Friday, June 22, 2007

Blog Birthday Bits

  • Today is the third birthday of the blog. To celebrate (okay, not really, but a segue is a segue), I'll be taking next week off. The family is piling into our trusty compact and trundling off to a vacation spot you've heard of for several days. No internet, no office politics, no fluorescent lighting. If all goes well, by the end of next week, my brain will be starting to snap back to its original shape. At this point, the prospect of a week without purchase requisitions is a source of actual joy. The next scheduled post will be on July 2.

  • The Boy's kindergarten class sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at our local minor-league park during the seventh inning stretch one night last week. (The next day I teased my music faculty by telling them – correctly – that he made his concert debut in front of thousands.) The front row of box seats was abruptly commandeered by parents wielding camcorders, myself among them. Unlike certain “singers,” I can attest that The Boy does not lip sync.

  • The kids were herded into the tunnel next to the dugout a half-inning before showtime. During that half-inning, the home team faced twelve batters, finally getting the third out on a rundown. It was The Inning That Wouldn't Die. At one point, I turned to the parent next to me and said that if they didn't get the next guy out, I'd walk down to the dugout and volunteer to pitch. When it finally ended and the kids got to sing, they looked none the worse for wear, though TB volunteered that the tunnel smelled like poop. I told him that show business is rough.

  • I didn't share that with my music faculty.

  • If you ever get the chance to drive an excited six-year-old boy and his excited-by-contact-high two-year-old sister to a ballgame at which he will sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” be prepared for endless, spirited rehearsals en route. Know, too, that there's nothing funnier to a six-year-old boy than ending a verse with a loud burp, or finding excuses to slip the word “butt” into the lyrics. Worse, you will find yourself laughing involuntarily, thereby encouraging him and generating the dreaded “you're-not-helping” look from your long-suffering spouse.

  • Worse than that, you'll find the altered lyrics annoyingly catchy, and will find yourself singing them to yourself under your breath for the next several days. Try not to do this at work. Trust me on this one.

  • And that's why I need a vacation. See you in July!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Study Skills Courses?

Apparently, a new study suggests that 'study skills' courses for college freshmen improves eventual academic success rates.

This bothers me to no end.

Proprietary U required a study skills course of all matriculated students. Some students put it off until the semester before graduation, then used their high GPAs to argue that they obviously didn't need the class. Although I was tasked with enforcing the rule, I couldn't help but agree with the students. (This was especially true of adult students, many of whom had children at home. They were juggling full-time work, part-time study, and parenthood, and doing it all fairly well, and here I was telling them that they won't graduate because they didn't complete a non-credit requirement that teaches note-taking and time management?) That just never seemed right.

It was tough to convince a very skeptical, very utilitarian student population that charging tuition for a course that didn't count towards graduation was anything other than a scam. If they managed to get most of the way through their degree program and do it in style, the sell was even tougher.

I don't deny for a minute that some students arrive relatively clueless, and that some students may benefit from some basic life management skills. As CCPhysicist put it in the comments to the IHE piece,

Trust me, these kids need help with managing their time, their money, taking notes, even with going to class the next day. In my opinion, the biggest challenge they face is simply comprehending that they were lied to in high school about what level math or English they were passing and how much of it they were learning, not to mention whether passing the HS grad exam a year or three ago means they are ready for college algebra or English.

That's true for some, but I hesitate to paint with such a broad brush. As tempting as it is to paint the issue as one of “are you willing to do what needs to be done, or are you a starchy academic elitist who doesn't care about the students?,” the fact is that some students have these needs, and some don't. And to require those that don't to endure a patronizing and infantilizing course – for credits that don't transfer and don't count towards graduation, but for which we charge tuition anyway – is insulting and unproductive.

Where I can see a course like this making some degree of sense is with students who have already been identified as having unusually high risk of failure – those with multiple developmental needs (say, both remedial English and remedial math), or those with certain kinds of learning disabilities, or those who have flunked out of college before and are back on a probationary basis. In those cases, there's at least some reason to think that there may be a “rules of the game” deficit. But to assume that every cc student is deficient – after all, why are they here in the first place? -- is insulting, counterproductive, and false. Some students attend cc's because of skills deficits, but many attend for the low tuition, geographic convenience (that is, living at home), and quality of programs. (We have degrees in certain occupational fields that the local four-year schools simply don't have. If that's the degree you want, we're often the only game in town. Some of those students are quite good.)

I think of these as sort of like 'defensive driving' courses. Suppose someone does a study that shows that defensive driving courses reduce accidents. Should we require completion of a course as a condition of everybody's license renewal every four years? I'd have to say 'no,' and not because I'm a fan of traffic accidents. It's just an undue burden on people who've shown that they're quite capable as it is, thank you very much. I have no issue with requiring the Lindsay Lohans or Billy Joels of the world to take courses like these, but to generalize to everybody just strikes me as excessive.

I've written before on the three kinds of 'A' students – the brilliant, the dutiful, and the manaical. Study skills courses assume that the dutiful way is the right way, and that other approaches are fundamentally lesser. To me, the purpose of higher education isn't to teach how to outline your notes. (In my experience, the folks who are the best at 'outlines' are almost always the shallowest thinkers. PowerPoint is the triumph of outlining.) It's taking the “teach you how to think” motto entirely too literally. I've always interpreted “teach you how to think” as meaning “we challenge you, and you figure out how to answer the challenge.” Over time, through answering enough challenges, you figure out a method that works for you. Different people answer the challenge in different ways, and that's good – the diversity of styles leads to a wider range of strengths. If we establish a single style as The One True Faith, we're penalizing perfectly capable people who come at things in ways we haven't thought of yet.

In a way, I'm trying to defend the academic freedom of students. Students bring different backgrounds, strengths, gaps, and attention levels. Sometimes they learn by failing, as heretical as that is to admit. Sometimes they surprise themselves by discovering talents or tastes they didn't know they had. I want them to be able to use the approaches they develop for themselves, even at the cost of some of them failing. Our K-12 system worships the standardized, step-by-step approach to student work, which is why it sucks. Our higher ed system, which is far better than our K-12 system on a world scale, is founded on a certain kind of freedom – including the freedom to fail – and I suspect that's part of the reason it's good. Let's not model higher ed after K-12. If anything, it should be the other way around.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Waking The Boy

Although he gets a solid twelve hours a night (!), on some school mornings, TB really, really doesn't want to wake up. As the school year is winding to a close, it's getting worse.

We've had to resort to drastic measures.

Last week, when more traditional measures had failed, I resorted to the following, of which I am not proud:

“Get up or I'll start singing Anne Murray songs, and nobody wants that!”


(In my best Peter-Brady-voice-changing delivery) “SPREAD YOUR TINY WINGS AND FLY AWAY...”

(TB grunts, chuckles, and climbs out of bed.)

Adolescence is going to be sheer hell for the poor kid. I have a whole repertoire of cheesy MOR 70's hits memorized, due to some really unfortunate parental taste in music. Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Rita Coolidge, Juice Newton; you know the type. I haven't yet resorted to “Angel of the Morning” or “Space Cowboy,” but I haven't ruled them out, either. I'm saving “Horse With No Name” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” for emergencies.

What's the most insidious way your parents woke you up?

Antioch and Philanthropy

Antioch's demise has brought forth a great deal of ink, much of it smugly self-congratulatory, or bitter, or both.

Colleges fail for plenty of reasons, some of them idiosyncratic. Certainly Antioch's weird organizational structure (a small liberal arts residential college surrounded by revenue-generating graduate outposts hither and yon) isn't terribly common. Its sex code of the 1990's was a stupid, self-inflicted wound that richly deserved to be consigned to the ashbin of history. (What, exactly, is a “level” of intimacy, anyway? Is that like first base, second base? And isn't there such a thing as nonverbal communication? But I digress.) And it's not like rural Ohio is the first choice destination of most ambitious 18-year-olds. (That said, Oberlin, Denison, and Kenyon seem to do okay.)

Rather than focusing on those factors, though, I hope Antioch's demise at least prompts a more thoughtful (and urgent!) conversation about philanthropy in higher ed, and the place of non-elite liberal arts colleges generally.

Private colleges and universities that can't sell exclusivity or religion have a tough row to hoe. The elites have huge endowments and the value of the brand, so they'll be fine. Colleges with strong religious identities – especially in rapidly-growing faiths with strong 'us vs. them' outlooks – have something to offer (to some people) that public colleges simply can't compete with. Public colleges and universities (and especially cc's) are subsidized, and can compete on price. (The better ones put together an appealing combination of price, quality, and reputation. At some universities, football seals the deal.) Proprietaries generally pick hot occupational niches, and sell the concept of job placement.

But the smaller private liberal arts colleges that don't have the name brand of a Swarthmore or a Williams – even if they do have the price tag of a Swarthmore or a Williams – have a tough sell. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see more of them go belly-up in the next few years. They're selling designer knockoffs at designer prices – a shaky business plan, at best. Were I to take charge of one, my first goal would be to move it towards a unique identity. Instead of being okay-to-pretty-good at a whole lot of things, be great at a few. I think of it as the Ithaca College model – what would otherwise be a nothing-special school has a powerful niche in music. Pick something specific and run with it. Of course, it's easier to do this at the outset, before faculty interest-group politics really kick in to prevent change.

Philanthropy is more complicated.

Working in a public institution, I've of deeply divided mind on philanthropy. Yes, it's great to get free money. I'm grateful to the donors who have made it possible for us to give scholarships to worthy students, and the time-honored practice of selling naming rights to buildings is a fairly harmless way to generate some much-needed income. (Even this has its limits, though. The “Budweiser Student Center”? Uh, no.)

But for reasons I'll admit I don't really understand, philanthropists as a breed are often loathe to pay for ongoing operating expenses, such as salaries. (Named chairs are an exception.) It's often easier to get funding for a building than to get funding for someone to work in it. Philanthropy often varies with economic cycles, drying up precisely when it's needed most. (When it comes to need, it's countercyclical in another way – the wealthiest institutions get the biggest donations. Donors like to contribute to success more than they like to rescue struggling or failing concerns. This is understandable, but staggeringly inefficient.) Worse – at least from the perspective of a public institution – any financial 'reserves' are counted against us at appropriations time, so we wind up right back where we started, only with more strings attached. Then when we've burned through the reserves, we're worse off than before, because getting back to where we started would require politically unacceptable percentage increases. Setting back the base rate hurts us indefinitely.

This is one area where I think we need to learn from the conservatives. As far back as the Goldwater campaign, some very smart conservative operatives figured out that the usual philanthropic fixation on 'seed money' is short-sighted, and that ongoing subsidies for think tanks – including salaries – were best thought of as investments. By providing ongoing operating funding for right-wing think tanks for decades, they were able to build the infrastructure of a movement. They understood that the point of a think tank isn't a think tank; it's political power.

Too often, I think, higher ed has failed to tie its philanthropic appeals to longer-term payoffs. So we get grants for 'seed money' but not for sustaining operations, leading to a constant (and wearing) churn of projects, rather than real progress along a single course. Of course, to make the appeal for long-term progress requires specifying and sticking to a single course – that's where the need for a niche (and internal discipline to avoid mission creep) comes in. Why should I give to Ithaca College? Because I care about music. Why should I give to Antioch College? Um, uh...

The most effective money is money that you can count on still being there next year and the year after that. Sustainable, regular, predictable money is money you can use for long-term expenses, like tenure-track faculty. (There's a direct relationship between boringly predictable financing and the ability to sustain diverse and cutting-edge intellectual projects. It's counterintuitive, but true. That's why good administrators are so hard to find – we need to be at least vaguely conversant in both, plus have at least adequate people skills.) Big, splashy, short-term infusions lead to project-itis. The wealthiest private schools figured this out a long time ago and established endowments exactly to even out year-to-year fluctuations. The less-wealthy private schools, the tuition-driven ones, need to start making some choices – select a reason to exist, if they want to continue to exist. The public sector needs to re-think the relationship between 'reserves' and 'appropriations,' to get away from the idea that gifts received now should result in reduced appropriations two years from now. I'm happy to see the college receive gifts, and grateful for the generosity of the donors (who would, after all, be well within their rights not to give at all, or to give elsewhere). But I think we – and legislatures -- need to be more strategic about what we do with those gifts.

If Antioch's death can spur some of those conversations, and help us get higher ed on better financial footing, than some good will have come from it. Instead of confirming positions long held, I'd like to see some new – and much-needed – lessons learned.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Those Pesky Spouses Again...

A newly-chosen department chair writes (obfuscated for anonymity):

We have a looming problem -- a beloved colleague of (several) years is married to a guy who is not as beloved as a person, but is a perfectly serviceable academic in my field. Having gone through my own, very unpleasant, spousal hiring nightmare (my wife was hired in our dept. several years ago, now has tenure, turned out well but situation was ugly as it proceeded), I want this one to be smooth as silk. Or at least smooth as something akin to silk.

Can a department hire a spouse following something like the following procedure: advertise nationally, bypass interview process, hire spouse?

Or, must a department do something like this: advertise nationally, interview at convention, bring three candidates to campus (including spouse), hire spouse?

I shrank those scenarios down to the minimum in each case. I will confirm that I am an advocate of the first scenario, but also one who is certain he knows of cases that have proceeded as that scenario outlines.

I have other colleagues, older by a decade at least, who argue that we must do the second scenario.

I'd love to get some feedback.

There's just no elegant way around spousal (or partner) hiring. I've written before on a very prestigious university near my cc that has tried to outsource its trailing spouses to neighboring colleges (i.e. us) via an online repository of trailing partners' curriculum vitae. The idea is that we'd be so grateful for the opportunity to make their problems our own that we'll jump at the chance to ignore our own interests in favor of those of a university that otherwise wouldn't care if we burned to the ground.

It hasn't worked. Wonder of wonders, we have our own problems to deal with, thank you very much.

As a cc, we're largely spared this issue. We don't raid superstars, so we don't have to finagle spousal appointments for them. I'll have to ask readers who work at R1's and similar places how this is handled there.

Although trailing spouses exist in every profession, I don't know of any others offhand in which it's taken for granted that they deserve special consideration. My guess is that the special consideration they (sometimes) get is a perverse function of the shortage of faculty jobs. If there were plenty of jobs to go around, I'd imagine trailing spouses would be seen as blessings. The Snooty Liberal Arts College I attended, which was located about two miles west of nowhere, had a de facto policy of hiring couples, since it was the only way to get good young faculty to stay out there in the sticks. But that's the exception. In most of academia, and especially in the evergreen disciplines, there's such a labor surplus that any sort of favoritism invites litigation.

I'm not a fan of Potemkin searches. The “advertise it, but don't mean it” strategy just strikes me as cruel. If you advertise and don't bother interviewing, you're giving false hope. If you advertise and interview, but have an outcome already in mind, you're giving false hope and costing people time and money. If you don't advertise, I see “discrimination lawsuit” written all over it. Imagine: highly-qualified member of multiple protected classes doesn't get the chance to apply for a job that goes to a white male, based largely on who he's sleeping with. I think the legal term is “gulp.”

Basically, there's a mismatch between the law – which is written for individuals – and actual people, who sometimes come in pairs or groups. If we follow the law, we force horrible choices on actual people. If we bend to accommodate a few people, we do so at the cost of others who have the law on their side. If there's a more elegant way to handle this, I'd like to know.

There are also pragmatic considerations. Suppose you hire Superstar and Trailing Mediocrity. Shortly after they both get tenure, they break up, Superstar decamps for greener pastures, and you're stuck with Tenured Trailing Mediocrity. In a situation like that, Superstar is the likelier candidate to leave, since, by definition, she's the one with more options. Or suppose the marriage is fine, TM is in a different department, and gets shot down for tenure. Now the secondary department has made it likely that the first will lose its Superstar. It isn't hard to spin out any number of ugly permutations.

(In practice, it's common to see the poorly paid instructional support staff positions go to trailing spouses. At SLAC back in the 80's, I noticed that many of the older librarians shared last names with the older faculty. Now, the spouses are likelier scattered among various campus 'centers.')

I'll admit being lucky in this regard, since The Wife isn't an academic, so we're spared some of the 'two-body problem.' One free piece of advice I'll give to single grad students – make a real effort to date outside of academia. Few other fields are as economically straitened as this.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen a model that works?

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

Monday, June 18, 2007

There's Distance Ed, and Then There's Distance Ed

Our distance ed coordinator stopped me in the cafeteria last week to report that she's trying to enroll a student in an online class; the student in question is currently deployed in Afghanistan, and expects to be there for the next 18 months. He wants to take the class from there.

Apparently, the student reports that he wants to have something to think about other than his immediate surroundings, and a college class would fit the bill. He also wants to have something to jump into when his tour of duty ends and he returns home. I think it's a great idea, and we're working to make it happen, but we're bumping into some weird obstacles.

First, of course, there's tuition. As a cc, we have a higher rate for people from out-of-state, on the theory that state residents already pay taxes towards supporting the college. Afghanistan is clearly out-of-state, but it seems ridiculous to apply that logic here. His domicile is local, and his parents are doing the legwork of buying and shipping his textbooks and suchlike. We'll get the out-of-state premium waived one way or another.

Student fees are a question. They're dedicated to supporting student clubs, athletics, and access to the health center. I suspect that these are pretty much irrelevant in his case.

Then there are time zones. Professors who teach online classes sometimes have set times for quizzes or tests or chats. Those times are based on our local time zone. Afghanistan is in a very different time zone, so a time that may be perfectly reasonable for the local students may be utterly out of the question there, and vice versa.

Exam proctoring is another one. Typically, we require students in online classes to come to campus for proctored exams. We'll have to waive that in this case, obviously, but we haven't quite figured out how to replace it.

Library access is non-existent out there. Realistically, most students do most of their research for papers on the internet now anyway, but he doesn't really have the choice. I don't know that there's much to be done about that.

Then there are the obvious issues of a war zone. Internet access may be spotty from time to time, and his availability to tend to the classwork will be hard to predict from hour to hour, let alone week to week. (Even calling for tech support could be an issue, given time zone differences.) The standard periodic reading quizzes may not make sense, given that the assumption behind them is that students are largely in control of their own schedules. Given his circumstances, that assumption probably won't hold, at least not consistently.

These may all sound picky and silly, and compared to the threat of getting blown up at any given moment, they are. But the student wants a grade and course credit, and the grade has to be based on something rational. When he comes back, he wants to be able to jump right into college with some credits and real subject-matter knowledge already under his belt, and I want him to have that option.

Although we don't usually involve students' parents to anywhere near this degree, we've asked the parents to reach out to the professor before the course starts to give her a heads-up as to the student's situation and what the parents can and can't do. So that involves some FERPA waivers and some very clear communication on all sides, as well as a certain amount of trial-and-error.

We've had students in the military before, but they were physically local, so things like library access or exam proctoring were non-issues. This is different.

Have you ever had a distance ed student on active deployment? What issues (and solutions!) did you find? If you have a tip that could save us reinventing the wheel, I'd be grateful. I'd really like to make this work.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Going for Deanships

A new correspondent writes:

My question has to do with a dear friend of mine, an assistant professor of music
at a small, four-year liberal arts college in the Northeast. Dear
Friend has two years' experience as a full-time faculty member and is
still ABD. He spent about five years as an adjunct (mostly at four-
year schools), and he was very active in student leadership in
graduate school. What he lacks (other than a semester or two of
adjunct work) is two-year college experience. He has it in his head
that because he's practically a PhD and spent a few months as an
acting adjunct faculty coordinator for the music department of one of
the schools where he was adjuncting, he's administrative material.
He wants to start applying for community college deanships. I've
told him that I doubt his application will be taken seriously, but he
thinks I'm full of crap. What do you think?

Sign me,

Anything can happen at any given place. That said, though, he'd have to catch lightning in a bottle for this to work.

The typical path to an academic deanship (as opposed to one in student affairs, say) is through serving first as a department chair or something similar to it. That's not an iron law, but it's a pretty common requirement. For the most part, you need to get tenure before becoming a chair. (Again, not an iron law, but exceptions are rare.) The idea, other than just gatekeeping, is to make sure that the folks in responsible roles have some idea what it is that they're managing. A department that may seem perfectly congenial and sane when you're a professor in it may reveal itself to be completely nuts when you suddenly have to manage it.

A college that appoints deans who have never managed faculty before is taking a real risk. The theory behind requiring chair service first is to make sure than someone stepping into a deanship will already have been disabused of the romantic myths of academic life, and won't be dumbstruck the first time a tenured professor cites academic freedom as justification for skipping class, or runs over her laptop with her car. You need a certain calm in the face of complete insanity, and experience can help with that, even for those with the natural temperament for it. (Some people never develop the temperament for it, and are nightmares to work with or for. Sadly, academic brilliance and managerial temperament are carried on different genes.) I'm one of the stabler people I know, and I still get thrown off my game from time to time when some moonbat with an agenda and way too much time on his hands gets new signals from the mothership.

I could imagine a very small college looking past inexperience, if its bench is severely depleted and senior. I could also imagine an imperious VP looking past inexperience, if he thinks it equates to malleability. The former may or may not be appealing; the latter certainly shouldn't be.

Over the past few years, a few studies have connected the dots and found that the relative dearth of full-time faculty hiring at lower-echelon colleges over the last few decades has depleted the pipeline for future chairs and deans. I'm not sure that colleges in this group have yet adjusted their hiring expectations accordingly; they're still able to blame weak applicant pools on idiosyncratic factors. But as the current crop of deans and administrators retires, the failure to develop a farm team will become hard to ignore.

My advice for your friend, if his role at his current college is fairly secure, is to volunteer for 'coordinator' positions or other ad hoc administrative assignments. Get a little experience, show some interest, and establish himself as a likely future chair. If the pipeline of younger hires with both taste and aptitude for administration is as thin there as it is nationally, eventually, he'll be in good shape. Just not yet.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Program Note

I'm excited to say that I'm blurring the line between 'blogger' and 'columnist' by publishing over at (Click on the “Blog U” logo to go to their in-house bloggers, including yours truly, or go directly there via this link.) If all goes well, I anticipate eventually migrating over there entirely at some point. Among other things, they have tech support, so the version of the blog over there comes with a real RSS feed, Digg It,, etc. Bells and whistles I've never really mastered.

Among other things, I need a logo. Any ideas?

It's an interesting step in the evolution of the blog. Since it started way back when under a different title (“Confessions of a Suburban Dad,” which explains the url), it has gone in some unforeseen directions. The early scattershot approach gave way to a narrower focus on higher ed, leading to a name change. (That, and the realization that the title “Confessions of a Suburban Dad” sounds like it would be a collection of stories of seducing babysitters.) It has become less autobiographical over time, for better or worse, and has become more about life in higher ed generally. To my gratified amazement, it has also become a part-time advice column – those “Ask the Administrator” pieces are my favorites to write. (Send your questions to ccdean (at) myway (dot) com!) I'm hoping that combining the Best Readers Ever (hi everyone!) with IHE's readership will make for a more wide-ranging and therefore more interesting conversation. The feedback is always the best part.

That's not to say that I plan to go all wonky. The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl will still make regular appearances, and I'll still do the occasional lark and/or rant. If I have a contribution to make, I like to think, it's in trying to recognize the three-dimensional reality of working in higher ed administration, and that includes having personal lives. And I'm not doing this to be boring.

I don't know if this will work – part of me anticipates that, six months from now, I'll be staring at my bloated, coked-out reflection in the mirror, muttering to the editors that “it used to be about the music, man” -- but it's time to try something new.

Check it out!

Base Rates

According to a piece in IHE, Democrats in Congress are considering establishing penalties for colleges that increase tuition by too high a percentage over any three-year period.

To illustrate why this is a painfully stupid idea, I'll trot out some math. Assume 3 percent annual inflation, which is probably in the ballpark. The cap is twice the inflation rate, or 6 percent per year.

Snooty U: $40,000 this year, 42,000 next year, 44,000 the following year – 10 percent over two years; hunky-dory, no problem.

Struggling CC: $3,000 this year, 3,200 next year, 3,400 the following year – 13 percent over two years; violation.

So Snooty U can go up by $4,000 without penalty, but if Struggling CC goes up by one-tenth of that, it's considered profligate. We uppity cc's need to be put in our place. It sure is a good thing we can heat our buildings for free! Oh, wait...

Snooty U is rewarded for being too expensive in the first place, and Struggling CC is punished for being too affordable. This, in the name of affordability.

(In this context, Gov. Patrick's plan for free tuition at cc's in Massachusetts gets even scarier. What's six percent of nothing? Prepare for the ax, folks...)

The net effect over time, obviously, will be that the wealthiest schools will continue to pull away from the rest, and the schools that are actually open to regular people will erode. It isn't that hard to see. This is especially true when you consider that the most expensive colleges and universities typically have larger endowments, and depend less on tuition for revenue.

Clearly, the only rational course of action for cc's is to pass enormous tuition increases while we still can. Double or triple them now, so the base rates will give us reasonable room to move. It's only a holding action, obviously, but it might buy enough time to try to get a more intelligent bill passed.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I'll suggest a few alternatives:

  • Get the skyrocketing cost of health insurance under control, since that's driving much of the tuition increases anyway. Move to universal single-payer and be done with it. Make those parasites at HMO's find productive work. Get our percentage of GDP devoted to health care down to, say, Sweden's, and invest the resulting hundreds of billions per year in almost anything else. I mean, sheesh.

  • Instead of a percentage cap, go with a dollar figure cap. Nobody can raise tuition by more than, say, $1000 a year for a full-time student. We never have, so that's fine, but the Cornells of the world might start to sweat a little. A little progressivity might be refreshing.

  • Some recognition of the connection between state aid levels and tuition would be helpful. Many scholars are convinced of an important link between 'cause' and 'effect.'

  • Look at higher ed as a coherent system, rather than a constellation of independent actors. Does it make sense to starve out the Nursing programs at community colleges, while providing subsidies for the Whiffenpoofs? I think not. Then again, I'm not in Congress.

  • For that matter, if you want to save a bundle on remedial ed, improve the *#%&#)%&# high schools. Let us teach college level courses in college. That might help...

Higher ed is caught in a weird bind. Our costs are climbing rapidly, even as we've spent decades (at least in the frugal lower echelons) hollowing-out the full-time faculty. We're hitting the limits of the “adjuncts will save us” strategy, especially when salary and benefits savings evaporate when student attrition levels climb. Yet parents and the public are -- rightly -- concerned about tuition levels.

In this, as in so many things, a basic failure to define our terms is leading to stupid and counter-productive decision-making. If, say, NYU raises its tuition “too much,” why punish CUNY? If the Ivy League has intimidatingly-high sticker prices, why crack down on community colleges? And hasn't anybody in Congress heard of 'base rates'?


I know, I know, Congress is bad at math. But this is really appalling, even for them. I'd offer to run some remedial math courses for them, but I don't have the budget for it...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ask My Readers: Advice for the New Kids

A longtime reader writes:

I have a question for you and your wise and worldly readers. My husband and I have been at the same campus for many years, a VH (very high)-research state university. We are now moving to a VH-undergraduate state university in a different state. Serious culture shock... He will direct an academic program there, and I will be professional staff working to "support" faculty. My question is, among all the thousands of things we will need to learn very fast in order to "hit the ground running," as they say, do you have any thoughts on what we should try to learn before we get there, and immediately upon arriving? Anything we definitely should, or should not, do?

In a subsequent email, she clarified that they're both going to be doing the same jobs at the new place as at their current one; they're just switching employers.

I'll have to ask my patient (and wise and worldly!) readers for help on this one, since the two institutional milieu (milieux?) they're dealing with are not my own.

Having said that, I can offer a few basics.

Early on, do a listening tour, and focus especially on the longtime administrative staff (admin assistants and the like). They're often remarkably good sources of information, if you're willing to try to filter out personal hobbyhorses. A little early, respectful attention can go a long way with folks who, though low on the official org chart, are absolutely indispensable when you need to get things done.

If you find some 'low-hanging fruit' early on, use that to set a constructive tone. Most people have some sort of blind spot that manifests itself at work. Since your blind spot is unlikely to be identical to your predecessor's, you should be able to find some sort of long-standing staff grievance that you can rectify without real cost. (In my case, for reasons I've never been able to suss out, my predecessor often took months to do writeups of class observations. I do them within 24 hours. It works better for me anyway, but the faculty really appreciated the change.)

What I would not do – and this is especially true in an academic setting – is immediately throw my weight around and do the “new sheriff in town” strut. Bad Idea. If you do that, you'll reinforce the common organizational pathology of focusing on personalities, rather than solutions. If you come in as somebody who will listen to anybody as long as the input is constructive, you stand a chance of shaking loose some of the good ideas that have been buried for fear of the “shoot the messenger” syndrome.

I've had very good luck with building relationships across silos. Get to know people in the registrar's office, student life, and financial aid, as well as the usual suspects (the faculty). It takes a little extra effort, but those relationships can make your working life a lot easier over time.

I'd also use your status as newbie as a free pass to ask lots of questions, both Socratic and informational. (Honestly, if I had it to do over again, I would have done much more of that at my current college.) Frequently the new kid asks the question that everybody is sort of thinking, but doesn't want to ask for fear of looking ignorant. The new kid is allowed a certain ignorance, at least for a while. Play that to your advantage.

Wise readers – especially wise readers who work in institutions like those – what would you add or change?

Best of luck in the new jobs, btw.

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Best. Readers. Ever.

A while back I posted a question from someone going for a department chair position.

Check out the message she posted yesterday:

Update from the interviewee: I followed everyone's advice here at least somewhat, because it was all more than reasonable. Better alerted to the nature of the responsibilities and key questions by ancarett and CCD, the first part of the talk was restructured per lesboprof and psychprof. I also spoke with the previous head.

As a result, I arrived with a much clearer sense of where the department, its individual faculty, and my own self were going, and wanted to go. It was a relaxed, productive, positive experience all around. From an interviewed pool of 5, I got the nod. Thanks very much.


Thanks to ancarett, lesboprof, and psychprof specifically, and to all of my readers generally, for making the advice smarter than I could ever make it on my own. And congrats to the new chair!

Counting Backwards

There's a thought-provoking post over at Lesboprof's about career goals, timing, and the importance (and shock!) of counting backwards. It's about the shock of recognition when you say “I want to be in place x by year y. To do that, I'd have to get to x-1 by year y-5, which means...” and suddenly realizing that the seemingly endless expanse of time before you is, in fact, quite brief.

Counting backwards can be revelatory in other aspects of life, too. I remember vividly the conversation The Wife and I had when we were about a year into our marriage, and we started talking about when to start trying to have kids. When we counted backwards, we realized that 'someday' had somehow and quite without warning become 'right now.' Catching up to the math emotionally took a little more time than just doing the math did.

I'll leave it to the psychologists to explain just how it works, but somehow the exercise of counting backwards turns the very fuzzy future into something emotionally concrete. Suddenly there are boundaries. And those boundaries are both limiting and – weirdly – clarifying. They make the vast expanse of forever somehow more legible, and therefore easier to handle. Suddenly there's urgency, and the excitement of working towards something displaces the vague ennui and angst of just drifting.

(As a parent of two young children, I have only a distant recollection of angst. Who has time? I haven't had angst since the 90's. And ennui requires free time, too. There's a temporal imbalance in the academic career path. In my twenties, in grad school, I had endless time and no money, and the big questions were about whether I'd eventually find an employer that wanted my time badly enough to pay for it. Now I have no time, a demanding job, and a family of four depending on my salary. A little 'evening-out' over time would contribute to greater sanity generally, I suspect.)

(The catch is that the habits of mind learned in an earlier environment linger into the next one. Every so often my old cultural-studies side pops up, and I mull over writing an article like “Towards A Unified Theory of Ty Wigginton,” which would start with something like “Although the enigmatic utility infielder for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays has called into question, through his combination of power hitting and just-good-enough fielding, the very definition of “utility infielder,” Ty Wigginton remains oddly undertheorized.” Then I don't.)

There's a cliché to the effect that if you want to make God laugh, make a plan, and I'll grant the basic truth of that. But there's also a basic truth to the fact that, barring death, I'll be ten years older ten years from now, whether I plan for it or not.

Mentally, age isn't Newtonian; it's quantum. You're one age for a long time, than blammo!, you're a markedly older one, without ever having passed in-between. (I believe “blammo!” is the technical term, from the Latin “blammus,” meaning, loosely, “what the #%#$?”.) In my case, I was 22 until TB was born, at which point I was suddenly 32. Then TG was born, and I was officially middle-aged. When the first boy shows up at my door to ask TG out, I will officially become Scary Crotchety Old Guy. (“Son, I have no problem going back to prison...”)

The quantum leaps usually occur without warning, and are legible only in retrospect. You'll realize you made one when you find yourself thinking “wow, I used to care about that.” (True example: I stopped going to a certain kind of concert when I caught myself at one of them thinking “those kids in the mosh pit are gonna hurt themselves!”) They're liberating in some ways. “Cool” was a major stretch for me in the best of times; now I don't even try. It means that some elements of pop culture become obscure – I have no idea who that stoner redhead snowboarder guy is in the AmEx ads, nor do I care. But if you're doing it right, you can also gain confidence in your own judgment. I'm no longer paralyzed by the adolescent fear that everybody else knows something that I don't. At this point, I've seen enough to know that if my instincts tell me that something is crap, then it's crap, regardless of the standing of the person saying it. Contradiction used to instill paralyzing self-doubt; now I'm willing to discount it if I think I know what I'm doing.

Counting backwards can also help you (okay, me) get past the hand-wringing “am I really ready for that?” stage and get on with it. If you look at some of the major figures in your field and count backwards, you'll be struck at how young some of them were when they made their first major splash.

The trick is to use counting backwards as a prod to action and a wake-up call, rather than an attempt to control the future. I can plan all I want for the next thirty years of my career, then get hit by a truck tomorrow. Stuff happens. But to avoid planning for the future in the name of “keeping your options open” is to deny the passage of time. As my four-foot-four six-year-old reminds me every single time I look at him, time passes whether we give it permission or not.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Interview Etiquette

Weirdly for this time of year, I've been getting a lot of questions about job interview etiquette. Excerpts from two of the better ones:

I have worked as a part-time faculty member at my community college for the
past (several) years. After much talk my department has finally created a new
full-time position and I was encouraged by my department chair to apply ( I
know there was at least one faculty member who was not even told about the
new position). I applied a few months ago and two days ago got a call for
an interview next Friday. The interview is to be with six faculty members,
including my chair, and will include a 15 minute teaching demo on a very
broad topic. I did some online
research to learn more about this type of interview as it is very different
from the one I had to get the part-time position and then contacted the
office staff who set up the interview with more questions. She directed it
to the department chair who answered she could not tell me who else was on
the committee or if other candidates had the same topic as me but that I
could choose to either prepare a general intro to the topic or a more
specific subject within the general one...SO, here is my question: What are
they really looking for? I trust they know I can teach the subject as I
have been teaching there successfully for a number of years...Is this
committee interested in my teaching style? My approach to the problem of a
15 minute demonstration in a totally artificial setting? I plan on
presenting a dynamic introduction to the topic so that I can be creative and
lecture/discuss without feels more like what I naturally do in
the course that covers this topic but should I be trying to dazzle them with
my deep knowledge (this is a topic actually outside my own field of study
but one I do teach there).

Because I have so little direction and so little information I am unclear
how to proceed. My gut tells me to go with the closest thing to actual
lectures I have given but perhaps I am way off the mark...How do these types
of interviews work and what are they looking for?


I am writing to ask you a question about waiting, after a final job interview. I interviewed via video conference (a new thing for CC's?) for my first, committee interview for a faculty position at a community college here. Three hours post interview, the head of HR called to set up what she called "my final interview" with the President of the college. Twelve days later, I had the interview (late May) which was with the President, Vice President and the Dean of the new campus this college is opening. At the end, I was informed they would be in touch next week, which was a short week due to the Memorial Day Holiday. I am still waiting for news and thankfully have not received the dreaded rejection letter. I am remaining optimistic, that perhaps they got behind, since they are hiring for 60 positions for this new campus.

I don't know who else to ask... how long should one wait before contacting HR or???

Taken together, these don't inspire confidence that our hiring processes are as transparent as they could be.

I'll take the second one first, since it's the easier of the two. Delays could mean anything. They could mean that the committee hasn't had time to meet, or that it met but disagreed internally, or that it's having conflict with someone in the administration, or that the existence of the position is up in the air for financial reasons, or that somebody is just plain swamped and hasn't gotten around to it yet, or that an offer has been made but they don't yet know if the recipient will accept it, or they just aren't very good about communicating.

As with dating, there's always the anxiety about calling too soon, balanced with the anxiety of not-knowing. (The single best portrayal of this dilemma ever filmed is the serial-calling sequence in the movie Swingers, when Jon Favreau keeps leaving messages on a machine, digging himself in ever-deeper. It's actually physically painful to watch.)

(The best example of this that wasn't filmed was when The Wife and I met. We hit it off when we first met, and my instincts told me the next day that she'd be receptive to a call. I got her machine, left a message, and heard nothing back. I did the “should I or shouldn't I” dance for a while, and finally decided that my instincts couldn't be that wrong, so I called again a couple days later. Her machine had eaten the first message, she was psyched to get the call, and ten years later, we're married with two kids. Stuff happens.)

If you were given a “we'll get back to you by...” date, I'd go a week or so beyond that, and then call to check on the status of your application. Don't press; just ask.

The first correspondent raises a serious red flag with “I know there was at least one faculty member who was not even told about the new position.” What's that? Since this is a cc, and therefore a public institution, any job should be posted officially with enough time before the deadline that any interested party could have a reasonable shot at applying. If what the writer means is that she was given a tap on the shoulder to look for the posting, and others were left to their own devices to find it, that's one thing. (Honestly, even that strikes me as shaky, but there's no law against showing someone an ad in the paper.) If it means that the position was 'posted' only by informal grapevine, I'd have some very serious questions about the integrity of the management there.

That said, the actual question was about what to do in a 15-minute demo to faculty. What I absolutely would not do is go 'meta,' and address your “approach to the problem of a 15 minute demonstration in a totally artificial setting.” Nooooo. Don't be 'authentic”; be professional. (There's a yawning chasm between the two.) Give them the best 15 minutes you can – lively, rather than deep – on a topic as close to your wheelhouse as possible. Think of it as an excerpt from one of your best classes. You still have the 'deep' knowledge in your back pocket, and you can use it to address questions or to explain where you'd go next.

From a hiring perspective, I wouldn't use a 15 minute demo to assess scholarly depth. I'd use it to assess the candidate's ability to frame a question, explain something relevant, and engage a group. If they want to know about scholarly depth, they can go to your dissertation or thesis, or they can pepper you with questions afterward.

The common denominator to the questions, other than that they're both about hiring, is that they both show the degree to which candidates are often at sea regarding even the most basic expectations and rules of the game. That's not a criticism of the candidates – how would they know? Different colleges have different expectations, but most assume that their own are revealed truths and that ignorance of them is somehow revealing of limited intellect or flawed character. It's called 'provincialism,' and it's rampant. I suspect that the tremendous lack of turnover is the culprit – with very few people around who can bring any kind of comparative perspective to bear, local myths go uncontested. When new people show up and question those myths, the oldsters trot out “declining standards” to explain why Kids Today Just Don't Get It. No, thanks.

At my cc, I've pressed (and pressed, and pressed) to get hiring committees to be more thoughtful and transparent in their procedures, both for ethical and legal (liability) reasons. It's harder than I anticipated, since I underestimated the degree to which local myths were revered. But we're making progress, even if more slowly than I would have liked, and someday I hope that candidates here will at least know what's expected of them and where they stand at any given moment.

Wise and worldly readers – what weird hiring practices have you seen?

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

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Crossing Over to the Dark Side

A longtime reader writes:

I'm the math department chair of a high school. I was
promoted from within. I recognize that HS isn't your
usual domain, but I think there's a kernel here that's
broadly applicable which I'd love it if you could

There's some weirdness happening here about a senior
who didn't pass math because of being a jerk

The admin made a decision to offer the opportunity to
revise and resubmit some work. This was not really a
decision made in consultation with the affected

The teachers were talking to me, sort of as a
colleague/friend, but it seemed like also as math
dept. chair. So, I go ask the principal, "hey, what's
going on? People are talking..."

He sends out a kinda nasty email, "The decision has
been made... I don't really care what you think."

One colleague wanders into the hall, "I wish I'd never
said anything to you because now I'm getting nasty
email from my boss."

The question becomes, how does someone who has/had
friends who they now supervise negotiate the very
different roles that are "friend" and "administrator"?
What kind of decision rules do you use? How do you
decide when to seek more guidance?

In my Proprietary U days, I too made the leap. I had come up through the ranks – first an adjunct, then a full-time prof, then administration. It was hard not to notice that some people were utterly unaffected by my title at any given time, and others completely blinded by it. It also meant that some folks who knew me as a junior colleague had to get to know me as a manager.

It was a disorienting experience. As long as I was on the faculty side, I was able to dodge most nutty or destructive behavior. As far as I knew, everybody was pretty good or better at what they did, and unprofessional conduct was something I read about in other places. At worst, some folks could be a little annoying, but I didn't see anything out of bounds. The folks to whom I was close saw me as a friend, and the rest saw me as a relatively quiet, low-maintenance guy.

When I crossed over, though, for some people in both camps it was as if I'd committed a crime. For others, it was as if they could suddenly get away with murder, since they were friends with the dean. (To their credit, the largest group didn't change either way.)

Over time, I (and they) had to learn to separate the person from the role. That meant sometimes saying no to friends. It also meant sometimes having to confront idiotic (or worse) behavior that, in my faculty days, wouldn't have been my problem. It was disillusioning, for better and worse.

Luckily for me, I draw much of my emotional support and stability from my family. I've also maintained some close friendships for decades now. Those sources of validation made it easier for me to endure the offended-at-the-betrayal cold shoulders from faculty when I had to call them out on whatever the latest offense happened to be. Tense periods at work didn't leave me friendless.

I think this gets harder as people settle into managerial roles for extended periods. When you've been in charge of the same group for a very long time, 'person' and 'role' tend to conflate. The inevitable erosion of the distinction leads to personal quirks getting written into the DNA of a department. (This is part of why I favor some form of term limits for department chairs.) Eventually, people start trying to read the mind of the chair, since the department comes to reflect the mind of the chair. Even with good intentions, a single person's blind spots will go neglected for longer than is healthy. With reasonable turnover, the distinction between 'person' and 'role' is reinforced.

(The distinction can get kind of silly. When TB was born, one of my favorite people at PU sent me a congratulatory card with a small check enclosed to buy him something cute. I had to return the check, since I was responsible for writing her annual review. We were both a little sheepish about it, since she recognized afterward that she shouldn't have done it, and I recognized that any untoward intent was the farthest thing from her mind, but the roles dictate what the roles dictate. When TG was born, after I had left PU, I got a card from this same professor with a bigger check. I laughed out loud.)

I'd first recommend tending to your emotional life outside of work. If you're lacking a lot there, you'll be more vulnerable to emotional manipulation at work. Be clear on which needs can be met where.

Then ask yourself if you're willing to be the bad guy. If you're the type that can't bear to pass judgment and would rather simply walk away from toxic behavior, then management isn't the job for you. If you aren't willing to endure vicious personal attacks from people when you call them out, then management isn't the job for you. (That's not a criticism – management isn't for most people, even very smart, very capable ones.) If you need to be liked, step down. A certain loneliness comes with the gig, if you're doing it right. If you're doing this to make friends, I shudder for your underlings.

Hope that helps. Wise readers --- your counsel?

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

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ask the Administrator: "Excuse Me, I'm Right Here!"

A new correspondent writes:

As a newbie adjunct, I have a question about propriety. At my Community College, I regularly hear students talking trash about other instructors and colleagues. Recently, I had the pleasure to overhear them trashing me. Alas, it was annoying; however, I was equally stunned by their inability to notice me outside the classroom. Anyhow, I am not sure what proper etiquette is in these situations--especially since I am an adjunct. My inkling is to turn around and say, "What interesting things you hear on campus," or "What an intriguing discussion," and walk off. Ideally, it would leave said students breathless. Politically, is this wise? Additionally, I am a bit nervous that students might retaliate with charges of inappropriate behavior from me (am I paranoid?).

In short, how do you suggest we deal with the imps who skirt official policies but are still irritating little pixies?

I'm frequently amazed at where students draw the line between public and private space. And yes, it can create some delicate etiquette dilemmas, hurt feelings, and the like. (My pet peeve is those little borg-like ear implants that people use as phones. From any kind of distance, it's hard to distinguish “on a call” from “off his rocker.”) The worst is when you overhear them saying something that's inappropriate, accurate, and laugh-out-loud funny. There's just no graceful way out of that.

This will vary by institutional culture and individual personality, but my 'default' rule would be not to call attention to yourself unless the attacks rise to the level of slander or threats. If what you're hearing is along the lines of “he's a loser, and the class is boring as hell,” I'd let it slide. Students have the right to express their opinions, whatever we might think of those opinions. As a newbie adjunct, to use your words, you may not feel like you have much authority, but in the context of the classroom, you do. As someone in authority, you'll attract some potshots. Comes with the gig.

Alternately, you could do the passive-aggressive thing, and pick that moment to have a coughing fit. With luck, the speakers will be caught off-guard and suitably embarrassed. This only works, though, if you can fake it fairly convincingly; otherwise it's just sad.

When in doubt, take the high road. Show some class, and let the random negativity roll off your back. If that seems too passive, think about the alternative. What would you think of a professor you saw berating students in the hallway for comments about him that he overheard? What do you think those students then tell their friends? Even if the original comments were unfounded and nasty, the story that will outlast the moment will be about that insecure jerk professor. Now the issue isn't what they said; it's what you did. Fairly or not, the expectations for your behavior are higher than the expectations for the students' behavior. Politically, a reputation as an insecure jerk would be far more damaging than any random student carping could be.

As with road rage, taking the high road also makes unwelcome escalation less likely. Suppose you confront the students, they take offense and escalate, and then complain that their eventual bad grades were the result of retaliation? These things happen. You don't know how people will react when surprised, especially if guilt and/or shame is part of the mix, so I wouldn't surprise them lightly.

In the best case, if your skin is thick enough, you can take some time later to try to analyze the comments dispassionately. Is there a kernel of truth to them? If so, is there something you can do about that? Sometimes we fall into bad habits without realizing it – talking to the board, taking too long to grade papers, requiring students to buy expensive textbooks that we proceed to ignore. (In my early days of teaching, a sympathetic student pulled me aside after class once and told me that I spoke too softly to be heard in the back row. That was actually useful.) If you're able to salvage some usable nugget of information, you can actually improve as an instructor. If the information is useless, walk it off. Don't let them get the better of you.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


If I knew the literature well enough, I'd start developing a theory of academic gossip. As it is, I'm stuck at the level of observations.

Over the past few months, some really provocative pieces of gossip have been flying around campus. (Happily, I haven't been the star of any of them.) I've heard the same (or closely related) rumors from multiple sources, each from a different angle. As a piece of anthropological fieldwork, it's kind of fun.

Most of the time, there's a kernel of truth in the rumor. That kernel may not be terribly interesting – the Secret Agenda is usually shockingly banal – but it exists.

The fun is in watching people embellish, interpret, and imply.

The embellishment and interpretation are pretty much what you'd expect. Obvious-but-boring motives are discounted for more sensational ones. Listening to the grapevine, you'd think that the only reasons anybody does anything are to hide affairs with coke-whore mistresses.

Implying is the more interesting part. Most of the spreaders of gossip rely on a narrative structure that goes: “you've heard about x and what he's up to. Of course, we know what it's really about...”

The dots at the end of the sentence are the most important part. Replace those with a colon, and the speaker would actually have to put his cards on the table. Successful gossip seems to rely on not-saying. As near as I can tell, that's because actually spelling out what's being implied would expose the basic silliness of the implication. “He's only doing that to protect his mistress.” “Really? He has a mistress? How do you know?” “Well, you know, everybody knows.” “Really? How do they know?” “Well, he's a flirt.” “Does that prove he has a mistress?” “Uh...”

And so on. Of course, if you cross-examine too much, then people stop telling you anything, and that can have consequences, too. Insisting on actual facts is considered pedantic and anti-social. In practice, I'm more likely to apply a grain of salt than to actually interrogate.

Of course, rumors seldom stop at 'facts.' What gives them life is the domino-like series of consequences expected to occur when the Hidden Scandal comes to light.

“When x is forced out, then of course, y will move in, and she has held a grudge against j and k for years.” “When x is forced out, they'll have to bring in someone new from the outside, and heads will roll!” I'll admit that it's great fun to spin out possible scenarios – my current fave involves two brokered nominating conventions in 2008, leading to the eventual election of President Aniston – but there's a difference between playing with possibilities and asserting with certainty. The certainty is what bugs me.

It's especially annoying when you know a relevant fact that actually explains what the rumors purport to explain, but confidentiality rules forbid you from sharing it. The most you can do is to suggest that the rumor is crap. Of course, at that point, you're accused of 'covering up,' and the reasons invented to explain that will be even more baroque. In a perfect world, you could build up enough trust over time that the occasional “trust me” would actually work, but that's just not reality.

As annoying as those rumors can be, though, they serve a sort of bonding function, and the usual kernel of truth somewhere is sometimes relevant. If nothing else, listening carefully can tell you where the speakers are coming from, which is often much more important than the content of what they're saying. If a rumor starts floating around that person x is leaving, and I notice people doing cartwheels in the hallways at the prospect, I pay as much attention to the cartwheels as to the rumor. The rumor may or may not be real, but the emotions certainly are. When the rumor turns out to be false, remembering those cartwheels can come in handy.

I'll take a crack at inductive asynchronous web-enhanced theorizing. If you were to contribute to a general theory of academic gossip, what would you include? Is academic gossip meaningfully different than other varieties of workplace gossip?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Bad Idea in the Bay State

According to this article in the Boston Globe, Gov. Patrick is considering a plan to make community colleges in Massachusetts tuition-free by 2015. As appealing as the idea is at first glance, I have to recommend against it.

First, I'll grant its obvious appeal. A cc without tuition will make it easier for students to graduate without major debt. (There would still be the costs of textbooks, activity fees, transportation, and the opportunity cost of potential work hours lost to class time and homework.) When students have to work a tremendous number of hours every week to pay for school, the time they can devote to studying is crunched. Many cc students come from modest income backgrounds, so even low tuition can be a real hardship. And the prospect of major debt is a real disincentive to enrolling, or to continuing to the four-year level. No argument on any of those points.

All of that said, though, I think the program would unfold as a slow-motion disaster.

The public K-12 system in Massachusetts, which doesn't charge tuition, has been reduced (in some districts) to charging school bus fees to stay afloat. If that's what full reliance on government funding brings you, I shudder to imagine the long-term impact on colleges if they drop tuition. The next time a tax revolt rolls around, I'd expect some demagogue to propose some seductively sweeping quick-fix across-the-board budget cuts that would absolutely eviscerate higher ed. (See TABOR, Prop. 13, etc.) Since the same people who lead tax revolts are also the law-and-order folk, you know they wouldn't cut police or prisons to make up for lost revenue; higher ed would be a sitting duck. We've seen that happen in enough states by now that you'd think we'd know better.

At least with tuition, there's an independent revenue stream. Yes, a too-high tuition level will freeze some people out, but a too-low (or nonexistent) tuition level will freeze everybody out when programs or even campuses are eliminated for lack of funding. What would almost certainly happen – based on what I've seen with existing programs in Nursing, which are terrible money-losers for cc's – would be long waitlists and/or lotteries to allocate seats. (Alternately, in the chalk-and-talk areas, you could go to all 300-student lectures with scantron tests. The 'learning outcomes' of that approach are depressingly predictable.) Excess demand coupled with a complete absence of a price mechanism will lead to all manner of silliness.

(I saw an example of that in the early 90's, when I briefly lived in Berkeley. Berkeley still had rent control at that point. Apartments were available at reasonable rents, but 'key money' or 'finder's fees' often reached four figures. Water finds its own level, one way or another.)

On a state level, replacing tuition with direct state aid would, all else being equal, replace federal money (Pell grants) with state money. Why a state would voluntarily leave free money on the table, I don't know. I imagine the taxpayers of Massachusetts – a long-suffering lot already – would find that one hard to swallow.

There's also the delicate issue of student attitudes. I work with some folks who have taught in systems in decades past, where tuition was either free or so low as to be effectively free. They've shared horror stories of students adding and dropping boatloads of classes with impunity, since it didn't cost them anything. 'Behavioral economists' like to talk about the 'sunk cost fallacy,' which is the habit of mind that makes us likelier to attend a concert for which we've bought tickets than to attend one for which we were given tickets, since having bought the tickets, we think of non-attendance as a financial loss. It's mathematically false, but psychologically true. I suspect the same holds true for tuition. Putting up some money – and it doesn't have to be much – creates a psychological pull that a true freebie doesn't.

Besides, free tuition would encourage the academic equivalent of the welfare queen, the dreaded “perpetual student.” These have mostly disappeared over the last few decades, but would make a quick comeback under this system, especially during recessions, when the opportunity costs are lower.

I'd also worry about any system that completely decouples funding levels from enrollment levels. (That might or might not happen, depending on the details of implementation.) Under that system, when the inevitable crunch hits, the incentive for a struggling college would be to get as student-hostile as possible to get its costs down to its aid level. This is easier than you'd think. Just use the DMV as the model for any student contacts, skimp on web platform maintenance, close off the occasional student parking lot, run too-few sections of required classes, and voila! This strikes me as a horrible outcome.

My suggestion to Gov. Patrick, if he wants to improve college access and is willing to pony up some money to do it, is to establish some sort of scholarship program in which the renewal of a student's scholarship is contingent on a given GPA (or some other easily tracked measure of success). To the college, tuition is tuition, whether it comes from the state or the student, so the college's incentives would be right. This approach would get around the issue of subsidizing slackers, since students who aren't academically serious would lose their scholarships. It would be much cheaper for the state than eliminating tuition altogether, and it would keep in place the infrastructure of tuition-charging to turn to when the next recession hits. Hardworking students from modest backgrounds would get the full benefit of a functioning college, which they probably wouldn't under an 'everybody free' system. Improve direct operating aid to the cc's a bit to get the rate of tuition increase under control, by all means, but don't get rid of tuition altogether. It serves too many purposes, and would leave colleges grotesquely vulnerable to the next recession or shift in the political winds.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Coming Out as a Mom

A faithful reader, who is also a Mom, writes (edited for anonymity):

I'll be going on the job market this year, hoping to find a full-time
position as a (her field) instructor at a cc. My question is how guarded to
be about the fact that I have children. I can't really hide it since I
stayed home full-time (for several years). Then I started teaching
part-time at our local cc, first in the (cognate) department since I had
a MS in ----, adding (her field) classes when I was granted equivalency. I
decided I really like teaching (her field) and returned to grad school for a
Masters in it, which I will be earning next May. I've heard such bad
things about employment decisions when the employers know you're a
mother. (I can't find any references right now, but I recall a recent
study that showed women with PTA experience on their resume were hired
at a lower rate and lower starting salary than the exact same resume
without PTA.) On the other hand, it's so obvious from my resume, even
if I do leave off my child-related volunteering.

I know they can't ask about family status, but they're only human, so
do you think cc hiring committees would care that one applicant is a
mother vs. another who's not? If so, should I leave off my
child-related volunteering (it's substantial and involves teaching and
leading). Should I mention the gap in my resume? If so, when and how?

As one friend said, would I really want to work somewhere that would
hold motherhood against me? No, but why do anything that could damage
my chances?

As a Dean who is also a Dad, I hear ya. And yes, it's different for Dads.

The references I've seen have suggested that parenthood humanizes men and ghettoizes women. That said, these are aggregate trends, rather than iron laws – they don't hold everywhere, and they're subject to change.

(The changes aren't always in the right direction. I once knew someone who managed a department for a municipal government. He mentioned that he came under pressure not to hire parents of young children, regardless of gender, to keep health insurance costs down. Insurance for a family of four costs more than insuring, say, an older couple. He agreed that it was offensive, but cost is cost.)

This is one of those awful circumstances where there's really no way to know the 'right' answer. If the cc is rural and/or in a location many consider undesirable, and you're a relatively young candidate in a hot field, the hiring committee may be much more concerned about flight risk than about parenthood. If anything, parenthood might suggest reduced flight risk, and therefore be appealing.

Judging by stats I vaguely remember on gender balance on faculties at different types of institutions, the 'cost' of motherhood is highest at the most research-intensive places, and lowest at the most teaching-intensive. Since cc's are really about teaching, you may not run into much of an issue at this level.

I'm proud to say that one of the areas in which I've actually made inroads at my cc is in hiring processes. Search committees have to commit to a set of criteria for any given position, and stick to those criteria in the first round of screening. (It gets squishier when you get to actual teaching demonstrations, obviously.) Parenthood is not a recognized criterion either way, and in my time here we've hired parents, including single Moms. That said, I couldn't help but notice that the cohort hired in the years before I got here was conspicuously Mom-free. Whether that was the result of coincidence (total numbers hired were quite low for quite a while), self-selection (the housing costs here are obscene, even now), or bias, I don't know. Maybe some of each, plus the inbreeding I may have mentioned once or twice.

Obviously, you have the option of stripping your application of any tipoffs, presenting yourself as an isolated professional, and simply compartmentalizing until tenure. There is something to be said for this strategy, though it does leave that gap in your employment history. I couldn't criticize anybody for trying this, but it wouldn't be my choice or my recommendation.

Since you asked, I'll recommend presenting yourself as the competent multitasking professional that you are. Own the truth, tell it without apology, and present yourself as the kind of busy person who can get stuff done. When you needed to take time off, you did. When you needed to get another degree, you did. You got that second degree while both teaching and parenting, which requires time-management skills (and stamina!) beyond many people. As a manager, that's the kind of faculty I'd love to have. If you want something done, ask a busy person, and you've been very, very busy. My nightmare isn't the professor who occasionally has to run home for a childcare emergency. My nightmare is the professor whose primary concern is doing as little work as possible. Just getting to where you are shows an impressive work ethic. Sell that, and sell it without apology. It's true, it's relevant, and you've proved it the hard way. If the college doesn't want that, I don't know what to say.

Good luck!

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

Friday, June 01, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Textbook Adoptions

A book rep writes:

I don't talk about work much in the blogosphere, but I work for a
major textbook wholesaler/retailer. One of my areas of responsibility
is a web application we built to help faculty research their textbooks
and pass their adoptions on to the bookstore. I've just been given
clearance to start a revision of the site, and I'm hoping you (and
your readers) might have some suggestions.

See, I hear about what our reps think are good ideas, and sometimes
the bookstore guys, but I rarely if ever hear from administrators,
secretaries, or faculty, and they're the ones actually using the site.

So, what do you hate most about the textbook adoption process?
What data do you look for when researching a book?
Anything you'd really, really like to see in a site like this?

The last time we did this, the best features were the result of user
feedback, but this time I'd like ideas from people who aren't using
the site, but might if we could design it to fit their needs. What do
you think?

Ooh, I should have written on this years ago.

I'll admit that I haven't scanned textbook websites recently, so I'll just open with a few comments on traits I've found endearing in textbooks I've used, then ask my wise and diverse readers to comment.

When I taught the intro to my discipline (a social science) at Proprietary U, I quickly realized that most of the available textbooks were horribly inappropriate. They were dry, visually complicated (someone declared at some point in the 90s that every page of every textbook should look like a GUI with about six tasks running simultaneously. Noooo...), intolerably long, and expensive. The students responded by buying used copies (or not buying at all), and then not reading. It was ugly.

Gradually, I learned better textbook-selection skills. I went with 'brief editions' whenever possible, paperbacks whenever possible, and shrink-wrapped 'freebies' not at all (since they exist mostly to short-circuit the used book market). But the real breakthrough came when I found one – an otherwise average text – that had multiple-choice chapter quizzes in the back of every student's book. When I found that, I seized on it, and told the students that the reading quizzes I gave each week would feature questions taken directly from the quizzes in the back of the book. So if they were smart – and I'd drop a 'hint, hint' here – they'd quiz themselves right after they read, so they wouldn't be ambushed. The students liked that, since they saw it as putting one over on me. I liked it, since they actually read – and re-read! -- since good quiz grades were suddenly enticingly attainable. Class discussions immediately improved, as did student attitudes and performance on exams.

I tried in vain to explain this to multiple book reps over the years. They always responded with something like “we have a student workbook that has quizzes, and we can shrink-wrap it!” No, no, no. If it isn't in the same physical volume as the reading itself, most students won't make the effort. (Admittedly, my discipline was well outside their majors. I'd imagine this objection wouldn't hold in, say, a competitive pre-med weedout course.) It has to be easy to use.

Another criterion – and this is so basic I'm almost embarrassed to include it – is font size. For reasons I'll never understand, certain academic publishers seem to think that teeny-tiny fonts are indicative of academic rigor. Nope. They're actually exclusionary, especially when you have a substantial proportion of adult students. Don't be afraid of big, reader-friendly print. If it forces you to be a little thoughtful about copy editing, all the better. (I've learned this lesson with in-class handouts, too. If it's something I've written, I never use anything smaller than 14 point. It actually helps.)

In my dealings with the math department, I've heard that a major distinction between different texts is the number of errors. I admit I found that fairly alarming, but there you go.

In foreign languages, it's a common practice to have a single textbook to encompass multiple semesters, so a single text might cover, say, the first four semesters of Spanish. I'm of divided mind on this. It's probably a good deal for students who make it through the entire sequence, but the sticker shock upfront is considerable. If some publisher were to experiment with smaller, cheaper breakout editions, the results would be interesting. I don't know if that has been tried.

There's a much broader issue about departments choosing common textbooks across sections of a given course. I've written on that before. Suffice to say, that one's case by case.

I'm sure that different disciplines have different needs, and that the needs of typical cc students may differ from the needs of students at a hypercompetitive liberal arts college. So I'll ask my various readers – if you had a book rep's ear, what would you suggest?

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