Monday, April 06, 2009

AACC Dispatch, Day One

Reader, I attended five panels on Sunday, so you don't have to. You're welcome.

A few highlights:

- Kay McClenney's panel on Implementing the 'Achieving the Dream' initiative at two colleges was predictably outstanding. She uses a 'guided interview' format when she runs panels, in which she asks the panelists a series of questions that amount to a sort of narrative arc. Given how, uh, let's go with 'windy' college presidents can get, the utility of this format is not to be understated. By relegating them to 'commentator' roles, she was able to extract real value from them while still keeping a tight rein on time and relevance. I was very impressed.

- The highlight of that panel for me was a discussion of the remediation death march. Far too many students who enter the developmental math sequence at the lowest level never make it through. (Weirdly, math and English play out very differently. Apparently, students who fail developmental English usually try again, but those who fail developmental math disappear.) One President noted, correctly, the difficulty of constructing full-time schedules for students who need several semesters of remediation, since they don't have the prereqs to take very much, but they need to be full-time for financial aid and health insurance purposes. McClenney noted that increasing numbers of colleges are experimenting with ways to shorten the death march, whether by compressing levels of remediation, accelerating it, or moving to self-paced formats. This is worth a post in itself, which I intend to do in a few days.

- A panel of Presidents on 'leading during challenging times' ran out of time. This is what happens when Presidents don't have a strong moderator to keep them in line. Still, the substance of it was at least moderately hopeful. They each discussed the fiscal crisis at their respective schools, and the impact it has had on various areas. The panelist who discussed 'transparency' didn't mention the limits of transparency in an ambiguous or rapidly-changing environment; when I asked him about that afterwards, he admitted not having an answer for that. (It was worth a shot.) The highlight here was the discussion of morale. One president offered that “employees should not put leadership in charge of their morale.” It struck me as wise, in its way, though with some pretty obvious limits. Still, it was heartening to hear that my state isn't alone in its suffering.

- Scott Jaschik moderated a panel on immigration issues and community colleges. The major issue here was 'in-state' tuition for undocumented students. I'm developing a theory that says that states with 'county' funding systems for colleges will have more angst around this issue than will states with entirely state-based funding. Could be wrong, but it's probably testable, as soon as I figure out how to operationalize 'angst.'

- A panel on what trustees want in a college President presented dissertation findings on a study conducted of trustees in Illinois. Some of the findings were predictable – strong belief in the cc mission, good communication skills – but some weren't, like a preference for married candidates. (Apparently, some trustees at more rural cc's volunteered a belief that a married president would at least have a trustworthy confidant, and would be less vulnerable to campus intrigue.) In response to an audience question about race and gender, the speaker noted that some expressed preferences for women and/or minority candidates, depending on the needs of the service area and who the last president was. The speaker also recommended that any aspiring presidents in the audience finish their doctorates first. I was a little taken aback to realize that people can get that far on the track without having doctorates. Live and learn.

- The social media panel was fun to watch, but left unanswered the question of audience. If a college establishes a presence on, say, Facebook, does that mean that the Facebook-dwelling high school students of the world will seek it out? I'm inclined to guess not, but the question didn't get addressed. One speaker went to great lengths in outlining a protocol for a strategic plan for campus communications, seemingly missing the point that part of what makes social media interesting is its relative shagginess. Tweets composed by a PR flack are still PR. If students are relatively sophisticated users of social media, which I assume they are, then this strikes me as unlikely to work. We shall see.

- And good luck finding a place to have lunch in downtown Phoenix on a Sunday.

Today, it's once more into the breach, as I go foraging for wisdom in the convention center. Onward!