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.