Friday, November 30, 2007

Just a Job

Picking up on the premodern vs. modern theme of yesterday's post, Grad School Friend (who is on the tenure track at a research university) sent me a note about how his department received the news that he was seeing someone who lived in another time zone:

After the faculty became aware of her
existence, as my girlfriend from out of town, the department chair had a
talk with me about how this news has negatively affected my position in
the department. I was instructed to tell people that "I love it here; I
would never leave;" etc. My solution, to make him happy, was to let him
spread a counter-rumor, that [she] was attempting to get a job [there].
And then I dropped it for non-discussion on the matter, which has been
hard. [She] has gotten to the point of making excuses to avoid my
colleagues. I see this as the same issue: The "modern" side pushes me
to treat this entirely as a job and nothing more, but the "pre-modern"
side expects me to treat this as my life.

Amazing. And deeply, deeply sick. (The department, not Grad School Friend.)

The premodern/modern mashup of higher education leads to some really bizarre behavior. Respect gender equality rigorously in your pronoun use, but make sure you have a stay-at-home wife to prepare your tenure file. (Dr. Crazy rightly went to town on this one.) Hire for merit, but not too much merit, because that brings flight risk. Train people in graduate school to perform cutting-edge research, then hire them to teach basic Intro classes. In the case of the Ivies, proudly proclaim both your 'diversity' and your rejection rate, and pretend not to notice the contradiction. In the case of the big Midwestern schools, treat football as a secular religion while farming out your intro classes to adjuncts. Ratchet up the tenure requirements for younger hires, but give those new hires hell if they dare to look elsewhere, or even to date people from elsewhere.

This is sick, people.

Using the 'premodern vs. modern' lens at least gives me a sense of why certain things that just seem beyond reasonable dispute to me get some people all worked up. For example, the notion that academic jobs are just jobs. They are. They're good jobs, sometimes, and they can be very satisfying, sometimes, but they're jobs. There's an employer-employee relationship. An employee who wants to find another employer should have every right to try, and to try without judgment or sanction. An employee who wants to switch to another industry shouldn't be judged a washout or a failure. (And for goodness' sake, in what industry does the worst worker get promoted? Could we please call a halt to the 'all administrators are failed professors' canard?) An employee who wants to move geographically to be with a significant other isn't being 'disloyal' or showing a lack of dedication – he's making a perfectly valid life choice. And the idea that the employee owns his job – one popular definition of tenure – is facially preposterous. Can I sell my job to the highest bidder on ebay? Can I trade it? Can my kids inherit it? Is there a job market in the same sense in which there's a house market? Can something I own lay me off for 'fiscal exigency'? If not – and, not – then I don't own my job.

In any other industry, those positions would be so obvious as to be banal. In higher ed, they're subversive.

If you hold to the premodern understandings, then my friend has betrayed his department. How dare he find love outside of Third Tier City? Who does he think he is? What right does he have to leave, after all the time we've invested in him?

If you hold to the modern understandings, the questions themselves are absurd.

The folks who study generations are finding that workers – I'll use that word, and include myself in the category – under forty are less 'loyal' to employers than their parents were. It's often presented as “those silly kids, here's how to manage them,” which strikes me as backwards. To my mind, a lack of 'loyalty' reflects a clearsighted recognition of the objective reality that the world has changed. The combination of feminism and 'assortative mating' means that younger academics face the dreaded 'two-body' problem much more frequently than their forebears did, and in a rougher market. You can blame them for that and tell them to lower their sights, or you can recognize that the world has changed and they're simply adapting to it as best they can. Hell, if you really want to be useful, you could try to find ways to ameliorate some of those issues.

But that takes imagination. Indignation is easier, and offers the cheap thrill of a sense of superiority.

Asking highly intelligent, educated, ambitious, hardworking, three-dimensional people to forget all of the social and economic changes of the past forty years and know their place is nuts. My friend shouldn't have his 'standing in the department' jeopardized because he dared to find love outside the city limits. It's a job. It's just a job, like any other. That's all it is. There's more to life, and he's not a traitor for noticing.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Plate of Shrimp

“It's like when someone says plate. And then someone says shrimp. And then someone says plate of shrimp...It's part of the cosmic web of coincidence.” -- Repo Man

Every so often I stumble upon two articles back to back that seem like they were written to answer each other, even though they obviously weren't. It's part of the cosmic web of coincidence.

My fellow IHE blogumnist John Lombardi published an enigmatic, but thoughtful, piece on the “deconstruction” of the faculty role into its component parts. He argues that “the remarkable transformation of much academic commitment from an investment in a person who produces many products over a lifetime to the investment in specific products that ensure the competitive position of the employing institution” is the result of “the demand for high levels of student access, high productivity demonstrated through measurable output, and low cost,” and the concurrent rise of “accountability metrics.” He appears to lament the decline of “the norm of faculty life [that] revolved around a full-time tenured position in a college or university where we would become permanent and engaged members of the academic community, participating in teaching, research, public service, and governance responding to a holistic conception of faculty responsibilities.” (emphasis added)

It's a fairly straightforward story of the gentleman's agreement giving way to the contract. Contracts lack the ease and flexibility of the gentleman's agreement even if, to any objective observer, they're far more inclusive than the old form. If you keep expecting the old form, you'll keep being disappointed in the costs of, well, modernity. People who intuitively understood the 'holistic conception' will find any mere list of components somewhat underwhelming or reductionist.

Right after that, I found an unintentional rebuttal in a piece in the Chronicle. The piece, “As the Professoriate Ages, Will Colleges Face More Legal Landmines?”, examines the ways that colleges and universities can run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (The conceit of the article is that the aging of the tenured faculty will lead to increased disability claims over time, and therefore to more opportunities for litigation.)

As the article correctly notes, the ADA requires employers, when confronted with a disability claim, to make reasonable accommodations. A college can deny an accommodation request if it can show that the request would “require the college to reduce, eliminate, or modify the essential functions of a job.” How could it show that?

[T]o make such a case, an institution must be able to describe what, in fact, the essential functions of a faculty member's job are. That is why each college should identify and distribute a list of the essential functions that a faculty member at the institution must perform, preferably in some official policy document like a faculty handbook, individual employment contract, or collective-bargaining agreement. Establishing a clear set of essential functions will notify faculty members of what they are expected to do, provide a guideline for administrators who are asked to provide reasonable accommodations for faculty members who can't perform certain parts of their jobs, and justify a college's agreement or refusal to grant a particular accommodation...If it is to hold up to scrutiny during litigation, the essential-functions list should be prepared before a faculty member discloses a disability and requests an accommodation. (emphasis in original)

Exactly. That “essential functions” list that Lombardi considers reductive and shallow is the only thing keeping litigants from bleeding the college dry with legal judgments. The gentleman's agreement model of individual judgment on a case-by-case basis – with all the favoritism that entails – simply isn't sustainable in court. And for very good reason.

The tension between the ideals of contracts – transparency, clarity, reciprocity – and the holdover ideals of the gentleman scholar – an apprentice system, a complete lack of accountability, and lifetime job security – becomes obvious when younger faculty clamor for more transparency in the tenure process. They're trying to bring the logic of exchange to bear on a system premised on the denial of the logic of exchange. It's possible to do a little of that, but ultimately, giving someone tenure means exempting them from having to uphold their half of the deal. That's why colleges have been so slow to let go of the much-feared unwritten rules, even when the unwritten rules seem archaic or even silly. By necessity, they try to suss out motivation, as much as actual production, so they don't get stuck with someone who will collapse in exhaustion at the finish line of tenure and retire on the job, stirring only to file the occasional grievance.

As Lombardi correctly notes, higher ed has indirectly acknowledged the end of the 'gentleman's agreement' era by constructing a parallel system of faculty hiring separate from the tenure track. That second system is clearly second-class – adjunct and temp positions that offer no security, lousy pay, and no signs of institutional respect. It's almost a parody of the worst of the corporate world, the profits from which subsidize the otherwise-unsustainable gentlemen with tenure. The landed aristocrats are bought off, and the proles too scared or shamed to organize.

Every so often I suggest moving to full-time renewable multi-year contracts with academic freedom stipulated as part of the contractual language. (That way, violations of academic freedom would be actionable as breach of contract. That's actually a stronger legal foundation than academic freedom has by itself.) Stop trying to psychoanalyze junior faculty; give up on the gentleman scholar; spell out the expectations on both sides; don't renew those who don't perform. Let's have the conversations about what the job actually entails, and write down the results of that conversation for future legal reference.

Lamenting the world that's lost is fine, but someone said plate of shrimp. It's time to move on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Recruiting Without Paying

A returning correspondent writes:

I'm just starting to think of the hiring season and,
while I'm at a urban high school and that's different
than a CC or 4-year SLAC, it seems that you and I face
similar questions about hiring...

I'm the math department chair. I have a relatively
small staff, but experience pretty high turn-over.

The basic question: what do you do to attract more
mid-career folks?

We have a salary schedule that puts us slightly below
average for the area.

**Money is the same huge constraint that you face (I

Are signing bonuses reasonable? They're a one-time
financial hit. What other low-cost things should we
think about?

We're a relatively new school, so there aren't many
'established' practices that we're breaking.

High school hiring is a very different animal from college hiring, since I've never heard of an adjunct high school teacher. And the folks who want to be 'teachers' often have different expectations of their employers than do the folks who want to be 'professors.' So I'll just admit upfront that some of the issues you're facing are probably pretty different from ours.

That said, there's certainly a commonality in the lack of money. In areas of relatively high employer demand, it can be a challenge to keep the staffing levels up. This is especially true in that the faculty here (and in many other places) is unionized, and the union contract sets some fairly strict guidelines for starting salaries. One-size-fits-all salary matrices protect the lowest-demand fields from the salaries that market forces would otherwise set. But they do it at the cost of underpaying the folk who have other options. When those folk consistently decamp for greener pastures, or turn down offers, it's frustrating.

(Concretely: a couple of years ago I had a revealing conversation with the dean who oversees nursing. We were talking about hiring procedures. My concerns were about getting through the huge pile of applications in a fair and aboveboard way. Her concerns were about getting any applications at all.)

I'll also admit a certain wariness. I don't want someone who's "falling back on" teaching, or who sees teaching as a low-stress job to coast until retirement. (I've dealt with some of those, and they aren't worth the hassle.) I want someone who wants to be here. If it requires heroic effort on your part to keep someone satisfied, don't.

Still, there are times when it makes sense to stress the non-pecuniary rewards of academia. (If those didn't exist, given the ratio of pay to training, the field would empty post-haste.) I wouldn't emphasize the summers off, since that tends to attract the folks you want the least. Instead, I'd point to the incredible autonomy that characterizes most of the job. This is especially true in a college setting, since standardized testing is still mostly considered a four-letter word here. The folks to whom that would appeal are likely to be the self-starters, which are precisely the ones you'd most want to hire. (Alternately, that could appeal to the slackers as well, which is why I'd phrase it as 'autonomy' rather than time off. You can work any fifty hours a week you want.)

Part of what I loved about teaching, back in my teaching days, was that I rarely felt like I had a boss. Yes, my class schedule was given to me, and once in a while I had to attend some silly event or endure an idiotic workshop. But I could go months between those things, during which time just about every non-teaching minute of the day was my own. Much of it still involved work, but it was work I could schedule according to my own needs and preferences. If I wanted to do my errands during the week and my grading on Sunday, I could. PU had an annoying dress code, but most colleges don't. So at many colleges, most of the day-to-day stuff consists of teaching -- which I assume you like, or you wouldn't do it -- and unstructured time. How many jobs are like that?

Signing bonuses can work, but they can annoy the incumbent employees unproductively, and the bloom wears off the rose pretty quick. I'd rather pump some funding into tuition reimbursement for pursuing advanced degrees, or travel funding for conferences -- something that, when used, makes them better faculty. Show that you care not only about landing them, but about developing them once they're there. That's the kind of perk that will appeal to those with a work ethic and a love of what they're doing, but leave the 'retire on the job' types cold. Which is exactly what you want.

In other circumstances, some places do spousal hiring as a way to get and keep people they otherwise couldn't. Some people are willing to trade, say, a slightly underwhelming salary for the chance to actually live with their spouse/life partner. But again, that's likelier to work in lower-demand fields, where people have fewer appealing options.

This certainly isn't an exhaustive list. I'll turn to my wise and worldly readers. Have you found an effective way to recruit without paying?

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fun with Boards

Although some on campus like to talk about The Administration as a monolith, like The Borg, it's actually composed of two major parts which don't always work in perfect harmony.

This story made me laugh in recognition. Basically, the Board of Trustees at Palm Beach Community College decided not to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employees. However, the college subsequently extended group discounts for health insurance for pets. Some folks put the two next to each other to ask why the college is willing to cover, say, Fluffy, but not Fran. (I assume that some would say that Fluffy doesn't offend God, and Fran does. Whether that's the proper concern of the Board of Trustees at PBCC is another question.)

The key is in recognizing the difference between the administration and the Board. As the story states,

College administrators have endorsed the idea of extending benefits to the partners of employees, but have yet to persuade enough board members. While officials could not be reached, they told local reporters that it was unfair to compare the benefits offered and denied, because they are categorized in different ways, and that the pet benefit did not require board approval.

Aha! The administrators who work at the college -- who support coverage for both pets and people -- had the leeway to pursue the pet insurance on their own, but had to get -- and couldn't get -- Board approval for the same-sex partner benefits. Whether the administrators there are crafty political operatives forcing the Board's hand, or if these decisions were made entirely separately and only juxtaposed after the fact, I don't know. (I could believe either.) But I wouldn't be surprised to see the Board there cave in the face of otherwise having to explain why cats are more important than people. (I recall a similar juxtaposition when Viagra first came out, and some HMO's that didn't cover birth control pills said they would cover Viagra. Some of them changed their policy on birth control coverage once Viagra was on the scene, mostly out of a combination of embarrassment and public pressure.)

On the merits, covering pets but not people strikes me as somewhere between stupid and inhuman (in the most literal sense of the word). But the reason it made me smile in rueful recognition was the split between the managers and the Board.

The bane of the middle manager is having to communicate and/or enforce policies that run counter to your own instincts. Worse, it's not unusual to develop arrangements internally contingent on Board approval, only to have to go back later and explain why the Board didn't bite. Managers are invariably blamed for that, from both above and below, but it's often an unfair charge. Trying to predict how a Board will receive or interpret a given initiative is as much art as science, especially when the policy is meaningfully new. And any serious effort to address an important and long-standing problem will, almost by definition, involve a departure from past practice. If it didn't, the problem would have been solved by now.

Some colleges have adopted the Carver model, in which, as I understand it (and I could be wrong on this), any powers not specifically forbidden can be assumed to have been delegated. The charge to the Board is to find ways to measure performance. So the Board sets forth some “thou shalt nots,” then lets people work towards specified goals. I'll just say that the 'law and order liberal' in me considers that model very, very promising. Anyone with experience with it is invited to shed light in the comments. I hope to gain experience with it someday.

Kudos to the brave administrators at PBCC, who may or may not be employed for much longer. I hope for their sake that their Board is capable of recognizing a mistake, and is above shooting the messenger.

If not, I hope that other colleges will recognize forward thinking when they see it. And I hope the folks who are (rightly) offended at a college choosing pets over people will be able to distinguish the administration from its Board.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Scenes from Thanksgiving Break

A few vignettes from the holiday weekend:

  • The Boy at lunch: “I'm thinking of a word that rhymes with 'oilet.'” He followed that with “I'm thinking of a word that rhymes with 'oilet maper.'”

  • We drove to my Mom's, in Neighboring State, where my brother, his wife, and The Niece met us. TN is almost a year old, and she was fascinated with TB and TG. The Boy took her under his wing, and, at one point, sat flanked by the two girls as he read them a story. It was great to see the cousins start to bond, and to see TB act like quite the little gentleman.

  • For a centerpiece, Mom got a five pound chocolate turkey. I spent the entire meal being mooned by a five pound chocolate turkey. Breaking off the tailfeathers felt like payback.

  • I dodged the Black Friday shopping, but TW dove into the scrum at one store. She reported seeing women there with two shopping carts – pushing one and pulling the other – full of stuff. The closest I came to that was making a point of checking the Apple website on Black Friday, which was a bit of a letdown.

  • We had two Santa sightings on Saturday. On Saturday morning, when TG climbed into bed with us, I told her that we'd see Santa that day. Her eyes got huge, she gasped, and she asked “Is it Cwistmas?” I tried not to chuckle, but I'm not made of stone.

  • The first Santa sighting was in the afternoon, outdoors, at the local airport. (Santa flew in via Cessna, since the reindeer are working with their personal trainers.) We kept some distance from that Santa, though, since he isn't our beloved local Santa, and I don't want TB and TG to put two and two together. The cooler feature of that visit was a hot air balloon launch, including one balloon lying on its side, inflated, that you could walk around in. I had never walked around inside the balloon part of a hot air balloon before. If you get the chance, I recommend it. The visual effect is like those cheesy 'psychedelic' trip sequences from Yellow Submarine.

  • The second Santa sighting was that evening, also outdoors, at our local holiday festival. Santa arrived on a fire truck – again, the reindeer are busy feeling the burn – and this one was our beloved local Santa, who knows TW by name. Our beloved local Santa is an older local man with a real white beard and an infectious sense of comfort in his own skin. As he disembarked from the fire truck and made his way to the stage to greet the mayor, he saw TW and made a point of greeting us personally. TB and TG are convinced that Santa knows them by name, which, in a way, he does.

  • Our beloved local Santa is doing a brunch in a few weeks, so we'll get some time with him then. My Mom accompanied us to the brunch last year, and developed a light crush on Santa. (She told one of her friends that she wanted Santa for Christmas.) She's coming with us again this year.

  • We had our first fire of the season, which we traditionally do after the Santa-on-fire-truck event. For some reasons, fires usually induce narcolepsy, but I actually stayed up until this one was out. We bought the wood from the town public works department, whose operational definition of 'half a cord' is 'whatever you can fit into your cars.' The wood burned nicely, but I still don't know how close we got to half a cord.

  • The Boy is morally serious, and keeping an eye on The Girl's purity of heart. Actual exchange from Sunday afternoon:

TG: On Cwistmas we get pwesents!

TB: Yes, but that's not the real meaning of Christmas.

TG: It's not?

TB: Dad?

DD: It's Jesus' birthday.

TG: And we get pwesents!

I couldn't compete with that. I hope your break was full of love and laughter, too.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Access and Limits

Aspazia, characteristically, has a thought-provoking post about applied ethics. This time it's about some partial scholarships that her husband's college has extended to some economically challenged students. In essence, the scholarships are enough to make the college seem affordable, but the students still have to work outside of class a significant number of hours to make ends meet. The time suck of those jobs cuts into their study time, and therefore their academic performance. Aspazia asks whether the college is doing these students any favors. As she puts it:

One could argue that the ethical good here is getting these women a college degree, regardless of their G.P.A. or level of mastery of the material (hat tip to SteveG on this). On the other hand, the college is admitting students that they know full well will be unable to really excel or just do average work because they will have to work so many hours to pay for their education. So, they are paying thousands of dollars to the institution and barely passing their classes. I should add that the college is wholly committed to its mission to educate women from impoverished backgrounds and stresses diversity. 45% of their student population is diverse (a statistic that my LAC wishes it could accomplish).

Given that this (and many) institutions simply do not have enough money to give these women full rides, they stick to their mission by giving these partial scholarships that force them to work. Is this really living the commitment to their mission?

I don't usually just hijack discussions wholesale, but since she name-checked me (and lesboprof), I'll take a shot.

My first thought is that whatever else it signifies, a college degree should indicate a meaningful level of academic success – and therefore ability – in a given field. So I reject the “regardless of their GPA or mastery of the material” standard on the grounds that it defeats higher education's reason to exist. If we declare that students without money don't really need to know what they're doing, I'm at a loss to explain just what, exactly, our degrees are supposed to signify at all. And I certainly don't want my medical care in the hands of doctors and nurses who were given degrees regardless of whether they knew what they were doing.

(I'll also admit being jumpy at a line like “45% of their student population is diverse.” So the rest is monolithic? The percentage, I assume, reflects counting individual heads. But diversity, by definition, cannot be a trait of an individual. It's a trait of a group. Either the group is diverse or it isn't; it can't be 45 percent diverse. (I once heard a student declare “I'm diverse!” Uh, no, you're not. You're one person.) I know what she means, but I bristle at the phrasing.)

All of that said, I think the heart of her question – and it's a good one – is what a commitment to access and diversity actually entails, especially in the face of limited resources.

If low-income students are given access to classes, but can only afford to stay in those classes by taking on outside work obligations far beyond what other students have to take, are they being set up to fail?

Ever the administrator, I'll answer with “yes, but.” There are things we can control, and things we can't.

Once, in trying to explain my politics to someone who kept trying to make me into a hippie, I stumbled on the phrase “law and order liberal.” What I meant by that was that I believe that laws should be both fair (the 'liberal') and enforced (the 'law and order'). So don't pass a drinking age of 21 to get alcohol out of high schools, while turning a selectively blind eye to college students. Set the age at 18, and enforce it. Don't set speed limits 10-15 mph below what you actually enforce; set what you mean, and enforce what you set. If you aren't willing to enforce a law, repeal it.

I know that's not always achievable, but it strikes me as a pretty good goal.

For colleges, I'd say pick a level of subsidy you can sustain, and do it right. Instead of bringing in, say, two hundred students, and supporting them almost-but-not-quite-enough, bring in one hundred and do right by them. (Six hours of work-study a week? Okay. Thirty hours of Wal-Mart a week? Not okay.) And in 'doing right,' accept that some will still fail. Some people are drama-prone, and will find ways to find fault with whatever level of help they're given. At some point, you need to be able to say, with a clear conscience, there. This much is what we're willing to do; the rest is up to you. What that level would be in any given setting will vary, and that's fine. (If it were up to me, for example, we'd have some kind of evening child care available for students with jobs and families, and we'd have much better public transportation.) But there's a difference between getting the background conditions to a relatively even level and guaranteeing perfect results. To my mind, if a student has been given a genuinely fair shot and still crapped out, that's on the student.

As a manager of people, I've noticed that the weather is always worse at some people's houses than others', even when it isn't. Some people manage to run into awful traffic every single day, even while their colleagues who take the same routes somehow get to work on time. And some people are just perpetually crabby, no matter how many of their grievances get addressed. You can't control how other people feel, or how they choose to live their lives. You need to decide what institutional conditions need to be addressed so that people with reasonable drive and life skills will have a genuine shot at success, and call it good. There will always be some who will condemn your efforts as inadequate, based on their own life drama, and some will even call you horrible names and question your personal integrity in the process. That's just a cost of doing business. Go for substantial – rather than total – fairness, and you may achieve it. Go for perfection, and I can guarantee heartbreak and failure.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Advisory Boards

My cc is taking a new look at guidelines for 'advisory boards' for various 'occupational' degree programs.

(A quick definition: an 'occupational' degree refers to one designed primarily to make students employable in a given field upon graduation. Its counterpart is the 'transfer' degree, which is intended to be the first half of a bachelor's degree. Transfer degrees typically include much more 'gen ed,' and their intended audience is four-year colleges and universities, rather than employers.)

The distinction between 'occupational' and 'transfer' isn't always clean. We have several 'occupational' degrees that have, for various reasons, become transfer degrees. (I've never seen it go the other way.) Sometimes that's because of credential creep in the target industry; where a two-year degree was once enough to get a decent entry-level position, now a four-year degree is the de facto minimum. (Sometimes that's driven by employer preference, and sometimes by external legal changes.) Sometimes it's because of increased technological complexity in a given field. Sometimes the field has changed, such that even an entry-level hire is now expected to have the kind of range that would not have been expected at the entry level a generation ago. And sometimes it's driven by some enterprising four-year schools that have established degrees where none existed before, and have created their own demand.

Still, just by looking at the paths our graduates take, we can get a pretty clear idea of which programs are currently (mostly) occupational. For us, for example, Criminal Justice is largely an occupational program; most of our grads go directly into law enforcement, even if many of them later go on to finish four-year degrees while on the job. Nursing is similar.

In my observation, advisory boards tend to go through a distinct life cycle. There's the exciting initial stage, in which folks are happy to be on board, ideas are brimming, and the world is about to be changed. This slowly gives way to the bubble stage, at which everything is assumed to be fine, and the meetings are more about group bonding than substance. (Typically, this is when the dreaded 'loss of touch with reality' sets in.) Eventually, as the irrelevance of the board starts looking like a given, the 'let's skip the next meeting' stage sets in, followed eventually by the “didn't we used to have an advisory board?” stage.

It's not unusual to see program chairs select personal friends as advisory board members, since they're likelier to say 'yes' to sacrificing the occasional evening, and unlikely to do anything threatening. This also makes the segue from stage one to stage two clean and effortless. Unfortunately, it also pretty much guarantees stages three and four.

As with making movies, casting is ninety percent of the battle. If you get people from too high on the food chain, they're often out of touch with what the front-line hiring folk actually do. (Back in the 80's, I recall hearing lots of CEO's say that the skills developed by a liberal arts education were exactly the skills the managers of the future would need. Apparently, the only people who didn't get that message were the hiring managers.) But if you aim too low, you get constant turnover and a need to reinvent the wheel on an annual basis.

There's also the danger of corporate (or employer) myopia. Back in my Proprietary U days, I saw many a corporate muckety-muck tell us with unshakable confidence just exactly what the key to business success was, less than a year before his company went out of business.

All of that said, we're looking at basic guidelines for the composition of advisory boards. I'm thinking that less than half the board should have any other existing connection with the college, and that multiple employers should be represented. Beyond that, though, I'm short on ideas.

So I turn to my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen a good rule of thumb for comprising a useful and effective advisory board?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Presidents on Allowances

The Chronicle has had a series over the last week or so about the salaries of college Presidents.

I won't do the predictable “how can some much make so much when others make so little” lament, on the grounds that even the highest-paid Presidents in the country don't make as much as a typical major league backup catcher. Given the bonuses that folks in the financial services and HMO sectors have been making, I won't get all worked up about some college President making $250,000. (The one at my cc makes a good deal less than that.) It's a difficult job, very few people can do it well, and it's all-consuming. And the total amount spent, if it were redistributed throughout the college, would amount to spitting in the ocean. These folks are well-paid, but – with exceptions -- not scandalously so.

That said, though, I don't understand why “allowances” are so common.

The article mentions, and I've seen this in my home state, a common practice of breaking Presidents' compensation into salary, a “housing allowance,” a “car allowance” (or just a car), and so forth. This just strikes me as asking for trouble.

Probably once a year, some big muckety-muck gets written up in the papers for using a college car for personal use. It sounds awful, but if you think about it, it makes sense. I do errands on the way to and from work all the time. It saves time and gas. It's not scandalous when I do it, since I pay for my own car from my salary. I can mix work commuting, errands, trips, and whatever else, and nobody can say boo about it. If I happen to stop for milk on the way home, which happens from time to time, I don't have to justify it to an auditor.

But get a company car, or a car allowance, and suddenly any 'mixed use' is up for scrutiny. But the only way to avoid mixed use would be to go home before running any errands. Who does that? What, exactly, does that achieve? Alternately, you could keep a gazillion receipts, and pay highly-trained professionals to sort through them, to make sure that every milk run is duly deducted. No inefficiencies there!

Housing is even worse. The theory, I think, is that Presidents are supposed to host events in their homes, so the homes are mixed-use. Therefore, the college pays for some fraction of the home – in some places, all of it – to compensate the President for the wear and tear of hosting.

Role confusion here is chronic. The worst recent case was that President in California who had a dog run installed in the backyard, at considerable expense to her university. That actually occasioned a public scandal, and gave her political critics all manner of ammunition.

Had she paid for her own house out of her own salary, the dog run wouldn't have mattered.

I guess the argument for 'allowances' is that they prevent unscrupulous Boards of Trustees from riding roughshod over a beleaguered President's home. But Presidents are pretty well paid these days, and good ones have as much leverage over a Board as they other way around. So, my modest proposal for both Presidents and Boards of Trustees:

Kill allowances. Spell out expectations for hosting and/or travel in the Presidential contract, and bump up the salaries to pay the rough equivalent of what the allowances would have covered. Then treat the Presidents' personal consumption just like everybody else's. If a given President wants to cheap out on her car to blow her money on a dog run instead, I say, who cares? I don't want my tax money going to pay accountants to figure out how many tenths of miles to deduct for stops at 7-11's on the way home. Better to give the President an ample salary, and let her figure out when and how to run errands. The money saved in verifying paperwork would be significant, we could stop fighting truly idiotic public battles over how people live their daily lives, and Presidents would have the same basic freedoms of movement and choice as everybody else. Let them focus on work, rather than on keeping receipts for every last tenth of a mile.

The same works for housing. Spell out the hosting expectations in the contract, and bargain a salary that makes it worthwhile. Then let the President find her own house. If she wants to paint the place purple and decorate it with the skulls of her enemies, whatever. (This might also have to salutary benefit of acquainting Boards with the realities of local housing prices. Faculty unions might eventually reap the benefits of that.) If she fulfills the requirements and brings home the bacon, then who cares if she has odd taste?

The housing thing, I think, dates back to a deeply patriarchal 'first family' idea. Kill it. Host functions on campus, in art galleries, wherever. Let Presidents have home lives. And don't expect spouses to fulfill the old unpaid 'First Lady' role. If you want their services, hire them and pay them. Otherwise, assume that they have their own lives, and rightly so.

I don't make a habit of defending top dogs, but we need good ones, and some of these traditional expectations don't help. As with faculty and everybody else, treat Presidents as employees. Spell out what's expected, pay well, and don't micromanage their private lives. I could give two hoots whether my President picks up dry cleaning on the way home. I'd rather have that highly-paid brainpower put to use helping the college, rather than figuring out how not to violate the ground rules of the car allowance.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hell Hath No Fury

A new correspondent writes:

I am a Department Head for a large urban CC in a very small vocational program.
Seven years ago I hired a friend who was well qualified for the
Instructional Aide position (part of our FT faculty bargaining unit).
She came to me this week to let me know she is leaving at the
beginning of the Spring semester (January 11th).

As FT faculty we sign a contract that extends until August 31st. I am
also part of the FT unit and I work closely with the Administration.
My Dean is going over with the college's legal counsel if there is
any way we can stop her.

This is a busy time for our department. We are under review for our
national accreditation and since we are so small, losing her will be a
huge hit for our program.

But she is my friend, it is difficult for me to keep this from her but
my Dean has asked me to keep it quiet. She is also under the
impression that she will be able to teach for the college part time,
but again the administration along with myself are so upset with her
decision to leave it is unlikely she would be brought back as an
adjunct even if we need her. I feel an obligation to tell her but
again I am upset with her short notice decision.

What can a college do to someone who breaks their contract?

Any other thoughts would be appreciated.

I don't mean this to be flippant, but my knee-jerk response is "nothing." (That said, I'm neither a lawyer nor an HR person. I've actually put in a call to Evil HR Lady to see if she has something to say on this.) You can stop paying her when she stops working, and you can refuse to rehire her if you so desire -- though I personally think it makes you look petty -- but I don't think you can force her to work for you if she doesn't want to.

(As a manager of people, I can tell you that the last thing you want is an employee who doesn't want to be there. Even if it appears to solve an immediate crisis, the environment will become toxic quickly. She'll take every sick day, every vacation day, every personal day, every holiday, and every opportunity to exploit every little grievance and blind spot in the contract. She'll make your life miserable. After all, what are you going to do -- fire her? Then she gets what she wanted in the first place! Even if you 'win,' you lose.)

You mention 'short notice,' but I can't help but notice that she has given you at least two months. In any other industry, that would be considered generous.

My cc, like yours and like most others I've seen, issues annual contracts for employees (including tenured faculty, since their salaries change each year). The contracts typically renew sometime in the summer, to reflect the academic (as opposed to calendar) year. But it's not at all unusual for people in non-faculty roles to leave at any time of year. (When faculty leave, which is rare, it's usually in the summer.) This is true at all tiers of administration, right up to the top. If that weren't the case, there wouldn't be any administrative job ads in the Chronicle until about April.

In my neck of the academic woods -- and I'll admit, this may be different in the elite, monied tiers -- 'noncompete' clauses don't exist. If anything, shopping around for other offers is tacitly rewarded, to the extent that the only way to get a job 'reclassed' is to come in with a better offer.

It seems to me -- and I'm basing this only on what you've written -- that you and your administration are acting out of hurt, fear, and spite. You're upset that your friend is leaving just when your program needs her, and you're looking for legal ways to lash out at her to punish her.

Spite is a vice of the weak. As a manager, you have to be able to put it aside. She has found another path. You just have to accept that and find another way to fill your program's needs. This may be an opportunity to look at the definition or payscale of the job. Has it fallen too far behind the market? Have the program's needs changed such that a slightly different definition of the job would be more helpful? If so, now's the time to address that, when it doesn't involve changing the terms and conditions of employment of an incumbent employee. This is a chance to redefine the position to more closely match current and/or projected needs, and then to recruit some new talent.

My advice? Swallow your hurt, call off the lawyers, wish her well, and start thinking about the future. You'll save time and money, a friendship, and your program.

Wise and worldly readers -- your thoughts?

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Death Valley

Although the very thought of it makes some academics blanch, I'm beginning to think that 'evidence-based management' could be really useful in solving some nagging academic problems.

As I understand it -- and I'm no expert -- 'evidence-based management' takes as a given that it's appropriate to look at statistical patterns that have emerged over time, and to use those as reality checks for future decisions. It's particularly helpful in testing long-held assumptions for which we somehow keep noticing exceptions.

Most colleges of any size have someone in the back corners of the administration whose title is something like "Institutional Researcher." (The really big places have entire offices devoted to IR.) It's a sort of locally-applied social science. I think I've found something to ask my local IR guru to check out.

It's an article of faith among certain faculty that certain time slots for class meetings generate wildly higher attrition than others. ("Death Valley" is the local term.) The late afternoon weekday sections of required Gen Ed courses -- English Composition, say -- are held to be the last to fill, and the first to shrink as students just vanish. The "Prime Time" sections -- basically late morning to early afternoon, Monday through Thursday -- fill first, and usually finish the semester with almost as many students as they started.

So my questions for the IR guru, and for faithful readers who may know of research in this area:

1. Do Death Valley classes actually have higher drop rates? If so, does the effect disappear for upper-level courses? (If it does, I could see a pragmatic argument for running Gen Eds in prime time, and upper-level courses in Death Valley. That's pretty close to what Proprietary U used to do.)

2. If the drop rates are actually higher, is that really a function of the well-documented "last in, first out" rule of registration? (That is, the students who decide to sign up for classes the day before the semester starts have much higher drop/fail rates than the students who sign up months in advance. This is true, presumably, for many reasons.) Or do the students who sign up for Death Valley early also have higher drop rates?

3. Can we predict, with some level of specificity, the degree to which we could expect higher drop rates? Do those students usually come back, or are they usually lost for good? (Do they disappear at higher rates than other students who drop?)

4. If the answer to 3 is an actual number -- or at least a relatively modest numerical range -- could we do a little cost-benefit action to see if adding 'spillover' sections in Death Valley actually makes fiscal sense over time? (If that strikes you as cold, do the analysis in terms of future academic success.) Would we be better off, in the aggregate, simply abandoning Death Valley and going to waitlists and/or more online and/or hybrid offerings, or is Death Valley the least bad option?

5. Other than registering later, do Death Valley students differ in meaningful ways from Prime Time students? Are any higher dropout numbers actually consistent with those factors, rather than the time slot per se? (If so, then moving them around wouldn't really solve anything.) Or are these really the same students, just with funny schedules?

6. Do the instructors who typically teach the Death Valley sections -- and it's usually the same cohort from year to year -- have higher drop rates in Prime Time? Is this an instructor effect written onto a timeslot?

Wise and worldly readers -- I'm asking for your help in a couple of ways.

1. Do you know of any good research on this? It isn't the area of my scholarly training, and I'm just a wee bit busy.

2. Can you think of other questions I should add to the list?

Thanks for your help! My IR guru will likely have me killed, but evidence-based answers to these questions might actually be useful, which is sort of the point.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Well, That Explains a Lot...

In the context of discussing ways to encourage her colleagues to try to reach students at different levels of demonstrated ability, Dr. Crazy inadvertently addressed a very different issue:

there are small changes that one can try to institute at a department level (somewhat under the radar) that increase the level of professorial engagement - like, for example, taking an administrative call for more transparent assessment as an opportunity to come up with assessment objectives that fall in line with hitting that lower third by framing it as "this is what all majors should come away from courses with the ability to do." This way, it's not an attack on specific individuals but rather the discussion becomes one of shared governance and about making the administration the enemy - not students, not other faculty members. (emphasis added)

It's worth rereading closely. “Taking an administrative call for more transparent assessment as an opportunity” -- that is, using the political space created by the administration – results in making the administration the enemy, as a strategic move.

You're welcome.

I have long held that much anti-administration grumbling is misplaced. It's an intellectually dishonest, but politically convenient, way to achieve other things. Much of it is not to be taken at face value.

In my naive, early days of deaning, I used to try to respond point-by-point to the accusations directed at me. In time, though, I realized that point-by-point was missing the point. There's a kabuki element to many of the complaints, a ritualistic assuming-of-the-moral-high-ground that trumps the actual content. That's why detailed explanations of exactly how the complaints were inaccurate, silly, or even slanderous didn't make them go away. In addressing what they were saying, I wasn't addressing what they were doing.

The more successful administrators I've seen have developed the ability to listen quietly and impassively while having invective hurled at them for extended periods at point-blank range. (Good cops do this, too.) I suspect this explains the exponentially higher turnover rate of administrators, as opposed to faculty. Even if you understand, cognitively, the organizational value of the 'lightning rod' function – Tom Wolfe called it the 'flak catcher' – there are still times you're just not in the mood. And the staggering unfairness of not being allowed to hit back ('retaliation') can get to be a bit much.

The shame of it all is that the rest of Dr. Crazy's post is actually quite good, and constructive, and exemplary of exactly the kind of dialogue that I'd hope faculty on my own campus would have (and sometimes do). It's just a little disheartening to read, and see, that the discursive space to have that dialogue rests on slandering those of us who actually make it possible.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Napster University?

According to IHE, the latest proposed extension of the Higher Education Act contains, among other things, a provision requiring that colleges and universities “develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.”


As near as I can figure, this means something like providing mandatory subscriptions to Napster and Netflix, presumably paid for by student fees. The logic seems to be that everybody knows that colleges are hotbeds of copyright violation, so it makes sense to require them to effectively tax their students individually for what amounts to restitution for the torts that we just know they – as a class – commit.

Of course, student fees are eligible for federal financial aid, so your tax dollars will go to help offset the fees charged to students to pay the studios for the music and movies that they download.

(This, in the context of a bill that otherwise tries to address the increasing cost of college. Bizarre.)

So my taxes will go to subsidize the student loan to cover the fee that allows Johnny Tasteless to download “My Humps” to his ipod. But funding for stem cell research? Now that's inappropriate!

I'm glad we have our priorities straight.

This is silly on so many levels I almost don't know where to begin.

I'll start with the obvious: it won't work. Most of the subscription-based music services use some kind of DRM software to make the music self-destruct if you don't keep paying the fee; in many cases, it also prevents burning to cd's. (Most of them also don't work with ipods – students would have to buy other mp3 players compatible with whatever service the college chooses.) Emusic is an exception, but it restricts itself to indie labels and puts strict monthly limits on how much you can download. Of course, students could get around those limits by peer-to-peer file sharing, but that defeats the purpose. Itunes has de-encrypted some of its music, but it still charges for each song a la carte, so a subscription model would be a radical departure.

On the next level up, there's the basic, incontrovertible fact that some students don't steal music. Under this law, they will be forced to subsidize those who (currently) do. The moral principle here eludes me.

Above that, there's the basic, incontrovertible fact that college costs have been increasing faster than inflation, putting a real squeeze on middle-class families. Adding mandatory Napster fees would simply make the cost spiral worse. As a percentage of tuition, mandatory Napster fees would be highest at the lowest-tuition colleges, and lowest at the highest-tuition colleges. It would be a mandatory regressive transfer payment, which pretty much epitomizes a Bad Idea.

Then there's the idea of mandatory extracurricular content. Imagine telling, say, a conservative Christian college that it must, as a matter of law, provide the means for students to download Marilyn Manson for free. This has “First Amendment Quagmire” written all over it.

From a college-infrastructure standpoint, this is a nightmare. If a student drops out, or drops to part-time status, does the college have to notify Napster? And who pays for the monumental increases in bandwidth to supply the demand unleashed when “all you can eat” is actually legal? If you sign up for a six-week summer course, do you get a six-week subscription? And was this really the idea behind Pell grants?

This was obviously a patronage-driven payoff to the recording industry. It has nothing to do with higher education as such, and it's a pretty radical departure from historical practice. (Does the publisher get a royalty every time a book is checked out from the public library?) But the state of our politics now is such that I have no confidence that an absurdity won't become law, especially if there's money behind it.

Call me a traditionalist, but I'd rather spend public aid to higher education on scientific research and faculty and libraries and tutoring and daycare and textbooks than on Napster. If Britney wants to sue someone for stealing her music, let her. I have my own work to do.

Monday, November 12, 2007

What Kind of Grader Are You?

A left coast correspondent writes (this is a long one):

We have had a kerfluffal blow up today at my CC. This morning our VP
of Student Services sent out the following email:

"I wanted you to be aware that we recently received a request for our
grading records under the Public Records Act. We have secured
direction both from our legal counsel as well as the [California]
Chancellor's Office as to our mandate to comply with the Act. The
requestor asked for the grades assigned by every faculty member,
sorted by term, from Fall 2003 to present, to include faculty name,
course name and number, and total grade distribution.

We sent the grade records to the requestor yesterday. They include
all evaluative grades (A-F) assigned by each faculty member, along
with non-evaluative grades such as "I" (incomplete), "W" (withdrawal),
"MW" (military withdrawal), "IP" (in progress) and "RD" (report
delayed) for fall 2003 through summer 2007. No student identification
information of any kind was included in the file.

While we are aware that this type of request has been made to many
other colleges and universities around the state, we do no know what
the requestor intends to do with information. I understand that this
might be very concerning to faculty and I want to assure you that we
sent only the information that we had legal obligation to provide.
The Academic Senate will be discussing the issue at an upcoming
meeting. I urge you to join the discussion and/or contact me if you
have any further questions or concerns."

Last year's President of Academic Senate posted this reply:

"Hi Everyone,

Actually, the Academic Senate has known about this for awhile and the
discussions have appeared in our minutes. This issue has also been
discussed at strategic council. The information, as far as I
understand, was not private information. It did not include any
identifying student information. The information released was really
information about us as instructors. How many A's do I give in my
Philosophy 6 class versus how many A's does Dr. H*** give in her
classes? What are the grade distributions? Do I give more A's with few
F's or am I a professor that has earned the name of "C Minus T***?"
It's that sort of information that was released. All data that
identified students had to be stripped out before the requested
information was released. My understanding also is that advising the
Academic Senate of this information is really a courtesy so that we
can let everyone know what is happening and have discussions about the
meaning of grades, the difficulty of assignments, grading rubrics,
etc. for the various instructors in our departments. In other words,
if a student signs up for my Philosophy 6 class and another student
signs up for Dr. H***'s Philosophy 6 class, is it fair that I give
three scantron exams while she requires three 20 page papers? (This is
a fictitious example. J ) What if she gives mostly C's with very few
A's while I give all A's? How do we work together collaboratively, as
a department, to ensure some kind of uniformity of assignments and

Legally, there is nothing we can do about the release of the
information—again, as I understand it. This does however offer us an
invitation to discuss, in our departments, the meanings of grades and
the rigor of our assessments.

I don't' mean this message to minimize the apprehension caused by this
announcement. I am apprehensive and expect that my students will soon
tell me that a new website has listed me under the "sucks badly"
category. However, until the law changes, we may want to focus our
attention on how we can improve instruction across the curriculum.

Nope, no hot button issues here!

Back in the day, professors used to post student grades on their office doors at the end of the semester. Enterprising students could use that to suss out who graded 'tough' and who was easy. Not that I ever dreamed of doing such a thing.

Now, of course, FERPA prevents that. But Open Records Laws, on the other hand, treat aggregate grades (as opposed to individual ones) as public records, open to public scrutiny. So professors (at public colleges and universities, anyway) are in the position of having to guard individual grades closely, while having years' worth of data posted on the internet. It's not a contradiction, strictly speaking, but it's certainly an odd juxtaposition.

There have always been student grapevines about which professors are easier than others. That's not new at all. I recall being warned by dormmates at Snooty Liberal Arts College not to take a particular professor who was famous for giving nothing but B-minuses to all and sundry. (It was a point of pride that I took him and did better than that.) The difference is that now the grapevine will have access to actual data.

From a dean's perspective, there's actually something useful in knowing – with data – that Prof Jones grades much more easily than the rest of the Basketweaving department. It gives some context for the student evaluations. If a professor grades unusually easily, I'm inclined to discount positive student evaluations. If a professor is known for strictness, I'm inclined to cut some slack on student evaluations. Of course, if a professor can't even buy love with easy grading, then I can be pretty confident that there's an issue. And a professor who grades tough but still gets glowing reports is probably doing something right.

All of that said, I'd be wary of putting data out there that isn't normed by class. In other words, the grade distribution in a particular class may reflect the professor's grading, or it may reflect the location of that class in the curriculum. Remedial classes, for example, almost always have much higher 'fail' rates than upper-level electives, regardless of who teaches them. So a professor who teaches a lot of remedial and first-semester classes will look like a tougher grader, all else being equal, than a professor who teaches mostly courses for majors. (By the time you get to grad school, grading is pretty much reduced to 'A' or 'Not A.') Telling me that there's a higher fail rate in remedial math than in calculus doesn't tell me anything about the instructors or the relative rigor of the courses; it tells me that the only students who take calculus here are students who really mean it.

At Proprietary U, one of my least favorite tasks as an administrator was to come down hard on faculty whose drop/fail rates were “too high.” (I don't usually recommend foot-dragging, but when it came to that, I foot-dragged like it was going out of style, until I found another job.) The justification, to the extent there was one, was that professors were supposed to find ways to reach even the more challenging students. In practice, of course, it resulted in lots of extra credit and some very creative curving. I considered it a stupid and offensive application of data that, treated differently, could have been useful.

In the age of the internet, certain kinds of discretion and/or secrecy just aren't viable anymore. If the data will escape, I think the burden on higher ed is to come up with ways to frame it productively. Let the colleges beat the profiteers to the punch, and put the data out there in ways that reflect what we know to be true. I'd suggest lumping several years' worth of data into a single report, and reflecting standard deviations from course means, rather than raw grades as such. If there's a particular professor who is consistently, conspicuously above or below her peers who teach the same classes, then I know I have something to examine. (Higher grades could reflect easier grading, better teaching, or the luck of the draw.) As any experienced teacher can tell you, some classes are stronger than others, which is why I'd put out rolling averages that encompass several years at a pop. Looking at one of my sections doesn't tell you much; looking at every section I taught over several years just might.

In a perfect world, a professor who fell unknowingly into 'outlier' territory would take being singled out as a wake-up call. Of course, in a perfect world, students would be motivated solely by love of learning, nobody would need remediation, and it would only rain at night. More likely, I would expect to see considerable defensiveness, attempts at blame-shifting, flat-out denial, and the usual huffing and puffing. Still, I don't have a conceptual problem with holding professors to account for how they perform the grading aspect of their jobs, since I (and most students) consider it part of teaching. I'm just concerned that if we don't take ownership of this in a thoughtful way, others will, and they'll do it in the stupid and thoughtless ways we rightly fear.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Friday, November 09, 2007

Ask My Readers: Pluses and Minuses

Becky Hirta's recent post about grades got me thinking. My college doesn't give 'plus' or 'minus' semester grades – you can get a B, but not a B-plus or a B-minus. The topic comes up for discussion about once a year.

The argument for pluses and minuses is basically that they offer greater precision. There's some distance between a B-plus and a B-minus, but in our system, that difference is erased. By the same token, if a student is on the border between two letters, there's more at stake in the decision which way to go.

The argument against, as near as I can tell, is based on false precision. The greater the number of gradations, the harder it is to get it just right. There's also the persistent ambiguity of the C-minus.

Since this argument is raring up for its annual go-round on campus, I'd like to get my readers' perspectives. Does it make sense to go with pluses and minuses, or are we better off sticking with blunt, whole letters?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

$100 Oil and Commuter Colleges

My cc, like most community colleges and many lower-tier four-year colleges, doesn't have dorms. Since it's located in suburbia, public transportation options are extremely limited and not very good. So most students, and almost all employees, drive. (A select few ride one of the rare buses.) We even refer to it as a commuter college.

Parking is an issue, which has always been true at every college known to man. But we've dealt with that forever, and have reached a sort of tolerable detente on it. I still think that anything tall and opaque (i.e. SUV's) should be segregated into a different lot, so the rest of us can actually see what's coming when we try to back out of our spaces, but that's another issue.

Now oil is coming close to $100 a barrel, which, sooner or later, is likely to trickle down to gasoline prices. (As I mentioned recently, I'm surprised that it really hasn't yet. But it will.) Some of that price runup is likely due to the monumental, world-historical idiocy of the Bush administration's foreign and fiscal policies, and may be remedied somewhat when we elect somebody worthy. But some of it, I think, is likely due to a combination of rising world demand for oil – especially in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – and the much-slower pace of new discoveries. Whether oil came from dinosaurs or lava or both, we're pumping it faster than the planet is making it. Even a President who understands the concepts of 'wars of choice' and 'balanced budgets' and 'peace dividend' will have her work cut out for her.

In other words, even if we as a country stop sabotaging ourselves, we as a college face a fundamental, long-term challenge to our business model. We're built on cars.

We cater to students who have to work part-time at low-paying jobs to get through school. As the low-tuition option, we attract the folks to whom low tuition is the most salient. Transportation is a major cost for our students. They often drive older cars of suspect reliability, and find themselves at the mercy of whatever repairs need to be made. Their jobs pay crap, and car insurance – especially for young males – is staggeringly expensive.* If the price of gas continues to climb substantially, eventually I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these students cut back, or drop out entirely.

Online instruction has something to be said for it in this respect, since the cost advantage of telecommuting (as opposed to standard commuting) only climbs as the price of gas climbs. But very few students take all-online schedules; most use an online class or two as part of their mix, to make the job-school juggle easier. They're still driving to campus three or four days a week. Unless there's a really dramatic embrace of all-online education, I suspect that the transportation-cost gains from this will be minor. (Theoretically, we could also move everything to a half-online, half-classroom 'hybrid' format, and run all the classroom classes, say, on Mondays and Tuesdays. But at this point, students avoid hybrid classes like the plague.)

There's also the question of the relevance of geographically-defined service areas to online education. Community colleges have specific geographic areas they're designed to serve, which makes sense if you assume that everybody drives to campus. But if you can log on from anywhere, how much sense does a geographic distinction make? If we embrace a more thoroughgoing online approach, I'd expect to see the whole concept of 'service areas' start to fade. The political implications are staggering.

Dorms are the classic solution. Park everybody on campus, let them walk to class, and cars become irrelevant. At Snooty Liberal Arts College, I didn't have a car at all for all four years.

But that only works when the college is either highly urban, or extremely wealthy. In a setting in which most students work off-campus for money, parking them in dorms doesn't really solve the problem. Instead of being stranded off-campus, they'd be stranded on-campus.

Dorms also bring with them the infrastructure needs, and student-life issues, that drive up the costs of four-year schools. Keep students stuck on campus, and they'll start demanding climbing walls and football teams and the rest of it; the costs will follow.

Public transportation will not be a viable large-scale alternative in suburbia for the foreseeable future. The travel patterns just aren't linear enough.

To the extent that transportation costs are factored into financial aid awards, we may be able to offset a very small amount of the impact. But even that money has to come from somewhere.

Am I missing the obvious? Or are we staring down the barrel of a serious long-term problem?

*Every so often, somebody proposes removing 'liability' insurance from individual drivers and tacking it onto gasoline as a tax. This strikes me as absolutely brilliant, since it moves insurance from a fixed cost to a variable one. Taking the bus half the time would reduce your insurance cost by half; right now, it reduces it not at all. As my economist friends like to say, you have to get the incentives right.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Revenge of the Nerds

Apparently, there's a candy now called "Nerds." The Boy got some in his Halloween loot, and opened the box after dinner last night.

The following ensued.


The Wife: (chuckle)

DD: Ouch.

TB: I like nerds!

The Wife and DD: (chuckle)

TB: Mmm. Nerds are sweet.

TW/DD: (snarfle)

(TB spills some.)

TB: Uh-oh! There's a nerd by The Girl!

TW: There certainly is.

DD: Harumph.

TW: How do you feel about that, DD?

DD: Exposed. I've been outed.

TB: Huh?

DD: Do you know what a nerd is?

TB: No.

DD: Good.

TW: Someday, you'll hear that there's a nerd by TG.

DD: She could do a lot worse.

TW (smiling wryly): Mmm-hmm...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Murder By Numbers

A new correspondent writes:

So here it is: I teach (adjunct) Anthropology and Cultural "Survey" at a local art college that awards a BA in Visual Communication. I taught Anthro. last semester, and it was well received by both students and faculty (they asked me back.) We have a new "academic advisor", who has decided that all syllabi will follow his "meta-chart", including course content, goals, learning objectives. The problem is...there is no Anthro. committee or other faculty. This advisor teaches Design, and has never taken an Anthro class in his life.

The meta-chart, which I am expected to use verbatum (sic) has verbage in it that is not only unprofessional (ie. misuse of anthro terms, etc.), but inaccurate, and (truth be told, badly written.) I cannot in good conscience...or professional ethic..use this stuff.

Briefly: I've been in this business for over 30 years. I have excellent degrees from (prestigious places). In other words, I've been around the academic block.

I have tried the diplomatic approach. So, I guess my question is..what would you do?

I feel your pain. I've recently been on a committee on which chemists have been opining about the content of history courses and vice versa. It ain't pretty.

I'd start by getting a sense of just how much clout this guy has, and just how much of what he suggests is actually binding. At PU, for example, faculty were mandated to include several different categories on syllabi, including such oddities as "Keys for Success." However, what we put in those categories was largely up to us. I wouldn't be surprised if there's something similar going on here, with mandated elements and discretionary elements mushed together in a well-meaning, if embarrassing, 'sample.'

One of the dirty little secrets of higher ed, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, is that words like 'mandatory' have different meanings. In some cases, 'mandatory' means just what it means in any other context. Sometimes, it's more of an opening bid, like a speed limit -- post 55 in hopes that most people won't go over 70. Sometimes it's honored in the breach, like when professors claim that attendance is mandatory but don't take attendance or give quizzes.

Sadly, there are also some folks out there who fundamentally misunderstand the quantitative turn, and mistake micromanagement for rigor. These are the folks who believe that there's no whole that can't be made greater by itemizing every little part. It's murder by numbers, like trying to analyze a joke. (For example, I've seen course outlines in which time allocations per topic show up as single percentage points. Absurd, yet distressingly common.) It sounds like your instructional designer is one of those. (For my money, the proper use of the quantitative turn is to look at major outputs, not minor inputs. Breaking down the minor inputs into smaller and smaller pieces is, at best, a distraction.)

In the short run, I'd try to gauge the size of the interstices. Does this guy actually have the full support of the people who actually hire you, or is he bluffing? Is there actually an expectation that you'll use every single word, or was he just trying to give examples of what the categories might look like? (That's my guess, but I could be wrong.) What would happen if you ignored the input? Does anybody check?

Worst case, your college is actually run by morons. If that's the case, then you can either work for morons, or leave.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a productive way around something like this?

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

Monday, November 05, 2007

Letters Redux

An occasional correspondent writes:

After many years as a full-time faculty member at a community college, I have decided to apply for tenure track positions at four-year colleges. My question is about letters of recommendation. Who should I ask for letters? For several reasons, I do not want my current dean to know that I am "on the market," which means I can't ask him for a letter of recommendation. Are letters from faculty colleagues ok? What about former students? What are hiring committees looking for in letters of recommendation?

I've gone on record as opposing letters of recommendation generally. And as the recent blogfire over at Dr. Crazy's has demonstrated, there are still plenty of folks out there who are willing to punish people for looking. It's perverse, and thoughtless, and petty, but there it is.

In my experience with searches, letters never helped anybody. They hurt a few. The arms race of effusive praise has rendered them pretty much useless, except when you can read between the lines of faint praise. (There may be a limited exception to this for spanking-new Ph.D.'s emerging from the tutelage of Monster Superstar. At cc's, that's generally much irrelevant.) There's no training in how to write letters of recommendation, and there aren't any generally accepted industry standards (other than brevity). Fear of litigation – whether founded or unfounded – has fostered a bias toward leaving out anything distinctive. Inadvertent cultural bias can creep in easily, as in the case of international applicants coming from traditions in which praise is less effusive.

Worse, anybody beyond the 'first real job' stage is placed in a compromising position by asking for them. At least the newly-phudded are supposed to be looking. Once you've landed somewhere, though, asking for letters involves letting it be known that you are looking, which many people are more than willing to punish.

From this end of the desk, I've found more value in simply asking for a list of three references and contact information, and stipulating that they won't be contacted without the candidate's permission. Once the search committee has picked the top one or two people, then I contact those references to see if there are any red flags. (Again, praise is deeply discounted, but any criticism is taken very seriously.) So the references have no bearing until the very end, and then, only if something unexpected, bad, and relevant pops up. And the candidate doesn't have to give anybody a heads-up until the possibility of an offer materializing is substantial.

All of that said, some places continue – for whatever reason – to ask for actual letters.

I'd personally shy away from using former students as references. If you have some sort of useful statistical breakdown of student evaluations, and they're both comprehensible and flattering, go ahead and use that. But I'd assume that anybody with significant teaching experience has at least one student who liked her, so it would strike me as odd if you had to prove it.

You don't mention the 'tier' of four-year college to which you're applying, but I wouldn't be surprised if you ran into some snobbery about community colleges. Anything you could do to defuse that would be likely to help. Have you collaborated on projects with anybody at a four-year school? To the extent that you can do it, recruiting some writers from your 'target tier' or higher might help. Departmental colleagues are obviously great, but only if you can trust their discretion and/or the enlightened attitude on your campus. If you get the impression that anything you ask for can and will be used against you later, you might want to look someplace else.

I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have much to add on this one, so I'll throw it open. Wise and worldly readers: in my correspondent's shoes, who would you ask to write? And is there actually an argument for letters of recommendation, or should they be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Good luck!

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

Friday, November 02, 2007

Friday Fragments

  • From the “Sometimes I Get Tired of Being Right” department: a few days ago I posted “How Chrysler stays in business is a complete mystery to me.” Yesterday, Chrysler announced another RIF of 12,000 jobs. Honestly, I wouldn't have minded being wrong on that one.

  • Has anybody else noticed that the price of oil has doubled in the last year, but the price of gasoline hasn't changed much? You can “summer driving season” all you want, it still doesn't make sense. My hunch – and I really don't understand the situation well enough to say – is that we're in for some truly nasty gasoline price increases by this time next year. (Either that, or the price of oil is about to drop like a stone. I consider that unlikely.) I just can't make the math work any other way.

  • On the bright side, judging by what The Boy and The Girl harvested in their trick-or-treating this year, people are getting a little smarter about halloween candy. More chocolate-based stuff, fewer Sugar Daddies and Sweet Tarts. This is all to the good. I'm old enough to remember the aged hippies of the 70's giving out those little boxes of raisins, and saying that they're “nature's candy.” Uh, no. That's why we had to invent 'raisinets.' It's all about the chocolate.

  • If there's anything sweeter, or more hope-inspiring, than the sight of The Boy (as a basketball player) and his girlfriend (as Minnie Mouse) contentedly holding hands while they cross the street, well, I haven't seen it.

  • Helpful photographic hint: if you're trying to get a bunch of 3 and 6 year olds to smile, just have them say “TB's Dad Smells Like Cheeeeeese!” They'll laugh for a solid five minutes.

  • One of the unexpected consolations of middle age: at a certain point, hair loss finally defeats The Indomitable Cowlick. A little 'middle ground' might have been nice...

  • The new car has a dashboard light that flashes – by design – whenever the ignition is off. This includes when the key is not in the ignition. It seems to me that if the key isn't in the ignition, I could default to the assumption that the car is, in fact, off. “Warning: The Car Is Not Hotwired.” Okaaaay...

  • Sometimes I think my job should be renamed something like Calmer. For whatever reason, we have a fair number of otherwise-wonderful people here who can get a little tightly wound. When something goes askew you can just see the steam come out of their ears. This week I've had several occasions on which my primary value-add was helping some high performing but steaming people to exhale a bit, collect their thoughts, and see that the situation is actually not so bad. (Not perfect, but not so bad.) I don't know if this is more a reflection on my personality or the personalities around me, but it happened at my last employer, too. It's a fine line between “dean” and “shock absorber.” If 'metabolism' can be defined as 'the process of turning food into poop,' then my style of management can be defined as 'the process of turning stress into clarity.'

  • Via Geeky Mom, news that a Federal court declared that bloggers have the legal standing of journalists. Very cool.

  • One of the best parts of deaning is observing classes. When a class goes really well, it's a joy to behold. I've seen several winners recently, and it's hard to convey just how gratifying that is. Some professors who are relatively quiet outside of class absolutely light up when they get in front of a group. It's really a privilege to be able to see that.

  • The Wife and I are actually going to our local high school's homecoming game tonight! This will be my first high school homecoming game since the Reagan administration. The cool thing about it this time is that I can go home with my date, and nobody can say boo about it...

Thursday, November 01, 2007


(Or, In Which I Bash Other Administrators)

Careful readers will notice that, from time to time, I take the occasional potshot at some of the tenured types.

Today, in the interest of being fair and balanced, I frag some of my administrative colleagues. Specifically, those who insist on 'retreats.'

For those mercifully untouched by retreats, they're sort of like reeducation camps, except with air conditioning and flip charts.

The theory behind retreats, as near as I can figure, is that it's easy to miss the forest for the trees when you're at work, since you're mired in the quotidian muck. So by moving everybody off-site, hiring someone from the outside with Dynamic People Skills and absolutely no familiarity with the reality of the particular workplace, and making people tape oversize sheets of butcher paper on the wall, we can channel the spirit of Thoreau, except for all the nonconformity.

Proprietary U was a big believer in retreats, but it was also legendarily cheap. So the retreats happened at the low-end chain hotel a half mile away, often on Saturday mornings when the conference room rates were cheaper. Yes, attendance was mandatory.

They were spectacularly bad. The living envied the dead.

They were often led by some Muckety-Muck from Home Office, which, as near as we could tell, was on Pluto. (This was back when Pluto was still recognized for being a planet.) Although this was several years ago now, I can still remember a particularly representative exchange I had with a Muckety-Muck early in my deaning days:

MM: Of course, the way we'll really improve student success rates is through hiring better faculty.

DD: So you're lifting the hiring freeze?

Weirdly, I was considered the inappropriate one. Apparently, there's a taboo against introducing Objective F-ing Reality at a retreat.

(One of my finest moments at PU came at the end of a daylong on-campus Motivational Speaker Event, when my boss caught me in my office, skipping the Rope Exercise. (Don't ask.) He asked what I was doing in my office. I told him that since I got my doctorate, I don't do Rope Exercises. He knew me well enough at that point to drop it.)

As hellish as retreats are in a corporate setting, they're that much worse in higher ed.

For all their foibles, which I've noted from time to time, tenured faculty are -- on the whole -- intelligent, independent-minded sorts. That comes with costs -- God knows, that comes with costs -- but it's also essential to what they do. As much as I resent the sense of entitlement that some of them display about the most ridiculous things, like actually being asked for receipts for travel reimbursement, I also don't want to staff classes with cubicle drones. As scary as self-styled 'free agents' are, the ones who actually drink the Kool-Aid are that much scarier.

Dr. Crazy recently started a blogfire with a post about looking for another job when you already have one. Some trolls took offense, claiming that in a tight job market, it's selfish for the 'haves' not to content themselves with their lot. But she was right, and I'd be afraid of anyone who didn't understand why. These are jobs. That's all they are. They involve 'doing work' in exchange for 'pay and benefits.' (And yes, I get hostile at the ones who take the pay and benefits, but don't do the work.) They do not involve pledging your immortal soul, or suspending your better judgment, or altering your personality according to what some motivational speaker with Dynamic People Skills says. That's overreaching, and it's insulting.

The workplace isn't a family, or a cult, and it shouldn't be. (Arlie Hochschild has written a great book on this, called The Time Bind.) If I want my faculty to do their best work, I need to respect the fact that different people have different work styles. If the results are good, and have been achieved in ethical ways, who am I to complain that I wouldn't have done it that way?

My plea to administrators everywhere: faculty are already highly educated. They don't need to be re-educated. Do what needs to be done to forestall liability, but beyond that, back the hell off. Judge the results of their performance rigorously, but let them perform -- within ethical limits -- according to their own styles and personalities. Don't make Saturday morning meetings mandatory for anybody, ever. And don't ever, for any reason, pretend that Rope Exercises have anything to do with anything.