Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gen Ed

IHE's story yesterday about a kerfuffle over Gen Ed reforms at the University of Kentucky convinced me that the issues are the same everywhere.

For those outside higher ed, “general education” refers to the classes that students have to take for graduation, but that don't count towards their major. For example, even chemistry majors have to take English composition, and even art majors have to take math. The idea is that anybody with a college degree should have the background of an educated person. It's what separates education from training.

Reforming Gen Ed is one of the hardest things to get done, bureaucratically. It's obviously important, since every matriculated student is affected. But it flies in the face of almost every organizing principle we have. A few obstacles, just off the top of my head:

  1. Different configurations of Gen Ed requirements at the various 4-year schools to which our grads transfer. They love to nitpick, as a way to deny transfer credits, so we have to play it conservative here. No interdisciplinary freshman seminars, for example, since transfer courses have to fit neatly into disciplinary boxes.

  1. Conflicting and/or ambiguous statewide requirements. These are legion, and uniquely demoralizing.

  1. The widely-held doctrine of 'nullification.' I've written on this before.

  1. Inter-departmental turf battles. Credits added to one category have to come from another, since the overall number of credits we can include in a degree are capped. So if we add a requirement in social science, we have to take one away from, say, humanities. Anybody who believes in the purity of faculty governance is invited to observe those meetings. They make town hall discussions over the location of a new halfway house seem civil.

  1. Honestly and deeply held conflicting beliefs about what an educated person should know and/or should be able to do. These are often of long standing, and in direct conflict with the realities of 1-4.

    6. Requirements set by 'special' licensing/accrediting agencies in specific fields (i.e. Nursing)

7. Different degree 'types' (A.A.;A.S.;A.A.S.;A.F.A., etc.), and the extent to which degrees designed for one purpose gradually morph into different purposes over the years ('career' degrees with high rates of transfer; 'transfer' degrees that are often terminal).

Since my state doesn't have a tightly integrated system, different colleges have adopted different approaches over the years. Worse, it's not always clear when 'nullification' is actually an option, and when local control has to take a back seat to directives from the outside.

Internally, the faculty are divided into academic departments. Departmental ownership of program curricula works fairly well when it comes to the specialized courses in a discipline, but it doesn't work well with the gen ed part, since that crosses boundaries. In fact, there's no one arbiter of gen ed to adjudicate disputes, so decisions are often made based on interest-group politics.

Repeat that cycle a few times, and the veterans of those battles will do everything in their power to resist bringing up the subject again. The wounds are barely healed from the last round, even if the last round was decades ago.

(Weirdly, in retrospect, this structural flaw didn't exist at Proprietary U. There, there was a single Gen Ed department, which owned the Gen Ed part of all the other curricula. At the time, I didn't realize how unusual that was. While there were certainly issues, the jurisdictional lines in this sense were clear.)

The shame of it is that Gen Ed is, in many ways, the most important part of what we do. It's what students in disparate programs have in common, and it's where (we hope) students hone some of the 'softer' skills that will serve them long after their field-specific training has become obsolete, or has been superseded by subsequent, higher-level training. (I used to tell my techies at PU that their technical skills would get them hired, but their communication skills would get them promoted.) This is the stuff that employers constantly complain is lacking in their new hires. (They don't complain enough to hire English majors and give them the technical training, but they complain nevertheless.) Critical thinking, clear writing, and effective speaking don't go out of style.

I'm just struck at how hard it is to get at our central mission, given the way we're organized.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found an effective and honest way to deal with changes to its Gen Ed?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Baby Got (Hatch)Back: An Automotive Snark

Last week, car shopping went abruptly from "I should think about that" to "I need to do this right now," so I've spent way too much time lately at dealerships and on car websites.

Apparently, someone passed a law saying that all car salespeople must be male. Over the past week, I've dealt with I don't know how many salespeople, and they've been a multiracial, multiethnic group of young men. The demographics are pretty much the same as a minor league baseball team. I have no explanation for this.

I thought car shopping would be easy enough. I had my Consumer Reports at the ready, and I knew the parameters I had in mind. Cost is a real issue, given that the whole family is on one academic paycheck, so the cooler, more expensive cars were out of the question. Reliability is key, as is mileage; I consider money spent on gas or repairs to be money wasted. I don't do SUV's. And most important of all, it had to have enough headroom in the backseat to accommodate tall children. Still, I figured, with car companies desperate for customers, how hard could it possibly be?

Yuck yuck yuck.

I didn't get the memo, but it seems that, at some point, the car companies collectively decided that anybody who wants rear seat headroom should just buy an SUV or minivan and be done with it. Cars – by which I mean, “not trucks” -- have incredibly short back seats these days. It seems that the trend of higher bodies has collided with the trend of aerodynamic shapes to squeeze backseat headroom.

Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Fusion, Ford Focus, Mazda 3 – no backseat headroom in any of them.

The Honda Fit has headroom, but awful rear-seat crash test ratings, so I ruled that out, too.

The Scion xD has headroom, but it's butt-ugly, gets terrible mileage, and has one of the shorter windshields I've ever seen – it's like the thing is squinting. I sort of like 'visibility.' I use it every single day. No, thanks.

I've had lousy luck with Toytoas – I've buried two of them – and Corollas just make me sad, so that was out. (The Prius was out of my price range, anyway.) And I won't do Dodge or Chevy, just because I don't enjoy spending time in repair shops. (How Chrysler stays in business is a complete mystery to me. A few years ago I rented a Sebring, and couldn't believe the overall crappiness. My brother in law bought a Dodge truck new three years ago. At 50,000 miles, the transmission went. His mechanic told him they're notorious for that. Amazing. They're like big American Yugos, without the charm.)

After burying two Toyotas bought used in my grad school days, each having consumed several years' worth of repair shop intensive care, I have an allergy to the concept of buying 'used.' There's just something comforting in the concept of a warranty. I know that, say, a used Camry wouldn't have been an unreasonable option, but I'm just not there psychologically. Twice burned, real shy. Besides, with the two greatest kids in the world, I'd like the most current safety features I can get.

So, my latest in an ongoing series of hints I like to drop for the Big Three automakers: some of us have tall children, and don't want SUV's. Hint freakin' hint. Produce something decent -- reliable, safe, efficient, not-butt-ugly -- and you'll own this demographic.

Or you can keep producing unreliable, squat, poorly-engineered pieces of crap, and try to make up the difference with union concessions. Your call.

Also, I'm fairly sure that equal opportunity laws apply to car salespeople. I'm just sayin'. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that it's not actually technically illegal to have women on your sales team. Whether it would help, I don't know, but I'm guessing that the overall level of cluelessness might be a little less bad. ("I don't know about antilock brakes, but check out the CD changer!") Worth a shot, anyway.

And then there's Idiot Feature Creep. When did sunroofs become moonroofs? And why do about half the cars out there suddenly have them? I didn't get that memo, either. Little known fact: when they put in a sun/moonroof, you lose about an inch of headroom. When there isn't enough to start with, that's a big deal. Clearly, this is a conspiracy of short people. They're getting back at the rest of us for those high shelves at Barnes and Noble, or maybe that Randy Newman song.

So after all these years, and all this research, and all this looking, I'm back into the hatchback habit of my grad school years. Back to the egg. As The Wife puts it, I'm returning to my roots. All because the ()#%)# car companies haven't grasped that some of us have tall kids.

Confidential to the Ford Motor Company: Seriously, are you guys even trying anymore?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Print 'Em and Ship 'Em

A new correspondent writes:

Why do community colleges mail catalogs to everyone? It seems like a lot of expense for something that's unlikely to generate a lot of new students.

This is a very live issue on my campus. It's a tough one, because beliefs are held strongly, and almost entirely without evidence.

Most community colleges that I know of produce several different types of publications for public consumption. The most common are

  1. Catalogs

  2. Course Schedules

  3. Flyers

Catalogs usually cover multiple years (two seems to be the local standard), and they include full course descriptions, every imaginable policy, requirements for every major, campus maps, and just about everything except the actual days and times that classes meet. Catalogs take a full year to produce, since they're legally binding and remarkably comprehensive. That means, among other things, that they're already partially obsolete the minute they arrive on campus, and become progressively more so over their run. (Most colleges run up-to-date versions of the catalog on their websites.)

Course schedules typically cover a single semester or season (in the case of the summer, which may contain multiple sessions). They don't contain full course descriptions or major requirements, but they do include days, times, and locations of class meetings. There, too, the printed schedule is usually pretty buggy, and savvy students know that if they want the real information, they should look online.

(This is also where that mysterious creature, Professor STAFF, can be found. It's code for “adjunct.”)

Flyers are usually supersized postcards announcing a single event (an open house, say) or a new program. Flyers are much cheaper to produce and mail, but necessarily light on content.

There's a tension, really, between the need for marketing and the need for informing.

In classic conflict-avoidant fashion, we split the difference and mail the course schedule to every household in our service area, but only make the print catalog available on campus or by request. (Anybody can access it online.) The thinking is that the printing and shipping costs for that large a catalog run would be prohibitive, and it would be silly to re-mail the same thing every semester for two years. But the course schedule is smaller and it changes every semester, so we use that as a de facto marketing tool.

Of course, if you look at them, you'll notice that the catalog – which takes a little effort to find – is actually a much slicker marketing piece than the schedule, which is ugly, detailed, and everywhere.

My guess is that over time, we'll move away from thick paper publications and bulk mailings, and more towards online information. It's easier to update, the marginal cost of adding readers is close to zero, and the savings in printing and postage would be surprisingly substantial. I could envision a flyer each semester announcing that next semester's course schedule is online, giving the web address, and leaving it at that. A postcard is much cheaper to print and mail than a course schedule is, and much less likely to be riddled with errors.

We haven't tried it yet, though, since there's still no way of knowing what percentage of our target population won't look online. I suspect the percentage is small and shrinking, but when you're scraping for enrollment as it is, every little bit hurts. Given enough data, we could do a cost-benefit on it, but the cost of getting the data is itself prohibitive.

I'll ask my readers. Wise and worldly readers – has your college abandoned the detailed mailings in favor of putting the catalog and schedule entirely online? If so, has it worked? Did anything happen that nobody anticipated? Any real-world guidance you could offer would be much appreciated.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Ask My Readers: Grad School Admissions

An assiduous undergraduate correspondent writes:

Is it actually encouraged to email prospective advisors at the schools to which you will be applying? What do you send them-just an email, a copy of your thesis? Should your current faculty be sending introductory emails on your behalf to colleagues who you can then follow up with? Are there any good blogs that focus on getting into grad school, as opposed to the end of grad school life? How much do grades and scores actually matter in grad school admissions (I know, there are so many different schools, etc. Maybe confine answers to the social sciences and humanities?)? Do faculty at prospective grad schools actually want to read your work? Do they actually want to meet with you when you visit the school?

First, my generic warning for anybody considering grad school in an evergreen discipline: for the love of all that is holy and good, don't do it! (For the longer version of this warning, see here.)

That said, one of the perks of working at an open-admissions college is that we don't deal with the angst of people trying to psych out the admissions process. It's pretty transparent: if you meet the basic requirements, you're in. Grad school is not – and should not be – like that.

The downside is that I have precious little wisdom to share on the etiquette of grad school admissions. Luckily, I have the Best Readers Ever, so I'll throw this one open to the readers who have experience working in or on graduate admissions. Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bad Job, But Not Malpractice

Sherman Dorn has a thoughtful post up about the difficulties institutions have in dealing with faculty instructional practices that aren't quite enough to get someone fired, but that do result in lousy teaching and valid student complaints. As his post points out – it's worth reading in the original – most of the 'official' policies and procedures deal only with the 'bright line' issues, like “thou shalt not sexually harass thy students.” Issues that aren't as obvious as that one often slip between policies, so deans and such often have to make up responses on the spot.

This is a very real issue.

Any time I'm confronted with a novel situation, I have to balance the uniqueness of the situation with the likelihood that any decision I make will be cited as “past practice” in some future argument. The conflict between 'solving the immediate issue' and 'setting a dangerous precedent' is chronic, and frustrating, and, at some level, inescapable. But a more developed set of policies that would at least put tighter boundaries around no-man's-land would certainly reduce my headaches.

I'll give a purely hypothetical example that would never ever happen at my current college where everybody is practically perfect in every way.

Professor X, who has tenure, routinely takes six weeks to grade papers. By the time the students get their midterm papers back, the 'drop' deadline has already passed. Students who had no idea how they were doing in the class didn't find out they were in trouble until it was too late to escape.

I ask Professor X to return the papers in a more timely fashion. He screams “academic freedom,” threatens to file grievance #478, and storms out of my office spreading rumors about me and farm animals.

Or, I ask the chair of X's department to have that conversation. The chair balks, asking what good it will do, since Prof. X has tenure. I say we have to try. A week later, the chair reports trying, failure, and grievance #479. Now, not only is Prof. X on the warpath, but the chair is feeling put-upon, too.

Or, I tell the students to suck it up.

From my perspective, none of these is acceptable.

In the fantasy world in which some people live, it would be possible to 'coach' Prof. X to better performance. In the presence of renewable contracts and merit raises, that could actually be done, with raises and/or renewal contingent on improved performance. But with tenure, and without merit pay, there isn't much in the way of leverage for dealing with offenses that fall below the level of termination. If Prof. X doesn't feel like listening, I can't make him.

This is where I think Dorn's proposal of more rigorous peer review falls flat. What incentive would a peer have to take on somebody disagreeable? Depending on the mechanism of the review, the peer might not know about the slow-motion grading, since, in practice, peer review often consists of a single class observation. Even if the peer actually did know, and actually did have the integrity and intestinal fortitude to say so, any peer fault-finding – by definition – won't be much more than he said/she said. At which point we're right back where we started.

To make matters worse, suppose that the accusation is of repeated, lengthy digressions that have nothing to do with the subject matter. I'll take politics out of it, and stipulate that the digressions are about the professor's favorite football team. Suppose that it's a chemistry class, and the professor spends more time on the Green Bay Packers than on chemistry.

Will a single class visit catch that? Almost certainly not – anybody competent can behave for an hour, just as anybody can obey the speed limit when the police car is in the rear view. Will the politically aggrieved catch it? Not likely – it's not a hot-button issue. Is it an abuse of the classroom? Yup.

It's tough, because there's no 'bright line' rule about digressions (and there probably can't be). I'd guess that anybody who has taught for any length of time has gone off on something unrelated at least once. I'll even concede that a little of that, carefully and sparingly done, can serve a purpose. So Prof. X here will claim that he hasn't said anything obscene or harassing – which is true – and that he's not the first to digress, which is also true. How do I show that my threshold, which isn't even quantitative, is reasonable? And what do I say to the students, who complain that Prof. X rushes through the material at the end to make up for the time he wasted?

Invoking “professionalism” or “individual responsibility” doesn't get the job done; if Prof. X had any of either, these issues wouldn't arise in the first place.

Rather than making this post #480 in my ongoing series on the evils of tenure, I'll ask for solutions within a tenure-based system. How would you handle the tenured professor who would rather discuss Brett Favre than his course's subject matter?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Charity and Sustainability

I don't usually do followup posts, but this topic seems to need one.

In higher ed, there's no such thing as fundraising. Instead, there's 'development,' or, in more sophisticated quarters, 'institutional advancement.'

Traditionally, community colleges haven't done much in the way of courting donors. Instead, we've been funded mostly by state and/or local governments, and tuition. (In California, they banned tuition per se, so instead they call it 'fees.') As a result, we've been able to stay pretty clearly focused on the two biggest tasks at hand -- workforce development and transfer preparation -- and to keep our costs under relative control, compared to the rest of higher ed.

(Check out this piece on a study of rising tuition rates. Nationally, the 'true cost' of attending a cc went up a little over three percent last year, which isn't wildly out of line with inflation. The same cannot be said of four-year colleges and universities.)

In my more cynical moments, I think there's a correlation between increased reliance on private philanthropy (or development, or advancement) and high rates of tuition increase. The connection, I think, comes from the attention deficit disorder that targeted philanthropy brings.

Philanthropic giving is cyclical, or tidal, or even random. It fluctuates with external events, the poignancy of available stories (and the identity of the folks to whom the stories happen -- diseases that befall Senators' grandchildren tend to get pretty good funding), the win-loss record of the higher-profile sports teams, political scandals, PR scandals, and probably sunspots. Big Donors like to make Big Splashes, and you don't make a big splash by contributing operating funds for ongoing concerns. They like the concept of 'seed money,' which ties up future operating funds indefinitely.

While the Big Donors go spreading their seed, we make decisions based on what we expect will be sustainable over the long term. Unsurprisingly, after decades of that difference, the cost spread between cc's and four-year schools is widening, even as the quality gap is narrowing or, in some cases, inverting. We make decisions based mostly on what we think will still make sense in ten years. Other schools -- I'm not naming any names here, you know who you are -- make decisions based on the Big Donor's tastes. When the Big Donor has gone to that development office in the sky, though, his legacy is still around, making demands on the operating budget. The college responds in two ways: raise tuition to cover the short term, and court even more donors. This time will be different! And the spiral continues.

I'm concerned that with public sector support for higher ed falling by the wayside, the cc's will fall into some of the same traps as the four-year colleges. He who pays the piper calls the tune; if we start courting donors in a serious way, then we have to start courting donors in a serious way.

None of this is meant to disparage donors. They give voluntarily, and I'm grateful for it. Charity arises from many impulses, some of them genuinely admirable. And it would be silly to deny that real good has been done, and will be done.

But there's no substitute for sustainable, predictable operating funding. That's what makes really successful programs (and reasonably successful cost control) possible over the long term. To the extent that we're being pushed away from predictable -- by which I mean public -- support, and towards philanthropic funding, I'm concerned that we'll start making some of the same mistakes I've seen elsewhere. The tuition gap will start closing, to nobody's benefit. We'll try to make up the difference by beefing up our development office. Then, in a few years, we'll have to answer some very angry questions about out-of-control tuition increases. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Charity Shakedown

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

My SLAC employer conducts an annual United Way fundraising drive. Earlier this fall, a letter was sent over the university president's signature to every employee (faculty of all levels and staff) expressing the president's hopes for generous employee support of the fall UW campaign.

The university has now initiated the "asking" phase of the UW campaign. At the beginning of this phase, each university employee was sent a packet of printed material promoting various incentives for donating and a UW donation form that suggests that an employee's "fair share" donation equates to 1% of her/his salary.

The United Way contribution form discloses that roughly 12.6% of donations received go to UW's fundraising and administrative costs; the form asserts that this percentage reflects an "efficient" use of donor funds. I disagree and have chosen for years to contribute directly to the local non-profit I support; in my mind, 100% of my money going to my non-profit's operations is far better than 87.4%.

My institution does not offer any matching funds for employee contributions to charities, whether or not such contributions are made through United Way.

While my personal financial contributions to charity are less than the 1% suggested by the United Way, my unpaid volunteer service to the community in the last year is the equivalent of more than 19% of my full-time work hours. I volunteer this time in addition to working three paying side jobs to pay down my debt and maintain my relatively modest standard of living.

It rankles me that my institution uses pressure tactics to solicit money from us employees every year. Although agencies supported through United Way provide valuable and important services in our community, I'm already giving back.

I wonder what your readers think... should I continue to write "$0.00" and return my UW form every year, write a note to the UW campaign coordinator or an administrator justifying my non-giving, challenge the president's annual letters as pressure tactics, ...?

There are far more important issues to tackle on campus (better pay, more generous & flexible leave policies, work schedules less bound to rigid assembly-line modalities, etc.) ... should this one simply be left to run its course?

I've seen worse than this, actually. You don't mention any actual or implied consequence befalling those who don't participate.

I'm not usually one to recommend passivity and foot-dragging, but this seems like the perfect test case. I wouldn't fire off a poison pen letter – that would make you the bad guy – but would simply, politely, decline to participate. My guess is that nothing will happen, except that you'll get to decide what to do with your money.

Phrases like “worthy cause” have different meanings to different people, and rightly so. I generally prefer to target my giving to organizations that are trying to effect change, as opposed to the more traditional 'charities.' (That costs me some serious tax deductions, but c'est la vie.) That's not to deny that charities, as such, do some serious good, or that advocacy groups have their own issues; it's just to say that nobody can do everything, so we make our choices.

What makes me uneasy is when the folks at the top of an organization decide to put the organization's stamp on certain causes and, by extension, not on others. Implying that employee contributions are expected is that much worse.

One of the dirty little secrets of administration, actually, is that you are routinely expected to attend a battery of fundraisers (paying for tickets out of your own pocket). Attendance is also de rigeur at faculty retirement parties, with every attendee paying fifty bucks or so for the restaurant and gift. That doesn't sound like much, but do several back-to-back along with a couple of fundraisers and it adds up.

These usually hit around December – just in time for Christmas shopping, and why don't academics get year-end bonuses, anyway? -- and May.

The logic of the fundraisers, I think, is that we can't really expect other people to contribute to the college if we aren't willing to pony up ourselves. Which is fine, but the folks we're hitting up are typically far, far wealthier than we'll ever be. There's also the issue of just how 'voluntary' these contributions actually are. For certain employees, they're mandatory in all but name.

I've written before on my skepticism towards mandatory community service, so I'll just say here that there's something to be said for doing good without calling attention to it.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a particularly egregious charity shakedown? Have you found a graceful way around it?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Cover Letters for Admin Jobs

A longtime correspondent writes:

Okay, so everyone and their brother/sister/mama has done a post on cover letters for academic jobs. I have not seen a post on cover letters for admin jobs. I remember you talking to someone about how to prepare for the interview, but nothing on what makes an admin cover letter different from an academic job letter. And I am so new, I feel a little out of my element.

So, what do you think?

Full disclosure: I've applied for more admin jobs than I've received. However, I've been on several admin search committees, so there's at least a modicum of comparative perspective there.

In my observation, the industry standard seems to be four or five pages, single spaced, with spaces skipped between paragraphs. (Readers outside of higher ed: pick up your jaws off the floor. Higher ed is a quirky industry, with its own folkways. We need a Penelope Trunk or Evil HR Lady of higher ed.)

Search committees frequently do a first screen using a rubric, assigning point values to the various categories they included in the original position description. The way to work that is to address, at some point, every single criterion (including the merely 'preferred') listed in the position description. (Hint: don't just go by the ad. Go to the college's website, click on 'HR' or 'employment,' and find the actual position description, which is almost certainly longer than the ad by an order of magnitude. That will include the criteria the search committee is likely to use.) This can also save you time, if the position description includes criteria that you just don't meet, no matter how charitably interpreted.

If it were up to me, colleges would be relatively sparse in listing their desiderata, the better to allow cherry-picking from across institutional types, and the inclusion of some new perspectives. Of course, if it were up to me, a lot of things would be different. As it is, you'll frequently find criteria like “must have experience in a collective bargaining environment.” If you only go by the ad, you might not see that, and might not think to include it on your own. But it matters. It matters for the rubric, but it's also true that managing with a union is different from managing without one, and that folks who may be perfectly capable in the latter environment could get eaten alive in the former. In the absence of good performance measures, experience is better than nothing.

To the extent that you can show actual performance measures (and they flatter you), do it. If you took direction of a program and grew it, give the percentages or numbers by which it grew. (Be aware, though, that most educated people are at least a little skeptical of percentages: a program that went from one student to two experienced 100 percent growth, but is hardly a success.) In the context of R1's, I'd imagine that success at grantsmanship would count here, but I'll have to confess being out of my element in that neck of the woods. Any readers who know that stuff well are invited to comment. Look for quantifiable measures of success that you can explain in a sentence or less.

The letters I've seen succeed typically tell us relatively little about the candidate, and a great deal about the candidate's achievements. Don't do the 'inspirational life story' thing – it smacks of narcissism. (For reasons I don't understand, prospective faculty fall back on that all the time. I have never – not once, not ever – seen it work.) Instead, address problems you have solved.

To the extent that you know the dilemmas the institution is facing, it's good to address those. (To be fair, unless it's a place you currently work or where you have close friends, this could be hard to come by.) Does it need a change agent, or has it just gone through a wrenching change and it's looking for a consensus-builder? Does it need to increase enrollments, or is it bursting at the seams and struggling with managing growth? (The latter is much more fun.) Is it trying to change its mission and/or profile? (If so, expect the usual resistance from the usual entrenched suspects.) Are the demographics of its service area changing in important ways?

The paradox of job applications is that even though they're initiated by the applicants, and a tremendous amount of judging is directed at the applicants, they're not really about the applicants. This is especially true at the admin level, where there's rarely time to allow someone to grow into a role. (I've never not heard someone say at an interview for an admin position that the winning candidate will have to “hit the ground running.”) They're hiring to solve what they perceive as a problem. To the extent that you can suss out how they define the problem, you'll be able either to present yourself as the solution, or direct your time and energy elsewhere.

Finally, and it's embarrassing to have to say this, proofread the damn letter. I mean, really. I've been on cabinet-level search committees on which we've received letters that made me wince. I remember one that was entirely right-justified, so the left margin would start pretty much wherever. Why would an intelligent, educated person do that? (And this was when we still received hardcopy, so it wasn't a matter of our system chewing it up.) That application was DOA. Don't include salary requirements – there's time for that later. The point of the letter is to get you an interview. That's all.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Friday, October 19, 2007


What are the odds? There was actually a staggeringly brilliant piece in the New York Times yesterday! (The piece is here.) Gail Collins fired off several great ones, but my personal fave:

While it’s becoming virtually impossible to support a middle-class American family on one parent’s salary, we never hear political discussion about the repercussions. In a two-hour debate that focused on job-related issues, the Republican presidential candidates managed to mention the Smoot-Hawley tariff and trade relations with Peru but not a word about child care for America’s working parents. John McCain, who was on the receiving end of Matthews’s question, chose instead to focus on the fact that “50,000 Americans now make their living off eBay,” that the tax code is “eminently unfair” and that Congress wastes too much money studying of the DNA of Montana bears.

We live in a country where quality child care is controversial.

Yes, yes, yes.

My college is losing yet another wonderful woman employee this week. After trying valiantly to do the two-job-family thing for a while after her son was born, she finally threw in the towel and will stay home. It's a real loss for us. She's very good at what she does, and we'll have to bring in someone new who – even if good – brings a learning curve. In the meantime, her position will remain open a few months to save money. Some will do unpaid overwork to compensate, and some work will just slip through the cracks. This is how decisions get made.

The Wife and I did the two-job-family thing for several years, as my regular readers know. Even when she went to reduced hours, the day-to-day stress level was beyond belief. Life become little more than time management. And in some ways, we had it as good as it got: we could just afford a pretty good daycare center (with webcams), we worked (mostly) regular hours, and her parents were close by enough that they could be our emergency backup system when The Boy got sick and couldn't go in. Even with all that, it was just too hard.

I honestly don't know how single parents do it, especially with younger kids. I just don't know.

At my job interview in September, I suggested (based on some wonderfully helpful feedback from readers) that the Anne Arundel CC model of evening childcare might be a great way to help returning adult students succeed. My argument was that working parents would be much more able to commit to regular class attendance if they could drop off their kid(s) at a good childcare center on campus. Ideally, keep the cafeteria open late enough that they could grab something to eat before class, too. A parent who knows her kid is okay is able to focus on other things.

The students I spoke to loved the idea. The women I spoke to loved the idea.

The men did not love the idea. I didn't get the job.

I've worked at two colleges now that have evicted their onsite daycare centers. (My previous college did that the same month TB was born. I was fit to be tied.) Daycare centers tend to be money-losers, and enrollment-driven institutions don't like to use space that could have gone to tuition-paying students for just about anything else.

Trying to balance a single college's budget, I get that. I really do. I wrote that $250 check every week for TB's daycare (the going rate around here at the time), and it was painful. I did the math once; it worked out to $13,000 a year, and there was no financial aid. And the daycare workers weren't exactly getting rich.

Something is fundamentally wrong.

The debate over whether or not women should be allowed to work, or are capable of work, has been settled. The real cost of non-slum housing has soared. Yet the perfectly predictable consequence of the intersection of these objective trends – a need for good, safe, practical childcare – is still considered a private matter. It's as if every single family with young children is a fluke.

Have a learning disability? We have an office of trained professionals to help. Can't afford tuition? We'll work with you. Have a kid? Good luck with that.

Kids aren't just private lifestyle choices. They aren't in the same category as jet skis or stamp collections. But our institutions are set up as if choosing to have a kid is like choosing to buy a boat. (Some of the people who believe that manage simultaneously to believe that having a kid shouldn't be a matter of choice, and they don't see the contradiction.) Then we're surprised every single time we lose yet another wonderful woman employee (and yes, they're always women, and yes, that's another post altogether) to the otherwise-unmet needs of helpless young children.

Now our Congress has upheld the President's veto of health insurance for young children, paid for by cigarette taxes. I guess the kids are supposed to get insurance by getting jobs or something.

Kids shouldn't be afterthoughts, or hobbies, or career-killers. There's something fundamentally wrong when the choice boils down to neglecting your job or neglecting your kid. And it's nuts to pretend that each new instance of someone making that Hobson's choice is random, or just the way the cookie crumbles.

Meanwhile, we're down another good young employee. Kids today...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Policy and Trust

A former cc administrator -- who is not me -- did a piece in the Chronicle about deans and chairs needing to trust faculty. Much of the piece is actually spot-on. I can't imagine issuing a bathroom break policy, or walking around the hallways with a stopwatch and a clipboard. And the point about distrusting negative gossip is both true and easy to forget in those early days.

But then there's this:

Speaking of policies, if you want to be known as an administrator who trusts faculty members, throw out the policy manual. OK, maybe you shouldn't literally throw it out; some policies are necessary, after all, like the ones mandating pay raises and vending-machine restocking. But at least recognize that policies are not "one size fits all" and that they are not, in the final analysis, more important than people.


I'll cut the author some slack, and assume he never worked at a cc with a faculty union. If you have a faculty union, then you have a faculty union contract. And heaven help the poor dean who takes liberties with the contract, even if for all the right reasons.

I've had staff members in tears when their requests for bereavement leave were denied because the deceased didn't fit one of the approved categories in the contract (parent, child, sibling, parent-in-law, etc.). But when I looked into a humanitarian override, I quickly bumped into the double-edged sword of collective bargaining. If it ain't in the contract, it ain't in the contract, even if it would make obvious sense.

The savvy manager simply accepts this baseline of reality, and tries to find room to move anyway. That's not at all the same thing as throwing out the policy manual. Do that, and you will spend the rest of your (pitifully brief) career swatting grievances like mosquitoes.

As annoying as Dilbert-esque bureaucratic policies are to faculty, so are union contract work rules to deans. I had a full professor argue, at the top of her breath, that giving her a Tuesday class constituted a change to the terms and conditions of employment, since she hadn't had one in several years. I directed her to HR and wished her luck. We've had grievances -- and I swear in the name of all that is holy, I am not making this up -- when faculty had to take longer than usual to find parking spaces. I once had a grievance filed against me for scheduling a division meeting at a restaurant one block away, with the college picking up the check. The argument -- and again, I am not making this up -- was that anything held off-campus must, by definition, be a social occasion, and therefore cannot be mandatory. (What this suggests about how certain faculty spend their 'prep days,' I prefer not to say.) So now, in order not to oppress the tenured, I hold my division meetings in windowless lecture halls, with coffee and water and bagels. Power to the (tenured) people!

I would love to default to decision rules like 'trust,' and 'common sense,' and 'what a mature adult would do.' But I don't always have the option. When Dilbert-esque rules have been collectively bargained, mutual distrust has been hardwired into the campus systems. Heaven help the well-meaning dean naive enough to think that you can beat a contract with common f-ing sense.

My modest proposal: grievances should be treated like coaches' challenges in the NFL. The union is only allowed so many meritless grievances in a given year before it is assessed a penalty. (Grievances it actually wins wouldn't count against the total.) Each additional meritless grievance over the maximum costs them something. Let there be a cost to filing meaningless charges. After all, there's a very real cost in defending them. I'm tired of taking absurdity seriously just to avoid the nuisance value of having to defeat it. If you have an actual claim with actual evidence about something that actually matters, then by all means, bring it on. But if you want mutual trust, there needs to be mutual accountability. Nobody gets to lob grenades with impunity. That rule really is "one size fits all."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Bouncer Duty

A regular correspondent writes:

Lots of people are showing up in class these days who have been cut off from their computer accounts because of unpaid bills. There they are, ready to write--but I'm supposed to send them to the business office to settle their bills.

I tell them the business office is mad at them for owing money, and they need to get down there PDQ. So far, so good. Then I log them into my account so they can have class and write.

I feel like it's a boundary issue: I'm not their friend, not their lover, not their parent, not their boss, and not their credit counselor.. And I'm certainly not the school's bouncer or enforcer or kneecapper or repo man.

I'm the English teacher.

In the real world, would it not be an immediate security question if faculty were put in the position of dealing with areas beyond their expertise (I don't have their bills in front of me), areas not impossibly leading to anger and acting out?

This is a toughie. In my faculty days, I loathed the 'bouncer' role. But as a dean, my life is made infinitely harder by faculty who cut informal side deals with students.

It's easier in the moment to choose to look the other way and let the student sit in the class (or log in, as the case may be). After all, financial aid offices have been known to make mistakes, and the innards of any given offer are not the professor's business. (And if you think excuses for late papers can be baroque, you should hear the excuses for late payments!)

But looking the other way puts the college in an impossible position.

Like it or not, when you're teaching a class, you're acting as an agent of the college. (This is even true if you're adjuncting.) If you were to create a hostile environment in class, the college could be held liable. The grades you assign are recorded on official transcripts. Although professors like to think of themselves as free agents, the fact of the matter is that when you're teaching, you're acting as an agent of the college.

As such, if you allow a student who isn't on the roster, or who you know hasn't paid, to function as a member of the class, you're establishing the basis for the student to assume that he's in the class. This chicken comes home to roost at the end of the term, when the student demands a course grade, and waves graded papers at us as proof. If The College didn't think of him as a student, why did The College grade his work?

It's tempting to brush that off as a bureaucratic problem, but the bureaucracy issues your paycheck, and it does so, in part, with the money paid by students. Start forgiving tuition unilaterally, and watch colleges implode financially. Before long, nobody gets access to classes, since there's no money to pay instructors to teach them.

It's easy to object to bouncer duty, but what would be your alternative? Should we post guards outside the door of every classroom, to make sure that everybody's papers are in order? Institute mandatory fingerprint checks?

The point about anger and acting out strikes me as valid but not dispositive. Students get angry and act out at bad grades, at comments they perceive as insulting, and sometimes simply at exposure to points of view different from their own. Managing your classroom -- including angry students -- is a fundamental part of your job. It isn't what most of us enjoy doing, but it needs to be done, and I don't know who would do it better than faculty.

There are also issues around fundamental fairness. If tuition is effectively optional, then the students who bust their humps at low-paid jobs to pay tuition are suckers. If some students are offered the look-the-other-way discount and others aren't, you have a nasty due process or discrimination claim on your hands. (Imagine: Johnny Whiteboy got a waiver, but Jenny Minority didn't. Jenny files suit. The legal term, I believe, is "roadkill.") I'm the first to admit that financial aid procedures can be slow, cumbersome, imperfect, and even maddening, but to replace them with tuition-waivers-by-fiat just isn't viable. Imagine if we allowed cops just to execute obviously-guilty suspects upon catching them. Yes, it would be much faster than our slow, expensive, sometimes-arbitrary legal system, but would it be better? "Due process" isn't sexy, but it matters.

In my faculty days, I didn't like bouncer duty, either. But if you don't manage your classroom, including such basic matters as who is allowed in and who isn't, who will?

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found an effective way for dealing with students who don't pay, or who are otherwise trapped in a Kafkaesque financial aid situation?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Girl, Future Supreme Ruler of the Earth

The Girl is in training to be Supreme Ruler of the Earth.

She has already conquered the opposite sex. One of the boys in her nursery school class – I'll call him Millhaus – has taken quite a shine to TG. We got a call from Millhaus' Mom saying that every day when he gets home, it's TG this and TG that, and would we like to set up a playdate?

TG's first date.

The Wife asked TG if she knew Millhaus. TG's response: “Who?”

After all these years, it's nice to be on the other side of that one.

I suspected that Millhaus' Mom might have been embellishing a little, in order to fob off her kid for a little while. I was wrong.

On Saturday, TW took The Girl to the local library for the children's story hour. Apparently, Millhaus was there. He started jumping up and down wildly, pointing, and screaming “It's TG! Look! Mom! It's TG!”

TG was unimpressed. Though she did allow herself an enigmatic smile when I asked her later if she liked Millhaus.

But it doesn't stop there. She's also breaking down gender barriers.

For Halloween, TG declared that she would be Little Red Riding Hood, and that I would accompany her as The Big Bad Wolf. (The Boy is going as a basketball player.) Today TG amended her position slightly, allowing me to the The Big Good Wolf, so as not to scare anybody. TW found her a great Little Red Riding Hood costume on Ebay, so we're ready.

But she also likes to play dressup throughout the year, and the weeks before Halloween are the best time to find dressup material for the next several months.

TW had to do some shopping anyway, so while at Target she checked out the kids' costumes.

Apparently, Target does some pretty heavy-handed gender segregation of kids' costumes. The girls' aisle was all princesses and fairies. The boys' aisle had all the actual jobs. TW declared loudly “why is the doctor costume only in the boys' aisle?” to which a nearby Mom said “yeah!” TW bought the costume – scrubs, basically, plus a stethoscope – and brought it home for TG. TG loves it, insisting on wearing it even as we raked leaves in the backyard. And I'll admit, she's a natural. She has the attention span of a scientist, and the backbone of a pioneer. I wouldn't bet against her.

She's a real life Lisa Simpson, only, I hope, with a better Dad.

Readers, consider yourselves warned. One day she will be Supreme Ruler of the Earth. You knew her when...

Monday, October 15, 2007

We Insure, So You Don't Have To!

In the debates over health insurance, I've rarely heard anyone make the point – obvious, to anyone who works in the public sector – that one of the drivers of cost increases for us is the number of employees we have whose spouses use our health insurance to allow them to start their own businesses or to work part-time.

On my campus, the number of entrepreneurial spouses has reached the point that we actually offer payouts to people who are eligible for spousal coverage but don't take it. They get a fraction of what the cost to the college would have been, which is still several thousand dollars. In practice, that amounts to a windfall for the two-full-time-job couples, but it's largely inaccessible to other couples. The savings for the college are still enormous.

On a pragmatic level, the spousal strategy makes sense. One spouse works here, accepting an uninspiring public-sector salary in order to get the family health insurance. That frees up the other spouse to chase money, whether as a contractor or a consultant or an entrepreneur. As private health insurance has become more expensive, the incentive to dump the cost on the college has grown. While there's a case to be made that we're doing a public good by unleashing the entrepreneurial energy of all those spouses, I can't help but notice that we're insuring people who don't work for us (spouses) while not insuring people who do (adjuncts).

That's not even an employment-based system. It's something closer to an aristocracy, in which the status of your spouse trumps actual work.

What makes it even more galling is that the companies who offload their health insurance costs onto us are the same ones that complain about the resulting tax burdens. "Cause," I'd like you to meet "effect."

Over at Penelope Trunk's blog, her twentysomething guest poster wrote recently about skipping recommended medical tests while he's uninsured so he won't be diagnosed with anything that would count as a pre-existing condition when he finally gets insured again. The reasoning struck me as somewhere between brilliant and insane. More accurately, it's a reasonable response to a completely insane system. Which is what the spouse/entrepreneur move is, too.

I can't help but wonder if the folks who stick with jobs they hate just for the health insurance wouldn't be much more productive, eventually, doing other things. But they can't make that first move, because going without health coverage would open them up to catastrophe.

Thinking out loud here – what if you had health insurance simply by virtue of citizenship?

For the college, our costs would immediately drop, as we'd no longer be responsible for covering people who don't actually work here. Over time, some of the folks who just punch the clock here to keep their insurance would decamp for greener pastures, to the eventual betterment of all. The adjunct system would suddenly become somewhat less abusive, and also somewhat less necessary, since we wouldn't have to dodge paying for benefits anymore.

The twentysomethings who long to start their own businesses, but are afraid of going without coverage, could actually take their shots. Many would fail, of course, but I'd expect to see more innovation and economic growth over time. And they could get the tests they need before the currently undetected pre-existing conditions ripen into something much worse.

The companies that currently make their profits by offloading their health insurance costs onto more generous employers via spousal coverage would actually have to pony up, and the more enlightened employers would receive some sweet and badly needed relief.

In the media, the 'socialized medicine' debates are usually framed as free-marketeers versus dour statists. The frame is wrong. Moving health insurance to the background would make entrepreneurialism easier. It would encourage more economic risk-taking, since leaving Dreary Employer for Risky And Exciting New Venture would no longer involve going uninsured. As a country, we could divert our energies from playing 'hot potato' with the liability for sick people to actually creating value. National health insurance is pro-capitalist. It's also pro-college, since we wouldn't be paying for other people's employees anymore.

If you don't believe me, just wander around a college for a while, and ask every secretary or custodian you see what their spouses do. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, when it doesn't involve not getting that lump looked at.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Victories, Near and Far

One of the psychological adjustments I had to learn, when moving into administration, was to lower my expectations for victory.

I wasn't a great teacher, but I was a very good one. On my best days, the feeling of success was palpable. I remember students saying, in all apparent sincerity and with an unmistakable note of surprise, "I didn't know this could be interesting." When everything worked, I could walk out of a classroom knowing that the last few hours were well-spent. When I saw the lightbulb go on over a student's head, it made my day. Those victories kept me going when things got tough.

In administration, victories are fewer, slower, more ambiguous, and mostly vicarious. (Blame, on the other hand, is cheap and abundant.)

Although I'm responsible for, among other things, ensuring the quality of our academic offerings, I don't actually teach a class. I observe classes, but that's not the same thing. (Every so often I can't stand it anymore and sign up to do a guest lecture for our senior citizen program, which is an absolute hoot. But a one-off lecture isn't the same as a semester class.)

In administration, most of what I do involves trying to make it likelier that other people will do a good job. When the 'other people' in question have tenure, and there's no merit pay system, most of what I do has to be done indirectly, and most of the results show up only gradually. And yes, that can get frustrating.

I've noticed this recently by contrast. By lucky happenstance, I'm on the cusp of two HUGE victories. Actual, concrete, visible, sustainable, non-vicarious victories. I'm utterly beside myself about them, and I'm realizing that it's because that feeling of winning -- which used to be pretty common -- has become so rare. There was a time when I'd get that feeling a few times a week. Now, twice a year is a good year. One of them has been about two years in the making; the other, about one. It's just dumb luck that they're coming to fruition together.

When I help make a good hire, there's a satisfaction in that. But the hire is the one teaching the classes. When I'm able to find the money in the budget to help someone carry out a pet project that helps the college, there's satisfaction in that. But again, it's not my project. I've had to learn to be content, most of the time, with that.

On an ethical level, I'm a strong believer in the "it's not about me" school of management. My job is to make my college better, within certain material parameters. If getting that done requires setting my ego aside, so be it. Paradoxically, this can actually lead to more criticism, since some folks will loudly assume that if you aren't taking credit, then you must not be working. It's unfortunate, but there it is.

But I'm still human. And it feels good, even if it's only once in a while, to pull off a nice, clean victory or two.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Mad Scientists' Club

Now that The Boy is in first grade, he's at the age where we have to start making choices about what to sign him up for.

We've been pretty aggressive about getting him into different sports, partly because he enjoys them, partly for fitness, and partly to compensate for the gawkiness I've thoughtfully passed along. (Apparently, not too badly. At a recent town event, it seemed like every six-year-old girl in town knew him. They yelled his name from afar in the same tone with which teenage girls used to yell "Ringo!," then got shy when they got near him. He doesn't think anything of it. Only six, and he has already surpassed his father. I'm ridiculously proud.)

But clubs and such are another matter. I've acceded to CCD, since he was baptized Catholic and usually goes to Mass with The Wife. But now we get overtures from the Cub Scouts, and 4-H, and all of those.

I did my time in Cub Scouts. I remember having the power to make it rain, simply by going camping. I remember being chronically off-balance in an organization in which your value was based largely on the power tools your Dad owned, and whether or not you were able to experiment with them. (I never did terribly well at that measure; The Boy would do even worse.) I also remembered a vaguely oppressive battery of meetings.

Then we met the local Scoutmaster, and got the new literature.

I know I shouldn't pass public judgment. But this is just not acceptable.

It isn't just the 'conquer the wilderness' thing that seems vaguely out of place in densely-packed suburbia. It's the view of boyhood that I just couldn't abide, and won't subject TB to.

Many years ago, Denis Leary did a song called "Asshole." The lyric I remember went "I like football, and porno, and books about war. I'm an asshole!" That seems to be the key demographic for the Cub Scouts. It's of a piece with fraternities and Moose lodges. There's a smug, retro, crimped, and incredibly judgmental vision of masculinity underlying all of those. (For example: for the Religion merit badge, my church doesn't count! It's actually disqualified! Can you imagine? "We're sorry, but your centuries-old tradition that includes several American Presidents just isn't up to Cub Scout standards." No, fuck you.) The Boy is far too good for that. Pinewood derbies are all well and good, but there's just too much baggage.

(From what I've seen, the Girl Scouts seem to have a different culture entirely. When The Girl hits that age, I'll take that option seriously.)

Then we discovered The Mad Scientists' Club.

The local 4-H has a "4-H prep" section for grades one through three. Unlike the Cub Scouts, they don't herd everybody into a pack (the actual term that I am not making up) and make them all do the same thing. Instead, they run concurrent (and co-ed!) groups around common interests. TB loves science, so when we saw that they had a Mad Scientists' Club, we had to try it.

Much better.

The kids were about evenly split between boys and girls. The couple who ran the initial meeting made a point of going around the room and asking each kid what interests her about science, so they can come up with projects and experiments over the course of the year that these kids would like. (One kid opened with "I like explosions!") Their own son did the first show-and-tell, proudly passing around a huge dead beetle that, as he proudly declared, "I found in our sink!" TB was entranced. They made star maps that they were able to take home.

The whole feel was different. Instead of what I think of as the boot-camp model -- you're worthless until we make you into one of us -- it's based on the idea that kids have interests, and that the job of the adults is to help the kids pursue those interests. (As the kids get older, the pursuits get more involved. They have a pretty impressive robotics club, for example.) TB had a great time and is already looking forward to going back. I even saw another parent from my church, which I'm fairly confident wouldn't happen with the Scouts.

TB doesn't know any of my reasons for signing him up for this instead of the Scouts, and I don't feel the need to tell him yet. He just likes clubs where he gets to see dead bugs and hang out with other kids, both boys and girls. And I want to let him have that.

If the values are right, he'll pick them up himself, almost by accident. I'm just trying to make him accident-prone. I always was. Mad scientists usually are, too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Thoughts on Adjunct Unions

According to IHE, adjuncts at Pace University in New York City had their bargaining unit certified three years ago, but are still without a contract. The union is accusing the university of foot-dragging, and the university is claiming that 'first' contracts are harder than subsequent contracts. I find both sides' claims credible.

As I've mentioned before, my stand on faculty unions is somewhat off-the-beaten-path. I have no problem with unions bargaining wage rages, benefits (ranging from health insurance to parking), overall workloads (credits of teaching, minimum office hours), cost-of-living adjustments, and certain basic procedures and deadlines. (Candidates for tenure must receive word by December 1, or whatever.) These all strike me as reasonable.

I have a major problem with unions that wield the grievance hammer as a sort of retroactive veto on anything and everything a college tries to do, or that throws its weight behind defending indefensible conduct. And I have a huge moral issue with “two-tier” contracts, in which incumbent workers sell out the next generation to feather their own nests. (This has happened often enough in some settings that they're up to three- or four-tier contracts at this point. This, in the name of fairness to workers!)

I firmly believe that you can have a union or shared governance, but not both. You're either management or labor. Pick one. To my mind, a union that also wants to partake in management has lost sight of the concept of “conflict of interest.” Do they negotiate with themselves? The concept makes no sense, and is the result of a fundamental and egregious category error. I can accept either answer, but I can't accept both at the same time, or whichever one happens to be more convenient at the moment. Choose your side, and accept its implications. No cherry-picking.

In the case of adjuncts, I think it's pretty clear that the really basic stuff – salaries, benefits, office space, etc. -- needs addressing. Given my pedagogical bias that, all else being equal, it's better to go with more full-time faculty, I see an adjunct union actually making my argument easier. If the pay gap between full-timers and adjuncts shrinks, then the cost appeal of adjuncts diminishes. I'd have an easier time getting replacement lines for retirees if the cost savings from adjuncts were less dramatic. In a perverse way, an adjunct union could sow the seeds of its own destruction.

In the meantime, though, I can foresee an inevitable conflict. If adjunct compensation (including benefits) increases substantially, that money has to come from somewhere. Given that most enrollment-driven colleges are running fairly close to the bone as it is, it's going to have to come in part from the full-time faculty. Short of unimaginable tuition increases, or magic infusions of money from the cash fairy, there is no way around this simple truth. We've managed to fund fairly generous raises and benefits for the unionized full-timers by being downright stingy with the adjuncts. Take that option away, and those generous raises will have to go away, too.

(Yes, the unions could, and hopefully would, mount public campaigns to increase public funding for higher ed. But I'm not holding my breath for the cash fairy.)

I can also foresee some very sticky issues arising with an adjunct union. Do longer-term adjuncts automatically get first dibs on courses? If so, how much time do they get to consider an offer? (In the last week or two before classes, there's always last-minute horse trading. Add 'mandatory waiting periods' to that, and I get a headache just thinking about it.) Do administrators who pick up classes on the side get adjunct union membership? (The mind reels.) Do adjuncts get first dibs on tenure-track jobs? (So much for open searches!) Adjuncts who teach at several colleges could wind up belonging to several different unions, each with its own rules, procedures, dues, and politics. Do they lose union membership if they take one-year gigs? I can foresee some crafty administrations coming up with new, intermediate ranks that are neither fish nor fowl, just to get around the inevitable union issues.

None of which is really my problem, I'll admit. My advice to the folks at Pace: keep the contract simple. Don't get into waiting periods, and dibs, and all that ancillary stuff that gunks up the works and makes even committed liberals like me wince at the word 'union.' Go for what you really need, and what's actually easiest to deliver: money. Save the other stuff for later.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? What do you think?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Where Does the Money Go?

A Western correspondent writes:

I work at a community college in northern California. I was hired
full time after working part-time for three years and am in the third year
of a four year tenure track position teaching art.

There seems to be no support for the art department. I spent some part of
each work day for the first three weeks of the semester trying to get paper
towels delivered. The floors in our building haven't been mopped since
August 2006. We're far from the main campus and don't have a copier to use.
Our gallery is a tiny part of the community ed center off campus. It is a
walled off section of the basket ball court and it still has the court lines
on the floor. The voters approved a $32 million bond for campus improvement
three years ago. Amount for the art department: zero. Whenever I try to get
something done, I am stymied and not helped. I could go on and on.

I love teaching. I love my students. I love the time in the classroom. The
day to day grind is getting to me. Last week I stole paper towels from the
photography department bathroom.

So I'm thinking of leaving. Some friends say it's like this everywhere. Art
is always last place. My only other job in higher ed was at an art school so
I don't have anything for comparison.

So here's the question: Is it like this everywhere? Art is last place, not
understood and not supported.

Any guidance, any help, any thoughts are appreciated.

The short answer is: it's not that Art is always last, it's that materials are always last.

I'm not surprised that the bond for campus improvement hasn't helped, since bonds typically go for 'capital' items, and most of what you're complaining about are 'operating' expenses. In the public sector, money left over in one category can't be moved into the other, so even if, by some miracle, the voters appropriated more than enough for whatever building projects are under way, you'd still need to swipe paper towels.

Areas that rely heavily on materials typically feel this the most, but it's endemic in the cc world. In my chalk-and-talk disciplines, it's not unusual to run out of blue books early in the Spring, resulting in an annual budget scramble to cover final exams. In the materials-intensive areas, like art, theatre, and lab sciences, the materials shortfalls are chronic.

(My first week as a dean at Proprietary U, I remember a science professor bursting into my office, visibly upset, loudly and indignantly complaining that we were out of owl pellets. I didn't know we had owl pellets. At my current job, I once had an extended conversation with the chair of the Art department about dirt. He complained that they were out of dirt. I snidely mentioned something about going outside and digging. Now, I know more about dirt than I ever wanted to.)

To forestall the inevitable flaming about "well, if you planned better...," I'll make a few points.

1. Anybody who has ever tried to manage creative people can tell you that there is never, under any circumstances, any such thing as 'enough.' They're incredibly good at using whatever is available and then demanding more. That's not to say that some of the needs aren't obviously real, but it is to say that the idea that you can spend (or plan) your way out of the problem is naive. Supply incites demand. I have personally approved purchase requisitions for rubber chickens. Was I supposed to have planned for that a year in advance? The theatre people need rubber chickens, I find money for rubber chickens. This year, it's rhinestones. Don't ask.

2. Anything that will be consumed in a given year falls under 'operating' expenses. For reasons nobody has ever satisfactorily explained to me, it's much harder to raise money for 'operating' expenses than for 'capital' expenses. Salaries fall under 'operating' expenses, as do professional development money, travel money, blue books, telephone charges, snow removal, HVAC, and, yes, paper towels. 'Capital' pretty much covers buildings, large equipment, and some technology. (I've seen software treated both ways. To my mind, any software worth buying should fall under 'capital,' but that's me.) It's possible to get state or federal grants for capital purchases, and to the extent that philanthropists are part of the picture, they tend to fund either capital items or scholarships. Operating money has to come from inside, which means it's much harder to generate.

3. Most operating expenses are untouchable. Given tenure and union contracts, labor costs are effectively fixed. (Health insurance is climbing at a pornographic pace, but it, too, is effectively untouchable.) We can't just decide to go without heat, or electricity, or snow removal. The adjuncts are so poorly paid as it is that there's simply nothing left to squeeze there. Toner cartridges cost what they cost. Over extended periods, you can open up breathing room in operating budgets by replacing full-timers with adjuncts and moving the salary savings elsewhere, but that doesn't help in any given year. (I also think there's a measurable long-term cost, but that's another post.) The only 'soft' operating expenses are things like deferred maintenance, office supplies, paper towels, and those little nickel-and-dime items that don't add up to much and torpedo morale when you cheap out on them.

4. In colleges with relatively decentralized budgeting systems, savvy chairs learn quickly that any money left on the table this year will be gone next year, reallocated to some area of demonstrated need. So they make damn sure not to leave money on the table. This guarantees that needs underfunded now will continue to be underfunded, until some much more drastic change takes place.

5. Although you wouldn't know it from the popular press, there's no budget line labeled "waste, fraud, and abuse" from which I can simply transfer money. That line doesn't exist.

6. Emergencies happen. Most budgets have something like a "contingency" line, to be used for unexpected expenses. (Cynical sorts like to refer to this line as a "slush fund." Apparently, in the Cynic's Universe, nothing ever actually breaks. It must be a lovely world.) There's a great old Dilbert cartoon in which the pointy-headed boss asks Dilbert to itemize his unanticipated expenses in next year's budget. The whole point is that you can't. Setting this level is a judgment call, but doing without it would guarantee disaster. I've personally had people who accused me of running a slush fund in October get angry at me in April when the money's gone, and completely miss the contradiction. Comes with the gig.

7. Lab fees. In my experience, the departments that complain the loudest about lab fees going into the general budget (which they do) also get cross-subsidized by the departments without lab fees. History turns a profit so Art doesn't have to. Who's coming last?

Sorry if that's both more, and less, than you wanted to know. The California system is famously idiosyncratic, so I'll have to leave it to my left coast readers to shed any state-specific light.

Costco paper towels tend to be good, and fairly cheap.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found a sustainable way to fund materials?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Off the Grid

When The Wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I gave some of the usual answers, and a new one. The new one: I wanted a day off the grid.

A day without my job, childcare, errands, laundry, house stuff, or anything else. A day in which I could return, even if only for a little while, to the unstructured time I used to have, back in my twenties. Time alone, not 'on call,' to do with as I pleased.

Bless her, she went for it. So for several hours on Saturday, I was off the grid. (A full day is simply beyond reality, at this point.)

It was wonderful.

I chose a gloriously impractical book (The Stillborn God, by Mark Lilla), and took it to the local coffee bar. I ordered a ridiculous drink, parked at a table, and read without hurry, worry, guilt, or shame. When the Lite Hits got to be too much (and the drink was done), I absconded to the local public library where I found a quiet corner and -- parents of young children, you know where I'm going with this -- kept reading.

I didn't realize just how badly I missed that until I did it.

Graduate school is terrible in so very many ways, most of which are pretty well-rehearsed in the academic blogosphere: economic marginality, lousy job prospects, uptight people, an archaic and dysfunctional "apprentice" system, yadda yadda yadda. But one of the great failings of grad school is less commonly remarked upon: for all that it tears you down, it also gives you false hope. I recall spending endless hours in grad school slogging through complicated academic works, trying to find my land legs as a scholar. I simply assumed that voracious reading of complicated scholarly stuff would be a feature of my life for the rest of my career.


With a more than full-time administrative job and a commitment to being a reasonable husband and father (and two children under the age of seven), something had to give.

Blogging is great, but it's not the same. It's bite-size chunks, it's usually not dense, and it's mostly observational. It keeps me sane, but 'keeping sane' and 'stretching' are two different things. Besides, I think it's fair to say that the cognitive weight of the average blog post isn't quite at the same level as the average book by Mark Lilla.

Virginia Woolf had that famous line about a woman needing a room of her own with a lock on the door. She was half right. A parent needs that.

Yes, life now is infinitely better than it was in grad school. Regular readers know how important TW, The Boy, and The Girl are to me. When I got back, TB and TG proudly displayed the buckets of acorns they and TW had gathered in the woods. They gave me the rock-star greeting, and TG flashed those ridiculously beautiful eyes at me and smiled. Our dinner guests that night even commented on how lovely TG and TB are.

But is it really so wrong to want, once in a while, to use a little of the skill I spent the better part of a decade developing?

I'm back on the grid. There's work to do. There always is. Lilla's book will still be there, like so many others: unfinished, gathering dust in the basement. I'll make a few halfhearted attempts to finish, during those blessed intervals when the day's work is actually done and I'm not yet too tired to think. Then I'll move on, like I always do.

Grad school didn't prepare me for this.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Taking Their Money

One of the policies my cc works under is a rule about “ability to benefit.” Basically, it means that we can only admit students who have demonstrated the ability to benefit from college-level instruction. We usually interpret that to mean a high school diploma or GED, plus a minimal level of performance on placement tests (if they haven't already placed out with high SAT/ACT scores).

We use the same logic in setting a limit on the number of times a student can repeat a class. Anybody can fail anything once for just about any reason. Even twice, if life intervenes. But there comes a point – hard to pinpoint, but it exists – at which we're no longer really offering second (or third, or fourth) chances; we're just taking their money.

(Of course, as a public institution, our costs are partially covered by the taxpayers. So we're also taking the taxpayers' money.)

Nobody wants to be the one to tell an earnest, hardworking, but horribly underequipped student that it's time to find another path. (And yes, some of the lowest achievers are honestly trying.) Part of the mission of a community college is to be open to everybody. We enforce rigor once they're in, rather than at the point of admission. I've explained it to students (and parents) as the difference between an at-bat and a home run. We guarantee you some at-bats. If you strike out repeatedly, that's on you.

In practice, of course, many high school grads come to us without college-level skills. (One of my recurring fantasies involves high schools that actually produce literate, numerate graduates across the board. Oh, happy land!) We offer remedial courses to give the students a shot at catching up, and many of them do. We've actually had valedictorians who started out in remedial classes. (Remedial classes don't count towards graduation, so the valedictorians who started out remedial had to complete remediation and then complete the entire regular degree program. It's a tough row to hoe, and I tip my cap to those who do it well.)

But the heartbreaker – the issue that comes back every single semester – is the student who fails the remedial class for the third (or fourth, or fifth) time, despite doing all the work. These students exist, and they point to a basic contradiction at the heart of our mission. Community colleges are open to everybody, but college isn't for everybody. Telling a student to give up and go home goes against every instinct we have, but there's such a thing as false hope. There comes a point at which the student has demonstrated, repeatedly, an inability to benefit.

I don't think that's an argument against community colleges. My argument for open admissions is that there's no foolproof way of distinguishing upfront the 'doomed' from the 'late bloomers.' So we give everybody the benefit of the doubt, on the theory that it's worth tolerating some futility in order to give the late bloomers a chance to succeed. And enough late bloomers do succeed that I can say that with a clear conscience. I don't want to be in a world in which folks who haven't found their groove by 18 are shut out of education for the rest of their lives. The waste of talent would be unconscionable.

(I've also seen adults who – by their own admission -- spent their late teens and twenties in druggy hazes, bounced around the fringes of the economy, then saw the light in adulthood, and came back to college On A Mission. They're hard not to root for. They're great to have in class, since they discipline the other students for you. When I see them hug their kids at graduation, I give thanks that I've never had to work that hard.)

But we're still stuck with the kid who can't write a paragraph after several cracks at remedial English.

There was a time when you could tell that kid to get a job on the assembly line, join the union, and that would be that. Or he could join the military and find his way there. Now, the first isn't available, and the second is an increasingly rough sell. And you just don't make much working between RIFs at Circuit City.

Wise and worldly readers, I'm looking for practical answers. Have you seen productive options for the students who just can't pass remediation, and who don't have the family connections to compensate?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Are Your Alums Good Enough to Teach for You?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a sophomore at a snooty-but-trying-not-to-be Private Liberal Arts
College who has recently discovered your blog and is tearing through
the archives. I'm afraid I'm one of the folks from the kind of town
(bedroom community where all the parents have grad degrees) where
people only go to CCs to get ahead in high school, for summer credit,
or because they didn't get in anywhere else. After reading, however,
I'm starting to understand the idea of getting cheap Gen-Ed credit and
then transferring.

I'm wondering, however, how much this is an ideal than common
practice. Did any of the faculty at your school, for instance, start
their higher ed at a CC?

I like questions that get at what William James called the "cash value" of an abstraction. Okay, you say your cc does a good job? Does it do a good enough job that you'd hire your own grads to teach?


Several of our faculty are also alums here. (Interestingly, all but one of the names I can rattle off are women.) They started here, transferred to four-year colleges, then went on for graduate work. The fact that they came back here strikes me as a vote of confidence. I've also noticed a significant number of "faculty brats" among the students. As a parent, I know I wouldn't send my kid to a school in which I lacked confidence.

One of the benefits of hiring alums is that they often have a very good sense of where the students are coming from. One of my favorite people here actually attended here in her thirties before moving on and eventually finding her way back. She has emerged as a wonderful resource for returning adult students, since she has been one herself. (She once explained to me that adult students like to sit in the front row so they don't have to see all the young faces behind them. I hadn't noticed that until she pointed it out.)

More broadly, transfer from here to a four-year school is quite common. At my cc, the generic 'transfer major' is the single highest-enrollment major. (Admittedly, this isn't true at all cc's. Some of them are much more vocationally oriented than we are.) The local four-year colleges have consistently found that our graduates actually graduate at higher rates, and with higher GPA's, than their 'native' students. I suspect that partly reflects pre-sorting (our weakest students don't even make it to graduation, so the four-year schools never see them) and partly reflects the fact that we put resources into Intro courses and they don't.

Interestingly, the average age of our students is dropping, and we're getting more full-time (and fewer part-time) students than in the past. The working-adult-at-night group is shrinking, and the full-time-just-out-of-high-school group is growing. We spend a lot of time trying to crack the nut of shrinking adult enrollment, but I think the growing traditional-student enrollment is largely a function of cost. As the tuition rates at the four-years have risen beyond reason, and the success rates of our grads becomes better known, the argument for saving some money by coming here first becomes more compelling.

It's not for everybody. We don't have dorms, or football, or some of the trappings of a residential college. Most of the students live at home. Growing up in Northern Town, one of my priorities, upon graduating high school, was to get the hell out of Northern Town. I desperately wanted the dorm experience (as I imagined it), and the stamp of approval of a name brand college. But if the choice isn't between, say, Swarthmore and a cc, but between Nothing Special State and a cc, I wouldn't rule out the cc without taking a serious look first.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.