Sunday, April 05, 2009

Said and Unsaid

First, the throat-clearing. Since Arizona doesn't do daylight savings time, it's three hours behind the East Coast during the spring and summer. This means I'm fighting monumental jet lag. And for reasons nobody here has yet explained to me, the district that includes the convention center, a branch of ASU, Chase Field, and all manner of new construction doesn't have a single convenience store or drugstore. How you can have high-rise dorms and multiple high-rise hotels without a single place to buy toothpaste is beyond me, but here it is.

(The natives have been weirdly sympathetic. One confessed that although he likes the weather, “there's nothing here.” Another said that if you want an actual downtown, you should go to Tempe. The city has actually outsourced its downtown. As a fan of coastal cities, I'm utterly at a loss.)

The opening reception for the conference itself seemed more sparsely-attended than last year's, which probably reflects budget cuts at the member colleges. (My own college stopped paying for out of state travel several months ago. I'm here through the good graces of IHE.) On Friday I ran into a former colleague who asked who else from my college had come. I told her I was it, though I didn't explain how.

I registered relatively early, my metabolism still being on Eastern time, so I had a chance to read the program at some length. There's far more about leadership development than I remember seeing last year. The program even opens with a joint statement by the AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) which is ostensibly about diversity – it even came with a diversity lapel pin, so we can all be uniformly diverse – but is really about leadership development, mostly at the board and presidential levels. The program also contains a host of panels on leadership development, some emphasizing diversity, some not.

Although nobody is connecting the dots in public, it isn't hard to see what's behind all that. Sparse hiring for full-time faculty over the last few decades is making itself felt farther down (or up) the pipeline. Historically, key administrative leadership started out in the faculty, then climbed the ladder. If you don't hire faculty, you don't develop the farm team. (At my cc, we already have several departments in which chairs almost have to be drafted, since everybody has already done a turn and nobody wants to repeat.) A few years ago I started noticing searches at the dean and vp levels failing; now it's hitting the Presidential level. The short-term response has been a sort of musical chairs among existing presidents, but that doesn't do much to diversify the ranks. And here we are.

Of course, there's also the current funding freefall behind all this. As the CEO of the AACC, George Boggs, noted in his greeting, the current funding situation for cc's nationally is 'daunting,' and many of our responses are 'unprintable.' That's about right. In this situation, the usual narrow strike zone for good administrators – you want people smart enough to do the job, but dumb enough to take it – gets that much narrower, as even the dimmer bulbs figure out that it's largely un-doable.

In that context, Donna Brazile's keynote speech makes sense. I'd seen her from time to time on tv, but had never understood what the fuss was about. In person and at length, though, she's riotously funny. (The look on her face when she described the satisfaction of voting for a younger man – raised eyebrow, indulgent pause – was priceless.) She did a nice job of channeling what many of us have been thinking for the last few months – my favorite was “we finally have a President who understands how to multitask” – and showed real enthusiasm for community colleges and what we do. But the theme of her talk was basically “get up and get moving.” (She phrased it as “this is our moment,” which she repeated several times.) You could read it as the usual call for political involvement, and that was certainly a part of it. But in the context of this year's program, it seemed too like an acknowledgement that it's time for the next cohort to step up. In some ways, it's a remarkably difficult time to do that, but that makes it all the more necessary.

Now someone just has to connect the dots between hiring full-time faculty and developing the next generation of leaders. Hmmm...