Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Fragments

- Yesterday I phoned in a conference talk as Dean Dad. Scott Jaschik did a panel at a regional conference of community college leaders, mostly presidents, discussing changes in the venues for public discourse on higher ed. He spoke primarily about journalism and the blogosphere, and I addressed the group via speakerphone as a sort of Exhibit A. There's something strange about doing a conference talk when you can't see the audience. It reminded me a little of my radio days, except that I never went that long uninterrupted on the air. The audience seemed generally pretty unfamiliar with the conventions of blogging, so the conversation was unusual, but fun. After it ended, apparently a couple of folks from the audience walked up to the speakerphone (!) to ask me questions individually. It wasn't as much fun as a standard presentation, but I didn't need Groucho glasses or a bag over my head, and the hassle factor was certainly low. (I even did the call during my lunch break, so there was no issue there.) In retrospect, I probably should have affected an accent. Something unobtrusive, like my Count Chocula-ish all-purpose Vague European. Or maybe addressing the group as "y'all."

- This week we hosted some family friends who have kids the same ages as The Boy and The Girl. They stayed for several days, with major outings each day. It's easy to forget how exciting that kind of thing is when you're in elementary school. We put out the air mattresses and let the kids stay up late, talking and laughing and, yes, singing. On the first night after they had gone home, the house seemed eerily quiet. The kids addressed me as Mr. (my first name), which somehow never gets old. At one point, TG and her counterpart took a bubble bath together; if the world were a gentler place, I'd post one of the pictures TW took. There's something about little-girl-smiles peeking above a wall of bubbles. It's good for the soul.

- In the "mixed blessing" department, I got roped into dealing with a major government grant on campus. I'm glad we have it, and I think it will make a real difference for our students. That said, the paperwork requirements are, uh, let's go with 'daunting.' If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase "audit trail" this week...

- Personnel emergencies this week: three. Personnel emergencies successfully handled: three. Remaining energy in my personal batteries: zero.

- Most frequently heard question in my office this week: "Isn't there supposed to be a lull in the summer?"

- Most frequently heard question at home this week: "Can I have a glass of water/snack/cookie/second helping?"

- Actual exchange at home this week: "I got a monster truck!" "I got a Barbie!" "I got a monster Barbie!" I suspect there'd be a huge market for Monster Barbie.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Delete, Delete, Delete

Over the past few years, I’ve received job announcements from headhunters on a fairly regular basis. They aren’t personalized, so I don’t take them as compliments; they’re a function of some mailing list or another. But I usually read them, even if only to get a sense of the market.

This week I’ve received a couple for admin positions at cc’s in California. Deleted, unread.

Out of the question.

It’s not about reluctance to live in California. I’ve lived there before and loved it, and still consider San Francisco one of my favorite cities. (TW is a huge fan of San Diego.) I make the occasional smartass comment about earthquakes or killer bees, but those are basically rooted in jealousy. (I’m not jealous of having earthquakes or killer bees per se, but you get the idea.) Parts of the state are truly nifty.

It’s about reluctance to work in California. I know enough not to climb on board a sinking ship. And I’d bet large sums that I’m not alone in that.

Short-term cuts carry long-term costs. I know that most states have made cuts – my own is no exception – and I have faith that the Great Recession won’t last forever. But the last few months have made it abundantly clear that the state government in California is uniquely incapable of sustaining public higher education.

California has a couple of afflictions that most states don’t. It’s referendum-happy, and it requires a 2/3 vote to pass a budget. That means that much of its budget is predetermined – even if in mutually exclusive ways – and that which isn’t can be held hostage by a rump faction. Compounding that is an indefensibly low (and state-controlled) level of tuition/fees, making it impossible for colleges to grow their way out of trouble. They're prevented from acting on their own behalf, and trapped in a state budget that's fundamentally hostile.

It's one thing to circle the drain because your leader is failing. If you can wait him out, you can get a better leader. It's another thing entirely to circle the drain because every single structural flaw errs in the same direction.

I hope California has a strong internal leadership development system for its community and public colleges. Importing talent, at this point, will be a whole lot harder. And I wouldn't be surprised at all to start seeing a flood of cv's from the left coast when we start hiring again. (That happened several years ago when Colorado passed TABOR, and we suddenly started seeing cv's from Colorado. Given California's size, the effect should be that much stronger.)

In the meantime, I'll just keep deleting what I now consider spam. If the state ever decides to get serious, I'd love to reconsider. But until there's a basic structural change out there, it's not gonna happen. There's dedication, and then there's masochism. No, thanks.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Hurry Up and Wait

A flustered correspondent writes:

I have a math PhD from a good midwestern university, good teaching experience in the past couple years where i have been a visiting assistant professor at a research university, and now i finally have a verbal tenure-track offer from one of its regional campuses (which is classified as a community college since it is a two-year open admissions institution).

The dean called me three weeks ago saying I am their "first candidate" after asking me if i am interested in the position, and after I said "yes, definitely", he said "O.K. good, well this is going to take some time but we will talk along the way..".. I also e-mailed the head of dept and he seemed to make it more clear. As I see it, I have been implied/told by the dean and the head of department that an offer letter is on the way (because they were in the process of having to justify why they did not hire a minority candidate and they hired me), but I am dying to get this letter that still fails to reach me a month and a half into the new academic year... As of now, I got no written offer. What the heck may be going on?!

More importantly, I do not know how to negotiate with the dean, particularly since the university has contracts under **collective bargaining**. I would love to have my wife offered some sort of a position within this or the main campus (she has a Masters degree in applied Econ), more than raising the lousy ~47K that they may offer me. I have never brought any of these issues up, because the first time I was verbally offered the position was three weeks ago by a phone call by the Dean (which was, by the way, after a week when I had "dean interviews" with the Associate Dean and then the Dean.. both on the same day.... the timing of which still feels bizarre to me, because i met with the Dean and the Associate Dean 6 WEEKS after I met with the Search Committee in my campus interview).

PS: What is likely to make things even more complicated for me is that I may receive an offer as a visiting Asst Prof from an excellent liberal arts college up in [another state] in a few days (I had a great campus interview and i LOVED so far how they handle each and every thing), and then would come the hassle of relocating and moving my wife and 2 year old kid for merely one year... I feel like I can't just keep that offer hanging up in the air this late in the year against a tenure-track offer from this place that NEVER ARRIVES?!

This may sound cold, but honestly, the timelines you're talking about don't shock me. I get that you're frustrated, and don't blame you at all, but I'm not shocked.

I'll start by saying that I don't know any specifics about this particular search other than what you've told me, and every case is at least potentially new and different.

That said, a couple of the more probable scenarios include:

- Uncertain funding for the position. In public higher ed right now, as I'm sure you know, budgets are all over the place. I wouldn't be surprised if you were the top choice candidate for the position, but the existence of the position is in question. If this is the case, unfortunately, there really isn't much for you to do about it, other than maintain your professionalism and make whatever choices you have to make.

- Already-slow hiring cycles slowed even more by people's vacation schedules. Most years, this isn't an issue, since full-time faculty hires don't usually occur over the summer. This year, maddeningly fluid budget scenarios have pushed some searches into the summer, simply because it took that long to be (reasonably) certain that the funding was there. It's well and good to say that the college should have adjusted, but the 12-month staff (hi!) have to take vacations sometime, and many may well have already made their commitments. It's been three weeks since you spoke to the Dean; what usually would take a week or two could take a week or two longer, just because of who is out when. Yes, colleges should plan around that to compensate, but it happens. The six-week lag between the committee interview and the deans' interviews suggests that this college usually takes its sweet time anyway; add staff vacations to that, and things could easily drag.

In terms of salary negotiation in a collective bargaining environment, the general rule is that only your starting salary has any wiggle room at all; every raise after that is contractual. At my cc, the starting salary is determined by a mechanistic points-and-grid system, in the name of fairness. That means that 'negotiation,' if it happens at all, consists of meeting with HR at your first opportunity after the offer is made, and pushing for all the points you can possibly get. Did you leave some stray adjunct classes off your cv? They may give a few more points for those. Military experience? Industry? Throw the kitchen sink at them, and see what counts. Even in systems with a less mechanistic determination of starting salaries, the general rule is that once your start point is set, the die is cast. Push hard at the outset, since they'll probably lack the flexibility to backfill later even if they wanted to. Whatever you do, don't take a low offer on the assumption that they'll make it up to you later. They won't. (Candidly, your reference to the expected offer as 'lousy' gives me pause. If you're already unsatisfied before even starting...)

In terms of a spousal offer, I wouldn't expect one at this late date. Feel free to ask, but I'd be surprised if you got anything more than an offer to let her use their career services office in her search. In tight budgetary times, it's even harder than usual -- and that's saying something -- to manufacture jobs at the drop of a hat.

The one-year position offer dangling out there complicates the picture somewhat, but it also gives you an absolutely bulletproof excuse to call the HR department and ask for an update. Let them know that you have someone else waiting on you, and they need an answer. If you present that calmly, the worst that would likely happen would be that you don't learn anything. But if that happens, you're no worse off than you are now. (If they hold even that much against you, you probably don't want to work there.)

The question of moving the family is real. Certainly discuss it with your wife; she deserves a vote here. (I've turned down job interviews based on a spousal veto of location, and have never regretted it.) Jobs come and go, but a good marriage is worth preserving. First things first.

Good luck! Yours is a good problem to have, but still difficult. I hope you can rise above the frustrations of the moment.

Wise and worldly readers, I'm sure many of you have faced similar situations. How would you play this?

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Editing and Intimacy

This post of Aunt B's, over at Tiny Cat Pants, struck a chord.

Close editing, as distinguished from scanning-for-typos, is an intensely intimate enterprise. (Just to head off any misunderstandings -- the folks at IHE have taken a blessedly light touch to editing my pieces there, mostly confining it to scanning-for-libel.) Really close editing requires not only seeing what's there, but seeing what isn't there and should be, or what is but is in the wrong place. It requires putting aside "how I would have said it" to be able to come up with something like "how you, at your best, might have said it."

A really good close editor is a rare bird. Candidly, I don't think I've ever had one.

Part of that, I think, is from not usually having been prepared for one. Many of my undergraduate papers (and graduate papers, honestly) were too muddled to benefit from close editing. A really attentive editor would have recommended simply putting the papers out of their misery. My college girlfriend and I once tried closely editing each other's stuff, only to realize, quickly and with sickening clarity, that neither of us had sufficient powers of compartmentalization for it to work. Since then, I've held to a strong church/state division on relationships and editing.

Professors, of course, were completely useless. They didn't read drafts, and when they read finished products, it wasn't unusual to get a summary comment like "good work." Okay, thanks. That's helpful.

Years of faithful blogging have accustomed me to a sort of frontier justice style of mass editing, in which it's made clear to me quickly when I've chosen a wrong word, or failed to provide sufficient context. Some comments are less helpful (or fair) than others, but in the aggregate and over time, they've helped tremendously. The day-in, day-out nature of blogging amounts to a vague parallel to reading drafts, and occasionally I'm caught off-guard when an especially attentive reader notices a shift in tone from something I wrote a couple of years ago. (I'm thinking of you, Dictyranger...) Over time, as my pet obsessions have become clearer, I've noticed that some faithful readers actually defend me when a particular sentence or word seems off-key. I'm more grateful for that than I usually express, so for those who've done that, thank you.

I used to think I was a pretty good editor for other people. I used to volunteer to proofread other students' stuff in grad school, but it became clear that when I went beyond basic grammar-and-typo stuff, I didn't have much to offer. Good close editing isn't something you can dash off quickly, or without a solid grasp of the underlying material. And then there's the pesky issue of different writing styles...

Judging by the quality of much of the popular press, most of what gets published these days doesn't get edited in any meaningful way. Some of that is probably the fruit of cost cuts over the years, but I worry that some of it is a loss of the sense that it's supposed to happen at all. With just-in-time writing becoming normal -- and yes, I'm aware that I'm a blogger writing this -- expectations for the usual courtesies to readers seem to be sliding. If we don't even expect reasonably consistent grammar anymore, then the odds of content-sensitive close editing are even worse.

Wise and worldly readers, I need hope. Have you found a good source for good close editors? Can close editing be taught?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Tracking the Elusive Full-Time Business/Management Gig

A new correspondent writes:

I just read your post on full-time English gigs. Is the picture any brighter for those of us with MBAs who want a full-time CC gig [teaching] business/management?

Coming on the heels of the "don't do it!" advice I gave to the prospective English professor, this one is a bit different.

The 'Business' major at the community college level, in my observation, is neither exactly fish nor fowl. It's about the real world, but most of the students who major in business -- and it's typically one of the two or three largest majors at the cc's I know -- transfer to four-year programs upon graduation. Although most cc's that I've seen have some immediately employable options within their Business programs, they're usually either very specific niches (i.e. accounting, culinary) or historical survivals on their way out (i.e. 'administrative professional,' or what used to be called 'secretarial sciences'). Most of the action is in the transfer programs.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'll just say that my observation may well be regionally specific. I'm told that 'paralegal' programs are still relatively common and viable out West, for example. Here, not so much, since paralegal jobs pay so badly.)

It isn't unusual to see business departments that encompass everything from accounting to computer science to law. The people who teach in these programs, accordingly, tend to be utility infielders (that is, people who can teach more than one thing), and they usually have significant real-world experience. We do very well recruiting from the business world, since we can offer lifestyle, benefit, and stability packages increasingly unlike what tends to be found in the private sector.

The culture of business departments tends to be markedly different from the culture of liberal arts departments. Most of the liberal arts faculty always intended to be college faculty, and many of them have never held significant lengths of employment doing anything else. This is both good (dedication to mission, plenty of focus) and bad (tunnel vision, institutional naivete). Since business faculty tend to have had significant experience in the private sector, they tend to get less caught up in the internal politics of the college. Whether that reflects a healthy sense of perspective, gratitude for knowing just how good they actually have it, or a mercenary sense that there's little to be gained by it, depends on your angle to the universe.

Business faculty often get more opportunities for external consulting gigs and/or noncredit teaching. This, too, may explain their relatively lower profile on campus; they aren't around as much.

The joy in being a business professor is that you can have the best of both worlds. You can have the security and benefits of an academic job, and the lucrative consulting opportunities of the private sector. This is especially true in the summer. Even better, opportunities for 'extra' classes tend to be countercyclical to the larger economy, so the moments when consulting gigs fall flat -- that is, recessions -- tend to be the moments when, say, summer classes are the most plentiful.

For those interested in these gigs, though, a couple of caveats:

1. We don't hire many. Part of that is because we don't hire many of anybody, and part of it is that current business departments often comprise people absorbed from earlier programs (secretarial sciences, say) that have gone by the boards.

2. When we do hire, we don't usually hire spanking-new MBA's. We like people who've been in the business world. They bring a certain credibility with students, and in some programs, they can bring valuable contacts.

Admittedly, this is all based on my personal observation, with all the limitations that implies. Folks in the field, or in different parts of the country where things look markedly different, are invited to fill out the picture in the comments.

Good luck!

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

Friday, July 24, 2009


Anne Neal, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, did a piece in yesterday's IHE that really requires a full post to answer.

As near as I can tell – and her piece is so scattered that it's honestly hard to tell – she seems to argue that boards of trustees have become captives of college presidents, and that the Association of Governing Boards implicitly endorses that role confusion in its latest survey. As she would have it, the proper role of the Board is to bring to bear “the solid financial acumen that many [board members] have developed in the real world,” the better to help colleges get past “the unsustainable economics of higher education.” In so doing, colleges would get past the destructive illusion that administration is governance – she'd rather identify governance with the board – and would bring much-needed fiscal discipline to colleges and universities.

This is one of those pieces that lumps together a couple of very real problems, then jumps off into solutions that are far worse.

It's true that the rate of tuition increase generally has outpaced inflation for a very long time. (Longtime readers have seen my theories on that plenty of times.) That's true in the public sector, the private non-profit sector, and the private for-profit sector, which pretty much rules out governance as the relevant variable, but never mind that. (Or, if you prefer, it's true at the two-year level, the four-year level, and the graduate level. It's true in the North, South, East, and West. Pick whatever vectors and sectors you want. What this says about the explanatory power of personality-based theories, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.)

And it's true that some Presidents manage to dominate their Boards, at least some of the time. The rate of Presidential turnover suggests that this is the exception, rather than the rule, but I won't dispute that we can find examples of Boards that don't look closely or critically enough. (As Neal concedes in passing, we can also find examples of Boards micromanaging far beyond their proper jurisdiction, though she fails to explore the implications of that.)

Assuming goodwill, I think the root of the problem with Neal's analysis is a misunderstanding of the meaning of 'governance.' She seems to imply that it's all or nothing, which is a basic category mistake.

There's an old joke among college presidents that being a college president is like running a cemetery; you have a lot of people under you, but good luck getting any of them to do anything. Although that's sometimes taken as a slam on people's work ethic, it's actually a commentary on the decentralized structure of most colleges and universities. Rather than assuming that power runs in a straight line from the top down (or vice versa), it's far more accurate to see different parts of the college having different areas of jurisdiction.

Boards set overall budgets, define the institutional mission, choose/evaluate/fire the president, and set some basic ground rules. (They also fundraise, which sometimes raises issues about the other tasks.) Sometimes they set some institution-wide policies or goals. What they absolutely do not do, if they understand their job, is muck around in the implementation of those goals. They approve overall hiring policies, but other than the president, they don't hire. They don't hear grade appeals. They don't set curriculum. They don't manage sub-unit budgets, evaluate personnel (other than the president), or make academic decisions. Their job is something closer to “constitutional convention” than “government.”

Administrators manage budgets, hire/evaluate/fire personnel, implement board-set goals, manage conflict, fundraise, and manage day-to-day operations. We're the folks who package the financial aid, who make sure the clay gets to the art department and the computers to the lab, who keep the college in compliance with heaven-knows-how-many federal and state laws, who track the grants, who schedule the classes and rooms, who keep the records, and who generally attend to the day-to-day operations. We do those things in the service of institutional goals set by the Board, but we don't report directly to the Board (except for the president).

Meanwhile, the faculty teach the classes. They own the grading, the curriculum, and many of the academic policies (grading, add/drop policies, etc) that the administrators actually carry out. Although they may formally report to deans or chairs or whomever, they are largely free agents in their day-to-day work.

If everyone knows what they're doing, these areas don't overlap too much. Yes, there's some issue of the faculty owning curriculum while the administration has to balance the budget, since new programs usually come with costs. (This Spring the faculty approved a new course with staggering materials costs, then dropped it on my desk with a peremptory “find the money.” You're welcome.) Sometimes 'balancing budgets' involves saying 'no' to requests for some academically-valid ideas. That tension inheres in the structure of the college. And one of the cornerstones of faculty collegiality is the outsourcing of unpleasant decisions to administrators, with predictable effects on our popularity. It's annoying, but it comes with the gig. Border skirmishes among the various groups happen, but if everyone basically gets it, the skirmishes don't erupt into open warfare.

Neal's proposal, to the extent that I can make it out, takes a corporate model as normative. One chain of command in all things, with those on top having ultimate authority in everything. The idea is to enforce discipline.

The glaring and obvious flaw in that model for this setting is the different goal. A corporation exists to turn a profit. A non-profit college – public or private – exists to...? Focusing just on my own cc, it exists to provide both credit and noncredit opportunities, all the way from adult basic education to corporate training to university transfer, to anyone who wants it. It does so while adhering to the resource limits set by the government, the contracts with the unions, the norms of many and different disciplines, and the expressed and expected needs of the local community. In other words, it's a much more complex mission. Worse, the economics of it are such that we lose money on our core operations, by design. (That's because 'access' is part of the mission.)

Someone coming from the corporate world has been trained in a far more unified model, with a single goal and a more command-and-control structure and culture. Managing higher ed is closer to managing a small town than to managing a company. That's why there's so much focus on process, representation, consensus, collaboration, and acceptance of certain kinds of open conflict. (In the corporate world, much of the stuff I deal with on a daily basis would be considered insubordination, and would last about ten minutes.)

To the extent that Boards are an issue – and they are – it comes from members not really understanding what they're supposed to do. I've seen Board members treat their college as extensions of themselves, resulting in micromanagement and a basic violation of mission. Others have used Board service as bully pulpits for other agendas – understandable, and not entirely avoidable, but unhelpful. Some have attempted to bring a corporate orientation, only to find that the skills needed here are different. And yes, some fall under the sway of a charismatic or well-connected president.

A serious discussion of cost spirals should focus less on Boards than on the inexorable increases in costs for health insurance and technology, and on the productivity trap that comes from measuring education in units of time. If Boards were the main issue, the increases wouldn't be universal across all regions and sectors. Neal got some of the symptoms right, but the diagnosis wrong. “Governance” here is far more complicated than her model implies, since the mission is far more complicated than the role implies. If it were as easy as Neal implies, we would have handled it years ago.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Trading Spaces

With enrollment through the roof, any fallow space on campus is at a premium. Suddenly, spaces that have been kept open 'just in case' of future expansion is on the table. And long-standing historical gentlemen's agreements about who controls what are abruptly up for grabs.

Through trial and error, I'm slowly discovering a method for handling these.

First, you place the official request with the officially appropriate person, who will say no. ("But we NEED that space for this special program! How could you possibly think otherwise? Don't you care about excellence and truth and beauty and blah blah blah...")

Then you have an in-person meeting with the officially appropriate person and ask a series of pointed questions. Why couldn't this function occur in any other place? Does it occur twelve hours a day? What about the down times? These will be met with a combination of evasion and references to absent third parties who must be consulted.

This is where I've figured out the trick. Convene a meeting of the officially appropriate people, plus the available faculty, plus the front-line staff people (i.e. lab assistants). Hold the meeting in the disputed space itself. Get the muckety-mucks to shut up as much as possible, but keep them there. Pose the question of use directly to the front-line people, then let them problem-solve uninterrupted, in the actual space itself, for a half hour or so. When you speak at all, do so only to indicate openness to any good idea. Ask questions only to clarify.

Let the agreement evolve. Then when it seems solid, summarize it and make sure you got it right. If you did, then set about making it happen.

So much gets lost in translation as it moves up and down the reporting lines. The lab technicians know more about that space than a dean or vp ever will, since they spend so much more time there. And there's something emboldening about being listened to; once it becomes clear that the meeting is about problem-solving, rather than blaming, all things become possible.

Getting the muckety-mucks to take a back seat is the hardest part. If you can do that, the rest falls into place. Their presence indicates that the issue is Important, and their respectful silence indicates that solutions are both welcome and expected. Sometimes, silence is productive.

Have you found a generally successful method for space negotiations on your campus? I'm always looking to steal good tricks...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sunset Grants

This article is one of those think-tanky pieces that manages to mix the correct, the nearly-correct, and the wildly wrong in a seemingly coherent gumbo of its own. (It's about the cost and productivity spiral in higher ed.) It's worth checking out, though not only for the reasons the authors intend.

That said, though, there's an undeniable kernel of truth to its statement that

there is mounting evidence that a more prescribed path through a narrower range of curricular options leads to better retention, since advising is more straightforward, scheduling easier to predict, and students are less likely to get lost in the process. A narrower curriculum is more coherent, can be better focused on learning outcomes, and is actually preferred by many students. So an educationally effective undergraduate curriculum is also the most cost-effective curriculum.

This kind of bounced off me the first time I read it, but later, I couldn't get it out of my head.

Certainly it's true that many new programs don't so much draw new students into the college as slice the already existing student population thinner. And with each new program comes new stuff to keep track of, new sections that have to be run, new claims on resources, etc. It's that much worse when a new program requires dedicated lab space, expensive technology, and/or new support staff.

At most colleges, in my observation, curricular decisions are made by faculty, and budgetary decisions are made by administration. For example, at my college the Curriculum Committee approves (or doesn't) new degree and certificate programs. It does so based on perceived academic quality, combined with considerations of employability and/or transferability. It does not look at our ability to support the new program economically.

There are good reasons for that, but the gap plays out over time. New programs bring costs. When long-term commitments are made without reference to our ability to sustain them, it's unsurprising to see commitments gradually outstrip resources. There's also a structural bias in favoring of starting new programs, and against discontinuing old ones. This is especially true when you factor in the need to "teach out" a discontinued program -- in other words, to let the currently-enrolled students make it to graduation. By the end, you're running a series of very low-enrolled courses; the long-term savings doesn't start until you first eat a short-term cost.

Hmm. Short-term cost that leads to long-term savings, and more effective functioning. Hmm. However might we do that?


If only there were some sort of short-term stimulus money, something we could apply for to cover the costs of 'teaching out' programs we've decided to discontinue. A structural counterweight to the drive towards mission dilution. A way to keep some folks on the payroll a while longer, while still narrowing our focus to the things we do especially well.

Sunset grants, if you will. Cover the short-term 'hit' to college budgets from "teaching out" ancillary programs on the condition that they actually discontinue those programs, the better to focus over the long term on the core functions. Grants to redirect internal energies from, say, developing the umpteenth iteration of the latest fad, and towards the evergreens, like math.


If only we were in a year with a stimulus, when we had the ear of the President of the United States.

Oh, wait...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Regional or National Accreditation?

In a comment a few days ago in response to my misgivings about a national online database of classes, someone raised the question of why we still have a regional, as opposed to national, accreditation system.

The short answer is, I have absolutely no idea. My best guess is inertia; regional accreditors emerged long ago, and gradually accrued a certain legitimacy. Now, certain regional accreditors are simply accepted as 'legitimate' – North Central, Middle States, NEASC, SACS, etc. The national accreditors that currently exist are generally held in much lower esteem throughout most of higher ed, to the extent that they get any respect at all.

(There are also plenty of well-respected accreditors within specific disciplines, like engineering or nursing. Here I'm referring to organizations that accredit entire institutions.)

Until the rise of online courses, the fact of regional separation didn't matter all that much. Credits can transfer between regions without issue, so it's not a matter of compatibility. (We've had students transfer here with credits from all around the country, and we've accepted them without hesitation.) Since each agency has its turf all to itself, there hasn't been much issue of a race to the bottom. If anything, there could be a sort of watered-down “laboratories of democracy” argument that having different agencies across the country can allow for simultaneous experiments. For example, North Central allows AQIP as an alternative to the decennial monster visit; to my knowledge, the others don't, at least for now. (I may be wrong about the Western states; Western readers are invited to correct me on that.)

Some for-profits have already run into some weird accreditation issues as they've gone national. The University of Phoenix, for example, is accredited by North Central, even though it has campuses and students in states that would normally be covered by, say, Middle States. I've heard of occasional hiccups in transfer depending on how local policies are phrased. For example, a college in Pennsylvania might balk at taking credits from an in-state U of Phoenix campus, since it only accepts in-state credits with Middle States accreditation. But this is an easy glitch to fix.

Now that the Obama administration is proposing a national clearinghouse of public domain, for-credit online courses, the question of national accreditation is starting to rear its head.

Typically, regionally accredited institutions only take transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions. That's why, for example, the state colleges and universities take our credits in transfer. (Transfer is always subject to fitting the intended program, so a student who switches majors may lose a bunch of credits, but that's another issue.) Otherwise, it would be all too easy for some fly-by-night operation to become an outsourced diploma mill under the protective cover of someone else's accreditation.

In the 'national database' model, as I understand it, no particular college would 'own' any of the courses. They'd all be in the public domain, graded by...uh...well, never mind that, but they'd be shared. Since no particular college owns the courses, it's not at all clear whose regional accreditation would attach to them. Regionally accredited colleges and universities would be asked to accept credits without regional accreditation.

Presumably, this is easily patchable with some sort of fiat. But the larger issue is whether regional, as opposed to national, accreditation still makes sense. This may be the catalyst for a serious discussion about revisiting the regional accreditation model in toto. In the age of online learning, electronic communications, and an increasing federal role in higher ed, does the regional model even make sense anymore?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Tracking the Elusive Full-Time English Gig

A new correspondent writes:

I am considering a English Education master's degree with the intent of teaching at community colleges.  I have traveled extensively, started businesses, written grants, am passionate about teaching, and I have a diverse range of skills and specialties.  I want a career core that will act as the glue and incorporate my values and an aspect of service, while allowing me to pursue my frequent tangents (folklore collection, noir comic paintings, travel blogging, adult literacy, neuroplasticity...).
Since my personal experience says that adjunct professors are cheap and universities are hiring more and more of them to reduce costs, the job outlook should be relatively good.  But the horror stories!  The indignities!  I know where I stand on wealth.  If I can take basic care for myself, have health insurance and do low-cost travel when I want to, I'm good.  I have never been particularly drawn to becoming a four year university instructor because extreme specialization seemed to be a requisite, and I am a honey bee, admiring of experts, but fueled by exploration.
So--too much information, but--is it ridiculous to pursue community college level teaching?  Can you make a reasonable (knowing that my expenses are not high) living?  Anything is POSSIBLE, but I am not a big fan picking unnecessary obstacles.  I want a job that affords basic living expenses while I have other passions on the side--not another amateur (in the 'to love' sense) practice to fund.

Somehow, I'm picturing Susan Sarandon's character from Bull Durham.

A few thoughts, and then I'll ask my wise and worldly readers – especially those from English and Education programs – to put some meat on the bones.

My first thought is that English Education is a hybrid, so I'm not sure what your goal is. If you want to teach in an English department, it's usually best to get a Master's in Rhet/Comp or maybe English. (Rhet/Comp will greatly improve your chances at the cc level.) The “Education” part implies teaching in a program that trains K-12 teachers, which is not the same thing. (A Master's in Education puts you on a very different track.) Or maybe you're thinking of teaching ESL? In some states, certification in teaching Reading can set you up to be a remediation specialist. Without some clarity on that, it's hard to get specific about chances.

From this side of the desk, I can attest that we get far more applicants for full-time English positions than for full-time positions in the Education department.

Then there's the question of motive. You can be the polymath you want to be during the summers, especially if you don't need extra income from summer teaching. But teaching the writing-intensive lower division English courses full-time is a draining enterprise. During the semesters, I wouldn't expect to have much free time or energy. If you love the work so much that you draw energy from it, then great. If it feels like work, heaven help you.

Right now, of course, the market for full-time positions in English is ludicrous. That's a result of a combination of a long-term trend toward adjunctification and the Great Recession. It's fair to expect the Great Recession to pass eventually, but the long term structural trend underneath it will probably continue. Yes, universities rely on adjuncts, but cc's (generally) do even more. I'm heartened by the recent attention cc's have received from the Obama administration, but absent a truly historic (and permanent) infusion of funds, I wouldn't hold my breath for a full-time hiring boom.

Worse, you'd be up against huge numbers of people who literally can't imagine doing anything else. If a hiring committee sniffs a lack of dedication, it doesn't have to settle. You don't “fall back on” teaching anymore. If anything, disappointed would-be teachers fall back on regular jobs.

My general advice for anyone considering grad school in an evergreen discipline is, don't. This is especially true if it's possible to imagine yourself happy doing almost anything else. A self-described “honey bee” is likelier to find fulfillment in jobs with lower barriers to entry and to change. Full-time teaching gigs in English are rare birds these days, requiring a daunting combination of talent, single-mindedness, and luck. You don't sound like the single-minded sort. Honestly, I'd recommend looking at becoming a corporate trainer, or a freelancer, or something along those lines. You'll get to it faster, be free to move from flower to flower much more quickly, and stand a much better chance of finding both enough work and enough freedom to live the way you want.

One admin's opinion, anyway.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Salary Compression

In the discussion after the post about counteroffers a couple of days ago, several commenters raised the issue of salary compression.

For the uninitiated, 'salary compression' typically refers to new hires coming in at salaries higher than those of people who are already working there. It can happen pretty easily if internal salaries are based on pre-set, lockstep raises, but the rate of change in the outside world has been faster. Incumbent employees usually perceive salary compression as unfair, since people with less seniority are getting more money.

A few years ago my college ran into that issue with Nursing faculty. At that point, nurses could pretty much write their own tickets on the job market. (That market has since cooled considerably.) Since our salary scale was one-size-fits-all, we fell so far behind the market that for a few years, every single candidate we recruited turned us down. We eventually worked out a separate scale for Nursing faculty with the union, on the argument that if we didn't, we simply couldn't hire anyone. The union grumbled, since the idea of separate tiers cuts pretty hard against the idea of union solidarity, but acceded out of a recognition of a market-driven force majeure. Simply put, we couldn't ask the rest of the world to stop to suit our own internal taste for 'equity,' so we made the adjustment we had to make. It was either that or just drop the program, and nobody wanted that. Now, new Nursing hires make more than newly-tenured professors of anything else. Interestingly, since the Nursing market cooled, nobody on either side has proposed revisiting the salaries. Salaries are sticky, so you don't want to move off an established scale lightly; you'll never get it back.

Other than Nursing, though, we've been conscientious about sticking to a union-negotiated starting-salary scale that takes account of credentials and experience, and that offers no room for individual negotiation. Given our labor environment, a new hire coming in at x (standard) plus y (negotiated) would force us to move up our entire scale, possibly retroactively. It's just not something we can do. As a result, we really don't have salary compression in the usual sense of the term. So when I refuse to make counteroffers, I'm not trapping anybody in a salary-compressed department.

(The sense in which I'll occasionally hear allegations of salary compression is when a new hire shows up with a doctorate and years of experience elsewhere, and places above a newish incumbent person with a Master's. In that case, the issue isn't actual unfairness; it's the invisibility of the previous experience. When the griping starts, I just refer them to HR to discuss the point system. To my mind, when this happens, it's a sign of hiring well.)

The downside of a rigid salary scale, obviously, is that we lose some great people to other employers with more generous offers. That's frustrating, but in a strong union environment, it's better to eat the occasional failed search than it is to start improvising. The cost of a second-best candidate is far less than the cost of the grievances, and the negotiations, and the arbitrations, and the subsequent adjustments. (Btw, the same holds true of counteroffers. The cost of replacing a current high performer with a new hire is far less than the cost of the grievances, arbitrations, and awards that would result from deviating from the scale.) This isn't a hypothetical; my college actually went through this shortly before I got here.

That's why I reject the whole "mark-to-market" argument for counteroffers. It's less costly for me to lose the occasional star than to spend the next several years in court. Nobody -- nobody -- is irreplaceable, or worth embroiling the college in the kind of battles that counteroffers would generate. Better just to wish them well and get on with it. That's not because people are interchangeable parts, or cogs in a machine; it's simply that the very real differences between individual performers are dwarfed by the staggering cost of legal settlements.

Of course, in my preferred universe, there would be a much greater 'merit/performance' component to salaries. But that's not the world I live in, and I'm not in a position to make that happen unilaterally.

In a non-union environment, salary compression could happen much more easily. If you don't have a relatively strong centralized system for determining salaries and raises, individual deans/chairs could easily upset the apple cart in the name of getting or keeping someone they particularly want. I've even heard of universities in which elected department chairs allocate merit raises, which strikes me as insanity on a stick. (Structurally, that's basically a Tammany Hall model.) This is one of those cases in which I'm happy to work with the union, since a little discussion upfront saves untold agony and political conflict later. In fact, I'm increasingly convinced that the optimal model combines a union, a substantial performance basis for raises, and multiyear contracts instead of tenure. That's not my world, but I think it would combine reasonable amounts of security, fairness, accountability, and equity in a relatively sustainable way. Maybe someday...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The American Graduation Initiative: First Reactions

I just got the first details on President Obama's American Graduation Initiative, his project intended to almost double the number of community college graduates in the workforce by 2020. It will take some time to work through it all, but some initial reactions:

First, hooray! Obama's speech yesterday at Macomb Community College in Michigan was, by far, the most intelligent Presidential discussion of higher education I've ever seen. He connected the dots between state budget shortfalls and declining investment in higher education, a dose of reality that I, for one, found utterly refreshing.

That said, the devil is always in the details.

The difference between the headline number and the detail number speaks volumes. The headline number is $12 billion over ten years for various forms of aid to community colleges. (Some of it will help directly, some will help indirectly, and some will be directed at a project that will actually compete with cc's.) The first relevant detail number is $200 billion in scholarships and tax credits over that same period. Simply comparing the magnitude of the two numbers tells you that financial burden-shifting to students will continue apace or even accelerate. (I was puzzled to see an increase in Pell grants in a discussion of increased aid to cc's. Most cc's tuition and fees come nowhere close to the maximum existing Pell grant. Raising the ceiling even higher won't help cc's one bit, unless we raise our tuition and fees pretty dramatically to capture some of the increase.) We'll look to students for the money because that's where the money will be.

The major funding crunch at cc's is in the operating budgets, which covers salaries and ongoing expenses. Amazingly, none of the $12 billion headline number is aimed at shoring up the very operating budgets that are being gutted by the states. None. Not one dollar. This, while announcing the aim of nearly doubling the number of graduates produced. How we're supposed to double the number of students who make it all the way through without any additional operating funding isn't addressed. Basic math suggests three possibilities. One, it won't happen. Two, we'll find efficiencies of such staggering magnitude that we'll be able to double outputs with no new inputs. (I call this the Purple Unicorn theory.) Three, we'll get it from the students. My money is on three.

Expect to see much larger percentages of cc budgets to be covered by tuition than is currently the case. For full-time students getting the increased financial aid, that may not matter much. But for part-time students, or for students whose income is over the aid thresholds, this will bring real costs.

That said, some of what the $12 billion will do looks very promising. There's a “College Access and Completion Fund,” which promises to fund strategies that help students move from enrollment to graduation. Examples listed in the press release include performance-based scholarships, learning communities, programs tailored for the needs of working adults, and the development of funding formulas based on student progress and success, rather than just enrollment. These are all welcome, and if at least some of them work, they promise to foster real gains in the future.

There's also money for a “new research center with a mission to develop and implement new measures of community colleges' success...” It's a little wonky, but badly needed. I've complained before – okay, obsessively – that the IPEDS data we currently use to track student retention and graduation rates make no sense in the cc context. They're based on 'first-time, full-time' students, who are a distinct minority of our students. Coming up with measures that actually reflect reality could do a world of good.

There's also a competitive grant program to reward initiatives such as partnerships with businesses and workforce development boards, dual enrollment programs, remedial and adult basic education, and personalized student services. Again, this is all to the good. To the extent that meaningful measures of success will be included in these projects, I could see real payoff down the road as we get better at some of our core functions. This isn't “double your productivity” territory, but it would help.

In a shaky bit of math, Obama proposes $2.5 billion for facilities improvements, but presumes that the $2.5 will function as “seed for capital campaigns” that will net another $10 billion. Maybe, maybe not. (Capital campaigns tend to suffer during recessions, for obvious reasons.) There are roughly 1100 community colleges in the US. If the $2.5 billion were divided out relatively evenly, it would work out to a little over $2 million per campus, give or take. It's helpful, certainly, but it's nowhere near sufficient to make a meaningful dent in existing needs, let alone doubling capacity in ten years. In my experience, a modestly-sized new classroom building runs around $20 million. (That's assuming you don't get too carried away with expensive, specialized technical labs, which seems to be the point of the proposal.) Granted, you wouldn't have to distribute the money evenly, but that would mean leaving vast numbers of cc's without any capital improvements at all. Yes, the 'seed money' concept is well and good, but it's not like philanthropists are beating down our doors to give money. There's a fundamental problem of 'scale' here.

Finally, and most intriguingly, there's funding to establish a national Online Skills Lab. Although the details are maddeningly sketchy, it appears that the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Education will collaborate to create public domain online courses and instructional resources (such as online tutoring powered by artificial intelligence), and to “explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours.” It would contract with star faculty from across the country to develop courses and materials, and would condition the funding on the developers' agreements to place the material in the public domain, so that anybody could use it. Think of it as Open CourseWare, but with academic credit.

This is somewhere between 'audacious' and 'barking mad.'

The promising parts are twofold. First, free online tutoring in basic skills strikes me as an unalloyed good. To the extent that it's technically feasible, I'd love for anyone who wants to brush up on basic reading, writing, and math skills to be able to do so at any age, at any time, and for no cost. It's as radical as free public libraries were when they were introduced.

Second, a conscious national move to decouple credit from seat time is the only way to get a serious handle on tuition escalation. As long as learning is denominated in time, the only way to increase the economic productivity of instruction is to raise the price. (Longtime readers have heard me hit this theme repeatedly.) If we're expecting cc's to double capacity with no new operating funding, we'll have to expect tuition increases to accelerate even more, all else being equal. Decoupling credit from seat time offers the possibility of bending that curve.

Those points granted – and the second point is huge – the obstacles are likely to be overwhelming.

How will national courses work with regional accreditation? Doesn't a national repository of standard courses presuppose a set of standard national curricula? How eager do we expect local faculties to be to outsource their livelihoods to course-o-matics? The collective bargaining implications alone are staggering. Who would have oversight over the national curriculum? What could students do if national courses were rejected locally for transfer? Who would do the grading? On what standards? What if a given college's students consistently did worse than another college's? This could quickly turn into a higher ed version of No Child Left Behind, complete with local incentives to game the system, rewards going to the already-affluent, and political interference in content. (Do we honestly expect that a national “American Government” course would remain immune from political interference? Yikes!)

To the extent that it's geared to non-credit offerings, I see it flourishing. But in the credit-bearing realm, I can feel the aneurysm throb when I think about it. Anything is possible, I guess, but I literally can't imagine this working as advertised.

Again, these are all quickly-written impressions based on a first read. I hope that many of my misgivings turn out to be misplaced, and that the initiative will actually give community colleges both the means and the incentives to do a better job. Parts of it probably will, and other parts could, with some basic adjustments.

Of course, if the Obama administration is looking for someone who has spent several years writing about these issues, working in community college administration, and experimenting on the ground with all manner of expedients, I'd be happy to take a call...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I don’t do counteroffers.

That’s not just a quirk of mine; my college doesn’t do them. It’s a policy I’m happy to follow.

The question comes up whenever somebody respected on campus gets an offer elsewhere. People always seem a little surprised when the answer to “so-and-so got another offer – what are you going to do?” is something like “wish hir the best.” But it is, and that seems right to me.

Admittedly, a position like this is easier to sustain at a community college than it would be at a Harvard. At the tippity-top of the prestige hierarchy, there may be good reasons to give Superstar Professor whatever she wants. Superstar Professor brings name value for recruitment, donor interest, and/or metric tons of grant money; a certain amount of groveling may make sense. But at this level, that’s not how the world works. While some professors here are more respected internally and in the local community than others, nobody really comes here to study under so-and-so. Our faculty don’t bring in the mega-grants, and for the most part, we wouldn’t have the infrastructure to support them if they did. That’s not our mission.

(To be fair, the policy isn’t limited to faculty. We don’t do counteroffers for administrators or staff, either.)

Good arguments exist for counteroffers. The one I find almost persuasive is the one that notes, correctly, that salary raises here are incremental and pretty much across-the-board. (The exception is promotion bumps -- going from Assistant to Associate Professor, say.) That means that if the salary you accepted when you took the job wasn’t much, then it may never be. Some people prove to be worth far more than the usual salary scale pays them, and they know it, but all else being equal, they’d rather not leave. In a system without counteroffers, their only option for a meaningful pay increase is to leave.

That’s a problem, but it’s a problem with across-the-board salary increments. Introducing counteroffers trades a small problem for a much bigger problem. At a really basic level, you’re encouraging people to try to leave. Incentives matter. When you reward ‘disloyalty’ over ‘performance,’ it isn’t hard to figure out which way people’s energies will move. If you want to keep the best performers, pay for performance. That’s not the same thing.

I’ve read that the average length of stay after accepting a counteroffer is 18 months. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds right. In my own experience, job searches (other than coming out of grad school) haven’t been entirely about money. People will tolerate relatively low pay if they like the job. (If that weren’t true, the entire adjunct workforce would have quit years ago.) If somebody is looking, it’s because s/he wants out. I’m okay with that – sometimes ‘out’ is the best option all around. Although the academic blogosphere is quick to sniff sinister motives whenever somebody trots out the ‘f’ word, there really is such a thing as a bad fit. If someone wants to find a better fit for hirself, I say, go right ahead. Someone who never quite clicks at college A can succeed wildly at college B. Context matters.

In my single days, I learned early on that there’s no point in trying to argue your way out of getting dumped. To me, that’s what a counteroffer amounts to. It’s an attempt to postpone the inevitable through a palliative that doesn’t address the real issues. At most, it’s a mutually-unsatisfying stall. But unlike the dating analogy, counteroffers affect more than the parties directly involved. When there’s a contractual pay scale, counteroffers can sabotage it. Other employees quickly get the message, and system-gaming becomes a full-time job. Loyalty is punished, performance ignored, and internal equity simply forgotten in the stampede. Not worth it.

Is there an argument for counteroffers at the cc level that’s actually persuasive? Am I missing it?

Monday, July 13, 2009

College Prep

Sometimes words don't mean what they seem to mean.

We had a lovely vacation in a part of the world we'd never visited before. Our neighbors stay there with some frequency, and we met up with them for dinner one night. They have two daughters, one of whom sometimes babysits TB and TG, and the other of whom is entering her junior year of high school this Fall. Her mother is trying to get her to add some clubs and activities to her schedule, to improve her college applications. A snippet of the conversation:

Neighbor Mom: I'm encouraging her to join some clubs to round out her college application. If she waits until senior year, it'll be too late.

TW: Honey, what do colleges look for?

DD: I dunno. We take everybody.

(awkward silence)

At which point, I realized that the word 'college' has different meanings.

In some circles, 'college' is an undifferentiated term for a place that other people go to get the kinds of jobs that other people get. It's probably some kind of racket, though the exact workings are hard to detail.

In some circles, 'college' is a place to find a mate, go to football games, and/or party. It's a sort of way station between childhood and adulthood, with no particular connection to the outside world. It's an expected stage of life – it's just what you do after high school – regardless of whether you have any idea what you're doing there.

For some, 'college' is a place to get trained for a job. One college is pretty much the same as any other.

And for some, 'college' is a credential that carries a certain amount of prestige. The prestige, typically, is inversely related to the ease of getting in. (Groucho Marx' line “I would never join a club that would accept me as a member” is a nice summary of this view.) In these circles, phrases like “safety school” and “early decision” and “rounding out the application” carry real meaning.

As a student, I was very much in the last camp, and spent plenty of time and angst trying to get into a sufficiently snooty liberal arts college. (It worked.) But as a professional, I work at an open-admissions college at which the concerns of that last camp are mostly irrelevant. (Mostly, but not entirely; we do a booming business in transfer, including to some pretty prestigious places.)

Each of these points of view has something to be said for it, and each has its own flaws. What struck me, though, is that most people hold one view and consider it pretty much the last word. In some circles, it goes without saying that college is Other. In others, it goes without saying that college is about competitive prestige and getting into the most exclusive one you can. When confronted by an out-of-place viewpoint – like the community college guy shrugging his shoulders at the question of 'what colleges want' – there's just a silence. Although far too gracious to say “that's not what I meant,” the meaning was clear.

The variety of definitions may help explain why the public discourse about higher ed is so deeply confused. People use the same words to mean very different things. If your definition of higher ed is all about exclusivity, then political battle cries of “college for everyone!” are unintelligible at best. If your definition is about job training, then the very idea of an expensive liberal arts college is absurd. If it's about living in dorms and getting away from home, then a community college (or any commuter school) doesn't really count. If it's about upholding tradition, then the prominence of cultural radicals at prestigious places must really grind your gears. If it's about critical thinking, then the culture of college-as-job-training must be like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Wise and worldly readers, when you were 16, what was 'college' to you? And what is it now?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Gone Fishin'

The gang and I will be off galivanting at an undisclosed location next week.

I don't get to galivant nearly enough, so when the opportunity came along...

Hope you all have a great Fourth of July, and that summer is treating you well.

I'll be back in the saddle on Monday, July 13. To the sunscreen!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Staff Teaching

My college is grappling with this issue now, and I’m wondering how others have handled it.

We have some twelve-month professional staff – counselors, librarians, etc. – who would like to be able to teach the occasional class during their regular workday as part of their regular workload.

We have a longstanding practice of allowing staff to teach on an adjunct basis outside of their regular work hours, just like people who work off-campus. If your workday ends at, say, five, and you stick around one night a week to teach an evening class on an adjunct basis, I don’t see the conflict. Nobody has taken issue with that, and it has worked fairly well. But some folks who want to teach don’t want to have to stick around into the wee hours, and are asking to be allowed to teach during their usual workday.

A few considerations:

How many hours to allot for, say, a three-hour class? Faculty teach fifteen hours a week and get credit for a full week. By that standard, a three-hour class should equate to one full workday. Faculty have service commitments, but so do staff. If we only allot the actual class time, what does that imply about faculty workload? If we allot proportional class time – that is, one full day for each three-hour class -- then we’re placing some heavy burdens on the staff who don’t teach, who have to step in and pick up the slack for the missing colleague.

How to account for different workload over twelve months? Faculty salaries are based on teaching in the Fall and Spring semesters. Staff salaries are based on working twelve months a year. (Faculty who teach summer classes get extra pay for that.) An unscrupulous administrator, given the chance, could simply allow staff to teach as part of their regular load twelve months a year, and save the extra cost of paying faculty for summer teaching. Not that we’d ever think of such a thing.

Of course, there’s also the pesky matter of tenure. If you can get around tenure simply by classifying people as ‘staff,’ and get around summer teaching costs while you’re at it…

I’m just sayin’.

One compromise proposal has staff making up their missed hours after hours. But in that case they’re effectively doing extra work for free. If they’re willing to stick around after hours anyway, they’re better off at least getting the adjunct pay. And some staff positions really don’t lend themselves to after-hours work – the demand is there when it’s there.

Wise and worldly readers of mine, I seek your counsel. How does your campus handle the question of full-time staff teaching during regular workdays? Have you found a reasonably elegant solution that seems to satisfy most people?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Strong Basis in Confusion

As someone integral to the hiring process at a public institution, I take particular interest in the New Haven firefighters' case, Ricci v. DeStefano.

I don’t want to address the specific facts of the Ricci case, since specific facts aren’t what Supreme Court decisions are (supposed to be) about. I want to try to figure out, based on this case, what employers are supposed to do when they use a criterion – any criterion – that may have a ‘disparate impact’ on minority candidates.

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended in 1991), there are two varieties of unacceptable discrimination: disparate treatment and disparate impact. "Treatment" is the straightforward kind of discrimination that announces itself clearly, the "we don't serve your kind" variety. Treatment is assumed to be intentional. "Impact" refers to outcomes that may or may not have been intentional, but that have the effect of disadvantaging one group as against another. The Act stipulates that criteria that have disparate impacts are presumptively invalid, unless and until the employer can show 'business necessity' and a lack of better alternatives. (The employer also has to show that the business necessity is not 'pretextual' -- in other words, that it's not just a fig leaf to mask another agenda.) In this case, the City of New Haven threw out a written test it used to determine promotions within the fire department, on the grounds that the results of the test showed a disparate impact on minority candidates. The City feared that it would be held liable under the 'disparate impact' standard, so it threw out the test after it had been administered. Some white candidates who had done well on the test sued, claiming disparate treatment based on race -- arguing that whites were singled out on purpose -- and won, 5-4.

As Justice Kennedy correctly put it in the majority opinion, "[O]ur task is to provide guidance to employers and courts..." (p. 20) Exactly so. I'm looking for guidance. Let's say that I want to comply with the law, as delineated by the Court. What would compliance look like?

Justice Kennedy holds that actions taken to remediate disparate impact are themselves disparate treatment. Drawing on 14th amendment rulings -- although at pains to say that this case wasn't about the 14th amendment -- he allowed only a "strong basis in evidence" threshold for exceptions. In other words, unless you can show a "strong basis in evidence" that you're guilty of disparate impact, you can't engage in disparate treatment to remedy it. (As Justice Scalia correctly notes in his concurrence, Kennedy's opinion doesn't address whether 'impact' trumping 'treatment' can ever make sense in the first place.)

He doesn't define "strong basis in evidence," but it must be a pretty high threshold. I know that because the majority decision didn't remand the case for reconsideration under the new rule. Instead, it simply declared that the city couldn't possibly meet the standard, so it declared a winner and closed the argument. If you know already that the threshold couldn't possibly be met, it looks less like a threshold and more like, well, a pretext. After all, appellate jurisdiction isn't supposed to be about weighing the evidence. Since I have to assume that the Court knows that, I can only conclude that it decided that no amount of evidence could possibly suffice, by definition. It's pretextual.

The point of the pretext, as near as I can tell, is to render the Civil Rights Act unenforceable without actually overturning it. This becomes clear in the application. Let's say that my college does a search, and the applicant pool turns out to be almost entirely white. What, if anything, can the college do about it? If anything remedial amounts to disparate treatment by definition, and if the threshold for an exception is so high that no amount of evidence could possibly suffice, then what, exactly, is left?

I'm at a loss.

It gets worse. Later in the opinion Kennedy makes a point that the "strong basis in evidence" standard that might satisfy the Civil Rights Act, " not hold that meeting the strong-basis-in-evidence standard would satisfy the Equal Protection Clause in a future case." (p. 25) So even if you somehow manage to thread the needle of the pretextual standard, the Court reserves the right to yank that away, too, using a different argument. The precedent is allowed to lean only in one direction.

Justice Ginsburg's dissent is a mixed success, but the line that jumps off the page is her confident, if somewhat resigned, declaration that "[t]he Court's order and opinion, I anticipate, will not have staying power." (p. 2 of dissent) To the extent that the Court's job is to provide "guidance," a declaration that the guidance won't have staying power doesn't inspire confidence.

As a hiring manager, I literally don't know what to do with this. I'm compelled by law to ferret out disparate impact, but forbidden by law from doing anything about it. Pre-emptive compliance with disparate impact will fail to meet the "strong basis" standard, since I can't prove I'd lose a lawsuit until I actually lost it. (As Kennedy put it, "[f]ear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions." (p.33) I can't just be afraid of losing; I have to actually lose.)

Left unaddressed, tellingly enough, is whether the reverse would also be true. Could I defend a disparate impact claim by asserting a strong basis in evidence that I'd get nailed for disparate (compensatory) treatment? Who knows?

As a citizen, I have my preferred outcome, but that's secondary. As a hiring manager, my primary need is clarity. If I'm going to be held accountable for following the law, I need to know what the law is. I need guidance. At that -- at the first task of the Court -- this decision is a manifest failure.