Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Book Waiting to be Written

If not for my day job, I'd take a crack at writing a book with the following topic:

How to Steer a College Through a Recession and Make It Stronger

Okay, it's not as catchy as it could be. Maybe something like Lindsay Lohan's Illustrated Weight Loss Secrets and How Colleges Can Navigate Recessions. Admittedly, it's a bit clunky, but at least it would sell. Or maybe Walk it Off, Loser! A No-Nonsense Guide to Colleges' Sucking It Up, to capture the Regnery Press demographic.

Whatever the title, there's a book waiting to be written about higher ed and funding cycles.

Over the break, I had a chance to connect with Grad School Friend who has since left the academy and is now developing a remarkable project for a wildly successful company you've heard of. (Hint: it rhymes with Schmoogle.) As we caught up and I regaled him with stories of the repeated, and accelerating, cycles of cuts with which I'm dealing, he mentioned that it seemed like in bad years, higher ed gets killed, and in good years, it only treads water. It never actually gains.

While there are exceptions here and there, it struck me as essentially accurate. The cycle is decline-plateau-decline-plateau-decline, with the plateaus getting progressively shorter. With each 'recovery,' only a fraction of the previous decline's loss is restored, and then another (and worse) decline starts.

(To see the objective truth of this, just look at the data on adjunct percentages in higher ed over the last thirty years. This isn't just me.)

The macro story is familiar and well-documented. And the story about adjuncts has been pretty well told, even if to remarkably little effect. But the story of how to actually manage from within – of actual improvements generated internally despite what amounts to a nasty fiscal headwind – remains largely unwritten.

That may be because it's fiction, but I choose not to believe that. Even when the external trends are vicious and unrelenting, they can be handled well or badly.

In the absence of a serious, systematic look at handling funding cuts, a sort of unofficial playbook has developed. You go after the softest stuff first – travel funding, professional development, food, a few ceremonies. When that falls short, which it always does, you look at tuition increases, program fees, early retirements, shrinkage-by-attrition (that is, more adjuncts), consolidating administrative positions, larger class sizes, and skimping on physical plant to the extent that you have the option. (That's usually much less helpful than many people think, since capital funding isn't interchangeable with operating funding.) If that still isn't enough, then you go to layoffs and program eliminations.

There's a certain short-term logic to that playbook, and I was struck at a recent statewide meeting of my counterparts at how uniform it is across institutions. Even without consulting with each other, we all pretty much have the same set of moves, and in pretty much the same order. It's essentially a move from 'least resistance' to 'next least' to 'next least' and so on. And that's true regardless of personal inclination, political ideology, or local institutional culture. The gravitational pull of structural imperatives simply overpowers everything else.

I've been thinking a lot about the car companies, and about to what degree they foreshadow the fate of higher ed. Their breathtakingly stubborn refusal to contemplate the long term has caught up with them, leaving even the relatively more thoughtful ones unable to contemplate much more than short-term survival.

Luckily, the comparison is imperfect in many ways. Most obviously, there's no clear Toyota or Honda in higher ed. Yes, the proprietaries are out there, and some of them have some momentum, but even after some pretty impressive increases they remain a relatively small piece of the picture. Education is harder to import than cars are, particularly for those who prefer education in a face-to-face style. The demand for higher education remains as high as it has ever been. In direct contrast to the car companies, our 'sales' actually improve during recessions, since they reduce the opportunity cost of time. (Put differently: if you can't find work anyway, what better use of your time than improving your credentials?) And with the heavy reliance on adjuncts, we certainly can't be accused of indifference to labor costs.

Still, it's hard to think long-term thoughts on an accelerating treadmill. That's the commonality.

I don't usually address philanthropists quite so blatantly, but desperate times, desperate measures, and all that. What we really need is some philanthropist to sponsor a comparative study on intelligent ways of handling ever-more-restrictive budgets. Pay some carefully-chosen people (hi!) to go around the country looking at different public colleges and how they've responded to periodic shortfalls. Gather the best practices, publicize them (preferably with a catchy title), and host discussions on how to improve even on those. In other words, get some folks who are in positions to understand off the treadmill, and give them the resources to take serious stock.

I'm concerned that the alternative to that, or something akin to it, is continued reliance on the same old short-term playbook. And I just don't like where that leads.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Thanksgiving is coming at the right time. On campus, every few weeks we get a new bulletin from the state telling us to anticipate an even bigger cut than the last bulletin. At this point, it feels a lot like when you're standing in the sand and a wave washes over you and recedes, carrying the sand from around your feet with it. Every time you think there's finally a solid perch, another wave hits, and you get shorter without even moving.

In the midst of the doom and gloom, taking a moment to reflect on how well off we actually are, compared to most of the world, is helpful.

The Boy and The Girl are happy, healthy kids who are thriving in their schools. TB loves basketball and reading and building stuff, and he takes after his mother in ways that still surprise me. TG loves her “ballet gymnastics” and her friends and her Daddy, whom she takes after.

(An example: a couple of months ago we all went for a hike on an uncomfortably hot day. The Wife enjoyed herself tremendously. TB bounded ahead like a puppy. I lagged behind. TG lagged conspicuously, saying at one point, “I wish we were in a hotel.” I had to concede the point.)

I'm glad that we've been able to give TB and TG the kind of stable, secure home that lets them not worry about anything beyond their years. Every so often I'll see a sign of depth in one of them that catches my breath. Earlier this week at dinner, TW asked spontaneously “if you could start your own restaurant, what kind of restaurant would it be?” Without skipping a beat, TB said “a soup kitchen.” He went on to explain that that's where people go when they don't have money for food, and he'd like to feed them.

Unprompted, from a seven-year-old, I thought that was pretty good.

At the parent-teacher conference for her preschool, TG's teacher reported that TG is the moral compass of the class. She treats everybody well, and the other kids seek her approval. But she also stands up for herself, showing some backbone (and a trace of vinegar) when some other kid tries to, say, take a toy away from her while she's playing with it. She may only be four, but she knows from 'fair.' No doormats here.

I'm glad, too, to be able to make a living doing work that squares with my sense of ethics. When I do it right, my job involves helping to establish and improve an environment in which people can improve their lot in life through hard work. I'm okay with that. I can sleep well at night knowing that my college helps people help themselves. We've had students who slept in their cars when they came to us, and have since gone on to the Ivy League. If we didn't give them that first shot, I don't know who would have.

Sometimes it's hard to keep the larger good in mind. The annoyances of everyday life build up, personality conflicts are always there, and the accelerating downward spiral of state finances is getting harder to ignore. (On the home front, no matter how committed you are to being a good parent, sometimes you're just wiped. It happens.) And those pesky personal failings don't seem to go away, either.

All of that, granted.

But I still have a great deal to be thankful for, including the holiday's reminder. Compared to most other times, and most other places, and most other jobs, and most other life circumstances – including ones I've had myself – this is pretty damn good. It doesn't hurt to remember that.

Thanks, TW.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Boards Gone Wild

This story is both shocking, and not.

At one level, it's absurd. The Board of Trustees at the College of DuPage has decided to arrogate to itself all manner of decision-making powers, from abruptly imposing a thinly-veiled version of David Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights to churning through multiple Presidents without explanation to muzzling the student newspaper.

And yet, on another level, the shocking part is that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

Boards of Trustees are peculiar institutions. They have a dangerous combination of tremendous power, limited knowledge, and almost no accountability. Given that combination, it's remarkable that most Boards work as well as they do.

The theory behind boards, as near as I can piece together, is twofold: Presidents have to report to (and by chosen by) somebody, and nonprofits need members of the community to keep them on track.

Both of those are fine, as far as they go. Yes, someone needs to have the power to choose Presidents, and a President chosen by the employees will have every reason to run the institution for the benefit of the employees, which is a category mistake. In the best case of a well-functioning Board, a group of respected people from the community who all care about higher education will tether a college to its mission. They can be objective, since they don't draw salaries from the college, so they can make the really tough calls when the tough calls need to be made. They can also leverage their connections in the worlds in which they've made their marks to raise money and attention for the college.

Good Boards do that, and then stop. They hold Presidents (or candidates) to high standards, set a few basic 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots,' make connections, and leave it at that.

But some Boards just can't stop at that. Intoxicated by power, or insecure in their importance, or unclear on the concept, or for whatever reason, they stop trying to steward the college and start trying to manage it. BIG mistake.

Despite all sorts of myths to the contrary, managing a large and complicated organization is a full-time job. It requires lots of time and attention to detail, as well as an intuitive sense of the unique culture of higher ed and no small dollop of people skills. It's not something you can toss off in a few hours a month after skimming some executive summaries. Nor is it something you can do by just applying the same skills that brought you success in the private sector; the culture and mission of higher ed are just too different.

Worse, depending on the local political situation (and the mechanism by which the particular board is chosen), someone with a bee in her bonnet can linger for years, utterly unchecked. Get a few of those reinforcing each other, and it can only end in tears.

Although there's an argument for boards of trustees, I can't help but wonder if there isn't also an argument for a pretty solid set of rules by which they're bound. Boards gone wild can do untold damage, quickly, and with little consequence for themselves. When boards start thinking of themselves as administrators, everybody pays the price. The fact that the really hellacious mistakes are rare enough to be newsworthy is comforting, but not nearly as comforting as a competent board.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Institutional Research

An occasional correspondent writes:

Let's say you get a piece of paper with a report, pie chart,
etc.on it that presents some pieces of information.  Maybe it's from
the registrar, saying that enrollment in elective courses is up while
that in core courses is down.  Maybe it's from the development office,
saying that we raised 6% more than we did last year.  Maybe it's from
admissions, comparing numbers of applications from the last couple
years.  It might be good, bad, or indifferent news, counterintuitive
or blindingly obvious.  In any case--how do you know it's accurate?
What checks are in place to verify the accuracy of information like
this.  Financial statements are audited every year.  What about the
rest of the mass of data that an institution accumulates?

Most colleges of sufficient size have something like an Office of Institutional Research. (Sometimes the office consists of just one person, but I've seen it consist of a real staff, too.) Sometimes the IR office is located in Academic Affairs, sometimes in Student Affairs, and sometimes in some other corner of the institution. (For whatever reason, I've often seen it coupled with the Foundation.)

The IR office is charged with generating data to populate various reports, both required and discretionary. The Federal government requires all kinds of data reporting, to document the use of financial aid, the direction of graduation rates, different achievement levels by race and gender, etc. The colleges don't have the option of ignoring these, at least if they want their students to be eligible for Federal financial aid. Additionally, it's not unusual for grantors to want periodic updates on issues of concern to them, and the smarter academic administrations will generate plenty of queries of their own, the better to enable data-based decision-making. (As opposed to, I guess, faith-based.)

I've had some strange experiences in dealing with IR offices. As a fan of data-based decisions, I usually get the frequent-customer discount with the IR folk. In the course of earning that discount, though, I've learned anew that data are only as good as the queries behind them.

Take a simple question, like “what's the college's retention rate?” Fall-to-Spring, or Fall-to-Fall? First-time, full-time students (the federally mandated data), or all students? Matriculated students only? What about students who transferred out after a year and are now pursuing four-year degrees? (We have a significant number of those, and they count as 'attrition' for us and 'grads' for the four-year schools. It's a persistent and annoying bit of data bias.) What about students who never intended to stay? Students who withdrew last Fall, stayed away last Spring, and returned this Fall? And at what point in the semester do we count them as attending? (We've usually used the tenth day, though any given moment is obviously imperfect.)

Graduation rates are even tougher, since we don't track students once they've left. Based on feedback from some of the four-year schools around us, we know that a significant number of students who leave us early get degrees from them, but it's hard to get solid data.

Moving from institution-level data to program-level is that much worse. If a student switches majors and later graduates, should that show up as attrition for the first program? Is it a sign of an institutional failure, or is it simply something that students do? Again, defining the variables is half the battle.

In terms of information that doesn't come from the IR office, accuracy can be trickier. That's because the whole purpose of the IR office is to provide data; when other offices do it, they're doing it for a reason. Some data are relatively easy to verify, so I'd tend to believe them: number of admitted students, say, or number of donors to the foundation. Others are tougher. For example, something as seemingly-straightforward as “percentage of courses taught by adjuncts” can be calculated in any number of ways. If a full-time professor teaches an extra course as an overload, and gets adjunct pay for it, does that course count as 'full-time' or 'adjunct'? Do non-credit courses count? Do remedial courses count, since they don't carry graduation credit? What about summer courses? Do you count course sections, credit hours, or student seat time? Do you count numbers of adjuncts, or the courses taught by them? (This is not a trivial distinction. Say you have two full-time faculty teaching five courses each, and four adjuncts teaching two courses each. It's true to say that you have a 5:4 ratio of full-time to adjunct courses: it's equally true to say you have a 2:1 ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty. Generally, the statistic chosen will reflect the desired point.)

Annoyingly, college ERP systems tend to be clunky enough that even well-intended people can generate terrible data, simply based on errors in how students or programs get coded in the system. I've lived through enough ERP-generated nightmares to wince at the very mention of the acronym.

Verifiability is tough to answer across the board. Data can be false, or they can be accurate-but-misleading, or they can be ill-defined, or they can be artifacts of system errors. My rule of thumb is that the worst errors can usually be sniffed out by cross-referencing. If a given data point is a wild outlier from everything else you've seen, there's probably a reason. It's not a perfect indicator, but it has served me tolerably well.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on this one?

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Open Postcards

I'm behind on my open correspondence, and busy enough to know that I can't really do justice to all of them. So in lieu of open letters, a series of open postcards.

Dear GM, Ford, and Chrysler,

You're kidding, right?

You people have been bleeding market share, and money, for years. This is directly due to your chronic inability or unwillingness to get a clue. Toyota and Honda have been eating your lunch since the seventies. This may have something to do with them building better cars.

Now you want a bailout.

Back in your profitable days, I don't recall a great deal of public spirited-ness coming from your corner. I recall aggressive lobbying for protectionism, against mileage standards, against safety standards, and against environmental standards. (I also recall the Bonneville, the Excursion, and the Sebring. Shudder.) Now you want a blank check to sustain you while you burn even more cash building cars and – especially – trucks that...follow my logic here...Americans don't want to buy.

Uh, that would be 'no.'

Yes, Michigan and a few other states would suffer in the short term, and that sucks. I'd be perfectly fine with some relocation and/or tuition assistance for the workers who lose their jobs. And I've gone on record many times favoring single-payer healthcare for all Americans, which would certainly include them.

But to go on building unwanted cars simply for lack of any better ideas? No. If you can't compete, clear out and make room for others who can. It's time to rip off the band-aid.



Dear XM Radio,

I have openly defended the practice of paying for radio, due mostly to my love of “Beyond Jazz.” Now you've dropped the channel, and replaced it with – excuse me, I have to vomit again – new age?

New age?

The other day, on the way home from work, I hit the preset for Beyond Jazz, hoping to hear something funky or challenging, per usual. Instead, I heard – and honestly, this should just be illegal – Tangerine Dream?

There is no excuse for Tangerine Dream.

Worse, look at what you kept. “Watercolors?” Kenny *&^%$#@ G? You drop Kenny Garrett, and keep Kenny G?

No, no, no. That's just wrong.

I pay for the #$%^^&* radio, and get Kenny G? Um, no.



Dear Senator Ted Stevens,

Karma is a bitch.

Enjoy prison!



Thursday, November 20, 2008

Harder Than It Looks

An alert reader sent me a link to this story from the Times. It's a quick-and-dirty overview of non-credit job training programs at community colleges in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region.

If only it were as simple as the article suggests.

The part that it gets right is that the 'non-credit' side of the college plays by very different rules than the 'credit' side. The credit side runs on a pretty strict semester system, with state-mandated rules about 'seat time' (or its equivalent), and state and federal rules about financial aid eligibility, and regional accreditation rules about nearly everything. A new course – let alone a new program – has to run through the entire shared governance process, which takes at least a year if you do it right, and more if you don't. The per-credit tuition rate is set collegewide, so a three-credit English class and a three-credit Business class have to charge the same tuition. Degrees have to include a certain number of credits, distributed in a particular way. (Associate of Arts degrees have different Gen Ed requirements than Associate of Science degrees, but any degree that gets either designation has to play by a given set of rules.) The credits are supposed to be (and usually are) transferable toward a bachelor's degree, so a student can do two years with us and two more years someplace else.

On the non-credit side, the picture is different. Courses can run for any length, in any combination of days and times, and at any price. Instructors' qualifications aren't prescribed, and the courses don't have to run through the governance process. We can go from zero to sixty in a month if we want to. (In academic terms, that's lightspeed.) The courses aren't built for transfer, and the 'certificates' awarded can designate anything from completion of a single four-week training course to completion of a sequence of several courses. Subject matter is dictated mostly by market demand, so it tends to be a combination of employment training, personal enrichment, and adult basic education (which is the stuff that comes before remediation – adult literacy classes, for example).

Like Dr. Seuss' moose juice and goose juice, everything works well when the two are kept separate. On the credit side, we abide by all manner of rules to present thoroughly vetted courses that will carry weight in the wider academic world. On the non-credit side, we present what we want, when we want, how we want, charging what we want, and we let the market tell us when we got it right or wrong. On the credit side, we're educators; on the non-credit side, we're vendors.

The classic model of non-credit workforce development is the company that comes to us asking if we can train some of its employees on a new technology or software package. We throw together a four-week hands-on program, taught either on campus or at the company, and hire a trainer to teach it. This model works really well when you have savvy people running it for an extended period, since they build up networks and reputations.

Lately, though, I've seen two trends come along that are making the distinction between the two sides much murkier than it used to be.

One is the desire among graduates of the non-credit certificate programs, after the fact, to get some kind of credit for what they've learned. Converting non-credit to credit isn't always easy. (And there's an argument to be made that it shouldn't be easy, lest we inadvertently make end runs around accreditation too easy.) Telling students who have taken non-credit training workshops over and over again for years that they'd have to start a degree just like any other freshman is a hard sell. In areas with CLEP exams and similar options, there's a reasonably elegant way to weigh claims of equivalency: if you pass the test, you're in. But how many “Microsoft Word” workshops add up to Intro to Computer Science? (Hint: they don't.)

The other, which is becoming a real challenge, is the increasing focus by grantors on 'bridging' the non-credit and credit sides of the college. The usual idea runs something like this: industry x is growing, and it needs employees. Region y has unemployed people who are turned off at the prospect of the long, hard slog to a degree. If only we could somehow grease the skids to employment by hurrying these students through, giving credit for prior learning...


The grantors have no concept of accreditation requirements, or state regs, or faculty union contracts, or shared governance. And cash-starved colleges sometimes chase these grants simply because they need the money. But the headaches that arise from trying to square the circle are massive, and increasing. The faculty bristle at what they see as encroachment. The 'vendors' bristle at what they see as needless dawdling. The financial people struggle trying to reconcile different sets of rules. The administrators try to balance it all, which basically consists in spreading the dissatisfaction relatively evenly.

Over the long term, I suspect that this blending will continue, and that we'll have to take some serious looks at some of the walls we've built between the two sides. But for now, it's a messy, complicated, ugly, frustrating picture that the Times missed completely.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ask the Administrator: TIme to Step Down?

A department chair at a SLAC writes:

I have served two [three-year] terms as department chair, and no one has intimated that new leadership is needed. In fact, publicly everyone is encouraging me to remain the chair indefinitely. Things seem to be going well as our department lacks the drama, common to so many departments. Of course, we have our funding and institutional challenges but everyone is engaged with the institution, teaching at a pretty high level, and (for the most part) working steadily on their research. I have accomplished most of the "low-hanging" fruit on my "to do" list and got started on some of the longer term projects that people here have been talking about for years. At this point, the most pressing challenges seem institutional and administrative and pretty beyond my control. Is this the time to step down as chair and let "new blood" take over? Or is this time to steer the department head on into some more difficult battles?  Perhaps, another way of asking the question is what signs should signal to a chair that it is time to step down? I cannot tell if I have hit a plateau or am ready to take things to the next level.

In a subsequent email, he added that at his college, chairs tend either to flame out quickly or to last for decades.

As regular readers know, I have a hard-earned objection to Chairs for Life. In any organization, there's a certain minimum amount of change necessary to prevent the pathologies of stagnation. If a single chair stays too long, that one person's blind spots get written into the DNA of the department, and the other members of the department never get to try their hands at leadership. And when entire cohorts stay too long, the undead hand of the past weighs much too heavy on the present. Without enough turnover, organizations start to eat their young. I know that's an unpopular position, but I've seen the dynamic play out enough times to respect its truth.

That said, though, I don't think a third term amounts to Chair for Life. In fact, this may be your chance to make a really meaningful contribution.

You say that you've picked most of the low-hanging fruit, and have started some longer-term projects. Those longer-term projects should probably absorb more of your attention. Your mention of taking the department to the next level is encouraging, since it suggests that you haven't fallen into the 'well-oiled machine' trap yet. (Once someone starts referring to her department as a well-oiled machine, I know she has run out of ideas. And the basic, inarguable fact of organizational entropy means that once you've achieved perfection, decline is inevitable.)

I'll add a key long-term project: developing the next generation of leaders. You have a window of a few years to give some new people some projects, skills, and mentoring. Each new person will bring signature strengths and weaknesses, of course, but sustained mentoring can bring out their best.

One of the frustrations of academic administration is that most academics – very smart people in their own areas – have absolutely no idea how to manage. Worse, the cultural taboo against administration (“the dark side”) actively discourages them from overcoming the blind spot. Most chairs' (and deans') training consists mostly of doing their job, with everyone around them paying the price for those painful rookie mistakes.

In your own department, you're particularly well situated to actually do something about this. With a few years before a change, you can start to de-mystify your job to the next group. Open up the processes a little, spread some of the tasks around, and see who's capable of what. Delegate some tasks, and actually teach your colleagues how they're done. In a way, you're returning to teaching, only the students are your colleagues. If you do it well, when the time comes to give someone else a shot, you'll feel safe in turning over stewardship of the department to someone who is actually ready. Your legacy can consist in a new openness, and a well-prepared next generation.

No shame in that. No shame at all.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts to share?

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ask the Administrator: If You Could Build a System...

An Australian correspondent writes:

In Australia we're hearing about the benefits to students of being taught by Faculty who are engaged in, or even hanging on by the tips of their fingernails to, research.  This nexus is the presumptive definition of a university learning experience in Australia, at least for the time being.  But we're also now seeing a recommendation that a teaching-only US style community college system be developed.   As you can see from the article, there's an assumption that there are some communities "that don't have the skills base to make the most of" funded research infrastructure.  This has very significant implications for those of us working in regional or remote areas.

My question is this: how do the community colleges achieve the same or comparable benefit for your students of being taught by Faculty who are research-aware?  What does this mean in practice for you?

Oooooh, I like this one. If you follow the link, it takes you to an article quoting the vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, who is proposing that Australia establish a national community college system based loosely on the California model. As I understand it (that is, as my correspondent explained it), the Australian system consists of 8 leading research universities, a TAFE system that sounds very much like our 'comprehensive' state colleges, and some private vocational educators. There's nothing terribly close to the community college model. Given the distribution of population across the land mass, huge areas of the country have little to no opportunity for higher education, so the cc model holds some appeal as a low-cost entryway to higher ed for underserved populations.

(As the article goes on, there's a clear implication that research money is at a premium, and the idea of colleges running on something other than research money is still a little fuzzy.)

I'll just do a few thoughts, and ask my wise and worldly readers to contribute their own.

First, something similar to a community college model would probably meet some real needs. The better cc's serve both short-term job training needs and college/university transfer, which I consider the higher level vocational training. (They also frequently help undo the damage of lousy high schools, through extensive and focused remediation.) Community colleges have frequently proved adept at handling large geographic areas, between satellite campuses, renting spaces in other local facilities (such as high schools or local corporations), and online instruction.

Although the funding base for the California model could charitably be described as 'all effed up,' the usual model involves some sort of multi-level split funding: the state pays some, a local entity (county or city, usually) pays some, and the students pay some. Of course, student tuition is often covered partially by external financial aid of various sorts. I honestly don't know how financial aid works in the Australian system, but the basic concept is that enrollment – not research – is the driver of revenue.

(With non-credit vocational training, sometimes local employers will pick up the tab for the students. CC's become 'vendors,' selling training packages to local employers. In an area where economic development is a real priority, don't overlook this. Some cc's even have technology or company 'incubators,' in which fledgling companies working on new technologies get subsidized rent and free or reduced-cost access to consulting expertise provided by retired executives who view their service as a kind of 'giving back' to the community. When the companies reach a certain size, they're sent out of the incubator to make room for new ones. It's a way to create the kind of locational synergies that Richard Florida writes about, but on a scale such that upstarts can actually afford it.)

In terms of research 'awareness,' I think your concern is largely misplaced. In the American system, cc's only cover the first two years of college (which for us is normatively set at four). In other words, in most states, cc's don't teach junior- or senior-level courses. (Florida allows some cc's to grant four-year degrees in selected disciplines, and there's some movement in that direction in several states, but it's still the exception.) The classes are primarily introductory, so being on the cutting edge of research is less imperative than would be the case in more advanced courses.

The degree to which faculty are 'research-aware' varies, which is to be expected, but I can say that our graduates have done better – measured by graduation rates, GPA's, or whatever else – in the colleges to which they've transferred than have the students that started at those colleges. I suspect that part of the reason is basic Darwinian selection – the weakest students don't graduate in the first place – but part of it is specialization. When all you ever teach is introductory classes, you get the chance to get pretty darn good at teaching introductory classes.

I've seen the difference directly. I went to graduate school at an R1, where I TA'ed the intro class for Big Muckety Muck Scholar. BMMS made his name through research, and made it clear in any number of ways that research was where he wanted to spend his time. The first-year students paid the price, enduring indifferent lectures in large auditoriums, then spending the recitation sections asking the TA's – who weren't much older, or more experienced, than the students – to explain what the hell BMMS was talking about. Yet they got a relatively prestigious degree.

By contrast, first-year students in the same class at my cc get a full-time professor teaching a small class. His job performance is defined by his teaching, not by research, and the classes are human-scale. There are no TA's. If the students struggle, the academic support center is relatively well-staffed with both peer and professional tutors. The degree is nowhere near as prestigious, but with a clear focus on teaching a narrow band of courses, the students reap the benefits of specialization. (The savviest ones graduate in two years, then transfer to someplace prestigious, thereby getting the best of both worlds.)

A community college with a tightly written articulation agreement with a university that has a strong distance ed program could work wonders in some of the less populated regions. A more educated population is both more attractive to relocating employers, and more likely to grow its own opportunities. And as various industries rise and fall, having an institution that can help retrain displaced workers is not to be sneezed at. Subsidizing someone's education for a couple of years is much cheaper than paying the dole for a couple of decades. It's also more respectful of their dignity.

Anyway, those are some first thoughts. Wise and worldly readers – emphasis on worldly, in this case – what would you add?

Good luck!

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Selling the New Dean on an Idea

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a postdoc at a big research university.  We have a confluence of
events at our University which could really lead to something really
great happening, but no one seems much interested, and it would
frustrate me to no end if the opportunity is missed.   So I'd like to
know -- what's the best way to pitch a new idea to a new Dean?

Without spending a single dollar, our University is in the process of
having a large supercomputing center plopped down right in the middle
of it, and in fact the necessary flow of money will be adminstered by
the University.   This was arranged from start to finish by a small
number of fiefdoms, who quite reasonably feel very possessive about
it, and who control most of the new center and are gearing up and
ready to use this fantastic resource once it comes online.

As things stand now, this enormous resource will ensure that the
members of the founding fiefdoms do exactly what they have already
been doing, but bigger and better.   And that is surely all to the
good; but if this is *all* that happens, it's an enormous missed
opportunity.   This could be a boon to the entire University if
handled properly - if expertise were shared, both among the fiefdoms
and to other groups within the school who currently aren't huge users
of supercomputing for their research.   It could become a catalyst for
bringing together interdisciplinary work - first by sharing techniques
amongst researchers, then by sharing courses (why should every
department have to teach its graduate students their own separate
computational techniques classes?), and hopefully bringing people
across departmental divides to work on problems of overlapping
interests once people realize they're approaching similar problems.
It could improve connections with researchers within the same city and
with some access to this resource but outside the walls of the

But there's currently not much motivation for anyone to follow this
path.   The members of the small group of founding fiefs don't have
much incentive to encourage other groups to use the resource, and
other departments don't seem to be chomping at the bit - partly
because they're almost completely out of the loop as to what's going
on.   Even once they start realizing how to use this new resource on
their own, again it'll just be the same groups doing exactly the same
thing as before but scaled up.    Not a disaster, but not what could

Given that the resource exists, it seems like encouraging its use and
using its existence to encourage interdepartmental collaboration
through a campus-wide `computational science' program could be done
without spending a lot of dollars - it's not clear new faculty lines
necessarily need to be created, for instance.   The founding areas are
already ensuring that new hires are made with this new resource in
mind (at least one such person is already hired).    It's `just' a
matter of setting up institutional incentives for these new people to
talk to each other, and to find people in corners of other departments
willing to start using this resource for their own work.

The other part of this equation is that we have a brand new Dean -- a
very gifted administrator and one who has already successfully
shepherded collective projects across multiple administrative units,
but one whose background is such that the appeal of a campus wide push
for interdisciplinary computational science might not be self-evident.

I want to make sure that the new Dean knows (with lots of examples)
what could be with some administrative support.   I know that everyone
on campus has their own Great Ideas for the school and  there may well
be important reasons why this particular one may not work or can't be
a priority now, but I want to make sure that it at least gets real
consideration.   So what's the best way to do this?

There's a lot here. I'll start with the obvious.

In the short term, the political battles you're asking the new Dean to pick are substantial, and the payoff pretty theoretical. That's a tough sell. (This is especially true if the new Dean isn't a subject matter expert in this area. I've been in situations when I was pretty sure that faculty in a particular area were trying to exploit their greater expertise to paint a pet project as a mortal necessity. Go through that a few times, and the skepticism starts to come easy.) From this side of the desk, it looks like you're asking someone to do all the political dirty work for you, in service of your pet idea. Your pet idea may or may not be great – I have no way of knowing, and neither does he – but the dirty work is clearly difficult.

My suggestion would be to come at the Dean indirectly. Instead of just marching into his office with an idea and a plea, start by doing some of the political groundwork yourself. Flesh out some of the benefits of your pet idea, then target some of the faculty to whom those benefits would be the most attractive. In other words, gain allies. If you can do that in multiple fiefdoms, all the better. This will involve some basic shoe-leather diplomacy, as well as considerable patience and listening skills. It's not something that a few tossed-off emails will achieve.

That said, though, the upside is considerable. For one, you may learn from your prospective recruits that there are real obstacles of which you're currently unaware. Those obstacles may come from the rules set by whomever's paying for the thing, or from logistics, or from technological limits, or weird policy intersections, or departmental budgeting, or just about anything else. By finding out what those are, you will be able to develop work-arounds, or to know what work-arounds to ask to have constructed, or you may decide it simply can't be done in your current context. But whatever happens, you won't leave yourself vulnerable to devastating blindside attacks.

In addition to strengthening the merits of your proposal, you'll also be able – if you play your cards right and catch a break or two – to get around the objection that it's Your Idea. (This works particularly well if you're open to amendments.) The way this usually plays out in campus politics is that the proposal is reduced to the affiliation of the person proposing it. “Oh, that came from X department. We know what they're really up to.” If you have interdepartmental allies, that argument is much harder to sustain.

(If someone gets wind of what you're doing and raises an objection, ask to be recognized as a committee. Deaning 101 suggests that when confronted with conflict, the first and easiest path is to appoint a committee. You'll be pushing an open door.)

When you have interdepartmental sponsorship and an inherently stronger proposal, you'll have a much more compelling argument to take to the new Dean. Theoretical appeals are fine, but theoretical appeals that also have faculty champions across departments, and that have already been vetted for their practicality, are so much better.

The other thing I'd do is be prepared to achieve success gradually, rather than all at once. “Pilot project” can be a magic phrase, when properly deployed. The great virtue of presenting an idea as a pilot project is that it's much harder to argue against an experiment than against a wholesale change. If you can create enough of an opening to at least generate some of your proposed payoff on a pilot basis, then you can argue from actual success. Nothing succeeds like success, especially when that success has faculty champions from multiple areas at once. At that point, the momentum will be considerable, and the Dean will be both more sympathetic and better positioned to do something about it. (Insider Tip: we administrators get all excited whenever someone builds “outcomes assessment” into the design of the pilot. In other words, when pitching the pilot, tell us how you'd define and measure success. It takes a little more time upfront, but being able to say “we met or exceeded our expectations in key areas” gives you major credibility.) A pilot project that succeeded on its own terms becomes an incredibly powerful argument for a larger project.

Of course, you can also try the traditional and time-honored methods of brown-nosing, currying favor, etc. I have to admit that those sometimes work, depending on context, but they're pretty much independent of the merits of the proposal. The approach I'm suggesting could actually strengthen the merits of your proposal in demonstrable ways, such that you wouldn't have to worry overmuch about the usual political crap. Try the high road first; the low road will always be there anyway.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts?

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Friday Quotables

From IHE:

Charles Manning, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, acknowledged that adjuncts teach a large share of the classes at the board’s institutions. “They are critical,” he said. Asked if they were well paid, he said that they are “clearly not.”

At the same time, he defended the decision not to raise the maximum [pay] level. “That would raise expectations when we don’t have the money,” he said.

It's not a matter of enlightening the suits. We know. The problem is deeper.

From Gene Lucas, executive Vice Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara, in response to this week's round of devastating midyear budget cuts:

I’ve been at the executive vice chancellor position for six, going on seven years, and I’ve had five years of budget cuts out of that and no year of recovery,” he said. “It hasn’t been all that much fun.

Solidarity, brother. I'm right there with ya.

From Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard:

Tradeoffs and hard choices that can be avoided in times of plenty cannot be averted now.

When even Harvard has to economize, it's time to stop pretending that this is anything other than structural.

From Rahm Emmanuel, President-Elect Obama's incoming Chief of Staff:

You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.


Responses to the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that community colleges will be the next beneficiaries of their largesse. A few responses:

First, Woo-Hoo! (insert video of DD doing the Snoopy dance)

Second, I hope they're willing to recognize the work that has already been done, so they don't spend great googahs of money reinventing the wheel. Philanthropists have been known to do that.

According to the IHE account, they're focusing on four key areas: backloading financial aid, changing student incentives, building partnerships, and improving remediation. I've written before on the first two, so all I'll say here is that innovation is more than welcome, but we underestimate the political hurdles at our peril. In terms of improving remediation, I'll just do a plug for a really serious look at how we do ESL. We have entire populations for whom college simply isn't an option unless we get better at ESL.

In terms of partnerships, though, I have some misgivings. At one level, this isn't anything we haven't been doing for decades. In cases with stable employers and long-term labor shortages (that is, hospitals, long-term care facilities, daycare centers, and, increasingly, hotels), we've been able to build very successful partnerships. But in many cases, the problem is precisely that there's a shortage of good local employers. We'd be more than happy to train people for high-paying jobs, if those jobs were out there. But the high-paying jobs that are out there require advanced (graduate) degrees, so our 'transfer' curriculum IS our vocational curriculum. I'm consistently annoyed at how many people don't get that.

A genuine, honest-to-goodness breakthrough – and one that the Gates Foundation is uniquely capable of fostering almost unilaterally – would involve recognizing the transfer curriculum as vocational, and therefore eligible for the resources that are targeted at vocational programs.

The distinction between 'transfer' and 'occupational' may have served certain purposes in the past, and I'll certainly admit that there are some degrees for which there's no relevant credential above the Associate's (yet). But in popular discussion – and, sadly, policy discussion – people fall back much too quickly into the old stereotypes of 'ivory tower' versus 'job training.' What the hell are you doing teaching literature when you could be teaching welding?

The short answer is that the local employers who used to hire welders have outsourced their production to another hemisphere, and the folks whose training was limited to that skill are pretty much SOL. But the folks who transferred their literature credits to four-year colleges and universities were able to get jobs higher up the value chain.

The longer answer is that 'job training' only makes sense when you're pretty sure that those jobs are going to be sticking around for a good long time. In areas like health care, law enforcement, and early childhood education, those are probably pretty safe bets. But other industries are wildly cyclical. (I'm reminded of a discussion we had a few years ago about running non-credit workshops for Realtors.) In my days at Proprietary U, where the entire curriculum was built around employability, we had a crisis of purpose when the tech boom crashed and companies started outsourcing a lot of their IT work to India. Training in a narrowly-defined skill set can leave you awfully vulnerable to industry swings.

(The other way around that is to train people for extremely low-end jobs. Those aren't going anywhere, either, but it's not clear to me what purpose is served.)

I've seen enough of these conversations to know that the usual line of attack goes something like this: you wimpy/feminine academics don't understand the REAL world (harumph, harumph), where manly male masculine stuff is valued, like construction and welding and using big tools. Don't you pinko liberal commie wussies understand that book learnin' is for sissies? College isn't for everybody – you should step aside and let us manly male he-men initiate the youth into real jobs.

You know, like building pickup trucks and houses.


This critique, which I think of as Archie Bunker by way of Charles Murray, simply misses the economic (not to mention social) changes of the last forty years. Anything that can be automated and/or outsourced, will be. That is the way of things. We can equip people to thrive in that world, or we can mutter darkly about kids today.

Maybe we can start by deep-sixing the false dichotomy between transfer and vocational curricula. In this economy, you move up or you move on. The 'employer partnership' model may have made sense when we had industrial behemoths bestriding the landscape, but they're mostly gone. (I wonder how many high-paying jobs at Microsoft don't require at least a four-year degree or its functional equivalent. Yes, Gates himself is a Harvard dropout, but he's hardly representative.) Employers are too volatile now, and industries change too quickly. Pipelining students into the GM's of the world may have made sense in the 60's, but it's insane now.

In this world, the way to prepare most students for high-paying jobs is to prepare them for more education.

If the Gates grants can get that ball rolling, I'll be doing the Snoopy dance for many years to come.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Promising First Novel

TB, who is in second grade, wrote his first novel yesterday. With names changed, and sans the distinctive illustrations, an annotated guide to the text:

Title Page: TB and TG and a Walk in the Woods (with illustration) by TB

(on the side, there's a diagonal stripe that says “New Series!”)

Contents Page: Woodsy...Page 1 Home!...Page 4

First Text Page: “Chapter 1...Woodsy!” (picture of two stick figures walking hand-in-hand near a forest) “One fine day me and my sister were playing when we noticed that we were lost. We were near the woods and we went in. It was very dark and scary but we were with each other.”

(I'm not sure that the first move, upon discovering that you're lost, should be to go into the woods. Still, it's sweet that they took comfort in each other.)

Page Two: “Oh no! We were lost!” (pictures of stick figures with big eyes and 'O' mouths)

(The liberal use of empty space on this page nicely complements the plot, I think)

Page Three: “We walked through the woods and thought we saw a house!” (picture of stick figures, TB with his hand shielding his eyes from the sun.)

Page Four: (Chapter heading: Home!) “It was our Grandma's house! We were back with them!”
(Picture of stick figures raising arms in triumph, yelling “yay!”)

Page Five: “The End”

(Chapter two was a bit short, but that's okay.)

Page Six: “Other TB Books” “Bball – Bball is my favorite sport!” (picture of TB dunking) “Soccer! -- I'm a soccer player! Will we win or not?” (picture of TB scoring a goal)

(Clearly, TB has the marketing gene. He gets that from his mother. I like that he has already planned the next two installments in the New Series.)

Back Cover: “TB Books are Great! -- Booklist”

(He blurbed himself! That's my boy!)

Be on the lookout for the next installment in the series...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Votes of No Confidence

(Happily, this isn’t a concrete issue for me now. This just falls under “I’ve always wondered…”)

What are the rules governing faculty votes of no confidence?

I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t actually faced one of these, either directly or indirectly, which may explain some of my ignorance on the subject.

From a spectator’s perspective, they strike me as somewhat ambiguous.

Historically, the idea of a vote (or motion) of no confidence is an import from parliamentary systems of government, in which the Prime Minister is actually elected by the Parliament. The Parliament – which has the power to hire the PM – has the power to fire the PM. But faculties don’t hire Presidents, so it’s not clear to me where they get the standing to fire them.

From this side of the desk, I can attest that faculty aren’t the only interested parties at a college. Whenever faculty talk as if their voice is the only one that matters, the staff bristle. (At my cc, I find myself defending the faculty from the staff, who’ve had it with what they perceive as arrogance.) Yet votes of no confidence seem to be the exclusive province of faculty.

As near as I can tell, votes of no confidence don’t have to come with reasons or abide by criteria; they’re the equivalent of a mob yelling “we don’t like you.” The mob may or may not have good reasons, but the simple fact of group anger, by itself, strikes me as neither here nor there. If the anger is a response to valid grievances, then it seems to me the grievances should be spelled out; if it isn’t, then the vote is baseless and should be treated accordingly.

The usual reading of votes of no confidence is that they’re ‘symbolic,’ but that doesn’t really answer the question. Symbolic of what? I’m not convinced that people vote the same way on ‘symbolic’ questions as they do when they believe the decision will actually happen. (Voters frequently vote to ‘send a message,’ not meaning the content of the vote literally.) By casting the meaning of the vote as symbolic, a distortion of intended meaning is baked into the cake. But that distortion defeats the value as a symbol.

Someone out there has probably done the legwork; I'd like to know the aftermath of Presidential 'votes of no confidence.' How many occur in a given year? How long do Presidents typically last afterwards? It could be tough to define success in this case, since a definition of success presumes a definition of purpose, but I'd take something like "an improved campus climate" as a success, whether with the current President or a new one.

I suppose one could defend votes of no confidence as the cri de coeur of an otherwise-powerless bunch, but I'm wary of making policy based on that. Besides, one could just as easily define them as an unaccountable method for the tenured to bully the untenured.

So I'm not entirely sure what to make of them. Wise and worldly readers -- what's your take? What have you seen?

College at 16?

An alert reader sent me a link to this story about New Hampshire. Apparently, the Granite State is considering funneling most high school students into community colleges after tenth grade. (Tellingly, the story allows that "those who want to go to a prestigious university may stay and finish the final two years.")

This is one of those ideas that carries in it a real grain of truth, but that takes it much too far.

The grain of truth is that the later part of high school is frequently academically spotty. Since many states only require, say, two or three years of most subjects, many seniors start senior year already having met nearly every graduation requirement. In most cases, states deal with that through sponsoring 'dual enrollment' with local community colleges, and/or through AP or IB courses. All of those arrangements allow the junior or senior who is already bumping the academic ceiling of high school to take college-level courses, sometimes for dual credit, while remaining enrolled in high school. (In my limited observation, the advantage of dual-enrollment over AP or IB courses is the difference between transcripted credits and test scores. Some colleges that will only use AP scores for placement purposes -- rather than actually granting course credit -- will accept transcripted credits in transfer.)

Nationally, the trend in average age of cc students is conspicuously downward, which is at least partially a reflection of the popularity of dual enrollment. Add a whole cohort of 16 and 17 year olds, and the effect on a college's average age is predictable.

The New Hampshire plan apparently takes dual enrollment all the way out. Instead of taking some college courses in high school, why not truncate high school altogether and get a jump on college?

It strikes me as a little too convenient.

First, there's that part about 'those who want to go to a prestigious university...' Why would prestigious universities want an extra two years of academic preparation? Could it be that...I'm going out on a limb here...there's some academic value to those last two years? Perhaps that the typical 18 year old is more mature than the typical 16 year old? I'm guessing that the student who has had pre-calc in high school will do better in calculus than the student who hasn't. Call it a hunch.

There's also the democratic rite of passage part of high school. I get as tired of the high school 'coming of age' dramas as everybody else, but I think part of the reason they survive is that high school is the last time that every social class is forced to cohabit. Granted, residential segregation does a number on that, but even so, high school is a common experience. Yes, some of it amounts to what Newt Gingrich memorably called 'subsidized dating,' but I'd even suggest there can be developmental value in that.

My preferred solution would be to greatly improve the academic quality of the average high school experience. The tippity-top is already sufficiently challenged, what with dual enrollment and AP/IB courses and the whole selective-college-application-dance. But the vast majority doesn't fit that description. That's where the work needs to be done. Rather than throwing up our hands and simply making community colleges the new 11th grade -- which, if implemented, would have the disastrous effect of making community colleges the new 11th grade -- let's fix the 11th grade. Prepare the students so they're capable of succeeding at whatever comes next, whether it be college, trade school, the military, or work. Any of those requires a certain work ethic and sense of responsibility, along with a decent sense of math, writing, and the basic facts of the world.

Anyway, that's my first take. Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in New Hampshire -- what say you?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Tax Credits? Hmm...

According to IHE, President-elect Obama has supported a fully refundable tax credit of $4000 for the first two years of college. Whether this (or anything akin to it) has a chance of seeing the light of day is another question, but it's a neat idea to bat around.

There's an obvious surface-level appeal for cc's, since that would cover the entire cost of tuition and fees for a full-time student for two years at most cc's. In fact, cc's with costs well below that might think about raising the tuition and fees to $4k, lest they leave money on the table. (The usual argument against significant tuition/fee hikes is 'access,' but this would make that argument largely moot.) The really savvy ones would contract with textbook-rental firms for fixed rates, which could then be included in the $4k total.

I'll admit that with the state funding crisis we're weathering now, the prospect of a large, no-strings infusion of cash is very, very attractive. No sense in denying that. And the public recognition that cc's are viable for transfer, as well as for workforce development or job retraining, is more than welcome. Let's drop the '13th grade' stigma and trumpet the fact that many of our grads go on to get advanced degrees. Yes, yes, yes.

But still...

How do we define 'the first two years of college'? What if the student attends part-time? What about remediation? How about students who did a semester after high school, dropped out, lived life for a while, and returned in their thirties? (We get a significant number of those.) What about non-degree programs? Non-accredited trade schools? Non-credit workforce development? Summer overloads? Dual enrollment in high schools?

And what about those pesky four-year schools? Wouldn't they just raise their tuition by another, say, $4k? After all, if you're already charging 50, what's 54?

If we're really serious about helping people afford colleges that are worth attending, I have a slightly different proposal. It gets around all those annoying 'definitional' issues, and it emphasizes quality as well as quantity.

Drum roll, please...


Just parity. That's all.

Make it a national policy that community colleges get the same per-student funding as four-year public colleges.

Give us the sustained, predictable, ongoing operating support, and we'll give you both access and quality. And if we don't, based on relevant measures after a decent interval, then by all means, move those resources elsewhere.

Since we don't do the lavish student centers, the over-the-top athletic programs, the climbing walls, or the various concierge services of the four-year schools, we can devote all that funding to stuff like financial aid, tutoring services, and onsite childcare. We could actually reverse the all-adjunct, all-the-time trend, and provide students with professors who actually have the time to talk to them outside of class. Hell, if we got really ambitious, maybe we could even fund some joint projects with the local high schools to try to get the high school curricula in some vague alignment with college entrance requirements in basic skills areas, like writing and math. If all goes well, in a few years we might not even need to remediate quite so much, since more students will have learned it the first time.

Making cc's both excellent and affordable would achieve far more than would allowing the Swarthmores of the world to bump up tuition another five percent.

Just a thought. And an admittedly imperfect one. But it's honestly refreshing to be able to think along these lines, rather than just “what should we cut this time?”

That's the change we need. Welcome, President Obama.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Turning Down Internal Candidates

This has recently become salient in my world, again.

Internal candidates raise all kinds of issues – information asymmetry, historical baggage, sense of entitlement, and the like. There's a really basic awfulness in saying 'no' to somebody internal.

Saying 'no' to anybody is unpleasant, but it isn't so bad with people you're unlikely ever to see again. You can be vague and relatively quick, and emerge soon enough with both parties' dignity intact. (That doesn't always happen, of course, but it should.) Once the deed is done, it's done, and you can get on with your work.

But with internal candidates – especially those who had a fairly realistic shot, and who harbor a sense, fairly or not, that the job is owed them – it's much harder.

On a basic level, you know you'll see them again, repeatedly. In fact, you'll have to continue to work with them, and hope to get their best from them.

Depending on the candidate, there may also be a disappointed cheering section of friends and allies, some of whom will hold the choice against you. (I've also seen people bad-mouth an internal candidate behind closed doors before the selection is made, then rally to hir side afterwards. So it goes.)

If the choice comes as a surprise (at least to the candidate), you may get the barrage of 'why' questions. Depending on the real answers, these can be easy or hard to address. If it's a relatively bright line credential, you're home free (“your doctorate isn't finished yet”). The disappointment will still be there, but it's really not personal. But if the reason is more of a judgment call, it can be tough to put too much out there without forever poisoning the well.

From this side of the desk, how someone handles rejection tells me a lot. I've seen candidates express disappointment in the moment, but then (maybe after a weekend) get right back to doing what they do well. These are the ones who sow doubt about the selection. More commonly, I've seen candidates intimate that darker forces are at work, that there will be political hell to pay, or that the rejection is 'typical' of (fill in the blank). In these cases, I'm quickly reassured that I made the right call. If the response is selfish, then I have a sense of what I would have been in for.

Having been through this several times now, I'm increasingly convinced that there's a common expectations gap. A non-trivial number of people think of internal postings as spoils, or as rewards for having paid dues, or as something for which you take a number. In other words, they think of them as entitlements, and react to rejection as they'd react to theft: something was taken from them that was rightfully theirs.

Simply put, I don't buy it. Nobody is 'owed' any more than fair consideration. Positions aren't rewards. They're bundles of tasks that the institution needs done as well as they can be, within existing constraints. Sometimes the best candidate is also the next one 'in line,' and that's great. But sometimes not. If a newer hire has a skill set better suited to the job at hand, and has managed to inspire confidence that s/he gets stuff done, then forcing hir to 'take a number' is wasting a valuable resource. It's running the institution for the employees, rather than for the students. It's a category mistake.

Turning down the 'next' candidate carries risks. Flight risk is an obvious one; I've seen heirs apparent get passed over, howl in righteous outrage, and announce a new job elsewhere a few months later. I don't blame them for that; what one college needs at a given moment may be very different from what another one needs. If what you have to offer is out of sync with what your college needs, then finding a place that needs what you have makes a lot of sense. But I wouldn't make a wrong choice just to avoid flight risk; if the fit is wrong, it's wrong. And I have faith – rightly or wrongly – that the world's talent pool is big enough that nobody is really irreplaceable.

There's also the constant churn of rumor, for which difficult choices provide tempting fodder. All I'll say to that is that I've found over the years that there's really no appeasing the gossips. Give some what they want, and you'll magically create others. Worse, you'll embolden the ones you appeased, so they'll crank up the pressure later. There comes a point at which you just have to accept a certain amount of rumormongering as a cost of doing your job. With rare exceptions, these folks have exactly as much power as you give them. Shrug them off.

None of which makes it easier to have that conversation, knowing that the disappointed candidate will still be here next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. So it goes.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Morning After

I'll try to put together something a little more thoughtful for tomorrow; last night was spent glued to the tv, happily watching the returns. Two quick nuggets:

- From the mouths of babes...Yesterday The Wife took The Boy and The Girl with her when she voted. (I went before work.) As they left the polling place, TB exclaimed “It's like the toilet has been clogged for eight years, and now we can finally flush it!”

In October of 2006, I wrote: “Speaking of Dems, I foresee precisely two possibilities for 2008: Barack Obama, or crushing defeat.” I'm glad we chose wisely.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

While Rome Burns...

I'm too distracted by the election to put together a proper post, so this meme from Lesboprof came at a good time. I don't usually do memes, but I can't say no to LP, so here goes...

The “Favorites” Meme

1.Political show - Daily Show and Colbert Report, of course. Olbermann will do in a pinch, and Maddow is starting to show up on my radar.

2. Picnic food – I'm not really a picnic guy, but in a pinch, a big ol' sub will do.

3. Mixed drink – Raspberry daquiri. A bit girly, I know, but still. The best I ever had was in a pool in Kauai, on my honeymoon. For my money, raspberry and chocolate are nature's perfect flavors. Many years ago, Ben and Jerry's did 'chocolate raspberry' as a flavor of the month, and I ordered one in public. I enjoyed it so much that it became socially awkward.

4. U.S. President – FDR.

5. Kind of student to teach -- The ones who don't know they're smart until you point it out. I've had a few of those, and remember all of them.

6. Hobby you do or wish you still did – Does blogging count? And I miss my dj days.

7. Sports commentator – Tim McCarver. I know, I know, but he's informative as hell. I also enjoy John Madden every so often, since he sounds like an aneurysm in progress.

8. Sport to watch on TV – Baseball. In a pinch, the Purina Fittest Dog competition. Or luge.

9. Animal to have as a pet – Big floppy dogs.

10. Halloween costume you have worn – Big Bird, when I was about five.

11. Kind of dessert – See #3

12. Comic strip – Dilbert, though the best ever was Calvin and Hobbes.

13. Style or make of footwear – I've never cared about shoes.

14. Ice cream flavor - See #3

15. College or university president – Prefer not to answer.

16. Internet news source – lately, I also check Brad DeLong's blog, the google news aggregator, and about twenty million other things.

17. Vacation spot – Kauai, San Francisco, or Boston. A great hotel is the key ingredient. I don't believe in camping.

18. Wine – A nice red zinfandel. Not that blush/pink crap; the red stuff.

19. Way to waste time instead of working – being silly with the kids.

20. Student excuse for late work -- “I couldn't get the paper done. (Pause) I'm in love.”

21. Reality show – No, thanks. If they can't be bothered to write it, I can't be bothered to watch it.

22. Jewelry on a man – Nope. I feel the same way about tattoos on women. Call me retro, but there it is.

23. Pizza topping – It's all about the sauce. Novices forget this.

24. Children's movie – Finding Nemo or Cars. I also consider Matilda grossly underrated.

25. Celebrity you wish would retire -- Carrot Top.

Tagging -- Aunt B., Danigirl, and anyone who wants to play along.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Thoughts on Student Government at CC's

Last week a reader from a college whose student government recently made a collective ass of itself wrote to ask what I thought was the point of student government at community colleges.

The fact that it took me a week to even attempt a response is probably telling.

In high school, student government tends to be in charge of the prom. In grad school, I've never heard of a student government. (I've heard of grad student associations within given departments, which are pretty narrow by definition, and I've heard of grad student labor unions, but those are different.) At colleges that have student governments – my alma mater didn't – they seem to veer between complete invisibility and a sort-of platform for a smallish group of students to talk about various issues and/or run charity drives. Charity drives are well and good, of course, and I'm all for students attempting to address the issues of the day, even if only to get practice in the skills of citizenship. But the gap between the ideal – something like 'the voice of the students' – and reality – 'toys for tots bins in the student center' – is hard not to notice. And just like real government, every so often a well-organized clique of wingnuts steps in and starts banning rain or some such.

At cc's, student governments labor under the additional handicaps of a more transient student body and a shorter time to graduation, so it's that much harder to gain anything resembling continuity. When the degree is only two years anyway, and you add both attrition and the lack of leisure time characteristic of commuter students working their way through school, there just isn't much attention left to pay to student government. So it tends to reflect the interest of a very small number of students.

From an evil-administrator point of view, the function of student government is to provide just enough of a safety valve to keep protests at bay. “Of course we listen to the students. The student government gives a standing report to the faculty senate!” If it didn't exist, there wouldn't be a preferred alternative to protest.

On a more constructive note, though, I'd like to think that student governments at their best could actually try in a serious way to represent the interests of students as students. For example, they could pressure colleges to release textbook information as early as possible, to allow students to comparison-shop online. If, say, Amazon or Powells or Chegg can undercut the college bookstore, then that's real money the students are saving. (Don't expect colleges to do this without pressure, since most colleges use the bookstore as a revenue source.) Or they could work with local public transit authorities to try to synchronize the local bus routes to class schedules (or vice versa), so students don't have to lose huge blocks of time just waiting for buses. Sustainable carpool arrangements could also help with both cost and parking, both of which are huge issues for many students.

Those are just off the top of my head; I'll grant upfront that there are many more possibilities, sometimes depending on local contingencies. That's sort of the point. But I haven't seen student governments function that way, which strikes me as a missed opportunity.

In my own college days, we didn't have a student government, and I don't recall anybody pining for one. Of course, that was back in the days when 'pirated music' referred to cassette tapes; we would have thought 'mp3' referred to a ska band. Ah, to be young again...

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a student government really step up? If so, how?