Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Slowly...Slowly...

Ask the Administrator: Slowly...Slowly...

A new correspondent writes:

I just started teaching part time for a local college and have applied for a full time position available this fall. Little birdies have told me I should be receiving an offer soon…great news! I am currently ABD, and will be finishing up my dissertation in the next 6 months or so. I have really enjoyed the department I am working in, and will be thrilled to be full time in the fall.

This is my dilemma…..I come from a management background, and am already finding frustration in the red tape and slow progress that occurs in the millions of “committee meetings” in academia. I am ready for a change, so while I am looking forward to full time academia, how do I change my expectations to meet this entirely new pace of academic business? And why is it that it takes 6 months for a decision to be made in academia? And 2 years for someone who NEEDS to be fired to get fired? Frustration!!!

Welcome to my world.

This is one of those quirks of the industry that folks who have worked elsewhere notice immediately, and folks who've never worked elsewhere think is normal and natural.

At Proprietary U, the decision-making style was essentially corporate. Decisions were made at the drop of a hat, with implementation usually assumed to be immediate. On the down side, the decisions were often either entirely stupid or merely half-formed, with operational consequences that probably could have been foreseen – but weren't – if someone had asked around first. On the up side, though, it was actually possible to get stuff done.

When I moved to my cc, one of the first clues that the rules had changed came during my first week. I dropped by another manager's office to ask him a question. His secretary had me schedule an appointment about a week and a half later. At PU, that would have been simply unthinkable.

As I learned quickly, in this setting it's not at all unusual to hear arguments like “oh, we settled that back in the early 1990's.” Again, at PU that would have been self-evidently absurd. When stepping into an institution as reverse-ageist as higher education, where institutional memory is almost a fetish, it's easy to get disoriented, frustrated, and lost. After all, it's impossible to go back in time and ask long-deceased folks what they were thinking. And I've noticed that different people will remember the same event very differently, both with unshakable confidence.

I suspect that some of that is an outgrowth of the tenure system. When people stay in the same place, in large groups, for decades on end, it's easy to hold grudges for a long, long time. And they do. So there's a premium on 'consensus,' which can take a great deal of time to generate (when it's possible at all). In practice, of course, 'consensus' often devolves into something like horse-trading, with each party to the informal agreement construing it differently. Sometimes it goes farther and becomes a kind of junior-high cliqueishness. It's actually depressing to see adults behave this way, but they do.

On an operational level, different parts of the college are on different calendars. The faculty, for the most part, are on a September-to-May calendar, with a gap in January and don't-even-try-it stretches around final exams. The rest of the college is on a 12 month calendar. This wouldn't matter if the faculty didn't hold two contradictory beliefs:

  1. Nothing should be done without their consultation and approval

  2. Meetings should be kept to an absolute minimum, and are banned during semester breaks

Shared governance takes time. When the different groups are on conflicting calendars, it takes even more time, since entire months of the year are effectively ruled out.

The decentralized, seniority-based confederation of fiefdoms isn't built for speed. Ideally, time for reflection can lead to more thoughtful decisions and a relative immunity to fads. Of course, it also rewards foot-dragging, indignant denial of change, and staggering inefficiency. The high-minded reasons – respect for professional autonomy, academic freedom, and the like – often dovetail with the personal convenience of locally powerful parties, leading to lots of silly ritualistic conflict.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you contribute to a General Theory of Academic Time Dilation?

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Administrative Personae

Clancy, over at Culture Cat, tagged me with this one, and I couldn't resist.

She tried to peg her administrative persona based on some television characters, and wondered aloud how other folks (including yours truly) would peg themselves.

I did a variation on that some years ago – who would play you in a movie? -- in which I opined that John Cusack could do a pretty good job, or a taller Matthew Broderick. Maybe Matthew Perry, in his puffier moments. (In the interest of honesty, Rainn Wilson without the glasses and minus a few pounds could get disturbingly close.) It's tough, since there are so few good roles for thirtysomething white guys.

(Kidding! Kidding!)

Ah, but characters. That's much more interesting. Who would capture the style in motion? (And I'll concede upfront that I'm uniquely oblivious to how other people read me. I've been floored at some of the ways some people expect me to act.)

The screamingly-obvious one is Bob Newhart. Particularly in his 60's albums and 70's tv show, he did a great job of engaging absolute absurdity while maintaining surface calm. (“The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back.” Exactly.) If there's a better description of the role of dean, I haven't seen it. Even the banter his character had with Suzanne Pleshette's is pretty close. I howled at his portrayal of the put-upon principal in In and Out.

Kermit the Frog, from his Muppet Show days, is close, too. The need for the show to go on, no matter how insane Gonzo's stunt or how cantankerous Statler and Waldorf were, rings true. I also like the obligatory, if strained, public enthusiasm for weak performers, the shoestring budget, and the light melancholy in quiet moments (“It's Not Easy Being Dean”).

Geoffrey Rush's character in Shakespeare in Love has a similar quality. “It's a mystery” how the show will go on, but it will. He's surrounded by creative types, everything is chaotic or insane, yet he somehow manages to get the show staged. He doesn't pretend to understand how it will all come together, but he has faith that it will, and it does. And the creative folks shine.

The common denominator, I think, is that these characters are all about helping other people do what they do, better. Sometimes that involves arranging funding, sometimes it involves cheerleading, and sometimes it involves helping people get past unhelpful delusions or fixations. They're all relatively sane, relatively vanilla characters – not humorless, just vanilla -- who surround themselves with creative/crazy people and work with them to make things better.

If you were a character, who would you be?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Boy, Master Communicator

Last night, in the car, just after I picked up The Boy at CCD on my way home from work:

DD: What happened in school today?

TB: Nothing.

DD: Did you have gym or music?

TB: Music.

DD: What did you do in music?

TB: Nothing.


TB (earnestly): When I say 'nothing,' I don't mean we didn't do anything. I just mean I don't want to have a long conversation about it.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Slippery Stipend

A nervous correspondent writes:

I am a regular reader and occasional pseudonymous poster, and am faced with an ethical dilemma. I wonder if you and/or your readers have a suggestion:

In my program, we ask students to do some work for credit. It's entirely independent of a class and they work one-on-one with a professor. At the end of term, we pay the professors a very small stipend for their contribution. We also ask for a copy of the work the student has done and (separate) signed statements from the students and the professors that verify the work was done. For the most part, the students are very honest and admit when they don't do the work. My problem is that I have a (small) number of professors who said the student did the work (and thus triggered the system by which they get the small stipend) but the student confirmed that they did not.

What's the best way to approach this? I am having a hard time trying to figure out just how to begin that particular email. I rely on professors' good will to continue working with students to ensure the life of the program, and also need the program to maintain a good reputation among students and professors on campus.

You've hit on the eternal dilemma of the honor system: not everybody behaves honorably all the time. But heavy-handed surveillance comes across as insulting to the folks who do behave honorably.

Luckily for you, you have at hand a reasonable excuse for knowing that you're being lied to. You mention both that you “ask for a copy of the work the student has done” and that some “student[s] confirmed that they did not.” So if a professor puts in for a stipend, and you don't have the required work (and you do have a student admitting not having done it), I think you're on solid ground to start asking questions. I mean that literally: ask questions.

Readers of a certain age - - we know who we are, and there's no need to press the point, thank you very much – will remember Columbo. His shtick was playing dumb and asking series of questions that would inevitably trap the perpetrator. (Think of him as Socrates turned detective.) The virtue of this approach is that it's less directly confrontational. You might not get the professor's back up too early, and it allows for the possibility of someone admitting an honest mistake (“I got the names mixed up”). It's always possible that what looks like self-serving deception is simply sloppiness; by starting off with indirect questions (“Do you know why we never received a copy of the work? Do you have it?”), you leave open the door for more innocent explanations.

The bane of my existence is the miscreant-turned-amateur-epistemologist. “How did you know that? What right did you have to gather that information?” I don't walk the hallways with a clipboard and a checklist, noting who is in which classroom when, and I wouldn't want to work anywhere where someone did. But not doing that makes it harder to document the folks who don't show up for work, since it's easy for them to claim that they're being singled out.

In your case, you have easy answers for those questions.

I'm not sure I'd start with email, though. If you know the professors well enough, I'd probably start with a face-to-face meeting at which you ask them to explain an incongruity. Then follow up with something in writing – a memo or an email – summarizing what you remember the meeting to have covered. That way you'll still have a written record, but the somewhat less threatening style of initial approach might yield better results. You'll be able to read body language and vocal expression, for one thing, and it's harder to simply ignore someone right in front of you than to ignore an email. (“What email? I never got an email.”) It will also reduce the likelihood of getting into one of those maddening series of escalating evasions with cc's to all and sundry.

What I wouldn't do is go in with guns a-blazin'. Sometimes incongruities are simply that. Leave open the possibility, at least initially, of an innocent explanation. Signals get crossed, misunderstandings happen, and we're all only human. If you ask for the professor's help in explaining an incongruity, rather than starting off with an accusation, you're likelier to hear the embarrassing-but-not-criminal explanation (clerical error, misplaced benefit of the doubt, etc.) that would otherwise get hidden under a brittle and bitter defensiveness.

(Besides, unless he's truly sociopathic, a professor who dodges a bullet with some flimsy-but-not-disprovable cover story once will probably toe the line a lot more closely after that. In the long run, you get most of what you want, even if you have to pretend credulity in the short run. I've had to settle for that more than once.)

And yes, some people are ethically challenged. But it's probably best to save that as the 'residual' explanation, to be used only when all else fails.

Good luck. Even handled perfectly, this won't be easy.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you suggest?

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

Friday, January 25, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Job Searches and Confidentiality, Part XXXVII

A de-lurking correspondent writes:

I'm in my second year of full-time faculty teaching at a small CC. I have a Ph.D. and adjunct experience too. My plan has always been to stay at this CC for three to five years and then, when the CV is a little bulked up, go back on the job market. There are three reasons for this. One, we are the second lowest paid CC faculty in [my state]. Second, and frankly, more importantly, I HATE living in a small town and for my sanity must find a way back to a more urban area. Third, I have no family close by and the general population "'round these here parts" does not present me many choices for friends. As a flaming liberal, single female, with no kids, in my thirties, and highly educated, I am a freak of nature to the people around here.

And now to the point...
A recent job posting caught my eye. It is only 8 miles from my sister and in an urban area. My salary would nearly double with this new position. I decided I would like to put my application materials in even though it was not in my "plan" to be on the market at this time. I wanted to list a co-worker and my division chair as references. I was very clear when I spoke to my division chair that this was the only job I would be applying to during this academic year. During my formal evaluation earlier this year we had spoken about the prospect of me being on the job market so she already knew of my intention to eventually leave. Again, I repeatedly made it clear the reasons for applying to this particular job posting and how this did not indicate a move into the job market in earnest. The meeting where I expressed my desire to apply to this particular job was approximately two weeks ago.

One week ago I was speaking on the phone to a colleague about participating in an annual local event. He was the organizer of a team that I was interested in joining. He called to explain that the team was disbanding but he hoped to arrange another one next year. He went on to say that I was welcome to join next year if I was still around. His exact words were, "If you are still here next year." I know that this particular colleague is a close, personal friend of my chair. My question is two-fold. First, was I mistaken in telling my chair about the application up front even though we had discussed my career path and moving on to another school just six weeks prior? Second, how should I handle questions about my 'leaving'? At this point, I haven't been invited to interview let alone given a job offer. Should I explain fully, minimally, or would it be better to treat the topic with what would be considered close to disregard? I've already been approached this week by two co-workers asking when I plan to move.

In the future, when I do start on a serious job search, should I let my chair know? It seems that the chair feels it necessary to share information about my position with other faculty that I think should be confidential until there is action necessary (i.e.: job candidate search). It seems responsible to speak with other administrators about possible ramifications but not to faculty and staff who would be, generally, unaffected by my departure.

This is close to my heart, since I've been walking a similar tightrope myself. (Don't mix metaphors like that at home, kids. I'm a trained professional.)

As long as academe insists on the absurd and useless and counterproductive system of references, these issues will pop up.

I can think of a few guidelines, but most of them are context-dependent, and none is perfect. Readers with other ideas are invited to comment.

If you're in a setting in which you think that being 'found out' would result in you getting fired, then obviously keep it on the DL. You can even address the issue in your cover letter. There's no assurance that this will work, but it can at least reduce the downside risk.

If you're in a setting in which being 'found out' would be awkward but not fatal, I'd adopt a two-pronged strategy of “need to know” and “strategic evasion.” Tell only those folks you would need as references, and stress to them that you consider the matter confidential. When it leaks – which it will – simply don't answer the question directly. Don't lie, but don't compromise yourself, either. “I have no plans to be anywhere else next year” is technically true, since you don't have an offer in hand. (Administrators and politicians can do this in our sleep.) If your skeptical interlocutor keeps pressing, change the subject. Think of it as cultivating an air of mystery.

Besides, in this market, there's a drastic difference between “applying for jobs” and “getting offers.” Don't assume that the jump from the first to the second is automatic. Until you have an offer in hand, it's all hypothetical.

(Interview trips can be tricky to negotiate, if nobody is supposed to know you're looking. When I was at Proprietary U and interviewing at my current cc, I did it over a few below-the-radar long lunches and one vacation day. Luckily for me, the dress code at PU was formal enough that 'interview wear' didn't stand out, so nobody questioned the suit and tie. The interviews I've gone on from here have been an improvised mix of personal days and vacation days.)

In terms of your responsibility to notify others (beyond references), I don't think you have one until you've actually accepted an offer. (Or until you've received an offer, and you're trying to negotiate a counter-offer. But that doesn't seem relevant in your case.) If all goes well and you accept an offer in, say, early April, I certainly wouldn't wait until May to tell people; at that point, prompt notification is a professional courtesy. Before receiving an offer, though, it's premature.

In smaller settings, a voracious appetite for gossip can combine with generally slow happenings to make something as juicy as a possible departure a big story. It's unfortunate, annoying, and counterproductive, but there it is.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Ways to Fund Departments

A new and very perceptive correspondent writes:

I’m a long-time lurker, writing now in hopes you and your readers can help explain academic funding models (ha!). I’m an ABD in a fairly highly ranked department at a large R1 university. Huge U. funds its departments based on a formula in which the largest factor is the mean of undergraduate course enrollments over the prior small number of years.

My fellow ABDs and I, over the years, have concluded that many of the problems we see are caused, at their root, by this funding model. It turns undergrad enrollments into a necessary popularity contest since we must have high enrollments to stay in the black. At Huge U., at least, that means requiring very little work, handing out lots of high grades, and being “entertaining” at all costs. Departments and programs get veto power over each others’ course offerings, so that a course offered elsewhere can’t damage the enrollment of an existing one. Vetoes are allowed even in the face of demonstrated student interest and the existing course consistently having long waiting lists. The list of issues that seem to come out of this funding model goes on.

After enjoying several years of spectacularly high enrollments, during which my department hired lots of new faculty and admitted large classes of graduate students (in part because they had the money and in part to be able to offer enough classes to meet the demand), undergraduate enrollments have fallen quickly. (We have theories as to why, and the reasons are not things we can do much about.) We are now being threatened with ending all funding to ABDs who have been here “too long” (although significantly less than the national average and no longer than the average here), cutting benefits, etc.

I have two sets of questions. First, what are some alternative models to fund departments, and what are the problems associated with them? If we’re going to complain about what we’ve got, it would be nice to know something about the alternatives.

Second, would it be odd if I asked about this issue on the job market? It certainly wouldn’t be my first question, by far, but somewhere in the course of a campus visit, I would be curious to learn how a school distributed money. The answer wouldn’t necessarily sink my desire to take the job in question, but at least I would know what I was getting into if I did.

I wish that every job applicant, at every level, would ask these questions. I'll say without reservation that the very few times someone has asked this sort of question, my opinion of them has skyrocketed. A question like this suggests that the applicant understands, at a fundamental level, that structure matters. I'm constantly surprised at the number of very intelligent, very well-educated people who don't get that.

The system you outline strikes me as an unsustainable hybrid of two systems. There's the “each tub on its own bottom” system, in which each administrative unit – be it an academic division or department or program – generates its own revenue and covers its own costs. Based on your comment about the mean of student enrollments determining funding, it sounds like this is the model you're using on the revenue side.

Under this model, each department is largely free to do what it needs to do to get its books in order. The incentives, as you recognize, are generally perverse, but the concept of inter-departmental veto power wouldn't make sense. If I want to open a restaurant in my town, I don't need the permission of the local McDonald's. The “each tub on its own bottom” system rewards initiative, and sometimes rewards promiscuous academic standards or otherwise misplaced priorities.

The other model is the “one college” model, in which there's an overall budget for the entire college or university. In this system, profitable units cross-subsidize money-losing units. (For example, the profits turned by mostly chalk-and-talk areas like history or psychology allow the college to make up the gaping losses in the Nursing program.) In this system, each subgroup's fate is entwined visibly with all the others', so external vetoes of department initiatives can make sense. It sounds like this is the model you're using on the 'cost' side.

In practice, it's not unusual for the same school to switch between these two models, sometimes on a case by case basis. (A particular department is the President's pet, or, alternately, a particular department just can't do anything right in the administration's eyes, so the usual rules are suspended in those cases.) I'm not a big proponent of that, since I think it can easily put departments in no-win situations. (You have to increase enrollment, but all of your new ideas get vetoed by 'competing' departments who also have to increase enrollment. In retaliation, you veto their new ideas, too. When all is said and done, there's plenty of internal bickering and no growth. This may sound familiar.)

Back in my grad school days, funding for graduate students came from multiple sources. The department had a certain amount that it could divvy out. The University also gave some out on its own, based (at the time, anyway) largely on GRE scores. So a grad student with University funding was effectively 'free' for the department. I've heard of some colleges doing something similar for 'diversity' faculty hires – standard hires come from the department budget, but dedicated 'diverse' hires are paid for by central administration, and are therefore 'free' for the department. (My undergrad alma mater did that.) It's the same idea behind federal matching funds for state programs: we won't make the decision for you, but we'll change the background conditions against which you make your decision.

For the record, I prefer the one-college model, though it requires thoughtful leadership to avoid slipping into the trap of milking the cash cows to death. The other model, I think, places undue pressure on new programs, which almost always lose money in their early stages, and can lead to destructive overreactions to relatively small changes. But this is a pragmatic, not theological, position, and either model is better than a haphazard hybrid of both.

As for the ABD's who have been there “too long,” my condolences. There's a much broader problem in academe of admitting grad students not because there's a realistic prospect of them getting jobs, but just for the cheap labor. When their labor isn't needed anymore, that's that. In keeping with the rest of my administrative philosophy, I'd rather see graduate admissions reduced drastically upfront, and any resulting gaps in cheap labor made up through honest advertising for it. But that's a much larger topic.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what other funding models have you seen? Have you seen one that rewards the right things and seems sustainable?

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

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A couple of alert readers sent me links to this article, in which someone noticed that Gov. Spitzer's (NY) plan to hire 2,000 more full-time professors for the SUNY system – which sounds great in itself – also includes a plan to bring in 4,000 more graduate students to support them.

Apparently, Gov. Spitzer believes that a stronger SUNY system will help the state economy both directly and indirectly, and that raising its academic profile is the way to do that. The grad students are understood to be support staff.

The grad students are understood to be support staff.

They aren't understood to be, say, apprentices. Outside of a few specific fields, there's simply no shortage of graduate students or Ph.D.'s. If anything, there's a terrible glut. Anyone familiar with the higher ed employment stats – or the blogosphere – knows that there's a backlog of doctorally-qualified people looking for full-time jobs. Worse, unless I'm fundamentally misreading the proposal, the hiring would be concentrated outside the fields that need it the most. Since the point of the proposal is economic development, rather than a jobs program for academics, it would mean more money for, say, certain applied sciences, and nothing at all for the evergreen disciplines. In other words, it won't do anything to help, say, folks in English or history.

In that light, the influx of new graduate students makes sense. They work the labs. Hotshot scientists won't go anywhere where they can't get good grad students to fill out their labs. The grad students are there for cheap labor and a kind of bait. Their job prospects, when all is said and done, are quite beside the point.

I don't mean any of this as a criticism of Gov. Spitzer. I mean it as a criticism of the folks who've taken his proposal as some sort of jobs program for academics. Over the long term, it will almost certainly make the existing imbalances worse. If anything, it shows yet again the gap between the dialogue going on in higher education and the dialogue outside it. Outside, the swelling ranks of the freeway fliers simply isn't taken as a major problem. In fact, to the extent that folks outside higher ed care about keeping costs down without their kids having huge classes, they may embrace the adjunct trend (short-sightedly, in my mind, but still) as part of the solution.

In the comments to yesterday's post about the dialogue gap, Sherman Dorn made the point that one of the drivers of fast tuition increases has been cost-shifting from the public sector to the students. To the extent that's true, it implies that there's an eventual limit: once the entire cost has been shifted, that's that. And it's certainly true that the share of many public colleges' budgets covered by tuition – as opposed to state or local aid – is higher than it was ten or twenty years ago. But if that were the major issue, we wouldn't have seen the tuition inflation at private colleges that we've seen at publics. SD's observation is correct, but I'm not sure it's as central as he seemed to indicate.

I suspect that the larger cost-shifting issue is within the public sector itself. Increasingly regressive tax structures have dumped an ever-larger portion of the costs of the public sector on the middle class. They (we) are getting cranky about that, but many don't quite stitch together the cause-and-effect.

There's also a cost-shifting issue by generations within higher ed. We can maintain the highly-paid, senior tenured positions for people with seniority by underpaying their juniors. That's really what the adjunct trend amounts to. We grandfather the first group in, and pay for it by exploiting the hell out of the groups that come after. Other unionized industries have dealt with this through tiered contracts; academe has dealt with it by denying the younger generation contracts at all.

All of that said, I applaud Gov. Spitzer's recognition of the economic value of the creative class. I just hope that we understand which problem it might actually help solve, and which it certainly won't. This is probably a good move for New York, but after the initial surge, it would actually make an already bad situation for academics that much worse.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Gap

I had a lightbulb moment this weekend. Simply put, there's a basic gap between the dialogue in higher ed, and the dialogue outside higher ed. It goes like this:

In higher ed: “It's a shame how adjunct-heavy we've gone. We really need to hire more full-time faculty.”

Outside higher ed: “Tuition and taxes are too high, and going up too fast. Who do those people think they are?”

They're both right.

They seem contradictory, and in some sense, they are. How can costs keep going up at such astronomical rates when we keep turning to horribly paid part-time faculty? Isn't the upside of exploited labor supposed to be Everyday Low Prices?

Yes and no.

I'm not an economist, so I fully expect to get flamed in the comments by some folks who trot out Austrian names and multivariate calculus to demonstrate just how far up my ass my head actually is. That said, I'll go out on a limb and say that the problem is the relative difficulty of increasing 'productivity' in higher ed, as opposed to, say, manufacturing or retail.

It hit me when I heard a story on Marketplace last week comparing Skype to British Telecom. They serve similar numbers of customers, and provide similar services, but Skype has something like one percent of the number of employees that British Telecom has. (I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was something of that order of magnitude.) The tremendously lower labor costs for Skype make it possible for Skype to charge much less. Obviously, technology made that possible.

In many industries, technology makes increased productivity possible. My internet bank doesn't have bricks-and-mortar branches, which means it doesn't have to lease buildings, pay for heat and electricity, and pay tellers. Most of its operations are automated, allowing it to pass a fraction of the savings on to me. (I assume that some of it goes into profits, and some into continued innovation.) I've never seen a bank teller's blog complaining about internet banking, but it wouldn't surprise me.

As other parts of the economy become more productive, and higher ed doesn't, the relative cost of higher ed increases. (It still takes 45 hours of seat time for a 3 credit class, the same as it did twenty years ago.) Put differently, because our productivity increases more slowly than anyone else's, our (relative) costs increase more quickly. They increase so quickly, in fact, that even replacing full-time faculty with poorly paid adjuncts isn't enough to make up the difference.

This wouldn't be a problem, at least for a while, if the citizenry were feeling particularly undertaxed and eager to help. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Most people don't devote much thought to the production processes of what they buy. They just want good products or services at good prices. When a particular sector (like higher ed or health care) seems out of whack with the rest of the economy, folks affected by it will notice. They probably won't understand, but they'll notice.

Annoyingly, they'll fill in the blanks of their understanding with guesses. Such is life.

Higher ed has it even worse than many labor-intensive industries, to the extent that we have to incorporate technologies that don't improve our productivity (so we can prepare students for jobs that require those technologies). So technologies that pay for themselves in other contexts are pure costs for us.

Higher ed administrators are caught in the bind of trying to bridge flat or declining public support with ever-spiraling costs, without doing violence to the reason colleges exist in the first place. Sometimes we can pick up an actual savings, like when my cc switched phone providers and went with VOIP. But those moments are rare. Since the overwhelming majority of most colleges' budgets are labor and utilities, there aren't many efficiencies to be had, especially without major structural changes. We could decouple 'seat time' from 'academic credit,' but that would take a really drastic, fundamental overhaul of what colleges do. I wouldn't expect that to come from the inside.


Any magic bullets out there?

Monday, January 21, 2008

In Which I Attempt to Watch Football

I can rattle off the many ways in which football is evil, but I still enjoy watching the very occasional game. (Where I grew up, the world was divided fairly clearly into two kinds of people: Buffalo Bills fans, and People Who Are Not From Around Here. I still shudder at the mere mention of the name “Scott Norwood.”) Last night I finally got to watch my first game of the season. Last night's highlight reel, with the camera trained on the living room:

Early in the first quarter, as I attempt to decode the game for The Boy, who is trying to watch: “After each play, they have Circle Time to decide what to do next, just like in preschool.”

Later in the first quarter:

The Boy: Why did that man jump on that other man?

DD: That's called tackling. He's supposed to.

TB: That looks like it hurts!

DD: Yeah. The players get hurt a lot.

TB: I'd rather play basketball.

DD: Good idea.

Early in the second quarter:

TW: More commercials?

DD: Yeah, they do that any time there's a change of possession.

TB: They showed this one already!

TW: You'll notice they're all for beer or cars. That's what men like.

DD: I don't get terribly worked up about either.

TB: I like cartoons.

DD: Yeah.

Shortly before halftime:

TW: I have to color my hair. So you can do touchups in the back during halftime.

DD: (wan smile)

And I did. The hermetically-sealed plastic gloves are incredibly uncomfortable and hard to take off without tearing. I don't dye my own hair, so I really don't have the foggiest idea what I'm doing. And there's something unsettling about experimenting on your wife's head. (Besides, how many synonyms for 'brown' are there in the English language?) It also doesn't quite fit the whole Manly Male Masculine Man Stuff for Guys vibe I'm trying to cultivate. It's hard to look dashing when pulling those saran wrap gloves off by the fingertips. But the job gets done.

The second half featured heavy DVR use, so I could keep taking towels out of the dryer and folding them on the couch.

Sad, really.

Not quite as sad as the Super Bowl in which I spent the entire third quarter adjusting the shoulder straps for a carseat, but still.

Someday The Boy will understand. Until then, I'm pretty good at wan smiles.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Faculty Exchanges: Notes Toward a Proposal

Just thinking out loud here...

Why isn't it more common to have, say, year-long faculty exchanges between relatively nearby colleges? “I'll trade you a senior anthropologist for a business prof and a second-round draft pick.” The faculty exchanged would be paid by their original institutions, and the time would count towards seniority at their original institutions. It would be restricted to folks with tenure, so there'd be no issue of how to count it on the tenure clock.

The costs would be minimal, especially if the program were voluntary (which it would have to be).

Some possible benefits:

  1. Breaking up the inbreeding in some areas, even if only temporarily.

  2. Exposing senior teaching faculty to the ways things are done at other colleges, to discourage provincialism and help spread good ideas more quickly.

  3. Temporary staffing imbalances caused by, say, sabbaticals or maternity leaves could be covered by swapping folks from well-covered departments to get folks in shorthanded ones.

  4. Relationships between neighboring colleges would be strengthened.

  5. Some folks might notice that issues they've attributed to personalities are, in fact, structural.

Possible costs?

  1. The paperwork

  2. Uh...

Seems like a reasonable deal to me.

The swapping schools would have to be 'peers.' I don't see us sending our folks to Snooty U for a year, and I certainly don't think the faculty from Snooty U would last ten minutes here. (“Wait a minute. I teach how many sections? And where's my t.a.?”) But if we were to send a person or two each year to one of several other community colleges nearby, there wouldn't be an issue of mission shock.

Some time in another setting might allow a window into other possible ways of doing things. Some wouldn't make sense to bring back, but some might. And it might be healthy for some departments to hear from a secure visitor things like “jeez, you really don't have to do it that way. We do it this way.”

If something like this were available at your college, would you do it?

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Thanks to everyone who answered yesterday's call! It helped, actually.

Doc made a comment that particularly struck me, and that I didn't want to answer deep in the comments. (Doc is, himself, a former dean.) In drawing a distinction between managers in corporate settings and managers in higher ed, he noted that:

[A]cademics are not generally trained to be managers/administrators, and when we get manager/administrator jobs, we're thrown into the deep end of the pool with little or no support. Watching people try to discover the decision rules that aren't written down can be painful for everyone. Dealing with people who don't understand decision-making in a group (rather than an individual) context can be painful. Seeing people who are really, really good teachers and researchers struggle to figure out how to change their approach to problems (believe me, making the correct choice about a statistical procedure and figuring out how to deal with a faculty member who's screwing up are not similar decision issues) can be painful.

Higher education is the industry that does the least, I think, to prepare people for management and administration. And we pay the price for it.

Although it's only half the picture, the half it covers it gets exactly right.

Academe is rife with unspoken/unwritten rules. Some of them are 'sorta' formal – we call those 'past practice.' (One of my great frustrations has been when different people recall 'past practice' differently, and there's no written record to settle the dispute.) Some of them don't quite rise to that level, but are something more like 'unspoken expectations.' Many people aren't even aware they have those until they're violated. (“How dare you override this committee?” “The committee is supposed to be advisory only. In that context, there's no such thing as overriding.” “Well, yeah, but you overrode the committee!”)

And the weirdly widespread contempt in which academics are trained to hold administrators tends to discourage some of the more talented from checking it out. When the better abstain, the worse carry the day.

In grad school, I was trained extensively in citing authorities, plowing through complicated and punishingly long texts, and placating some very erratic personalities. I also received some incidental training in research. I got plenty of practice teaching, though very little training. (For my first year as a t.a., my entire training consisted of “you'll be fine.”) Management training? Nope.

In my faculty role, I got some supplemental training in teaching, and heaven knows I got plenty of practice. Management training? Nope.

What I've picked up has been on the fly, on the job. And that's not at all unusual.

Making matters more complicated is the unique structure of higher ed. A neophyte corporate manager can at least turn to management books. While the ratio of hogwash-to-content tends to be high, it's at least possible to glean some basics from one industry and apply them to another. Most corporations give managers much more say in hiring, firing, defining the job, setting salary, and determining incentives than any academic manager ever gets. So some of the really basic stuff – set clear goals, set measurable benchmarks, tie incentives to desired behaviors, and clear out the plaque – really doesn't apply in higher ed, except on the margins. The administrator's toolkit is remarkably bare, compared to managers in just about any other industry.

(This is doubly true when budgets are tight. A dean with discretionary money can still make things happen. A dean without discretionary money, not so much.)

Even networking is harder. So much of the really challenging stuff involves confidential matters that it can be difficult to glean helpful ideas even from other administrators. (Even this blog, as vanilla as it is, is written under a pseudonym. If I used my real name, it would have to be blanded-out beyond any possible usefulness.)

The lack of a clear 'bottom line' also makes it harder to get agreement on the criteria for decisions. I've found it's relatively easy to engender civility even in the context of disagreement when the criteria are mutually accepted. (I think that's what several commenters meant when they wrote things like “even when I disagree, I know the reasons.”) But if one person's criterion is “what I've always thought a college should be like” and another's is “the money we lose on this could have grown that,” they'll talk right past each other.

Given all of that, it's still possible to be useful to the extent that you can translate, see the bigger picture, find ways out of jams, mediate personality clashes, and attend to the great many external commitments that faculty just can't. On a good day, those things happen. On a bad day, I find myself asking questions like the one I asked yesterday.

Thanks, everyone.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Administrators You've Actually Liked: An Informal Poll

This one is intended for the faculty, though anyone with constructive ideas is welcome to participate.

Think back to (or about) an academic administrator (dean/VPAA) you've liked and respected.

What was/is it about that person that won your respect?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


This story in IHE made me laugh out loud. Apparently, a community college in New Jersey briefly floated a policy to encourage 'civility' that was anything but. The provisions were:

1. Honesty, integrity, and respect for all will guide my personal conduct.
2. I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.
3. I will build an inclusive community enriched by diversity.
4. I am willing to respect and assist those individuals who are less fortunate.
5. I promise my commitment to civic engagement and to serve the needs of the community to the best of my ability.

Yes, they overshot. I'd say, comically so. (Number 2 is my favorite. “I celebrate your staggering wrongness! I embrace your breathtaking, fundamental category error!”) But there is some value to the idea of civility that apparently animated the original idea. If we understand civility as something like “the rules for participating in the organization,” then it seems reasonable to me to go beyond “I know it when I see it.” The mistake wasn't in trying to write it down; it was in absurdly overreaching.

My proposed code of civil conduct for higher ed, or speech code, if you prefer:

I will separate the speaker from the speech.

That's it.

I don't think it unduly impinges on academic freedom. Attack someone's speech (or writing) to your heart's content. If you think they're wrong, explain why, and be prepared to have to explain back. Just don't move from “you're wrong” to “you're bad.” The former is the risk of any new idea; the latter simply ends discussion. I would apply this standard to academic arguments, as well as to arguments among academics.

(For example, in arguing against, say, single-payer health care, a statement like “that would stifle innovation” or “that would politicize a private decision” would be worth addressing. A statement like “you liberals and your fantasies of a nanny state,” on the other hand, would not. Racial slurs would be out of bounds by definition, since they attack the person.)

I'd like to think that higher ed, of all places, should be where people can try on different ideas for size. It's where they can experiment, play ideas off against each other, test theories, and, yes, be wrong. My image of the physical sciences is that they come pretty close to this. (It's not perfect or friction-free, but the ideal is recognizable.) Data trump rank, which is as it should be. Yes, some people build credibility over time by being right a lot, but there's always the possibility of proving them wrong.

“Proof” is a tougher call in the social sciences and humanities, but it's still possible to adduce better or worse evidence for a given argument. (If it isn't, I'd like to know just what the hell we're doing.)

Am I rejecting the feminist ideal that the personal is political? I don't think so. I'd draw a distinction between the 'personal' in the sense of the 'traditionally private' and the 'personal' in the sense of 'the idiosyncratic.' Anybody who reads my blog for any length of time knows that I routinely include elements of family life, either for comic relief or to make a point about the tensions in trying to make 'work' plus 'home' equal 'a decent life,' and the costs to everyone of those tensions. By making, say, administrative jobs largely incompatible with parenting young children, we lose a significant pool of potential talent. There's a cost to that, and it's a properly public issue. 'Personal' stuff that can be generalized strikes me as reasonable fodder for public discussion.

What strikes me as unproductive is the personal stuff that shuts down discussion. In the 90's, there was a fad of “it's a (blank) thing, you wouldn't understand,” that struck me as incredibly offensive. If taken literally, which it seemingly sometimes was, it implied that discussion was useless. If that's true, we're in very deep trouble.

By my standard, the idea of, say, affirmative action for political conservatives on college faculties would be absolutely out of the question. If the basis of your employment is a fixed idea, then you've already defeated the purpose of academic inquiry. Real academic inquiry always carries the risk of changing your mind. If changing your mind would cost you your job, then we've defeated the purpose.

(This is also why I'm deeply skeptical of the possibility of real academic freedom at a religiously-affiliated college. If the answers are given in advance, why bother asking the questions?)

My proposal is certainly vulnerable to a charge of political naivete. If the other side (however defined) doesn't fight 'fair,' why should we? Isn't that unilateral disarmament?

There's some truth to this. The ideal is only an ideal, and in practice, the categories can sometimes be hard to separate. In the context of higher ed, I'd have to say that the ideal of open inquiry is worth considerable sacrifice. A college shouldn't be run like a political campaign or a cult. In a political campaign, you shouldn't always separate the speaker from the speech, since the speaker is running for office. But for higher ed, it strikes me as a pretty good rule of thumb.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Is Re-Accreditation Worth It?

A new correspondent writes (edited for length and anonymity):

[Her daughter] recently learned that the awesome, charismatic, incredible, passionate department head who always teaches [difficult subject] and whose name has been listed all along as scheduled to instruct both terms of the class will not actually be teaching the second term.

No official announcement has been made yet, and her name is still listed on the class schedule, but [the student] recently ran into an adjunct in the hall who told her, "You're stuck with me next term. Dr. X will not be teaching the class. She's too busy dealing with all the accreditation paperwork to teach next term..."

The bottom line: what's the cost-benefit of the re-accreditation process? I'd like to know: does all this paperwork actually improve the quality of education?

I'll give a quick sense of what it looks like from where I sit, and leave it to my wise and worldly readers to indicate how it plays out where they are.

In the U.S., accreditation comes in several flavors, each with its own purpose.. (I'll leave it to readers in other countries to explain how it works there, since I honestly don't know.)

What people usually mean when they talk about accreditation (and is probably the case here) is regional accreditation for an entire institution. For example, the University of Michigan is accredited by the North Central Association. Different parts of the country have their own accrediting agencies, but the basic idea behind each one is the same: to certify that the institution does what it says it does. It's supposed to ensure the public that the college or university in question has the resources (both fiscal and human) to do its job, that it's organized in a way that allows it to do its job, and (more recently) that it's committed to continuous improvement in how it does its job. Whatever its mission, you should be reasonably sure that an accredited college isn't a fraudulent and/or fly-by-night operation.

(I say “whatever its mission” because different institutions have different jobs. A research university has a different mission than does a community college, which in turn has a different mission than a four-year college with a strong religious affiliation or a proprietary college with an occupational orientation. You wouldn't judge one by the mission of the others.)

Accrediting agencies are nonprofit associations of colleges and universities. They usually operate by doing site visits, in which faculty and administrators from 'peer' institutions visit the one that's up for renewal. In preparation for the visit, the college typically does a 'self-study,' for which the association provides questions and a framework. My guess is that the professor you're missing is involved in the self-study, which can be quite time-consuming. In my faculty days at Proprietary U, I wrote the first draft of the self-study for my campus, and it was a surprisingly massive and difficult job.

(Some regions have started moving away from the Big Study every five or ten years in favor of smaller reports on an annual basis, which they call AQIP. I haven't seen that up close, so I really can't speak to it. Anyone who can is invited to comment.)

Part of the unspoken agenda of the regional accrediting agencies is to prevent heavy-handed government control of higher education. The idea is that if we can show that we, as a sector, do a reasonable job of policing ourselves, then the government won't step in and do it for us. (Can you imagine if a given administration were to promulgate national guidelines for the teaching of Intro to American Government? Yikes!)

Regional accreditation is terribly important for a college, since its eligibility for most public financial aid (both state and federal) is dependent on its continuing accreditation. In practice, the more economically-marginal schools rely pretty heavily, both directly and indirectly, on financial aid, so a loss of accreditation could be fatal. A loss of accreditation, while rare, should usually be taken as a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. (To be fair, there are schools, such as Bob Jones University, that have eschewed accreditation altogether to pursue their own idiosyncratic paths.)

Some professions have program-specific accreditations, such as in Nursing, where a given field has set up its own guidelines, criteria, and network of site visits. In those cases, you're usually looking only at a specific department or program, rather than the entire college. There are also 'national' accrediting agencies, which generally don't carry the weight of the regional ones. In my observation, they're usually specific to the for-profit sector, and widely distrusted. Some for-profits – the University of Phoenix and DeVry leap to mind – have actually attained regional accreditation, so it can be done.

Your question about improving the quality of education is a tricky one. Historically, accreditation was about counting inputs – how many books in the library, how large the endowment, how many faculty with doctorates, etc. -- and simply assuming that high numbers in those categories resulted somehow in quality education. Over the last decade or so – it may be longer, I really don't know – the agencies have started pushing colleges to develop meaningful 'outcomes assessment,' to see if those inputs are actually producing the desired outputs. Outcomes assessment is a discussion or two in itself, but I'll say that the idea behind it is to get colleges to commit to continuous improvement by providing them internal, ongoing feedback on how well students are learning what they're supposed to learn. It differs from grading to the extent that grading is intended to reflect individual student performance, whereas outcomes assessment is intended to reflect the performance of a given curriculum.

I'm a bit skeptical that accreditation actually ensures quality education. What it does do is ensure that you aren't dealing with a fly-by-night storefront operation, and that the college in question is capable of providing the education it claims it provides. (Whether that actually happens is another question.) More recently, it also indicates that the college is committed to some form of continuous improvement, though that can mean a lot of things. It's a minimum, rather than a guarantee. But it's a minimum that most colleges couldn't forego without serious financial and enrollment consequences.

Good luck with the Spring class!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add?

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

Friday, January 11, 2008

Living a Lie

I've been back in the office since January 2. Prior to that, I had nearly two full weeks at home, which was the longest uninterrupted stretch since, well, I don't want to think about that.

Having nearly two full weeks at home without any early-morning obligations meant that my body was able to revert to its 'default' settings. And I've been forced to come to terms with a horrible truth.

I am not a morning person.

In grad school, I'd usually go to bed somewhere between midnight and two, and wake up around nine, like God intended. In my faculty days, if I didn't have an early morning class, I largely stuck to that. (One semester I had a freshman comp class at 7:30 in the morning. I think that violated the Geneva Convention.) It wasn't until the one-two punch of fatherhood and administration that I started getting up every day at some ridiculous hour.

Then it got worse. I realized that the only way I could go to the gym on any kind of regular basis and not be a horribly neglectful parent or spouse was to go before work. So 'ridiculous' became 'you've got to be kidding.' And there it is.

Staying on the treadmill, I can sort of fool myself for a while. If the breaks are no longer than a weekend, then I don't fully revert to my default settings. Even a long weekend doesn't register as much more than a blip.

But the Christmas break was long, and mostly travel-free. We purposely kept the obligations light. The kids didn't have to go to school, so there was nothing forcing anybody to get up early. And I started waking up, oh, nine-ish.

It was glorious. After a few days, I actually felt like myself again. Having once again tasted the sweet nectar of an inner clock in harmony with the universe, this past week has been a real struggle. (Yes, yes, I know, clocks don't have nectar. Just roll with it.) And it's not just the job; TB has to get going fairly early to make it to school.


When I get really desperate, I shift to an earlier bedtime. That works for exactly one day. Then my body clock figures out that it's been tricked, and hits back. It's not pretty.

Extroverts, morning people, and Republicans have entirely too much power in our culture. Thoughtful, sleep-deprived liberals of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our crankiness.

And now, off to the gym.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Things I'd Rather Do Than Sit Through Another Tag-Team Software Vendor Demo

  • Have a political conversation with Chuck Norris

  • Camp outside in Buffalo in January

  • Wash down a cold plate of lutefisk with a warm Genny Cream

  • Watch the entire broadcast of the Country Music Awards

  • Become the national spokesmodel for Preparation H

  • Close-caption The Osbournes

  • Tell the Evil Dentist to “shoot the works”

  • Judge a “loudest fingernails on the chalkboard” contest

  • Hoedown!

  • Substitute teach the 8th grade

  • Sit through High School Musical 1 and 2 while TB sings along

  • Figure out the program my damn self.

An hour after it was over, I was still bored.

What's your barometer for awfulness?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Best. Line. Ever.

From Aunt B.:

What good is self-awareness if you can’t use it to keep from being a dumbass?

Selective Outsourcing

Following on the heels of IHE, there's a story in the Chronicle about several universities (Northwestern and Arizona State among them) giving up their own internal email systems in favor of Google's gmail. I'll admit, it strikes me as one of the best ideas I've heard in a long time.

If you haven't tried it, gmail is free, almost always up, and backed up with storage capacity you wouldn't believe. The actual physical servers are heaven-knows-where, which means they're separate from most campuses. (In the event of natural disaster, that's no small thing.) And it's free. Did I mention that?

Anybody who has ever tried to contact students via their campus email accounts knows that you're frequently better off relying on a carrier pigeon. Students rarely use their campus email, rendering the system as useless as it is expensive. They'd be likelier to use something they can take with them wherever they go, and that offers enough storage to use indefinitely.

I think I personally drove our previous IT guru to retirement with my constant nagging about 'open source' that and 'free' that. (See this post from 2005 as an example.) His responses started off generous-but-condescending -- “that's an interesting idea, but as you know, we don't have the staff to support it” -- and eventually became downright testy. But it struck me as a good idea then, and it strikes me as even more so now. In a time when we're shrinking the cadre of full-time faculty to save money, why the hell are we buying servers and paying staff for our own internal email system? Why not use gmail (or something similar) and use the savings to, I don't know, hire faculty?

Going farther, why the hell are we sending boatloads of cash to Microsoft for a gazillion Office licenses when AbiWord and OpenOffice are out there for free? (Google Docs shows promise, too.) For that matter, why not try Linux instead of Windows? Let Bill Gates absorb the hit, rather than my English department. He's better able to take it. And the time we save with fewer system crashes wouldn't be trivial.

And have you tried Blackboard/WebCT recently? Sheesh. I mean, Sakai and Moodle are just sitting there...

The only semi-persuasive argument I've heard for continuing to feed the Windows pig is that it's the “industry standard.” That's true, but circular. It's true until it abruptly isn't.

Usually, pushing for new technology involves spending more money. This is that rare case in which pushing for new technology would actually save money.

I'm not usually a big fan of 'outsourcing,' but I'd much rather outsource email and embrace open source – and apply the savings to just about anything else – than continue to outsource our teaching to adjuncts while paying ever-higher licensing fees to software monopolies.

Has your campus tried any of the open-source or free stuff out there? Has it worked? Is there a relevant downside I'm not seeing?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Dreaded "300 Level" Course

Although I've been doing this for some time, I still don't fully understand how course levels are determined. This is particularly true in the social sciences and humanities, where you don't have relatively hard and fast prerequisites to settle the question.

Is “Women in Film” properly a 200 level course or a 300 level course? What about “Psychology of Aging” or “Civil Liberties”? More interestingly, how do you know?

In my neck of the woods, this is becoming a high-stakes question.

By law, cc's here aren't allowed to offer classes above the 200 level. The idea is that 300 level classes are intended for juniors and seniors majoring in a given discipline, so they properly belong to the four-year colleges. (In return, we have a very strong claim on having credits for 100 and 200 level classes transfer.) If we overstep our curricular bounds, the four-year schools won't take our credits in transfer, and our graduates will have to repeat – and pay for repeating – courses they've already taken.

Worse, it's at least theoretically possible that continued, sustained curricular overreach could land us in serious trouble with the state, which would not be a happy outcome for us.

Over time, as one might expect, there have been border skirmishes. Northern Midtier State says Advanced Basketweaving is a 200 level class, and it accepts our credits in transfer; Southern Midtier State says it's a 300 level class and gives our grads a hard time. We defend ourselves by pointing out that NMS says it's a 200-level class, but you can imagine how much that means to the faculty at SMS.

Now that the state is pushing harder for regularized transfer of credits, the stakes are being raised. Now we aren't just talking about a course here and there; we're talking about the entire midsection of the curriculum. Some of the four-year schools have started renumbering some 200 level courses as 300 level, specifically to defeat the transfer initiative. (They'd rather have the students pay them for the course a second time.) Of course, others haven't, and there's a surprising level of disagreement among the four-year schools when you get down to specifics. And, to be fair, we'd love to run some of the classes that the four-year schools claim as their exclusive domain. Both sides have an economic interest in the outcome of the squabbling, so nobody can credibly claim impartiality. In the absence of some sort of authoritative list of what goes where, it can be hard to know where intellectual arguments end and resource battles begin.

So I'll ask my wise and worldly readers, since y'all can afford a certain honesty.

How do you know a 300 level class when you see one? Is there a reasonable way to distinguish the 200 from the 300 level on a course-by-course basis? And if there is, how does one square “statewide transfer” with local faculty governance?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Background Checks

A new correspondent, currently on the administrative job market, writes:

To what extent is my candidacy for administrative positions hindered by (1)my personal bankruptcy filing in early 2007 and (2) my termination from my previous position as VPAA at a prominent but troubled proprietary institution in spring of 2006? The bankruptcy came about due to health and family problems that were, in truth, insurmountable at the time without going deeply into debt. The termination was a result of word getting back to the proprietary school's corporate office that I was interviewing with competitors and my refusal to commit to staying with the proprietary school until it had resolved its probationary status with its regional accreditor. To frame the termination, I would point out that I had received a healthy salary adjustment at my annual review two months prior to termination; I had never been disciplined or "written up" for poor performance of my VPAA duties at this institution; and the CEO of the proprietary school chain about six months previously had named me to a corporation-wide committee to revamp marketing efforts to attract more students. The school also paid me several months' salary to go away quietly.

I ended up taking a mid-level academic support position with a state university in the fall of 2006 for a greatly reduced salary. Subsequently I have been one of three finalists for much better positions (VPAA at a large proprietary school, corporate online dean for a regionally accredited for-profit, and associate dean for assessment at a major urban community college), but in each instance the potential employer's interest in me vaporized and I never heard from them again after on-site interviews that I thought went extremely well.

A higher-ed headhunter with whom I have worked for many years has suggested to me what I suspect is indeed the case: when potential employers run a background check on me prior to making an offer, the bankruptcy and employment termination are killing the deal before it materializes.

So here is my question: do hiring committees at public institutions run background checks as assiduously as for-profits, and if they do, do my two red flags carry as much weight with publics as they appear to with for-profits? If that is so, then I might as well resign myself to staying exactly where I am (decent university, semi-interesting work, abysmally low pay) until retirement.

Nobody said higher ed would be pretty.

The short answer is generally yes. In my neck of the woods, background checks are routine. Prospective employers can get information on criminal records, credit ratings, and the like. (I've never probed to find out what 'and the like' actually means. Evil HR Lady, are you out there?) How they'll use that information will vary depending on what they find, what position they're hiring for, how much they want you, and local culture.

Given the scary prospects of legal liability and/or bad publicity, colleges have to be relatively careful when they hire, especially for high visibility positions (such as VPAA). We had a case recently – and I really can't go into any more details than this – in which a background check revealed that a new employee had lied on his application about a recent criminal conviction. When we found out, we fired him on the spot. (We have language on the application spelling out that falsifying information on the application is grounds for termination.) Given the nature of the offense, we probably wouldn't have hired him in the first place if we had known, but the coverup turned a judgment call into a slam dunk.

I've also had job applicants reveal, in interviews, long-ago convictions on minor infractions. In those cases, given some temporal distance from the offenses and long subsequent clean records, I made the call (in consultation with HR) that those convictions were not deal-breakers. In those cases, the applicants were well-advised to come clean, since it neutralized any issue of a 'coverup' and allowed them to frame the issue.

If this sounds creepily imperious, I'll give an example. Would you hire a professor who had a single DUI five years ago, and has been otherwise clean? What about one year ago? What about three in the past five years? What about one DUI, one 'public drunkenness,' and one 'disorderly conduct'? In the abstract, it's tempting to insist on bright-line rules, but people present all kinds of different histories.

In a perfect world, the only information that would be used against you would be information of obvious relevance. For example, I doubt that many people with argue against barring convicted child molesters from working in daycare centers. But most cases aren't that obvious.

Bankruptcy and termination, for example. Neither is illegal in itself. (There are illegal terminations, but it doesn't sound like yours was. Unfair, yes. Illegal, no.) Either could reflect bad behavior or bad judgment, or just bad luck. The two could easily be linked – loss of job leads to loss of income, which leads to bankruptcy, so we're really talking about one thing, rather than two. Elizabeth Warren, of Harvard Law School, recently pointed out that roughly half of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. result from medical crises, so the story of reduced-income-plus-medical-crisis-equaled-bankruptcy has a certain plausibility to it.

From an employer's perspective, though, I can see where doubt would be cast. If you were truly an innocent victim of circumstance, why didn't you say so? Why did you wait until these came up in background checks? Yes, you're within your legal rights to keep these to yourself, but they're within their legal rights not to hire you. If you want them to see past the bankruptcy and termination, my advice would be to bring them up yourself, so you can control the story.

(One hurdle you might face is the relative ignorance of most of traditional higher ed regarding proprietaries. Having worked in a proprietary, I find the idea that you'd be fired for interviewing elsewhere entirely plausible. In much of the rest of higher ed, 'counteroffers' are often the only way to get a raise, so interviewing elsewhere is normal behavior. You might have to explain that, if you're dealing with folks who've never worked in a proprietary.)

An employer might be worried that you're a loose cannon, or that you couldn't be trusted with money (“if he can't manage his own money, he certainly couldn't manage ours”), or that you have some other underlying issue (substance abuse, most likely) that would cause problems over the long run, or that you're just flaky. That may all sound a bit far-fetched, but if you were competing with another candidate of similar strengths without any black marks on her record, well, who would you hire? Given the option, why would an employer take the chance?

There was a time, not long ago, when it was relatively possible to control the information that a hiring committee saw. This is no longer true. Technology has made information gathering far, far easier, and the stakes are higher than ever. Assume this stuff will get out, and find ways to de-fang it in advance. If you don't fill in the blanks, their speculation will.

I don't claim that it's fair, or wise, or that past behavior is a perfect predictor of future behavior. But this stuff is out there, and people will react to it in predictable ways. Define the story, or it will define you.

Good luck!

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

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Contemplating the Jump

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have an interview for a job. It will be a big change for me if it works out.
Director of Academic (Support Function) at Nearby College. NC is
a regional private school that has a good academic reputation. The
position will report to the VPAA. I have a friend who teaches there and
she likes the VPAA a lot and also knows the other folks the person will
interact with and likes them as well. She inquired on my behalf and
found that I was already on their short list and our connection helped.
(I also have another acquaintance who knows NC well and has heard good
things about the academic administration there generally.)

I have (15+) years of teaching experience and (5+) as chair. I am now on
sabbatical--I don't even want to consider the ethical issues of that

The job does not require a Ph.D., and in some ways is a step down, but I
heard from my friend that they hoped to get someone with college
teaching experience. Other candidates have some experience. In my letter
I sold them on my experience as a chair who has done (regional accrediation)
review, a (state) program review, and has moved my department along in
terms of planning. I worry a bit that I have too much experience in some
ways and none at a private college.

Of course the job would be very different from being an associate
professor of (discipline). I would have to give up tenure and
wouldn't be a faculty member, but also would lose a 75 mile commute over
a wind swept and sometimes snow covered highway. I have grown tired of
the drive in recent years. It would also a fresh start, something I
would welcome. I would trade it for a 25 minute commute to the office
EVERY DAY and being one of THEM. They also have a tuition deal if I
survive. (I have 2 kids.)

My interview is in a couple of weeks.

My questions: interview advice? I have done a lot of professor
interviews as chair in the last 5 years, but haven't been on the market
in forever. How do I handle the 'why I am leaving' question? How do I
sound interested, but not desperate?

Am I crazy to even consider this? What sort of career path, if any,
would I have from a job like this?

Any input would be helpful.

First, congratulations on the interview! I assume that you must be at least a plausible candidate, or you wouldn't have been invited for one. So far, so good.

I don't think you're crazy at all to consider this. Having spent the first twenty or so years of my life in snowy and windswept regions, I can attest that long drives there can be a little more exciting than is healthy. Shorter commutes have a lot to recommend them. And tuition remission for the kids is not to be sneezed at.

Your point about becoming, as you put it, "one of THEM" is very real. At my college, the closest analogue to the role for which you're interviewing is someone who does a regular 40 hour week, twelve months a year, with annual vacation days measured in the teens. It's much closer to a traditional office job than to a faculty job, in terms of face time. Whether that makes sense for your life is a question only you (and your family) can answer. The upside is that when you're home, you're home. The downside is that you'd lose the considerable autonomy to schedule your time that comes with the faculty role. (In my first months in full-time administration, I found it much harder to schedule, say, oil changes or haircuts or dentist appointments.) You'd also lose tenure, which would expose you to an obvious risk.

In other words, the whole culture of the job would be different.

As a career move, I'd have two concerns. First, where does the job lead? Second, would your position have the tools to succeed?

Since the job would involve relying on tenured faculty to comply with certain requests, I'd use the interview to ask about the culture of the faculty and the carrots and sticks at your disposal. If some folks simply blew off your requests, what could you do? Would you be blamed? One of the many reasons that administrative turnover is so much higher than faculty turnover is that in a clash between someone without tenure and someone with it, it's institutionally easier just to side with the tenured one.

One of the unwritten requirements of many administrative roles is the ability to get unaccountable people to do things they'd really rather not do. Failure to perform that interpersonal magic is grounds for termination. That's why the time-in-office of the average administrator resembles the time-in-role of the average NFL running back. (I think I owe that line to Chad, at Uncertain Principles.) Sooner or later, your magic won't work, and it's easier just to blame you than to confront – and change wholesale -- a perverse structure.

(In a rational system, organizational goals would be mapped onto individual roles, and everybody would be held accountable for performance. But nooo...)

If the role is based on wishful thinking (you'll inspire universal compliance because you're just so darn likable, unlike the last four occupants of this office...), I'd walk away. It might also be a good idea to ask about support for your professional development. Is there a decent budget for that? I've seen campuses (not naming any names...ahem...) where 'support for' means something like 'a hearty handshake,' as opposed to, say, money.

If you're reasonably confident that your office would have the tools to succeed, then I'd look at career paths. Where did the previous Directors go next? The kind of role you describe, especially with your experience as a department chair, sounds to me like it would map nicely onto a later "Associate Provost" or "Dean" role. That's not a bad thing, if those jobs are to your taste. However, if the last few folks who held that job subsequently returned to faculty, or retired from that office, or fell off the face of the Earth, I'd be a little suspicious.

In terms of interview advice, I'd recommend going in prepared to talk about problems you've solved. When were you able to see around corners? How have you resolved interpersonal conflicts when you couldn't just spend your way out of them?

I'm not a big fan of the 'why are you leaving' question, since it practically invites lying. If it's asked – and I beseech interviewers out there, let this question die a well-deserved death – I'd go with something like “because the prospect of doing something differently is so much more exciting than the prospect of repeating myself until retirement.” Don't oversell that, since too much novelty would imply a lack of qualification, but something along those lines should be harmless enough.

(The one I have no patience for at all is the 'what's your biggest weakness' question. I'm always tempted to say something like “an inability to suffer fools gladly, you illiterate jackass.”)

All of that said, I'll confess having gone 0-for-3 in my own campus interviews last year, so take this for what it's worth.

Good luck! (And drive safely!)

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

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The "Non-Matric" Back Door

'Matriculated' is one of those SAT words that people outside of higher ed administration almost never use. ("Bursar" is another.) It refers to enrollment pursuant to a degree. It's not the same as 'enrolled' per se; someone who enrolls in a class or two for personal interest, with no intention of getting a degree, can enroll on a 'non-matriculated' basis.

('Non-matriculated' is not the same as 'non-credit classes.' Non-credit classes are outside the regular curriculum, and are often outside the usual calendar. For example, The Wife takes the occasional non-credit Yoga class. No grades are assigned or credit given; it's just for personal enrichment. Non-matriculated status refers to the student, rather than to the class. The student next to you in American History II could be non-matric, even though the class is for-credit. In our system, non-matric students are not eligible for financial aid.)

Most of our internal systems are built on the assumption that our students are matriculated, and, in fact, most of them are. That's why we have 'remedial' classes, for example. The idea is that students enroll in degree programs with prescribed requirements. Degree programs always have required courses outside the major ("general education"), to ensure that any college graduate is literate and numerate. That's why, say, art majors have to take math, and computer majors have to take English. A degree has to encompass more than just the major. Students who need help getting up to the levels necessary to succeed in the gen ed classes take remedial classes to get there.

We also allow non-matriculated enrollment on a limited basis. A student can take up to x credits of her own choosing on a non-matric basis. The idea is that you'll get the occasional adult student who wants to pick up a class here or there in an area of personal interest, or maybe to explore an alternative career, without yet committing to a degree program. Since non-matric students can mostly cherry-pick (except for prerequisites for individual courses), they're exempt from placement testing. Someone who just wants to take a drawing class for a semester or two doesn't have to take the English and math placement exams, for example.

The exemption from placement testing is based on the assumption that 'matriculated' and 'non-matriculated' students are two separate groups with distinct needs. Nobody wants to tell the 68-year-old retiree who is planning a trip to France next year that she has to take remedial algebra before she can take French I. There's just no point, so we don't. And when that's who the non-matric students are, there's no issue.

But we're finding that some students who 'outplace' on our English and/or math exams -- meaning, they don't show enough basic ability even to be eligible for remediation, let alone college-level coursework -- subsequently enroll on a non-matric basis. Then they finagle, whine, beg, and sometimes even find systems glitches that allow them to continue on their merry way.

I've of mixed mind on this.

At one level, I can sympathize with a student who is so determined to succeed that she won't let anything like a documented lack of ability get in her way. A student with moxie and a work ethic can go far, and is a welcome contrast to the glumly dutiful who simply plod through to graduation. And it's certainly true that our tests aren't perfect. (We do allow re-tests, but still...) To the extent that 'outplacing' is supposed to indicate a lack of 'ability to benefit' from college-level work, a semester or two of passing grades makes a pretty convincing rebuttal. ('Ability to benefit' is a mandatory standard to prevent us from taking the money of people who are simply not capable of succeeding here.)

The academic libertarian in me wants to say 'more power to 'em,' and let folks prove the ability to perform by performing. If they don't perform, kick them out. Everybody gets some at-bats, but eventually a low average gets you kicked off the team.

The finances make this tricky, and that's why I can't just endorse the 'aw, what the hell' standard.

Although the share of our costs covered by tuition is much higher than it once was, it's still far from 100 percent. Put differently, every student who takes classes gets a subsidy, and the subsidy gets larger the more classes they take. That subsidy comes from the taxpayers. So there's a serious argument to be made that we owe the taxpayers some prudence in how we spend that money. (Given the regulations, that scrutiny is mandatory anyway.) If we let in people we knew weren't in a position to succeed, we'd be blowing that taxpayer money.

(The non-matric students' lack of eligibility for financial aid complicates the picture. On the one side, it guarantees that we won't waste taxpayer money on financial aid for students who haven't shown themselves capable. On the other, it implies a double standard: if you aren't academically capable, the key variable then becomes family income. Academically weak but well-off kids have a back door; academically weak working class and poor kids don't.)

Has your school found a reasonable way to handle this? Any constructive suggestions would be appreciated.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Once More Into the Blog

A few highlights from the holiday break:

  • Words coined by The Girl: hoggy (synonym for piggy); aminal; psghettio's; velcwo (my fave)

  • For New Year's afternoon, we took the kids and several of their friends bowling. One kid TB's age did something I've never seen done before: he slid towards the lane, like a runner sliding into third, releasing the ball roughly at the moment his front foot hit the line. By the time the ball was a few feet away, he was fully horizontal. It reminded me of watching the reliever Mitch Williams nearly fall off the mound after each pitch. I also got to see a three-year-old girl bowl overhand, which is a sight worth seeing.

  • TB got a Lego plane and airport – 692 pieces! -- and actually put the whole thing together, without parental help, in two days. I didn't know he had that kind of focus! He followed the diagrams step by step, and saw it through without even a single snarky moment. My spatial skills could be described as 'modest,' if one were generously inclined, so I'm glad to see he picked up some key chromosomes from TW's side. My foray into construction – assembling a play kitchen two nights before Christmas – was somewhat less decorous. If the room were bugged, my lifetime dream of a Supreme Court appointment would be ruined.

  • In a striking break from my usual pattern, I actually got to read fun books and see movies. Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is surprisingly good, if you just shave off the first and last chapters. Among the nifty nuggets: according to Reich, Japanese exporters to America got a huge boost in the late 1960's when container ships returning from military supply runs to South Vietnam stopped in Japan on the way back. The idea was that it made better financial sense to get paid for both halves of the trip. Japanese exporters effectively got a transportation subsidy, courtesy of the Vietnam war. I'll admit, I hadn't heard that before, but it makes a certain sense.

  • Steve Martin's Born Standing Up is frustratingly enigmatic, but it has flashes of brilliance. I've read most of his published stuff, so I knew the guy could write, but his reluctance to delve into his subject matter – it's a freakin' autobiography – is weirdly limiting. In one of those brilliant moments, though, he tosses off what I think of as the Blogger's Credo:

    “The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count of them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.” (p. 139)

  • TW and I saw Atonement, which was a pleasant surprise. I saw 'costume drama' and 'British' and 'romantic' and 'Keira Knightley' and braced myself for yet another soporific Merchant/Ivory chick flick in which pasty, uselessly wealthy aristocrats pine for connection, but it was actually riveting. (I got the 'pasty' part right, though.) Weirdly, we were among the youngest people in the (packed) theater.

  • We hauled TB and TG to see Alvin and the Chipmunks. It was better than it could have been, which is just about all that one can ask of a movie called Alvin and the Chipmunks. The scene in which Jason Lee's presentation at work was ruined by the Chipmunks' graffiti actually made me laugh out loud, and I never actually fell asleep or wished for death, so it was better than most children's movies. Jason Lee gets a 'good sport' award for that one.

  • TW and I did our standard “lame married couple with young children” New Year's Eve, featuring takeout food eaten in front of the fire when the kids are in bed, followed by a rented movie. But it occurred to me, as the fire warmed my feet and the Pad Thai warmed my belly, that this was what I had been looking for all those earlier New Year's Eves, when I had more hair but less happiness. There are worse things.