legislator who keeps freezing our budget allocations.)

But to get a really good answer to this, I had to enlist the aid of my brother, who has forgotten more about superheros than I'll ever know. His answer:

The Hulk would be good.

FACULTY: This is intolerable! This is an affront to academic freedom! This is tyranny!

HULK: Puny human! Hulk fair! Hulk respect process! RAAR! [Hulk crumples a nearby Toyota into a wad]


HULK: Hulk college budget being cut? RAAR! Where capital? RAAR! HULK LOBBY! HULK LOBBY!


Let us not forget the many possibilities of Wonder Woman. Forget the super-strength, the invisible plane, all of that. She's armed with a magic lasso that forces people to tell the truth. That'd get some things done. Plus, people tend to respect an authority figure who spends all day in star-spangled panties. At least, that's been my experience.


The best choice?

Professor X of the X-Men. First of all, he's ex-faculty. "Professor?" Oh yeah. Also, he's in a wheelchair, so you've got some affirmative action cred. But most of all, Charles Xavier is a telepath. A telepath. How useful would it be to be able to read minds? Imagine how he could manage meetings and figure out faculty and state problems? Better still, he can alter people's minds. Oh my.

FACULTY: Dammit, Charles, this isn't fair!

X: Are you sure? [activates mental powers]

FACULTY: You're absolutely right. Now I'm going to leave and be happy with my job, and thankful that you're helping me get it done. I'm here to guide the minds of tomorrow!
X: Thanks for stopping by, professor.

FACULTY: No, no, the pleasure was mine. Would you like me to get a cup of coffee for you on my way out?

X: That'd be great.

X: Mr. State Senator, the higher education in this state is drastically underfunded.

SENATOR: My constituents need tax cuts!

X: Are you sure? [activates mental powers]

SENATOR: Upon consideration, the future of the state requires a fine university system!

X: I'm so glad you feel that way.

SENATOR: I will fight to increase your funding! Fight to the death!

X: Thank you, Senator.

SENATOR: Care for a scone?

"Hulk respect process!" I like that.

Which superhero would make the best professor?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Interviewing for a Joint Appointment

A longtime reader writes:

My department is doing a search for a joint position, to be shared with another department. What has become quite clear in the process, however, is that we have very different expectations about search components. Should they teach a class? Give a job talk? Do a formal interview with the committee? Talk to students? Meet with the President?

What kinds of activities should a search committee include in an on-campus interview to get the the information that they need about the candidates (without overwhelming them completely)?

In a subsequent email, s/he clarified that the college is a SLAC with a 4/4 load, lots of first-generation students, and ambitions of greatness.

Joint appointments are a tricky business. They often make sense on substantive grounds, since disciplinary boundaries don't always track the real world very closely, but they're administrative headaches. That's not to say that they shouldn't happen; it's just to say that managing them is more complicated than managing single-department appointments.

The first thing is to make sure that the two departments have compatible expectations for what the new hire would have to do to be considered a success. The classic objection to job-sharing is that you get 50% of the pay for 80% of the work. Will this pour soul be (effectively) fated to do 160% of a job? I'm guessing that some of the disagreement between the two departments on interview protocol may reflect differing underlying assumptions of what this job will actually entail. Get that right first.

Assuming that the job is actually reasonably do-able, I'd structure the interview around the contours of the job. Yes, I know, everybody evaluates the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service, but the reality is that different colleges weight each factor differently. Since you have a 4/4 load, I'll assume that teaching is taken relatively seriously. (If it isn't, you have a much bigger problem.) If so, I'd have the candidates teach sample or simulated classes. Job talks strike me as more appropriate in places where research is really the coin of the realm. (That said, it's sometimes hard to make a clear distinction between a simulated class and a job talk.)

Unless the college is very small and micromanaged to within an inch of its life, meeting the President is probably unnecessary. The department chairs to whom the candidate would report, absolutely. The next level admin up – dean, division chair, whatever – yes, just to make sure the candidate gets an administrative view. I wouldn't go higher than that unless local tradition dictates otherwise.

This may sound heretical, but I've never seen much good come from meeting students. I wouldn't rule it out, but I've never seen it help. I'd leave it off the first draft of a list and see if anybody blows a head gasket. If someone does, allot a half-hour.

Getting the information you need from the candidate is a challenge. First, make sure everybody is fully briefed on the current state of interview rules. Yes, they're mostly common sense, but you'd be amazed at what passes for common sense with some people, even educated ones. (For example, if you're at a relatively rural and/or isolated institution concerned with faculty flight risk, some might think it perfectly natural to inquire about spouse's employment, children, etc. Don't, don't, don't.) This is especially true if it's been some time since the last hire, since the rules have changed.

I've become a fan of a common list of questions for each candidate. Questioners should be free to riff on the list as the conversation progresses, but there's something clarifying about being able to compare answers to identical questions. Questions about 'what did you do when...' tend to elicit more revealing answers than ones that start with 'what do you think about...' or 'what if...' Focusing questions on specific occasions that actually happened can help you get past the theory/practice gap.

I've also had good luck with the question “is there anything in your background that would cause embarrassment to the college if it became public after you started working here?” If the candidate has both skeletons and a brain, the smart move here is disclosure. Failure to disclose constitutes misrepresentation, which is grounds for dismissal. Some people are squeaky clean, of course, and that's great, but some have had past issues that fall under 'embarrassing, but not fatal.' Best to know that upfront. You'd be surprised at some of the answers I've received with that one.

I'd also canvass the secretaries and various support or office staff after the visits about how the candidates treated them. Nobody should lose points for not being gregarious – some nervousness is to be expected -- but someone who is nasty to the staff is someone you don't want around. True colors come out in funny ways. (If you take the candidate to dinner, watch how s/he treats the waiters. Same principle.)

Finally, and I know this sounds trivial but it's very real, build in some time for the candidates for bathroom breaks and at least one uninterrupted half-hour or so of alone time. The gauntlet is exhausting, and we're all professionals here. No need to be sadistic about it.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add?

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

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More Full-Timers, or Smaller Classes?

Yesterday's IHE had a report on a session at the CCCC conference dealing with class sizes and grading loads for composition courses. The conference apparently has promulgated a guideline – based on what data, I don't know – stipulating that no faculty member should have more than 60 composition students in a given semester, and fewer than that if the students have remedial needs.

Well, that would be nice. It would also be nice to have a higher percentage of full-time faculty. But I'm afraid it's one or the other. We have to choose.*

The only way to reduce class sizes, given the very real fiscal constraints most community colleges face, is to hire more adjuncts. Divide the same number of students by more sections. This would represent a boon to the existing full-time faculty, whose workloads would decrease but whose compensation would continue to climb. It may or may not represent a boon to the students, since they would have (at least the potential for) more attention from their instructors in class (even if not necessarily at office hours, since some adjuncts use that time to drive to other gigs). But it would worsen the already-appalling exploitation of a generation of instructors.

Alternately, we could convert some of those adjunct positions to full-time positions, and make up the difference by increasing the workload for the full-timers. This is the strategy Proprietary U used when I was there. I once taught a section of Composition with 38 students, and frequently taught sections in the 30-35 range. (This, at a college where the teaching load for f-t faculty was 45 credits per year.) Did the students get the same level of personal attention they would have in a section of 15? Nope. I did what I could, given what I had to work with, but I'll admit assigning fewer papers there than I did at Flagship U, where the sections were capped at 22. PU made a judgment call that the trade-off was worth it.

I can envision arguments for either strategy. The advantage of the 'increase the adjuncts' strategy is that it would lead to relatively affordable smaller classes. The advantage of the 'work the full-timers to the bone' strategy is that more full-time positions would be available, staffing would be easier, and students could find professors more easily. In terms of student outcomes, I could imagine it going either way, though my hunch is that the educational advantages of smaller sections would trump the educational advantages of more office hours. But that's an empirical question, and presumably testable. I'd like to see a head-to-head comparison with actual data. Has anyone seen anything like that? (This would be a very interesting, provocative use of 'outcomes assessment,' actually.)

Administratively, the 'work the full-timers to the bone' strategy is much easier. It helps deans dodge angry questions from full-timers in other disciplines, wondering why their classes are so much bigger for the same salary. If a Psych professor has 5 classes at 35 students a pop, and her counterpart in English has 5 classes at 20 students a pop, I could imagine the Psych professor raising some difficult questions. The fact that most of us have chosen the other way – keep comp classes smaller by hiring more adjuncts -- suggests that we're actually trying to attend to students' needs, as best we understand them, given limited funding. And we answer those Psych profs as best we can.

(Aside: this is the real reason that “Writing Across the Curriculum” stays dead. If we were to reduce sections of everything to the size of composition classes, we'd go bankrupt post-haste.)

One of the great frustrations of administration is that people don't often connect the dots between arguments. The same people who argue passionately for reducing the adjunct percentage also argue passionately for smaller classes. Short of a massive infusion of cash from some unspecified benefactor, the contradiction is simply prohibitive.

Which would you choose?

* I can already anticipate the self-righteous flaming. “No, we don't. We just need more money! Maybe if we cut those bloated administrative salaries!” Spare me. If there's a viable political strategy to increase public aid to public colleges, then by all means, I'm for it. But cutting oversight won't do it. If anything, when increased funding does come through, it usually comes with strings. Admins attend to the strings so faculty don't have to. The fantasy of the unrestricted blank check is just that – a fantasy. Here on earth, there are costs of doing business. Besides, below the VP level, many of these salaries are a lot less bloated than you might think.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Position Descriptions and Wish Lists

A few departments are currently in the process of crafting position descriptions for full-time hires they are hoping to make in the near future. (Yes, it's very late in the season, but that can happen at colleges with tight budgets. The Board wants to make sure the money will be there to make doing a search worthwhile before they'll approve either the line or the search. The bright side is that we don't run searches only to pull them at the last minute, and tell everybody involved “only kidding!” The downside is that we miss the season when the most candidates are paying attention.)

Position descriptions are a genre unto themselves (itself?). They're a funny blend of screening and sales, with conflicting imperatives for specificity and flexibility. They usually go into the ads pretty much verbatim, so they have to be written in ways that won't cause legal issues, but will still appeal to the candidates we most want to appeal to.

I've taken to sitting down with each department's search committee before it even drafts the description, just to let them know some of the technicalities, and to give me a sense of what they want. (I try to keep them open enough that they won't read like a cartoon I once saw: “must work on the second floor, and be named Eric.”)

It's a revealing exercise.

One of the departments takes a very traditional approach to its discipline. It does what it does quite well, but it's very traditional. I asked what they thought about finding somebody with strength in (huge new area).

You'd think I had suggested a lab course in clubbing baby seals.

(Apparently, I violated the spirit of “open lines of communication” by actually communicating something. My bad.)

Another department is hiring in preparation for starting a new program that we all hope will be a hit. The catch is that the program doesn't exist yet. The chair and I had to negotiate some very careful wording to ensure that we indicated that we want someone who can go beyond the current curriculum, but we couldn't actually name the program, since it doesn't exist yet. This is harder than it sounds, since a premature assumption of a program could lead to all manner of legal issues.

It also involves finding somebody willing to go beyond teaching-well-and-going-home. It's hard to advertise for that without it seeming merely formulaic, or, alternately, being so horribly unattractive that nobody would apply. So there's a coyness by necessity.

Coyness is tricky. From a legal perspective, as I understand it, hiring in contrast to the ad is a recipe for a lawsuit. So you have to craft language that will leave you the flexibility to hire the best candidate from the pool that actually applies, even if that means going in a slightly different direction than originally hoped. I'm consistently surprised by the composition of candidate pools. Sometimes they're better than I expect, sometimes leaner, but they're never quite what I think they'll be. From asking around, this isn't just a function of my own myopia; there's apparently a great deal of randomness in determining what kind of pool you get at any given moment. If you hit a fallow period, too specific a position description can lock you into a weak hire, simply by default. Since opportunities to hire are few and far between, weak hires represent real waste. From the outside, it's easy to assume that words like 'judgment' are simply cover for racism or sexism, and that certainly can be the case, but when you have a pile of 50 applications, of which 20-30 fit every published criterion, you have to use either judgment or a lottery. I vote for judgment, imperfect as it is.

(The same is true of 'collegiality.' Yes, it has been used to cover any number of sins. But there's also the reality of not wanting to hire a highly-qualified jackass. “Plays well with others” is a real strength, even if it's harder to capture on paper than, say, the number of articles published.)

Assembling search committees is a strange mix of art and science. The composition of a committee can affect the choice it ultimately makes, so it's more than just “who's willing to serve.” (Exception: tiny departments, in which there's a committee of the whole, by default.) I like to have committees that cross cliques whenever possible, just to prevent groupthink and/or asexual reproduction. In my experience, the most effective committees are usually those composed of people who don't often work together. Once a group gets into a rut, it loses its usefulness as a group.

Finally, there's the iffy question of who decides. Although the paper trail is clear – ultimately, only the Board of Trustees can actually approve a hire – there are varying levels of expectation of deference to the initial committee. If everybody higher on the food chain is reduced to rubber-stamp status, there's nothing to stop inbreeding, or the hiring of close friends, or flagrantly illegal questions. On the other hand, if the committee's recommendation is brushed aside too lightly, good luck getting people to serve on committees. I try to take the approach of deferring when the search has been handled reasonably, even if the final choice wouldn't be mine, but 'reasonably' is one of those words that different people define differently. This is one of those cases where it's impossible to remove 'judgment,' even if it makes people uncomfortable with its inevitable squishiness around the edges.

Have you seen something in a position announcement that made you howl or cringe?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Now in Convenient Bite Size

  • I've officially been dragged into the cult of Amy Winehouse. “Tears Dry on Their Own” is just about the catchiest thing since “Cannonball,” by the Breeders. The “sha-la-la's” just kill me. And, of course, “Rehab” is an earworm of the first water. Nicely done.

  • The Boy had a nasty spill on Sunday while learning to ride his bike. Part of me wants him to suck it up, and part of me wants to wrap him in bubble wrap before sending him down the path. This is the eternal dilemma of parenting.

  • According to, “verb the adjective noun” is a slang term, meaning “to copulate.” Naturally, this got the old Freshman Comp teacher in me going. Imagine the possibilities: “We're gonna conjugate the subjunctive all night long”; “She's got a past pluperfect, if you know what I mean”; “You can dangle my participle anytime!”; “Nice genitives.”; “I'd like to split that infinitive...”; “He prefers to be the, uh, dependent clause...” Who knew Strunk and White were so dirty?

  • I heard this weekend that Longtime Friend in Midwest is engaged! Never one to do things the easy way, he found his betrothed in another hemisphere. Literally. They're both in America now, and devoting the next year to finding a way to live in the same time zone. Those dual-doctorate couples have a tough row to hoe. Suffice to say, LFM has paid some serious relationship dues. This is very cool news. His betrothed is a class act, and it's fun to see him this happy. He assures me that they'll have at least one wedding ceremony in this hemisphere.

  • Along similar lines, High School Friend on Wrong Ocean dropped by last week with her four-month-old son, whom we've nicknamed Baseball Head. Baseball Head was criminally cute, and it was nice to see HSFWO again – the last time was in 2000. Since there are no pictures on this blog, I'll just state for the record that neither of us has aged a bit. There's something life-affirming about seeing someone you've known forever land on her feet after a really unfortunate marriage. TB was smitten by her, and both TB and TG were absolutely wonderful hosts to Baseball Head.

  • Lesboprof got tenure! If you have a moment, drop by and shower her with hosannas. We've known each other IRL for longer than either of us would care to admit, and she's one of those people you just can't help but like. She, too, has paid some serious dues, in any number of ways. Congrats, LP. Someday, I suspect, you'll be lesbopres.

  • My brother and his wife just dodged a bullet on daycare. Their new daughter, Little One, was slated for a slot in a very good daycare not far from them. They had done their homework, crunched their numbers, and signed up early. At the last minute, they found out (by accident!) that Little One wouldn't have a slot there after all! Panic ensued, the grandmothers stepped in, and they somehow found an even better fallback with about two weeks to spare. I'm insanely glad they found a good spot for LO, but insanely angry at the way we treat the youngest children in this country. When TB was in daycare, we were stretched to every conceivable limit – time, money, stress, all of it. I honestly don't know how single parents do it.

  • I just gave a class at a local senior citizens' center. Seniors make great students. They have a wonderful blend of seriousness (they're in class because they want to be) and irreverence (they don't give two hoots what I think of them, so they just let the opinions fly). This time I remembered to use a bigger font on the handouts. It made a dramatic difference. It's the little things.

  • Opening Day is coming. Hope springs eternal.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: The Voice of a Dean

A fellow blogger writes:

I'm in the final stages of preparing a major grant to fund the program I direct at a 4-year university. This is my first year at the university as a tenure-track prof with release time for admin work, but I do know that my program was started w/ grant money and has received very little university funding since. Without a reliable budget, the program is a shell of what it could and should be. This grant would have a major impact on the program, allowing me to train and hire a staff and purchase desperately needed equipment. At this point, the revised grant draft is being reviewed by my dept chair and the dean's office before moving to the next step up the administrative ladder. When it reaches that next step, it will need to gain internal approval before moving on to the external review stage at the federal level. The internal review stage is trickiest, most political part. My program is, on the surface, similar to other programs that receive funding from the same source. However, I bring a disciplinary expertise to the program and can ensure that staff training and on-going mentoring/professional development is rigorous and pedagogically sound. While *I* know that, administrative bigwigs don't (yet--see above re this being my first year on campus).

So here's my actual question: Before it goes to the internal review stage, both the dept chair and the dean need to write letters of support for the proposal. The dean, however, has essentially checked out and her assistant dean does all of her work and more. The assistant dean has asked me to write the letter of support under the dean's name and he'll print it on letterhead and sign it. I'm intimidated by this writing exercise--I have no idea how to mimic the voice of a dean. What do I write in this letter to show the dean's support without either going overboard with praise or undercutting my grant?

Thanks for any feedback you or your readers may be able to provide!

How to mimic the voice of a dean.” I like that. Feel free to imitate my voice, if it helps. (I don't know if I'd be able to stand reading a good imitation of me. I'd probably implode from mortification and self-consciousness.)

One of the dirty little secrets of administration is that much of the prose that goes out under a dean's signature was written by somebody else. (Ironically, I write every word of my blog posts, yet they go out under a pseudonym. Sigh.) “Institutional Writing” requires a very different voice than does, say, blogging. (With a nod to Kurt Cobain, corporate blogs still suck.) Since so much of what leaves the office is essentially reminders of deadlines, there's not much reason to invest time and energy customizing the prose. That's reserved for things worth customizing, like personnel evaluations.

What you're trying to do is a hybrid genre – institutional, but with an edge of advocacy. Write accordingly. “Program x fills in some important gaps in our existing array of support services. For example, program y does not – and cannot – address (whatever).” Don't bash anything that already exists at the college, obviously, but draw relevant and positive distinctions where you can. And definitely take a “what's in it for the college” approach – it helps with retention, student progress, recruitment, whatever. The higher up the ladder you go, the more relevant those factors will be.

In terms of tone, you can't go wrong with specifics. And whatever you do, for the love of all that is holy and good, don't use irony. They won't get it. Trust me on this one.

I also wouldn't be shy about asking the assistant dean – who seems to be in your corner – to proof it. Any given audience has its quirks, and s/he will know them better than you will, simply by dint of exposure. Proofing is likelier to give useful feedback than asking for tips upfront, only because s/he might not know where to start. It's easier to respond to an actual product than to an open-ended question.

I feel the assistant dean's pain. My initial foray into administration was as an Associate Dean who pretty much did the Dean's job, since the Dean had been called away to do the accreditation self-study for the entire system of campuses. It was a monumental pain in the ass, but it gave me experience (and credibility) I wouldn't have gained any other way, and made me a viable candidate to succeed him when he left. If your assistant dean is juggling two jobs and doing both well, I'd expect to see her/him climb the ladder over time. S/he could be a very useful ally to cultivate, long term.

Finally, and I know this is insultingly basic, don't take rejection personally. Take it as a learning experience. You're new, which gives you the relative luxury of low expectations. Don't get florid or fancy; write cleanly and descriptively, get as much feedback as you can, and learn the craft. As with any other craft, you'll get better with practice.

Good luck!

Readers far and wide – what do you think?

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

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Footprints on my Head

A fellow dean writes:

I am a dean of Math and Sciences in a community college. We have a brand new college president. He came from a much, much smaller college. In the very short time he has been president, he has already mandated many sweeping changes to college processes. He meets directly with faculty, and his staff, and only talks to deans when they come to him. He has made several college wide decisions that are deleting decision making power from deans. His action indicate he does not trust deans, and he seems inclined to veto the decisions of his staff and their reports in favor of individual faculty requests. He has also made recent public decisions requiring his VP of Learning to automatically veto chairs and deans in favor of certain faculty requests. He makes no attempt to discuss or vet his decisions with the deans, or even to understand their wider implications to our divisions.

I have given up any hope of thriving in his administration. Do you have any advice on surviving? I need my job.

I swear to you, I didn't write this. But I could have.

In a very small college (or business), there often isn't much point in making a distinction between process and outcome, since there are so few players anyway. So folks can be very successful there without learning some really fundamental, basic, Organizations 101 type truths. Truths like: if you reward special pleading, you will encourage more of it. If you base decisions on personal likes and dislikes, you will eventually get sued, and lose. If you make your managers irrelevant, you will be burdened with irrelevant managers.

Sadly, far too many very powerful people never really learn these lessons. They know the words, but something gets lost between 'saying' and 'doing.' I once had a VP (to whom I reported directly) who could quote these basic truths chapter and verse, and who violated every single one of them every single day. He just thought that every single case was a special exception.

Some people just aren't burdened with self-awareness.

I think it's part of the cost of the Cult of Charisma. Although it has been thoroughly debunked through rigorous empirical study (see Jim Collins' entire oeuvre), far too many people look for Charisma when hiring, especially for high-profile positions. The idea is that a Dynamic Personality will inspire everybody and make everything okay. It's an infantile response, a longing for Daddy to make it all better, but it's disturbingly common. And the sad fact is that what can pass for charisma is often just narcissism.

Narcissists can be very charming. As the undeservedly-forgotten historian Christopher Lasch noted in his undeservedly-forgotten bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, narcissism isn't merely a synonym for self-centeredness. It's actually an inability to distinguish 'self' from 'other.' It's an inability to tell where the self ends and other people begin. That can resemble self-centeredness, but it can also result in crippling weakness and fear, since the lack of stable boundaries is inherently scary. That's why narcissists can sweep people up, then turn on them quickly. Simply put, they are not to be trusted, since they lack a basic, fundamental understanding of 'reciprocity,' which is the foundation of trust. They can't depersonalize decision-making.

To the charismatic, narcissistic top dog, 'process' is just incomprehensible frustration. The leader knows best, and anyone who suggests differently – especially when they're right – is a threat.

When I worked for the VP who fit this description, I quickly fell out of grace. The only reason I didn't get fired was that he left for greener pastures before he got around to it. My annoying insistence on 'process' and 'reciprocity' and 'rationality' just kept pissing him off. My contention that management isn't just the practice of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies was literally incomprehensible to him. To him, I was a stick-in-the-mud who, by extension, caused problems. (Since narcissists don't have a clear perception of 'objective reality' that transcends personalities, they tend to shoot the messenger.)

Having endured that regime for a short time that seemed much longer, I can say that it was utterly maddening. Although my job description included certain jurisdictions, his Favored Ones had carte blanche to simply bypass me altogether and work out side deals with him. You can imagine what this did for my credibility, morale, and general outlook on life. Although he has been gone for several years, we're still dealing with the expectations, habits, and cultural dysfunctions his style fostered.

The one dean who thrived under his regime did so by being his personal friend. They vacationed together, commuted together, and briefly even lived together. It 'worked,' but I consider it out of the question.

Faculty responses to the VP ran the gamut. His favorites loved him, naturally, but the vast majority got tired of the Potemkin processes with foreordained results. (One favorite trick was to decide what he wanted, then assemble a faculty committee to discuss the issue and tell him he was right.) As with any arbitrary system, there were winners and losers, but the way they were determined had little to do with the merits of a given argument. Once somebody fell out of favor, which could happen almost instantly, that was it. Over time, the numbers added up. I'm guessing the faculty at your college is swooning over their newfound access to the new guy, and a sense of empowerment combined with the usual seduction by charisma. It won't last. Fairness is slow and non-seductive, but it ages well.

Honestly, unless the clock is ticking on the new guy (which is very unlikely), I'd start sending out job applications. The psychological baggage this guy brought with him have been decades in the making, and are unlikely to go away soon enough to help you. The usual advice – communicate the implications of his decisions and their effects on you, keep a civil tone, etc. -- won't work. Run away. Some dysfunctions just run too deep to deal with on a rational level.

Best of luck. I feel your pain on this one.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Statements of Teaching Philosophy

A returning correspondent writes:

I have to write a statement of teaching philosophy for a job I’m applying
for. What makes these statements useful to the reader? Is there anything I
can look for in the institution to get an understanding of that they are
looking for in such a statement?

I have a certain sympathy for this question, since I'll need to do something similar ('statement of administrative philosophy') for an interview next month.

In my experience on hiring committees, I've usually found statements of teaching philosophy more airy than useful. They're usually pretty disconnected from the ways people actually teach -- “I want my students to reach for the stars” “I don't just believe in lectures” -- and I've never noticed a correlation between well-written or interesting statements and good teaching. It may exist, but I haven't seen it.

It's a variation on the interview-questions-that-won't-die. “What's your biggest weakness?” (I'm always tempted to say something like “well, that would probably be my crippling addiction to heroin,” but some people just have no sense of humor at all.) “Where do you want to be in five years?” (“Finally off probation!”) “How would you describe yourself?” (“Sympathetically.”) “What words do people use to describe you?” (Which people? How about “devilishly handsome, with a rakish glint in his eye”? “A younger, buffer George Clooney.” “Mostly harmless.” “Carbon based, and apparently featherless.”)

The kabuki aspect of job interviews is such that they're revealing only when people screw up. (Presidential debates are much the same way.) I've been on multiple search committees for vice presidents, and in my experience there, every candidate has said something like “I'm not a micromanager.” It's just part of the script. Sometimes it's true, sometimes not, but knowledge of the script is taken as a sign of a sort of fundamental savvy. My contrarian side would like, just once, to see someone say “damn right I'm a micromanager!,” but I'm not holding my breath. And the candidate brave or stupid enough to try it wouldn't get the job, even if I appreciated the chuckle.

So we come to the statement of teaching philosophy. It needs to be earnest enough that it looks like you put thought into it, anodyne enough that it doesn't offend anybody with a pet pedagogical hobbyhorse, and well-crafted enough that it doesn't reveal something negative by mistake. My bias – and I'll admit it's just my own – is in favor of theorizing from the ground up. Ground your theoretical flights in actual anecdotes from classes you've taught. When in doubt, go specific. I also happen to like statements that show some sort of learning. “I discovered that I had to adjust x when y happened.” “The style I had developed at Snooty U had to be modified when I taught at Working Class College.” Statements like those suggest actual thought, and the ability to recognize (and adjust) when something isn't working. I like people who can learn from their failures, which presumes that they can recognize their failures as such. I instinctively distrust people who never admit mistakes.

In terms of customizing, a good place to start would be to get a clear sense of the institution's profile. Is it super-selective, or a dumb-rich-kid's school, or a former teacher's college, or an open-admissions cc? What does the teaching load look like? (If possible, get a sense not only of how many classes you'd teach, but at what level, and at what size.) Who are the students? If you write an eloquent essay about spending lots of time tutoring students one-on-one, and the job calls for teaching intro sections of 300 students a pop, you're writing yourself out of consideration. If you write about dynamic multimedia lectures and the average class size is 12, the same is true. Applying to a cc, it's good to address the issue of 'academically underprepared' students, and how you've helped them succeed. Don't bash technology, but the degree to which you embrace it should vary based on the degree to which the school seems to value it. At a SLAC, you might be able to evade it entirely. At many colleges, though, the clash between the irresistible force of new technology and the immovable object of senior faculty is resolved by valuing technical skills in new hires. Again, the more specific you can be, the better.

Different academic disciplines may also have various buzzwords at given times that you either must or mustn't mention.

Worldly, wise readers – any helpful hints?

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

Luckily, This Would Never Happen Here

From yahoo --

China university sacks dean after blog rant - Yahoo! News
Good thing we Americans would never do that sort of thing!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Just Can't Work Up Much Outrage on This One

According to IHE, Arizona State University has written several performance incentives into the contract for its current President, including a substantial monetary reward for improving the university's ranking in U.S. News. The usual suspects are shocked and appalled.

The quote that rang a bell for me (quoting Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who frequently negotiates presidential contracts): “it is inappropriate 'for a board of trustees to turn their own priority setting authority over to a third party'...”


Working in a cc, I'll admit a certain immunity to U.S. News rankings. They don't even notice us, so we don't really concern ourselves with them. To the extent I notice them at all, it's just to make sure that my alma mater continues to kick its rival's sorry butt. Which it does.

And I still don't quite understand who died and made Mort Zuckerman the arbiter of educational excellence. I'm not disputing his first amendment right to publish it; I'm just wondering why people take the rankings seriously. I could imagine any number of alternative ranking criteria, and not just those based on some ideological agenda (most Christian, most conservative-friendly, etc.).

All of that said, though, haven't most 'competitive' colleges and universities already effectively outsourced their tenure decisions to academic publishers? Most of which make publication decisions on (perceived) marketability?

Again, at the cc level, we're largely immune to that. We base tenure decisions primarily on teaching. Some indication of an attempt to keep active in the scholarly field is always helpful, but nobody has ever been fired for not publishing, as far as I know. So I can ask the question without really having a dog in the fight.

It seems to me that decisions about the marketability of a book are largely independent of the book's scholarly merits. (Either that, or our leading political scientists are Ann Coulter and Al Franken. Shoot me.) To the extent that's true, then basing tenure decisions on having a book or two out there is a reflection of salability, rather than quality. To that extent, ASU's move is simply the logical conclusion of a process already long-established.

For that matter, aren't the big athletic conference rankings based on polls, rather than simple win-loss records? To that extent, haven't we outsourced measures of success to journalists?

Again, I'm not defending U.S. News per se; I'm just not sure that this is the radical break it resembles at first blush.

Honestly, I don't see an argument for ignoring external measures. To a great degree, I think, enrollments function as a sort of external measure; if a college takes a seriously wrong turn, students will say so with their feet. Public colleges and universities absolutely need to respond to governmental responses, even when those responses are hamhanded, malicious, or simply stupid. So now we get indignant over a magazine?

Suggestion: those who really object to the U.S. News rankings stop trying to replace something with nothing. Instead, come up with a more valid system of rankings, and publicize the hell out of that.

For example, it's not obvious to me that there's a one-to-one correlation between, say, size of endowment and quality of education. Nor is it clear to me that it makes any sense at all to punish colleges with substantial numbers of adult students, which is what happens when 'time to degree' is a criterion. (At the very least, it should be possible to control for that variable.) And the old (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about the high ranking of the Princeton Law School (it doesn't have one) speaks to the power of the 'halo effect' of an institution's overall profile.

One of the great benefits of the blog boom has been the sudden easy-and-cheap availability of soapboxes, for those so inclined. Is U.S. News badly flawed? Okay. Do your own. The alternative to flawed measurements isn't no measurements; it's better ones.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ice Ice Baby

I &(^%!ing HATE ice storms.

We got a layer of ice, several inches of snow, and another layer of ice on top. For most of the first day, it didn't even really stick to anything; the little ice pellets bounced off whatever they hit. Apparently, the snow came later that night. (When I went out to get the paper in the morning, I didn't sink into the snow. I'm six foot two, and not as skinny as I once was. If I don't sink, something's wrong.) Add a little meltage, and it felt like shoveling the world's biggest slurpee. It took two days to dig out enough of the driveway to get my car out. (“Digging” actually involved planing off a layer, then scooping, then planing off another layer. I'd rather just have snow, thanks.)

I actually broke one shovel on the ice. That has never happened before. The lifting was heavy enough that I had to take breaks every few feet. Eventually, The Wife had to pitch in. Yes, I missed my usual Friday workout, but this more than compensated. If the weather cooperates, we should reclaim most of the sidewalk by Friday at the latest.

I also had a chance to reflect yet again on the cruelty of plows. Yes, they clear the road, but they do it by building massive drifts right at the base of the driveway. When the drifts are more slush than snow, shoveling those suckers is a heart attack waiting to happen. Public good, private frustration. There's a metaphor in here somewhere.

The kids saw it differently. The Boy was in hog heaven. He and TW built a mighty fort in the front yard, mostly using 'bricks' of ice shoveled from the driveway. If the house is attacked from the West, we've got the high ground. TB also figured out that Tonka dumptrucks plus snow equals big fun. He spent most of Saturday outside, either working on his fort or hauling snow in his trucks. (The Girl was less impressed – after a few minutes, she just wanted to come inside.)

On Sunday we drove to a hill near TW's old elementary school, and did the only reasonable thing to do with ice-covered snow: sledding. The hill led to the back of the school, and The Boy made it his mission to come as close as humanly possible to the back wall without actually hitting it. After a half hour or so, he dragooned us into joining him. At one point, as I lay on my belly, careening headfirst at breakneck speed toward a brick wall with a fifty-pound boy on my back, it occurred to me to calculate just how many years of formal education I might be about to waste. (Answer: 24) Happily, we escaped relatively unscathed, crania intact.

A few tips, though, for those contemplating sledding on snow with so much ice on it that even I couldn't make snow angels on it:

  1. Before you go rushing down, think about a braking mechanism. It could be the old 'rolling dismount,' it could be your feet, whatever. I don't recommend using your hands. My pinky might never speak to me again.

  2. Aim for something soft and cheap. I can't stress this enough.

  3. For reasons I'll leave to the physicists, it's easier to steer straight when you're on your belly and headfirst. That doesn't necessarily make it a good idea.

  4. Wear clothes you wouldn't mind being caught dead in. I'm just sayin'. In my massive, green, puffy parka, I looked like a giant broccoli, which would not be my preferred method for leaving this world.

The Wife nearly hurt herself laughing at my unique sledding 'form.' I say, discipline is an underrated virtue, and the ability to hold a pose for an extended period – especially when hurtling toward certain doom – is not to be sneezed at. Then again, I say a lot of things. And, to be fair, a six-foot-two broccoli holding a headfirst pose for a couple hundred feet at highway speeds is probably pretty funny.

The Boy was actually tired by the end of the weekend, which is headline news in itself. I'd prefer a less draining way to achieve that, but getting Perpetual Motion Kid to stop is no small thing. If we can get through this without cranial trauma or basement flooding, I guess it'll be fine.

Storms look different when you're the parent.

Another Satisfied Customer

A while back, a grad student up for a teaching award wrote to ask how best to document his/her teaching. (The entry is here)

This weekend I heard back:

Hey Dean Dad-

Just wanted to thank you (and the readers!) for your help on "proving" teaching excellence. I guess whatever I did paid off!

S/he won the award! Well done.

Thanks to all who contributed to the discussion!

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

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Boards vs. Faculty

A frustrated correspondent writes:

Who runs a college? Is it the Board, or the Faculty? And who generally wins, in Board v. Faculty disputes?

I like this question a lot.

The typical chain of command, at least on paper, is that the Board of Trustees (or a group with a similar title) is officially where the buck stops. The Board selects (and fires) the President of the college. The President selects the VP's, who select the deans, and so on. (The sequence comes to an abrupt halt at the faculty level, where the faculty choose each other, relying on the upper levels of administration to be no more than rubber stamps.)

Members of the Board generally don't involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of the college. They typically have full-time jobs elsewhere, or are retired. Their job is to keep an eye on the big picture, and to hold the President accountable for running the college effectively.

Board selection methods vary, depending on the nature of the college. At public colleges, most Board members are selected by various elected bodies or officials. This means that the stability of the Board will reflect the political stability of the jurisdiction. In my neck of the woods, one party rule has been firmly entrenched pretty much forever, so the Board has been remarkably stable. In areas where party control shifts regularly, I would expect to see more Board turnover. I honestly don't know how Board members are selected at private colleges. Anybody who can shed some light on this in the comments section is invited to do so.

(At Proprietary U, there was a Board of Directors that chose the CEO. It was a corporation, following a fairly traditional American corporate-governance model. The Board of Directors was elected by the stockholders, to the extent that these things are contested.)

The reason for that little digression was to lay the groundwork for a distinction between 'the administration' and 'the Board.' Broadly speaking, the Board sets goals and directions, and the administration is charged with making those happen. (Academic bloggers, and faculty generally, often conflate the administration with the Board.)

Of course, tenured faculty typically have their own goals and directions in mind, which may or may not gibe with the Board's. It's the enviable job of the administration to mediate between the two, though when push comes to shove, the real accountability is to the Board.

Boards are usually relatively small, and often dominated by a few strong personalities. Board members are typically not, um, experts in the innards of higher education, having earned their stripes in other fields of endeavor. Board service is usually only one of the obligations a Board member has, and usually not the primary one. The information the Board receives is necessarily partial and filtered, and will often be read through lenses that faculty would consider utterly bizarre. (In William Chace's memoir One Hundred Semesters, he recalls a Board member applying true corporate logic – as opposed to mere cost-consciousness - to argue for eliminating the social sciences altogether at one university. His argument was that you don't compete in fields you can't dominate, and the university was far from dominant in the social sciences. Chace had to at least appear to take him seriously, and gently introduce him to the notion of 'general education.') One of the most critical jobs for a President and/or Provost and/or VP is to translate the norms of higher ed to language that Board members can both understand and respect. Faculty who routinely bash administration have little clue how much effort is spent on this, and what would happen if it weren't.

The faculty, by contrast, spend their professional lives in the innards and folkways of higher education, but without serious exposure to budgets. So the goals that can come out of, say, a faculty senate, will reflect a very different set of facts, assumptions, and values, than the Board's.

In my limited observation, the administration is the buffer zone – Poland, if you will – between the faculty and the Board. This is very different from the American corporate model, in which Boards are typically lapdogs for Presidents. I haven't seen that happen in higher ed, though I'll admit to limited exposure at that level. In higher ed, to the extent that I've seen it, Boards are very much independent variables.

In terms of Board vs. faculty conflict, I'd say either could win, but the current administration will almost certainly lose. If the folks charged with mediating between an immovable object (the faculty) and an irresistible force (the Board) somehow, inexplicably, fail, then obviously they need to be replaced. After all, it couldn't be a structural problem! The smarter faculty organizers know this, and wield threats of “votes of no confidence” and the like in hopes of cowing administrators into lobbying Boards to cave.

Loyal readers – your thoughts?

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

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The No Asshole Rule

Robert Sutton – co-author of Evidence-Based Management, and one of the smarter business writers out there – has a new book with the undeniably catchy title The No Asshole Rule. Drawing on some systematic research and a bevy of anecdotes, he makes the case – admittedly, with some fuzziness – that assholes are drags on productivity. He cites cases in which companies have tolerated assholes for many years, on the grounds that they're star performers, but when they finally lost patience and dumped the prima donna, everybody else's productivity rose.

Intuitively, it sounds right. Heaven knows, I've worked in settings in which toxic bosses created such horrible work environments that time and effort that could have gone into productive work instead went into boss-evasion, CYA blame-shifting, and various no-value-added internal politics. Replacing bosses like that with bosses whose focus is on the right things can't help but improve the organization.

Sutton also isolates, again correctly, an easy asshole test. Does the person “kiss up and kick down”? If so, you've got an asshole on your hands. (Easy applications: at lunch, how does the candidate treat the waiter? Before the interview, how does the candidate treat the secretary?)

A 'no asshole rule' is a great idea at the point of hiring. It's safe to assume that most people, most of the time, are on their best behavior at job interviews. (There are exceptions, but it's a decent default assumption.) If even the best behavior is grating, you can bet safely that the longer-term behavior will be horrible. Most folks are capable of short-term masking, of course, but if they can't even manage that, run away.

Sutton also notes that assholery is contagious. If an organization starts to promote and reward me-first behavior, then those whose inclinations are in that direction will rise to the top. Those who could go either way will adjust to the prevailing winds, and also become cretinous. It doesn't take very many bad apples to spoil the barrel. So the cost of tolerating assholes escalates, as they gradually poison every well around them.

A few easy critiques suggest themselves. Certainly, assholery is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. That's another way of saying that hiring requires judgment calls, which it obviously does. Different people define acceptable behavior differently, and we all have blind spots and pet peeves. And it's certainly true that codes of expected behavior have racialized, gendered, and culturally-specific elements that can lead to false negatives. (Example: in some cultures, the 'warm oatmeal' handshake is considered acceptable. I find it creepy, but there you go.)

(From a bureaucratic perspective, it's also the case that assholery of a particular sort – racial slurs, sexist comments – can easily form the basis to dismiss a candidate. But equal-opportunity jerkiness doesn't trigger the same level of scrutiny. The wisdom of the distinction, I leave to the reader.)

Those critiques all have some validity, but I don't see any of them as dispositive. They suggest that folks making hiring decisions need some self-awareness and some awareness of other norms, both of which strike me as good ideas anyway. But to carry the critiques to the point of dismissing judgment would strike me as a terrible mistake.

Baseball fans will probably immediately think of Alex Rodriguez. For those who don't know, A-Rod is, by any statistical standard, an outstanding player. He also has a funny way of making teams worse by joining them, and making them better when he leaves. If you look only at the 'objective' individual statistics, you'd want him on your team. If you look at his history, not so much. (The opposite example would be somebody like – and I'm showing my age here – Lenny Harris or John Olerud. Their individual stats weren't in A-Rod's league, but they made teams better by their presence.) The Seattle Mariners had the best season in their history after they let A-Rod go, even though his replacement had much less impressive statistics individually. Since picking him up, the Yankees have been stuck in neutral, despite spending far more than anybody else on players.

Reading Sutton's brief book, I kept thinking about its applicability (or lack thereof) to academia. We don't have clean measures of productivity, and much faculty work (especially outside of the sciences) is individual. Worse, we have a tenure system, wherein assholes can be granted lifetime job security. The old criterion of 'collegiality,' which was supposed to be a sort of 'no asshole' rule, has been largely demonized as racism (or other bias) in sheep's clothing; if it can't be quantified, in this litigious climate, it can't be used. But we haven't really replaced it with anything, so toxic personalities roam free. At the end of the book, Sutton mentions his webpage and solicits feedback via email. I emailed to ask “what if the assholes have tenure?” His response:

Alas, I wish I could be more helpful. My wife was managing partner of a law
firm during much of the period that I wrote this book and my father in law
was in university administration and Berkeley and Boulder for years,and
both talk about this problem. The one thing my wife always emphasized was
the importance of not starting to act like them no matter how bad they are,
and she did a pretty good job of keeping them under control by talking to
them in private a lot... but I know it is hard and in fact there was an
assistant professor in our department that we promoted a couple years ago
and I complained that he was arrogant and abusive and should at least get
that message that it would -- or should -- hurt in the long run, and my
department chair declined to do so because "he was a star," he has turned
out to be nasty tenured professor...

I agree it is tough, but for starters, there is an argument for documenting
their behavior.

I wish I could help more, and thanks,

(ellipsis in original)


Have you seen anything really effective for dealing with assholes with tenure? If they can't be removed, have you at least seen effective and sustainable ways to do damage control?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


IHE and the Chronicle both have articles glossing a new report from the AAUP, “Survey of Changes in Faculty Retirement Policies 2007,” which looks at the ways colleges and universities are dealing with (or not dealing with) faculty retirements.

A key background fact is that tenure, as originally defined in the AAUP's red book, was supposed to expire at the customary retirement age. In 1994, mandatory retirement was banned from higher education, so a work benefit that was supposed to be relevant for a set number of decades morphed abruptly into a lifetime benefit. As health care costs have mushroomed, and life expectancies have as well, this is a meaningful distinction. In unionized settings, where salaries are substantially a function of seniority, the folks who once would have been forced out at 70 are typically the most expensive.

(In a connect-the-dots moment, the same day's issue of IHE featured an article titled “How to Help Adjuncts.” Discerning the cause-and-effect relationship was left to the reader.)

Apparently, only about a fifth of colleges and universities across the country have started to take serious looks at their retirement policies. Having tried to start that conversation at my own college, I can't blame them. The accusations fly fast and furious when you move from generalities to specifics. (Hell, on my own blog I'm routinely – and falsely -- accused of ageism, notwithstanding that the median age of my new hires has been in the high 40's. Anything to prevent an actual conversation, I guess.)

Unsurprisingly, the AAUP takes the position that any new solution should involve more resources. Either straight-up buyouts of tenured faculty, or 'phased retirements' in which people get reduced workloads towards the end, with the institution bearing the cost. (This strikes me as tricky, since a reduced workload for a tenured professor would happen in one of two ways: either hire adjuncts to pick up the slack, or hire a new full-timer. If it's the former, the exploitation continues. If it's the latter, I don't see a cost savings. Since medical benefits are a primary cost driver, and they'd still be paid in full to both the phased retiree and the new hire, any savings to the institution would be marginal at best.) The report correctly notes that when a college gets around to addressing the retirements issue, it's usually in the context of looking for budget savings, which may not always lead to the wisest policy.

I'll add a few factors to the picture.

The great wave of community college building in the United States occurred in the 1960's. When a college is first built, it has to hire a whole bunch of people quickly. After the initial rush, hiring can slow or even stop for extended periods, depending on turnover, enrollment trends, and finances. This is pretty much what happened at a great many cc's – a rush of hiring lasting into the early 70's, with much less after that. Basic arithmetic suggests that much of that founding cohort is now close to, or at, or beyond retirement age. (A 30-year-old hired in 1970 turns 67 this year.) That means that many cc's have weird generational gaps in faculties, and some very top-heavy salary distributions. Those top-heavy salary distributions actually become self-perpetuating, since the only way to cover that many people at the top of the scale is to replace what would have been new hires with adjuncts. More dollars spent in column A (salaries for existing full-timers) means fewer for column B (new hires). The dots connect.

The implications for academic administration are fairly straightforward. If very few faculty were hired to the full-time ranks for a couple of decades (according to the report, the average age of tenured faculty in the US is 54), then the pipeline behind that founding cohort will be predictably thin. Sure enough, average ages of college Presidents and VPAA's have been climbing rapidly for some time. When colleges don't have the pipeline to hire from within, they have to hire from without. Administrators who might once have returned to faculty now move on to other colleges as administrators. Folks who regularly complain about administrators not having faculty backgrounds are invited to connect these dots.

I'm of divided mind on retirement buyouts. Morally, I object to a change in the law amounting to a windfall for some folks who got tenure when it was understood to have an expiration date. The goal in removing the mandatory retirement age was not to vest early hires with a proprietary interest in hanging on forever, or to increase their leverage to blackmail retirement buyouts. I'm also uneasy with the idea of paying for non-work. That said, I see strong pragmatic reasons to try to move out some of the highest-paid employees, especially in cases where the allocation of faculty doesn't match student demand. Replace a few folks at $100k with a few at $50k, and the savings add up. (That's assuming you do full replacements, not phased retirements in which you replace one set of benefits with two.)

There's also a question of eligibility. A retirement incentive, however defined, can be offered either across-the-board (with a few bright line criteria, like minimum x years of service) or case-by-case. If it's across the board, you don't have issues with discrimination, but you do have issues with losing stars and keeping low performers. If it's case-by-case, you need to think long and hard about what, exactly, you're rewarding. “Professor Goldbrick, your decades of parasitic non-performance have resulted in a massive cash payout. Professor Superhuman, you still have to work for a living.” That just doesn't seem right. And of course, anything offered case-by-case will invite the usual charges of favoritism, discrimination, flawed process, etc.

Finally, there's the issue of duration. A one-shot incentive (Special Offer! One Year Only! Jump Now or Forever Curse the Fates!) may work too poorly or too well. It will also condition those who aren't quite ready to jump to wait around until the next 'one-shot' rolls around, which it might or might not. I had one professor who finally retired last year admit to me that he hung around longer than he really wanted to, hoping for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This is perverse all around.

Conversely, a sustained incentive isn't really an incentive; it's an entitlement. Good luck rolling that back!

The old '70 and out' rule may have generated some sympathetic characters, but on balance, it strikes me as preferable to the dilemmas we have now. From an administrative perspective, the great virtue of '70 and out' is that you can predict who will go when. You can plan budgets, make hiring decisions, and foresee those annoying cases in which half of a department goes at once. Instead, we have to fly by the seat of our collective pants, adjuncting-out the few positions that do open up to pay the ever-higher salaries of folks who have no intention of leaving vertically.

Has your college found a sensible and humane way to handle this issue?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Big Girl Bed

You don't know the meaning of 'bittersweet' until you take apart a crib.

Bed shopping wasn't too bad. Back when we bought the crib for The Boy – six years ago, amazingly – we got a 'convertible,' which means the big back part could come off and be used as the headboard for a bed. We didn't bother converting it when The Boy grew out of it, since The Girl was on the way. We moved him a few months before she arrived, so he wouldn't blame her for being displaced, and put him in what had been the guest bed. (Unimaginable luxury! The fiscal privileges of the childless...) So the crib stayed a crib after TB left it, and TG moved in. This time, all we had to do was find a mattress and box spring, since we still have the metal frame from my old one. No biggie.

Yesterday I broke the crib down. The guys with the box spring and mattress are coming today.

Part of the challenge was manual. My history with shop classes and the like could be described as 'unfortunate,' and I've never been accused of being handy. Per usual, this one took several trips to Home Depot, as each new solution was wrong in a slightly different way. (Aside: I was lied to all those years ago, when I learned that the industrial revolution brought with it interchangeable parts. Interchangeable, my ass. Everything I've ever had to fix has been 'custom' in one way or another. Have you seen the 'bolts' selection at Home Depot? Sheesh.) And let's just say that the less time I spend with an electric drill in my hands, the happier we'll all be. My personal vision of hell involves installing an endless series of window treatments.

Honestly, though, the frustrations of attaching the metal frame to the wood 'headboard' were a kind of blessing, since they spared me the chance to reflect on what I was doing. The Wife wasn't spared. When she came in and saw the crib disassembled and the headboard in front of the frame, it all hit her at once. As she sobbed and I held her, it started to hit me, too.

Our baby girl is growing up.

She's a sweet kid, when she isn't pitching one of her diva fits. In the family tradition, she's tall for her age with big brown eyes. She loves Curious George and following her brother around. She knows her alphabet, and can even put words to some of the letters (“D is for dog!”). She has an ever-evolving OCD-ish bedtime ritual that we must follow, lest she go thoroughly ballistic. (Kiss the nose, then the forehead, then one cheek, then the other, then hug, then the lips, then hug again. Then exchange “I love you too”s and “goodnight”s, and make sure the pillow propped up against the door has the flowers facing right-side-up. Next week, she'll probably change it again. Luckily, she provides real-time directions.)

When she sees her little playmates, she yells “friends!” and charges them full-bore, stopping short just in time to give a bear hug without knocking them both over.

Yesterday she flew into a rage when The Boy referred to her as a baby. If there's a nastier word in the English language, well, she hasn't heard it.

It won't be long before she starts preschool.

She's our last, so the passing of each phase is a little more painful with her than with TB. With TB, at least we could console ourselves that we'd see that phase again soon. Now, we're without a crib for the first time since we became parents. Soon we'll say goodbye to sippy cups and the high chair.

It's not that we don't want her to grow up. We're ridiculously proud of each new accomplishment. When she says a new word, or does something thoughtful, we're thrilled. There's something fulfilling, and hopeful, about watching a child become herself. TG is more complicated than her brother, for good and bad. She gets more complicated by the day, and it's great fun watching her put her world together in ways that only she would. And she's such a loving kid that even the diva fits pass quickly. When she flashes those big brown eyes at you and smiles, well, that's it.

It's just hard to know that she'll never be our baby again.

She's excited for the Big Girl Bed, as she will be for the Big Kid Chair, and school, and soccer, and all those milestones. So are we, mostly.

Congratulations on moving up in the world, TG. We're right there with you, even if we're a few steps behind and a little misty.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Phone Cops

A West Coast correspondent writes:

I wondered what you thought of the statement USC made about the
purpose of universities, in the context of complaints form the music
industry about possible illegal copyright violations committed by its

"As an academic institution, USC's purpose is to promote and foster
the creation and lawful use of intellectual property. It is
antithetical to this purpose for USC to play any part, even
inadvertently, in the violation of the intellectual property rights of
others. "

it comes from a letter Cory doctorow re-posted here

The letter was just reposted recently, although it was originally sent
(in this version) last year.

I feel about it similar to what I did about the INS asking state
university employees to inform on the immigration status of their
students, with the additional issue that the legal issue here is even
less clearcut. I'm going to blog about the reasons why the current
wave of threatening letters from the RIAA to students is both in very
bad faith and possibly a violation of due process. (I'd also love to
know how your institution, from the admin side, looks at these kinds
of issues - is it purely defensive, or is there a consideration of the
rights of teachers and students?).

I wish there had been or could be a public statement by other
universities distancing themselves from this.. probably a pipe dream,
and there are probably a host of public statements released by
universities about what they are for.. but still it seems a bad omen
to embed universities in tracking and enforcement of law at all let
alone dodgy, industry-designed interpretations of law.

I'm not a lawyer. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

A little while back my cc got a very threatening letter from a coven of attorneys (I think that's the correct term) warning us that they held the copyright on streaming video, and that they were aware that we used streaming video for some of our online courses. For the low, low fee of $10k (later lowered to 5k), they promised to issue us a license for it. After some internal discussion, we decided to relegate the letter to the circular file and take our chances. So far, so good.

The whole episode reminds me of an old episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, in which somebody broke a phone and Johnny Fever got paranoid that the Phone Cops were going to get him. (For younger readers to whom the joke is opaque, there was once a single phone company, called Ma Bell. It engaged in all the arrogant monopolistic practices that arrogant monopolies are famous for. When WKRP was still being produced, Ma Bell was still in force. You couldn't even own your phone; you rented it monthly from the phone company! It wasn't that great a leap to imagine that Ma Bell had her own police.)

The Phone Cops have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Now colleges are supposed to be the Music Cops.

I first felt the copyright clampdown in the early 90's, when I was a lowly teaching assistant for The Great Bloviator. TGB assembled a photocopy packet of readings for the students, which he had printed and bound at a local copy shop (as was the practice at the time). One of the readings was a chapter from one of TGB's very own books. The section where that chapter was supposed to be was replaced by a single page, announcing that they couldn't get copyright permission from the author. To me, that just summarized TGB. But it turned out to be part of the Great Kinko's Klampdown, in which 'fair use' of readings was redefined to be much narrower than most of us had previously understood.

In the wake of Napster, Kazaa, BitTorrent, and the rest, of course, the Kinko's Klampdown is small potatoes. The real litigation now is to be found in the world of digital copying, since copying there is so much cheaper, faster, and easier, and the technology gets better all the time. To the extent that colleges provide internet access to our students, we are suddenly – at least potentially – on the hook for whatever creative new ways young people with time and technology, but without money, find to game the system.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Our IT staffs are swamped now just trying to keep up with the constant changes in operating systems, web platforms for distance ed courses, podcasting, viruses, and the like. If they start monitoring everybody's internet use, the cost in money and manpower would be staggering. From an administrative perspective, this is a colossal nightmare, since it's no-win. There's really nothing in it for us, since it's not at all central to our mission, and we don't get a cut, so I'd expect to see some serious foot-dragging. Were I the local guru of IT, I'd put this about 379th on my list of priorities.

Instead, I'd probably take a twofold approach:

  1. Get out of the ISP business. I don't know why so many colleges and universities continue to act as ISP's. Reimburse employees for home connections, and maintain a campus network, but for heaven's sake, don't try to provide service to the folks at home. If ever a service were a candidate for 'outsourcing,' this is. If Sally Student uses her Earthlink account for nefarious purposes, then the fact that she's a student is irrelevant. Don't take on liabilities you aren't even vaguely prepared to handle. (I'd even advocate doing this for dorms. Let Earthlink, or whomever, provide internet service for the dorms. Make it their problem.)

  2. Post some sort of checkoff box at each computer in the labs, stating that inappropriate use (however defined) is a violation of (whatever). Require the user to acknowledge the policy as a condition of using the computer. (The same might apply to a web platform for a distance learning course.)

It would also be reasonable to hold public forums on 'fair use' and copyright law, and I'd certainly comply with valid legal search warrants. But to just start threatening students willy-nilly on behalf of a civil tort – not a criminal offense – that does not affect the college directly strikes me as absurd. When students plagiarize published sources in research papers, we don't compensate the authors financially, since it would be missing the point to do so. If someone has a case to bring, let them bring it. But don't make college IT staffs the Music Cops.

The precedent would be as disturbing as the act itself. Should we monitor email for offensive content? Should we enforce local 'anti-fornication' laws in the dorms? (At least we're spared that one, by virtue of lacking dorms.) What if some kid rips a tag off his mattress? And don't even get me started on the 21 drinking age.

Colleges are not law enforcement agencies, and should not be expected to be. We have enough on our plates as it is. Let the police do their jobs, and let us do ours.

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

Friday, March 09, 2007


In the Spring, my cc has an Open House event focused primarily – though certainly not exclusively – on high school seniors who are finalizing their college decisions. Sometimes they didn't get into their first choice; sometimes they did but suffered sticker shock at the cost; sometimes family issues arose that made leaving an unattractive option.

At one of the planning meetings for last year's event, the Admissions director made a comment that stuck with me. In talking with her colleagues at other schools, she noticed a consistent pattern: if you provide light snacks, everybody likes it, but if you provide lunch, people complain. Apparently, if you provide lunch, it's never good enough, and the disappointed expectations generate ill will. If you only provide snacks, though, the expectations remain manageable, and you actually achieve more with less.

In following the constant debates about how to meet public expectations for higher ed, I'm beginning to think that we have an expectations issue as much as a performance issue.

Among the things we're supposed to do:

  • keep up with technological changes without spending money

  • provide world-class instruction to the graduates of the American public school system

  • keep the classics alive

  • remediate those who need it, without spending any time or money to do so

  • tend to the developmental needs of 19 year olds

  • welcome students of all ages, including working adults

  • develop critical thinking skills

  • foresee with perfect accuracy the specific jobs that will be in demand locally in a few years, with a focus on the good-paying ones

  • turn out well-rounded people with immediately applicable job skills

  • provide a dating pool

  • (at the larger schools) provide winning football/basketball teams

  • enforce pure meritocracy

  • while championing diversity

  • and the broadest possible access

  • with verifiable learning outcomes

  • achieved through finding a way to hold tenured faculty accountable for performance

and that's just off the top of my head.

It's a bit of a tall order, and it keeps getting taller. Student demands for amenities continue to grow at residential colleges (although cc's are largely spared that particular arms race – expectations to the rescue!). We're supposed to keep on top of emerging technologies as they emerge, so students can get jobs in those fields. We have to accommodate everybody with a documented disability – a huge and rapidly-growing group – without new funding to do it. And, for public colleges, we're supposed to moderate our expenses to make room in state budgets for ever more prisons.

(Apparently now, too, we're supposed to police the ideological deviations of our faculty, achieve racial representativeness without racial preferences, provide like-minded peers for any given group, mainstream homeschoolers, and convince publishers to reduce the cost of textbooks.)

Most of these goals are fine in themselves. Some, I think, are absolutely essential. But the sum total is quite a bit.

Most other public-sector institutions, I think, have narrower goals. With clearer missions, they are better able to make themselves understood by the public. Police fight crime, firefighters save people and property, and park rangers do whatever the hell it is that park rangers do. These institutions provide snacks, and the public is generally happy. We try to provide lunch, and get complaints that the food isn't hot enough/isn't vegan/isn't kosher/isn't free-range/might have peanuts/smells funny.

That's whinier than I mean, and obviously exaggerated, but the underlying point strikes me as largely valid. We need to be clearer about what we can reasonably be expected to do, and what we just can't.

Vocational education is one of those areas where it strikes me that we've overpromised. It's good to provide relevant training in many fields, but we don't know (any more than anybody else) what will be hot in four years. In the late 90's, everybody wanted computer degrees. Now, not. For the last few years, real estate was the hot thing. Now, and rather abruptly, not. Nursing is hot now, but historically it has run in cycles. Training is great, but we can't always forecast what will turn out to be useful. The kid who entered college in 1998 with visions of striking it rich in computers graduated in 2002 into a very different world.

I'm thinking maybe we need to get a clearer sense of our basic mission, and let some of the peripheral stuff slide. The answer to an unsatisfying five-course meal isn't always a sixth course. Instead of having every program at every college, maybe we let different colleges specialize more. Better for a given school to do a dozen programs well than three dozen badly. Retire the 'multiversity,' just as we've retired the variety show. Give up the ambition to be a 'total institution,' and instead be really good at a few core functions.

Sigh. It's been a long week. A dean can dream...