Monday, August 31, 2009


Fans of roller coasters know that feeling when you're getting to the very top of a steep hill, and the chain is going ever so slowly. You know you're about to go over the top and then down at breakneck speed. There's that very specific mix of excitement, fear, and the knowledge that whether you can handle it or not, there's no turning back now.

That's what this week is like.

The students are registering (where they can find spaces) and buying books. The faculty are starting to stream in. Enrollment projections are getting very specific. Last-minute staffing emergencies are cropping up. Parking is getting tighter. Staff vacations are over. And the gauntlet of kickoff meetings, with all their drama and expectations, looms large.

No matter how many years I do this, that click-click-click feeling still gets me.

It's gonna be a wild year. Enrollments are the highest they've ever been, and our funding is down by a double-digit percentage. Some of our counterpart cc's have had layoffs, and we can't rule them out. All the usual locale-specific political variables are busy varying, as they tend to do.

There's no shortage of stress.

But there's always something about the new start in September. The students are eager, the faculty rested, the weather still nice, and the budgets still solvent. Nobody is behind yet, nothing has fallen apart yet, and the delicious possibility of greatness hangs in the air. This year some students will have their breakthrough moments. Some will have life-changing relationships. Some will finally figure out why they're here. Some classes will just click, the way great ones do.

Good stuff is coming. As with the roller coaster, it'll be a hell of a Fall.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ask the Administrator: The Smackdown

A longtime correspondent and fellow administrator asks:

Is there any time when a public smackdown of a campus victim bully is appropriate? Does this serve any useful purpose?

(For the uninitiated, a 'victim bully' is someone who uses claims of persecution as a bludgeon. It's C.K. Gunsalus' coinage originally.)

Looking back over the years, I can't recall a case of the smackdown ever actually working. Too many bystanders lack the context to appreciate it, so what feels to you like a well-aimed parry just comes off as a mean-spirited overreaction. It also plays into the victim bully's persecution narrative too easily. ("See? Did you see what she did? Now do you see their true agenda?")

In the moment, what can work -- I say can, not will -- is drawing the victim bully out of the shadows by having him follow his own argument to its logical conclusion. This is tricky, since the savvier ones will simply refuse to engage, but in my experience he'll tend to double down on his initial claims when cornered. If you press, he'll double down again. Keep going until he's so far out in la-la land that he has thoroughly discredited himself. (Jim does this to Michael and Dwight on The Office a lot.) The beauty of that approach is that you don't actually throw any punches; the victim bully beats himself up for you. It works best if you do it without showing much emotion.

The victim bully may or may not notice what's happening -- he probably thinks that his cause is so obviously just that everybody will rally around him once The Truth Is Exposed -- but the net effect is self-isolation. Your job is to let it happen. As the bully veers off into the land of the tinfoil hat, let him keep going. An artfully played silence after a long rant is more devastating, and cleaner, than anything you could actually say. If you really want to rub it in, let an unnaturally long pause go by, then respond with something like "duly noted."

This strategy admittedly runs counter to what most of us learn in grad school, where prestige goes to the nastiest zinger. After many years of training in that system, some of us start to equate intellect with the ability to achieve Final Victory with words.

Managing isn't about achieving Final Victory. In fact, the drive to do that is almost guaranteed to backfire. It will make you look ridiculous, since you're bound to lose a war of attrition with people who have lifetime tenure. They can just foot-drag and outlast you. Over the long term, getting positive results in this setting comes from establishing the background conditions against which people can do their best work, and winning trust that they don't have to look over their shoulders and wonder about your agenda. If you build credibility over time and don't get dragged into intramural silliness, the occasional victim bully will gradually become almost entirely irrelevant.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an effective way of dealing with victim bullies?

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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Museum Hopping

This summer we've made a point of taking the kids to every children's museum and science museum within a day's drive. (TG loves the local art museum, too, but TB can only do so much art.) They're good rainy day or too-hot-day activities, and the kids really enjoy them. We bought a family membership in our local museum, and discovered happily that it carries with it reciprocity for some pretty nifty museums in other relevant locales. We've already made back the membership fee twice in just a few months, and that's without even counting the tax deduction.

The kids are actually becoming pretty sophisticated museum critics, for their ages. This week we went to a well-known children's museum; within the first ten minutes, TB did a quick compare-and-contrast of one exhibit with a similar one at another place. I quietly beamed.

Children's and science museums are way better than they were back in the 70's, when I was that age.

I don't recall any such thing as a children's museum back then. They may have existed somewhere, but I don't remember ever seeing one. Science museums existed, but the whole approach was much drier. Look at the taxidermy. Read the cards. Listen to the docent talk about how the colonial settlers used to eat tree bark all winter and read the Bible by candlelight and wear brown wool twelve months a year, and they liked it that way. Yawn. The planetarium was cool, but other than that, the museum felt a lot like school without friends.

Now, it's all about hands-on. The current approach seems to be to get the kid doing something, and then hope that the kid finds his way to asking why. Usually, if the task is engaging enough, that actually happens.

(Sometimes it even happens when I'd rather it didn't. Earlier this week, The Boy announced proudly that he had found his way around the parental controls on the computer. Great.)

The Boy has a bit of the engineer in him. Several of the museums we've attended included variations on pvc-pipe-bits-on-a-wall, wherein the kid is supposed to arrange the pipe bits to allow a golf ball the longest continuous ride. (The bits are bolted to brackets with magnets, which keep them on the wall.) The Boy can do that for an uninterrupted hour, and would probably keep going if we'd let him. When he locks in like that, he's oblivious to boredom. Just watching him is fascinating; you can almost see the wheels turning in his head. At one point he had a structure with four distinct changes of direction and a bell at the end for the ball to ring when it hit, and he made it work. It reminded me of the old Mousetrap game, except that he designed it himself.

The Girl never tires of climbing. Any climbable exhibit or object, and she's there. I don't know what that portends, but she enjoys it so much that looking for meaning just seems churlish. Today she even made pretty good headway on a rock-climbing wall without help, which I think is pretty good for a five-year-old. Many children's museums have climbing structures for the kids, which give the kids much-needed exercise and the parents much-needed breaks. TG will climb down to get out of the way of other kids, then climb back up again. I used to think she was being overly deferential. Now I think she's just looking for an excuse to climb more.

Last night the kids did a "puzzle museum" in TG's room. They assembled every jigsaw puzzle we had until her floor was completely covered. Then they announced the museum opening. TB took my ticket and TG stamped my hand. Then they explained what was on each puzzle, and how they did it. I gushed, of course, and they beamed with pride. As a parent, it doesn't get much better than that.

This Fall I hear they'll have new seasonal exhibits. Hmm...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edupunks and Credit Hours: Fumbling Towards a Theory

Edupunks and Credit Hours: Fumbling Towards a Theory

An alert reader sent me (last week) this article about how the open-content movement will explode higher education as we know it. Apparently, newly empowered 'edupunks' will cobble together their own educations, thumbing their noses at The Man while reaping the lucrative rewards of globalization.

The article has more than a whiff of the self-congratulatory vanguard about it, but look past that.

The part of it that has stuck in my craw for the last week -- in the way that ideas with kernels of unpleasant truth tend to do -- is the distinction between course credit and demonstrated competence.

It's certainly true that people can learn important things outside of credit-bearing classes. And in some parts of the curriculum, even the stodgier colleges have long had provisions for students to "test out" of individual courses. The idea there is there's little point in marching you through a course when you've already mastered its key content.

While that model isn't new, it has historically been confined to the margins. An AP course here, a CLEP there, but you still have to take enough credits to graduate. (Many colleges have 'residency' requirements that even limit the number of credits you can transfer in.) This article suggests that it's becoming easier to build your own modular degree through a program of sustained self-teaching and exams.

A few years ago I did a thought piece envisioning the rise of Efficient Degree Organizations that would act as something between aggregators and sherpas, helping students put together degree programs on their own terms. The idea there was that with online courses breaking the tyranny of geography, it made a certain amount of sense for students to start acting like internet shoppers.

Now I'm wondering if the 'credit hour' might be the line of attack.

Credit hours are bureaucratic constructs that have little to do with teaching. They're ways of breaking curricula into component parts, the better to allow for transfer, substitution, and the like. (In most states, they've also become tied to various funding formulae. We measure our enrollment both in terms of headcount -- that is, people -- and FTE's, which are denominated in credit hours.) They make inevitable a cost spiral that far outplaces inflation, since you can't increase productivity when your units are measured in time. (As the rest of the economy becomes more productive per hour and teaching doesn't, teaching becomes relatively more expensive.)

Awarding some sort of recognition for task completion or demonstrated competence independent of the time it took to achieve that offers one potential way to break the upward spiral. If you manage to blast through calculus in eight weeks instead of fifteen, more power to you.

That said, though, I could easily envision the abandonment of the credit hour as relatively beneficial to those already on top -- in four years at my SLAC, I never heard the phrase 'credit hour' -- and devastating to the rest.

For students who don't already have considerable cultural capital when they walk in the door, the 'set' curriculum with semesters and credits offers a clear path. It makes the route to achievement legible, even if daunting. It defines a normative amount of time for a course of study (the "two-year degree"). And it allows faculty to push students into courses they might not choose for themselves, based on a sense of educational good. (If I had a nickel for every student at Proprietary U who asked "why do I have to take this?" I'd be a wealthy man.) Yes, business majors need to take English, and yes, many of them would avoid it given the choice.

To the extent that we move from "here's what you need to do" to "what do you want?," we both enable high achievers to cut loose -- a clear good -- and allow the less savvy to wander aimlessly, which is a real problem.

The "edupunk," as near as I can tell, is the nifty-sounding update of the autodidact. And as with the autodidact, the edupunk is susceptible to some predictable shortfalls: uncorrected blind spots, lack of broader perspective, too-early path dependence.

If colleges are going to continue to earn their keep, they'll need to address the very real economic issue of the credit hour, without forfeiting the real value created by making courses of study -- as opposed to individual courses -- legible. That means not giving up on 'general education,' no matter how much some students bitch about it. It also means getting out in front of a competence-driven currency, lest it leave us behind. It probably means making convincing arguments to the effect that an education is more than the sum of its parts. (Hint: the social and extracurricular aspects are not to be discounted.)

As disconcerting as some of that is, I'd hate to see colleges go the way of newspapers. When the mode of production changes, typically, the leading producers change, too. The mode of production of education has to change, and now, can. We'll need to come to grips with that in some sort of serious way, or others will, edupunks or not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Professional Development for Adjuncts

A new correspondent writes:

What is your take on "professionalism" among adjunct faculty? Since there's so little money available for professional development for anyone, especially adjuncts, the attitude has developed that adjunct faculty don't really need to keep current in teaching and research in composition; that it's not fair to ask them to do so since there's no support. Most of our adjunct faculty get full benefits but have no job security though we have an informal seniority system--those with most seniority choose their schedules for the next year first. My question is what is a fair expectation regarding "professionalism" at least as it refers to currency in one's field, given adequate teaching evaluations? I've been leading an effort these past three years to develop a writing program--one with a coherent curriculum, vigorous assessment, and meaningful professional develoment. The toughest of the three to get going has been professional development, since it seems an added burden to adjunct faculty who get paid only 80% or so of what full-time faculty receive. I should note, however, that some full-time faculty also resist what they see as a call to currency in the field of composition, since they identify themselves as literature people, though they teach mainly composition. I should also note that across town from us is a very good graduate program in comp/rhet that churns out new graduates every year. Doubtless, they pose a threat to long-term adjuncts whose training is ten or fifteen years old. Also, we don't have any campus-wide professional development efforts or office to promote that, as of yet. And given the budget realities, we probably won't for a year or two more, in spite of our new president's desire to implement something like that. Thoughts?

Nope, no third rail here!

Many years ago, Microsoft got sued for employing what got called "permatemps." As I understand it, Microsoft had hired (and paid) employees as temps, but kept them around for years doing all the same things, for the same hours, as full-time employees. Eventually the chickens came home to roost, Microsoft was hauled into court for back pay and benefits, and wound up paying a chunk of change. (I don't remember whether they actually lost, or they reached a settlement. Readers who know the case better than I do are invited to clarify this account in the comments.)

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see something similar happen in higher ed. As the demands placed on adjuncts continue to increase, the justification for paying them proportionally less than full-timers becomes harder to sustain.

That's the background condition against which I come to this question. As an officer of the college, part of my job involves keeping the college out of trouble. That means, among other things, maintaining a clear and meaningful distinction between the expectations of full-timers and the expectations of adjuncts.

In your case, since you don't have meaningful professional development for full-timers, there's no difference for adjuncts. But if you're going to start a program, you should absolutely target the full-timers first.

The legal imperative here cuts against my preference as an educator. As an educator, I believe that any professor who gets up in front of a class should be as current and prepared as possible. But from an institutional perspective, where that preparation comes from makes a difference. The more the expectations for adjuncts parallel those of full-timers, the harder it will be for the institution to fend off a 'permatemp' suit. Perversely enough, well-intentioned efforts to break down the caste system can actually backfire for the college. (Ironically enough, this is one reason I support adjunct unions. At least with a distinct union contract, it's possible to spell these things out and negotiate them. When too much is left unsaid, expectations can spiral, and suddenly you're on the receiving end of a subpoena.) Systems take on logics of their own, and we ignore them at our peril.

Of course, in a perfect world, this wouldn't be an issue. Most faculty would be full-time, with adjunct roles existing only on the margins (for the occasional working practitioner, and for the occasional enrollment surge.) Those adjuncts would be paid a pro-rated assistant professor's salary, and we'd have single-payer universal health care, so health insurance wouldn't be an issue. But with the funding structure (and politics) we have now, that's not in the cards.

The tragedy of the current system, obviously, is that so many eager instructors are relegated to the economic margins, with professional development left entirely up to them on pathetic salaries. I'm inclined to believe that this is a sign of a deeper systemic unsustainability that will lead to entirely new forms of education emerging in the alarmingly near future, but that's for another post. I'm still working on that one.

So my answer is along two tracks. Ideally, adjunct roles would be few and far between, and to the extent they'd exist, they'd be pro-rata. However, in the world as it is, one college moving too quickly in that direction in some areas (teaching loads, professional development) without doing others (salaries, benefits) would be putting on a sign that says "SUE ME." Yes, there's a fundamental contradiction there. Welcome to my world.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found a reasonable way to handle adjunct professional development without getting itself into a bad legal position?

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

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Internal Politics

A newly-hired correspondent writes:

I would really appreciate any thoughts/suggestions/advice/anecdotes concerning politics for the newbie. I am a relatively new full-time faculty member at a Northeast CC. Can you shed light on how much "power" a dean has? I know that politically it is unwise to tangle with those in a position of authority--no matter how tempting it may be--but to what degree can a dean unilaterally dismiss faculty? Even programs without "tenure" have "continuing faculty" or "full-term faculty" or other designations that promise protection under union governance, but I'm just hoping you might have some anecdotal evidence on dean "power" and what amount of frustration a disgruntled faculty member can project. Any thoughts? In short, if a dean has a history of irrational, inconsistent, and often inept decision-making, to what degree, or by what processes, could faculty express concern?

It's a great question, so I feel a little guilty about starting with "it depends on context," but it depends on context.

For example, at my cc (which has both a tenure system and a faculty union), getting rid of a professor after the probationary period requires what amounts to impeachment. During the probationary period, though, it doesn't take much. (The contract spells out the length of the probationary period.) A brand-new hire is relatively vulnerable, but someone who has survived the probationary period is safer than almost anybody else in the entire economy. Of course, termination isn't the only weapon in the dean's arsenal.

I'm a little concerned that a new hire is already throwing around terms like "disgruntled" and "history." Those typically take a while to validate. And "projecting frustration" is very different from "solving the problem." Some deans, like some people generally, are simply beyond redemption, but I like to save that conclusion for when all else fails. "Projecting frustration" is the kind of symbolic posturing that all too often substitutes for actual engagement in finding a solution. Given your relative newness, I'd caution against jumping to fatalism too quickly.

Examples of trying to solve the problem would certainly include talking to the dean about some specific action, both to convey how it looks on the ground and to see if there's more to the story. If the dean refuses to discuss it, then you know what you need to know. But there is often a basic information asymmetry that can make reasonable (or at least defensible) decisions look arbitrary, simply because a variable is hidden. From this side of the desk, too, I can add that the information asymmetry works both ways; the dean may simply have a blind spot, and calling her attention to that can sometimes actually help.

There's also the basic issue of how your college positions deans in the hierarchy. What's the local balance of power between deans and chairs? Do the deans have tenure? Are there associate deans in the picture? Is the dean the chief academic officer, or is there an academic vp or provost to whom he reports? Are the deans 'division' deans, or deans of their own individual colleges? (The latter tend to have much more power than the former.) Are the deans defined vertically ('dean of humanities') or horizontally ('dean of curriculum and assessment')? How does the CAO treat deans? Is there a new President on the job? (New Presidents often clean house to bring in their own people, so existing admins under a new President may be particularly desperate.)

Even within a given structure, some deans are more equal than others. If yours has a gift for fundraising, she's probably bulletproof. If she was closely allied with a previous administration that is being replaced, she may be mostly irrelevant.

In a division dean structure, which is what I'm most familiar with, a dean can't do anything really drastic unilaterally. She'd have to have at least the permission, if not the support, of the people above her. (Some crafty sorts elide the distinction between toleration and support by using the word 'condone,' which means the former but is often taken to mean the latter.) Of course, 'drastic' is in the eye of the beholder.

Assuming that you've tried the 'engagement' approach and gotten nowhere, means of resistance could include HR grievances (when applicable), union saber-rattling, informal alliances, and even votes of no confidence. Votes of no confidence are generally understood to be the nuclear option, though, so I wouldn't use those lightly. And I certainly wouldn't spearhead the drive for one while still in a probationary period.

Good luck. I hope you're able to improve the environment before becoming permanently "disgruntled."

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found ways to work with/around/against antagonistic or clueless deans?

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

Friday, August 21, 2009

Office Hours

Although I frequently disagree with Dr. Crazy, I have to give her props on this post. There's something anachronistic about the way most colleges do 'office hours' at this point, and we need to rethink them.

The traditional version of office hours has professors post a set number of hours per week that they'll be sitting in their offices, available for students who need them. The required number of hours varies; for full-time faculty, I've seen everything from a low of three to a high of fifteen hours a week, depending on the institution. (Typically, adjuncts are not required to hold any.) I'll admit staring in slack-jawed disbelief at fifteen, but it's out there.

In the days before email, office hours made a fair degree of sense. Students who needed to speak with their professors outside of class had at least a fighting shot at finding them at a given time and place, and they could make appointments accordingly. Yes, there were always schedule conflicts, and yes, some faculty abused the freedom of scheduling by deliberately scheduling times when they knew nobody would look for them. (8 a.m. on Monday? Really?) But in the absence of reliable asynchronous-but-quick communication, it was often the best that could be done.

Now, of course, a great deal of student-professor interaction occurs electronically. Depending on local rules -- most certainly including union contracts -- this kind of interaction may or may not 'count' toward the office hour requirement. To the extent that it doesn't count, professors who are conscientious about maintaining online availability at given times rightly chafe at what they perceive, more or less correctly, as extra unpaid work. (I'd draw a distinction between "maintaining online availability consistently at given times" and "answering the occasional stray email." The former looks like an office hour to me; the latter is just basic professionalism.)

That said, it isn't as easy as just tossing out the concept of office hours. (To her credit, Dr. Crazy acknowledges this.) In a system in which students are required to have academic advisement, it isn't unusual for students to just drop by departments looking for someone to talk to. In the complete absence of in-person office hours, scheduling appointments becomes a labor-intensive crapshoot. With at least some regularly-scheduled time, it's easier for students to know when to look. Although electronic communication is great, some students still prefer face-to-face conversations, at least some of the time. It's a fair expectation, and maintaining at least a minimal level of scheduled availability allows for that.

There's also the issue of college service. In theory, of course, there's nothing stopping professors from coming to campus on days when they don't have classes or scheduled office hours, and some do. But experience has taught me that a non-trivial number of people will minimize their number of days on campus per week, then used jam-packed days as excuses to avoid any and all college service. I've seen it happen enough times to appreciate the value in just ensuring that people are physically present a certain amount of time. When half the department shirks service, the other half typically picks up (most of) the slack, completely uncompensated. And I've heard "I'm not driving to campus just for a meeting" enough times not to discount it. There's a reason that the phrase 'full-time' specifically references 'time.' Some elements of the job can't be done from afar, so a too-quick abandonment of office hours would dump those elements entirely on an unlucky few.

Wise and worldly readers, I suspect that this issue varies by context more than most. Has your campus found a reasonable way to revisit the question of office hours in light of electronic communication?

Thursday, August 20, 2009


With record enrollments this Fall, we've added unprecedented numbers of new sections. That means we've hired dozens of new adjuncts, and given returning adjuncts as many courses as our policy allows.

But we haven't added any new staff. And they're gonna feel it.

Double-digit enrollment increases bring with them double-digit increases in the numbers of applications processed, placement tests administered, financial aid packages requested, immunization records checked and kept, and tutoring and counseling appointments made. The folks who work in those offices aren't getting any more hands on deck. In fact, with the level of budget cuts we've sustained thus far, the fact that we've avoided layoffs is remarkable. (Some of our neighboring cc's haven't been so lucky.) We've done some cuts by attrition, not replacing people who've left, but we haven't kicked anybody out. In some areas, 20% less staff are being asked to handle 20% more students than two years ago, and to do it with thinner operating budgets (which is to say, less money for overtime).

Naturally, some folks are starting to grumble. I don't blame them, even as I don't really have an answer for them.

Politically, hiring office staff is a harder sell than hiring faculty. Faculty are conspicuous, and the tie to the classroom is obvious. Back-office support staff are inconspicuous, and show up in public discussion as 'overhead' or 'administrative bloat.' But their work is necessary, as anyone whose financial aid package got lost in the shuffle can attest. And the relative lack of romance in back-office work means that good people aren't willing to accept adjunct-level wages to do it; adding staff means full-time salaries with benefits. (There's some limited ability to use work-study students in a few roles, and funding for that has actually increased. It helps on the margins, but anything sensitive is out of the question.) We can't expand capacity on the cheap with staff, the way that we usually can with faculty.

Worse, much of the back-office staff work only becomes visible when it fails. Inspired teaching is visible; effective paper-processing isn't. Perversely, success becomes an argument against additional investment: why do you need more staff when the current staff is getting the job done? Failure, too, is an argument against additional investment: why pour good money after bad, or why reward failure?

In some areas, the nature of the work is specialized enough that you can't just swing in some temps at crunch times and expect them to produce. That strategy works reasonably well with unskilled positions, but you don't want untrained people processing financial aid applications. No good can come of that.

It's bizarre, but true, that it's easier to add capacity on the teaching side than on the staff side. Given how subject-specific teaching is, I wouldn't guess that, but it's true. The classes will get taught. The rest, we'll hope for the best.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I &*%#(%*& hate parking.

There is no obvious, elegant way to handle a sudden influx of students when parking is already tight.

The two iron laws of parking:

1. There is never enough.
2. Thou shalt not add parking, anywhere, ever.

Corrolary: Calling attention to the contradiction between 1 and 2 is bad form.

Adding parking involves several sins. It's environmentally suspect, since it acknowledges the private automobile and it (usually) replaces green space with pavement. It's incredibly expensive to build, since you have to address water runoff, lighting, grading, snow removal, yadda yadda yadda. And politically, there are few harder sells than spending great sums of money on parking lots or decks. Nobody wants to be remembered as the Parking President, and philanthropists aren't tripping over each other for parking lot naming rights.

In a perfect world, students would heed the call to use public transportation and/or carpools. We encourage that; we help them set up carpools, and they get free municipal bus passes with their student ID's. But students have complicated lives, off-campus jobs, and quotidian issues that often just don't fit the locations and times of local bus routes. (Depending on where they live, they may not be within reasonable striking distance of a bus in the first place. I'm not. If I schlepped myself to and from the nearest bus stop, I'd spend literally 5-6 hours per day commuting, not counting errands or off-campus meetings. Not gonna happen.) While I'm all for making our campus as public-transportation-friendly as we can, I'm under no illusions that this will solve the problem.

Online classes are similar. On paper, adding online classes should ease the parking problem, since you don't have to get to campus to go online. In reality, though, most of our online students also take onsite classes; they just use online classes to build friendlier (i.e. all "prime time") schedules. They probably help on the margins, but again, they're not anywhere near the scale of a real solution.

Offsite parking ('park and ride') is no picnic, either. It requires people to show up considerably earlier, and it requires expensive shuttle bus service. It's particularly unfriendly in inclement weather and at night. The time delay involved in 'park and ride' systems makes the added capacity least relevant precisely when it's most salient -- if I'm already late for class and can't find a space, how likely am I to drive five minutes away and wait another five minutes for the ten minute shuttle ride back to where I started?

Some community colleges are built basically as vertical compounds surrounded by moats of asphalt. In those cases, it's sometimes possible simply to expand the moats. (Although it's still expensive and sometimes surprisingly challenging even then. A single observation of the rare three-toed hornswaggler, and you're hosed.) Mine isn't built that way, so topography and local land use don't cut us much slack.

Worse, enrollment fluctuates, but a parking lot is forever. It's a commonplace of the hospitality industry that you don't build for peak. As expensive and politically difficult and environmentally ugly as they are, you don't want to build them just before your enrollment starts to decline.

(In high school, some friends of mine pranked the rest of us by sending us mock enrollment materials for Bessotte Sanitation University, whose motto was "plenty of free parking." Every year, that gets a little bit funnier.)

We've had some talk of congestion pricing -- require a paid permit for prime time, but allow free parking during off-peak periods (i.e. late afternoon). The problem there is that anything regressive enough to make a difference would crash into our 'accessibility' mission, and anything sufficiently painless as to be completely nondiscriminatory would also be ineffectual. There's also an issue of inflated expectations when students actually pay. Not being able to find a free space is annoying, but not being able to find a paid space feels like being ripped off.

In a few weeks, we're going to get an entering class of a magnitude we haven't seen before. I wish them well in their quest for parking spaces.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your commuter college found a reasonably elegant solution to the parking problem?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Input Without Content

Commiserating with an administrative colleague at another college, I discovered that we're both dealing with the same issue. I call it input without content.

With budgetary issues looking like they'll get worse before they get better -- public higher ed usually lags economic recoveries -- the campus is abuzz with concerns about possible cuts and budget-driven decisions. The laws of economic gravity being what they are, there's simply no way to take the kinds of cuts to appropriations we're taking and not feel them. So we have to make some decisions about how to handle them.

The "we" in that sentence isn't the royal "we." In the short term, it isn't that difficult for a half-dozen top administrators to sit around a table and cut budgets. But the fallout from that is devastating, in terms of poor decisions based on limited information, loss of trust, and imputed ill motives. (In my experience, imputed ill motives are usually inaccurate, but never mind that.) Instead, my college is taking as inclusive an approach to budget discussions as it can, without simply devolving into rule by plebiscite.

No good deed goes unpunished. In establishing protocols for broader participation, and asking people to use them, I'm seeing a really unhelpful dynamic. Some of the faculty and staff voices who are usually the first to decry lack of input are suddenly decrying calls for input. Their concern is that participation will amount to a kind of endorsement, and they want to keep their hands clean when unpopular decisions are made. ("The administration will use this for protective cover!") They want to be at the table to help shape the outcome, but they don't want any responsibility for the outcome. Input without content.

Um, no. You can't have it both ways.

You can be pure, or you can be involved, but you can't be both. Getting your hands dirty involves getting dirty. If somebody has to lose, and you want to have some say in who that will be, then you'll have to own your share of the discomfort when whoever loses starts flinging accusations. That's the price of admission.

I hope they're willing to face that. While accusations of ill motive are usually false, accusations of limited information are quite true. Having broader input into the planning reduces the chances of overlooking something important, and improves the chances that the eventual decisions will be the best that could realistically be done.

One could, I suppose, argue that it's a bit convenient to call for broader participation just when our appropriations head South. I read it differently. There are normal years and abnormal years. In normal years, with incremental increases, we can use normal processes. (Between the Senate and the union, there's no lack of faculty or staff input in normal times, btw.) Yes, there's room for improvement in those processes, but in practice normal years require mostly tinkering.

There's nothing normal about the current climate. Tinkering won't cut it. At this point, we have to make more basic structural decisions with long-term consequences. With the stakes higher, the need for participation is greater.

I hope the drive for relevance overwhelms the drive for purity.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Return of the Niece

The four of us made a trek to the Middle of Nowhere, to a cabin with my Mom, my brother, his wife, and The Niece. The Niece is two-and-a-half now, and she and The Girl immediately bonded.

For those who haven't spent time recently in the company of preschool-aged girls, 'bonding' sounds like this:

SQUEAL hee hee hee hee SCREECH hee hee hee SCREECH hee hee hee

There's a vocal range above 'soprano' that only little girls can hit. Strikingly, they hit it without apparent effort. Over and over again. When they do an especially good one, you can actually feel a physical pain in your head, as if your cerebral cortex were being stabbed with a sharp stick.

TG and The Niece decided that hide-and-seek is best done in a team format, so they would crawl under a bedcover and loudly announce that they were hiding. One of us would make a great show of looking for them ("are they in the bathroom? Nooo..." "hee hee hee SCREECH"), eventually tossing off the cover with a flourish. They'd laugh hysterically, then hide again in the exact same place. Repetition only made it funnier, apparently.

They also made a game out of hugging Grandma; they'd charge her, grab her legs, and yell "we love you Grandma!" They seemed to compete to get to her first. Grandma didn't complain.

Poor TB was a little left out -- too old to play with the girls, but too young to hang with the adults. He's veering into tweenhood, or what we used to call the awkward ages. (I know he's a tweener because he never tires of watching "iCarly.") At home, he has friends and diversions enough, but on the road, the poor kid was at a loss when we were inside.

We tried not to stay inside too much. We had access to a pool, which proved to be great fun. (I tried to get TB to do a cannonball off the diving board, even going so far as to do one myself, but to no avail. I can see my status slipping from 'cool' to 'corny.' Such is the fate of Dads.) We went to a local petting zoo, where we even got to feed a giraffe. (If you haven't watched a giraffe's tongue do its distinctive dance, you probably should. It's mesmerizing.) We even did a boat tour of the local lake, which seemed to interest the adults far more than the kids.

But for me, the interaction between TG and The Niece was the highlight. TG is the youngest at home, and her friends are roughly her own age, so she never gets to be older than anybody. Given the chance to be the older kid, she stepped up; she was gracious, kind, and gentle with The Niece, who in turn loved her to pieces. (By contrast, The Niece had no use for me, since I fell into the "adult male who isn't Daddy" category.) To the extent that kids act out what they're taught, it made me that much prouder of TB, as TG's role model for how older kids treat younger ones. Now I have to figure out how to be a Dad to a tweener. As a parent, the rules keep changing...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Sixty Days

A midwestern correspondent writes:

I'm starting a new full-time job next month, and I'm really excited about it. But my new college has a 60 day waiting period between my start date and when I actually receive health insurance. I'm grateful for the job, of course, but I don't understand the 60 days. Do you know why I have to pay for COBRA for two months into a new job?

First, congratulations on the job! In this year's market, that's particularly great news!

That said, though, I'm at a bit of a loss to explain the 60 days. It's one of those policies I've heard of, but never understood. (Wise and worldly readers who can shed light are invited to do so in the comments.) It puts you in a really nasty position. For those leaving positions with health insurance, they're staring at a month or two of COBRA. Under COBRA, as I understand it, the former employee can continue prior coverage for a limited time at the low, low cost of 102 percent of the sum of the old employer contribution plus the old employee contribution. It's called COBRA because it bites; for family coverage, you're looking at easily over a thousand dollars a month. (This, on top of moving costs.) Incredibly, it's still usually cheaper than the individual market, but for a new employee on a modest budget, it's prohibitive.

(I've heard of some systems in which your premium for new coverage starts after 30 days, even though the coverage doesn't kick in until 60. So you get the double whammy of COBRA payments and the new premium on top of it. Ouch.)

I guess it's possible that the idea was to prevent gaming the system by making it impossible for someone to put a relative on the payroll on Monday just in time for a quadruple bypass on Tuesday. But that's something to address by managing how hiring is done. And if a new employee gets hit by a truck after six weeks on the job, it's not clear to me why that employee should be left defenseless.

As regular readers know, I'm a strong believer in a universal single-payer system. Decouple health insurance from employment, and consign terms like 'COBRA' and 'pre-existing condition' to the dustbin of history, alongside 'debtors prison' and 'poll taxes.' Adjuncts need coverage, too, and there's no earthly way for most public colleges to cover that through existing appropriations. But even if we fall short of the policy I'd prefer, the 60 day "hold your breath and hope for the best" period strikes me as perverse.

Wise and worldly readers -- is there a way this makes sense? I'm perplexed.

Congrats again on the job!

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Craft and Evidence

I've been chewing on Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford's explanation of how the spiritual enervation that came from working for a think tank drove him (no pun intended) to repair motorcycles for a living, and how spiritually ennobling that move was.

It's a great book to argue with, since it's prickly and peculiar and weirdly un-self-aware. I'll admit a temperamental allergy to any argument that smacks of “those manly men with their earthy authenticity,” and the book sometimes shades into that. That said, I have to admit that I laughed out loud, half-guiltily, at his invocation of The Postcard.

(For older or younger readers: in the 90's, before online applications became commonplace, faculty job applicants mailed thick paper applications and waited for paper responses. More often than not, the only response would be The Postcard, which acknowledged receipt – fair enough – and then asked you to check boxes indicating your race and gender. As an unemployed white guy, The Postcard was offensive beyond belief. “Give us an excuse not to hire you.” No, screw you. Then you'd feel like a reactionary prick for being offended, and feel bad for that, but you still needed a job, dammit. So now you get to be unemployed and self-loathing. That's just ducky. Now, with online applications, the demographic questions usually get asked upfront, where they blend in with everything else. Substantively, there's no difference, but at least it feels less insulting. If we can't offer jobs, we can at least recognize applicants' basic human dignity.)

The valuable part of the book for me, though, is its discussion of craft and the sense of individual agency.

Crawford rightly takes issue with the easy equation of 'white collar' with 'intellectually challenging,' and of 'blue collar' with 'mindless.' Anyone who has actually worked in both settings (hi!) can attest that working with recalcitrant materials can require real ingenuity, and that many office jobs are just about as brainless as you can get without actually starting to decompose. (Dilbert and The Office draw their popularity from noticing exactly that.) From that correct observation, Crawford also notes that part of the joy of certain kinds of hands-on work comes from the relative autonomy it affords. When you're trying to diagnose a funny engine behavior, it's just you and the engine. You get the engine to work or you don't. (Of course, it isn't always that simple. But the case is recognizable.) When you're jockeying for position in an office, by contrast, direct measures of performance are scarce, so it often comes down to office politics, which can feel like junior high all over again. Having a sense of control over your own work can free you from that gnawing sense of dissatisfaction when you really can't explain to others just what you do all day.

It struck me that this sense of ownership of craft is part of what's behind resistance to evidence-based policy in higher ed.

Done correctly, evidence-based policy (or what we academics call 'outcomes assessment') shifts the basis for decision-making from 'expert opinion' to actual observed facts, preferably gathered over a large sample size. In deciding whether a given practice makes sense, data counts. The idea is that some facts are counterintuitive, so simply relying on what longtime practitioners say is right and proper will lead to suboptimal results. Rather than deferring to credentials, authority, or seniority, we are supposed to defer to documented outcomes. Solutions that work are better than solutions that don't, regardless of where they come from or whose position they threaten.

What Crawford's book helped me to crystallize was why something as obviously good as data-based decisionmaking is so widely resisted on the ground. It effectively reduces the practitioner's sense of control over his own work. At some level, it threatens to reduce the craftsman to a mere worker.

Take away the sense of ownership of craft, even with the best of intentions (like improving outcomes for students), and the reaction will be/is vicious, heated, and often incoherent. Since there's really no basis for arguing that student results are irrelevant – without students, it's not clear that we need teachers – the arguments will be indirect. The measure is bad; the statistics are misleading; this is an excuse to fire people; this is an excuse to destroy academic freedom; this is about administrative control; this is a fad; blah blah blah.

I draw hope, though, from Crawford's correct observation that the 'white collar mind/blue collar body' split isn't really true. The same can apply here. Outcomes assessment done right is focused on where students end up. How you get them there is where the real craft comes in. How, exactly, do the most successful programs work? (For that matter, without assessing outcomes, how do we even know which programs are the most successful?)

On an individual level, professors do this all the time. We try different ways of explaining things, of posing problems, of structuring simulations, and then judge how well they worked. But student outcomes encompass far more than the sum of individual classes; without some sort of institutional effort, those extra factors go largely unaddressed (or, worse, addressed only according to custom or internal politics).

That could involve some displacement of traditional craft practice, but it hardly eliminates the role of craft. For a while I've been mentally toying with a scheme that looks like this: separate teaching from grading, then reward teaching that results in good grades. The instructor wouldn't grade his own class; he'd trade with someone else, ideally at another institution. (In that scheme, we could also do away with evaluative class observations and most uses of student course evaluations. Replace 'expert opinion' with observable facts. If you manage to succeed with your students using a method I don't personally get, the success is what matters. Likewise, if you consistently fail, the fact that some big muckety-muck somewhere endorses your method means exactly nothing.) That way, you're eliminating the obvious conflict of interest that tempts some scared faculty to resort to grade inflation. The grades won't be theirs to inflate.

Admittedly, this method wouldn't work as cleanly at, say, the graduate level, but I see it working fairly well for most undergrad courses. Your job as the instructor is not to threaten/cajole/judge, but to coach students on how to produce high-quality work. The secret grader is the enemy. Students make use of your help or they don't, and the results speak for themselves. Faculty who get consistently better results get recognition, and those who get consistently poor results are given the chance to improve; those who still fail after a reasonable shot are shown the door.

Getting back to Crawford, though, I was disappointed that he largely reinscribes the white collar/blue collar dualism in his description of two different ways of knowing. In an extended rant against Japanese repair manuals -- seriously, it's in there -- he draws a distinction between inflexible rule-based knowledge and hard-won life wisdom, clearly favoring the latter. The implication seems to be that knowledge is either 'explicit' -- that is, theoretical and absolute -- or 'tacit,' meaning acquired through non-transferable practice. Think 'theoretical physics' versus 'practicing mechanic.'

Well, okay, but there's a much more interesting kind of knowledge that draws on each. It's the kind of knowledge that social scientists deal with every single day. It's the statistical tendency. The rule based on aggregated observations, rather than deductive logic. It's inductive, probabilistic, empirical, and useful as hell. Baseball fans call it sabermetrics. Economists call it heuristics. (Score one for baseball fans.) It's based on real world observation, but real world observation across lots of people.

This is the kind of knowledge that helps us get past the well-documented (though unaddressed by Crawford) observation biases that real people have. Practitioners of sabermetrics, for example, found that some of the longstanding hunches of baseball scouts simply didn't stand up to scrutiny. Individual craft practice falls prey to individual biases, individual blind spots, and individual prejudices. Testing those assumptions against accumulated evidence isn't applying procrustean logic to messy reality. If anything, it's reality-based theorizing.

Done correctly, that's exactly what any outcomes-based or evidence-based system does. And rather than crushing individual craft, it actually gives the thoughtful practitioner useful fodder for improvement.

Though I have my misgivings about Crawford's book, I owe it a real debt. The key in getting outcomes assessment to mean something on the ground is to distinguish it from the false binary choice of craft or theory. It's in between, and yet distinct. It's empirical, but not individual. The fact that a thinker as subtle as Crawford could miss that category completely suggests that the task won't be easy, but it also suggests that doing the task right could make a real contribution.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Another Successful Prediction

They say that a prophet is never appreciated in his own country. That said, this article from IHE certainly rang a bell. Back in 2006, I wrote

[T]here’s a hefty chunk of change to be made for some enterprising type who sets up shop in an area with lots of colleges and establishes a temp agency for adjuncts. “I need a cultural anthropologist, stat!” Anybody who has ever chaired a department with significant numbers of adjuncts knows that there’s always that one last section to staff two days before the semester begins, it’s full of students, and absolutely nobody can take it. A temp agency for adjuncts – call it Kelly Profs – could be the number a harried chair could call. “Hello, Kelly Profs? I need three daytime sections of freshman comp covered, starting Tuesday. No problem? Wow! Thanks,Kelly Profs!” Dollars to donuts, someone does this in the next five years. Hell, if I had the entrepreneurial zeal and absolutely no soul, I’d do it myself.

and so it has come to pass. It even matched my timeline! (Remember, as Easterbrook likes to say, all predictions guaranteed or your money back. Reading the blog is free, so...)

Actually, the reality is somewhat less elegant, but they've still got two years (by my original timeline) to get it right. According to the article, Kirtland Community College in Michigan has come up with an adjunct-laundering arrangement with a temp agency in order to save money on benefits. The college recruits and interviews prospective adjuncts, whom it then refers to the temp agency. The temp agency is the employer of record, taking care of social security taxes and suchlike, while assigning the adjuncts to KCC as a worksite. That way, KCC is relieved of the obligation of paying contributions to the adjuncts' state retirement fund.

The arrangement as currently designed is silly, and perfect lawsuit bait. By doing the recruiting and interviewing, KCC is acting like an employer. The temp agency is acting as little more than a payroll department. But if KCC allowed the temp agency to do the recruiting and interviewing, I could see the arrangement holding up in court. In other words, if it functioned less like a fig leaf and more like Kelly Profs, it would probably succeed.

The added incentive to go the Kelly Profs route, as detailed in my initial post, is that it would allow the temp agency to function as a placement center. Prospective adjuncts could apply and interview in one place, and thereby cover multiple colleges at once. Harried department chairs would have a single number to call when they need people, thereby saving time and energy. And a single agency doing all that screening could get around the HR headaches of umpteen zillion separate chairs winging it on hiring practices, with varying levels of legal acumen.

A certain demystifying of the employment relationship could be weirdly healthy. Having a central coordinator could make it easier for freeway flyers to get logistically possible schedules. And importing a clearly mercenary model could help dispel the false hope that actually contributes to so much bitterness and exploitation.

Oddly enough, a Kelly Profs style temp agency would make a wonderful target for unionization. Collecting all those freeway flyers in one convenient location would benefit not only department chairs, but union organizers. In a perverse way, following the logic of temp work all the way out could actually improve the conditions of temp work. At least, it would until the next temp agency came along.

(Back in the 90's, during one of my piece-together-a-living moments, I did some temp work. I recall reading back then that the unique evil of temp agencies is that they make workers compete against themselves. If you sign up as a temp with two different agencies, hoping to maximize your opportunities, you allow two agencies to try to underbid each other on your behalf. “We'll pimp him out for ten bucks an hour!” “We'll do nine!” “Eight!” Bleah.)

In the short run, the KCC arrangement is silly. It's too clearly a fig leaf, and unlikely to stand up to legal challenge. But taking it to the next level would be both easy and (probably) legal. The cost savings could still be there, at least until the union organizers make serious headway, and the logistical issues are not to be sneezed at. I could even imagine the temp agencies contracting with 'content experts' (that is, full-time faculty) to help develop rubrics (that is, to 'consult') with which to evaluate prospective new temps. Honestly, the leap involved is tiny, and the economic logic is non-trivial.

Once a system starts following its own logic, it tends to keep going. Although the particulars will vary, I'd wager that this won't be the last time we see something like this. It's just too predictable.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ask the Administrator: In a Holding Pattern

A new correspondent writes:

I’m writing you for advice because recently I’ve run into a brick wall in my job as an adjunct English instructor at a community college. First off, I have been employed with this institution for over four years (and have a total of seven years of teaching experience). For the first couple years I taught only two night classes since I had a day job with health benefits. During this time a position was openly advertised and I interviewed for the position. I did not get the position, but was told by members of the committee that they wanted to offer the person that received the job and I both jobs (this was impossible of course because of budgetary considerations). According to members of the committee the other person got the nod because she had been around longer than I had. I was okay with this decision because I could understand it. Luckily for me, I came into a small sum of money a few months after this, which allowed me to step down from working full-time in retail and teach 5-7 classes a semester, which I did for two years. During these two years, I worked at the writing center tutoring students, served on a committee that revamped the exit exam in (comp 1) and piloted the program for two semesters, and served on a college-wide committee focused on rewarding invitational education. I also was tapped to give a talk to potential adjuncts about how great the institution is and why they should get involved in teaching at the local community college. I thought, and was often told, I was doing everything right in regards to getting a full-time position (which is my dream job and I live in what I would call my dream area).

Recently an internal position was offered in the English department. I applied as soon as possible. To make sure everything was in order I called a couple days after personally dropping off my application. Everything was fine until I called to find out where the process was and was informed that I did not even get an interview. From talking to someone on the committee, all they could tell me is their process and that I have no recourse. The process was ticking off minimum requirements for the position and then checking off a box on whether or not I should be interviewed. The ballots were tallied by the HR department and calls were made regarding the interviews. From what I know, of the people that applied I have been employed longer at the institution and I fulfilled all of the minimum requirements for the position (no preferred requirements were listed).

The one silver lining is that the retail establishment I used to work full-time with has offered me back my old job. I am taking back this job because I need health insurance, but this means I have to go back to teaching only a couple night classes each semester.

The big question I have for you is what should I do?

The short answer is take the retail gig. English is enough of an employer's market that trying to wait out a single employer is a fool's errand. Get the health insurance, cut back on the teaching, and take some time to reflect.

The 'internal' posting is interesting. Typically, we define 'internal' as meaning 'currently working here full-time.' If we're creating a new full-time opening, we advertise externally as well. If you applied as an adjunct for a truly internal posting, I wouldn't be shocked to hear that you didn't get it.

(I'll add, too, that it can be difficult for committee members to answer the 'why didn't you pick me?' question. Assume that twenty candidates met the minimum criteria. You aren't going to interview all twenty. Clearing the minima doesn't guarantee anything. The truthful answer might be that other candidates cleared the bar by a larger margin, or offered some new skill set that you didn't, or whatever. Rather than adding insult to injury, committee members will often go with vagueness, and honestly, I don't blame them.)

It seems clear that your current cc isn't going to hire you full-time -- for whatever reason -- anytime soon. Whether that's morally right or wrong is irrelevant. It just doesn't seem to be in the cards. So my quick advice to you would be to start looking at other options. Seniority there isn't doing you any demonstrable good, and I'd hate to see you become embittered. Start thinking about other options, and about how to position yourself to be able to take advantage of them.

First thoughts, anyway. Wise and worldly readers -- what would you add/change/correct?

Good luck!

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

Friday, August 07, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Social Media and Academic Careers

A new correspondent writes:

With the exponential growth in use of social networking, in what ways do sites such as facebook have an impact on one's professional personna? While fb might be useful for increasing one's social network, is it harmless to one's career? As an experienced administrator, what are your thoughts about fb for the over 40 year-old professional?

For several years now, I've heard variations on “don't use facebook or twitter or myspace or blogger or any social media, lest future employers find you toxic.”

The odd thing is, I haven't seen any of that in any of the searches in which I've participated. I've spent most of this decade in administration, and have literally never seen social media emerge as an issue. (I also haven't seen it emerge for anyone in mid-career.)

I've seen some weird issues. Past criminal convictions, mysterious references, perplexing interview behavior, palpable attitudes of superiority, and even cover letters that apparently rule out the section of the country where my college is located. But I've never seen any form of social media held against a candidate.

Part of that may be generational. It's still unusual for most committees to have many members under forty, so it may be that it just doesn't occur to some people to look. But even when there are cyberliterate youngsters on committees, the subject has never come up.

(I suspect that my own personal case could prove an exception someday. I can imagine some irate faculty getting a hold of some of my musings on tenure and trying to blacklist me in the name of protecting what they consider academic freedom. I hope I'm wrong on that.)

Whether that's due to indifference, to principled respect for free speech, or to a new emerging etiquette around social media, I honestly don't know. (It may also be regional and/or specific to the public sector; I could easily imagine self-consciously culturally conservative institutions in other parts of the country taking a much more restrictive view of such things.) I haven't seen a really good test case thus far, which is kind of surprising at this point.

A few years ago, when the academic blogosphere still had the aura of scary newness about it, I recall a few kerfuffles around the career dangers posed by blogging. On the ground, though, I've seen none of that.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen somebody's social media presence torpedo their candidacy? Have you seen someone cashiered for what they've written? Or is 'doocing' just sooo 2005?

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

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Suing the Alma Mater

Several alert readers sent me links to this story, about a new graduate who is suing her alma mater (of all of three months) for its alleged failure to get her a job.

It's one of those stories that really allows you to see what you want to see. Is the student an unrealistic whiner? Is the school trading on false hope? Is it reasonable to charge high tuition for an unemployable degree? Is it reasonable to hold a single college accountable for a nationwide recession?

I'll start by acknowledging that I don't know the student, I'm not familiar with the school, and there may be particular facts in this case that would change my interpretation of it if I knew them.

That said, though, my first response is “oh, honey, no.”

At the most basic level, colleges are not employment offices. While they often have Career Services offices to help people find jobs, 'help' is the key word. Absent some really serious fraud, there are no guarantees. The article quoted the student accusing the college as follows:

"They're supposed to say, 'I got this student, her attendance is good, her GPA is all right -- can you interview this person?' They're not doing that," she said.

Um, no. That's not what they're supposed to say (or do). (The article goes on to mention that the student had a 2.7 GPA, and has landed two interviews but no offers.) They're supposed to coach you on your resume, help with some interview tips, and provide some resources for you to start looking. Beyond that, it's up to you.

In fact, landing two interviews within three months of graduation with a 2.7 GPA in the midst of the Great Recession isn't bad at all.

The story brought back memories of my time at Proprietary U. Since PU sold employability, students often brought outsized expectations to their job searches. (To make matters worse, the tech bubble of the late 90's briefly made those expectations actually realistic.) When the bubble burst, even the better students often struggled to find something. They weren't notably better or worse than the class that had graduated the year before; the market had just changed.

Most students understood that, at some level. But there were some who seemed to think that the Career Services office kept a top secret stash of nifty jobs that they'd dole out to whomever complained the loudest. In my observation, this was not the case.

There's no central clearinghouse for most jobs. (I'm told there actually is one for doctors, but that isn't relevant here.) Degrees and skills can improve your chances, but chances are not guarantees. If degrees guaranteed jobs, there wouldn't be PhD's trying to cobble together livelihoods from adjunct gigs. (Though I'll admit that all those freeway flying PhD's suing their graduate programs makes for a fun thought experiment.) A program can be academically rigorous, and a Career Services office can try really hard, and the result can still be nothing. It's a big world out there.

But the idea of suing the school is worse than merely missing the point. If it were just that, I'd expect it to be summarily dismissed and we'd all move on. My concern is that as an employer, if I found something like that attached to an applicant's name, that candidate would be thrown out of consideration post-haste. I don't need the headache of an overentitled, litigious applicant when I've got plenty of other good applicants who would actually be happy to have the job. A lawsuit like that renders you radioactive.

Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not – again, I don't know if Monroe College overstepped somewhere in this particular case. But as a rational employer, do I really want to take that chance? As a manager, I'm acutely aware that a small fraction of employees consume a vastly disproportionate amount of my time, complaining about everything under the sun. As Robert Sutton noted in The No Asshole Rule, these people drag down entire organizations, even when they're otherwise individually productive. Given a reasonable alternative, I'll take the alternative every single time. This student, whose name I'm not repeating as a courtesy to youth, is branding herself with a scarlet letter. Not a good idea.

We all catch lousy breaks from time to time. How you handle those breaks says a lot.

My free advice to the disgruntled graduate: move on. Put this behind you, quickly, and focus on actually getting a job. Unless there's something really egregious here, there's nothing to be gained by blaming one college for a national recession. And you could lose more than legal fees.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Ask the Administrator: The Financial Panopticon

A new correspondent writes:

I recently applied and received an offer for a full time faculty position at the cc where I've been adjuncting for several years. This has been my goal for quite some time, and I'm thrilled that I'm finally moving past the rank of adjunct. However, I haven't yet done the paperwork, and I have one concern - credit. I understand that certain types of schools cannot hire individuals who have defaulted on student loans. I currently have a loan in default (though this position would mean I could rehab my loan and get my credit back on track). Do cc's run credit checks on new hires? If I am in default, is the cc likely to rescind the offer of full time employment?

First, congratulations on the offer! In this market, that's quite an accomplishment.

I'd be surprised if an offer already made were rescinded. Typically, employers do their due diligence (or not) before making the offer, precisely to avoid having to rescind them. Calling references, for example, only makes sense when you're trying to rule somebody out; once you've committed, there generally isn't much point. (Worst reference I've ever heard: "I'm calling to confirm a reference for so-and-so." "Who?" Ouch.)

My cc doesn't do credit checks, so I really can't speak to how (or why) cc's that do, use them. Your reference to "certain types of schools" is opaque, at least to me. I don't know what types those are, if any. I've never heard of it, and it's certainly nothing I've encountered in the cc or proprietary worlds.

The only hitch I could envision with student loans -- outside of, say, a fraud conviction -- would be if you got the loan directly from your alma mater itself. Colleges owed money by former students often won't send out transcripts for them. We won't hire anybody whose degrees we can't verify. In that case, failing to produce an acceptable transcript could tank your candidacy. But if your loan is from an outside party -- whether public, quasi-public, or private -- and you defaulted, I don't imagine your alma mater would refuse to send a transcript. Since we don't dig deeper than that, as long as the transcript and degree(s) are kosher, you're fine.

It's not at all clear to me why a cc would want to run credit checks on prospective faculty. I could imagine it for, say, comptroller or Chief Financial Officer positions. You wouldn't want someone who couldn't handle money to do those jobs, nor would you want someone facing personal financial crises to be directly in charge of large sums of public money. (That would be as ridiculous as having a Secretary of the Treasury who cheated on his income taxes. Oh, wait...) But I don't know why it would matter for, say, a history professor. The relevance is too indirect to be worth the hassle.

All of that said, though, I'm acutely aware that it's a big world out there. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or do you work at) colleges that apply credit checks to faculty? Does the correspondent have grounds for concern beyond transcripts?

Good luck! I hope you're able to use the job to get back on your feet.

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

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

College Newspapers

Why are we training students for a dying industry?

My college, like so many others, has a student newspaper. It's published on newsprint, it comes out twice a semester, and it sometimes gets facts right. (I always enjoy the man-on-the-street parts the most.)

Our local daily newspaper, meanwhile, is in a death spiral. That's a common enough phenomenon that I can say that without really revealing my location.

Between craigslist and google news, it's increasingly unclear just how local journalism will support itself. Yet colleges keep blithely producing student journalists trained in newsprint, as if it were still 1950 and the major competitor was radio.

Why do we do this?

I'll admit some affection for any project that gets students writing readable non-fiction. The ability to assemble a coherent narrative out of a swirl of rapidly-changing facts is useful in all kinds of contexts, certainly including business. But it's not clear to me why that needs to happen in the context of a newspaper.

In my youth, the future of journalism was assumed to be television. (For a wild time capsule, watch the movie Broadcast News.) "Real" journalists wrung their hands at the prospect of pretty faces reading from teleprompters.

Now, both newspapers and pretty faces with teleprompters are suffering. While the number of people producing 'content' of one form or another -- hi! -- seems to be climbing, the number who can actually support themselves this way on a full-time basis seems to be shrinking. (I'll admit not having a clear sense of the number of full-time professional bloggers, but I doubt that it would compare to the number of people who used to work for newspapers.) News aggregators and popular blogs build collages of information from many sources, with little regard to how, or if, those sources are paid.

I'm all for training students in fact-gathering, clear writing, and getting a sense of the outside world. But I'm wondering if the time-honored student newspaper is still the best way to do that.

Has your campus found a more contemporary way to get students the benefits that newspapers used to offer? Maybe a way that doesn't automatically doom them to the ashbin of history?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Sinkhole Ahead!

As longtime readers know, I'm no fan of the "D" grade. Basically, I don't understand it. (For the longer version of my anti-D diatribe, see here.) It's passing, sort of, but it won't get taken in transfer unless it's safely hidden among other, higher grades. It gives credit, but in some sequences, it doesn't let you move forward. As grades go, it's particularly ambiguous.

Last week, I heard a new twist on the evil of D's.

Apparently, the federal financial aid rules changed recently. Under the old rules, you could re-take a class once or twice (I'm not sure which) for a better grade, and still get aid. Under the new rules, you can only re-take a class you failed. If you passed and you re-take it, you do so on your own dime.

There's some logic to that.

Under our local policy, which isn't unique, students in developmental classes need grades of C or better to take the next course in the sequence.

Again, there's some logic to that. If you barely squeaked by in arithmetic, what are your chances in algebra?

But putting the two policies together creates a weird no-man's-land. If a student gets a D in a developmental class, she can't move forward, but she can't get aid to try again. She's stuck.

Over the long term, we can (and probably will) change our grading policy for developmental classes to eliminate the D at that level. Maybe go with A-B-C-F, or maybe pass/fail. But a change like that takes at least a full year to push through, if it goes through at all. (I can already envision the argument: "Students who used to get D's will now get C's. This is legalized grade inflation!") In the meantime, two sets of rules have collided and opened up a sinkhole under a non-trivial number of students.

Some faculty got wind of the change, and started floating proposals. Some advocate advising certain students to skip the final. If a student gets to the end of the term and is on the cusp of failing, but could go either way, she might be better off intentionally failing; at least with an "F," she can re-take the class. But coaching students to take a dive goes against every academic instinct. Alternately, some professors have announced that they simply won't give D's in these courses. Although I admire the problem-solving spirit, administratively, there's a huge issue with different sections of the same course using different scales. (That's not the same as different professors having different standards. Different standards are to be expected. Different scales -- one with D's and one without -- shouldn't happen in the same course.) Some have simply declared that students get what they get, and financial aid isn't their department. While that's often a reasonable approach, one could argue that when nonsensical and severe consequences for students are reasonably forseeable, it's got a bit of 'denial' to it. (I'm reminded of the old Tom Lehrer lyric: "I just make them go up, I don't care where they come down. That's not my department," said Werner Von Braun.)

I'll admit not fully understanding why we give D's in developmental classes in the first place, if they don't let you move forward. It's not an issue of GPA, since developmental courses don't count in GPA's. It's not about transfer, since developmental courses don't transfer anyway. It seems to be a combination of communicating "better than hopeless," and "we've always done it that way." It never particularly mattered until now, though, so nobody really made an issue of it. Now, suddenly, it's an issue.

It seems clear to me that the long term solution involves changing the grade scale for developmental courses, but I'm flummoxed on the short term. Wise and worldly readers -- do you have any thoughts on how to get through the next year while the policy change goes through?