Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Online and Onsite Treated Differently?

A new correspondent writes:

Most department heads/chairs are fair. That's something I'll just spot for the sake of agreement.

Some are not. When it comes to dealing with course approvals and appointments and class schedules, chairs are in a position to reward friends and treat less well those they find objectionable, pains in the ass, or the invisibles. The problem is, especially for the untenured, no one would file a complaint, for obvious reasons. Deans often don't know of the crap that goes on, or if they do, there is blessed little they can do about it.

In distance ed, there often is an opportunity to get around this. I'll tell you what goes on at my school. In some departments, DE classes are prized, with many faculty members -- frequently adjuncts -- ignored while favorites are awarded online classes and training. They skip the line, as it were.

There is a contractual body here that has instituted a policy for course development (the development of a course which has not yet appeared in the online course schedule) and course assignments (courses that have already been approved for online offering). We require for ALL course development and assignments, that the entire department agrees and signs off. That way we have a record that the chair has actually consulted her faculty regarding the opportunity to teach online and reveals who is looking to teach them. There is an added level of formal red tape here, for chairs and faculty (no faculty member has to seek such forms, signed off on by other faculty members and deans, for requesting to teach a section of a course). Many faculty members don't like the idea of "requesting permission" from a body for teaching something that she is perfectly qualified to teach.

So the trade off is added bureaucratic processes (and therefore asymmetrical treatment of online and trad courses) for DE course assignment, and greater transparency at the level of departmental chair.

There are a number of fair objections. Already mentioned is that faculty members resent having to go through a non-departmental body to sign off on something that ought to be strictly a departmental issue. Second is that we are treating trad and DE classes differently when the whole point of integrating DE courses into the college's offerings is to treat them as academically equivalent. In the ideal world, the processes ought to be equivalent.

Justice demands that we treat similars similarly, and when treatment is different, it ought to be justified on the basis of relevant criteria. What are they in this case? Nothing (save for a slightly elevated degree of abuse in cases of distribution of of desirable DE offerings across faculty).

There's a lot here.

I'll start with a philosophical objection. The argument from 'justice' in scheduling assumes that distributive justice among faculty members is the important goal. To me, that's a second-order goal. The first-order goal is meeting student needs. Faculty convenience is fine, but student needs come first. If students need more classes at 'inconvenient' times and fewer at 'plum' times, then so be it. The issue of fairness among faculty has to be bounded by student needs.

Now to the practical stuff.

Without giving away too much, I'll say that I've seen both the integrated and the separated approach to scheduling online classes. In the integrated approach, online classes are scheduled by the same people who schedule regular classes. In the separated approach, there's a czar of online (or a committee, but the function is the same) who schedules online classes across the college.

In my observation, the former model offers consistency within a department, and the latter offers consistency between departments. Which is more important probably depends on local conditions.

Even your example could be read two ways. If the local chair is fair and wise, then outsourcing the distance ed decisions is a terrible idea. Alternately, if the local chair is an abusive jerk, then outsourcing the distance ed decisions at least offers the potential for some island of fairness.

In the separated model, part of the argument is usually from quality control. If many of the faculty were hired before distance learning meant much, then the automatic assumption of competence that applies to the classroom might not apply to distance. (I have a few faculty who have never used email.) If the distance ed czar is fairly competent in distance learning, which I'd certainly hope would be the case, then there's a reasonable chance of ensuring that the technology is used well. If the department chair isn't technically literate, s/he might not be able to evaluate a distance ed class.

There's also a non-trivial argument from scheduling coherence. If each department adds online sections as afterthoughts, or mostly according to faculty preference, then the all-online (or mostly-online) students may not be able to get the distribution of courses that they need. Having someone in charge of all online scheduling means that it will be somebody's job to notice that, say, you have an imbalance between English and Psych. That's particularly true given that some departments will have an unusually high percentage of gearheads, and others will be predominantly Luddite. Left decentralized, those imbalances will fall entirely on the students. An online czar can call attention to that, and direct resources where students most need them to go.

(I grant, of course, that an online czar is subject to the same human failings as anybody else. This argument is structural.)

The argument from the integrated model is basically that online courses are the same as any others, and should be treated the same way. This may or may not be true on a given campus, though. Even if the same course number, credits, and content apply, online courses may have been marketed to an entirely different group of students. When that's true, then the scheduling needs may not parallel the scheduling needs of onsite students. To the extent that online students are a distinct cohort, as opposed to onsite students picking up sections here and there to build more convenient schedules, there's an argument for extra-departmental scheduling.

The separated model also gets around the problem of nullification. Most degree programs include distribution requirements from various parts of the curriculum -- some humanities, some math, some lab science, etc. In a department-centric model, a single department that doesn't want to be bothered with online courses could tank entire curricula. From the perspective of both student and institutional needs, that's insane.

My sense of it is that the separated model makes the most sense during the early rapid-growth phase, when historical patterns haven't emerged yet and the need for coordination (and targeted development, and faculty development) is greatest. As online courses become more a part of the scenery, and patterns emerge, it would make sense to return the courses to the same routines used for other courses. Depending on where your campus is in its development cycle, either model might make sense.

I'm not entirely sure I answered your question, but I hope that helps. Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Word has it that my state is considering requiring students to file FAFSA (Federal financial aid) forms as a condition of admission to a cc.

The idea, as near as I can figure, is not to leave any Federal money on the table.

That said, I have one reaction:


This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

First, it's a paperwork nightmare. If you're willing to plunk down cash on the barrel to take a class (or two, or four) with us, what's the problem? The FAFSA takes hours to complete, and requires a significant level of financial disclosure. If you don't want aid anyway, why jump through the hoop?

Second, experience tells me that when confronted with irrelevant forms, students lie. They put in bogus information just to get over it, and to preserve their own pride in the face of what would otherwise be demeaning. In some contexts, that might not matter much. But here, the federal regs require us to follow up on any discrepancies on the forms. That means that if an annoyed student gives "69 Hershey Highway" as an address, we actually have to devote staff time (read: money) to investigate it.

Now, if a student doesn't want aid and gives bad information, it's a pretty safe bet that she won't get any. But we'll still have to process the forms and investigate the claims. That means hiring more staff -- that's "administrative overhead" for those keeping score at home -- to follow up on claims that won't get funded anyway. In the name of not leaving money on the table, we'll have to hire more back-office workers and pay them. Not good.

And it's not like the local financial aid staff is sitting on its hands, wishing for something to do. Combine 'enrollment boom' with 'massive recession,' and you get a truly impressive backlog of applications as it is. Our FA office is already straining. Adding thousands of frivolous applications to an already-overwhelming load wouldn't help.

The Obama administration has committed to simplifying the form, and I honestly hope they do. But even a simplified form would require record-keeping, investigation of discrepancies, and close auditing. Scaling up these costs to include people who don't want aid anyway is a deadweight cost.

If access to higher education is the desired goal, give us the operating budgets to run more classes and keep tuition down. If cost-shifting to the Feds is the goal, let us raise tuition substantially to capture the entirety of the new Pell grant caps. Either way would be both simpler and more effective, and would result in a more robust set of options for prospective students. Those students who need it could apply for aid; those who don't need it could just pay their tuition and go to class. But increasing our costs for back-office staff, while cutting our operating budgets, will not improve access. All it will do is irritate students and create bigger budgetary holes.

No, thanks.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Of Leaders and Lightning Rods

One of my major growth moments as an administrator came in my first year. In a meeting about course scheduling, I made a crack about how teaching too many sections of composition in a single semester can be excessively draining. (My language was a bit less polished.) I had actually done that load myself, so I spoke from experience, but it was very much with my faculty perspective.

After the meeting, a professor with whom I had a good relationship pulled me aside and mentioned that with the office I now held, I wasn't free to make comments like that anymore. When I spoke only for myself, it didn't really matter what I said. But as a leader in the institution, comments that once would have been merely snarky were suddenly taken as indications of larger directions. What I had intended as a solidaristic expression of grading fatigue came across as either tone-deaf or simply insulting, depending on how charitable you wanted to be.

She was right. I hadn't thought through the implications of saying unguarded things from the position I held. What would once have been 'candid' was suddenly 'insensitive,' if not 'just plain stupid.' If I wanted to be successful in the new role, I had to own the role, including its more constrictive elements. (That's why I blog under a pseudonym. If my name and office were attached to it, I'd have to be a lot more chipper and, to my mind anyway, less interesting.)

Which brings me to Mark Yudof's Q-and-A in the New York Times this weekend.

Mark Yudof is the President of the University of California system. Like most public systems throughout the country, the California system has taken some devastating financial hits over the last year. Of course, the California system has burdens of its own. Its governor is, well, who he is. The state has a weird prediliction for governing by plebiscite (they call them 'propositions'), with all that that entails. The UC system has several structural tensions, most of which (I'd argue) flow from failing to designate and stick with a single flagship. (The SUNY system carries this flaw to an extreme, with predictable results for its standing.) It has a history of extremely contentious labor-management relations, for reasons I won't pretend to understand. And the Great Recession has hit California hard.

In other words, this is a difficult spot even for an effective leader. It's a time for someone in a high position to step up and make a real contribution to the public debate on behalf of higher education, even if that means putting aside his own personal frustrations and speaking consistently with his official role.

Alas. Instead of thoughtful discussions of why the public should continue to support a university system in difficult times, we get this:

And education?
The shine is off of it. It’s really a question of being crowded out by other priorities.
Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs,” to use a buzzword.
Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.
The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?
Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.

This isn't public talk. This is backroom talk.

First, of course, it's stupid. The difference between a furlough and a salary cut shows up the following year, when that year's raise is calculated from a baseline. A furlough doesn't count against a baseline, but a salary cut does. So a furlough doesn't just "sound more temporary"; it actually is. A furlough hurts once; a salary cut hurts as long as you work there. While the public at large may or may not care much about the distinction, the employees -- the folks to whom he claims to listen -- certainly do.

Second, though, it does absolutely nothing to plant any doubts that cutting higher ed is worthwhile. "The shine is off it," and as any kid from West Philadelphia knows, academic practices like looking stuff up are for ninnies. If even the President of the University doesn't much care for education, why should anybody else?

I don't know Yudof, and he doesn't know me. But I can guess what was going through his mind. Basically, he's jaded. He gets attacked a lot -- whether fairly, unfairly, or both, I'll leave to my left coast readers -- and after a while all those attacks start to sound the same. So he's impatient with them, and quick to apply shortcuts to what he considers the real issues, if any.

Behind closed doors, that's standard procedure. But an interview with the Times isn't private.

This is one of those times to put personal authenticity aside, and to play your role. Yes, he may be tired of talk of cuts; I know I am, and he faces cuts of an order of magnitude larger than anything I've faced. I can understand a certain impatience with what seems like the umpteenth go-round of the same drill. But he needs to remember that most of the people who read the interview, and who vote in the state of California, aren't wrapped up in his daily reality. They're looking to him to express the needs of the University system, and to make a good case that they're consistent with the needs of California.

When he substitutes his own little tantrum for a chance to express the needs and benefits of the system, he misses a real opportunity, and generates a real opportunity cost for the university. As someone who doesn't know him, I don't give two hoots what Mark Yudof thinks. But I do care what the President of the University of California thinks. Telling us the former instead of the latter is an easy mistake to make, but a crucial one.

It gets worse. By the end of the interview, when the discussion inevitably turns to compensation, we get:

What do you think of the idea that no administrator at a state university needs to earn more than the president of the United States, $400,000?
Will you throw in Air Force One and the White House?

While not technically wrong, this is tone-deaf in the extreme. (If you want to draw a comparison, go with the average salary of a backup catcher in the major leagues.) The UC system employs untold numbers of adjuncts, postdocs, part-time staff, and others whose pay is simply terrible. These are the folks who need to get the job done on the ground if the system is to mean anything at all. Sounding like Marie Antoinette is no way to inspire the troops, except maybe to mutiny.

Making a living in higher ed administration is a privilege. It's a chance to set the background conditions against which untold numbers of people can do their best work. It's the kind of privilege that calls for a certain humility. Yes, it's work, and yes, luring people out of faculty roles to do it will require paying them. But to use an opportunity like Yudof's just to bitch and moan is a sign that he's lost sight of what he's doing.

This is an appalling performance. I hope he's not too far gone to recognize that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Why Wasn't I Notified?

I'm playing another round of every manager's favorite game, "why wasn't I notified?"

Last Spring we put out calls for proposals for how best to spend our stimulus money. We had all-campus meetings (with strong attendance and led by the President), emails, online discussion, and smaller group meetings. We had forms, procedures, and deadlines. Some folks did what we hoped they would do: they thought about the ground rules and their own situations, and they put in proposals for consideration. The committee that did the considering was composed of administrators, staff, and faculty, and the faculty volunteered as a result of several all-campus emails. Some of the proposals were accepted, including several from faculty, and are hitting the ground now. (The accounting processes for stimulus money here are particularly byzantine, which explains the lag.)

So yesterday I get copied on an indignant group email, in which a voluble (and tenured) professor is Shocked and Appalled that money is being spent on a particular project without faculty input. Why, this is an outrage! This is just typical of The Administration's poor communication, and lack of respect for the faculty!


It would be one thing if he were merely wrong. In response I pointed out that, in fact, the faculty had been consulted repeatedly -- almost naggingly -- and that the project that set him off was, in fact, from the faculty. If it were merely his mistake, it wouldn't bother me much. Hey, we all make mistakes. It happens.

What makes it so tiresome and frustrating is the waving of the bloody shirt. The email was copied to all and sundry, and written in High Indignation. It was clearly intended to be a salvo in a political battle; the truth-content, if any, is beside the point. (Had he been concerned with truth, he could have started with an individual message.) Refuting the specifics doesn't do much to wash away the bitter aftertaste, which was clearly the point.

I've seen this morality play before, in enough contexts and enough times, that I'm already bored before the end of the first act.

In a perfect world, of course, the next move would be for him to say something like "whoops. My bad. Sorry 'bout that." But I know better than to expect that. Instead, he'll shift the argument. Instead of "I wasn't told," which is demonstrably false, it will become "I blew it off at the time, and that's your fault." He won't put it that way -- it's not terribly plausible when stated so baldly -- so I expect it will be wrapped in something like "wasn't made clear" or "you know we don't read emails" or "we're much too busy to be bothered." It's a fine line between 'bothered' and 'consulted.'

The real subtext, of course, is "at the time, I didn't think you meant it." Now he's annoyed at, well, truth. We said it was true at the time. He didn't believe it, and that has to be someone's fault.

It's still only September...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The White Glove Test

Readers of a certain age have probably heard of the white glove test. As I understand it, it was a test of cleanliness in which a woman (it was always a woman) wearing a white fabric glove would trace her finger along a tabletop, and it would pass if her glove didn't get dirty. I don't know if this ever actually happened or if it's like the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who jumped into the Erie Canal and landed on a cow, but the expression survives.

Based on a conversation I had today with some faculty, I'm wondering if we wouldn't benefit from a local variation on the white glove test.

In discussing computers, equipment, and funding, they complained that we spend a lot on brand-new computers that mostly get used for word processing and low-level web surfing, and then don't have the money to pay for minor classroom or equipment repairs. The weird result is that some very cutting-edge stuff gets underused, while some of the classrooms slowly fall into visible shabbiness. The students, seeing with fresh eyes, pick up on the shabbiness immediately, with predictable effects on morale. Since some of the high schools from which they came can be pretty rundown, it confirms an already-present and destructive implied message.

I have to admit there's something to this.

I'm temperamentally allergic to arguments that assume a fall from a golden age ("Students never used to cheat!" Um, yeah, they did.) But even I will concede that new buildings don't stay new forever, and that the damage from partial repairs is cumulative over time. And lower-tech classroom equipment just doesn't get the attention of the high-tech stuff.

As with so many things, these patterns probably made some sense when they first developed. I'm old enough to remember when even a basic computer cost a couple thousand, and even a high-end one couldn't do much beyond word processing, basic math, and maybe email. (I still remember the first time I used a web browser. Within ten minutes, I was convinced that it was an epoch-defining innovation. I still believe that.)

In those days, when the buildings were newer and the computers more expensive, these spending patterns could be defended. Now, not really.

I'm thinking it might make sense to stratify tech purchases based on their likely uses. If a given lab will use computers just for word processing and web surfing, why not go cheap? I write most of my blog posts on a netbook that cost 400 bucks when I bought it, and that probably costs 300 now. For this purpose, it does just fine. (In labs, where we could use desktops, we could go even cheaper.) Then, we could reallocate some of the savings to do a white-glove test of classrooms and labs, and devote money to the lower-tech but still crucial stuff like lighting, blinds, paint, screens, and such.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college done this? Has it found a sustainable way to keep the boring-but-important low tech stuff in good repair over time? I'm looking for a model I could adapt.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Scaling Up Fast

This September has been a lesson in what happens when you try to scale up really quickly, with less money.

On balance, things have gone better than expected. The parking situation hasn't been easy, but it hasn't been nearly as bad as some of us (hi!) expected. We've managed to find most of the adjuncts we hoped to find, and have become really good at maximizing the use of space. We've managed to do all this without raising class size caps, which I take as a personal victory. And we haven't had layoffs thus far, which is great.

(Before the inevitable flaming, yes, yes, I know, adding adjuncts isn't as good as adding full-timers. Nobody here disputes that. But with the hacks we've been taking from the state, simply holding onto the full-timers we have is the budgetary equivalent of a triple-gainer.)

Now that we're past the initial shock, though, the subtler gaps in our preparation are starting to show.

When you add sections, you hire more people to teach them (or you give additional pay to people you already have to teach them). You can increase staffing -- even if only on the cheap -- to meet (most of) the added demand in the classroom.

It's the out-of-the-classroom stuff that's harder.

The folks in Financial Aid are swamped, and talking openly about simply closing the office a couple of days a week just to get through the backlog of applications. They really don't have the discretion simply to turn away enrolled students, but we haven't been able to get them new staff, either.

The library is unusually full, especially since many students heard the warnings about parking and started getting to campus earlier. Unsurprisingly, when they have a chunk of time to kill before their first class, many of them find their way to the library. As a result, the computers in the library are receiving far more use than they ever have, and students who need to write papers on them are sometimes reduced to the indoor equivalent of hovering. So far, they've been remarkably good sports about it, but it's still September. I wouldn't be shocked if people got a little jumpier towards the end of the semester.

Academic advising is soon to become a problem. Faculty have set numbers of students they're supposed to advise, but their numbers haven't increased with enrollments. We have an embarrassing number of students now without a named advisor yet, since there's simply nobody around with room to take them. Some adjuncts advise, for which they're paid extra, but it seems that we're pretty close to the limits of that. Some full-time staff advise, but there, too, the number of hands on deck simply hasn't increased, and their other duties are either the same as before or even more than before. We just don't have the spare capacity, and doubling people's advising loads would have predictable effects on the quality of their work.

Even the local buses are struggling. We added huge numbers of students, especially at historically unpopular timeslots, and told them parking would be tight. They heard us, and took buses. The bus company didn't hear us. Lesson learned there.

Wise and worldly readers on campuses with abrupt enrollment booms -- what quirky consequences have you seen? I'm hoping that we can draw enough lessons from this to be better prepared next time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Building for Non-Compliance

On my campus, we're discussing a change that's generating some feedback along the lines of "well, if everyone just did what they were supposed to do, that wouldn't be necessary."

Back in my younger days, arguments like that sometimes persuaded me. They appeal to my visceral distaste for rules that say one thing and mean another. Speed limits are an example. Most highways have posted limits that are more like opening bids. Most of the time, you can safely go about 10 mph over the limit; the unofficial limit is somewhat higher than the official one, though you're entirely sure by exactly how much. In my perfect world, I'd much prefer that the signs say what they mean and mean what they say. Instead of posting 55 when we mean 65, post 65 and enforce it. Take the guesswork out of it, and make one rulebook for everybody.

That would be great. But it's just not the reality of how people live and work. And systems that rely on perfect behavior are doomed to fail.

(For a close-to-home example, of course, take the 21 drinking age. The idea was that an age of 18 allowed high schoolers to buy beer, so raising it to 21 would get it out of the high schools. It was never really about colleges, although it applies to them. If you ever want to see prominent people fidget, ask a collection of residential college presidents what they do about underaged drinking on their campuses.)

Rules or expedients made for the masses generally undershoot what really conscientious people do on their own. Any experienced driver can tell you that speeds that may be perfectly reasonable on dry, sunny days may be irresponsibly excessive on dark and stormy nights. (It was a dark and stormy night...) So in practice, many limits seem to be set for dark and stormy nights, with an informal understanding that they'll stretch a bit on nice days. It's annoying when you guess wrong, but we haven't come up with a better system.

One alternative would be to do away with speed limits altogether. If there are no rules, then you don't have to guess what the rules are. But most of us suspect that some people would overestimate their own capacities quite badly, with deadly consequences for others. So we put imperfect rules in place on the theory that their admitted imperfection is less bad than relying on the good graces and judgment of everybody on the road.

That's basically what's happening here. We're discussing ways of communicating with students in the event of class cancellations for instructor absence. (The H1N1 scare was the prompt, but it would apply to absences for any reason.) A few folks have opined that if all affected professors just contacted their own students, no college-wide policy or practice would be necessary.

Well, yeah, but they won't. They haven't yet, and I don't see that changing. So we need a backup plan.

That's not to deny for a moment that some professors go above and beyond. In fact, I'd guess that the majority do all that could reasonably be expected. But there's a non-trivial number who do only what they're compelled to. When the costs of that attitude fall on the students, and they aren't trivial, it becomes fair to ask what else should be done.

I'm increasingly convinced that 'ideal' ideas are a dime a dozen. The ideas with real value are the ones that can survive heterogeneous behavior and compliance over time. Those ideas almost always fall short of the best behavior, but they have the unique virtue of being useful. The best individual performers may find the rules a bit underwhelming, and I salute them for that. They're right. But asking everyone to be perfect (or civic-minded, or virtuous, or altruistic, or...) just doesn't work.

Seeing beauty in the sustainable, mediocre idea is the administrative aesthetic. There's something a little bit sad in that, but there it is.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cash Cows

It's a commonplace of for-profit management that units can be characterized in one of three ways: rising stars, cash cows, and dogs. The savvy manager is supposed to feed the stars, milk the cows, and shoot the dogs.

Nonprofit higher ed doesn't work quite the same way. In financial terms, Nursing is a dog with fleas. We lose thousands of dollars per student, and we can't even make a serious dent in that with volume. But we support it, because it's central to our community service mission and our students usually find jobs. (It's less true this year than in the past, but the Boomers aren't getting any younger, so I like the long-term prospects.) The same is true of capital-intensive majors with clinical placements (radiography, respiratory therapy) and niche programs with lots of required classes with tiny enrollments (engineering).

(Before the inevitable "but the local for-profit offers Nursing!" objection, I'll just note that we charge community college tuition. Let us quintuple our tuition, and yeah, we could break even. But that's not why we're here.)

We stay afloat through a series of internal cross-subsidies. By turning a profit on Psychology, we can absorb heavy losses in Nursing. We milk the cows precisely so we don't have to shoot the dogs.

(For the record, and contrary to what most of the academic blogosphere seems to believe, English isn't a cash cow. It pretty much breaks even. The smaller class sizes offset the lack of equipment costs. The social sciences are where we really clean up, since those are chalk-and-talk classes with much larger sizes. Naturally, with different course caps in different places, your mileage may vary.)

Some parts of the college can only be accounted for as cost centers, since they don't bring in direct revenue, but we have to keep them anyway. The library is like that. We don't charge a separate library fee, but it incurs its own non-trivial personnel and materials costs. Those have to come from somewhere.

As the fiscal crisis has started to feel like the new normal, and as we've become more transparent as a way of dealing with it, some of the folks in the cash cow areas are getting crabby. They're getting exploited, as they see it, and the entire enterprise is built on their backs. It's time for justice!

Well, no. At least, not by that definition of 'justice.'

Colleges have always -- always -- had internal cross-subsidies. That isn't new, and it isn't bad. The only way to try new programs, run expensive programs, and support libraries and financial aid offices and disabilities offices and electric bills is to cross-subsidize. The optimal degree of cross-subsidy is debatable, and there are times when it goes too far one way or the other. (On my campus, that's prompting a discussion of more aggressive lab fees.) But the existence of the concept is neither avoidable nor, frankly, objectionable.

As online courses become more widespread, I could imagine some traditional four-year colleges losing some of their cash cows to community colleges. This could be a serious issue for the four-year schools, and I'd be surprised if they didn't try to head it off with the usual transfer-blocking. But the force of economic gravity is strong.

(At Proprietary U, the entire 'academics' area was considered a single cost unit. The only 'profit center' in their accounting was Admissions. Internal power and salaries reflected that. It was never clear to me what Admissions was supposed to 'sell' in the absence of actual programs, but that was how they did it.)

To me, part of the point of a non-profit is precisely that it doesn't necessarily base every decision on revenues. Ultimately, it has a budget that it needs to meet, but optimizing the budget for the sake of optimizing the budget is missing the point. The point is to fulfill its mission as best it can, within very real constraints. Even when that leads to some parts of the college largely subsidizing others, it's still different from straightforward business management. We shoot very few dogs.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Watching Five-Year-Olds Play Soccer

Watching five-year-olds play soccer is good for the soul.

The Girl has spent the last several years watching her older brother play sports. She has played some in the backyard with us, but hasn't had teams of her own until now.

You wouldn't know it.

This past weekend, she had her first games.

Admittedly, she and her teammates haven't quite worked out some of the kinks yet. Other than the goalie, they don't really play 'positions' as they're usually understood. Instead, they cluster around the ball, moving en masse like a swarm of bees. Teammates steal the ball from each other, passing is entirely accidental, and every so often some kid will simply stand still while the ball rolls right past him.

That said, she has the 'competition' concept down pat. Right before what my American mind calls the kickoff, as she stood directly opposite her counterpart on the other team, she raised her hands to her head, made claw shapes, and growled at the poor kid. Loudly.

The kid didn't react, but TW and I were in stitches.

She cut quite a figure in her shinguards, soccer socks, cleats, and bouncing ponytail. The total effect was somewhere between Strawberry Shortcake and a bouncer. It said "yes, I'm cute, now get the &*(*^%!@ out of my way." Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty good way to go through life.

No more mere cheering from the sidelines. TG is in the game.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bad Meetings

Chad Orzel has posted a wonderful list of Varieties of Bad Meetings. Having spent some time (cough) in bad meetings over the years, I have a few genres of awful to add.

The Take-the-Proxy-Issue-At-Face-Value Meeting

"Okay, so we've settled that the few cases of actually exceeding course caps were due to a system glitch, and that's been fixed. We're good?" "Grrrrr."

The Guess-What-I'm-Thinking Meeting, and its cousin, The Validate the Preordained Conclusion Meeting

"Let's hear your ideas. Well, not that one. Or that one. Or that. Hey, I've got one!"

The Jockey for Position Meeting and its cousins, The Follow the Bouncing Blame Meeting and The Look At Me! Meeting

"And my incredibly wonderful project would have worked if Steve hadn't dropped the ball."

The Let's Define Words Differently Meeting

Common floating signifiers include assessment, integrity, diversity, transparency, affirmative action, budget, and horse's ass

The Let Me Play Out Longstanding Childhood Trauma Meeting

"The Administration always liked them best."

The Meandering Discussion of a Settled Question Meeting and its cousin, The Lost Golden Age Meeting

"Ever since that reorg in '96, things just haven't been the same..."

The How Many Words I Can Fit on a PowerPoint Slide? Meeting

"You might not be able to see these from the back of the room, so I'll read them to you..."

The Bonding Exercise Meeting

"Let's start with an icebreaker!" Or, shoot me in the face. Either way is good.

The Kabuki Meeting

Everyone plays an assigned role. The hothead, the avuncular skeptic, the bitter skeptic, the idealist, the gritty realist, the crusader, the victim, etc.

The Unified Field Theory Meeting

"And that ties into...which ties into what you said's all connected!"

Wise and worldly readers, what unique species of walking death have you seen?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


A longtime correspondent sent me this article in Academe by Lori Messinger, a professor of social work at the University of Kansas. It's about the methods that activists on various campuses around the country have used to get LGBTQ-friendly policies enacted on their campuses.

It's worth reading, both for the inherent interest of the subject and for the largely counterintuitive findings.

My experience with these issues as an administrator has been exclusively in the Northeast, and at secular institutions. In these settings, the objections I've heard on LGBTQ issues have been either practical/logistical ("how do we define who's covered?") or confined to some guilty eye-rolling. (Guilty eye-rolling usually goes in three stages: the initial eye-roll, the sheepish moment of self-awareness, and the apology.) I haven't actually heard a religious argument, let alone a vociferous objection. My guess -- and it's only a guess -- is that in some of the deeper red states and/or at the more devout religious institutions, the reactions would be very different.

The local political situation has also made it relatively easy to be LGBTQ-friendly. I'm in a state in which Republicans can win when they run on an "I'll cut your taxes" platform, but they get slaughtered when they run on God, guns, and gays. So techniques that have worked here may not work as well in, say, South Carolina.

That said, though, the process Messinger's article describes rings true, and is consistent with what I've seen.

I had been taught over the years that civil rights are gained through advocacy, mass protest, and the force of credible electoral threat. In the case of LGBTQ issues on campus, though, I've seen something different. Here, the concrete victories have come through top-down leadership at key moments. (Messinger's piece notes that the one campus she studied that adopted the 'adversarial' model, it backfired badly.) Without giving away too much, I'll just say that the two levers that have seemed to lift the most weight have been, in order:

1. So-and-so, who is crucial to the college, is L/G/B/T/Q. We have to keep hir! Maybe this will work!


2. Our counterpart/competitor colleges have done this, and we haven't. We risk losing good people to them!

These are basically HR arguments, rather than moral or political ones. They're about attracting and retaining the best people. That's how they were sold to some Board members who, um, wouldn't ordinarily be on the cutting edge of progressive politics. At all.

Of course, HR arguments like these require that a great deal of groundwork has already been done. Once you have a critical mass of conspicuous high performers who are out, the argument from 'employee retention' can be very compelling. And it's harder to demonize people you know and respect personally. But getting to that critical mass requires the slow cultural work of many at all levels.

Messinger mentions in passing that new Presidents often have a honeymoon period in which to make changes like these. I think that's true, though I've personally seen a longtime President become a sudden champion of this cause when the makeup of his cabinet changed. The personnel changes that drive policy changes can happen at many levels.

Again, with this issue more than most, context matters. In a state with a hostile political climate, or a college with a distinct religious identity, the external constraints may be prohibitive, at least for now. No argument there.

Wise and worldly readers, I invite your thoughtful insights. If your campus has made strides towards LGBTQ-friendliness, how has it happened? If it hasn't, do you know what's stopping it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ask the Administrator: The Ties that Bind

This one introduces itself.

I am the son of a long time correspondent and a reader in my own right. I teach adjunct at three different post secondary schools (colleges and trades schools).

At any rate one of the gigs now says I have to wear a tie. My usual attire is slacks, button up shirt and sports coat. Hardly dressed down. The rationale is it will teach students about the professional standards of our industry. The only hang is I'm teaching "art" stuff and NO ONE in my industry wears a tie. Unless they have to go to court maybe? I don't even think most people in academia have to wear ties really, do they? Not in my experience. A few administrators maybe, certainly not profs.

We also have to fill out a parallel grading system rating students professionalism as well as their academic progress. The gig claims this a collegiate trend and employers ask for this now. Sounds dubious... and like a receipe for lawsuits from students who are not hired because of some crazy rating system they didn't really sign up for.

Anyway, I hardly think students will suddenly start showing up on time and and ditch the iPhones because I give them "3" instead of a "5" in the fakey professionalism "grade". Of course if they do I'll gladly wear the tie!! Like lipstick on a pig.

Okay, full disclosure. I hate wearing ties. Hate it, hate it, hate it. One of the reasons I voted for Obama was that he went through much of the campaign in open-collared button-down shirts with jackets, which is soooooo much more comfortable. I was hoping he'd do for ties what JFK did for hats. Alas, no.

(And when did button-down shirts become button-up shirts? Is that a regional thing? Maybe the former is a subgenre of the latter? "Button-down" refers to the collar, and I guess button-up refers to the torso, so a button-up shirt could have a pinpoint or a button-down collar. A Hawaiian shirt is button-up, but not button-down. But I digress.)

I've heard professors say, in all apparent seriousness, that one of the reasons they'd never want to go into administration is the dress code. That really didn't apply in my case, since the place where I taught required ties anyway.

As with school uniforms in the K-12 world, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the prestige of the school and the degree of formality it requires. (Professors at Snooty Liberal Arts College were never introduced as Dr. so-and-so. At cc's, they often are.) As near as I can figure, it's a combination of status anxiety and a felt need to model professionalism for students who may not otherwise see it very much. That seems to be very much the case here.

In the tonier settings, there's generally a sense that the students 'get' the rules of the upper middle class, since most of them came from it. To the extent that's true, formal dress codes just seem out of place, so they tend not to exist. (Of course, informal dress codes do exist, and are often quite strict. In all those years in my doctoral program, I never once saw a woman wear a bright color. It Was Not Done. Not that there was a dress code, of course...) At Proprietary U, the guiding assumption was that students needed to learn the ways of the professional class, and they didn't often have real-life models, so it was up to us to demonstrate.

I've never been entirely comfortable with the 'role model' or 'exemplar' concept of faculty. And anecdotally, the people who cling to it the most tenaciously tend to have highly idealized, not to say obsolete, ideas of the 'real world' they think they're modeling. In the late 90's, the tech world was notoriously informal, even as PU stuck to the dress code of IBM, circa 1958.
That said, I'd guess that the rationale for your college's rule is something along these lines.

Grading students on professionalism is another matter. I've seen 'professional conduct' factored into a 'participation' grade, which is part of an overall course grade. To the extent that 'professional conduct' is defined as 'showing up regularly, getting the work done, and not being a chronic whiner,' I suppose it's relatively benign. But I'd have a major issue with a 'professionalism' grade showing up on a transcript, especially if there's no clear and explicit definition of what it means. In the 'real world,' definitions of professional conduct are context-specific, so the whole idea of a rigid definition doesn't really make sense. But if your opinion of your students is that they're one step from barbarism, then I suppose a rigidly prescriptive code of conduct seems like progress.

Of course, if that's your opinion of your students, then I'd suggest finding another line of work. But that's me.

Good luck navigating the quirks of your college. All I can say is, 'been there.'

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an intelligent application of a 'professionalism' grade? Alternately, have you seen an especially wacky dress code on a campus?

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Activity Hour

A new correspondent writes:

We just learned that our administration wants our spring schedule revised (campus-wide) to include a break from 12:00 - 1:30 every MWF. For those of us in the lab sciences that run classes in two and three hour blocks, this is certainly cause for some hair pulling. We are having trouble finding a way to accommodate the break. We haven't been given a reason for the schedule change other than it would allow all faculty to be available at the same time for committee meetings and such. I would like to know if other schools have a similar break in the class schedule. What length of break and how many times a week?

Also, I feel like this will actually decrease enrollment although the administrative message this year has been "increased enrollment, we want increased enrollment". My lab classes will be pushed from 2-4 to 3:30-5:30. What student can and will take a class that runs until 5:30, particularly on a Friday afternoon? We have a female majority student body and a significant portion are women with family responsibilities. A very informal poll of my classes leads me to believe that no student (out of a sampling of ~100) would take the class in that time slot. Am I just so unaccustomed to this idea that my initial (knee-jerk) reaction of "oh no!" is wrong and that this could be a good thing? Insight, advice, and anecdotal evidence of success would be great!

I did a piece on this a few years ago, but think it may be worth revisiting.

Activity hours, or "college hours," serve two major purposes. They allow student groups to meet, since students won't have classes during those times. For commuter campuses in particular, this is a very big deal, though I imagine it matters somewhat less for residential campuses. And they allow faculty committees to meet, since the major logistical obstacle has been neutralized. (That's especially true at cc's, since faculty here generally have more classes than they do elsewhere.)

I've never known a college to hold 'college hour' completely inviolate. Enrollment pressures, lab/studio classes, and offsite obligations (nursing clinicals, say) each exert pressure, especially at prime time. Holding college hours outside of prime time can reduce their cost, but it also reduces their effectiveness. How many students (or faculty, for that matter) will stick around for a 3:00 meeting on Friday afternoon?

Whether activity hours are worthwhile depends on your evaluation of the activities they make possible. At the Snooty Liberal Arts College I attended, all classes ended by 4:00. That allowed for athletics until about 7:00, followed by meetings and free time. At a commuter college, things just don't work that way. Making extracurriculars available to cc students requires acknowledging the fact that most of them will be on campus only when they have classes, so sandwiching activities between classes is the only way to make large-scale participation realistic.

The folks who study graduation rates routinely report that students who get involved in campus activities graduate at much higher rates than those who don't. To what extent that's a function of self-selection, I don't know, but common sense suggests that self-selection and a positive effect aren't mutually exclusive.

As far as faculty and administrative meetings go, I'll just note that the alternative to faculty participation in governance is faculty non-participation in governance. Participation requires meetings. It just does.

Wise and worldly readers, I'll ask the same question I asked in 2006. Has your college found a reasonably elegant way to handle activity hour?

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

To The Girl

Yesterday we watched you climb on the bus for your first day of kindergarten. You bounded in so quickly I barely took the picture, and you were gone.

You're incredibly ready. At kindergarten orientation, you slipped into the classroom like a fish into water. When the teacher read the class a story, you locked on, and you were the first to make an observation about the story. And you've got that blend of 'cute' and 'commanding' that only little girls can get away with.

Your Mom and I aren't so ready. She quit her job shortly before you were born, so for the last five years, you've been her nearly constant companion. Preschool gave her a flavor of the house without you, but it was only half a day, a few days a week. This is different. And it's the start of a long process of you spreading your wings and gradually moving us to the background.

I know you already know this, but we're sooooo proud of you. And you'll do great.

When you got home, you bounced with happiness and triumph, and told us about the entire day. To nobody's surprise, you already own the school. We knew you would.

A few years from now, you'll be mortified to be seen with us in public. But yesterday you gave us both big hugs without hesitation, and even consented to having your picture taken in your new back-to-school outfit.

We've worked hard to give you a world that makes sense. You're going to start to see that some of the world doesn't make sense. Some kids will be mean just to be mean. Sometimes you'll have to do things that don't make sense, just because someone else thinks they do. Sometimes bad things happen, even when you're being good. It's a hard lesson, but you're a strong girl. You'll get through it. We'll help as we can. And maybe, if we're really lucky, you'll never stop being a little bit shocked at some of the meanness you'll see. You'll carry with you the emotional memory of living in a world that makes sense, and use your incredible strength to recreate that for others.

But there's time for that later.

We're so happy for you, and so proud. When you get older, you'll understand why we were a little weepy yesterday.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hurry Up and Follow Procedure!

In dealing with stimulus money, my college is caught between the dog and the fire hydrant.

On the one side, we have glaring needs, and the whole point of the stimulus is to get the money moving quickly into the economy. We've identified the ways we'd like to spend our allocation, and without being unduly braggy, I'll admit they're pretty good. The money will move rapidly through different sectors of the local economy, particularly in areas where it's most needed. And some of what we're paying for will actually reduce our operating costs (energy and hvac, mostly) in the future.

Note the future tense. Although the feds allocated the money months ago, and the whole point was to get things moving quickly, we haven't spent a dime of it yet. And I'm telling the *(&%# truth when I say it's not for lack of trying.

The enemy is Procedure.

The Feds have their usual set of processes. The state, through which the money is run, has its. And we have local processes, too. Add to that the special processes attached to ARRA money, and the unfortunate but likely expectation that it will be held to higher scrutiny than other money. Of course, each set of processes exists largely independent of the others, each set has to be interpreted, and some of the strike zones are maddeningly narrow. The net result is that the money is just sitting there, not stimulating anything.


This is what happens when piles of money come with separate strings. (Anybody who has dealt with managing a federal grant can attest to the cartoonishly elaborate paperwork involved in those. This is like that, but with state rules added on top.) If you're really serious about getting money into the economy quickly, and you want to shore up education while you're at it, there's a really simple and quick way that avoids all of this silliness without compromising transparency.

Direct it straight into the operating budgets.

We already have established, audited, well-known processes for handling operating budgets. This is what we use to pay salaries, utilities, and the day-to-day expenses of actually running the college. Faculty salaries, both full-time and adjunct, come from here. If you want us to, say, add sections of classes to accommodate the influx of students, this is how we'd pay for that. When states attack cc budgets, this is what they hit. If you want to turn around the trend towards adjuncts, this is the budget line to stuff. Yet this is the one thing that nobody is willing to do.

So if you're looking for work, wondering how much longer you can hold on, you can take comfort that at least we won't violate procedure.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Just Say No?

Tenured Radical has a wonderful post up about saying 'no' to excessive service requests. It's a thoughtful piece, and it raises the caliber of discussion of the topic well beyond the usual "I'm just a girl who can't say no" lamentations. Check it out.

Correctly, in my estimation, TR locates the root of wildly different service burdens in structural, rather than personal, causes. The money quote:

Well first of all, I have to tell a brutal truth that administrators and faculty colleagues know but cannot, for a variety of reasons, publicly acknowledge: those of us who overwork are covering up for and enabling those who under perform. Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people teach better, teach more, show up at office hours, give students responsible advice about their program of study, or do the committee work they have been assigned. Certainly they have no mechanism that is not going to make the entire faculty, especially those who are already overworked and fear the loss of the choices they do not yet exercise, rise up and rend their garments.

Exactly so. And this is why I find her "new ethic" solution far less compelling than her description of the problem.

A 'new ethic' would be voluntary, and would therefore fall prey to exactly the same 'free rider' problem that the current system does. The folks with highly-developed senses of duty would respond the most strongly, but they're the ones already doing the most work. The folks who spend the least time and energy on service now would be the least likely to respond to calls for a new ethic. Workshops for new faculty on how the college works are worthwhile, but to assume that most non-participation is the result of ignorance strikes me as unduly optimistic. This stuff isn't rocket science. Most non-participation, in my observation, is the result of conscious choice.

To the extent that necessary work is unevenly distributed, it's mostly because the penalties for shirking are near zero. (In fact, one could often make a pretty compelling argument that the real penalty befalls she who does not shirk.) If the goodies accrue to those who publish, then choosing to spend time on service rather than publishing is self-defeating. Reward self-centeredness, and self-centeredness ye shall have.

As several commenters noted, and as I see at my own college, there's typically a gendered skew to service work. Bluntly, more of it falls to women. That can become self-reinforcing over time, since most people get better at it with practice. Those who do the most, get the best at it, and become the 'go-to' people.

The observation is correct, but the root cause is misplaced. It's not really about gender, and it's not really about service. Read the key sentence again:

Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people teach better, teach more, show up at office hours, give students responsible advice about their program of study, or do the committee work they have been assigned.

It's really about tenure. Service is just one manifestation.

As long as people are immune to the consequences of shirking, service (and other obligations) will fall primarily on the good sports. Over time, they'll pay a price in their own careers for helping their employer. As TR correctly notes, this is an absurd situation. The least public-spirited are rewarded, and the most are punished. Play that out over time, and I'd be shocked if it didn't get absurd.

If we're serious about distributing the work equitably, then let's stop enabling some to drop it all on their colleagues. Yes, it's easy to blame The Administration for allowing imbalances to happen, but not allowing them to happen requires actually having some tools. If I tried to sanction -- let alone dismiss -- a tenured professor for shirking college service, I wouldn't even make it out of HR. So I don't. And that's why some people 'enable' (perfect word!) others to shirk.

The tenure system is based on the sole breadwinner with a stay-at-home wife. Tinkering around the edges -- "post-tenure review," stopping the clock, mentoring -- falls fatally short of addressing a fundamentally flawed structure. If we want the workload spread evenly, in the name of fairness, we need to be able to hold everybody accountable for their work. Until then, the good sports will suffer, and the narcissistic jerks will just keep on prospering.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

First Day Haiku

To the parking gods:
Forgive us, for we know not
what students will do.

Yes, I know that you
"don't need no English comp class"
but I think you do.

Hand sanitizer.
Times changing. Remember when
beer was all the rage?

Bookstore charges more
than tuition. Info wants
to be free? Not here.

Email system down.
Students Facebook anyway.
Feeling really old.

Prank history prof:
"Photocopier is down!"
I am a bad man.

Hormones aplenty,
warm weather, summer clothes, but
jeez, guys, get a room.

Youngest is almost
ready for kindergarten.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Swine Flu and Attendance Policies

My friend Lesboprof is fighting the swine flu, which I imagine is no fun at all. Apparently, her Uni has already suffered an outbreak, and since she's a relatively public figure there, she got exposed quickly.

My cc hasn't had an outbreak yet, but we're putting plans in place. It's harder than you'd think.

We don't have dorms, so we catch a break there. Even if students are around each other for part of the day, they go their separate ways (mostly) the rest of the day. That's not true on residential campuses.

Still, run thousands of people through close quarters during heating season with the same air recirculating hither and yon...

Assuming the very real possibility of an outbreak in the next few months, we're struggling to come up with a reasonable policy.

I'm told that the current CDC recommendations involve keeping colleges open, which is our preference anyway. The issue arises with students or employees being sick, but coming in anyway and spreading their illness. It might be students who are afraid of falling behind or of running afoul of attendance requirements, or it might be employees who are afraid of falling behind or of using up all their sick days. (Alternately, it could be denial, or people with unusually mild cases.)

We're planning to put lots of educational materials out there – always the favorite move of educators anyway – encouraging people to stay home when in doubt. That's easy enough. And we'll double down on the soap supplies in the restrooms, on the theory that it can't hurt.

But there's the tricky issue of student absences. We're really struggling with that.

Ideally, a student who misses a week due to the flu would contact her instructors at the first opportunity, do what she could online, and conscientiously make everything up upon returning. But that's not always attainable.

Some instructors refuse to do online supplements to their courses. And some courses just don't lend themselves easily to customized makeups – science labs, clinical rotations, group projects, art studios. In some programs, like Nursing and Early Childhood Ed, a set number of hours on clinical sites is a non-negotiable requirement of the program. Obviously, we don't want to send contagious students to treat sick people (“try not to sneeze directly into the wound”) or supervise young children, but making it up online isn't really a viable alternative.

There's also the very real matter of academic freedom. Faculty have tremendous leeway in how they structure their courses, including mundane things like grading schemes and attendance requirements. The general rule is that they have to stick to their own syllabus, but as long as they do that, all is well. If we announced a college-wide free pass for attendance, the faculty would storm my office with pitchforks, and rightly so. Of course, if a student has two professors with lenient policies and two more with very strict ones, then something, somewhere, has to give.

The integrity of grading is at stake, too. Depending on how much time a student misses, it may not make sense to give anything other than an Incomplete.

At the root of these dilemmas, really, are the public implications of private decisions. For both students and employees, we treat sick days as private matters, with private allotments and private consequences. Under normal circumstances, that can work tolerably well. But with high contagion, the model falls apart. Your decision to tough it out, or to make your students tough it out, endangers me. And not in some abstract, third-derivative sense, either. You sneeze, I breathe, now I'm sick. It's pretty direct.

Obviously, there's a real danger in being too lenient. Some people will take advantage of leniency for their own purposes, and if leniency taken to an extreme, folks who actually work hard start to feel like idiots. We don't want that. And I certainly don't want to become the Excuse Police, trying to discern which excuses are worthy and which aren't. The level of intrusiveness needed to do that is appalling, and it would usurp the faculty's role in grading. That said, “hope for the best” doesn't seem like much of a policy.

Wise and worldly readers, I need your help. Has your college come up with a reasonably intelligent set of policies to deal with a potential outbreak?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Thinking About Crossing Over

A returning correspondent writes:

After five years, I am resigning from my tenure-track position in a humanities field. My book is not done, I would not have a sustainable tenure case, and I've been ambivalent about the profession for a decade anyhow, so I am re-inventing myself. A number of fields look attractive, but after pondering and conversations with family, I have decided to first aim at getting a position in university administration, on the grounds that it suits my personality and interests, is more likely to value my PhD, and probably offers the smoothest transition while also keeping future options open.

But, of course, as faculty, university administration is a bit of a black hole. I don't really know how that side of the college works. I've looked at general resources on leaving academia, but haven't seen anything on "so you want to be a college bureaucrat". I wasn't excited about going into admin until I realized there were worlds beyond student advising and residence life, like say, registrar, development, study abroad. But what else is out there? I'm planning to go chat with various administrators around my campus, but I want to be a bit educated about how universities work before I do that. Are there books you might recommend? What websites should I be following? Where do I look to find out how the admin market works, and figure out its timing cycle?

Also, a question I've been wanting to ask---a long time ago you said something about knowing administration was your wheelhouse. How did you know?

First, I'm sorry to hear that the faculty role didn't work out. It's always easier to make a change as a result of jumping, rather than being pushed. But you play the hand you're dealt.

I'll answer the question based on community colleges, since that's the world I know. Universities typically get much more complicated, with areas like "residence life" and "technology transfer" that just don't apply here. (We do have intercollegiate athletics, but at a scale so much smaller that it's effectively a different animal altogether.)

The typical division of administration at the cc's I've seen has been:

- Academic Affairs -- credit-bearing academic programs and all that goes with them. Typically, going very far in this area requires moving up from within the faculty ranks. However, many places put functions like "registrar" here, which don't necessarily require coming up through faculty.

- Student Affairs (often combined with enrollment management) -- this is the rest of the student experience. Admissions, Financial Aid, counseling, judicial affairs, residency/immigration, athletics, student clubs. Typically, moving into a 'generalist' role -- dean of students, say -- requires previous service in a specialized role, like counselor.

- Non-credit and Continuing Ed -- this usually encompasses everything from Adult Basic Education (pre-remedial, more or less) to workforce training programs to pottery classes. This can be a great area if you love teaching, have some entrepreneurial skill, and are willing to do the scut work of dealing with grants. If you're an extrovert who loves higher education and also loves getting out in the world, this can be a nice match. It's typically a profit center, so it's relatively immune to budget cuts.

- Administration and Finance -- this is the back-office stuff. Payroll, HR, purchasing, maintenance, security, construction. It's largely invisible to the rest of the campus, except when something goes wrong. But it's incredibly important. I, for one, like it when my paycheck doesn't bounce.

- IT. Self-explanatory.

- Foundation and Planning. The Foundation is the fund-raising arm. This is one of those areas where real talent is rare and demand is high, so if you're good and you like it, you can write your own ticket. Planning is usually the realm of collegewide strategic planning, assessment, accreditation, etc. Some colleges put this under Academic Affairs, but the planning usually goes beyond that to include facilities planning, technology planning, and the like. If you have a government relations person, she's probably here. Institutional Research is also often found here.

Each of these has its own set of rules, expectations, and the like. If one of those areas looks more interesting to you than others, I'd advise spending your lame-duck year hanging around the folks in that neck of the college. You'll get a better sense of the reality of the jobs, and they can clue you in as to the relevant journals, conferences, etc.

In terms of hiring seasons, administrative gigs are spread more evenly over the year than faculty gigs.

As to the 'wheelhouse' thing, it came to me fairly quickly when I realized two basic truths about myself: I'm a pretty-good-but-not-great teacher, but I'm better than most at keeping an even keel when nuttiness breaks loose. In other words, I was easily enough replaced in the classroom, but I could do a better job than most administrators I had seen. The skill sets are significantly different, and I realized I could make a more distinctive contribution in administration than in the classroom. It's about where I could be the most useful.

Good luck with your decision! I hope your next position is a happier fit.

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

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

If Stephen Colbert Did the Annual Kickoff Meeting...

(in the style of "The Word")

Faculty and distinguished colleagues,

(Slide: "And the undistinguished among you, too...")

welcome back from what I hope was a restful summer.

("You're gonna need it...")

As you know, we have record enrollments this year, combined with a severe funding cut.

("Rhymes with flusterduck...")

But I'm sure we're up to the challenge.

("New program: Alchemy!")

This year brings some new challenges, like the swine flu

("No more parking shortage!")

and a difficult job market for our graduates.

("Great for retention!")

But some things never change.

("Gotta love the tenure system.")

All those new faces, shining with hope and promise

("and buried in their smartphones")

and the promise of new communities of learning.

("and papers to grade!")

Working together,

("except for the grading")

I'm sure we'll have a terrific year.

("except for the grading")

And that's the word.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Keeping with the amusement park theme from yesterday (variations on a theme park?), most of yesterday was devoted to a real life version of whack-a-mole.

Whack-a-mole is a game wherein you have a mallet, and you stand facing some 'ground' with a bunch of holes in it. Each hole contains a mechanical mole, and they pop up at random intervals. Your job is to hit each mole on the head as quickly as possible when it pops up. It's remarkably satisfying.

The real life version is satisfying, too, when it works. At least for a little while.

Befitting the last moments before classes start and the onslaught hits, emergencies popped up all day. An adjunct backed out! The server is down! Two key people are suddenly fighting!

Typically, half the battle is getting everyone to calm down long enough to get the full picture.

When things get abruptly weird, there's usually a temptation to just solve it. Just do it. And in rare cases -- small child obliviously in path of oncoming car, say -- that's the right response. Whack the mole and don't waste time thinking.

But here, most of the time, abrupt solutions cause more issues than they solve. The adjunct backed out? Just give the class to so-and-so! But then so-and-so doesn't want it, and someone else did, and why weren't they considered, and this has happened before, and The Administration has its favorites, and I'm in a protected class, and...

No, no, no.

I don't know the psychological principle behind it, but when stressed, most people seem to develop a sort of tunnel vision. That one mole looms large, and they can't see anything else.
But focusing on one mole is a guaranteed way to lose the game. There are always more moles out there. The trick is not to lose sight of them. In this setting, that means stepping back for a moment, bouncing ideas off other people, and coming up with something beyond the unthinking response.

It's even worse with interpersonal conflict. Some of the behind-the-scenes people are running pretty ragged right now, and having a hard time keeping up with everything that has to get squared away before classes start. Unfortunately, one person's third priority is another one's first, and the latter is getting pretty annoyed at the former. Under stress, even good people quickly resort to escalating blame, since in their frustration they don't consider other explanations. (To be fair, I do this with other drivers all the time.) Blaming causes CYA behavior, which leads to avoidance, which means the problem gets worse, which leads to more blaming...Again, no, no, no.

In these situations, you have to do a tricky two-step: acknowledge the frustration and urgency, then get everyone to take a step back anyway. That's what my day of whack-a-mole has been. It's closer to 'hostage negotiator' than 'firefighter.' Yesterday, it worked. Today, we'll see...