Friday, February 27, 2009

Four, Going on Thirty

The Girl is four, with big innocent eyes and a smile that could melt the Grinch. She also has juuust a little vinegar in her, which we kind of encourage.

Yesterday with TW, as the radio played the “Hits of the 80's Lunch Hour”:

TG: He doesn't just want you to whip it, he wants you to whip it GOOD!

I'm not ready for this...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

New York Times Misses Point: In Related Story, Sun Rises in East

Several alert readers sent me links to this story in the New York Times. The headline -- “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” -- pretty much captures the tale. It's yet another decline narrative, lamenting the loss of respect for the classics, for a time in which young people sought truth and meaning and appreciated the ineffable blah blah blah.

You can fill in the rest.

As with so many Times stories, it goes off the rails in the last few paragraphs.

It's trying to say that students are turning away from humanities courses, largely out of fear that a degree in, say, English won't be employable. (It doesn't actually rebut that fear, which is interesting.) After a few hand-wringing quotations from Prominent Figures, it trots out a study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But something goes slightly wrong:

Currently [humanities degrees] account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s. (emphasis added)

Oops. The figure remained stable through a recession, a period of growth, and into another recession. That doesn't do much for the 'decline' narrative. Maybe that's why the statistics aren't introduced until paragraph 16, the newspaper equivalent of Siberia.

It gets worse. Returning from the (apparently inscrutable) world of data to the comforting land of anecdote, the thread gets hopelessly tangled:

Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.

Let's assume this is true. Why, oh why, would students be unable to get into a class? Could it be, oh, I don't know, high demand? In other words, the exact opposite of what the story is claiming?


The academics quoted in the story as bemoaning the decline of all that is good hail from, in order, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Williams. The one suggesting that maybe change isn't always bad hails from...shudder...a state system. Nobody in the story hails from a community college.

And that's a real shame. Because if they had bothered to look, they might have noticed a contrary trend happening here, where nearly half of all undergraduates in America are to be found -- far more than can be found in all the Ivies and Potted Ivies combined.

The story the Times missed is the rise of the transfer major at community colleges. For quite a while now, the average age of our students has been dropping. Some of that is a function of dual enrollment (high school students taking college classes), but most of it comes from students who would have gone directly to four-year schools back when they were cheaper. (If you want to tell a tale of decline, talk about the decline of affordability.) We get fewer working adults coming back to school than we once did, and far more kids straight out of high school. Not surprisingly, as our student profile has become more 'traditional,' so has our lineup of courses. The high school grads are much likelier to see a cc as the first stop of a longer college career, rather than a pit stop on the way to a promotion, so they take the general education courses – humanities, social sciences, lab sciences, math. We've closed down several vocational programs over the past several years, but we can't keep up with the demand for math, biology, psych, or English.

That shift flies below the radar of, for example, the report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on which the Times story tried to rely. If you check the report, it looks at names of majors in four-year colleges, master's-granting universities, and doctoral universities. It ignores cc's completely. Even if it checked cc's, it could easily miss the point, since majors with names like “university transfer” might not show up as “Humanities.” But this is where the growth is. This is where the action is.

None of this may be apparent if you're a graduate director at Columbia. No shame in that. And I'll admit that I'm asking a lot of a newspaper that gives a regular column to Stanley Fish. But still, part of me expects the paper of record to do a little research, and maybe to edit its pieces before printing them. This piece is remarkable in its awfulness – elite tunnel vision, statistical illiteracy, hopelessly garbled narrative – and yet, somehow unsurprising. At the risk of plagiarizing Brad DeLong, why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?

Wise and worldly readers, we have work to do. There's a record to set straight. 'Change' only looks like 'decline' if you start from the top. From down here, I see real signs of life. Maybe if we explain that clearly enough, even the New York Times will eventually understand. I don't mind trying; after all, we in the community college world are experienced hands at remediation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Poster Children

This story in IHE is worth checking out, especially with all the comments. It's about Florence Babb, who is apparently an endowed professor and coordinator of a center at the University of Florida. According to the story, her current job involves – among other things -- teaching one course per semester, at a salary a hair under $100,000 per year. In light of a catastrophic budget shortfall, the University wants to increase her teaching load by one course per year. She objected, and has enlisted the union to fight on her behalf.

First, the disclaimers. I had never heard of Florence Babb before reading this story, and I don't really care about this case in itself.

But as an example of something I care a great deal about, it's fascinating.

Read the comments to the story. The first two dozen or so are nearly unanimous in condemning her, taking her as yet another example of a tenured layabout who considers herself above the people whose taxes allow her to complain for a lucrative living. (The other line of attack comes from adjuncts who compare their per-course pay to hers.) And this is in IHE, the readership of which, I'm guessing, hails disproportionately from higher education. Can you imagine how this story would play in a local paper?

The particular dilemma, at this point, boils down to which part of 'unsustainable contract' trumps the other. UF is claiming, correctly, that the current fiscal shortfall demands some level of sacrifice. Babb and the union are claiming, correctly, that a contract is a contract.

Both sides are right, but if they've retreated to such intractable positions they've both already lost. If the University 'wins,' I'd expect 'stars' to start decamping for greener pastures as soon as the market improves, since they'd be afraid that promises are written in sand. If Babb 'wins,' the University will have to take out its cuts instead on those least able to fight back – it's not like the fiscal crisis will just go away -- and the anti-public-education conservatives will have their latest Ward Churchill to use as a battering ram. Either result is ugly.

Whether Babb 'deserves' to win, at this point, is beyond my ken. But for letting the conflict get to this point, yet another in a long series of raspberries to the leadership of the University of Florida. This is not how it's done.

The first mistake is in defining her job as a 'professor.' If most of her job involves running a center, then reclassify her as a director, and allow her to teach a class each semester. It's more accurate, and it adjusts the expectations in the University's favor. At that point, she's not lumped into the same category in the public mind as a freshman comp instructor. Instead, she's part of the leadership of the University, and her contribution is pitching in to teach a class. Same basic job, same salary, but suddenly she goes from 'lazy' to 'pitching in.' In the public mind, the difference is huge.

The second mistake is in failing to build the relationship of trust over time so that when the poop really hit the fan, you could approach her in a spirit of pitching in. Most people, most of the time, respond to respect with reciprocity. (Admittedly, and regrettably, this isn't universal. But it's a good 'default' setting.) If the climate of trust is strong, the few holdouts who spurn the request in a spirit of 'me first' will feel real, and painful, social sanction from their peers. This is not to be discounted.

I've seen this happen in close-knit departments when someone goes out mid-semester with a medical emergency. When that has happened, I've seen conscientious colleagues step in and pick up classes midstream, saving until later any discussion of compensation. They've done it out of a sense that it's the right thing to do. If the climate is such that 'doing the right thing' doesn't feel like 'being played for a sucker,' then even some usually-crabby types will surprise you. On the other hand, if they have a long-nursed sense of being put-upon, you can expect a campaign of sustained, self-righteous nitpicking. And if they nitpick long enough, they're bound to find something.

Yes, there are times when it's possible for academic administrators to lay down the law, to give what amount to direct orders. (“Show up for your classes or you're fired.”) But if you have to resort to that, you've already lost. Winning a 'victory' in the Babb case will almost certainly cause untold future damage, as others who've signed contracts will wonder at the reliability of those. The right move would have been to deal with it internally and informally. Now, the University will lose either way.

Distrust within colleges leads to the kind of polarized behavior that generates poster children for distrust by the public. Every time a story like yesterday's hits the local press, higher ed takes another beating. We can't afford that now, if we ever could. A single poster child for wasteful tenured layabouts could cost millions in lost state aid. The smart move is to avoid getting into that position in the first place.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Moments of Truth

The indefatigable Lesboprof has a great post up about a couple of legislators from Georgia who are using the economic crunch as an excuse to launch a purge of feminists, gays, and anyone whose politics or lifestyle they consider “special interest areas” from public colleges and universities. And it isn't just points of view they're out to silence; apparently, they've going after entire subject areas. The working assumption seems to be that only certain kinds of people – cough, cough – study such suspect things as gender, or women, or (horrors) homosexuality.

(I've long been fascinated by the assumption that the choice of object of study reflects the scholar. Are all scholars of feminism feminists? Are all scholars of ancient Greece ancient and Greek? Are all geologists rocks? I once took a course about dead German philosophers taught by someone who was neither German nor dead. Should I demand a refund?)

The money quote, if you will, is from state Rep. Charlice Byrd:

“Now that the state budget is under considerable reform, I believe the timing is perfect to eliminate positions of professors and staff who are paid to provide such services in these so-called special interest areas,” Byrd said Feb. 6.

LP does a great job of parsing, and rebutting, Rep. Byrd's view, so I'll defer to her on that. Suffice it to say that although LP's self-portrait (“a Jewish feminist lesbian in my 10th year of teaching in my third red state”) differs subtly from my own, our politics are pretty similar. (Full disclosure: we're also personal friends.)

Still, as an example of a different issue, it spoke to me.

One could easily read Rep. Byrd's statement as a pathetic overreach, or an unconvincing fig leaf for another agenda. I don't, though. I think it's a relatively clear statement of what he actually thinks. If you believe that, say, women's history is unimportant and/or objectionable for whatever reason, and you believe that there's a fiscal crisis, then cutting women's history makes perfect sense. The argument is with the first premise, not with the logic (or the second premise, for that matter).

Put differently, emergencies force people to put their cards on the table. To the extent that it's fair to describe the economy as being in a state of emergency – I'll go with 'yes' on that one – I think we'll start to see considerably greater clarity from leaders everywhere as to what they actually consider worthwhile and important. Some of what they say and do will make a great deal of sense, and some will be completely insane. But I expect that it will be unusually clear. In emergencies, things emerge.

Some colleges are apparently responding to the crisis by resorting to frantic, closed-door decision-making at the highest levels. This is revealing. Others are being much more open, sharing information with faculty, staff, and students, and favoring inclusiveness in both process and result. This, too, is revealing.

That's not to say that one can always infer intentions from actions. External constraints are real, and some options are simply proscribed by circumstance. But the better leaders will communicate that when it's relevant, and will do so as specifically as is realistic. If they take inclusiveness seriously, they'll do so out of respect for the collective intelligence of the larger group, and that collective intelligence can only do its thing when it has information to chew on.

I'd suggest that Rep. Byrd is showing his true colors here, and that others will, too. People with long memories would be well advised to pay very close attention over the next year or two. It's easy to please everybody when money is sloshing around. But when the chips are down, and they are, the real priorities become clear. Some of us understand the task at hand as bringing the entire community into the conversation, and preserving the best of our values during a difficult time; others understand the task as bashing the queers. If nothing else, at least we'll get clarity.

Thanks, LP, for the heads-up.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Some Meetings Are Actually Useful...

As the year has become progressively more surreal, I've been finding much more value in the occasional meetings I have with my counterparts at nearby cc's.

Counterpart meetings are usually good opportunities for a certain gallows humor and commiseration. Most campuses have far more faculty than they have administrators – and rightly so – so faculty looking to bond with colleagues over local (or student) issues often don't have to look terribly far. But in the administrative ranks, the numbers are smaller and the jobs more specialized. The Dean of Students and the Dean of Science and Engineering may share the 'dean' title, but almost nothing else. For administrators, meeting people who share your actual job almost always involves meeting people at other colleges.

In good years, meetings like that are good for reality-checking (“is it me?”), industry gossip, and blowing off steam. But this year, I've found a new level of value in these meetings. We're able to compare notes on how to deal with budgetary vertigo.

I've already learned several “thou shalt nots,” some of which could be described as counterintuitive. Without betraying any confidences, I can say that the threshold some people use for designating something a 'past practice' – and therefore giving it legal force – is shockingly low. Learning that from counterparts is a good bit less painful than learning it at a grievance hearing.

War stories like these come in especially handy around electric issues like layoffs. Some of my counterparts were in their current roles when the last recession hit, so they've dealt with a milder version of this before. (Even the veterans agree that the difference this time around is the speed and severity of the drop.) Counter to stereotype, the discussion wasn't about how to 'get' the union activists – a fair number of us were union activists at one point or another – or about how to reward friends and punish enemies. It was mostly about deciphering the rules of the game.

The frustrating part of administration that nobody warns you about is dealing with so many overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, sets of rules. I smile ruefully whenever I hear someone say, as if it were that simple, “all you have to do is follow procedure.” Which procedure would that be? The one on page 24 of the contract, the conflicting one on page 35 of the same contract, the one the AAUP likes, the one the college has historically followed, the one consistent with the latest and most expansive interpretation of the ADA, the one that looks good in the local paper, the one in the never-updated state policy manual, the one that seems consistent with recent case law, the one that respects the hobbyhorse of the locally powerful group, or the one the governor likes? And what if a straightforward application of a policy has a disparate impact on a protected group? (Hint: good luck with that. Now you get to make a choice: get brought up on charges, or violate procedure. Either way, you're wrong.) Making matters worse, many procedures contain terms requiring some exercise of judgment, like “unreasonable” or “undue” or “all else being equal.” (Quick rule of thumb: all else is never equal.) My interpretation of “unreasonable” in a given case may not be yours; does that mean I didn't follow procedure?

Even the veteran admins admit some level of befuddlement at the corners into which we're painted. In a way, that helps emotionally, since it tells me that no, it's not just me. But it also brings home the difficulty of some of these tasks.

Although it's an article of faith among many that administrators try to run colleges like businesses (and an article of faith among some outsiders that we should), public colleges can't have the clarity of focus of a business. As nonprofits with tax support, we can't take profit (or market share) maximization as goals. That said, we can't ignore the need to make payroll, either (and that's not a contradiction). Unlike most businesses, we don't capture most of the gains from good performance. Between open admissions and academic freedom as it's often understood, we have little to no control over our inputs. Add unions, tenure, local and state politics, the vicissitudes of public funding, and a breathtaking array of stakeholders, and the room to move is far less than most people imagine. The mission is multifaceted and constantly changing; public needs are contradictory; policies and rules drawn up in completely different contexts get applied to us whether they make sense or not. When you lose money on every student, growing your way out of a budget crisis isn't really an option. (Sometimes I think we're caught in the old I Love Lucy episode in which she sells salad dressing: she loses money on every bottle, but makes it up in volume.) Businesses can choose to focus ruthlessly on one or two measures; we have to balance a large and ever-shifting bundle of them.

This can be done relatively well or very badly, but it can't be done simply. Hearing veteran counterparts elsewhere wrestle with the exact same issues could be dispiriting, but it's actually reassuring. This year, there's value in reassurance.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Process and Word Problems

Academic administrators aren't the only administrators on a campus. We routinely interact with the folks who run the business side (payroll, facilities, security), the IT side, fundraising, and the like.

I've had several conversations with administrative colleagues lately that have gone something like this:

Other Admin: I had the budget talk with my group. It was rough, but we got through it. How did yours go?

DD: We're getting there.

OA: Getting there?

DD: Yeah. First I had to get them past the denial stage. Then I had to endure the usual “let's just fire all the administrators” stuff. By the time I left, the group was starting to develop its own plans.

OA: Huh?

DD: They can't hear it from above. They have to figure it out for themselves. Once they do that, and see how far short their suggestions would actually fall, we'll be able to have a constructive conversation about next steps. We have a followup meeting next week, and we'll probably have a few others after that.

OA: (eyes roll back in head)

It seems to be an academic thing. Many faculty simply will not trust information presented to them, even if it's impeccably sourced and mathematically airtight. They have to figure it out for themselves. Once they do, then they can start to deal.

I've had to figure this out over time.

In my early days of deaning, I used to fall into the trap of believing that good information, presented clearly and openly, would get the job done. The flaw in this approach is that it addresses what's said, rather than what's heard. What they hear is what counts. Some people can only hear themselves, so the only effective way to get the information across is to put them in a position where they find themselves saying it.

It's the difference between watching a teacher solve an equation and solving it yourself. Watching is fine, but it doesn't sink in until you do it yourself.

I haven't quite resorted to actual word problems yet – a budget leaves Washington at 60 miles per hour, heading North – but the idea is similar.

As with good teaching, it's important to leave open the possibility that someone might devise a better solution than the one you had in mind. That happens, and it's exhilarating when it does. Sometimes when they're in the problem-solving stage, someone will connect some dots that I didn't, and come up with something altogether nifty. I love it when that happens, since it results in both a better solution and incontrovertible evidence that I was actually listening.

Of course, sometimes that doesn't happen. They'll come back with something half-baked, or with nothing at all except a frazzled expression and a sincere desire that someone make the problem go away. But even then, we're in a better spot than if I had just solved the problem on the board. Now, the denial phase is pretty much history, and we can actually talk reality. It's not ideal, but it's progress.

This may all sound sinister and manipulative, but the impulse behind it is getting people past the blinders that inhibit them from helping to shape the solution. The point is to enable a constructive kind of academic citizenship, rather than the usual dichotomy of either apathy or total war. Once they grasp the contours of what we're up against, they're in a position to craft actual solutions, and to defend their own interests more effectively. I want that to happen, since I can't help but think that we're smarter together than separately.

It's just hard to explain that to the parts of the college that can settle the question in a single 45 minute meeting.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Error and Failure

Yesterday's IHE has a worthwhile story about 'reverse transfers' – students starting at four-year colleges and then transferring to cc's – becoming more common as students become more price-conscious. There's nothing terribly shocking in it, if you assume that recessions bring increased price awareness, even though it's a nice reminder that the traffic goes both ways.

What got my attention, though, was the first comment after the story. 'Judith' wrote:

My daughter finished her freshman year at Smith with a B- average and, upon being told not to bother to major in math, took time off to do remedial math work at a community college, intending to return to Smith. One day she said to me, “I’m not going back to Smith. They think that if I’m not already good at something, I shouldn’t bother to learn it. At community college, the teacher tells us how we will use what we’re studying in the future.” She got an AS with honors and is now back in a four-year school (not Smith).Community colleges teach.

It's a simple point, but it brought back a flood of memories.

Back in my own student days, I remember getting a very clear sense in both high school and college – hell, even through grad school – that I was constantly being monitored for flaws. (This may be at the root of why so many of my cohort thought that Foucault was really onto something with the 'panopticon' idea. 'Omnipresent and internalized surveillance' described our felt reality pretty well.) The whole prestige hierarchy/pyramid model – basically an inverted funnel – is based on weeding people out. If you buy into the model early and set a goal of succeeding within it, the entire educational process becomes a game of failure avoidance.

At some level, though, failure avoidance is a horrible way to learn (not to mention a horrible way to live). It rewards the wrong traits, and inhibits some pretty important ones.

At Snooty Liberal Arts College, I remember professors constantly being frustrated as their attempts to generate class discussion fell flat. They never seemed to clue in that, having bought entirely into the failure avoidance model, we were all petrified of looking stupid. Annoyingly, in any given class there were usually enough ridiculously-gifted people that if you weren't among them, nearly anything you did offer would immediately become grist for the mill. The fear wasn't irrational; when you were being graded against the preternaturally gifted, showing weakness was just too risky.

Grad school was even worse. At that level, a self-selected bunch of failure avoiders competed for faculty approval in a pretty airless environment for years. By the end, it took an act of will just to put together a declarative sentence. The most damning insult in grad school was “naive,” which was typically applied to anyone who actually made some sort of positive claim. (“Naive realism” was the worst, since it implied the unforgivable sin of claiming to actually know something about something.) Self-doubt can be taught.

In grad school, too, I recall the faculty being perplexed as to why so many doctoral students seemed oddly hesitant and overly deferential during oral exams. At one panel of grad student papers, I recall noticing that every single grad student started her presentation with “this is a work in progress.” Translated, that means “please don't attack me.” These habits are learned. Even now, I write with far too many parentheses, which is a form of defensive self-interruption. Old habits are hard to break.

When I landed a full-time teaching gig at Proprietary U, I was immediately struck by the different way I was treated. Instead of being the object of study, constantly under scrutiny and with the burden of proving myself against unspecified and arbitrary criteria, I was suddenly assumed to be knowledgeable about my particular subject area. As the only member of the faculty in my discipline, I was suddenly the go-to guy for issues in my discipline. It took a couple of years to get past both the thrill of unaccustomed respect and the nagging sense of being an impostor. Some people never manage to integrate the two experiences, instead switching between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement in a sort of acquired narcissism.

At the end of the process, you wind up with a greater-than-average proportion of hyper-critical shrinking violets who consider any attempt to deal with the realities of the outside world to be, well, naïve.

The application of this model to the typical college Senate meeting, I'll leave to the reader.

The model of teaching at the cc, and even at Proprietary U for that matter, is entirely different. It's not about poking and prodding the students until the flaws show up, the better to exclude them from the next level up. It's based instead on the assumption that most people can handle most subjects, if the classes are structured right and the students put in the effort. Success isn't assumed to be finite. It's assumed to be there for the taking, and the goal of the institution is to help the students take it.

Underlying that model is an assumption that students are worthy of respect, even with their flaws. There's something humane, and democratic, about that. Yes, sometimes that can swing too far, and go from 'supportive' to 'vapid.' Yes, upholding standards is a sign of respect, and any college worthy of the name needs to do that.

But I'd rather teach students by example that risk-taking is a part of growth than teach them that any sign of weakness bespeaks a basic character flaw. We're all flawed. That's not the point. The point is to accomplish things anyway.

Thanks, Judith, for crystallizing so succinctly something that had brewing in my head for some time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Tuition/Aid Tango

(Or, worst “Dancing With the Stars” episode ever.)

In discussion with my counterparts across my state, I'm hearing that most of the other cc's are planning some pretty dramatic tuition/fee increases this Fall to compensate for the one-two punch of falling state aid and spiking enrollments.

It's a perfectly rational move, from a budget-balancing standpoint. If costs are going up and one major source of income is dropping, you need more income from another source. With Pell grants going up and a nasty recession driving enrollment gains, the tuition/fee side is where there's room to move. If we increase the tuition/fee total by less than the increase in Pell grants, then our neediest students are unhurt, so it's all good. It would be even better if we got direct operating aid instead of getting it indirectly through tuition, but this still works.

But we're balking a bit, and not only for the reason you'd think. Yes, we're reluctant to raise tuition during a recession, and the idea of shifting ever more of the cost of operation onto the students violates the premise of public education. But the reason goes beyond that.

It's an annual dance we do with the state. The state hates to see tuition and fees increase, since they come across to the public – not unreasonably – as tax increases. But it obviously has no intention of forestalling the revenue shortfall on its own, and it won't stand for us shutting down politically popular programs. (Eliminate the music and nursing programs, and we're halfway there.) So we can't, say, raise revenues or cut costs in significant ways. Taking both of these moves out of the picture narrows the options somewhat.

So we get into a weird pas de deux with the state. It tries to figure out the smallest restoration of cuts it can make to persuade us to minimize any cost increases. And we try to figure out the highest cost increases we can get away with (and live with, ourselves) without incurring the wrath of the state (that is, without getting our aid cut by enough to cancel out the tuition/fee increase).

In a normal year, this dance takes a month or so, both sides settle on something not-quite-satisfying, and we get on with it. This year, the dance feels more like a game of chicken. (Don't mix metaphors like this at home, kids – I'm a trained professional!) The state's fiscal picture is worsening so quickly that any figure it agrees to now will probably be revised downward in a few months, then revised downward again after that. We don't want to give the state any excuses to make the cuts even worse, but at the same time, we'd be foolish to take any implied promises as anything more than hopeful guesses. So the usually-complicated ritual is much more complicated this year.

(Then, of course, there's the stimulus package. I see some great big numbers with some very vague rules attached – heaven only knows how much, if any, will find its way down here. To the extent that we're lumped in with the K-12 system, I don't like our chances. And the persistent fixation on construction, rather than instruction, doesn't help. Yes, construction workers spend their salaries. You know who else spends their salaries? College faculty! I'd be happy to personally tutor any member of Congress who can't grasp this.)

Although the cc model is built on the assumption of low upfront cost to students, the gravitational pull of several different factors is pushing us towards the high tuition/high aid model common in the rest of higher ed. Apparently, aid to colleges directly is considered discretionary, but increased financial aid to students is considered stimulative and humane. We're just responding to the environment.

My fearless prediction: this Fall, cc's across the country will shatter records in percentage terms with increases in tuition and fees. Between record enrollments and drastic subsidy cuts, it's nearly inevitable. The deterrent effect of possible state cuts is vitiated when state cuts are inevitable anyway. If we raise student costs, we get our aid cut. If we don't, we still get our aid cut. Move the money from operating subsidies to financial aid, and we'll adjust accordingly. We'll endure the usual ignorant blather about out-of-control tuition by people who get mad at Harvard and take it out on us, but at the end of the day, we're just playing by the rules.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. If you want us to do a different dance, pay the piper, and call a different tune.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Starting from Scratch

A new correspondent writes:

The University of the District of Columbia is spinning off a new community college.
If you were starting a new CC from scratch, where would you start?
More importantly, what baggage would you dispense with?

Ooooh, fun!

I'll admit a bias upfront, and say that I think a community college in DC is a good idea, and no, that's not a smartass comment about politicians. DC has a staggering poverty rate, and its public schools are, um, let's say 'known as dicey' as leave it at that. A new open-door college that could actually move some people from the economic margins into the employable middle class strikes me as a very, very good idea. And if it generates a few academic jobs along the way, even better.

It probably wouldn't surprise my regular readers to hear that I'd go with multiyear renewable contracts instead of tenure, and raises based more on performance than on seniority. I've said plenty on both of those topics over the years, so I'll just stand on my record on those. I'd be fine with faculty unions, including adjuncts, as long as those basic ground rules held. In my preferred universe, the unions would bargain over benefits, base salaries, and the integrity of internal processes, to keep the administration honest. And the administration would be free to use its professional judgment to show low performers the door when their contracts expire, as long as it documented its reasons. (Cost saving wouldn't generally be a reason, if raises aren't based on seniority.)

If it were up to me, the distinctive feature of CCDC (I don't know what they'll call it, so I'll use that) would be a relatively narrow set of programs. Given the locale and mission, I assume there would be a fairly heavy need for ESL and remedial instruction, so that's fine. In terms of degree programs, though, I'd hold the line on mission creep and set a cap of maybe ten programs for the entire college. (That's a ballpark figure – could be eight, could be twelve.) A generic gen ed transfer program, a nursing program (duh), a criminal justice program, some variation on business admin, maybe early childhood education, and a very short list of others chosen for likelihood of payoff. (The specifics would depend on local employment needs, and on what the college could conceivably do well.) What I manifestly would NOT do is try to be 'comprehensive' in the current fashion, which involves a single college running a hundred or more degree programs. When programs (or 'options') grow like kudzu, the resources get spread too thin, and the resource requirements for administrative overhead mushroom far beyond any real payoff to the students. (Every program needs its own outcomes assessments, its own annual reports, its own program reviews, its own coordinator...) Assuming the cc only covers the first two years – and I'd be dogmatic about that – there's really a limit to how much specialization actually makes sense. It also makes it easier to go light on middle administration, like deans, since less complexity requires less management.

(This would also probably require rethinking shared governance. Basically, I'd require the curriculum committee to deal with the economics of any proposed program. Right now, most colleges cleave off curriculum from economics, then water everything down to pay for the perfectly predictable overreach. I'd rather do a few things well than a whole bunch badly. I could envision a charge to curriculum committee that would say something like “pick any ten programs. If you want a new one, specify which existing one you would kill to make room for it.” No more death by addition.)

One area of 'administration' that I would bulk up more than most, though, would be institutional research. Most colleges have just enough IR staff to deal with external reporting requirements, whether for Perkins, Title IV, or whatever. To me, this is a catastrophic mistake. They should have enough staff to run and monitor internal experiments, so over time, they could make evidence-based decisions. For example, I'm not at all convinced that it makes sense to denominate remedial courses in semester hours. Remedial courses don't transfer, so there's no constraint there. I'd run a series of different formats in a sort of controlled experiment, so that over time, resources could go where they do the most good. Compare the results internally by simultaneously running self-paced, accelerated/compressed, and traditional remedial courses. Over time, go with what works.

I'd also want to support a relatively ambitious childcare center that's open during both day and evening classes. (Admittedly, this isn't cheap, but it's good to aim high at the outset.) Evening childcare can be a dealbreaker for working adults. Combine good day and evening childcare with Metro passes paid for by student fees (and therefore by Pell grants), and you're getting somewhere. If the single Mom has to improvise informal babysitting and take three buses to get to class, she's sunk. But if she can take her kid on the Metro, drop him off before class, pick him up after, and ride home, she might actually have a shot. She'll still have her hands full, but at least she'll have safe and sustainable childcare and transportation at the ready. Those aren't small things. In the interest of reciprocity – and this would almost certainly require serious grant money, but bear with me for a minute – condition free childcare around class time on good academic standing. As far as retention goes, that combines carrot and stick in a basically fair way. Stick with the program, and it will stick with you. Walk away, and the benefits go to someone else. Fair is fair.

With relatively few programs, it would be easier to schedule students in cohorts, the better to foster an environment in which they support each other. Study groups make a tremendous difference, but they're unlikely to form when students scatter from one class to the next. Something closer to a cohort – ideally, a learning community, but let's start with cohorts – would greatly improve the odds of success.

Given the realities of the DC area, the college would almost certainly have to have a fairly aggressive 'college in the company' program, wherein it offers courses onsite for various employers. (The faculty union might balk at this, but the community needs what it needs.) And it would certainly need to pursue articulation agreements with local four-year colleges and universities, though it might be a few years before that becomes terribly relevant.

Given the need to prioritize some things over others, I'd assign sports a lower priority. The college can get around to it when it gets around to it; let's get the bread-and-butter stuff right first.

I'm sure I'm missing a lot; this is just off the top of my head. Wise and worldly readers – what would you do with a blank slate?

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

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ask the Administrator: HS vs. CC Faculty

A regular correspondent writes:

What, exactly, are CC faculty supposed to do that substantially distinguishes them from high school teachers?

I don't mean this in a derogatory manner, I was a high school teacher and found the job incredibly fulfilling.

Similarly, I was a full-time CC instructor on the tenure-track.  In order to be approved for tenure I was expected to teach classes (actually semester hours) to a reasonable standard of competency.  I was also expected to take part in the organizational structure of the college by serving on committees.  It was expected that I keep current in the methods of pedagogy in my field and demonstrate that I was attempting to improve my instruction (note that this is pre-tenure).

I could write the exact same job description for a high school teacher, except that they would spend far more time in the classroom on a weekly basis. I taught more classes, had more preps and had more students as a HS teacher than a CC teacher and I worked far more school days.  That 'month break' between fall and spring semesters sounds more like 10 days depending on the year.

The weird thing?  The salaries were about the same, maybe a little better at the CC.  And, the opportunities for overloads, intersession classes, summer classes made the possible salary significantly better.

What justifies this disparity?  Especially in these economic times?

For reference, my academic qualifications were better when I got the HS job than at any time during my CC gig and I was a far better teacher.  While teaching HS I just kept reflecting on how much free time I had while teaching at my CC.

I guess the corresponding question is, 'how are CC administrators paid in relationship to school district personnel who have similar jobs?'  I've got no idea/experience on this one other than to note that many, if not most superintendents make well in excess of 100K, but I've got no idea what the lower level folks make.

I'll start by saying that this varies by state, so generalizations that are relatively fair in one state may be wildly off-base in another. Depending on locale, one venue might be unionized and the other not, for example. I'll be interested to see what my wise and worldly readers have to contribute on this one, since they hail from many different places.

That said, I'll address the academic side first. In the geographic areas with which I'm relatively familiar, high school teachers have historically been teachers first and subject matter experts second (or sometimes third). On the positive side, that has often meant that they've been trained in the quirks of child and adolescent behavior at a level that most laypeople haven't. On the negative side, I had teachers in high school whose subject-matter mastery sometimes lagged my own, and I wasn't alone. (I clearly remember explaining the Missouri Compromise to my American History teacher, who thought that it involved partitioning Missouri. You know, North Missouri and South Missouri.) The worst – and I'm not making this up – was the fifth-grade math teacher whose grasp of fractions was bad enough that we graded quizzes by majority vote. If TB came home and told me that, I'd be in his principal's office the next day with a pitchfork in one hand and a torch in the other.

At the cc level, instructors are professors. That means their primary expertise is in their subject matter, with a secondary focus – if that – on instruction. While I've seen some great teachers, many good ones, and a few regrettable ones, I haven't seen a single one who didn't at least understand the subject matter of the course. The least effective ones often can't communicate their knowledge effectively, but at least the knowledge is there.

On the higher end of the scale, we expect professors to have the capacity to explain things above the level they're teaching. That's why we require Master's degrees, and prefer Doctorates, even to teach 101-level classes. The idea is to be able to handle student queries that don't follow the book, to follow developments in the field before they show up in textbook revisions, and to equip students with some of the depth necessary for them to succeed at the next level. Our graduates transfer to four-year colleges, and they need to be ready to compete there. (According to the data we've been able to gather, they actually graduate at higher rates at their destination schools than do 'native' students.) Professors who have the capacity to do higher-level classes can provide that extra depth, so that's who we hire.

It's probably true that the 'face time' demands on high school teachers are higher. At my cc, which isn't unusual, professors have to teach 15 hours per week and provide a few office hours on top of that. They also have to do a few committees. All told, they can do the scheduled work in probably 25 hours per week, when classes are in session. That's not counting prep time, or grading, both of which can be monstrous time sinks, but both of which can be done at home, or at night, or on Sunday. High school teachers have to do five days per week, six (or so) classes per day, starting at an unhealthy hour of the morning. (Why, or why, haven't American high schools adjusted to the research which shows that the adolescent body clock starts and finishes the day later than everybody else's? But I digress.) They also have to prep and grade, and sometimes do lunchroom or hall monitor duty, too. (I literally can't imagine my faculty doing that.) I imagine that high school teaching involves less curricular work, since curricula are pretty rigidly standardized, but that can bring its own set of stresses.

I can't really address the salary question directly, since I don't know the ins and outs of local high school salary schedules. (Yes, they're unionized, as are my faculty.) My impression anecdotally is that they're roughly comparable, though you get tenure faster in the high school system. And I have even less clue what, say, high school assistant principals make around here, so I really can't address that.

What I like about this question is the implication that some folks who are absolutely killing themselves as college adjuncts might be able to find very satisfying lives teaching high school. In some disciplines, that's probably true, and well worth some mulling.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts or observations on this one? Keep in mind, the question isn't meant to be derogatory towards either group; it seems to be (at least I'm reading it as) an actual question.

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

Friday, February 13, 2009

Moving Targets

This week I've been a part of some very difficult conversations on campus about budget cuts and their implications for our cc. Some of the difficult parts were easily predictable: impact on jobs, impact on students, impact on various programs.

But the hardest part was one I hadn't really anticipated. It was the almost palpable desire for a fixed target, a final figure that once we had hit, we could exhale and know we'd be okay.

That, we can't do. The state budget is a moving target. And this makes inclusive, good-faith planning incredibly hard.

Every few months, the state gets a new batch of quarterly tax receipt figures. Lately, each quarter's number has been shockingly low, forcing yet another series of cuts. Since state tax revenues are based on income tax (which drop when employment drops), capital gains (not too many of those around lately), and sales tax (which tanked when car sales tanked), I don't foresee good news this quarter, either. Were I the betting kind, I'd bet that the figure we've been given for the fiscal year starting this July will be adjusted even farther downward before we even get to July.

This means that we can't just do one plan. We have to do levels of contingency plans. And as hard as one plan can be, multiple plans are that much harder.

At least with a single plan, once it's done, whoever escaped the pain escaped the pain. You have the nasty battles, the deed gets done, and you move on. But when the goalposts keep moving, the 'winners' can never be sure that they've actually won. As hard as it is to build trust during cuts, it's that much harder when the cuts that were 'enough' last month aren't enough this month.

The speed of the drop is so severe that we've literally been unable to stay ahead of the curve. A few months ago we did several budget projections for the coming year, ranging from bad to awful to worst-case; we've already blown well past the worst case.

As people have started to figure out the seriousness of what we're up against, some have stepped up and offered real help in finding sustainable answers, but some have retreated into unhelpful knee-jerk posturing. Stress affects different people differently, I guess, but I'm always a little disappointed when people take crisis as opportunities to ride old hobbyhorses. Narcissism is too expensive to afford now.


When it comes to contingency planning, I'm beginning to think there's a choice to be made. Fast, inclusive, and effective: pick any two.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Interdisciplinarity and Risk Aversion

A new correspondent writes:

I will be graduating from a smaller campus of a Big 10 University this May with a degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities. I have some definite concerns as I enter into the job market, being especially considerate of our economic situation right now. From the time that I began grad school two years ago, I knew that I wanted to teach.I will happily take a job anywhere I can get one! My first concern is that my degree is actually in Humanities, even though I concentrated in English Lit and Rhet/Comp. ( I have 6 credits of Rhet/Comp Theory and 15 in Lit, along with some theory classes and the typical research methods/thesis writing courses). I know I will be applying to many different schools, from community colleges to state universities and smaller liberal arts colleges. Do I tailor my CV, and for that matter, my cover letter to fit in with each "type" of school? How do I emphasize my competence in the Rhet Comp/English Lit area, especially since I have no real teaching experience?

My second concern, if you want to call it that, is that my real desire is to teach at the local community college. Its actually where I started my schooling and I feel that without the mentoring and nurturing they gave me, I would not be where I am today. I feel my own personal pedagogy is in tune with the community college mission, and I really just want to give back to the place that gave me so much. I have actually been an English tutor there for the past 5 years, and have stayed in touch with many of my professors and the people on campus. If I am considered as a adjunct candidate, I know the first step is an interview with the English department. I think this would be the first time that I would be interviewed by someone I know. Perhaps this is a silly concern, but how do I balance that line between professionalism and showing them who I am as a person and future adjunct? Should I come prepared with a mini lesson, or assignment sheets? Being that they know me, I feel that there is an extra layer of expectation, but I could be wrong!

I hate to say this, but I don't like your chances at the full-time level.

Obviously, the academic job market in the evergreens has been bad for a while, and is dramatically worse this year than it has been in a long time. Not only are fewer searches authorized (or consummated once they've begun), but you'll increasingly be competing with people whose jobs evaporated out from under them. Even more applicants, even fewer jobs.

The less obvious aspect of that is the impact it often has (not always, but often) on hiring committees and hiring managers.

If you only have three or four applicants for a position, you can weigh carefully the relative merits of each. If you have hundreds of applicants for a position, that's not an option. Instead, most of the time the first task will be to winnow down the pile using a few 'bright line' criteria upfront. Tighten up the required qualifications, and don't look twice at anybody who doesn't meet them. In faculty positions at community colleges, that frequently means that phrases like “or a related discipline” drop out of position announcements. An English department might get enough applications from people with degrees in English that it could simply decide not to look at candidates with degrees in anything else. It also probably means that anybody without actual teaching experience is out of the question, since so many candidates will have already put their rookie mistakes behind them.

That's not an ideal solution, obviously, since too many square pegs can make for a pretty boring program. But it's a relatively rational use of a scarce resource – time – and it's legally defensible.

Off the top of my head, I'm not entirely sure what an interdisciplinary humanities degree fits. Is it history? English? Some sort of area studies? In a labor shortage, that might not matter much, but when you're competing for jobs with hundreds of other people, “I don't understand” can quickly become “Next!”

In terms of applying for jobs, higher ed is very different from most of the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, I'm told, it's largely about networking. Get your name out there, make a good impression, and sooner or later you'll catch a break.

In higher ed, openings are formally posted, and decisions are made by committee (and by layers above committees). Yes, some places still operate on the old shoot-from-the-hip style, but they're setting themselves up for some nasty lawsuits. It's such an employer's market in most areas that the risk of slowness is usually much less than the risk of litigation, so they go for the slow-and-careful method. That can sometimes become a fetish, but the initial impulse is institutionally rational.

(If you do get an interview, I'd try not to focus on prior familiarity. Yes, you may know some people and have rapport, but you'll still need to shine relative to others whose flaws they've never seen. An interview is a performance, and needs to be approached as such.)

Having taken a non-traditional route, I'd suggest figuring out your unique niche, and going for that. If you go for plain-vanilla English jobs, you'll be up against plenty of others whose degrees don't require explanation. Yes, lightning can strike, but I wouldn't call that a plan. On the other hand, if you can figure out what need you can fill uniquely and then gun for that, you'll have a leg up over all the more traditionally-labeled candidates. And in the meantime, get some teaching experience any way you can. In this market, a non-traditional master's and zero teaching experience isn't likely to cut it.

Good luck. You've got an uphill battle before you.

Wise and worldly readers – can you offer anything more optimistic?

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


We're starting to use the R word in a really serious way. Even with reducing the number of deans, we may not save enough to save every faculty job. While the dust is far from settled on next year's budget, it's pretty clear that we've blown well past our previous worst-case scenarios. Now we have to start looking at faculty retrenchment, at least on a contingency-plan basis.

This is nobody's idea of fun.

Retrenchment in a strong-union environment is a particularly blunt instrument. The faculty contract outlines some very specific rules to follow, including several years' worth of first dibs on a restored job, strict seniority protections, and rights of reassignment for faculty who have the credentials to teach in another area. While there's some room for judgment in terms of program selection, there's almost no room for judgment within a given program.

Whether it makes any sense or not, the last hired in a given area have to be the first fired.

There's a certain fairness built into that, of course. People in the early stages of careers have presumably put down shallower roots here, and have greater mobility. And there's an intuitive appeal to the idea that beyond a certain point, you shouldn't have to look over your shoulder anymore. I get that.

But an automatic 'last hired, first fired' policy has several drawbacks.

First, of course, is that it has nothing to do with quality. We've been very deliberate about hiring terrific people over the last several years, and have batted nearly a thousand. It pains me to think that we'd have to sacrifice some spectacular younger employees to continue to support some, well, less spectacular senior ones who got in when the bar was much lower, or who have gradually started phoning it in. From a student-centered perspective, that's exactly backward.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'm not saying that all younger or newer employees are better than all senior ones. I'm just saying that 'quality' and 'seniority' are not the same thing, and that when they conflict, I'm forced to choose the wrong one.)

Second, in a unionized setting, the newest employees tend to be the cheapest. By definition, letting them go gets you less bang for the buck. This means you have to fire more of them to make up the difference.

Third, the youngest cohort is by far the most diverse. Going after that group would undo years' worth of difficult recruitment, and would push our faculty even farther out of line with our rapidly changing student demographics.

Finally, some senior employees could reframe retrenchment as retirement. I don't know many thirty-year-olds who have that option, and the likelihood of them finding a good academic job in this market, right now, is negligible. The flip side of 'shallow roots' is 'no financial cushion.' These folks have student loans, young children, and housing costs that don't reflect what things cost in the seventies.

All of that said, though, the contract is the contract. So now we get to start looking at the various programs and trying to decide what to throw overboard. There's no obviously correct way to do that.

It would be lovely if we had a program with dying enrollments, high costs, minimal employment and transfer prospects, and a few expensive faculty. But we don't. In this environment, fruit doesn't hang that low for very long before getting picked.

Every program has a constituency. Every adverse employment action will trigger accusations, grievances, lawsuits, and political battles. External groups who have no intention of picking up any of our costs will rake us over the coals for doing what we have to do. I'll get accused of having an 'agenda,' of harboring a secret plan, and of not listening to input. It won't be true, but that won't stop it.
Desperate people will grasp at straws, and give not a whit about collateral damage.

I'm not looking for sympathy. From the perspective of, say, a struggling adjunct, it would be easy to lob the usual grenades at a statement like this. It also wouldn't help.

This Spring won't be easy for anyone who cares about education, or fairness, or the people who will lose their jobs. There are better and worse ways to carry these things out, but at the end of the day, someone is losing a livelihood. There's really no good way to do that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blog Post-Its

1.Netbooks strike me as some of the best news for community colleges in a long time. In many cases, all we need for a rolling lab is internet access and decent keyboards, and netbooks offer those at much lower prices than standard laptops. (I can't imagine typing, say, an entire blog post on a smartphone keyboard, but I could on a decent netbook.) They're cheap enough that we won't need to buy extended warranties, saving even more. But I'm a little annoyed at Microsoft for not allowing manufacturers to put more than a single gig of ram on a machine that runs XP. How is that not a restraint of trade?

2.Teaching a four-year old to cross-country ski is surprisingly hard. Part of that, admittedly, is that TG inherited her father's feet, which don't necessarily point straight forward. They point to ten o'clock and two o'clock, which, as any physicist can tell you, offers better balance. (When I force myself to stand with feet pointed forward, it's a struggle not to fall sideways. This may explain my inability to use a treadmill without tipping over.) But skis magnify the impact of the angle, and she doesn't quite have the wherewithal to compensate. Every three feet or so, she'd fall, and I'd have to pick her up. I assume this is somehow surmountable, but I'll admit being stumped.

3.It looks like we're due for one of those “review your mission statement” exercises. I'm not a big fan of mission statements generally, and the mindset of the folks who are is utterly foreign to me. They seem to assume that people actually operate by deductive logic: read the mission statement, figure out something that fits with it, and plan actions by reference back to it. It's a cute theory, but it has nothing at all to do with how people actually behave. (Quick: without looking, what's your college's mission statement? I don't know, either.) In reality, people act much more intuitively, and judge fit by how well something is received. If it were up to me, mission statements would be written – if at all -- inductively and retrospectively. But nooo....

4.Watching President Obama's press conference was disconcerting. I literally can't remember ever watching a President I respected, or who impressed me. This guy's good. His Keynesian explanation of deflation was spot-on, and he just kept making sense. He's got his work cut out for him, but at least he understands the task, which is more than I can say for certain people...

5.Note to Congressional Republicans: what's with the 'no bailout for the states' thing? Aren't you people the big fans of states rights, 'subsidiarity,' devolution, and all that? Call them 'block grants' if it makes you feel better, but seriously, it's time to step the bleep up. All those cops and teachers use their salaries to buy goods and services. I'm just sayin'.

6.One of The Boy's classmates – I'll call him Sam -- is moving soon, so the teacher had everyone in the class write a little essay explaining what's great about Sam. TB wrote “Sam is funny, smart, and a good friend. He is also fun to have at the lunch table because he puts pretzels down his pants.” I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Present Company Excepted

I remember reading once that one of the great paradoxes of American politics is that most Americans hold Congress in utter contempt, yet keep re-electing the same representatives. It's not necessarily a contradiction, in the strictest sense, but it's certainly counterintuitive.

I'm finding that a similar dynamic holds with faculty attitudes towards deans.

It's an article of faith among faculty that 'administrative bloat' is the source of all fiscal evil. Coffee-drinking fat cats who don't even grade papers make idiotic decisions in meetings, most of which conclude with decisions to hire more fat cats. The degree of truth in the caricature varies, though I can attest that in my own experience, it's mostly crap. Your mileage may vary, of course, but in the rare cases in which I've seen administrative positions added to anything, it has been in response to external mandates (like constantly-increasing federal reporting requirements for damn near everything). That's not to deny that it happens here and there, but it's certainly far from universal.

On my campus now, one of our first moves to deal with the vertigo-inducing cuts we're taking from the state has been to leave a few open administrative positions unfilled, and to redistribute the work among those who remain. Put bluntly, we're shedding deans.

Based on the 'administrative bloat' position, I would have expected faculty to applaud this move, or, at least, to accept it. But as with Congress, the reaction seems to be that administrators in general are worthless, but my dean is obviously necessary. And this is independent of the performance of any given dean, since we're talking about vacancies.

It's a fascinating, if frustrating, paradox.

The motivation behind leaving a few administrative positions unfilled strikes me as worthy: protect the classroom first. To the extent that streamlining administration can absorb some fraction of the state cuts, we can reduce the necessary number of faculty layoffs. I'd expect smart people to figure that one out pretty quickly. But somehow, the dots go unconnected.

I've tried to suss out the faculty misgivings. As near as I can tell – and I'm open to supplemental explanations from my wise and worldly readers – they boil down to two: denial of fiscal reality, and fear of losing a 'champion' to do battle for them at the table where decisions are made.

The first is correctable, at least in principle. Put the budgetary figures out there, and ask for alternatives. Instead of consolidating deans, we could fire the last couple of faculty hired and hire a new dean instead. Is that better? I'd think not, but that's me. (Obviously, that's an oversimplified picture, but it's not false. The low-hanging fruit elsewhere have been thoroughly picked already. Anyone who assumes that we've got big secrets pots of money waiting to come to the rescue simply doesn't get it. We passed that point several cuts ago.)

The second strikes me as the much more serious point. And it points to a fundamental conflict in the understanding of the role of a dean.

Yes, some deans – and many faculty -- understand their role as 'champions' of their constituencies. These deans generally don't last very long, and don't get taken very seriously while they do last. While deans are usually identified with a given subset of a college – whether a division or a separate college or an entire group of people, like 'dean of students' – they don't actually report to that subset. They report up, not down. They're hired, and fired, by people 'above' them on the administrative food chain. Failure to understand this will lead to a basic misunderstanding of the job. Effective deans aren't champions of this group or that; they're mediators who are able to find solutions in the mutual interests of different groups. That's the key difference between a dean and, say, a representative. Representatives are elected by their constituencies; deans aren't.

The reason the college has deans at all is because there's value in having people who can mediate, and interpret, between local interests and collegewide interests. Yes, sometimes that involves advocacy of the local. I've defended my people against attacks or moves that I thought sold them short, and I've fought for support for worthy proposals on their behalf. But the reason wasn't that they were mine; the reason was the relative fit of the proposals with the good of the college. Taking that perspective gains me credibility higher on the food chain, which is necessary for the occasional advocacy to be effective in the first place. And sometimes deans have to tell their own departments that no, they can't get the goodie they're after, because some other claim is more compelling. It's part of the job.

To me, the compelling objection to thinning out the ranks of the deans isn't the potential loss of a champion, since that misunderstands the role. It's the loss of fluency in relevant detail. The wider the scope of control, the less detail that can be mastered. In practice, that typically means that the department chairs have to step up and do more. Sometimes that makes sense, sometimes not. A dean who might be a wonderfully effective actor with four departments might be much less so with eight, simply because there's too much on the plate. That's a fair, and sometimes true, objection, but it's very different from the 'loss of our champion' argument.

The key difference between the two arguments is that one is moral, and the other practical. “We deserve our own champion” is largely unanswerable, since there's really no way to measure its truth or falsity. (Either answer fails. “Yes, you do, but you can't have it” sounds evil. “No, you don't” is insulting.) “Problems will go unsolved” is at least answerable, since it admits of evidence one way or the other. It also allows for experimentation with other methods or structures, which a moralistic stand mostly doesn't.

(The typical third position is “let's appoint a committee to look into it, and make recommendations in a few years.” That can make sense in good times, but is simply off the table when in fiscal free-fall. When you're careening straight towards a cliff, you hit the brakes or steer away; you don't appoint a committee to look into it. Come July 1, we either make payroll or we don't. California already isn't, which is nothing short of amazing.)

I'm guessing, too, that the 'not in my backyard' position is a result of information asymmetry. From a faculty perspective, the workload of your own dean may be somewhat visible; it's those other people whose worth you can't measure. That's not because they don't work. It's just that you don't see it. (For many years, I had only the foggiest idea of what HR did, for example.)

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen anything like this on your campus? Is there an explanation I'm missing that would help me get a handle on this?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Just an Observation

Every once in a while, I drop by a nearby mall on my lunch break just for a change of scene, and sometimes to play with the cool stuff at the Apple store. No good can come of playing with cool stuff at the Apple store, but like a moth to a flame...

Yesterday was particularly demanding, so I made a break for it at lunch.

The mall was by far the quietest I've ever seen. Plenty of parking, nearly empty corridors, ample open seating. I noticed employees draped, bored, over counters, openly complaining of having nothing to do.

I've never seen that before.

The always-crowded eateries had no lines, and plenty of open tables. Even the overpriced-coffee place was almost vacant, which simply doesn't happen. Now it does, apparently. On the way out, I saw panhandlers. I've never seen panhandlers there before, and it was a flippin' cold day.

I've done recessions before. I've done 'economic decline' before, having grown up in Northern Town. I've done 'poor as a church mouse' before, having been a grad student on the East Coast. This is different.

It's faster. And instead of leveling off, it seems to be getting faster as it goes. Every few weeks, it's visibly worse on the ground. It's like they're striking the set.

Statistics are useful, and I swim in them. But there's something about 'crowds and lines' being replaced by 'parking and panhandlers' that's a little unsettling.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Man Bites Dog

My cc has been getting an unusual amount of local press attention lately. The press attention has been largely positive, and focused mostly on enrollment. Invariably, somewhere around the fifth paragraph, there's a passing acknowledgment that enrollment growth is occurring at the same time as state funding cuts, but the headline is always about growth.

In discussions with colleagues on campus, we're beginning to think it's because we're a 'man bites dog' story. Unlike almost every other institution around, we're growing. Annoyingly, we're growing enrollments while downsizing employees, but they tend not to focus on that. If you interpret 'enrollments' as 'sales,' then our sales are up. Almost nobody else around us, except for other public colleges, can say that. And the local press is so desperate for good news that it repeats this story with remarkable frequency.

The weird economics of public higher ed – in which a substantial chunk of our income is decoupled from our 'sales,' and actually goes down when sales go up – puts us in this awkward position. And the weird public perception of community colleges means that every time a reporter calls, we have to correct the story they've already written in their heads.

The story in their heads goes like this: In this recession, displaced workers are going back to school to upgrade their skills. (Interview salt-of-the-earth forty-year-old man who was recently laid off.) Community colleges are safe havens from The Great Recession. Education is truly the key to success. Back to you, Ted.

It's a nice story, and we get calls for quotes to help them write it. But it gets the big picture wrong.

The actual story goes like this: In this recession, parents' jobs are shaky, so they send their kids to the community college instead of the local private college to save money. (Contrary to the prewritten story, the average age of our students continues to drop.) As we shift to more traditional-age students whose orientation is to transfer, our major growth is in the liberal arts area. The “laid off 40 year old goes back to school” story is heartwarming, and sweet, and occasionally true, but it's a small and declining fraction of our world. The real story is the increasing use of cc's by middle class kids who use it to save money and transfer.

This is why stories like “Tuition Bubble” strike me as almost too asinine even to rebut. Pretentious U may charge too much, but it's hardly the only game in town. If you look at what cc's charge, the whole 'tuition bubble' argument collapses of its own absurdity.

(Assuming no financial aid or scholarship money of any kind, a full-time student at my cc now pays about one-third of what we paid for daycare for The Boy five years ago. If you want to look at the costs that are crippling families, look at that. Where are the stories about the daycare bubble?)

Unfortunately, public anger at Pretentious U winds up being taken out on us, since we're controllable and Pretentious U isn't. Predictably enough, that actually widens the resource gap between us and Pretentious U. Just at the moment when we're most needed, we're kneecapped.


I'm happy to have a part in helping people get their higher education started. Enrollment growth is a good thing. And both transfer and workforce-driven programs serve valid and valuable purposes. I'm just getting a little tired of reading the same half-baked man bites dog story (or its evil twin, the tuition bubble story) when it gets the essentials wrong.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Boy's Letter to President Obama

The Boy wrote a letter to President Obama in class, and brought it home today. In its entirety:

Dear Mr. President,

I think you should do everything you can to make this the best country ever! I think you should make more freedom. You should make no one smoke. Last of all you should make everyone happy.



“I think you should make more freedom.” I couldn't have said it better myself.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

An Occupational Program We Can't Sell

In a passing conversation a while back with a colleague who routinely works with local employers, I heard that the single occupation for which we got the most requests from private employers is...

help desk? no...

construction? no...

sales? no...

Secretaries. Administrative assistants. Office managers.

We have a program dedicated to training students for these jobs. Back in the day, it was called “secretarial sciences.” Now it's something like “administrative professionals.” We get hundreds of requests annually from employers. Last year we graduated single digits. We're on the verge of eliminating the program, entirely for lack of enrollment. We can't give seats away.

I'm told that back in the 80's, the program was huge. Now it's dying, though not for lack of employer interest. The students just don't want it.

I've been perplexed by this for a while now. The jobs are out there, a two-year degree is enough, and the salaries, while unspectacular, beat most of what's available with a two-year degree. There's little heavy lifting, and it's not unique to any one industry (and therefore vulnerable to the quirks of any one industry). And yet, student interest is negligible.

Between observing and asking around, I'm starting to develop the outlines of a theory as to why the disconnect is so dramatic. Refinements or corrections from my wise and worldly readers are more than welcome.

Part of the issue is technology. At many cc's, in my observation, secretarial sciences program became much more technologically-focused over time. Some of that makes sense, given the ubiquity of computers and Microsoft Office. But for various reasons, both internal and external, many of the programs wildly overshot the degree of technology that most positions actually require. The students who might envision themselves in relatively generic office jobs often shy away from technical courses that strike them, sometimes correctly, as superfluous.

In addition to the technological expectations, there's also an entirely legitimate expectation of solid writing and speaking skills. With the technical skills, that's a potent and rare combination, and the students who have it all tend not to go into this program.

Part of it is the availability of other options. As we've become far more successful in persuading young women that they can pursue just about anything, that's exactly what they've done. This hasn't yet had much of an impact on the Nursing program, but the higher salaries there may explain some of that.

But there's another possibility that someone alerted me to recently. Administrative assistant positions usually involve taking orders, and having very little control over one's own work life. There isn't much authority that goes with the role. The other historically-female jobs – teacher, nurse – at least carry some authority in a particular context. These positions don't carry much workaday autonomy, which limits their appeal.

I'll admit not having thought of that one, but it makes some sense. Part of what I miss about being on faculty is the sense of relative autonomy in the classroom. (Administration is much more about cooperating than it is about commanding, if you do it right.) The prospect of combining a lack of autonomy with modest pay and limited advancement isn't terribly appealing.

Although I know this isn't unique to my cc, I don't know if it's regional. Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a similar disconnect on your campus? Is there a better explanation for it?

Monday, February 02, 2009


More so than at any time in my memory, this downturn has brought plenty of discussion of furloughs as a way to cut costs. While they aren't the worst of all things, I'm not a fan.

In the context of budget cuts, furloughs are defined as mandatory unpaid leave, usually for sporadic, short periods. (That's different from its original context, which was military, and which involved being paid.) Every employee has to take a day or two each month without pay for a year, say. The idea is to reduce payroll without reducing the number of employees, and to share the pain proportionally. The highest paid employees lose the most, but they have the most to lose, so there's a basic fairness there.

Furloughs feel like pay cuts at the time, but with two important differences. First, they're supposed to come with time off. (I've heard of colleges expecting employees to work through their furloughs, which strikes me as abusive in the extreme.) Unlike a pay cut, in which you get less pay for the same work, a furlough gives you less pay for less work – or at least, less pay for less time at work. (One of the great frustrations of many office jobs is that when you come back from time off, the work simply piled up in your absence. Even if you're paid for your time off, you pay for your time off.)

Second, they don't affect your base salary. That means precisely nothing in the moment, but it means a lot when raises are given in percentage terms. A furlough affects this year's pay, but shouldn't have any meaningful carryover into future years. An actual salary cut reverberates forever. (There may be an impact in terms of a retirement account, but at least the salary will recover.) Furloughs are closer to 'temporary' than pay cuts are.

All of that said, though, they're much more complicated than they seem at first blush.

In the collective-bargaining environments I've seen, sick days, vacation days, and personal days are calculated as multiples of hours worked. (The calculations get truly silly, often carried out to five or six decimal places.) There's an argument to be made that those shouldn't change when a furlough hits, since the furlough is involuntary. But there's also an argument to be made that those benefits are (literally) functions of hours worked, and with fewer hours worked, those benefits must be reduced accordingly. As unpopular as unpaid time off is, adding “and we're reducing your paid sick time, too” makes it just that much worse.

I've heard of colleges that present furloughs as 'deferred compensation,' rather than unpaid leave. The idea is that you'll get the money you're owed, but not until x years later. Presumably, the money will be interest-free, meaning that you're making the college an involuntary interest-free loan. I'm told that the tax implications of deferred compensation are not comprehensible by mere mortals, though I'll admit not having done the slog myself. I've spoken to some of my counterparts at colleges that have actually done this; they uniformly report that keeping reliable records for that long is simply beyond most workaday systems. Invariably, when paytime rolls around, there's a mad flurry of claims, counterclaims, paper shuffling, and bickering over just what, exactly, was said, meant, or implied x years ago. And of course, employee turnover during the deferral period makes things even worse.

There's also the basic fact that people count on a certain income level, and make commitments accordingly. “Two days a month” sounds trivial, until you realize it's almost ten percent of your pay. Given that landlords, mortgage companies, utilities, daycare centers, grocery stores, and property tax collectors don't cut any slack for furloughs, these can really hurt. Yes, it would be lovely to assume that everybody routinely saved thirty percent of their take-home pay, but that's just not reality.

(I shouldn't complain, though. I'm told that California is on the verge of issuing scrip. Scrip! The largest state in the most powerful country in the world is reduced to play money. I've mentioned before that the California system is unique, and uniquely strange, but it's bordering on Mad Max territory at this point. Elect a post-apocalyptic action hero, get post-apocalyptic action. Very strange.)

I can see furloughs as a way to buy a little bit of time to make serious strategic decisions. By that I mean, time to decide what to eliminate altogether. As anything more than a very brief stopgap, though, I think they're dangerously irresponsible.

Wise and worldly readers – what weird consequences have you seen from furloughs?