Tuesday, April 07, 2009

AACC Dispatch, Day Two: Danger Ahead!

I'm one of those people who reads the conference program, picks out the panels in advance, then changes the itinerary six or seven times, depending on nothing I could name. The only rules of thumb I've found consistently helpful have been to vary the topics, to pay attention to fatigue, and to sit on the aisle whenever possible. (Aisle seats make graceful getaways easier, if the cell phone goes off or the panel explores new depths of awfulness. At most of the panels I attended, the audience sat in a donut shape, with the middle of the room as the hole.) Other than that, nearly anything goes.

In that spirit, I attended a panel on first presidencies, and how the experiences of first-time cc presidents aligned, or didn't, with what the AACC had identified as the core competencies of presidents. It quickly became apparent that several trends are on a collision course, but that we haven't come to grips with that yet. The panelists opened with some basic demographics about cc presidents, noting that their average age keeps increasing, and that 84 percent of them indicate plans to retire by 2016. I'm just old enough to remember the last time someone talked about a “great wave of retirements,” and I know how that movie ended, so color me skeptical. Still, I don't foresee colleges adjuncting-out their presidencies, so there may actually be something to this.

The lack of full-time faculty hiring, and therefore the lack of candidates in the academic pipeline, went unnoted. Nobody referenced the “great wave of retirements,” either.

According to the Iowa State study group, the most common job first-time presidents come from is chief academic officer, or academic vice president. Later in the talk, they mentioned that the fastest-growing area of presidential work is fundraising.

I'll pause for a moment while those two sentences do battle.

Particularly at cc's, chief academic officers tend to be focused within the organization. (I'm assuming a model without a provost. Provosts are sometimes different animals.) They deal with faculty and budgeting and student issues and curriculum, but they don't deal much with fundraising. To the extent that fundraising is coming to define the presidency, it's easy to see a mismatch between the usual path and the necessary skills. A few audience members raised that issue, but nobody quite knew what to do about it.

My fearless prediction is that if the academic side of the house doesn't get more conversant with fundraising, it will lose power to the non-academic side. He who gets the gold makes the rules.

In the four-year (and especially university) setting, this is old news. Many four-year colleges have moved to a model in which the President effectively reports to the development office, and the provost actually runs the internal operations of the college. (It's essentially a CEO/COO split.) But in the cc world, until fairly recently, fundraising has been relatively peripheral. The academic side will have to realize that the game has changed or risk losing standing.

“Follow the money” was very much the theme of the day. I overheard multiple hallway conversations about the relatively low attendance this year, which most attributed to cuts in travel budgets. Discussions of developmental education actually attached dollar costs to attrition, to justify in pure financial terms the cost of investing in strategies that might improve student success. Several vendors at the exhibition hall complained – when they weren't being drowned out by an absurdly loud PA system announcing a raffle or some such – about the lack of traffic. Even the panel on nifty tech tools made a point of noting which tools were free. Most panelists noted in passing that the combination of budget cuts with increased enrollments presents a distinct mathematical challenge, though nobody had a really good solution for it.

None of it was presented in any kind of sinister way. I didn't hear any discussion of union-busting, or how best to exploit adjuncts, or just how far to push tuition before students squeal like pigs. There was none of that. Money shortage was all just presented as matter-of-fact background. Nearly every discussion came back to money, and took a lack of money as an eternal given. I'd long since reached that conclusion myself, but it was still a little bracing to see it assumed so thoroughly.

I'll add, too, that I miss my family even more than I thought I would. Phone calls are great, but they're just not the same. TB extracted a promise of a hug when I get home, even if it's in the wee hours and he's already asleep. He'll get it.

Tomorrow, the last conference post. Then back to our regularly scheduled blogging.