Friday, October 31, 2008

From Chaos to Order

High School Friend on Right Ocean recently got a new provost at his university. He writes:

What was interesting was his response to a question (of mine incidentally) about resources and if there may be resources that could be tapped by a new dean. He said that he can't walk across the quad without someone coming up to ask him for a new faculty line, a new program, etc., and that suggests that the practices in the past must have been very odd. There may be a few scarce opportunities for resources (given the funding climate), but what is important is instituting a process so the requests for resources are more transparent.

His response was good to hear. I like the idea of there being a way things are done, rather than there being a person who does the deciding by applying whatever guidelines seem good at the time.

This isn't news to you, but I thought you may find the idea of "being asked for positions while walking on campus" to be interesting for the blog.

It certainly struck a chord with me.

My colleagues and I are currently trying to shift a culture from the 'kiss the ring' style of resource management to something more transparent and rational. It's harder than you might expect, since people learn habits under previous regimes that can be intensely difficult to dislodge. Legacies of distrust take time to supplant, and when asking people to lower their guard, the safest response is always "you first." Worse, some long-entrenched folk have figured out how to use the language of process to manipulate outcomes, so discussions of process are themselves sometimes taken as coded.

I'm discovering, though, that the new money crunch is actually making the shift a little easier, since now it's actually possible to discuss process in a vacuum. It's no longer in the context of sifting through active requests, since we've put an indefinite hold on all hiring. Since we can't hire for a while anyway, we actually have some time to reflect on our processes (both allocation decisions -- which departments get to hire -- and procedure decisions, as in how the hiring is actually done) without reading every proposal as somehow partisan.

As with HSFRO's university, there's a long and rich legacy here of decisions made for personal reasons. Some of those decisions turned out okay anyway, but that's not really the point. When staffing decisions are made by a single person, based largely on whims, the rest of the college gradually turns its attention to trying to gain access to that person. Time and energy are misdirected. And, frankly, it's degrading to all involved.

The fiscal force majeure we're confronting now actually has the bright side of making it easier to argue for change. When we need to spend so much time and energy scrambling just to take care of the basics, the idea of diverting great bunches of it to internal politicking is just unsustainable. And from the perspective of one who gets asked for a lot of things, I can attest that it's much easier to make good decisions when all the options are in front of you at once, and the criteria for judgment are already developed. (It's even easier than that when you have a decent and open system of committees leading up to that moment, so it's not just you making the call.) That doesn't happen when you're ambushed in the quad (or, in a cc, the cafeteria).

I'm optimistic about HSFRO's provost, based on this note. He'll catch flak from the displaced former favorites, but it's flak worth catching.

Thanks, HSFRO, for helping me crystallize a silver lining.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Training Young Voters

Last week, The Wife decided that it was time to teach The Boy and The Girl about voting.

She converted a spent box of Puffs into a ballot box, and decorated it accordingly. Now we have occasional referenda, complete with preliminary speeches and secret ballots.

On Sunday, we had a discussion about what kind of face to put on this year's jack o'lantern: happy or scary.

TB gave a talk on behalf of 'scary.' I gave one on behalf of 'happy.' All four of us voted, TG getting a little help with her ballot, and 'scary' won, 3 to 1.

TW asked TG why we went with scary. TG replied "because more people voted for scary." I beamed.

I won't give them the electoral college version of the game until they're older. The electoral college frightens small children, who know a monster when they see one.

Now we're looking for good questions for voting. (And we're already decided that "what do we want for dinner" is too pedestrian.) Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Second-Year Scholarships and Subsidized Slacking

Okay, I'll admit to being a sucker for certain kinds of ideas: they're usually 'what ifs' that involve upending a single thing, and watching the dominos fall. For example, the Car Talk guys recently proposed a sort of price support law for gasoline. It's essentially a variable tax that would go up when the price of oil went down, to ensure that gas doesn't go below, say, three bucks a gallon. (The revenues collected could go for progressive tax rebates, so the working poor don't get nailed.) The idea is to ensure that people factor the cost of gas into car buying decisions, to encourage carmakers to invest in efficiency.

I heard a good one recently. What if we created -- at a significant enough scale to matter -- a new kind of merit scholarship? This one would only kick in after a student had earned, say, thirty college credits at a set GPA, and with no major disciplinary infractions? In effect, what if the student (and/or her family) had to pony up for the first year, but could earn a free ride for the second?

At cc's, I've seen scholarships fall pretty much into two categories. The first is the classic "we'll help pay for you to come here" kind, which is what most people think of. At cc's those are typically based on documented economic need, though not always. (They aren't based on athletics, unlike at some other places.) They're awarded to first-year students, often with some kind of GPA requirement for renewal. The idea is to get the student in the door.

(The second kind, which I honestly don't understand, is the "we'll help pay for your next college" scholarship, awarded by the cc upon graduation. It's a humanitarian gesture, I suppose, but from the cc's perspective the money walks away with the student.)

The "get you in the door" scholarship has obvious merit, and I don't suggest otherwise. But in the case of cc's, getting in is less of an issue than staying in. Our retention and graduation rates simply aren't what they ought to be. We get plenty of people in the door who drop out prior to completing the degree or certificate for which they came. Some of that is harmless enough -- early transfer, for example. But a great deal of it has to do with students feeling overmatched in one way or another, whether academically, economically, personally, or some combination.

As the economy worsens, we get more students in the door, but retention becomes more problematic as already-precarious home lives become even more so. And while I fully believe that a two-year college degree can make a meaningful difference for many students -- whether as an employment credential or as a stepping-stone to a four year degree -- I'm not convinced that picking up a few credits here and there before dropping out does anybody very much good. (For present purposes, I'm not talking about adults who take the occasional class simply for personal fulfillment -- the retiree who takes a couple semesters of Italian before taking a trip to Italy. That's fine and lovely.) Far too many students show up with the best of intentions, but their cobbled-together support arrangements fall apart after a while and they walk away.

The second-year scholarship has the considerable virtue of rewarding tenacity. Those students who manage to keep their stuff together long enough to get through the equivalent of a first full year with a passing GPA have been, for lack of a better word, initiated; now they get a significant economic break. Now they can reduce their hours at outside jobs, or simply have a little more 'sanity' time to establish a sustainable pace. The second-year scholarship is much less prone to the objection of subsidizing slacking, since only those students who could pull it together in the first place could get it. And it looks at college achievement, rather than high school achievement, so it doesn't punish the late bloomer, the older student, or the product of a lousy school district. (That's not entirely true when one factors in the extra time for remediation, but the basic idea still holds.)

So that's my pitch. Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ask the Administrator: An Interview Curveball

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently an adjunct ESL teacher, and I just interviewed for a full-time position in my department.  One of the questions in the interview caught me off-guard.  Even days after the interview, I'm still not sure what my answer should have been.  The question was something to the effect of "what do you see as a full-time instructor's responsibilities in relation to part time workers?"   I've worked at several different colleges & universities, and at all of them (except for the one I'm currently working in), the full-time instructors had quite a bit of authority over part time workers.  They observed our classes, evaluated us, chose our textbooks, etc.  Part-time teachers were invited to some staff meetings, but did not have the option of participating in many committees, etc.  However, in my current department, there are only 8 full-time instructors and about 35 part-time instructors.  Many of these part-time instructors have been around for many years and are every bit as invested and involved in the program as the full-timers.  In this situation, it seems to me that the part-time instructors should be viewed simply as colleagues, not as subordinates.  What do you think?

There's almost certainly some history behind the question. And without knowing the specific local history, it's hard to say what the 'correct' answer is.

When confronted with loaded questions like that, my preferred approach is to ask for clarification.

For example, last year at an interview I was asked about my attitude towards people who work in Student Affairs. I paused, blinked, and asked the questioner to rephrase. As it was asked, I considered the question bizarre. Which people? Why? (I later learned that there had been a history of serious turf battles between academic affairs and student affairs.) When the question was rephrased – I honestly couldn't reconstruct how, other than to say it was a lot less off-putting the second time – I was able to answer truthfully that I thought internecine battles were asinine and destructive, since they distract from the shared mission of the college. Since 'shared mission' was my key message anyway, I considered it a reasonable answer.

In this case, I'd guess that there's some sort of history regarding the proper roles of full-time and adjunct faculty – if they're talking about faculty – and they're trying to find someone to join the ranks on the 'right' side. Instead of trying to suss out what they thought the right answer was, I'd recommend taking this as a chance to figure out what the right answer should be. Should full-time faculty supervise adjuncts, or should that fall to the Chair? Should adjuncts be included in meetings if they can't be paid for it? Should full-timers and adjuncts share the same union, or should each group have its own?

The issues get tricky when you really start mucking around in them. If adjuncts aren't quite at the quality level of full-timers, however defined, then treating them as colleagues dilutes the currency. If they are at the quality level of full-timers, then all that money for health insurance and real salaries and lifetime job security is money wasted. Some adjuncts really want full-time jobs, and are cobbling together a meager living trying to catch that big break; others are largely focused on something else, and treat adjuncting as an enjoyable way to pick up some money on the side. The needs of those groups are very different, and I would imagine each would have different requests of the full-timers.

If it were up to me, and if we didn't have the money to expand vastly the ranks of the full-time, I'd like to see the 'evaluation' part go to department chairs and program coordinators, leaving the rest of the full-time faculty to serve as resource people. That way, evaluation can be more consistent, and the adjuncts won't have to work in a panopticon. But that's me; surely there are other perfectly functional ways to organize a department or program.

A charitable read of the question might be that they're trying really hard to find a workable, humane, and sustainable model, so they wanted someone who has already given the question serious thought. A more cynical, and I think likelier, interpretation is that there's already a hard-won local consensus on it, and they want to make sure that your instincts will align with it, whatever it is.

Interviews aren't always fair, unfortunately.

Good luck with your search!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on this one? Any weird interview questions you've run across?

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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday Musings

Things have been a little doom-and-gloomy of late on the blog, so it's time to lighten up a bit. A few recent scenes from real life:


TB loves basketball, and we want to encourage him, so we finally broke down and bought him one of those driveway basketball nets-on-poles-with-hollow-bases. The idea is that you fill the base with water (including two gallons of antifreeze, according to the directions) or sand, and that provides the ballast to keep the thing from falling forward.

You wouldn't believe how difficult and complicated those *%^#(%& things are to assemble. You'd think – okay, I'd think – that it would just be a few steps: connect pole pieces, attach top of pole to backboards, attach net to backboard, secure to base, add water, and voila. Uh, no.

I'll admit that I'm not the handiest critter on the planet. In eighth grade when they gave those aptitude tests that were supposed to reveal your future career, I crashed and burned on the 'spatial relations' section. They'd draw an unfolded box with lots of dotted lines, and ask you what it would look like folded up in three dimensions. They might as well have asked me to solve cold fusion. High school geometry was a disaster, because the teacher kept focusing on shapes, and proving that triangles were triangles. To this day, I'm utterly hopeless at jigsaw puzzles. So this would have been a stretch on a good day.

But yumpin yiminy, this was beyond belief. The pieces that were supposed to fit, didn't; the instructions took abstraction to a new level; and my usual impatience with this kind of stuff sent my mistake rate even higher than usual, and that's saying something. TW finally had to bail me out, since she has the spatial gene. After several weeks – yes, weeks – the *()&%^) thing finally went up. TB's first shot was nothing but net. My first shot was an air ball. Insert metaphor here.

Saturday night in the wind and rain, it fell forward.

I'm thinking we'll encourage him to try baseball instead.

When I Grow Up, by Juliana Hatfield

For some reason, when I heard that the musician Juliana Hatfield had published an autobiography, I had to have it. I can't really explain why. I liked a few of her songs in the mid-90's, but lost track of her after that. I remembered her being unusually pretty, but she's hardly unique in that, and that was some time ago. It was probably just the novelty of realizing that my contemporaries have hit the age at which they can start writing autobiographies.

Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it immensely. About half of it is a tour diary from the mid-2000's, well after what she calls her “moment of cultural relevance.” It reads like Spinal Tap as filtered through depression. The vignette that stuck with me was of a concert she gave in a multipurpose room at a community center. Five people showed up, each looking embarrassed at her own conspicuousness. JH plowed forward anyway – if she didn't, she wouldn't get paid – and sang to the clock on the opposite wall.

There's something poignant about the post-relevance pop star. Although the culture remembers her, if at all, as a creature of about 1994, she didn't go away. In the arc of her life and career, the fame part was relatively brief and aberrant. Other than the obligatory and off-key happy ending, the book is really about the compulsion to keep on plodding, long after most people have stopped caring. I admire the spirit, even if the point is sometimes hard to isolate.

TB's Rejection

This weekend TB asked his favorite girlfriend if he could kiss her, and she said no.

The tradition continues...

Halloween Preparations

Our annual protest against the tyranny of the Disney princesses continues. This year TG will be an astronaut. She has the orange jumpsuit, and TW found her a soft astronaut's helmet online. It even has a little black microphone that comes around the front, so she can talk to mission control. Last year she was a “kittycat doctor,” so we're keeping with a theme.

Lost Ipod at the Gym

Last week I lost my ipod in the gym. I've heard it said that you can find lost items by blogging about them, so here goes. Heeeeeere, ipod. Heeeeere, ipod. I have some nice podcasts for you...

Friday, October 24, 2008


There was a time when I usually used the word “rocks” as a verb. Now it's very much a noun.

In implementing the current round of budget cuts, the first task has been to get every example of a few categories of expense on a single list, so we can prioritize. This is harder than you might think. I've already had several meetings that have gone pretty much like this:

DD: “Okay, so now we finally have everything, right?”

Colleague 1: “Right.”

DD: “Good. So our total is...”

C1: “Wait! What about [bizarre, byzantine exception]?”

DD: “Huh?”

C1: “That started several years ago, when [long-gone admin] told [litigious tenured prof] that if he did [something he didn't want to], he would get [plum] every [so often]”

DD: “Huh?”

C2: “My area does that differently. We do the plums twice as often!”

C3: “And I stopped giving them out two years ago, based on a conversation with [other long-gone admin]”

C1: “Is that why [other tenured prof] is always complaining about unequal treatment?”

DD: {sigh}

Repeat for several hours, until the living envy the dead.

Every time we turn over a rock, something nasty and slimy and awful crawls out. Worse, the nasty thing manages to dislodge another rock.

The long-term good news, I keep telling myself, is that eventually we'll run out of rocks. Eventually, all the nasty and slimy stuff will be exposed, and we can get a handle on it and move forward. And replacing all the slimy stuff with transparent and aboveboard arrangements will be more sustainable, once we overcome the inertial resistance.

That's what I keep telling myself.

But I'll admit, at the end of a day like this, it's a stretch. There's just an amazing number of rocks out there, and it's tiring. And each little slimy discovery mounts its own defense.

It it really still only October?

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Wise and worldly readers, I need the benefit of your varied experience.

Have you been able to make a January intersession work on your campus?

If so, how?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Which Job Market Are We Talking About?

I had one of those moments of cognitive dissonance this week, when I was at a meeting trying to establish a regional consortium to prepare workers for a particular industry.

The 'industry' people who were there were anxious to form partnerships with cc's to prepare entry-level workers. Most of the cc's there were eager, too, since our students want jobs, and we would love to be able to tell them truthfully that a given program is highly likely to lead to a solid job. (That's already the case in the Nursing program, which is why it has to turn away many more students than it accepts.)

I didn't share the enthusiasm of the group, though, and it took me the drive home to figure out why.

The industry in question is concentrated heavily in a different part of the state. The students at my cc, and they aren't unusual in this, generally like to stay local. They want jobs, but they want the jobs to be local.

What makes that tricky is that some of the locally-stronger industries are in national decline. They still need employees in certain areas, and periodically hire our grads, but the overall trend line is pretty clear. For argument's sake, it's like the last remaining dot-matrix printer company is local, and it needs a steady, if declining, flow of new people trained in dot-matrix technology. The local students want jobs, and would be happy (in the short term) to get those jobs. Should we train them for a dying industry? Or should we focus on industries that are growing elsewhere, but that aren't really here yet?

Those of us (okay, I'm a nerd, I admit it) who remember the debates over “industrial policy” have learned a knee-jerk aversion to the idea of “picking winners.” Supposedly, it's arrogant to substitute one's own judgment for the all-knowing market. Of course, one could also argue that it's criminally shortsighted not to notice larger national and international trends. (One could also argue that the market is, itself, the sum of individual judgments, so it's a bit of a false dichotomy.) Take Kodak as an example. As recently as the 90's, Kodak looked like an indestructible behemoth; now, with digital photography having rendered film obsolete for most purposes, Kodak is a shell of its former self. Training people for Kodak seemed to make sense just a short time ago; now it would be insane. My suspicion is that some of our local industries are roughly where Kodak was around, say, 1998. They're still chugging, but I wouldn't place bets on their continued viability. But the new stuff hasn't come around yet to replace it, and it's always possible that my suspicion is wrong.

It would be easy to favor the new over the old if we had enough of the new stuff locally to make the argument plausible. But we don't. So we're in the weird position of either asking our students to take skills and move away, or to acquire skills with what is likely to be a terribly finite lifespan to stay local.

Although we like to talk about a national or global economy, for many of our students, the economy that's relevant to them is the one within a half-hour radius. That local economy may or may not reflect (yet) the larger global trends. Telling our students that there are great jobs several hours away in an industry they've never seen before is just too abstract for many of them.

The educator in me sees this as a teachable moment, and in a way, it is. Provincialism is a form of ignorance, and in certain ways, it's curable. But it's not just a question of ignorance. Family ties are real, and personal history is not to be taken lightly. CC students in particular often come bundled with family obligations, local ties, and various reasons to stay local; that's part of what makes cc's unique. The “community” part of “community college” shouldn't just be rhetorical. But what do you do when the economy of the local community is on the losing side of a much larger trend?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clueless in Seattle

An alert reader sent me this story from the Seattle Times. It's about the hiring and abrupt firing, with allegations of physical assault, of Washington State University Provost Steven Hoch. It's worth reading in its entirety, since every detail seems sillier than the one before it. Even without any additional information, I read the story very differently than its author apparently does.

A quick read would suggest that Hoch is the bad guy, and he may be. (I don't know any of the principals in this case, and I don't have any inside information about it.) Certainly the headline -- “WSU did not verify provost's references” -- would lead a casual reader to suspect that Hoch had, say, a taste for heroin or a penchant for streaking. But read on, and a few gems come to light.

Apparently, prior to starting there, a few administrators Hoch thought would report to him “made it clear that they would not be answering to him, but only to [President] Floyd.” Alarmed, Hoch sent a memo to the President, outlining what he thought the proper chain of command actually was. The President, Elson Floyd, responded:

"I write to tell you that I find your memorandum ... deeply troubling for several reasons: 1) In over three decades of university administration, I have never received this type of confirming correspondence from a colleague. In my judgment, it sends a strong signal of lack of trust; and 2) I do not intend to have a relationship with colleagues desirous of reducing conversations to writing."
Floyd goes on to say in the e-mail that as "you gain a deeper familiarity with the WSU culture and climate, you will come to understand that I have created an organization that is more driven by relationships than reporting lines."

Wow. Just, wow.

“I have created an organization that is more driven by relationships than reporting lines.” If there's a more succinct summary of narcissistic management, I haven't seen it.

Reducing unclear (or high-stakes) conversations to written summary is Management 101. It's done specifically to prevent misunderstandings that can result from selective memory, inattention, ambiguous language, or worse. Hoch encountered a scenario different from the one he thought he had agreed to, so he tried to get written clarification. That's what you're supposed to do. It's a way of clarifying boundaries. The President took offense, since narcissists hate boundaries.

Later, when Hoch started the job, the underlings took offense when he took the written chain of command literally. He reacted badly, but he was right to be shocked.

Now, the President is insinuating – without proof – that there's a deep character flaw in Hoch. (That's the subtext of “we should have checked his references.”) There may or may not be, but that sort of tut-tutting is straight out of the manage-by-favoritism playbook. If someone didn't play along, the only possible explanation is a character flaw. (Soviet psychology worked by the same principle – if you're unhappy in the workers' paradise, you must be insane.) It couldn't be, say, a realization that the courtier system is fundamentally flawed.

Now Hoch looks bad for accepting the extraordinarily well-paid fallback position to which he's contractually entitled, and the President is quoted in the story as deliberately fostering a hostile work environment. Amazing.

Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up.

It's notoriously difficult to spot toxic situations before getting into them. People are often on their best behavior during the interview/courtship phase, and enough of that ritual is scripted that it can difficult to pick up red flags while there's still time. At that point, information is limited and filtered, and often viewed in the most optimistic possible light. And very few people have enough self-awareness to know their flaws, let alone the confidence to confess them. (Weirdly, I've seen plenty of people with just enough self-awareness to explicitly deny their own flaws, even while displaying them. How exactly that works I'll leave to the psychologists.) Besides, if you're on the market in the first place, it's probably because there's something unsatisfying about your current situation, so you may be willing to discount red flags at the new place on the grounds that hey, at least it's not the old place.

I suppose it's possible that WSU is the land of milk and honey, in which peace and love reign, and into which an outsider attempted to introduce sin. Anything's possible, I suppose.

But I don't buy it. I wish Dr. Hoch well in his new faculty role. And I suggest that if he wants to clear his name, that he publicly donate a huge chunk of his salary to the WSU foundation for student scholarships. Kill them with kindness.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Find the Money in the Budget"

If you want to watch a dean's eyes roll back into her head, just ask for something and tell her to “find the money in the budget.”

I've heard this phrase dozens of times over the last several years, but it still strikes me as slightly odd. It gives the impression that funding new projects is a matter of looking for change between sofa cushions. And, in a way, it is.

Budgets are comprised of line items, each of which is supposed to be dedicated to a particular expenditure. Some of those commitments are 'hard,' and therefore inviolate: contractually-guaranteed salaries, matching funds for grants, utility payments. The rest are varying degrees of 'soft,' ranging from travel funding to office supplies to software training workshops. This isn't to say that they're unnecessary or frivolous, but that they're fungible; if needed, it's possible to move money from workshops to office supplies or vice versa. (The softest of all is the increasingly mythical “contingency” line, which is the “in case of emergency, break glass” line. In tight times, this is always the first to go. And you'd be surprised how many different ways people can define “emergency.”) “Finding the money in the budget” consists of deciding that you could probably take a given line a little lower without disaster striking, and using the proceeds to pay for something else.

From the outside, it's probably easy to imagine that 'soft' money is just sitting there for the taking, a slush fund to bankroll all manner of perfidy. But that's pretty much only true when there's a huge stinkin' pile of it. In fact, those 'soft' accounts are what we look to when people propose new projects, repairs, affiliations, accreditations, or whatever else wasn't planned over a year in advance. If we didn't have something soft, we couldn't respond to anything less than a year in advance. The server died yesterday? Can you wait a year?

When the cuts come, as they have, those soft accounts get hit first. That's not because they're flush, but because everything else requires more lead time. Over two-thirds of the college budget is personnel, most of whom are under annual (or lifetime) contract. That means that midyear cuts have to come from the remaining less-than-one-third, just by default. The trick, and it's a mean one, is in guesstimating just how low you can take each of those 'soft' lines without running aground by June.

(There's a great old Dilbert cartoon in which the boss asks for an itemized list of all unexpected expenses for the coming year, so he can budget for them. If only...)

Unexpected expenses happen. Yes, good management can usually discern reasonable ballpark figures for various things, but nobody is omniscient. Boilers die when they die, and any given winter can be snowier or less snowy than the one before it. On the personnel side, I don't know which professors will drop out sick this year, but I can bet that some will, and that we'll have to have money for long-term subs. And anybody who would care to share insights about the price of oil in the next six months is welcome to do so. (My guess is like the economist who was asked to predict interest rates over the next year: “I believe they will fluctuate.”)

Several years ago, Eric Klinenberg wrote a wonderful book about the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. Among the many points he made, he noted that part of the reason the city was so underprepared for the heat wave was that it had made so many cuts to so many “inefficiencies” over the years that there wasn't enough slack left in the budget for when something catastrophic happened. (The book came out before Katrina hit; reading it now, it seems prescient.) If the state wouldn't mess with our budget, we could leave enough 'soft' money to handle most reasonably-foreseeable disasters. When the state makes itself a disaster, we're really at the mercy of the fates.

Back before “Keynesianism” became a dirty word, some people grasped that when the economy implodes, the Feds should increase aid to states, specifically to prevent services from collapsing precisely when they're most needed. During recessions, the opportunity cost of education is unusually low; this is precisely the time to invest in it. There was once a time when policymakers grasped that. Perhaps soon they will again. Until then, I have to find some more money in the budget. Here's hoping for a mild winter...

Friday, October 17, 2008


Maggie's post on temperament and leadership really gets it right – check it out.

Although the term “servant leadership” creeps me out – my past experience with people who used it was that they were juuuust a little too self-congratulatory about it – Maggie really nails the dynamic of blending confidence and egolessness. Watching the debates, I'd be hard-pressed to repeat anything Obama said, but his demeanor stuck with me; in the midst of nuttiness, he's unflappable. After watching, I come away seeing McCain less as another Bush than as another Cheney, angrily grumbling at the neighborhood kids to get the hell off his lawn. With Obama, there's a contagious, confident calm.

I don't have Obama's gifts, and I certainly haven't had a life like his. But he's absolutely worth watching as a leadership study.

I've watched on my campus as the budget news has progressed with surprising speed from 'bad' to 'awful' to 'repent your sins.' And I've watched people at different levels react in different ways, each eliciting different reactions. I'm beginning to realize that when you're a public figure, even if in a limited context, demeanor is what people remember.

When someone in a staff role has a meltdown, that person and his immediate coworkers feel it. When someone in a public role has a meltdown, everybody gets scared. Public meltdowns make a bad situation worse, even when they're based on a clearsighted recognition of some external reality.

The usual administrator's playbook says that when things get bad, you get evasive. Change the subject, or find something to praise, or if you're really stuck, trot out the vague cliches. This is actually better than having a meltdown, but it doesn't really inspire confidence, either. At best, it's a holding action. Sometimes that's the best you can do, of course, but it rarely has the desired effect.

Lately, I've been experimenting with a new approach. On a few recent occasions, as things have become particularly scary, I've gone into public discussions with my guard down and plenty of facts at hand. Instead of bracing for confrontation, I've simply admitted the limits of what I know, put the facts out there, acknowledged my own biases, and asked for input. And I have to admit being embarrassed at how badly I've underestimated some of my colleagues. (I'll even admit being embarrassed now, when I reread some of my posts from a few years ago.)

Okay, I'm a slow learner. And it's hard.

The responses, mostly, have been heartening. Instead of the self-righteous pushback and 'gotcha' moves that have been entirely too common over the years, I'm actually starting to see a real exchange of ideas. Some of that is the clarity that crisis brings – when the state is in free-fall, it's hard to reduce all bad things to this or that dean. But some of it, I think, is an almost palpable need for a sense of safety and calm. The best responses come when we collectively bring some legibility to the chaos. That feeling of 'getting a handle on it' seems to help, like pretending you're steering when you're on a roller coaster. And sometimes getting a handle on it means letting go of some of your own stuff.

The trick is to make it look easy, to project calm. That's freakin' hard, but it's also half the message.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ask the Administrator: VP's du Jour

This isn't a question, per se, but it's too good not to quote. A longtime correspondent writes (edited for relative anonymity):

Our chief academic officer (CAO) just submitted his resignation. He will have been here (less than three years) when he steps down. Over the last decade, we have had more 'interims' than 'permanents' in that role, and few have lasted more than a couple of years.

From the time the current CAO arrived until this past summer, he and our chief administrative officer (a staff position, not our president) fought over their relative status on campus and about access to the president. Last summer, things came to a head, our faculty governance group took a very strong position in support of the CAO, and our president asked for the resignation of the administrative honcho. Reluctantly.

So here we go again. For more than a decade, we've had really, really fragmented academic leadership, no clear direction, things happening in fits and starts, declining-to-stagnant enrollments, individual programs more concerned with protecting their turf (a problem in good times; imagine what it's been like here) than with helping develop the institution. And several presidents, so not all that much continuity of leadership there, either.

My current feeling is that we should call the position Interim Acting Temporary Until Things Get Worse While We Spend Another Five Years Looking for a Permanent VC Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, but I don't think anyone would apply for that.

Yuck. This kind of turnover is distressingly common, in my observation. In fact, not long ago, a national study pegged the average length-of-service of an academic vice president at a jaw-dropping three years. I don't know if that counted 'interims,' but even if it did, that's an amazing amount of turnover when you factor in learning curves.

My first reaction, which may or may not be accurate, is that the current President has a gladiatorial style of management, in which he pits his various underlings against each other as a conscious strategy. The theory behind that, as near as I can muster, is that competition is supposed to bring out everyone's best. (Donald Trump did this on The Apprentice.) Of course, student services and academics aren't supposed to be in competition, so what actually happens is one-upsmanship, silly political infighting, and focus directed away from the health of the institution as a whole and towards games of leapfrog among the courtiers. It's pathological, degrading, and silly. (My personal theory is that the 'competition' justification is just a rationalization for the preferences of narcissistic personalities, though I'll admit that's just a theory.) Eventually, vp's subjected to this will either lose so badly that they can't really stay there, or just get sick of it all and walk. Either way, it's a turnover generator, and you couldn't pay me enough to walk into that.

Based on other observation, I also suspect a direct correlation between a leadership vacuum in the middle, and hard silos on the ground. When the center doesn't hold, departments and programs usually turn inward and play defense. It's individually rational, even if collectively insane. When programs are more concerned about scoring points against each other than with growing the institution as a whole, it isn't hard to predict the long-term trend. Worse, it tends to be self-amplifying over time, since the first department to let down its shields gets mobbed, which the rest take as confirmation that they should continue to play defense.

Turning around a situation like that takes extraordinary leadership. Off the top of my head, it would require a new and very different President, a housecleaning of many of the upper-level administrative ranks, an early retirement package for long-entrenched faculty, a reorg or two, some farsighted union leadership (if you have unions), and a Board willing to take the short-term heat for a long-term improvement. Also, a big blast of external money would help. That's a tall order in the best of times. Whichever of those happens first will encounter tremendous opposition, and may or may not survive.

Although bashing administrators is great sport, and very frequently justified, the truth is that the strike zone in these jobs is remarkably narrow. Presidents can overreach and micromanage, thereby destroying the integrity of the institution, or they can withdraw, leaving each division for itself and sowing divisiveness. VP's who have to please mercurial Presidents can't necessarily make the best decisions for their own areas, with destructive fallout all the way down. And a faculty that puts too much faith in a given VP, without understanding the insanity of the situation higher up, is setting itself up for bitter disappointment. That's true regardless of individual intention or preference.

I don't envy you your situation. Honestly, if my diagnosis is anywhere near correct, your CAO probably has the right idea. Sometimes the best answer is to walk.

Good luck!

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Maybe I'm Jaded, But...

This story didn't surprise me.

Having been on this side of the desk for a while now, I can attest that I've heard deans, HR directors, department chairs, and even vice presidents say candidly that adjuncts are underpaid. We pretty much all agree on that. (I've never heard a counterargument beyond “nobody put a gun to their heads.”) It may be surprising to hear it from a podium, but it's nothing that hasn't been floating around for some time.

Some of the comments to the IHE story are dispiriting, in that they seem to suggest that any administrator who wants to can just wave a magic wand and create tenure-track positions out of the clear blue sky. They also fall into the trap of assuming that bad results can only be explained by bad intentions.

Quick quiz: which of the following bothers the public more?

1.Tenured professors being replaced by adjuncts
2.Tuition increasing faster than inflation

If you guessed 1, you probably work in higher ed. The correct answer is 2. And keeping a relative lid on 2 is one of the driving forces behind 1.

In my state, as in most at this point, we're actually taking budget cuts right now. The taxpayers are crying out for more and deeper cuts. We're running a deficit supporting the faculty and staff we have now. In this context, the resources for conscience-driven hiring are supposed to come from where, exactly?

(Perversely enough, the percentage of courses taught by full-timers in the short term will probably increase, even without new hiring, since we're balancing this year's budget by cutting released time. When that happens, the existing full-time faculty teach more courses, and the adjuncts fewer. Our adjunct percentage will drop accordingly. I doubt this is what Cary Nelson had in mind, but there it is.)

Over the years I've blogged, I've seen repeatedly that the attitudes prevalent in higher ed have yet to catch up to the facts on the ground. Conscience-driven appeals may have at least held the potential of working, back when resources were relatively flush. But at this point, especially at the cc level, we make the decisions we have to make. They can be carried out well or badly, and I absolutely agree that the common practice of making implied promises to adjuncts to lead them on is objectionable. (It goes the other way, too – I'm concerned that integrating adjuncts too completely into the life of the college will open up the college to a backbreaking lawsuit. If adjuncts become truly indistinguishable from full-timers, then the pay differential is unsustainable. To protect the institution, it's crucial to have some sort of clear boundary, even if we'd rather not. The ability to believe both “what must be” and “what I'd prefer,” even when the two conflict, is a basic job requirement for administration. I like to think of it as a tragic sensibility.) But assuming infinite freedom of action among administrators is simply false, and it leads to blind alleys and useless infighting.

I'd prefer to see the loop-the-loop arguments wind down, in favor of action that might actually help. For example, and I know that most of us aren't ready to hear this yet, I think it's time we drop the “one size fits all” idea of the job of a professor. Is the daily work of a community college professor really the same as the daily work of an R1 professor? If it isn't – and it isn't – then why do we insist on using all the same terms and categories to judge both?

And rather than continuing to pretend that community colleges are sitting on Ivy-sized endowments, let's take the battle for resources where it really belongs: the public. Until the public buys into the idea of steady, reliable, sustained, serious funding for public higher ed, we're chasing our tails. I think that the first move there is to reframe it as a truly public good, rather than as a private good to be supported by user fees. After decades of horrific politics, the concept of a public good seems almost quaint, but in its absence we just don't make sense. Either we're serious about an educated workforce and citizenry, or we are not.

Until that happens, administrators everywhere will make choices we'd rather not make, knowing full well their human costs. Bash us when we mess up, but let's stop pretending that it's all just a matter of bringing enlightenment to a few suits. We know. We know.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In Praise of Boondoggles

I have the relative misfortune of following in the footsteps of some pretty good managers. Right now a brain-dead predecessor would come in handy.

As veterans of downcycles in the public sector can tell you, large-scale cuts are often done in an 'across the board' way. (“Every cc in the state will lose ten percent of its appropriation this year” -- that kind of thing.) That means that previous profligacy can actually save an institution, since there's fat to cut. It also means that previous frugality is punished, since the only way to sustain a serious reduction when the fat is already gone is to cut things that actually matter. Across-the-board cuts are made without reference to the spending habits of any given college, so an already-efficient college has nowhere easy to go.

Annoyingly enough, my predecessors seem to have been pretty good with budgets. What I wouldn't give for an “executive retreat” line item, or maybe an “annual vanity conference” appropriation. Those come in handy when times get tight, since you can cut them without giving up anything that really matters.

Capital projects often resemble boondoggles, but 'capital' and 'operating' budgets are typically kept separate, so savings from 'capital' won't save you if you need to cut 'operating.' There's also the unfortunate truth that once you've gone to a certain point in a construction project, it's actually cheaper just to finish it.

In a perfect world, of course, legislators would be savvy enough to know which colleges make a habit of spending money stupidly and which don't, and would distribute cuts accordingly. (Actually, in a perfect world, the concept of 'cuts' would be foreign and bizarre.) But that's not how these things play out. Typically we either get the flat percentage cut, or – and this can be worse – the percentage cut that also comes with rules (what we on campus call a “negatively funded mandate”). The rules are a gesture towards prudence, but since they're usually at least as blunt as the cuts, they wind up causing all manner of counterproductive response on the ground. I'd rather take a straight 10 percent cut than a 10 percent cut that also comes with a mandatory hiring freeze, for example, since some positions only have one person in them, and not-replacing is really not an option. In practice, we'd take a pretty strict line on hiring anyway, given a 10 percent cut, but it would be nice to be able to make those decisions according to actual need. (“Implement a 10 percent cut, but don't replace the auditor who just quit.” Alrighty then.)

The public image of higher ed doesn't help, either. The Harvards and Stanfords of the world dominate media coverage to such a degree that if you didn't know any better, you'd think that the major issue around higher ed finance is failure to spend enough endowment money. That's true of a remarkably small slice of higher ed – all of it private – but it doesn't help us rally the troops.

The lesson I'm picking up from all this is to be just a little less critical of Presidents who fund otherwise-inexplicable pet projects. When those horrible, thoughtless, across-the-board cuts arrive, it's good to have something relatively painless to sacrifice. Frugality in good times leads to brutality in bad. A little wastefulness in good times may actually serve a purpose.

Friday, October 10, 2008

An Open Letter to the City of Boston

Dear Boston,

Although I mostly enjoyed my recent visit, I couldn't help but notice that some of your residents seem confused on a basic point. Allow me to clarify.

The middle lane is not for parking.

Thank you.


Dean Dad

Thursday, October 09, 2008


'Sustainability' usually refers to the environment, but I think it makes sense in referring to organizations, too. Some structures, cultures, and behaviors are more sustainable than others over time.

My college is in the midst of some external financial shocks of astonishing severity. (It's a measure of how bad things are nationally that I can say that and not worry about compromising pseudonymity.) There's simply no way to take cuts of this magnitude and not feel them. This is especially true with the academic year already well under way, since we've already committed to the Fall classes and signed most of the staff to annual (July-to-June) contracts. Worse, it's fairly clear that we aren't yet close to hitting the bottom of the current cycle, so whatever cuts we make right now are not likely to be the last.

(This is the real downside to the public sector. When tax revenues crash, we can't help but feel it. And since nobody is about to say “jeez, how many more prisons do we actually need?,” or “let's let the baseball team pay for its own damn stadium,” or “you know, progressive taxation wasn't such a bad idea after all,” higher ed takes a disproportionate slam.)

As a subsidized nonprofit with a mission of providing access for the poor and working class, the tuition and fees we charge don't cover all of our costs. That's not a mistake; that's by design. Although we charge tuition, our underlying model is closer to public libraries or the K-12 system than to a for-profit business. That's because, like public libraries and the K-12 system, there's an underlying concept that community colleges are public goods.

I like that aspect of the community college mission. I can sleep well at night knowing that my job, when push comes to shove, is about helping people with few options acquire the skills and credentials to make better lives for themselves. I'm good with that.

But the boom-bust cycle of public funding does a number on an institution whose work, by design, takes years.

Having spent most of the week reeling from the shock of some of the numbers I've seen, I'm beginning to think there's actually an upside to the collapse. When funding is almost-enough, it's possible to balance the books by trimming here and adjuncting there, without really disturbing the underlying model. Then when the bad times come, you juggle layoffs and furloughs and maybe even a program closure or two, until the money comes back and order can be restored.

No. No more. Enough.

There's a saying that nothing focuses the mind like a gun to the head. When 'shortfall' becomes 'free fall,' the cost of denial becomes prohibitive. In breathtakingly short order, we've blown right past the point at which the usual playbook will do.

If we're going to survive the next few years with the kind of financial hits we're taking now, we're going to have to start working with some blank sheets of paper. And we're going to have to do it in inclusive ways, or the infighting will prevent anybody's idea from succeeding.

Perversely enough, the severity of what we're facing now may actually do some long-term good. The usual half-measures, which avoid just enough conflict, just won't cut it. I'm thinking it's time to get clear on the distinction between means and ends, and to treat means with no more reverence than you'd treat any other tool. Deference to the fiefdoms of strong personalities is just too expensive to sustain.

The tricky part will be in maintaining enough trust to get productive changes on the table and on the ground without falling victim to internal politics. 'Faculty vs. administration' becomes moot when a college closes. In the original meaning of the word, it's time to get radical.

Incrementalism just isn't sustainable anymore.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Governance Without Tears

Yesterday's IHE features a thought-provoking piece on the structural contradictions within shared governance. It isn't entirely successful, but it gets the major things right, and even its failures are instructive.

The 'hook' of the piece is the (correct) observation that faculty's incentives and administrators' incentives are often poorly aligned with each other, and sometimes simply contradictory. Faculty are trained to devote their first loyalty to their disciplines, rather than the colleges for which they work, and the up-or-out nature of tenure often means that they get trapped for life at an institution they've been trained to believe is beneath them. (This is especially true as you move down the academic pecking order. If you got your doctorate at a major, respected R1, but you're teaching at Nothing Special State Teachers College, it can be hard to shake that nagging sense of resentment.) Although the article doesn't mention this, the two-body problem that many younger academic couples have makes matters worse; 'your tenure or your marriage' is not a happy choice to have to make.

Administrators, as a group, face a different environment. Administrative jobs don't carry tenure, and may or may not carry faculty rank. (Mine haven't, for example, though the article seems to assume that most do.) The bulk of my daily work addresses the guts of my college, rather than what one academic discipline might find interesting. 'Service,' the category of faculty work with the least payoff, is most of what I do. To professors oriented to the latest and hottest work in their scholarly fields, most of what I do probably looks like busywork (at best). It (mostly) isn't, but the ubiquity of the perception among faculty speaks to a specific set of attitudes.

Oddly, given the different orientation towards the guts of the institution, administrators actually have more geographic flexibility than do most non-superstar faculty. The folks who care the least about the institution that actually pays them are the ones who stick around the longest; the folks whose day-to-day work is all about sustaining the institution usually last somewhere between two and seven years. The mismatch leads to – among other things – some nasty issues with morale and stereotyping.

There's also an information asymmetry between the groups. Most academic administrators have been faculty, but most faculty haven't been administrators. As the article notes precisely:

Yet there’s a conundrum: While faculty and administrators alike argue that academic administrators must come from the faculty, faculty training does not adequately prepare people to manage large and complex organizations. This is especially important as universities get bigger and more complex. When a campus is the size of a small town, it’s not enough to have been a marvelous cell biologist or a meticulous Romance scholar.

The mismatch of skills sometimes finds expression in the canard that administrators are 'failed faculty.' Other than the obvious, part of the cost of such reverse snobbery lay in the talents untapped by people who aren't willing to buck cultural norms.

Where the article trips up slightly is in its recommendations. After having noted, correctly, that faculty and administrators often misunderstand each other because they're trying to solve different problems, it recommends 'more permeable boundaries' between the two camps. Well, okay, but we're still stuck with the 'conundrum' they nailed so accurately above. If a marvelous cell biologist spends a couple of years as an incompetent associate dean before giving way to a meticulous Romance scholar as the next incompetent associate dean, I'm not entirely clear what's being gained.

Having been trapped in far too many conversations with professors whose concept of college budgets was “there's my department, and then there's everything else,” I can't simply sign on to 'increased transparency' as the panacea. Tendentious reading will defeat transparency every time. Instead, I'd be much more optimistic about shifting faculty incentives so they align more with the actual needs of the college. Get the incentives right, and the behavior will follow. If you want more and better college service, make it count – really count -- in promotion, merit pay, and tenure decisions. I'm intrigued by a few colleges that have tied faculty pay raises to enrollment increases, for example. It's a blunt instrument, to be sure, but at least it has a way of introducing an element of reality to the conversation.

If faculty can become more fluent in some of the economic, legal, and political realities facing colleges, they can become much more effective advocates for their own interests, since they'll know which arguments will actually fly. (I consider this blog my contribution to the cause.) Those who prove particularly good at it would make excellent administrators, the better to build trust over time.

The alternative is simply to abandon shared governance as a quaint carryover from the guild era, and to run colleges like businesses, with faculty as customer service reps and administrators as management. There's a certain simplicity to that, but if we want 'management' to actually understand what's at stake, I'd rather go with the 'new incentives' approach.

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Today's List is Brought to You by the Letter 'R'










Tune in next week, when the list will be brought to you by the letter 'F'

Monday, October 06, 2008

Mental Gobstoppers

When I saw the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka, I was taken with the idea of everlasting gobstoppers. They were hard candies that never melted or lost their flavor; they'd last as long as you could. Something about it intrigued me, even beyond the obvious 'never running out of candy' usefulness.

I'm beginning to think that there's a cognitive equivalent of everlasting gobstoppers. They're the comments that you hear once in a while that suggest a much greater depth than you can process at the moment. You can't quite decode them, but you can't forget them, either. Years later, you see or hear something else and think “ooooohhhhh, that's what that was about.”

Some people toss off gobstoppers like, well, candy. They just throw these little sourballs of wisdom out into the ether, and you catch what you can and hold onto it for as long as it takes. When I find people like that – they're rare, but they're out there – I shut the hell up and try to catch as much as I can. Once in a while, many years later, I'll get that satisfying mental click when the line finally makes sense.

My dissertation advisor was one of those people. He died several years ago, and we had lost touch several years before that. He and I had a difficult relationship, partly due to fundamentally different ways of seeing the world and partly due to my own constitutional inability to be anybody's follower. In plenty of basic ways, each of us considered the other mystifying, and we seemed able to offend each other without even trying. And yet, when he got going on his favorite subjects, he had a way of hurling gobstoppers. Even at my most contrarian, and when I had no flippin' idea what he was talking about, some of his lines had the unmistakable air of the gobstopper about them. I didn't know what he was getting at, but I knew it was something good. Some of those stuck with me.

This weekend, I had the eerie moment of registering exactly what one of those lines meant. I first heard it probably fifteen years ago, and I remember being both slightly offended and slightly humbled.
I can remember the room in which I heard it, the occasion, and the slightly electric silence of the group when he said it. I remember the distinct impression that this seemingly-inexplicable statement portended something wise and true, and being frustrated that I couldn't suss it out.

(I won't share the statement here, since it's entirely too revealing, and if you didn't have my distinct frame of reference, you'd probably be underwhelmed. It works in a particular context. Feel free to substitute your own.)

Folks who knew me in grad school can attest that I was sort of chronically unsatisfied with pretty much everything, including myself. Even at the time, I had a sense that some of that had to do with not having had enough life behind me to really appreciate some of what I was dealing with, and therefore being trapped at predictable, asinine, first-level responses. I knew I was callow, but that's not exactly the kind of thing you can fix through determination. Knowing it didn't help, and in a sense actually contributed to the frustration, since I couldn't just blame my dissatisfaction on other people. (Of course, there was also the ridiculous poverty, which certainly didn't help.)

The occasional gobstopper – call it a wisdom mcnugget, if you want – stopped me in my tracks, since it so clearly showed me that I was falling short of who I wanted to be. I could hear just enough echo of wisdom to know that I was missing something, but not nearly enough to know exactly what. Once in a while I'd boil over and actually let fly with some knee-jerk sign of frustration, which didn't help, either.

This weekend I finally 'got' what he was trying to say, right before the electric silence. (Annoyingly, after getting it, I know that it should have been obvious.) Even better, I got why I couldn't quite decode it at the time. And I can finally forgive myself.

It's okay to be callow. That passes. And it's okay to be frustrated – frustration can motivate progress.

And sometimes it's okay to be a jumpy twentysomething. The world has survived those before, and will again. Some ideas just take a little more seasoning to appreciate.

He's gone now, so I can't thank him directly. Instead, I'll just send this post out into the ether, hoping that somehow it makes some minor payment on a life debt.

Thanks, big guy. I get it now.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Grants and Plans

As direct operating subsidies are losing ground against our expenses, and becoming increasingly tenuous as tax revenues drop, we're turning increasingly to grants to find the money to get things done.

Grants are great in many ways, of course. They give us revenue that doesn't rely on taxpayers or students; they allow us to experiment; they increase the number of people interested in seeing that we do our jobs well. In a few areas in which our grantsmanship has been particularly successful, we've been able to supply opportunities and resources for students we otherwise couldn't have.

But grant money comes with conditions, and as grants become more important, so do those conditions. We're increasingly defining our operating budget around filling in the gaps between grant programs, or around grant expiration dates. Worse, long-range planning becomes difficult when our controllable funds are tenuous, and grant availability fluctuates with the political winds.

Over the years, a number of grant-funded (grant-founded, really) programs have attained a certain level of popularity on campus. When the grants expired, the programs became part of the college's operating budget. In a way, that's the purpose of grants: they're often intended to be “seed money,” with the idea that the seed would grow into a permanent part of your plant. I can understand the impulse, but sometimes I wonder if the folks behind the grants actually understand how nonprofits work.

In the non-profit world, the occasional big splash is relatively easy. What's difficult is maintaining a high level of service over time. In other words, seed money is great, but what we really need is steady, reliable, predictable operating funds.

Steady, reliable, predictable operating funds allow for thoughtful long-term planning, since you can actually have a reasonable idea of the resources you can devote to any given enterprise. They allow for inclusive planning, since promises made can actually be kept. They even allow for meaningful assessments of success or failure, since you can actually keep focus on the same task over time.

When that's sacrificed to the political winds, and the best you can do is to keep hopping from grant to grant, long-term planning becomes much harder. At any given RFP, you have to drop whatever you've been doing and try to match the conditions of the latest program. Multiply that over the years, and you wind up with a crazy-quilt of programs assembled whenever the opportunity came along, rather than a coherent whole.

In better years, when the public subsidies are actually keeping pace with inflation for more than a year at a time, you can fill in some of the gaps with careful planning. But when the public funding gets cut – even worse, when it gets cut at midyear, which is looking increasingly likely – careful planning is off the table. At that point, decisions are made based on exigency, rather than sustainability. (That's the best case. The worst case has decisions being made based on politics, favoritism, and the like.) And the prospect of not pursuing a grant, any grant, becomes ludicrous – even if the grant isn't a perfect fit, some of the money can probably be used to save something. Long-term coherence can wait.

My heartfelt plea to granting agencies and philanthropists everywhere: seed money is well and good, but if you're really serious about improving access to higher education, we need operating funds. Give grants for existing programs. Support existing institutions. Right now we're running more classes with adjuncts than I care to admit, even while ponying up matching funds for new grants. Honestly, I'd rather skip some new programs and hire some permanent faculty, to give the students those close ties with advisors that we all know they need. (This is one of the underappreciated dynamics behind the shift in administration/faculty ratios: every grant-funded program needs a director.) Extras are great, but first things first.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Overheard at the Junior Lego League Meeting

The scene: an organizational meeting of the junior lego league, in the elementary school cafeteria. We're sitting at the picnic-table-style tables, listening to a badly undermotivated teacher explain the lego league. TB and I are patiently waiting for something to happen. A Dad with three boys sits down next to me.

Teacher: and the projects are really about creativity, you know, thinking outside the box...

Boy 1: What box?

Dad: Shhh.


Dad (urgent stage whisper): The box inside your head.


Dad: Shhh!

Boy 1 (to boy 2): I don't have a box in my head!

Boy 2: Boxhead!

Boy 1: I'm not a boxhead. You're a boxhead.

Boy 3 (laughing): boxhead...

And another figure of speech dies at the junior lego league meeting.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Merit, Mortgages, and Meltdowns

This is old news nationally, but I can confirm that locally, we're seeing a definite impact of the mortgage meltdown on our candidate pools for national searches.

For new faculty, it isn't so bad, since so many new faculty were renting wherever they were before. But for administrative positions, it's getting difficult to get people from outside the area, since they often can't sell their houses, or fear that they can't, or can't get enough for their houses to make the move possible. And community college salaries generally don't come close to making up for lost equity.

The two-body problem is nothing new; now we're starting to see a two-house problem.

People deal with the two-house problem in different ways. Without betraying any confidences, I'll just say I've seen three ways up close, all of them problematic.

One is just to move, and try to sell the old house from a distance. This is remarkably difficult. It's hard to maintain a property from a distance, and paying a mortgage plus rent (or two mortgages) is no small thing. I suppose one could always try to rent out the old house, but that would presume that you wouldn't need the equity from the sale for a down payment on a new one, and/or that you're willing to move twice in short order, and/or that you know exactly when the house will sell, and/or that you can find trustworthy tenants who won't sabotage your attempts to sell. It could work, but the chain of 'ifs' involved is intimidating.

Complicating matters, the store of 'personal days' and 'vacation days' and suchlike is typically lowest in the earliest days on a new job. But that's when they're most needed for the return trips to try to sell. Taking unpaid days while paying for two homes (and transportation between them) is not for the faint of heart.

Alternately, one could simply sell the old house for whatever it will fetch in short order, eat the loss, and move. I think of this as the fiscal equivalent of ripping off a band-aid – it hurts in the moment, but the moment passes and you move on. This can work, but it presumes that you have the cash on hand to survive the loss. It also presumes a home situation in which burning that much cash doesn't cause a major family crisis. (“Honey, we need to wipe out our savings to move. I'm sure you'll find a new job once we get there. And the kids can make new friends.” Nope, no stressors there.) And, non-trivially, it assumes that both you and your buyer can actually get mortgages. That used to be a no-brainer, but not any more.

Finally, one could simply not move. Judging by the recent candidate pools, that's becoming a popular strategy. Of course, not moving is a decision in itself.

From an employer's perspective, decreased mobility means fewer good candidates available for any given search. Worse, the losses are asymmetric in the sense that they increase with distance, so it becomes progressively harder to get folks who aren't already part of the small local world.

A few years ago I noted that the rapid increase in house prices meant that we were having a terrible time recruiting candidates from outside the area, since our salaries didn't keep up with what it cost to live here. Now we're getting a similar effect from the other side; with house prices plummeting, they can't afford to leave their current posts to come here. In both cases, the real problem is rapid and drastic change, rather than the direction of change. Over time, we could adjust to slow and steady change in either direction; it's the whiplash that gets ya. (Of course, a slow and steady downward slide has a nasty effect on the local tax base, but that's another issue.) Volatility is a problem in itself.

Historically, one of the ways that we've honored the goals of 'hiring the best' and 'diversifying the college' has been to cast a wide net in our searches. (I fully embrace this strategy, btw.) Put the ads wherever we can, and hope that a large enough pool for each position – multiplied over enough positions – will allow us to achieve both goals. To the extent that the real estate follies shrink the pool of truly available candidates, both goals become harder. A pool more heavily weighted toward local candidates will be less diverse, and a smaller pool will probably have fewer big fish in it. Instead of hiring the best people who are currently looking, we'll hire the best people who are currently looking who are renting, or who are already local, and who have great credit scores, and who don't have a two-body problem. That's a smaller group from which to choose.

I suppose a really wealthy institution could use signing bonuses to compensate for lost equity, but my cc simply doesn't have that option. (Try selling that to the taxpayers!) So instead we just hope against hope that the damage won't be too bad, and that the market will stabilize enough soon enough that people will consider moving again.

Over the long term, there's something to be said for the 'grow your own' school of management – if you develop your own people enough, the theory goes, you don't have to recruit so many. But you won't diversify that way, and people's development timelines don't always coincide with openings. It's great to have a young hotshot in the comptroller's office who might be ready for a VP position in a few years, but if you need a new VP right now, it really doesn't solve your problem.

Have you seen something like this at your college? Have you been caught in this situation? Is there an elegant solution I'm missing?