Friday, May 30, 2008

Ask My Readers: Composition and Rhetoric Programs

A new correspondent writes:

I graduated from (Elite SLAC) two years ago as an English major with a concentration in creative writing, and I am now very interested in becoming a community college English teacher.

I would like to apply to masters programs for Fall 2009. I am feeling a bit lost, however, about the best avenues for getting into the field, and was wondering if you might be able to offer some advice. I spoke with a friend of a friend who is a president at a community college, and she told me that the trend is for teachers to get degrees in "composition and rhetoric" (as opposed to English literature), as the majority of classes taught at community colleges are composition-focused. Do you agree with this recommendation? Also, are there any top programs or schools that you would recommend? (I'm having trouble finding many that offer composition/rhetoric specifically [if, in fact, that is the direction in which I should head.]) I live in NYC now but am open to big moves!

I'll take the easy part first, then ask my wise and worldly readers to fill in some of my knowledge gaps.

It's certainly the case that at the community colleges I've seen, the majority of the English positions involve a heavy dose of composition. (Some colleges separate 'composition' from 'English' proper, reserving the latter for courses in literature and maybe film, but the student demand is still concentrated heavily in the composition area.) Historically, those composition-heavy positions have been staffed by people whose first love is literature, and who (often) would really rather be teaching literature.

The appeal of the comp/rhet grads is that they've walked in fully intending to teach composition. They aren't (presumably) pining for the English Lit job at Oberlin; they actually want to teach freshman comp over and over again, since it's their first love. From this side of the desk, that's appealing.

Among other things, that means that a comp/rhet degree probably isn't a back door into a literature job. (There's certainly no shortage of classically trained applicants for those positions.) It will target you to jobs teaching composition. If you like that idea, it may be for you, but don't do it as an end-run.

I'm told – though this isn't my field – that the folks in rhet/comp programs are also steeped in the latest research in how to teach composition most effectively. That may be 'beneath' the elite institutions, but at most community colleges, that's tremendously useful. If I'm hiring someone whose primary responsibility – sometimes sole responsibility – will be teaching Comp I and II, over and over again, I'm much more likely to go with the composition specialist than with the disappointed Milton scholar who's willing to slum. Over time, I'm likelier to see better teaching, better student performance, and better attitude.

That may be appalling to the folks who believe in the unilinear academic hierarchy, who think that the R1s will get the best five lit grads this year, the SLACs the next best five, and so on down the line. I don't want the fiftieth-best lit grad. I want the best writing teacher. That may be the same person, but I'm guessing usually not.

I'm told, too, that the comp/rhet grads actually find full-time jobs at a gratifying rate.

What I don't know, honestly, is which comp/rhet programs are considered the best. I'm pretty sure that some of my wise and worldly readers are intimately acquainted with this side of academe, so I'll put it to them: which comp/rhet programs are particularly successful or respected? How do you know a good one when you see it?

Good luck!

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

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

Reason #456 we need to hire the next generation of administrators, from an actual conversation I had this week with somebody very highly placed:

Bigwig: “Of course, there'll be golf. You do play golf, don't you?”

DD (horrified): “Oh, God, no.”


Bigwig: “Oh.”

Apparently, I didn't get the memo saying that it's still 1973. It must have been posted by the water cooler, which I've also never actually seen in an office. It's probably next to the typing pool.

In cross-generational conversations, as in so many things, it's the unspoken assumptions that get you. And when you're the first bearer of – not to put too fine a point on it – assumptions valid in this millennium, you're the oddball. Who doesn't play golf?

Obviously, I should have responded differently. No argument there. But, to my mind, the question came so clearly from left field that it simply caught me off guard, so I reacted before I could edit it. (That's always dangerous in this line of work.) The whole concept of 'deals struck on golf courses' seems to me of a piece with Moose lodges, three-martini lunches, and 'banker's hours.' Fascinating from a historical perspective, maybe, but over. The world moved on some time ago.

The catch is that awareness that the world has moved on is distributed asymmetrically. And if you walk into a new situation unaware that its denizens have been frozen in amber, you're the bad guy, even if you're right.

Since peer groups are self-reinforcing, it's relatively easy for a stable group to get stuck at a particular historical moment. (See “Rolling Stones, The”) The best way around that, of course, is to keep the group from getting too stable. If change is an expected part of the process, rather than an episodic shock, then there's a chance that the response to it will be more inclusive. (“Of course, there'll be golf.” Of course?)

If there were a critical mass of Gen X'ers, I imagine the conversation would be different. “Of course you have a blog, don't you?” “Of course you try to balance home and work, right?” “Where were you when you heard Kurt Cobain shot himself?” It would be refreshing, frankly. Then, once the point was made, we could stop the exclusionary crap and actually get to work. But it won't happen for an inexcusably long time, during which time I'll keep trying to keep a straight face during impassioned discussions of drunken office parties, John Lennon's death (during which I was in, I believe, seventh grade), and how to play the sixteenth hole, while not losing points in the elusive category of 'fit.'

Until then, I'll continue to be just a little bit suspect, regardless of the improvements I bring to the college. I just get tired of doing the time warp again, and again, and again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Well, That Was Quick...

It's easy to underestimate the impact of sex scandals.

According to this article from the Albany (NY) Times-Union, Governor Paterson of New York has abandoned his predecessor's plan for a hiring boom in the SUNY system. In fact, he has gone farther than that, freezing already-collected monies, implementing a hiring 'pause,' and telling campuses to gird themselves for a systemwide cut of 3.35 percent, on top of the $38.8 million already cut.


Just a few short months ago, then-governor Spitzer proposed an ambitious plan to scale up the SUNY system, pouring new funding into it and hiring hundreds of new faculty. (My initial response is here.) Then he got caught in a particularly sordid sex scandal. Now, the system will be lucky to keep most of the people it already has.

(Across-the-board cuts are particularly brutal when large chunks of the budget are effectively uncuttable, such as tenured faculty, utilities, and contracted services. Any cuts have to fall disproportionately on other areas to compensate for the untouchability of those.)

The T-U article is worth reading to the end. I was particularly struck by the union chapter president saying that she had never seen the campus presidents so upset. When the union is expressing sympathy for the presidents, you know things have gone off the rails, and that's not a criticism of either the union or the presidents.

The public sector as an employer is subject to two utterly contradictory realities. On the one hand, it compensates for uninspiring salaries by offering unparalled job security. On the other hand, it's reliant in various important ways on the budgetary whims of the government, which change pretty much whenever the wind blows. Balancing 'unparalled internal job security' with 'volatile external funding' is the frustrating task of administration.

There's no easy or elegant way to do that. If you're too conscientious and build a reserve – the term of art among private colleges is an 'endowment' – then the legislature will take that reserve as evidence that you don't need funding and they'll cut accordingly. If you're not conscientious enough and some sort of interesting waste occurs, headlines will follow, and the legislature will use the headlines as an excuse to cut. So the standard route is an ad hoc combination of cost cuts – adjuncting-out faculty retirements, negotiating multiple-tier union contracts to buy off the opposition of the entrenched while screwing the young – and aggressive pursuit of philanthropy and profit-making side ventures, like non-credit community programs. It manages to annoy just about everybody, but hopefully keeps the really dangerous wolves away from the door.

Aid-based budgets are tricky, since aid is so unpredictable from year to year. It's also largely divorced from local performance, so incentive-based funding at a local level is based on a gamble that the state won't leave you hanging. If it does, good luck ever running that again.

Honestly, I'm starting to wonder if there might be a better way to fund public higher ed. What if we did away with operating subsidies altogether, and redirected that money to financial aid for students? Make colleges run their operating budgets – not capital, necessarily – on tuition, and subsidize the tuition heavily to ensure that no academically-capable student is excluded for economic reasons. It would still be somewhat volatile, since enrollments fluctuate, but at least the volatility would correlate with actual campus conditions. When enrollments boom and costs go up, revenues go up, too. When enrollments slide and revenues slide, so do costs. Right now, whenever there's a recession, enrollments boom and costs go up, but aid goes down. That doesn't make any sense at all.

On the upside, revenues derived from operations wouldn't have all the red tape that direct aid has. (“This pot of money can only be used for these purposes, and that pot for those purposes.”) Colleges could actually allocate available funding as needed (rather than 'as directed.')

As it happens, we're sort of moving in this direction anyway, only without the upside. I've seen many aid cuts, but I've never seen restrictions lifted. If anything, they metastasize. I say, if you aren't going to pay the piper, stop calling the damn tune. If a state wants to micromanage, it can always earmark certain scholarships for certain programs and do it that way. At least then the revenues will have some vague relation to the costs.


Good luck, SUNY. Here's hoping your next sympathetic governor is less of a selfish idiot.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Academe and Parenting

Over at IHE, there's a story glossing two new studies that suggest that academics are less likely to have kids – and to have fewer, when they do -- than professionals in other fields with similar levels of training. The comments are worth reading; stories on this topic always generate a fair bit of interest.

Admittedly, my first thought was that the comparison groups – lawyers and doctors – were misleading. They make much higher incomes than do most entry-level faculty, so it's easier to pay for daycare or to have one partner stay home. If a general practitioner is making, say, 150k, her partner can work part-time or not at all and they'll still be fine. If an assistant professor is making, say, 45k, the same isn't true, at least on the coasts. Yes, we have similar levels of graduate training, but economically we're much closer to high school teachers than we are to doctors. (In the case of adjuncts, the economics come closer to office temps.)

There's also a problem with the term 'academe.' Even if used only to refer to post-secondary education, it's still terribly broad. The demands of a position at a research-intensive university are different from the demands at a community college. Judging by what data I've seen on the percentages of women faculty at each level, it appears that community colleges (and teaching colleges generally) are more hospitable to people with children, though even here it's often a struggle.

Part of the problem, I think, is the potentially infinite demands of the job. How much time does it take, per week, to prep and grade a typical class? No, really. I suspect that an honest answer for a course you've taught before would have to be “it depends.” (New preps are very time-consuming.) If you made a point of doing the absolute minimum you could get away with, how little time could it take? Alternately, if you put your heart and soul into it, how much time could it take? And that makes negotiating family time difficult. When you're trying to negotiate childcare responsibilities with your partner, and a significant chunk of the work time you're trying to claim is 'soft' like that, it's tough.

Although I put in far more hours per week in the office as a dean than I ever did as a professor, I'm not sure if the total workload is more. It probably is, but by a much smaller margin. Most of my job can be left at work, even if the leaving sometimes doesn't happen until later than I'd like. (Of course, idiot that I am, I add blogging to my home time.) That mostly isn't true as a professor. Yes, class times are scheduled and therefore finite. Office hours are also scheduled, and generally finite. Grading is finite (even if it doesn't always feel like it), and largely cyclical. Just looking at your syllabi, you can usually tell when you'll be in 'grading jail' and when you won't. Committee work is generally much less onerous than faculty folklore would have you believe. (If you don't believe me, try administration for a little while. I dare ya.) But things like “reading in your field” and “preparing class lectures/discussions/exercises” and “writing” are potentially infinite. They're never really done. So, depending on both internal and external pressures, it can be nearly impossible to leave work at work.

That puts a real strain on homelife, especially when childcare is part of the equation. Putting off some background reading for a day is less costly than, say, skipping a class. Of course, if you do it too much, you lose effectiveness. But it can be hard to quantify that when other things – the end of the elementary school day, say, or the empty refrigerator, or the science fair, or the infant screaming at three in the morning, and four in the morning, and five in the morning – are both urgent and concrete. Children are urgent and concrete.

So if you combine tricky homelife with a nasty market with comparatively low salaries and potentially infinite demands, it's not surprising that intelligent people tend to hedge their bets.

As my regular readers know, I have kids. The moniker “Dean Dad” is supposed to reflect the two roles that take up most of my waking hours, and my efforts to do justice to both. I have very little patience with those who suggest that children are just another lifestyle choice, like kayaking or blogging. They're a choice, yes, but of a fundamentally different kind. We have ethical obligations to children that we don't have to kayaks or blogs. To suggest that childcare is worthy of no more respect than, say, a model airplane club strikes me as monstrous. If a model airplane takes up too much time, you can store it or sell it. If your daughter takes up too much of your time, you can...what, exactly? Especially on a young academic's salary?

I'm concerned that the family-unfriendliness of higher ed is becoming self-reinforcing, and is undesirable both inherently – there's no contradiction between being smart and wanting kids – and politically, as we grow ever more out-of-touch with the rest of the culture. But the usual suggestions for ameliorating it – onsite daycare, adjusted tenure clocks, 'awareness' – fall terribly short (as welcome as they would be). They're potentially helpful, as far as they go, but they don't get at the employer's market, the low salaries, or the 'soft' and undefinable contours of the work. Weirdly enough, I actually have an easier time as Dean Dad than I had as Professor Dad, since the dean's job at least has easily understood time boundaries. In some ways, it's much closer to a traditional office job, so it's more in synch with the rest of the culture.

A question for my wise and worldly academic readers who have children: how have you drawn boundaries between work time and parenting time? For those whose partners aren't academics: do they get it? If so, how?

Friday, May 23, 2008


In a conversation with one of my department chairs this week, addressing a move we're considering making to respond to a state mandate, he asked a variation on “how do we know this will work?”

I responded that we didn't, but that we knew that doing nothing would surely fail, and that the move we're considering seemed the most reasonable choice available. If he had a better idea, I was happy to hear it, but in the past year that this has been on the table (and we've been discussing it and our possible responses), nothing better has come along.

He didn't want to involve his people without a guarantee.

I walked him through several contingencies, outlining the likely (though not guaranteed) consequences of each of several possible courses of action. He agreed, but it was pretty clearly one of those “you're not wrong, but I'm still not buying it” agreements that inevitably leads to foot-dragging and high-minded blowing off. It was the educated-grownup version of “(sigh) whatever.”

I've seen this move before as a simple deflection. It's a staple of the passive-aggressive playbook. “I can't possibly act until conditions are utterly perfect in every way. You failed to perfect them. Therefore, my inaction is your fault.” But this wasn't that. He wasn't angling for an excuse not to act. He seemed to actually mean it. He needed a guarantee.

So much of managing involves contingencies, shades of gray, and best guesses that I sort of get used to it. Although the blogosphere lends itself to moralistic posturing – as does academic life generally, for that matter – actual situations in all their messy thickness usually don't lend themselves to simple morality plays. It's true that invoking complexity can be a way to evade guilt, but it's also true that things can actually be complex. And when you're used to that, calls for certainty come across as naïve, if not stupid.

They aren't stupid, necessarily (though I'll stand by 'naïve'). They can reflect a history of broken trust and misunderstanding. Or they can reflect a personality type. Or a wildly exaggerated estimate of the cost of failure. Or a susceptibility to hype, or Manichean thinking, or probably a hundred other things. But whatever their source, they're debilitating, and they make actual progress much harder.

Somewhere between 'optimism' and 'pessimism,' there's something much more useful. I'll ask my more articulate readers for a good word for it, but it's something like 'a willingness to risk hope.' It's forward-looking, yet tinged with the awareness of the inevitability of failures. If you've ever asked someone out, you know what I mean. There's that willingness to take a leap without a guarantee, knowing full well that there's a very real possibility of rejection. If you've auditioned, or gone on multiple unsuccessful job interviews, you've seen it.

One of my pet obsessions is behavioral economics. (I have some pretty pedestrian obsessions.) From what I've read of it, it's apparently pretty well established that most people overestimate the cost of future failure or losses. Accordingly, they'll forego opportunities for fear of failure, or stay with failing enterprises because they're 'safe.' They'll take slow, sure decline over the risk of abrupt failure, even if that risk also carries with it the real possibility of a better life.

Yes, there's wisdom in prudence. But prudence isn't stasis. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, walk over to the hottie, and hope for the best. If you do it enough, you'll discover that rejection isn't the end of the world. And that the thicker skin and additional perspective you've gained actually makes future successes more likely.

If you want certainty, don't ask her out. She certainly won't say yes. But I don't see the success in that certainty.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Compromise and Precedent

Money shortages create all manner of frictions.

Say you have a large group that believes, with varying levels of truth, that it's underpaid. Say that there's nowhere near enough money floating around to bring the entire group up to the level it wants. (Not that this ever happens, but bear with me.) Barring a visit from the Money Fairy, or a really drastic, from-the-ground-up restructuring in which absolutely everything is on the table, you basically have four choices:

  1. Just say no, and leave it at that. Let the discontent and/or injustice continue.

  2. Take what little money you have, and divide it across the board. Hope that a truly paltry increase will paper things over.

  3. Take what little money you have, and ask the group to propose a fair internal division.

  4. Do triage, and target relatively meaningful increases to the worst cases. Leave the rest alone.

The astute reader will notice quickly that all four options suck.

The first option is the easiest, and in some ways, the best. It's evenhanded, it saves money, and it's easy to implement. Its only drawback is that it completely ignores the underlying problem.

The second option is also evenhanded, and also easy to implement. But it manages to both burn your budget and leave the problem unsolved, making it the worst of both worlds.

The third option looks good on paper, but flops in practice. In the absence of a union, how do you even know who to talk to? Who gets to represent whom? And with a union, the first move will always be “the total number has to be much bigger.” Well, yes, and I'd love to have washboard abs. Not. Gonna. Happen. (The second move is usually “that's your problem,” thereby defeating the purpose of the conversation.) It's theoretically possible that this could work. In the settings I've seen, nope.

The fourth option sometimes wins by default, but that doesn't make it right. The impulse to craft a political compromise will quickly crash headfirst into legalistic arguments from parity and precedent. “How come they got increases and we didn't? How was this decision made?” Suddenly, you're defending your right to even make a decision. And heaven help you if the protected classes aren't evenly distributed between groups. Allegations of favoritism – and worse – will fly from the first day.

And anything like this will be the hardest, by far, to implement, since you'll need documentation for criteria, verification, application, etc. You'll annoy nearly everybody, make a bunch of new enemies, and put the beneficiaries in an awkward position. Although in some ways it's the 'right' answer, it's also the most dangerous and internally costly.

The shame of it is that the fourth option actually comes closest to fairness, assuming that the decision-maker is accountable. Options one and two don't even try to address fairness. Option three sounds fair, but in practice it usually rewards the squeakiest wheels, rather than the most deserving.

The tension between legal arguments and political ones is chronic and painful. Legal arguments are based on uniformity, process, and elephantine memory. Political arguments are based on what can actually be done at the moment. With infinite resources, it's possible to satisfy both; simply raise the floor as high as it takes to stop the complaining. But with strapped resources, you have to make a choice.

So a quick survey of my wise and worldly readers: which option would you choose?

Another Kind of Resource

This semester, I think my cc has set a new internal record for public presentations. We've been staging talks on issues of broad public interest – some by faculty, some by invited speakers – and opening them up to the community for free. Some have attracted significant community interest, some haven't, but we're starting to get some momentum.

I'm honestly proud of this.

When community colleges talk about their value to their communities, the predictable (and valid, but still predictable) responses usually include workforce development, transfer, and remediation. Pushed farther, sometimes you get discussions of dual enrollment programs or athletics or theatre. These are all good, and I've championed all of them at one time or another.

But there's something to be said for bringing scholarly light to bear on issues of public interest.

Historically, that's been the purview of the universities and the elite colleges. They have more money to throw around, more prestige as a lure, and more staff devoted to making these things happen. Snooty Liberal Arts College was really good at that, but Flagship State wasn't bad, either. Both of them made consistent, concerted efforts to share expertise with the community at large.

Community colleges, in my observation, haven't done that as much. Typically, we don't have the loose funding that some other places have, and we certainly don't have the name-brand prestige. But I've noticed that if the topic is good enough, you'll get people, even if the speakers aren't famous. And if you keep it up, delivering quality on a predictable basis, the community audience will slowly grow.

This strikes me as a welcome development on several levels. It's fun, first of all. It offers people with little other connection to the college a reason to feel connected to it. It's utterly consistent with the mission of providing access to higher education, even if it's on an extracurricular basis. And it's intrinsically worth doing.

No zinger here. I'm just happy to be able to say, looking back on the semester, that we've started to raise our game to a new level. And if it gooses the nearby four-year schools a little to do the same, well, everybody wins.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fun with Predictions

Every so often, my usual discipline slips, and I actually venture a prediction in print. (If it's a blog, is it really 'in print'? I'm not sure what the cyber equivalent of that is. In pixel?) A few of them even turn out to be right.

A couple months ago, referring to the badly bungled Presidential search at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, I wrote:

Now that it (the Board) has named two alternates to the list of finalists, none of the possible scenarios look good. If it decides to go with one of the original finalists anyway, it will look like it caved, and will embolden antagonistic forces on campus. If it goes with one of the late additions, the newbie will have been set up to fail. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one or both of the original finalists withdraw his candidacy at this point, based on not wanting to work with a Board as amateurish as this one.

Now comes word that one of the original finalists withdrew his candidacy after visiting the campus, and the Board split evenly between the other original finalist and the guy who owns a bunch of Burger Kings. Since it's an even split, the college will have to go with an interim in the meantime.


It's almost as if a guy with a blog could see it coming. Honestly, this ain't rocket science.

Moving a few thousand miles south, I've developed a sort of series following the insanity in Florida. In the latest installment, from July of last year, I wrote:

The point of the university is to serve the people of Florida. It is not to serve the faculty. If we grant that fundamental truth, then 'shared governance' should come with some pretty glaring restraints on it. Otherwise, people with obviously vested interests – that is, faculty with life tenure – will use their power to pervert the university to serve them instead. Astoundingly, they will have the gall to claim the moral high ground while they feather their own nests. When the irresistible force of angry tenured faculty crashes headfirst into the immovable object of Objective F-ing Reality – in this case, the governor's veto – bad things will happen. Like hiring freezes.

This month, we get word from the University of Florida that

In response to the fiscal year 2008-09 budget adopted Friday by the Florida Legislature, University of Florida President Bernie Machen today announced $47 million in cuts affecting all areas of the university.

As a result of the budget cuts, the university will reduce funding for administrative units and research, reduce or eliminate degrees and courses, and restructure several departments. Accordingly, the budget reduction eliminates approximately 430 positions, resulting in a layoff of approximately 20 faculty and 118 staff members. The remaining positions are currently vacant or will be funded by sources other than state dollars. The layoffs do not affect tenured faculty. (emphasis added)

Headfirst crash? Check. Tenured faculty feathering their own nests? Check. Bad things happening? Check.

Reality is tenacious. Bluster may hide it temporarily, but it has a way of surfacing again.

Finally, in October of 2006, in a rare political mood, I wrote:

Speaking of Dems, I foresee precisely two possibilities for 2008: Barack Obama, or crushing defeat. An Obama-Mark Warner ticket, or something close to it, would be tough to beat.

We'll see...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bookstore as Time Machine

This weekend, TW and I had a chance to visit a couple of really well-known college towns a few states away. (If you're in higher ed, you know them.) My Mom valiantly volunteered to watch TB and TG, so off we went, sans children.

The travel was grueling – my kingdom for a cure for traffic – and our other obligations daunting, but we were able to set aside some time to wander the downtowns. I had forgotten how much I missed college towns.

Although my student days are alarmingly far behind me, some things don't change. The parking was awful, the sidewalk vendors plentiful, the cheap restaurants thick on the ground (and surprisingly good), the stores small and cute. In one chichi toy store, we found a nifty contraption for TB that makes the tornado-in-two-bottles trick easier. It's basically a connector tube with bottle cap ridges on either end, so you can put two two-liter plastic bottles in it and execute the tornado trick. Until now, we've had to rely on my skills at drilling holes in bottle caps and stopping leaks with duct tape, which is to say, we've written it off. This thing is seriously cool.

Then, there were the bookstores.

In my suburban way, I have plenty of access to books. We have Borders and B&N close by, and I don't even want to think about how much I've bought from Amazon. I'm also pretty adept at and, and I've been known to push interlibrary loan to its limits. These are all good things, and I would hate to lose any of them.

But there's something about a bookstore with a personality. In my twenties, I was quite the enthusiast.

On a grad-school visit to family in Northern Town, I found some wonderful long-out-of-print obscure scholarly stuff on a high shelf in a neglected section, not far from 'Americana' with its books on John Wayne and golf. I once visited Revolution Books in New York City, which was run by Trotskyists; I was amused (and relieved) to discover that they took MasterCard. (“Expropriate the expropriators at 19.8 percent interest!”) At Flagship State, there was a bookstore for about ten minutes in the 90's that decided that cultural studies was where the real money was. It wasn't, but it was great fun while it lasted. I've known used bookstores with House Dogs, with owners disturbingly close to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and with organizational styles so obscure that the only way to find anything was to don a pith helmet and dive in. It's a fine line between “used book store” and “mosh pit.” Do kids say “mosh pit” anymore? I'm getting old. But I digress.

This weekend, visiting these college towns, I saw probably ten stores between them, none affiliated with a chain. It was glorious.

TW and I ventured into one, a worker-run cooperative with a clear socialist/lesbian/vegetarian bent. She immediately commented “this is your kind of place, isn't it?” It was. It had the requisite bumper stickers and lapel buttons – one that said “Queers Against Capitalism” pretty much captured the spirit of the place – along with entire sections devoted to “Social Change” and nearly everything Noam Chomsky has ever written, except for linguistics. (Surprisingly little on peak oil and alternative energy, though. Too mainstream, perhaps?) The staffers were young and earnest and profusely pierced, and we overheard one telling another “I'm defending tomorrow, so I can't work today.” That seemed about right.

I bought a copy of American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent, partly out of appreciation for the existence of the store, and partly because, well, never mind. TW suggested a book she found about the history of the school lunch program, but I just couldn't imagine devoting the time to reading it. I also made a mental note that Deer Hunting with Jesus is probably one of the best titles ever, and I'll have to read it sometime.

More than the book, though, the experience of the store itself took me back in time. Back in the early nineties, when I had more hair and less of almost everything else, that 'Lefty Librarian' milieu was one of the few constants in my world. I used bookstores as primary navigational tools, and derived real joy from finding super-obscure long-out-of-print copies of weird stuff that I and six other people in the world cared about, especially for three bucks. Back then, before amazon and blogs, we had used bookstores and 'zines. (Anyone remember Factsheet Five? No? Lingua Franca? Sigh.) The 'efficiency' level was low, and we all knew it, but there was a certain feel to it that I hadn't realized I missed until now.

I'm glad that world isn't completely gone yet. It may be a little musty, but it's still here, still giving painfully earnest young idealists a place to find the like-minded and wish they could afford books decrying their poverty.

Good. I needed that.

We're back in the burbs, back with the kids. That's what life is now, and I wouldn't trade it. But it's nice to check in when my old self once in a while. Good for the soul.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Life Cycle of an Aid Program

  1. Need goes unmet for extended period.

  2. Unmet need strikes someone with connections.

  3. New aid program proposed. Much fanfare.

  4. “Christmas tree” amendments added, costs understated, bill passed, hosannas all around.

  5. A year of implementation glitches, but spirits remain high.

  6. Word gets out – more people than anticipated take advantage of the program.

  7. Cost overruns.

  8. Idiotic (possibly apocryphal) abuse case gets high public profile.

  9. Means test proposed. Committees formed. Abuses investigated.

  10. New rules – means testing, reporting requirements, eligibility tightened.

  11. New staff to implement new rules.

  12. Faculty complain about administrative bloat, citing new staff.

  13. New rules cause misunderstandings, bureaucratic errors. Complaints soar.

  14. Participation drops. Costs remain high, due to overhead for stricter reporting requirements.

  15. Unmet needs increase. Citing ineffectiveness, funding for program withers.

  16. Staff hiring freeze, cuts by attrition. Staff union protests mismanagement.

  17. Unmet need strikes someone with connections.

  18. New program proposed. Much fanfare.

  19. Repeat as necessary.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Failing Too Many

The story of the Norfolk State professor fired for failing too many students (see IHE's story here) is a kind of inkblot test. My own reaction is conflicted.

At Proprietary U, similar things happened. The registrar's office gave every dean a weekly printout of drop/fail rates for every section taught in a given semester, ranked in descending order, with faculty names attached. Faculty who routinely made the upper levels of the list were problems to be managed; if they failed to change, they were to be dismissed. Although seldom verbalized, the theory behind it was twofold. First, there was the obvious financial interest in keeping tuition-paying customers from dropping out. I wasn't thrilled about that one, but there it was. The second was a bit more subtle. Since curricular options there were relatively few, any given course usually had multiple instructors. If one instructor's grades were wildly out-of-line with everybody else's, there was probably a reason. Since students shouldn't be punished, in effect, for having the 'wrong' instructor, the idea was to make sure that everybody who took, say, College Algebra had a roughly similar chance of passing, regardless of whose section they took.

The first reason was just a cold fact of life in the for-profit sector. Some of us regularly argued that any fiscal gains from lower standards were sure to be short-lived, since the real selling point of the college was employability, and if we start turning off prospective employers by graduating incompetent people, our placement rate would plummet. But that tended to get limited traction, since graduate placement rates rode economic waves to such a degree that concerns over quality control seemed like niggling.

The second reason was harder to shake off. If you get the tough grader and your friend gets the easy one for the same course, similar performances could result in dramatically different grades. Transcripts don't come with asterisks for this sort of thing, so a student who had Cruella de Ville for English Comp has a legitimate claim to unfair treatment. In the interest of fairness to students, I think colleges have a positive duty – not just a right, but an actual duty – to take reasonable steps to ensure that standards are tolerably similar across sections. (Usually the best you'll get is some variation on “given random distributions, it will come out in the wash,” which isn't terribly satisfying.) If a single professor insists on being an outlier, despite repeated warnings and efforts to engage, then there's a legitimate performance issue.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'll say that I don't know how much of that – if any – describes the Norfolk State case. From the IHE article, it sounds like many other issues are afoot, including the dreaded 'hidden standard' that differs from the written standard. To my mind, that's an obvious wrong. What I'm doing here is not defending the dean at Norfolk State; it's trying to understand why a college would have a legitimate reason for concern about grading outliers.)

All of that said, attention to grades should absolutely cut both ways. Back at PU, I had two professors who routinely gave 90 percent or more A's, and the rest B's. One of them was an astonishingly gifted teacher who had a way of making difficult material seem obvious. The other, well, wasn't. He wasn't awful, but he wasn't anything extraordinary. I treated his promiscuous grading as a performance issue, since it undercut the other faculty's efforts. With the gifted one, I took the grading as a fairly accurate barometer of high achievement, and didn't worry so much.

This is an area in which it helps to have administrators with actual teaching experience. Anyone who has taught for a while knows that students fail or drop for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the instructor. It's also the case that different courses often have different drop/fail rates, and should be read accordingly. It's not unusual for students to need multiple tries to pass, say, remedial math. On the other hand, if half the class fails the senior seminar, something is wrong. That's not to deny the very real need to find more effective ways to remediate, but just to offer some context.

It also helps when you have common departmental final exams for intro courses. Since course grades are usually the sole province of the instructor, in a setting in which drop/fail percentages are scrutinized, a professor could easily game the system by curving or lowering standards. But if you have, say, a dozen different people teaching General Psych, and one professor's students always crash and burn on the common final exam relative to everybody else's, then you have a pretty good indicator of where you need to look more closely. Having some sort of external measure can help you get around the 'conflict of interest' issue.

Whether surprisingly or not, this issue really hasn't come up at my cc. There's enough awareness of the importance of degree transferability – and employability – that we really haven't encouraged laxity. As a non-profit, we have that luxury. (We don't have many luxuries, but we do have that.) And as a left-leaning sort, I like the idea that a kid without the money to 'go away' to college has access to the same academic rigor as the kid with rich parents. A former colleague of mine used to say that algebra is a civil right, and I agreed with him. To offer the less-well-off a diluted product offends my egalitarian sensibilities. If we're serious about access, it has to be access to academic rigor. Otherwise we're just babysitting. The rigor should be fair and impartial, and we need to explore the right mix of support services, tutoring, and the like to help students succeed, but that's okay. At the end of the day, the best service we can do is to provide a truly higher education, even if it takes some doing. Which it does.

The details of the Norfolk State case, as outlined in the article, are ugly. But the dilemmas underlying it are very real.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Trickle-Down Departments

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke has a fascinating piece outlining his proposed hypothetical liberal arts college. Among other things, it does away with academic departments, favoring faculty who (as I read it) draw liberally on different fields of study, and encouraging students to become intellectual free agents. (He uses the term 'polymaths.') It's worth reading carefully.

I love exercises like that, since they often take you in surprising directions. They also reveal a lot about blind spots. In this case, it seems clear that an idiosyncratic, self-contained enterprise like that would have to be completely closed off to transfer students. You know, like cc grads.


Regular readers may have noticed that I occasionally get crabby at some of the dysfunctional aspects of academic departments. But the realities of transfer agreements dictate that cc's adhere to the most traditional, conservative, plain vanilla definitions of disciplines, since anything quirky doesn't transfer. (Or it transfers as a 'free elective,' which means it doesn't actually count.) So even though a departmental structure that evolved many years ago, in a very different institutional context, really doesn't make sense for us, we're largely stuck with it.

Four-year colleges – especially small ones – have the luxury of quirkiness. They can decide to, say, devote the entire freshman year to 'modes of inquiry' team-taught courses that don't have obvious disciplinary cognates. We can't. Since our students transfer to lots of different places, we have to make sure that the credits they earn with us are maximally portable. If we customized ourselves to match Quirky Local College, our grads who wanted to transfer to Midtier State would be out of luck. So it's out with the interdisciplinary, and in with Freshman Comp and U.S. History I. And when you run gazillions of sections of the same plain vanilla intro courses every year, it's hard to avoid a traditional department structure. Staffing alone pushes you in that direction.

This isn't a huge issue in itself, necessarily, but it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger trend. Elite schools set the rules, and the rest of us follow them, whether they make any sense on the ground or not.

To the extent that we differ from the elite model – remediation, vocational courses, older students – we're considered suspect or failed.

The IPEDS database is an easy example. The federal standard used for calculating graduation rates only looks at first-time, full-time freshmen. In the elite world, that's a pretty good measure. For cc's, that's almost comically inappropriate, since that's a small (if growing) minority of our students. But that's the standard, because that's what the opinion leaders of higher ed say it should be. Not coincidentally, by the measure favored by the elites, the elites look good. What are the odds?

I would love to have the freedom to try some of the quirky, ambitious, interdisciplinary stuff at my cc that right now is a prerogative of economic rank. I'd love to experiment with different structures, use different measures, and make the changes on the ground that are so painfully obvious from here. But right now, doing that would endanger our graduates.

Transgression is a prerogative of rank. We in the lower orders have to obey. Sometimes it just gets a little frustrating.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Random Glances of Exam Week

  • At her request, for Mother's Day I got TW a couple of little figurines that don't have facial features. TG was fascinated.

    • TG: “Why don't they have faces?”

    • DD: “So they can look like anybody.”

    • TG: “But every people has faces!”

  • Dartmouth professor sues her students. I've made several attempts to write about this, but they've all ended quickly in pounding headaches. Are we sure this isn't a prank?

  • Tableau from today: Walking past a classroom, I saw a professor sitting at the front table. A single student was in the front row center desk – the classroom otherwise empty – repeatedly pounding his head on his desk. Some things never change.

  • Overheard in the hallway: “New Kids on the Block are touring! My life is complete!” You can always tell exam week.

Monday, May 12, 2008

False Economies

A friend who works at a respected public research university just sent me a copy of an all-campus email he received in which the Business Services department reminds everyone that, due to budget constraints, nobody is allowed to use university money to buy bottled water. (The only allowable exceptions would be when either the tap water supply to a building or campus has been cut off altogether, or when it has been diagnosed as unsafe. Naturally, the memo goes on to detail the multiple reports the university files annually to attest to the safety of its water.)

It's one of those superficially-reasonable rules that falls apart as soon as you think about it.

Let's say that you're hosting a meeting of, say, sixty people. Bottled water is banned. Do you send everybody to the water fountain in the hallway? Do you write off thirst as 'their problem'? Or do you buy coffee and soda?

And if you substitute Diet Coke for bottled water, you've achieved...what, exactly?

(A few years ago, after hosting a function for high school students, a colleague pointed out that the high school students drank the regular soda, and left the diet stuff. Faculty do the exact opposite. The one thing I miss about the teen years is the metabolism.)

I had to smile at the memo, since I can easily see the impulse behind it. If you only look at one dimension of the question, the rule makes sense: if the university literally pipes in mass quantities of drinkable water, why pay extra for packaging? Of course, that only makes sense if you don't look at how bottled water (or anything else) is actually used. Using my administrator's crystal ball, I foresee negative savings resulting from this policy, since buying flavored stuff (soda or coffee or tea) for large groups requires buying multiple varieties, making over-purchasing hard to avoid. Water is water, but Sprite isn't Diet Coke (and neither compares to Cherry Coke Zero, which competes with Diet Dr. Pepper for the title of Best Soda). So in buying the flavored stuff, you have to buy enough of each kind to satisfy most people. In buying water, you just buy water.

It's a trivial example of a much larger problem of false economies, which I define loosely at self-defeating efforts at cost control.

“Use it or lose it” is a classic false economy. The idea behind it is to redirect resources that aren't needed in program A to program B, which has demonstrated a need. You can identify what isn't needed, the theory goes, by seeing what isn't spent.

That probably worked once. But anyone who has spent time in nonprofits knows that money cut is never restored, so savvy managers make damn sure that the money gets spent, one way or another. “Use it or lose it” actually encourages stupid spending, since the only way to ensure a cushion for unexpected expenses next year is to overspend this year. If program A is running a surplus as the close of the fiscal year looms, you can bet that the manager of program A will find a way – productively or not – to spend that money. Once it goes to program B, it's gone forever.

Professional development funding is a common target for cuts. The first year you do that, not much happens beyond some local grumbling. But over time, you get an entire faculty ever more out-of-touch with what's going on elsewhere. Yes, some conferences are little more than jaunts, but it's hard to know in advance which ones those are, and some of the best breakthroughs happen in the fortuitous moments that happen when a bunch of people with similar concerns are in close quarters. Go without those moments for a decade or two, and the effects are noticeable. Eventually, a sort of provincialism seeps into the culture, 'justified' by the lack of travel money. By that point, you're paying top of the line seniority-driven salaries to people who haven't paid attention in decades, and who couldn't leave if they wanted to.

Then there's the ever-popular freeze. If inflation is a positive number, a freeze amounts to a cut. In the first year of a freeze, the harm is minor and the savings real. But percentages compound, and a harm that may not have mattered much in one year is quite real in four or five, and devastating in ten. The longer you wait, the harder it is to undo the damage. Freezes are administratively easy, and they avoid certain kinds of political battles, but over time, the damage they do is drastic.

Finally, of course, there's the wholesale outsourcing of instruction to poorly paid adjuncts. Others have made that point many times, as have I, so I'll just acknowledge it and move on.

Wise and worldly readers – what false economies have you seen? (Alternately, is there a soda (or pop, for my Midwestern readers) that can compete with Diet Dr. Pepper and Cherry Coke Zero?)

Friday, May 09, 2008

Gym Music: A Snark

Several months ago, I stopped working out at my college's gym and joined a Y not far from home. We got a family membership, so TW can work out during the day, and I can take TB and TG to the pool every once in a while.

The 'fitness center' section of the Y, like all Gaul, is divided into three parts: the 'cardio' area with the treadmills and such; the resistance machines; and the freeweights. Since I go faithfully at 5:20 in the freakin' morning, I steer clear of the freeweights. Sleep deprivation plus no coffee yet plus loose heavy pieces of metal equals Bad Idea. So I start with the cardio – the ellipticals, almost exclusively – and do a few resistance machines before leaving. If I'm careful, I still get home to shower and change and feed the kids breakfast and still get to work on time.

The cardio part is usually fine. There's a cohort of regulars who get there, I can only guess, around 5:00 a.m., and they take most of the ellipticals and talk very loudly. But I can fire up the ipod, put on my absurdly dorky headphones – as near as I can tell, standard ipod earbuds are designed for hobbits – and just do my thing. I usually watch the too-early morning news broadcast and read the closed captioning while listening to my own stuff, which I like to think of as a game. Can I discern the meaning underneath all the typos and misspellings? And just how low in the pecking order do the reporters have to be to get the “report from outside in the rain at 5 a.m.” gig? “Still raining, Jim. Back to you.” Or, as the captioning would have it, “stillllllray nin gjimmback toyoooo”

But then I have to deal with the resistance machines, which involves taking off the earphones. This means subjecting myself to Satan's Stereo.

The average age at my Y is about 106, which probably explains the musical choices. In several months there, I haven't heard anything released after I graduated from high school. In fact, even breaking into the 80's is unusual. But it isn't just that the music dates back to the Nixon era. It's that nearly everything they pick is either dirge-y or unintentionally hilarious. Actual selections from the past few weeks, none of which I am making up:

  • Brandy, You're a Fine Girl, by whoever the #*(%)# recorded that song

  • Billy, Don't Be a Hero, by some long-forgotten one-hit wonder

  • Mindgames, by John Lennon – a workout song if ever I've heard one...

  • Space Oddity, by David Bowie, of which the less said, the better...

  • Lay Your Hands On Me, by the Thompson Twins, which some of us unsuccessfully petitioned to have selected as our prom theme, but let's not discuss that...

  • Every damn song Chicago ever did, which is pretty much “whining plus brass”

  • Don't You Want Me Baby, by Human League, which brings back poignant memories of the school bus in 8th grade...

  • How Deep is Your Love, by the Bee Gees. Not very, apparently.

  • and, a choice so staggeringly bad that I had to cut my workout short because I can't laugh and lift...

  • Copacabana, by Barry Manilow. There is no excuse for this. Ever.

I'm not trying to be some sort of alterna-snob here. Last week when I walked in they were playing Walking on Sunshine, by Katrina and the Waves, and I was pleasantly surprised; it's an upbeat song that doesn't make you want to crawl in a hole. I'd be perfectly happy with the standard Lite Hits station – put on KT Tunstall and I'm good to go. I could even deal with some upbeat oldies – KC and the Sunshine Band, maybe. But Copacabana? Nooooo.


What's the worst musical selection you've heard in a gym?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Can the Prodigal Daughter Return?

A lucky correspondent writes:

I'm doing a broad, interdisciplinary Social Science
degree. While I've been in a cave researching and
writing my dissertation the method that I use and the
community that I work with have become The Next Big
Thing. I've been approached by a private company who
want me to do some consulting work for them (yes
please!) and my contact there said that if she had her
way they'd hire me to do this full time, and that I'm
in great demand and can basically write my own ticket.
All of this is news to me, and kind of a shock, but it
is nice to know that once I finish I'll be employable

But here's the thing, academe is my dream job. I'd
like a tt track job somewhere, I love teaching and
researching, even service work, and I'm pretty good at
them, too. But the market sucks right now and my
research field and my teachable areas are a not a
tight fit, so I look weird on paper. I'm no fool, when
I graduate I'm taking a private sector job if one is
on offer that beats an adjunct's pay (and what doesn't
these days?), but will it screw my chances at getting
a tt job later? I plan on applying for everything
going while I work, and the private sector work would
essentially be designing and doing research, but given
the biases against some kinds of private sector work
in the social sciences, could I be working myself out
of the possibility of a tt job? Just to clarify,
teaching experience is not an issue, I have about 10
years under my belt.

Thanks for any advice anyone can offer,
Suddenly Popular in the Private Sector

This is the good kind of problem to have.

I'm not sure which stratum of higher ed you're looking at, so I'll just speak to the sector I know and ask my wise and worldly readers to fill in the gaps for the research universities and SLAC's.

Assuming a generally glutted market, you really have two possible ways to stand out. One is to come out of the tip-toppiest program with dual book contracts and references from God herself. I'll assume that if that described your situation, you wouldn't have written. The other is to make yourself different. Corporate experience can do that.

In the cc world, as I've observed it, corporate experience is not a negative. If anything, it's a plus, in that it suggests that you know how to meet deadlines, how to work in teams, and how to advise students to succeed in the corporate world (having done it yourself). These are not small things. When a substantial number of students are first-generation college, the professor's job goes beyond just teaching the class. It also involves advising, which officially includes course selection but unofficially often goes well beyond that. The folks who've never worked outside the hothouse of academe don't have the same corporate experiences to call upon when helping students understand how certain kinds of workplaces operate.

Corporate experience can also bring contacts, exposure to current industry trends, and a backdrop against which to appreciate the genuine freedoms of academia. It can also greatly improve your bargaining position, since you'd have the economic luxury of being able to turn down lousy offers. Folks who can ply their wares in multiple markets can command better deals than folks who can't.

Other than a certain brittle, defensive snobbishness based on insecurity, I'm not sure what the principled objection would be. “How dare she make a living?” “How dare she soil herself by dealing with the real world? We social scientists ignore the real world!” Well, actually, they kinda do, but that's another post.

Unless I'm missing something really huge, from my vantage point, putting the corporate arrow in your quiver can only help. Go for it!

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – especially those at other strata of higher ed – how does this look from your vantage point?

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

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Silly Season

With finals just about to start, nearly everybody on campus is on her worst behavior. The students are jumpy, what with legitimate pressures (final exams, papers, and projects) and self-imposed ones (missed deadlines have a way of catching up to you). The faculty are visibly strained, with grading pressure combining with student begging combining with end-of-year events. The administrators are exhausted, since we do all of the end-of-year events, and we deal with the conflicts that don't get resolved at the departmental level. (I'll admit to giving thanks that I don't work at Dartmouth. The idea of a professor suing her students for not liking her is so headache-inducing that I can't even work up a full post on it without a serious blood-pressure spike.) The plagiarism board is doing land-office business, dealing with students who haven't figured out yet that faculty know how to use Google.

Those are relatively normal, if draining. After going through the same cycle enough times, most of us come to expect that two periods per year – roughly “Thanksgiving to Christmas” and “tax day to graduation” -- will just plain suck. I try to keep my bride apprised of which nights I'll have to stay late in any given week, but it's actually reached the point where I start to lose track. Like Rocky, I pretty much give up on the idea of 'winning' this month, instead hoping just to go the distance. And this is the time of year when I honestly wonder just how the hell single parents do it. I couldn't do this job and raise kids by myself. The events alone would do me in.

I'm too spent even to work up a decent blog post.

So a question for my wise and worldly readers: how do you stay sane during silly season?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Fun with Demographics

Over at the FACE blog, there's a worthwhile question about the impending drop in the number of 18 year olds. Given FACE's concerns, it's focused on adjunct percentages, though the issues run deeper than that.

Over the past several years, the baby boom echo has made its way through high school, resulting in gradually growing numbers of 18 year olds for the past several years. Depending on your location in the country, that wave is pretty much peaking now, with a non-trivial dropoff forecast for the next several years. At my college, what are we doing to prepare for it?

(sound of crickets)

(adjust collar)

Boy, it's hot in here, isn't it?...

Given that it isn't terribly hard to predict future age cohorts in the short term – for the most part, the 18 year olds of four years from now are fourteen now – this should be a no-brainer. If the demographic wave is clear and clearly relevant, why wouldn't we position ourselves early to handle it?

I was all set to write something about how hard it is to predict the future, but it seems like optimistic predictions get spread around much more easily and quickly than pessimistic ones. For example, while nobody is talking about fewer 18 year olds two or three years from now, the place is full of predictions of this or that program growing wildly over the next five to ten years. I don't think time, per se, is the issue.

Some of it is probably denial. The thinking is that we'll make it up with dual enrollment programs – supplement the 18 year olds with 16 and 17 year olds – or with working adults, or with senior citizens (the one real growth demographic in my area). Of course, if it were that easy, we would have done it by now. Dual enrollment programs have real promise, but we've found that anything based on the student (or his family) paying will be very small. The working-adults-returning-to-school have been mostly priced out of the area, and the housewives-returning-to-college demographic is an artifact of the seventies and eighties. We're doing well with senior citizens, but they pay next to nothing in tuition. (The payoff with them is largely political – they vote at very high rates, so we want them to feel a stake in the continued success of the college.)

The recession is giving us an enrollment boost right now, which is standard for community colleges. When folks are laid off and having a hard time finding work, the opportunity cost of an education goes down. And when Mom's or Dad's job looks shaky, sending Suzy to Expensive Nothing Special University suddenly looks like an iffier bet. The folks in Admissions are busier than they've been in years, dealing with parents who would have sent their kids someplace else in rosier times. On a selfish level, that's great, since so much of our budget comes from tuition. But the recession is likely to be temporary – I hope! -- and it masks the underlying demographic trend. In a way, it actually makes it harder to have the discussion locally about declining long-term enrollments, since right now enrollments are actually going up.

Looking forward a few years, assuming the recession has passed and the economy is back on track, we'll be hit with a double whammy of fewer 18 year olds and less countercyclical demand. That won't be pretty.

The combination of the glacial pace of academic change and a general ethos of conflict aversion makes it difficult to generate a sense of urgency around a crisis that's merely prospective. The tragedy, of course, is that that's when the cost of dealing with it is lowest.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen (or participated in) serious collegewide conversations about the imminent drop in numbers of 18 year olds? If you have, what's your college planning to do?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Waiting for the Official Offer

A returning correspondent writes:

First I want to thank you and your readers for responding to a couple
of different questions I've submitted in the past few months about
applying for jobs and moving from a faculty position at a community
college to a faculty position at a four-year college. It appears
everyone's advice and my efforts paid off and I am going to be offered
the position I want.

Second, I want to ask a couple more questions.

1. Two weeks ago, the chair of the department I will be joining
contacted me to tell me I was the choice of the committee and
department and that I would be contacted "soon" with an "official
offer." I asked how soon and by whom I'd be contacted and the answers
were "within days" and "by the dean." Two weeks have gone by and I
have heard nothing official. I contacted the chair after ten days and
she said, "Don't worry." I'm not worried—much. But I am very curious
about what could be taking so long. Dean Dad, as an administrator, can
you shed some light on all the "behind the scenes" stuff that has to
happen to make an offer for a faculty position official?

2. Any advice on negotiating an offer?

This is painfully familiar.

I'll outline the process at my college, which isn't all that unusual. Your mileage may vary, but I think the outline is common enough.

Departmental search committees screen the candidates, interview them, and usually decide on a ranking. They then submit their top two or three candidates to my office. I act as a sort of reality check, making sure that their choice isn't just a result of inbreeding or other bias. (I've only shot down a committee's first choice once, in a really egregious case that even the nominating department now sheepishly admits was a mistake. Since then, I've found that the value of my participation is mostly as a deterrent to the kinds of shenanigans that used to ensue; at this point, the departments are much better about saying what they mean and meaning what they say.) Assuming they've made a reasonable choice, I endorse it and send it to the VP. He settles on a salary figure, negotiates with the candidate, and makes a formal recommendation to the President. The President then takes it to the Board of Trustees. Nothing is actually official until the Board of Trustees ratifies it. They've never actually shot one down, but the potential is always there.

It's a slow and clunky process. The candidate doesn't get a salary figure until we're pretty far along, which makes for an awkward interview with me. The Board only meets once a month, so if you miss the deadline for a particular month, the process can drag.

Although our process is frustratingly (even maddeningly) slow, it does a pretty good job of quality control. I can honestly say that everybody hired on my watch has turned out well, which is a point of real pride.

So it's entirely possible for a candidate to knock it out of the park, get unanimous approval, and still take several weeks from the interview to wend through the process. I'd rather that weren't true, but there it is.

I've heard of cases elsewhere – thankfully, not at my college – in which a search gets canceled or a position downgraded after the wheels have already been set in motion. (An example of downgrading would be reclassifying a position from 'tenure-track' to 'one-year visiting.') Sometimes it happens for reasons outside the college's control – midyear state budget cuts, for example, as happened this year in Kentucky – but usually it's a result either of dreadful planning or of internal politics. Although it's rarely, if ever, intentional, in effect it amounts to bait-and-switch for the candidate.

The key points from the candidate's perspective are:

  1. It's not about you.

  2. It's usually, though not always, harmless.

  3. Always take the high road.

At this point, I think you'd be well within your rights and the boundaries of professionalism to ask the chair to walk you through an anticipated timeline. Don't be emotional when making the request; just ask for some clarity. Annoyingly, the clarity may take the form of “the Board doesn't meet for three more weeks,” but at least then you'll know. On the other hand, if the answer you get is evasive or mysterious, then you might want to keep other options open.

Good luck! I hope, and expect, that this will turn out to be harmless.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? And what should the candidate do?

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

Friday, May 02, 2008

Spending Per Student

There's a provocative piece in yesterday's IHE about a study on per-student spending at various levels of higher ed, and a basic breakdown of instructional vs. non-instructional costs.

As a reader at a community college, I couldn't help but notice that our spending per student – total, including non-instructional – has actually dropped. But our tuition continues to increase because...wait for it...our subsidies haven't kept pace with inflation. (In my state, they've actually dropped, even before adjusting for inflation.) We don't have a climbing wall, or research labs, or a football team, or dorms, or as many administrators as we had ten years ago, so the usual suspects behind tuition increases are simply irrelevant. It's all about the subsidies. Cut the subsidies, and tuition will increase.

I get a little antsy when I see “instructional” and “non-instructional” as categories, because I think it's too easy for people to read “non-instructional” as frills. Heat is non-instructional, and our heating costs have skyrocketed over the last few years. But going without heat wouldn't exactly foster an environment conducive to learning. Financial aid is non-instructional, but without it, we'd have fewer people to instruct. When we award more scholarships, by this calculation, the percentage of our budget spent on instruction drops. But it's the right thing to do.

Any discussion of higher ed finance that doesn't address health insurance will be distorted. The cost of health insurance continues to climb at double the rate of inflation – sometimes much more than that – even as our operating subsidies are declining. CC's don't have endowments, so we can't just dip into savings to make up the difference. It's pure cost for us, and the cost is both large and climbing fast. In my observation, this is a major driver behind the trend towards adjuncts, simply because there aren't that many other ways for community colleges to balance the books. The cost spiral makes us inefficient in some fairly obvious ways. If Professor Smith's salary goes up four percent this year, and the cost of her health insurance goes up ten percent, by what percent does her output increase?


Now add reduced external funding to the picture, throw in a few unfunded mandates (every time there's a new 'reporting requirement,' it adds administrative cost), and note the annoying truth that in any given year, 85 to 90 percent of the college's budget is labor. Bake in the crucible of local politics, and enjoy!

Fun fact: Perkins grants cover certain kinds of equipment, but they don't cover maintenance. Where do those maintenance contract fees come from? If you guessed 'the operating budget,' you win!

I fully agree with the moral critique of the adjunct trend. But I disagree with those who suggest that it's just a function of administrative featherbedding or bigtime sports or climbing walls. To me, those critiques sound like those financial planners who say things like “to cover your retirement, just stop buying those three five-dollar lattes a day!” I don't buy three five-dollar lattes a day. I can't remember the last time I even bought one. It's an easy answer and an irrelevant one; it's a substitute for engagement with what's actually going on. As the study shows, cc spending has actually been quite disciplined; if not for the adjunct trend, that wouldn't be true, and the costs passed on to students would have been substantially larger. But alternatives aren't easy or painless.

The political life-cycle of studies like these is predictable. Elite private schools will generate some offensive factoids; voter anger will be directed at the public colleges that had nothing to do with it. When all is said and done, the elites will pull even farther away, students will take on even more debt, and the public still won't be happy because it will sense – correctly, if inchoately – that it's been had.


It's not about lattes or deans or climbing walls or counselors. It's about politics. Health insurance, progressive taxation, and subsidies. Get the politics right, and we can actually make progress. Ignore the big picture, and the unproductive sniping can go on forever.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Vent to the Administrator: College as Playground

A new correspondent writes:

I've been a faithful reader for a while now... an issue has been brought to my attention recently regarding my alma mater.

Five years ago, I decided on a small liberal arts school in the South; the price was reasonable - $19,500, and most students received a great financial aid package. I had a blast while attending said university, and influenced my sister's college decision process in so doing. In the middle of my sophomore year, we had a drastic change in the form of a new president, who brought in a good deal of money to the school, which of course led to new facilities on campus.

Quietly, he focused on increasing enrollment - the tentative number for 2008-09 school year is around 1,000 new freshman (more than double my freshman class). When taking the role of university president, I also recall him stating that he wouldn't drastically increase the size of the student body; he seems to have done so. There hasn't been a drastic push for new faculty to cover all of the new students; some adjuncts have been brought in to cover the basic courses, and a few new professors added here and there. It's not the school I fell in love with during my campus tours by any stretch of the imagination.

She still has two years left at Small Town U. The cost for the 2008-2009 school year? $31,000. I'm really not sure that my sister will be able to afford the school; this year she barely received enough in scholarships/loans to cover last year's increase (this year, tuition will jump from approximately $28,000 to $31,000).

They don't itemize room and board, tuition, and general fees anymore; instead they have started charging what they refer to as the "Comprehensive Fee." On the website, it states, "The Comprehensive Fee will cover everything (except books and specific course fees) with no additional charge for fitness center, laundry facilities, kiosks, campus concierge, concerts, nationally known speakers, athletics, technology, tutoring, parking, and so much more."

When reading about what the comprehensive fee covers, did you notice the bit about the campus concierge? This person is employed by the university to act as a hotel concierge would. I think this tidbit demonstrates the type of student the university is attempting to draw...

Is it just me or does the $11,500 price increase over five years seem a bit ridiculous? Are there many colleges with a "comprehensive fee"? In my brief search, it seemed that the comprehensive fee did not cover such items as tuition and room and board so much as it covered the odds and ends.

Aside from the memories I made and the stellar professors still at the university, I am ashamed of the playground my alma mater is becoming.

Concierge service? Wow.

Glad to see the taxpayer-funded financial aid system is being put to good use...

In a frustrating way, the new President is actually being rational. For private higher ed, the real story is the hollowing out of the middle ranks. Private tuition is high enough now that the nothing-special private colleges have a hard time justifying their existence, since you can get a nothing-special degree at a public college for much less money. So they really have a choice: either carve out a special niche, or bleed money. (Competing on the low end doesn't make much sense, given that you're up against institutions that receive public subsidies.) And the easiest and most fun niche to carve out is at the top.

Other possible niches include cultural/political/religious specificity (like Bob Jones University), program specialization (i.e. Alfred University for ceramics), 'sports factory' status (Gonzaga has recently achieved this), party school, and the like. A high-ish tuition college without a clear identity simply can't compete with the publics.

Concierge service is easier to start up than, say, a reputation for academic excellence. If you can't easily move into the ranks of the Yales of the world, you can appeal to the very wealthy by offering amenities that others don't. (Founders College is trying the upscale-proprietary approach, which strikes me as an obvious niche. Though it also has a vague ideological overtone that may or may not work with its intended market.) You might find the niche your alma mater has chosen to be asinine, and you may well be right, but the idea of picking a niche makes sense.

The 'nothing special private college' is going the way of the variety show, and for the same reason. Variety shows made sense when you only had three or four channels to choose from. But with hundreds of channels, there's no reason to sit through a cheesy musical number to wait for the comedy. The little private colleges made sense when the market was mostly local. But with increasingly aggressive advertising, the rise of online instruction, and the disproportionate increase in tuition over the years, they're really up against it. For my money, the elite institutions and the community colleges are the best situated, since they both have clear reasons to exist. The places in-between need to start making some choices. A concierge is a kind of choice, even if it's not the one I would have made.

I'm still not convinced that my tax dollars should go for aid to pay a concierge, though.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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