Monday, April 30, 2007

You Don't Win on Defense

Last week I had the rare opportunity to take off the Dean hat and put on the Academic hat, and actually attend a small academic conference. It was dedicated to questions of higher education and the changes being wrought in it (and on it) by various economic forces. Most of the speakers hold tenured positions at R1 universities, except for a few representatives from K-12 teachers' unions. I only found out about the conference through a personal connection, and I'm fairly sure that I was the only person there affiliated with a cc.

Although I share political sympathies with most of the people there, I found the (almost universal) line of argument they used hopelessly tired and defeatist. And they didn't have the first clue what to make of me.

The assumption they all started with is that the normal and natural state of things is that public universities devote themselves to bringing the classical academic disciplines to the masses, in return for which the masses gladly pony up support for ample tenure-track positions. Any deviation from this vision – whether because of students choosing other majors, universities employing adjuncts, proprietary colleges springing up, or even students starting at cc's and transferring – is clearly less desirable, and to be explained through references to Republicans, globalization, and the Iraq war. The way back to the golden age, they all agreed, was through an unspecified alliance of faculty, labor, and students, whose interests, it was assumed, naturally converge. The various speakers differed in their estimation of the likelihood of that actually happening, but the way forward, to them, was clear.

It was unspeakably depressing. These are intelligent people, well-meaning and well-read. And the best they could do was to hope that a broad-based social democratic labor movement would spring up from out of nowhere and magically transport us all back to 1968, when we didn't squander public funds on stupid wars in Asia.

Wait, check that...

It wasn't until the drive home that I realized that the word I heard most frequently was 'defend.' We need to defend the university against 'corporatization,' need to defend tenure against the forces of ignorance, etc.

No, no, no. If your only moves are defense and magical thinking, you're doing something fundamentally wrong. You don't win on defense.

Looking back on it, these folks feel so utterly besieged that they can't conceptualize much beyond hitting back. They're so busy playing defense that they haven't given serious thought to what it is that they're actually defending. It's hard to make conceptual leaps when you're fighting rearguard actions, and it's hard to get a good look at the landscape when you're covering up.

Worse, it's hard to talk honestly about what reforms really need to be made when you've adopted a bunker mentality. At that point, any recognition of the necessity of change brings with it the fear of a slippery slope to perdition.

When I raised a few points at the conference, I was treated as a sort of space alien. They were so far gone, they couldn't recognize an ally when they saw one. It made me sad.

To my mind, bringing higher education to the masses is the goal. That's the first-order good, the thing we shouldn't compromise. Most of the trappings of traditional higher ed – tenure, geographically defined service areas, expectations for published research nobody will read – are, at best, second-order goods (and sometimes not even that); at most, they're instrumental. To collapse the second into the first is to make the kind of basic category error that allows new institutions to come along and change everything. Better to keep our priorities straight, and not waste time defending the indefensible, the obsolete, or the irrelevant.

History is littered with the carcasses of institutions that refused, on principle, to change. I care too much about higher ed to stand idly by and let that happen without a fight.

The Boy is a Unicorn

This weekend we went to The Boy's first official soccer game. His team has uniforms and everything, and played a team from the next town over. The field was still soggy from the 10,000 inches of rain we've had recently, so they played in a local soccer field bubble.

TB started as a goalie. The Wife, The Girl, and I sat on aluminum bleachers behind a net and watched the game. I wasn't prepared for the intensity with which we'd get involved. Any illusions of being above it all vanished at the first save TB made. The whole “psychotic soccer parents” thing suddenly made sense. Watching your kid out there is waaay more intense than watching, say, Game 7.

As with any intense sporting event, scandal erupted. Late in the game, after TB had cycled out as goalie and was playing in the scrum with the other kids (they don't really have much concept of 'positions' yet), some little miscreant head-butted him. TB has a massive bump right between the eyes. He looks like a unicorn. Bless his stoic part-Scandinavian heart, he didn't start crying until after the game when TW hugged him. He held the ice pack on his head until the game ended, and even went through the post-game high-five line with the other team with a poker face. I was hugely proud of him. It's all well and good to communicate your feelings and all that, but learning to compartmentalize when it's okay to let it out and when you should just sack up is a major life skill. He handled it like a pro.

Although his team was technically outscored, I'm pretty sure he didn't notice. His coach told him that his team won, and he believed it. In a way, it was true.

He has another game next week. I don't know how many more I can take.

Friday, April 27, 2007

I'll Sue!

Over at Profgrrrrl's, there's a discussion going on about a student threatening to sue over a grade she didn't like. The student followed the normal appeals process, lost at every step, and is now threatening a civil action to get either a higher grade or monetary damages.

In seven years of deaning, I've literally lost track of the number of times I've been threatened with legal action. It's actually reached the deposition stage exactly once. I've been found guilty or liable exactly zero. I've never seen a professor successfully sued. In my experience, far more damage is done through the threat of lawsuits than through the actual suits themselves, since actual suits rarely develop.

There's a tremendous amount of ignorance and speculation about the law and the judicial system floating around. Some of it is probably the natural side effect of complexity – although I drive to work every day, I have only the vaguest idea how my car's engine works. (Admittedly, listening to Car Talk every week has helped a bit.) Some of it, I think, is the result of distortion through publicity. The occasional forehead-slapper of a case gets far more coverage than most, so if you aren't paying attention, you'll take the occasional wacky one as representative. (And yes, wacky ones do exist.) And a lot of it, I think, comes down to a fundamental category mistake most people make: they don't (or can't) distinguish process from substance. Put differently, they can't distinguish 'legal' from 'fair.'

From what I've gathered – and I'll admit right now that I'm not a lawyer – it's far more important to the courts that the basis of a decision be legitimate than that the decision itself be correct. If a professor can show that the components of a grade were clearly outlined on the syllabus and that they were followed as written, then it really doesn't matter if what you gave a C I would have given a B. Specific academic judgments of quality are part of a professor's job, and yes, they involve judgments. But as long as the process used to make those judgments is reasonable, you're in good shape.

(That means you could get in trouble if you didn't give criteria for grades, or if you included criteria you never disclosed. Criteria could be as simple as: 1st exam, 25%; 2nd exam, 25%, etc.)

The same holds for certain personnel decisions. Shortly before I left, Proprietary U did a round of faculty layoffs. I was in on some of the conversations about how to decide who to let go. (Notice the distinction between “conversations about how to decide who to let go” and “conversations about who to let go.” That's the key difference. If you have the second without having the first, you're in for a heap of trouble.) My contribution was to point out the page in the employee handbook that listed four criteria to be used in any layoff, and to develop a grid based on those criteria. (Surprisingly, nobody else thought to read the handbook.) When I explained to my admin colleagues that using relatively simple, pre-publicized criteria could avoid some nasty issues down the line, they went for it. When the faculty started to get jumpy and demand answers, I simply referred them to the four criteria, even going so far at one point as to photocopy them and hand them out at a meeting. Yes, there were still borderline cases where some judgments had to be made, but I could honestly say that the basis for the judgments was reasonable. (The weird side effect was that the HR director sent my grid to Home Office, where it was copied – names and numbers removed – and sent to the other campuses as the My Campus Model for layoffs. Not how I'd choose to be remembered, but that's how it goes.)

(The distinction between process and result collapses in certain discrimination cases, where a result can be taken as prima facie evidence of a corrupt process. At that point, the accused has to prove a negative. The wisdom of this exception I leave to the reader.)

The benefit to paying attention to this stuff upfront is that when you do, and somebody starts yelling “I'll sue!,” you can call the bluff. I've become very good at saying “the college attorney's name is x, and here's my card so you spell my name right.” I've had a few conversations with folks who've tried to intimidate me with legal jargon and/or threats, and have found that doing the process-thinking in advance makes it much easier to just keep doing what I need to do. To the uninformed, that process-thinking can look like paper-pushing or administrative makework. But it isn't. In fact, failing to do it puts everything else we do in jeopardy.

Bluff-calling works especially well with victim bullies. Since threats are their oxygen, the ability to ignore their threats is devastating.

Where this stuff breaks down is when an organization gets so conflict-averse that it tries to appease people who really don't have a case. Once you start down that path, there's no end to it. (Give the litigious student an 'A,' and every student will start threatening to sue.) If it were up to me, the legal system would be much quicker to dismiss many cases out of hand, so nobody would have to settle just to avoid the nuisance of going through the process. I'd also be a lot quicker to impose severe penalties for frivolous claims, since they amount to nothing more than attempted extortion by another name. But you work with the judicial system you have, not the one you want.

If the student threatens to sue, let her. Sometimes in this business you have to be the bad guy. If you don't have the stomach (or the integrity) for that, find another line of work.

I'm almost afraid to ask, but what's the silliest threat-to-sue you've received?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Change From Between the Cushions of My Mind

I'm running on fumes at this point, so in lieu of a properly crafted little essay, I present, well, these.

  • What does it say about my viewing habits that my top recommendation at Netflix is Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? And what does it mean that I'm considering taking them up on it?

  • In recounting a conversation with her friend, The Girl said “put it back, said me.” She's beginning to grasp the narrative form. I'm inordinately proud of this.

  • In the gym, they sometimes have the CNN morning show on the tv. Apparently, the O'Briens have been cashiered, and replaced by some windbag and Kiran Chetry. The windbag is neither here nor there, but any excuse to put Kiran Chetry on tv is fine by me. This is excellent motivation to go to the gym. I get a vague sense that if you stand really close to her, you could hear the ocean, but whatever. Note to CNN: well done.

  • It's been three consecutive nights of being awakened by The Girl coughing. I'm beginning to remember that zombie-like feel of sleep deprivation from those first few months. Sleep deprivation does not mesh well with the rubber chicken circuit. We've started her on the pink stuff, based on her doctor's diagnosis of a double ear infection. Bleah.

  • My brother's high school friend, with whom he's still in close touch, has been called back to Iraq. He already did a year there; now he's facing another 15 months. Whatever you think of the war – regular readers can pretty much peg my view on it – it's still scary to hear that a family friend will be put, again, in harm's way. He actually mentioned that he's glad that he and his relatively new bride haven't had kids yet.

  • Flagship State accepts our regular composition courses in transfer, but doesn't accept the “honors” versions. I discovered this when one of our strongest students, about to graduate, showed up upset. Nobody has been able to explain the logic. Your tax dollars at work!

  • In the last few days, scientists have discovered both kryptonite and a potentially inhabitable planet. Coincidence? That's just what they want you to think...

  • If this counts as a planet, then I say so should Pluto.

  • What's with the bees? Apparently, bees are dropping dead left and right. I'll admit that my first instinct is “hooray,” since I've been mad at them ever since grad school, when one stung me on the forehead at 3 in the morning while I was asleep. (I was also stung in 1985, when I was at my local cc for driver's ed. I went to the nurse's office for some ice to put on the sting. Following protocol, they notified security, who questioned me. I described the bee as yellow and black, with a bad attitude. I don't know if they ever caught the little bugger.) This “don't bother them and they won't bother you” thing is crap. Still, without adequate pollination, it sounds like things could get ugly. (Make grad school joke here.) Where are Leonard Nimoy's killer bees when you need them?

  • In chatting with a co-worker, I discovered that Piqua, Ohio, actually exists. Apparently, it used to host an annual underwear festival. I'm not making that up. My familiarity with Piqua derived entirely from the Captain Underpants series, which I enjoy reading to TB. (This may partially answer my question about Harold and Kumar, come to think of it.) Dav Pilkey has been quoted saying that he set Captain Underpants in Piqua because of its annual underwear festival. These are the things I think about when I should be thinking about other things.

  • If I read one more story about an Ivy League university freezing tuition to encourage access, I'll pop. Ivy League universities aren't about access. They're about exclusivity. Besides, the amount by which Princeton raised its room and board fee was more, by itself, then the amount by which we raised our tuition. Base rates, people. But they get the laudatory headlines, and we get grilled over a tuition increase. Grrrr.

  • Etiquette question: let's say, for the sake of argument, that a preposterous blowhard who treated you with utter contempt in grad school has come out with a new book. And let's say, for the sake of argument, that the book is being received horribly. Let's go farther, and say that the guy is absolutely embarrassing himself by making such a patently absurd argument. Let's say that it's so ridiculously stupid that it retrospectively discredits much of his earlier work, which you had long thought overrated anyway. Do you

    • a. laugh like Nelson, on The SimpsonsHa Ha!

    • b. laugh like a supervillain – Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

    • c. let fly a giddy torrent of profanity, and hoist a few cold ones to the memory of the smug bastard's credibility

    • d. smile to yourself, reflect that living well is the best revenge, and post a snarky multiple-choice question on your pseudonymous blog

    • e. all of the above

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The NY Times had a section on Sunday dealing with community colleges. Much of it was fairly predictable stuff: returning students struggling to get vocational degrees, underprepared students struggling to get through remediation, that sort of thing.

But there was a nifty statistic buried in one of the articles. (I'm way too tired to dig out the link.) Apparently, over the last decade or so, the average age of students at cc's nationally has been dropping. (That has been true at my cc as well, but it's nice to get confirmation that the trend isn't just local.) This, in contrast to the average student age at four-year public colleges, which (I think) is either steady or climbing.

We're starting to get more of the traditional-age students who could have chosen to go elsewhere. This is almost certainly a function of economics. Since the first two years of most programs are devoted mostly to (transferable) general education requirements anyway, why not get those credits at dramatically lower cost?

One result of that shift is that some cc's that have historically focused exclusively or very strongly on vocational education are starting to ramp up their transfer programs. We're in the weird position of shrinking some workforce development stuff to make room for arts and sciences.

This strikes me as a welcome development on several levels.

From a public service perspective, obviously, it's great to be able to help a generation of students cope with (by partially dodging) dramatic tuition increases at four-year schools. A little competition isn't always a bad thing.

We don't really interfere with the 'sorting' function of admissions, since cc grads who transfer do just as well academically (if not better than) as 'native' four-year students. If anything, we provide a second level of sorting, one based on performance more than 'potential.'

We may offset some of the losses in faculty hiring at the four-year schools.

And to the extent that we improve our game in the traditional disciplines, we may overcome some of the stigma that still attaches to this sector. That can only help the students who actually can't afford to go elsewhere.

The truth of this hit me earlier this week, when I realized that I was making an argument for another full-time philosophy hire, and doing it almost entirely on financial grounds. Since philosophy is a chalk-and-talk discipline, and the classes usually run in the twenties or low thirties, it's a profit center. As opposed to the more vocational fields, which have more cyclical demand, smaller classes, more competition for instructors, and higher equipment costs. Normally, classical disciplines are seen as victims of bottom-line thinking. We may need to rethink that mental shortcut.

As the midtier four-year colleges are hollowing themselves out and becoming more like cc's, it may be that some cc's are beefing up academically and becoming more like four-year colleges. (In some states, cc's have actually started offering four-year degrees. If any readers are in one of those states and can speak to how well that works, please do so in the comments. I'm especially fuzzy on how it impacts faculty workloads, in terms of research expectations.)

I usually agree with Brad DeLong's lament -- “why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?” -- so it was nice to see something both accurate and thought-provoking in the Times. Hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Aspirations and Payback

So Friday night, The Wife and I went to a snooty formal ball. We both dressed up, acted like sophisticated adults, carried on small talk with various muckety-mucks, and came home terribly pleased with ourselves.

At 2 a.m., The Girl work up, puking aggressively in her bed.

The Boy woke up a few hours later, one eye almost sealed shut with pinkeye.

And...we're back.

This weekend we had the first really lovely weather of the Spring. The Girl didn't see much of it, and The Boy's activities were severely curtailed. We skipped soccer practice and the Earth Day cleanup, and spent most of Saturday just trying not to snap at each other from sheer exhaustion (and TG's crabbiness from sleep deprivation, hunger, fever, and nausea).

Now we're waiting for the inevitable next shoe to drop. Historically, if one kid brings home either a stomach bug or pinkeye, everybody gets a turn, usually in short order. TB's years in daycare were especially exciting, since we were doing the two-job thing and you can't send a sick kid to daycare. We got very good at splitting days, calculating sick days to the minute, shifting hours, and doing all the things harried parents do when kids refuse to consult our work calendars before getting sick. (How inconsiderate!) It was especially fun when TB was a little Typhoid Mary – we'd beg, borrow, and steal coverage for one of us to stay home with him, then we'd get sick.

I remember one glorious spell a few winters ago when TB got a nasty (you don't want to know) stomach bug, which he gave to The Wife, which she gave to me. That was a fun week.

With TG, the bouts of sickness have been fewer and farther between, since she hasn't been lolling around in the petri dish of daycare. I suspect that she'll pay it back with interest when she gets to preschool this Fall. Little ones are adorable, sweet, and contagious. I suspect that preschool and kindergarten teachers have the strongest immune systems out there, just by dint of exposure.

So we've spent plenty of time indoors together, all the better to share germs.

I did manage to get out and try to mow the lawn, only to find that the mower had no intention of working. After a few attempts at fixing it (including changing a spark plug, of which I was inordinately proud), I finally took it to my local Prehistoric Mechanic, who believes that the fall of America as a world power can be traced to the introduction of fuel injection. Since the mower has a carburetor, he's happy. Apparently, the carburetor got grass in it. How that's possible, I don't know. I suspect demonic possession. He suspects letting the grass grow too high. History will decide.

And we had plenty of time to look at the caterpillars TW ordered for TB as a science project. (The idea was to watch them form cocoons, at which point they'd get transferred to a much larger mesh cage, so the resultant butterflies would be suitable for show-and-tell.) We got five, in a little cup with a cap on it and some unidentifiable material on the bottom for food. We discovered that caterpillars are cannibals, which I, for one, didn't know. One especially nasty one made a meal of the runt. It was unspeakably disgusting.

(As we explained to TB, “that's why they're called animals.”)

Some people think nature is cute and fuzzy. I don't. I have a strong “separate spheres” theory about Nature. Nature belongs over there, and I belong over here. A little crossover now and then is all well and good, but there are limits. There's no quicker way to ruin nature, says I, than to try to live in it. The marginal impact on nature of a city dweller is less than that of a suburbanite, which, in turn, is less than that of some poseur in a cabin with an SUV. (The cost of infrastructure alone – rural roads, plus electric lines, plus water – seals the deal.) If you're serious about the environment, says I, you don't go mucking around in it. You move to Manhattan and take the freakin' subway. Let nature be nature.

This is my high-minded excuse for disliking camping. I've been poor. I don't see 'playing poor' for a couple of days as recreational; I see it as masochism. (I consider those categories distinct. Not everybody does, I know.) If you really want to rough it, try living in a slum for three years on a grad student stipend. (My apartment bordered a church and some crackheads. The crackheads kept to themselves, but the $*%&#)% church insisted on ringing its bell endlessly and randomly.) And tromping around the woods with butane and tents and suchlike just doesn't strike me as earth-friendly. Gore-Tex and Fleece don't occur in nature.

And that's not even mentioning the distinct lack of indoor plumbing out there. Or, as Stephen Colbert would surely note, the presence of bears.

So we're building up our immune systems, getting carburetors fixed, and watching expensive insects eat each other. But at least we're doing it in a relatively earth-friendly way. And any aspirations to muckety-muck status are on hold, at least until another kind of aspirations end.

Sometimes that doctorate comes in really handy...

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Reclassifications

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

Knowing that this question will contain a number of (possibly unmanageable) variables I'm emailing to ask anyway and would very much appreciate anything that you might have to offer on the subject of staff (read: merit, not across-the-board) raises and/or promotions/reclassifications within the public university system.

I work for a large, four-year, public research university in a non-academic, revenue-generating, entry-level position. I took my job description and made some mad money for the college for which I work, to everyone's surprise. I took a grunt job that no one wanted and am making it a high-performing revenue-generating program (I understand the power of revenue in the university environment).

I got game, Dean.

I know that my superiors are very pleased with my work, and I've been told that my boss tried to get my position reclassified a year ago but was denied by her boss.

What, if anything, can I do to earn a reclassification from a dean's perspective?

And what's the deal with raises? Is it crazy to imagine my boss going to her boss and saying hey, can I get this employee a raise? Does this happen? How does it happen? Everyone that I work with seems to operate under the assumption that this is, in fact, crazytalk.

Everyone in the system gets the same raise (give or take a fraction of a percentage point) at the same time--
WHY are there NO merit raises? What, if anything, can I do to earn a merit raise when everyone says there's no money but [others in the college/university make very good salaries and the college runs $40K per b-progs and $50K per executive education programs, etc.? The system can support profs and administrators at $90+K but I can't get more than $28K?

I know that there are different measures of success for different jobs, but I find it difficult to believe that there isn't some money available for a modest (and frankly, well-deserved) raise.

I know, everyone feels that s/he "deserves" a raise.
But why aren't there (real) merit raises in the public system?

What might/must I do?

My supervisor has mentioned that I might be given an assistant to supervise (to bolster the case for reclassification) but this seems like just another hoop in the stack because I've also heard that reclassifications generally require.

Solidarity, brother. I have variations on this conversation every single year. Only the names change.

The problem is that public institutions set most salaries at the point of hire, and never look at them again. Once you're on a track, your future salaries rise with the tide. A reclassification basically moves a job to a different track, so the fiscal consequences of it compound over time.

It's a strange system, designed almost perfectly to defeat initiative and reward mediocrity. But it does have certain benefits.

For one, it minimizes the risk that a manager who doesn't like you, or who likes someone else better, will somehow victimize you. If there are no merit raises, then you can't be denied one. (From a manager's perspective, it makes evaluations somewhat less tense, since there's nothing material riding on them anyway.) The private sector, generally speaking, gives management much more leeway.

The usual justification for the aversion to merit pay is that the public sector compensates for below-market salaries by offering extraordinary job security.* If you take away the job security, the argument goes, you'd have to pay a lot more, and the taxpayers aren't willing to pony up. If you take away the job security and don't pay more, good luck filling the jobs. So we underpay, and still manage to fill the jobs by not demanding high performance.

Reclassifications are threats to the very logic of the system, since they implicitly call the terms of the deal into question. They raise the spectre of “salary compression,” or newbies coming in with higher salaries than incumbent employees who've been there longer. Salary compression is usually taken by the incumbents as a slap in the face, so they demand raises, too, and so on up the line. (Some of us believe that salary compression is a sign that you're hiring well. Sadly, this remains a minority view.) So they're done rarely, and only when overwhelmingly necessary, and even then with a great gnashing of teeth.

Deans can't approve reclassifications. At my college, even the President can't. Only the Board of Trustees can, and it doesn't take that lightly. The great fear – and it's not a stupid one – is that if you start to reward a few high performers, then more will crawl out of the woodwork, then more, and before long you're busting your budget. We've been trying for years to get certain jobs reclassed as their responsibilities have grown. We've achieved buy-in up to, and including, the President of the college. But the Board says no, for fear of the precedent.

The irony, of course, is that fear of reclassing exists simultaneously with a rush to outsourcing. So it's not unheard of for some high performer to leave for a higher salary with a contractor, then provide the same service here (at a much higher price) through the contractor. The fig leaf of a separate contractor lets the Board get around the issue of precedent. (From what I've read, the Federal government has become the all-time champ at this.) And, to be fair, a contractor can also work with other clients.

The public sector tries to get by on the cheap. To do that, historically, it has traded security for below- market-level salaries. It may be that that trade is becoming less tenable, and that we'll need to see some of these institutions adjust to market realities. (It's also the case that the public sector probably overpays in certain areas, relative to what the market would bear. See “seniority.” Theoretically, one could solve the market disequilibrium in humanities faculty simply by paying progressively less, until the market cleared. But wages are 'sticky,' as economists put it, so instead we break the faculty into two groups – adjunct and full-time – and achieve the savings that way, justifying it by talk of 'merit.')

The short version of all this is that I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a reclassification. They happen, but only rarely, and only with great institutional angst.

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

*This argument is becoming less true in certain locales, depending on the generosity of the health plans. Public employee unions have historically been very aggressive in pursuing and defending benefits, as opposed to salaries. As the cost of health insurance has climbed faster than just about anything else in the economy, most private employers have done serious cost-shifting to employees. The public employee unions have fought tooth-and-nail on this, with (generally) more success than just about anybody else. So the salaries are still generally below-market, but actual take-home pay may not be, since there are fewer and/or lower deductions from the paycheck. For example, when I came here from Proprietary U, the salary was only about 10% higher, but my take-home pay was about 25% higher, since Deans get the same health plan as the unionized folk.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Alcohol on a Student's Breath

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently a graduate student within a large, urban, drastically overcrowded and underfunded public university system. This is my third year of adjuncting. I teach writing and humanities courses. And basically, I'm trying to figure what I ought to do if I think a student's using alcohol to cope. The student in question is an older-than-average female with something of a comprehension problem (basic to intermediate English is okay, three-dollar words are not). And at our last two individual meetings (I do a number of one-on-ones in this course), I've smelled alcohol on her breath. If it were an evening class I probably wouldn't have the same level of concern, but the course meets from 8-10 AM.

On some level, I feel that ethically, I ought to "do something" -- but there are a number of reasons I'm reluctant to engage. This is not an "in loco parentis" kind of institution. My students all commute, they've got jobs and often families. This student is probably at least a decade older than I am. It's not the same campus at which I do my grad work, so I'm not all that familiar with the administration or campus life. (I mean, I adjunct -- I get there, teach, grade some papers, maybe meet with a student or two, and leave. I don't get paid enough to establish a presence, particularly when I'm also expected to be a student elsewhere.) I'm also stretched a bit thin at present, psychologically speaking. (Teaching three classes this semester has improved my standard of living, but hasn't really helped me be a good graduate student.) So I'm not sure I can "deal" with this on top of everything else I've got to manage on a regular basis.

I feel bad for the student, but is it honestly my problem? Can I designate it an SEP field [someone else's problem] and move on? Or do I need to involve myself?

My first concern here is that you say everybody commutes, and the class is at 8:00 in the morning. Unless she gets a ride somehow, or drinks in the parking lot before class, she's driving drunk. That's a serious public safety issue. So I don't think that just pretending not to notice is a good idea.

You're within your rights to ask the student directly if there's a problem, but unless she's about to get in her car, I wouldn't recommend it. Most likely, you'll get indignant denial followed by retaliatory charges, and life is too short. (If she's about to get in her car, I'd call campus security and/or the local police.) Even if she doesn't react with anger, you may well wind up getting sucked into her drama, which is not likely to turn out well for you.

A better approach, most of the time, would be to engage the folks on campus whose job it is to deal with this sort of thing. Most colleges and universities I know have something like a Dean of Students, a Dean of Student Affairs, or a Dean of Student Development. Those areas typically include counselors who are trained to deal with all matter of student issues, including alcohol abuse. (That's actually one of the classics.)

At my campus, an instructor can go directly to the Student Development people and report a concern about a given student; the Student Development people then reach out to the student. That means you don't have to confront the student personally. The Student Development people can then keep a record of a concern, do referrals to substance abuse counselors if needed, deploy their in-house counseling staff, or whatever else is appropriate. (They don't disclose the name of the professor if it isn't a disciplinary matter, but the student may well figure it out anyway by process of elimination.) Make it their problem, rather than yours. They're trained for it.

In this case, adjunct status shouldn't make a difference. It's not about you; it's about the student.

You don't mention anything about any actual improper behavior, so I'll assume that alcohol is the only issue. Since that's the case, and I'm assuming this isn't a 'dry' campus (since you say it's public), this really isn't a disciplinary issue. It's a counseling issue. Let the counselors handle it.

I've had variations on this issue in the past with faculty who had alcohol on their breath. That's a trickier case, since a drunk professor on campus is a disciplinary issue by definition, and a mistaken (or unproven) charge would bring countercharges of discrimination, union grievances, and all the rest. And it's not like I walk around with a breathalyzer.

In grad school, I had a professor who regularly held a Friday morning drinking club in his office. He invited his favorite grad students (always deferential young men) to drink brandy out of paper cups and talk about life, the universe, and everything. (I was never part of the group. Not deferential enough, I guess.) He also tended to lubricate his lunches with bourbon manhattans. (Bourbons manhattan? I'm not sure what the plural of that is.) It became a sort of accepted wisdom that if you needed to talk to him about anything substantive, you did it before Friday, and before lunch. How he never got a DUI was utterly beyond me.

(I once had a conversation with him at a conference, after he had had his share. He was feeling no pain, and actually said this to me, in all inebriated sincerity: “I used to wonder why I don't like you. I mean, you're a nice guy, you're smart, and you write like a dream. Then I realized, you remind me of me at your age.” Armchair psychologists, have at it. I thought it was one of the most f-ed up things I'd ever heard.)

I'm just cynical enough to suspect that quasi-secret drinking on campus is more common than most of us would like to think. My usual reaction to that kind of drama is to try to distance myself from it, since I suspect that no good could come of my mucking around in it. I'd recommend a call to the student affairs office.

For a more humanistic viewpoint, I asked Lesboprof what she would do. Her response:

Well, if it were me, I would:

(a) talk to the head of the department/adjunct coordinator/whoever hired you about the issue, so they know what is going on and so you can get suggested referral resources from them;

(b) if that person cannot tell you answers, look up the campus resources that ARE available (usually some kind of student health services, often focused on issues like mental health and alcohol and drug stuff), or, if not, what is available in the local urban area--this should be a 15 minute long endeavor, at most; and

(c) next time you meet with the student, once you have completed all related academic work, confront the student, nicely and helpfully, and say, "I may be wrong, but I thought that I smelled alcohol on your breath both times we have met. It made me a little concerned about you. I wanted to make sure you know that there are resources available on campus and in the community if you think you might have a drinking problem." Reassure the person that you respect her and you just want to help her be successful.

I would document the meeting and keep it handy, in case said student is offended or defensive, which could definitely happen whether the student is addicted or not. And then I would let it go, because addicts will only pursue help when they are ready.

And he should not sweat the age stuff--I think we all still have some authority as a teacher, whether earned or not. :-)

I do see this kind of intervention as a kind of public service with students, just as I try to help them reduce anxiety, follow up on what they are supposed to be doing, use a planner to keep track of assignments, write an outline for papers, learn to call if they have to miss class, etc., depending on their needs. But I am not their friend or parent, and so I do not follow up or feel responsible.

If you're okay with confronting the student yourself, her advice to document the meeting is spot-on. And I'm absolutely in agreement about not following up or feeling responsible. If you're not okay with confronting the student, go with my slightly more weaselly approach.

Loyal readers – your thoughts?

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

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Notes Scribbled Between Events

Liz Phair turns 40 this week. I can't tell you how old that makes me feel.

My considered position on Nor'easters: I don't like 'em. Not one little bit.

We got hammered. A few blocks from here, an entire section of my town was under water, including our local fire station. TB's school was cancelled Monday because the road to the front entrance was submerged. Two of our local grocery stores (possibly three – I didn't check the third) were quite literally swamped. Evil Sidekick's Mom reported that one part of town, a part that includes a house we once considered buying, was flooded out, and the residents were evacuated. The next two towns over converted their high school gyms to shelters. In one of those towns, a few houses caught fire, leading to the utterly weird spectacle of fire trucks dousing submerged houses with even more water. Driving was a nightmare, since road closures pop up in unexpected places, and the side roads couldn't be described as 'linear.'

Since when do we got Nor'easters in April? I've lived in this part of this state for the last 17 years, and I don't recall that ever happening. They're supposed to be a winter thing.

We didn't lose electricity, so the sump pump did its job. Still, this is a bit more precarious than I care for. Our next house will be on a hill. With an unfinished basement. In another state. Or province.

The Boy did great at the Science Fair. He looked like a little professional, standing by his project and explaining it to passersby. He got a ribbon for 'scientific thought,' which is pretty good for a kindergartener. The only other experiment there that really impressed me involved a kid wrapping eggs in various different kinds of material, then dropping them from measured heights to see how high you could go with each kind of packaging before the egg cracked. I'm guessing he used hard-boiled eggs.

Another sign of age: TB's school principal is disconcertingly attractive. This violates the natural order of things. School principals are supposed to be either late middle-aged men in preposterous polyester suits, or late middle-aged women who look like East German weightlifters. Someone didn't get the memo.


Once in a while, TW brings the kids to visit me at work. We try to pick a day when I have some free time around lunch, and I do a longish lunch with them on campus. The last visit was about a week ago.

It's fairly rare – maybe once or twice a semester. TB and TG are both remarkably well-behaved in public. Like their Daddy, when they're uncomfortable, their characteristic move is to be quiet. (Unfortunately for TW, that's also my characteristic move when I'm contented. Reading the silences is, I'm told, a bit of an acquired skill. It's a fine line between “the strong and silent type” and “an immovable lump.” You marry a Scandinavian, you take your chances...) Given the available options, that isn't a bad one.

And TB and TG both have considerable star power, if I do say so myself.

For a week or two after a visit, I notice that the folks who saw me with them talk to me differently. It's like they suddenly stop seeing The Dean and start seeing an actual person. It fades quickly, and I go back to faceless-bureaucrat status, but for a brief window there's almost something like rapport.

I'm guessing that gender makes a huge difference here.

As a relatively reserved male in authority, kids humanize me. They add a dimension. (A former colleague at Proprietary U once commented that he couldn't imagine me saying “goochie goochie goo.” I didn't know what to make of that.) My guess – and it's only a guess – is that the effect is more equivocal for women.

It's hard to test the theory here, since almost nobody else here is between the ages of 25 and 50. (And the few who are, almost without exception, are either male or childless.) But my impression is that women come pre-humanized, and sometimes struggle to be perceived as Serious. For them, being seen with young kids on campus might be riskier, in a sense, in that it wouldn't so much add depth as confirm stereotypes.

How does your campus react to the occasional visiting faculty/admin offspring?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Automatic for the People

Although I understand that this is somewhat unusual nationally, my cc has traditional ranks (instructor, assistant prof., associate prof., prof.) for full-time faculty. The promotion steps come with notably small pay raises, but the faculty take them very seriously nonetheless.

Having gone through this cycle a few times now, I'm bracing myself for some difficult conversations. Apparently, there are some wildly disparate ideas of what merits promotion.

Some folks believe that promotions should be effectively automatic for the people with a certain number of years served – a sort of longevity bonus by another name. Others don't go that far, but do want a set of clear, bright-line criteria that take most or all of the judgment out of the process. Some believe in clear sets of categories, but shy away from bright lines. And some believe that anybody a given department recommends should be a slam-dunk.

(I'll stipulate here that R1's are not useful reference points for cc's in this respect. The time and resource allocations of the jobs are so wildly different that the two really need different criteria.)

For the promotion from untenured to tenured, I'm sympathetic to bright lines. For post-tenure promotions, put me in the 'clear categories, but no bright lines' camp. I make the distinction based on what I think is the different impact of the two. The point of tenure is up-or-out, so failing to get it means finding another job. But for someone with tenure, getting shot down for Professor this year means sticking around to take another shot next year. This strikes me as considerably less onerous.

Tenure complicates the issue terribly. From the dean's office, the major issue is that once somebody reaches full professor status, you have no more leverage with them. (This is especially true in a cc, where we don't have the budget for goodies like research assistants or lab space or significant travel.) Since there's no such thing as 'demotion,' you don't want to hand out promotions lightly.

Anecdotally, it seems that full professor titles were handed out relatively promiscuously in decades past, and some folks took the title as entitlement to a lifetime of teach-and-go-home. Unfortunately, that also sets a sort of expectation among the next crop of candidates, who react to rejection by pointing incredulously to some of their 'senior' colleagues. I have to concede the observation, but the logical conclusion of that argument would be that you can never, ever, under any circumstances, raise standards. And that strikes me as absurd on its face.

The 'all power to the departments' view has several flaws. First, and most obviously, it means that you have as many different promotion standards as you do departments. Legally, that strikes me as shaky at best, especially in a collective bargaining environment. Second, the reality of the situation is that many chairs won't vote against anyone, ever, for fear of losing the position entirely. Third, some departments are so thoroughly inbred, or so completely under the thumb of a domineering chair, that the judgment would reflect something other than what it's supposed to reflect. (That could also be true of any given administrator, of course, but the difference is that we're actually accountable for our actions, since we don't have tenure.)

To my mind, it's more than fair to require that the categories for evaluation be spelled out and adhered to from the very beginning, but you need to leave room for the inevitable uniqueness of each case. How do you compare invited performances for a music professor to invited talks by a sociologist? I understand the fear-based impulse to take all individual judgment out of the process, but to do that would almost inevitably result in a dumbing-down of the entire system.

Proprietary U also had academic ranks when I was there, even though it didn't have tenure. I kind of liked the outlines of its promotion system, even if the details were sometimes nuts. In outline, any given professor would be evaluated each year on a given set of criteria (there were six when I left; I don't know how many there are now). Each criterion would get a percentage weight. You'd get a score in each area. The weighted total score would convert to a certain number of points towards the next rank. When you accumulated enough points to get the next rank (depending on how well you did, that would take more or fewer years), you got it. So if you were an assistant professor, and you got 3 points on this year's evaluation, you could do the math and figure out how many years it would take at that level to get the associate rank.

The system wasn't flawless, of course, and Home Office couldn't stop tinkering with it, but I liked the idea of picking up a set number of points each year. (The biggest single flaw was that the bar-raising was rapid, thoughtless, and done without reference to the realities of the job. But that strikes me as a separate issue from the structure of the process, which I thought made sense.) If you had a hot streak, promotions came faster; if you taught and went home, they came slower, but they weren't surprises. People could decide whether it was worth their time to go the extra mile – some did, some didn't. (Although ranks didn't bring tenure, they did bring pay bumps.) And the self-starters didn't give it much thought, knowing that the points would accumulate over time anyway.

Part of what I liked about the system was that hitting the top rank didn't take the sting out of the system, since a given year's point total also determined that year's raise. So even full professors got rewarded for good years, and slapped on the wrist for indifferent ones. The differences weren't huge – I recall the usual gap running from 3.4% on the low end to 4% on the high end – but they made a psychological difference.

In a tenured and unionized system, raises are across-the-board, and a full professor has nothing left to shoot for, other than her own intrinsic motivators. The best ones keep chugging anyhow, but some don't, and the college doesn't (can't) make much effort to notice the difference. If we default to an automatic seniority-driven system, then we've lost the motivation the minute they first get tenure. Not everybody is a self-starter – some level of extrinsic motivation, even if minor, can serve to send messages about what the college values. Abdicating that opportunity – especially when few other opportunities exist – strikes me as a fundamental failure.

Folks at teaching-oriented places: have you seen a fair and reasonable way to do faculty promotions?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Distance Ed at Community Colleges

IHE had a piece yesterday on the rapid growth of online courses at community colleges. It sounded right to me – faculty skepticism isn't as tenacious as it once was, and online classes fill just as quickly as we can roll them out. (This at a college with flat enrollment overall.)

The early issues with online education have been tough to disentangle. Some of them are probably due to the nature of the beast – the lack of a live audience for a speech class, say. Others are probably temporary cultural holdovers that will fade away as the concept becomes more familiar – the student attitude that an online class is necessarily 'easier,' or the domination of the early rounds of distance ed by 'early adopters' who sometimes make promises beyond what is immediately possible. As we move from 'early adopters' to the broad middle, I'd expect to see some of the overpromising fade away, which is mostly to the good.

To understand the appeal of distance ed, it's important to get a sense of the needs it actually addresses. It does not save labor costs. If anything, it may add slightly to labor costs, since now we need tech support where we didn't before. It is not a way of increasing class sizes or teaching loads. If anything, given the lack of in-person feedback, small class sizes are even more crucial online. In a lecture class of 300, a kid can hide in the back. If you 'hide' in an online class, you might as well not take it at all. Given the necessarily labor-intensive nature of teacherly feedback in an online class, it's simply not realisitic to think that you can stuff the sections fuller online. If anything, you may have to slice them a little thinner.

(Back in the late 90's, I recall attending a conference of the AAC&U at which some blowhard from Harvard opined that online classes were simply a conspiracy to do away with faculty jobs. I questioned him on it, asking for evidence. He seemed affronted that a lowly prole such as myself would question a tenured professor from Harvard. But I was right, and he still has tenure. “Meritocracy,” my ass.)

Distance ed also puts colleges at the mercy of software companies, which, for shorthand, I will refer to simply as greedy bloodsucking mofos (gbm's). GBM's like nothing more than total overhauls of their programs every 1-2 years, since they require fresh purchases. (SOP is to force migration by ceasing to support 'legacy' versions. One in particular – it rhymes with WebVT – is pulling this now.) To my mind, there is an overwhelmingly obvious and compelling argument here for 'open-source,' but local IT departments hold up wooden crosses at the mere mention of the concept. They like to have someone they can call. C'est la vie.

So given that online courses are expensive to run and more expensive to support, and they aren't an anti-faculty conspiracy, what's the appeal for cc's?

Part of it is simple market forces. Students vote with their feet (their clicks? Their mice?) for online classes, and if we don't provide them, other colleges will. (The University of Phoenix is always prowling.) Since we're here to provide a service, we need to listen to those to whom the service is provided.

Part of it is the limits of physical infrastructure. Parking is a constant issue, and classroom space at prime time is at a premium, even if it's easily available at other times. But no amount of 4:00 classes will divert enough students from the Monday-to-Thursday, 10-to-1 slot they so dearly love. To the extent that we can siphon off some of the 'prime time' demand to online classes, we can increase enrollment without building. In tight fiscal times, this is no small thing.

Part of it is the effort to reach students with jobs. The annoying reality of many low-level jobs is that they have variable hours. As any cc professor can tell you, variable work hours and fixed class hours make an unstable mix. With an online class, a student with ever-shifting hours at least has a reasonable shot at completing the course.

Part of it is the ability to cobble together a minimum class size across disparate schedules. We have some electives that don't quite have enough students in the morning or the afternoon or the evening to run a section, but that do have enough when all the groups are combined. By offering an online section, we can run a class that we otherwise wouldn't run. This strikes me as all to the good, both educationally and economically.

And part of it is that cc's have, as part of their mission, a commitment to 'access.' Online classes can work well for high school students (for whom transportation can be a deal-breaker), working adults, people with jobs, people with physical disabilities, parents, and others for whom scheduling is a greater challenge than content.

A few misgivings, though:

Colleges (and I include my own) are only beginning to figure out the right mix of support services for online students. This has become a moving target, as more students take a mix of in-class and online courses. The 'online student' isn't as clearly different from any other student as may have been the case a few years ago. Plenty of students take 3-4 traditional classes, and an online class or two. (Geography remains a stronger factor in determining the student body than you'd think, given the 'placeless' nature of online learning.) I've seen students in the campus library working on the online course management system. For these students, online courses help them take a full load and still get to work on time.

“Hybrid” classes – in which face-to-face teaching is reduced but not eliminated – have been a surprisingly tough sell. Students seem to want a given class to be either one or the other, even as they take a mix-and-match schedule. I still scratch my head at this one.

Academic dishonesty remains a real issue. On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

And I'm still not entirely sure how a 'placeless' delivery mode works with a geographically-defined service area. So far, the issue has been much more theoretical than real, but I don't know if that's temporary or permanent. If it's temporary, we will have some serious rethinking to do.

Loyal readers – what has been your experience with online classes?

Quoth the Evil Sidekick

TB's friend, Evil Sidekick, visited yesterday afternoon. Quoth Evil Sidekick (to The Wife):


That kid has a future in politics.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech

By now you've probably heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech today – 21 dead at this point. Incredibly, the shootings apparently took place over two hours. It's still early, though, and sometimes the facts take some time to establish.

Stories like this rip my heart out, both as a dean and as a parent. My condolences to the students, parents, staff, and community.

College campuses are incredibly vulnerable places. They're open, they're highly populated, they're lightly patrolled (if at all), and they're full of stressed-out people. In a way, they're almost naive, if it's possible for institutions to be naive. As I've mentioned before, they really aren't built for easy lockdown modes. Most were built before that term was even coined.

Those awful 'what if's' are always in the back of my mind. One of my committees is the group that tries students accused of plagiarism or other cheating. We set up the room so that we're closer to the door than the student is, just in case. One of my colleagues has suggested to me, gently but clearly, that it might be a good idea to hide the pictures of my kids that I keep in my office – you just never know. (I haven't, but I haven't been able to shake the thought, either.)

I don't have a neat conclusion to this one. Sometimes, there are no words.

Of Basepaths and Science Fairs

On Saturday, prior to the repent-your-sins storm of Sunday, our local minor league baseball team had its fan appreciation day to inaugurate the season. (Regular readers know that I consider minor league baseball one of life's great pleasures.) There wasn't an actual game per se, but they did have some local guys in uniform play one to keep the fans entertained. The vendors were out in full force, the kids made off with plenty of good (if branded) swag, the weather was mostly cooperative, the mascots made the rounds, parking and admission were free, and I got a sunburn.

Mine are a pasty people.

The highlight, though, came at the end, when they let the kids in attendance run the bases. I knew The Boy could handle it, and he did, making pretty good time as he passed kids between second and third. But I wasn't sure about The Girl. She's still only two, and I'm not sure she has any concept of basepaths. And those basepaths look awfully long when you're awfully short.

I needn't have worried. Bless her little heart, she chugged around the bases like she invented them. Her style of running is unique – her arms don't move, but her curls do – and you don't often see someone in an orange fleece hoodie motoring around third like that. She even stayed on the basepath when she saw Mommy in the stands, which I thought would be the acid test. She crossed home plate with a huge smile and even a little arm-pump, signifying victory. I assumed a catcher's squat behind the plate and high-fived her as she crossed. The season may now begin.

The big milestone for The Boy this week is his first science fair. His teacher sent home a little guidance sheet for the experiments and write-ups (the question you're answering, the procedure, the observations, the conclusion) that TB found as tedious to write up as I always did. (I was in grad school before I realized nobody actually does science that way. Had I known these awful reports were just the anal-retentive artifacts of control-freak elementary educators, I might have embraced science much more. My duty here is clear...)

Since TB didn't really have a concept of 'experiment' yet, I allowed myself to intervene more than I usually would. I thought it would be more useful for him to do something that shows something like logic, rather than the usual baking-soda volcano. So we got out a little racetrack apparatus he got as a toy a couple of years ago. It has parallel twisty tracks and a single starter, so you can have two cars race each other to the bottom. The experiment has five 'heats' with the gold car on the left and the silver on the right, then five more with the cars switched; the idea is to see if winning is a function of a faster car or a faster track. (For the record, the same car won every race, regardless of track.)

We set it up on the dining room table on Sunday, and TB had a blast running the races and recording the results. He was less excited about his little writeup, but he saw it through. TW and I even played 'teacher' a few times, and asked him to explain his little experiment. He eventually got it, and even corrected stupid questions we asked.

I don't give two hoots about him 'winning' – I'm not even sure they do that anymore – but I'm psyched to see him start to figure out how to figure things out. Epistemology starts early, I say. If we can get some basic critical thinking going on, I have to hope that good things will eventually follow.

Warming my heart, he confided on Saturday that he's torn. Part of him wants to be a builder when he grows up, and part of him wants to be an artist. I told him he could do both by being an architect. He knows what an architect is, since he has a book called Roberto the Insect Architect about a termite who likes to build buildings, rather than eat them. He thought that was just about the coolest idea ever, and immediately set about building an impressively elaborate airport with legos. As my long-suffering family can attest, I have the spatial sense of Mr. Magoo, but my father-in-law has the gift. (Remember those aptitude tests from 8th grade? I crashed and burned on the section where they drew an unfolded box and asked you what it would look like folded up. Later, geometry was a bloodbath. Jigsaw puzzles are torture. To this day, I'm completely useless when asked a question like “how would this chair look, against that wall?” TW is a very patient woman.) If TB has the gift too, I say good for him, and hooray for genetic diversity.

Science, baseball, and young children. Sometimes, all is right with the world.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Chronicle Nails One

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The Chronicle actually nailed one. This piece, by a dean at a Midwestern university, is spot-on. I actually laughed out loud reading parts of it.

The essential truth of it is that educated people with advanced degrees often can’t tell the difference between ‘having input’ and ‘making the actual decision.’ As the author puts it,

I have heard that identical sentiment expressed about almost every conceivable type of academic search. But the sentiment is based on the mistaken belief that a committee -- or an entire department or college -- selects (in effect, "elects" by popular vote) a new hire.


I’ve had variations on that conversation when it comes to promotion, hiring, and even student grade appeals. Some students seem to believe that an appeal isn’t over until the grade is changed; when the appeal loses, they don’t quite get it. So I get to walk them through Procedures 101.

Similarly, any time a faculty committee’s recommendation isn’t enacted immediately and precisely, the accusations of corruption fly. Never mind that the accusations are internally inconsistent – “shared governance doesn’t mean shared with the likes of you” is too obviously self-defeating for anyone to actually say directly. But the assumption is still there.

If a process is actually a process, then any reasonable person has to be open to the possibility that he could have input, and still lose. That’s not impossible. In other contexts, it’s almost insultingly obvious. But somehow, in higher ed, some very sharp people just can’t, or won’t, connect the dots. Losing isn’t proof that your input was disregarded. It may well have been taken seriously. It just didn’t win.

Sorry to keep harping on this. It’s been a draining week. I’ll try for something cheerier next time out.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Same Planet, Different Worlds

There's a great old Far Side cartoon captioned “Same planet, different worlds,” in which a guy is seen daydreaming “I wonder what she thinks of me,” or something to that effect, and the girl is shown daydreaming “you know, I like vanilla.”

I had a flashback to that reading this nugget of wisdom from Kiplinger's.

Apparently, “Higher Education Administrator” is one of the 7 Great Careers for 2007, along with orthodontist, landscape architect, and librarian.


The author, with Cool Careers for Dummies to his credit (and I'm not making that up), claims that:

A college campus is among of (sic) the most pleasant and stimulating work environments. And with education ever more viewed (ouch) as the magic pill, longer legions of students (beware short legions, I guess) are lining up to enroll. That means a better job market for you.


Okay, a few concessions. It's true that when I get all crabby about my job, I think back to the ice factory, and decide that this is better. And sometimes I watch Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, and give thanks that I don't have to vacuum out septic tanks. And yes, a college campus can be a very pleasant place to stroll. I'll even concede that the grounds on my campus are genuinely lovely, and that on a beautiful day a quick walk between buildings is a pleasure.

And, to be fair, the author singles out student affairs administration, as opposed to the academic side of the house. It's probably more fun to organize Spring Fest than to nag department chairs about outcomes assessment.

Still, I really have to wonder. Would I recommend higher ed administration to a career changer, someone looking to recapture that lost spark of youth?

Uh, no.

On the academic side, the years of preparation are staggering. You have to go through the standard training for a professor, then be a professor for a while, then work your way up. (At 38, I'm still considered freakishly young. In how many lines of work would that be true?) At every turn, people with lifetime tenure and higher salaries than your own will accuse you of all manner of selfishness. You will be charged with managing people whose jobs and salaries don't depend on you. Your very existence will be taken by many as an affront. You will be blamed personally for large structural trends far beyond your control, usually in tones of aggrieved self-righteousness. You will receive an academic-scale salary for a forty-plus hour week, twelve-months-per-year gig. Since performance is hard to calibrate objectively, you will be considered expendable when the political winds shift.

It's also criminally stupid to think that enrollment is the sole driver of employment. If that were true, faculty jobs would be thick on the ground. The primary reason for the comparatively high percentage of openings in administration at any given time is the staggering attrition rate, not all of it voluntary.

Regular readers of this blog can tick off a list of reasons that a sane person would avoid this line of work. The downside, of course, is that when the sane walk out, the insane are left behind.

I stick with it because I think I'm good at it, and I'm not convinced that many are. As a faculty brat – my Dad met my Mom when he was her T.A. -- I feel a commitment to the profession, and to higher education generally. And there are some projects, programs, and experiments I think would be worth trying, that I want someday to be in a position to attempt. It's genuinely gratifying when you see a project bear fruit, or a new hire turn out great, or a buried treasure come back to life.

But would I advise a burned-out stockbroker to give this a shot? Oh my God, no. No, no, no. I don't know who this “Marty Nemko” character is, but I'd venture to guess he's never been a dean. If this is what he thinks deaning is like, he should stick to vanilla.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Notes on the Red State Visit

  • Overcoats and airplanes don't mix. The charade of 'carry-on baggage' needs some serious rethinking.

  • I'm glad we have to take off our shoes before getting on planes. That way, if some terrorist tries the exact same thing in the exact same way as some idiot tried it before, we stand a decent chance of catching him. Of course, if he adjusts tactics at all, we're kidding ourselves.

  • One enterprising sort set up a vending machine near the security screener, selling disposable slippers so you wouldn't have to walk around barefoot. Build a better mousetrap...

  • Apparently, Red State passed a law mandating a Wendy's restaurant about every 200 feet. I enjoy the occasional visit, but the Wendy's-to-population ratio there is simply astounding.

  • Why do all the major rental car companies only rent American cars? Mine offered to 'upgrade' me to a Chrysler Sebring. Must have been out of Gremlins, I guess. I have one word for the rental car companies: Honda. That is all.

  • You can learn a lot about an area through its phone book. This one had plenty of Baptist and Pentecostal churches, one Catholic church, and nothing that even hinted of a Unitarian one. I didn't even see a mention of a synagogue.

As for the interview itself...

  • “Dance,” you're a genius. The presentation went wonderfully, and actually led to real conversation.

  • It was one of those half-day affairs where you're shepherded from interrogator to interrogator. Seeing the different questions, or the different ways of asking the same question, is revealing. Remembering every name is damn near impossible.

  • Being treated with respect was kind of nice. I had forgotten what that felt like.

  • As I left, I felt pretty sure they'd go with another candidate – I can't really say why without giving away the whole thing – but I also felt like I had pitched my game. If they don't hire the guy they saw, it's because they want something else. Whatever the outcome is, it is, but I can honestly say I brought it. There's something satisfying about that.

And thanks for all the good wishes! A secret, pseudonymous cheering section is a cheering section nonetheless.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Off to Red State today. Depending on internet access and my state of mind, blogging may vary for the next day or two.

Thanks to everyone who commented on Friday's post, esp. "Dance," whose idea for structuring my talk were far better than my own. Blogging as secret weapon -- why not?

Back soon.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Looking for a Hook

In a few days I'm flying out to Red State for an on-campus interview and presentation.

They want 15 minutes on “issues facing higher education in America today.” They're a cc.

I've got more material than I know what to do with, literally. So, faithful readers, help a blogger out:

If you were looking for a new admin, and the candidates had to present on “issues facing higher education in America today,” what issues would you want to hear addressed?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

When Rubber Chickens Attack

The return of the baseball season brings with it the return of the rubber chicken and plastic peas circuit. End-of-the-year functions are crowding the calendar, picking off stray evenings with surgical precision.

This is the time of year when the expectation that deans have stay-at-home spouses becomes really clear. A single parent couldn't do this job. Interestingly, the three Vice Presidents at my cc, two of whom are women, have a combined total of zero children. I suspect this is both 'cause' and 'effect' of the fullness of the calendar. Folks who move up tend not to be folks who are primary caregivers; therefore, schedules that aren't terribly friendly to primary caregivers go uncontested.

At this point, I try not to look more than a week or two ahead, since taking it all in at once is just demoralizing.

Most of the individual events are more than worthy in themselves. I can defend almost all of them, taken separately. It's just the aggregation of them that wears you down.

My fellow deans and I have proposed a tag-team approach. For the events for which it makes sense, we'll designate one dean to represent the whole group. Each of us will take a turn. Instead of giving up 10 evenings over the next few weeks, maybe I whittle it down to 8. I don't know if we'll get away with it – we have some very 'high-touch' personalities around here, and expectations formed over the years are hard to alter without great weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth – but we have to try something.

At most of these events, I won't even have a speaking part. Maybe if I could build a good animatronic replica, I could get some sleep...

Annoyingly, I can't really compensate by coming in later. Business needs doing when it needs doing. But a few back-to-back “home at 11, back in the car at 6:30” days can really suck the wind out of my sails. And they're rough on the family. TW has to pick up the slack, and the kids (especially TB) get cranky when I'm not around when they expect me to be.

Our wedding anniversary falls smack in the middle of Rubber Chicken Season. I've actually blocked out the evening. I'm sure someone here will schedule something terribly important, and be Shocked and Offended (tm) that I'm not there, but sheesh. Even deans have limits.

For the next month and a half, I'll have precious little time to recharge the batteries. By late May, I'm usually one cranky so-and-so. Note to faculty: don't come looking for any special favors in May.


Repeat to self: this is a good problem to have. This is a good problem to have. This is a good problem to have.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Organic, Free-Range College

A comment by Dictyranger last week, combined with a few articles dealing with very different experiences of college by economic class, got me thinking.

In addressing the trend towards adjunctification, Dicty suggested that colleges that shun the trend could some up with some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal to use as a marketing tool. If Iskabibble State somehow kept its f-t faculty ratio above, say, 90%, then it could market itself as Organic Free-Range Certified, or whatever they'd call it. Whether enough parents and students would care enough to pay the economic premium to cover the costs would be sorted out in the marketplace. Colleges that don't want to take that gamble could continue on down the path of cost-cutting.

The New York Times had a piece on “willowy” “amazing girls” who strive to be “effortlessly hot,” who take six or seven AP classes and star in school plays and angst over whether they get into Bowdoin. Their dilemma is in balancing the teenage quest for identity ('keeping it real') and the quest for the perfect college application. Their public high school – in Newton, Mass – teaches Kierkegaard and Aeschylus and calculus and Latin. Their parents urge both relaxation and perfect grades, and just shrug off the contradiction.

The Albuquerque Tribune had a piece about an initiative in New Mexico, supported by the governor, to increase high school graduation rates by infusing community college classes into the high school graduation requirements. The thinking, as near as I can tell, is that raising the academic bar in high school will prevent boredom, which, I guess, they assume drives dropouts. I'll admit, the connection between 'problem' and 'solution' is a bit obscure to me, but Gov. Richardson seems to think it'll work.

Finally, the Chronicle has a piece by Ronald Ehrenberg in which he can't quite decide whether pricy colleges are worth it, on a cost-benefit basis. He notes an aggregate correlation between educational spending and student achievement (and starting salaries upon graduation), but notes also in passing that the correlation largely breaks down on the micro level. So rich kids tend to cluster in rich schools, leading to better outcomes for grads of rich schools, regardless of what the rich schools actually do or don't do. Meanwhile, cc's get tarred with the brush of being 13th grade, which is pretty much becoming mandatory in New Mexico.

Golly. Seems like a lot of class-sorting going on.

I saw a talk a few years ago in which the speaker mentioned the fate of ocean liners in the age of air travel. Prior to commercial air travel, boats were pretty much the only way to get from Europe to the U.S. Gradually, air travel supplanted water travel as the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to get from point A to point B, but ocean liners didn't die. Instead, they reinvented themselves as luxury goods. Now people fly to port cities to take circular cruises on ocean liners. By moving to a narrow and relatively upscale niche, ocean liners were able to survive the clear pragmatic superiority of flight.

The relevance for higher ed, I think, is that we'll see the elite institutions become progressively more so, marketing themselves more as boutique goods – the ocean liners of higher education. (Check out the student housing at Founders College! Yowza!) The non-elites will gradually descend into commodity hell, much like flying in coach; price and (surface) convenience will trump all other considerations. The elites will reject the adjunct trend, simply because they wouldn't want to dilute the brand. The rest will continue to embrace it, to balance the books.

What drops out is the vast middle. The flagships can probably sustain themselves with research money, high-profile sports, and double-digit tuition increases. Community colleges can sustain ourselves on occupational relevance, geographic propinquity, and low cost. But the regional public campuses and third-tier private colleges – the former teachers' colleges turned state universities that top out at master's degrees – have to make a choice. Move up, move down, or move on.

(The retail analogy: there's room for Tiffany's and room for Wal-Mart, but there may or may not be room for Sears.)

If you're one of those folks, like myself, who believes that 'wealth' is an analytically distinct category from 'merit,' or 'talent,' or 'intellect,' then this is vaguely distressing. It suggests that some of the class-maintenance anxiety of the Amazing Girls in Newton is actually based on a fairly accurate reading of the situation. If the midtier schools lose their viability, then the macro-micro disjuncture that Ehrenberg acknowledges but doesn't explore could easily dissipate. It may well be that the relative unimportance of attending a high-tuition college has been based on the better-than-you'd-expect quality of the middle tier. If that middle tier hollows out, then the relative bargain evaporates, and the up-until-recently-exaggerated fears of the Amazing Girls – that failure to get into a Name College will result in middling economic prospects -- will actually become true.

The New Mexico initiative bothers me more than it probably should. At one level, of course, I'm happy to see cc's acknowledged as valuable educational resources for a state to include in an overall economic development plan. And I'm always happy to see healthy enrollments. But it bothers me to see cc's reduced to 13th grade, especially when instead of offering Aeschylus and calculus, they're called on to offer culinary arts and interior design. There's no shame in either, of course, but it's hard not to notice the different careers (and salary levels) for which students in different districts are being prepared.

Happily, the New Mexico proposal contains a contradiction that the governor apparently hasn't figured out yet. (This is just between us, dear readers. If I wanted this to go public, I'd post it on the internet. Oh, wait...) One of the proposed HS graduation requirements is an online course. (The article doesn't explain what kind or level of course.) That's fine, as far as it goes, but the distinctive feature of online education is that it isn't place-bound. In most of the U.S., the public K-12 system is place bound. It's defined by geographically-bounded districts, and funded largely by local taxes. The dirty little secret, of course, is that different districts have different levels of tax base and different demographics. Using my crystal ball, I predict that some enterprising-but-not-wealthy parent will try to enroll her kid (who attends Working Class HS) in an online course offered through Snooty HS. All hell will break loose. Once the connection to 'place' is severed, I think it would be awfully tough to justify the levels of inequality that are actually out there. The political battles will get very ugly, very quickly. If someone who didn't pay the cost of admission (that is, buy a $750,000+ house) is allowed to crash the party, I'd expect the hosts to be less than gracious. Call me cynical.

All this is by way of saying that freeway flyers are also canaries in the coal mine. The opportunities that don't exist for them are also opportunities that don't (or won't) exist for students. The economic end-run of attending a good-but-cheap college and using that as a stepping stone is getting blocked. This is no one person's fault, and no college individually should be blamed for doing what it has to do to survive. But I don't like where it's going.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


In a discussion in the comments section last week, one freeway flyer commented that he keeps adjuncting for a living because whenever he tries to find a non-academic job, he's turned away for being 'overqualified.' He can't get a tenure-track line, due to the lovely economics of higher ed, but non-academic employers assume (accurately or not) that he'd decamp at a moment's notice for an academic job, so they don't want to invest their time and training in him. (Presumably, many non-academic employers – and non-academics generally – have a much rosier picture of the economics of higher education than is actually the case.)

I ran into that one myself a lot in grad school. Since summer courses were few and far between, and TA stipends didn't cover July or August, I had to find regular scut jobs to pay the rent. I got turned away from a surprising number of very low-wage, low-skill places, on the grounds that they didn't want someone who would be gone in a few months.

The 'overqualified' term is unfortunate, since it's sort of inaccurate. On its face, it's a direct assault on any notion that employment and merit are somehow correlated – if the best applicant always wins, then 'overqualified' should be a nonsense term. But it's usually really more about fear of flight risk, a clumsy sort of psychoanalysis about likelihood of sustained motivation, and, sometimes, letting people down easy.

Flight risk is a very tricky reality. I'll admit, I've been on both sides of this one. When I was at Proprietary U, I was on several search committees on which some very strong candidates didn't get interviews because it was painfully obvious, to us, that they wouldn't stick around for more than a year. That might seem arbitrary, but there's a very real cost to high employee turnover. Between search costs and learning curves, you don't hit the sweet spot of productivity immediately. I don't think it takes nearly as long as some of my tenured faculty like to believe, but it's rare to hit it in the first year. Even for experienced instructors, there's usually an adjustment period to a new setting. From the employer's side, if you know you're being 'settled for,' you're the port in the storm and no more than that, then you can expect bare-minimum performance, iffy attitude, and the need to advertise again next year.

At least there, we were in the same industry in which we suspected the candidate wanted to work. I'd imagine the misgivings would be even greater for non-academic employers. If Adjunct Bob showed up at my marketing company, doctorate in hand, with years of ongoing teaching experience, I'd be wary. Did Adjunct Bob have an epiphany, or is he just looking for a spot to land until the job he actually wants comes along? If I'm not desperate, I could see not wanting to take the chance.

The psychological issues here are major and sticky. What can be passed off as 'flight risk' may be fear of being overshadowed. Or the fear of flight risk may be out of proportion to the actual likelihood of someone leaving – I suspect that's true more often than people think. As Bitch likes to say, we aren't brains on sticks; sometimes people take positions that aren't immediately obvious fits on paper, because there are other factors in their lives – spousal ties, family ties, whatever – that offset the apparent imbalance. The employer can't ask about those, though, so information not available is information not considered, even when it would actually be relevant.

And it's fundamentally degrading, as an applicant, to have your motives questioned. How do you respond to “I'm just not sure you'd be happy here.”? Especially if part of you agrees?

(This is where my inner Scandinavian gets his back up. My private thoughts, personal demons, and deep motives are my own, thank you very much. As long as I behave appropriately, how I feel about it is none of your damn business. This is also why I experience motivational speakers as unethical and coercive.)

I think the disparity between the popular image of what it means to have a doctorate, and the actual economic realities of higher education (especially in traditional fields), is making this issue much more salient than it should be. If job opportunities were thick on a ground, the obtuseness of one prospective employer wouldn't matter all that much – you'd just move on to the next one. But full-time jobs aren't thick on the ground. Worse, the shortage of full-time academic jobs is often a secret to non-academics, who just assume that education is the key to success. So an unlucky would-have-been-English professor may be shut out of tenure track opportunities by sheer numbers, and shut out of good corporate gigs out of a misplaced sense of flight risk. This just plain sucks.

Has anyone out there found a good response to the 'overqualified' line?