Friday, January 29, 2010

Another Upside to the Recession

I've mentioned before that one upside to the Great Recession may be that it finally puts to rest the myth that academic hiring is some sort of meritocracy. Putting that myth to rest would be a good thing, to the extent that it can help frustrated applicants get past self-blame and/or false hope, and find paths that make sense over the long term.

This week I saw another upside, this time on the student side.

People who study college completion rates and their variants -- course completion rates, failure rates, etc. -- know that certain factors usually correlate with higher drop/fail rates: low income, starting at the developmental level, race/gender (young men of color being the most at-risk group).

This Fall we had enormous enrollment growth, with the fastest growth occurring in the highest-risk group: young men of color. Our Financial Aid rate climbed at twice the rate of our overall enrollment. The student body become younger, lower income, more male, and more 'minority.' All else being equal, we should have expected higher attrition.

It didn't happen. If anything, our success rates increased marginally.

That may sound wonky and bureaucratic, but on a human level, it's HUGE. More of the students who need us the most are actually getting what they need. We're making actual -- small and insufficient, but actual -- progress.

I don't have a good explanation for it yet. Certainly we've taken a series of measures on campus to get silly bureaucratic obstacles out of the way, and we've hired well, when we've hired. But I suspect that the recession is really at the root of it.

The jobs that sometimes distract students from their studies simply aren't there. The idea that an education isn't really necessary is less convincing than ever. Perversely enough, for many students, we're their only plausible source for health insurance. The opportunity cost for education is as low as it has been in generations, and people are responding to it.

If we can hold onto these gains, I like where they lead. When the economy bounces back, a cohort of young people who ordinarily would have been sidetracked into the economic margins will emerge with skills and credentials their predecessors didn't have. This strikes me as an unalloyed good.

Admittedly, we've been sort of backed into generating this good outcome, but I'll take it.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen something similar at your campuses?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Second Master's, or Ph.D.?

A new correspondent writes:

I have a dilemma. I currently writing my thesis for a MS degree (industrial management). My committee has the rough draft to evaluate. Expected graduation was the end of this spring but summer or fall is a becoming more realistic. I intend to go on for a PhD (Business Administration w/ a operations/technology management specialization), and then pursue a academic career (teaching and/or administrative). I am considering pursuing a second masters degree (MBA) with a dual specialization before the PhD. Why a second masters?
To pick up two related additional specializations (computer science/MIS and finance) to expand my skill and teaching set and increased potential for different industry positions. OM areas, both in academia and industry, often use computer science and financial skills and modeling in problem solving/teaching. I realize it may or may not be difficult to land a full time academic job and will likely have to work as an adjunct, primarily online, while maintaining a job in industry until I can make the formal transition into academia. Additionally, I have a liberal arts BA, but have worked in industry for more than a decade and have several professional certifications (ASQ)-primarily in Quality, and am under the impression that the additional specializations/courses would strengthen a lack of a technical undergrad foundation and possibly bring more to the hiring table, primarily for academic teaching.
So you may still be wondering why a second masters over graduate certificates? My next school offers 18 credit hr (6 courses) graduate certificates in the above noted specializations. There is no tuition discount of any sort for the graduate certificates alone, but if the specializations are part of a degree program, then tuition discounts are applicable. I would receive the schools highest per credit hour discount for government employees, since I work as a village trustee part time. Taking 2 graduate certificates alone would cost about the same as and MBA with a dual specialization. Also, to take the graduate certificates, a completed masters degree is required; whereas, I could potentially start the MBA while finishing my MS thesis.
My second concern is about the number of credit hours in a PhD specialization. My next school has a 51 credit hr PhD w/ 18 hrs/6 courses (5 electives + 1 capstone) in a given specialization. I was considering taking 11/12 courses in the specialization for the following reasons: 1. Interesting courses I haven't seen @ other universities. 2. I've learned most schools require 12, 15, 18 or 24 hrs in a given area to teach, with 18 being the magic number. 3. Thought it, very current courses/topics, may bring more to the hiring table for academic positions, besides intrinsic learning value.
So could you offer your advice about the second masters before the PhD. Is it a worthwhile pursuit, meaning that it can achieve what I think it could achieve, over kill an just more student loan debt, or it's not necessary since I intend to pursue the PhD? If you don't think it's a worthwhile pursuit, how else can I build skills/branch out/move into related areas primarily for teaching (and possibly industry positions).
Could you also offer your advice about taking more course in my intended PhD specialization than is required. Is it worth it or not, meaning just finish and get the degree? Was my line of thinking correct as for
hiring purposes or is my impression misinformed.

There's a lot here, so I'll just focus on what I take to be the core question.

If you have two master's degrees, or three, or four, you've achieved the Master's level. If you have one doctorate, you've achieved the doctoral level. A second (or higher) master's keeps you at the master's level. It can give you greater breadth, but that's not the same as greater depth. It's also not the same level of credential, especially for administrative positions, which often require a doctorate.

I'm no expert in your field, but I can say that when we hire Business faculty, we look for both the master's (at least) and some industry experience. A second master's wouldn't mean much, unless it gave you competence in an entirely different field. One master's plus industry experience would be better than two master's. Of course, a doctorate plus industry experience would be even better.

Once you have a strong graduate credential, your undergraduate major really doesn't matter. I wouldn't worry about that.

I've seen positions posted that ask for a master's in one area, and at least 18 graduate credits in another. The problem with those is that they're tough to predict. In my observation, they're usually at very small schools that can't afford specialists in every area, so they look for utility infielders. From your description of your fields, it doesn't sound like you'd be targeting very small schools.

In terms of extra coursework before the doctorate, I'm skeptical. If it's for the sheer love of learning, whatever. But doctoral students often bog down at the dissertation stage, getting stuck in ABD limbo for years and years. Adding coursework would take an already-too-long program and make it even longer. Although one could argue that ABD is higher than master's, most of the time, you either have the doctorate or you don't. The worst finished dissertation is better than the best unfinished one. As an old grad school professor of mine liked to say, a dissertation is just a plumber's license; it lets you go fix pipes. You either have the license or you don't. I wouldn't advise doing anything that could get in the way of finishing. Love of learning is well and good, but a Ph.D. is a professional degree first and foremost. Don't do it unless you're serious about finishing; if you're serious about finishing, don't let yourself get distracted with extra coursework.

Certainly if you want to move into administration, you frequently won't be able to go above the department chair level without a doctorate.

One admin's opinion, anyway. As always, your mileage may vary.

I'd love to hear from those wise and worldly readers who went for two master's degrees, rather than a doctorate. Did it help? Did it help as much as a doctorate would have?

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Space Invaders

Like so many other public colleges, mine is reducing personnel to match reduced budgets. (To its credit, it isn't reducing faculty.) That means that I've been absorbed in some Very Unbloggable Conversations over the last couple of weeks.

It also means that I've seen the return of the space invaders.

Whenever an office or classroom becomes 'free,' potential claimants crawl out of the woodwork. Since spaces tend not to go unclaimed for very long, potential claimants have been known to start scoping out rooms while the current occupants are actually in them. Not only is the body still warm, it's still kicking. (Monty Python fans know the scene: "Bring out your dead!" "I'm not dead!" "You will be.") In one case -- admittedly, a nice office -- the traffic has reached the point that the occupants have actually had to make a formal request to the vultures to back off for a while. It's uncomfortably similar to the folks in New York City who read the obituaries to look for apartments.

There's a certain etiquette to this sort of thing.

I'm not advocating survival guilt; those of us still around will have plenty more work to do if we're feeling the need for penance. But a certain survival courtesy seems reasonable. It's bad enough to know you're on the way out; watching other people measure for drapes (or, more likely, bookcases) while you're still there just adds insult to injury.

Given how crowded the campus is now, space of any kind is at a premium. "Temporary" arrangements have become semi-permanent over the years, but the folks shoehorned into repurposed storage closets are acutely aware that it was never meant to stay that way. To someone stuck working in an unsuitable space, news of layoffs generates a dual response: "that's awful, but FRESH MEAT!"

I don't blame them, but it's possible to self-advocate and still maintain some dignity all around. So, my helpful hints for considerate vultures:

1. Schedule drape-measuring by contacting the supervisor of the people there. As with house-hunting, it's better to look when nobody's home.

2. There's such a thing as building plans. A little preliminary scoping can save you an unproductive and awkward expedition.

3. To the extent that you can, it's better to present solutions than demands. This typically involves a multi-player trade.

4. Be graceful in taking 'no' for an answer. Some erstwhile colleagues are hearing far worse things than that.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen the space scramble handled with something like grace?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Student Appeals

A new correspondent writes:

I am Nursing faculty at a community college, in only my 2nd year in
the academic world. This semester I am a member of the 'Appeals/
Advisory' committee, which consist of representative faculty from
throughout our program, and the Directors of Nursing. I subbed on
this committee at the end of the last semester, when we had 2 marathon
days of listening to student stories of why they should be allowed to
continue in the program (usually after 2 failures which, according to
our policy, means dismissal unless the Appeals committee decides

These were 2 very painful days, as students had endured incredible
difficulties, and we had to determine which were circumstances that
deserved another chance. I found it incredibly difficult to make
these decisions that effect students lives and futures, and felt truly
unprepared to do so.

I am looking for guidance/ information/ support that may be out there
for faculty on these matters. Unfortunately, all I seem to be finding
on this issue in the literature and on the internet has to do with the
legalities of it or the specifics of the process. I'm not looking to
analyze or alter or process, just to learn how to approach it so I can
be fair to students and be the best member of this committee that I
can be.

Any ideas on where I should turn?

In a perfect world, I'd solve this with data.

Since your program has (probably) been doing this for years, you should have a pretty good sample size to examine. The ideal approach would be first to compare the 'success' rates (however defined) for students readmitted on appeal, and to compare them to other students. Since you don't kick students out until the second failure, I'm guessing their success rate upon reentry is pretty low.

Then, if you have access to the files, it might make sense to try to make some distinctions among cases. Do some types of readmits do notably better than others? If they do, then you have a non-arbitrary basis for making decisions.

I'm philosophically opposed to "Queen for a Day" style appeals. They shift the discussion to 'fault,' and 'compassion,' and all sorts of criteria that have nothing to do with the likelihood of subsequent success. Given the scarcity of seats in Nursing programs, and the cost to the institution for each, I think there's a solid institutional argument against infinite chances. (There's also a student-centered argument against setting students up to fail.)

Without data, though, it's easy to default to 'every case is different.' Whatever you can do to get around that should improve things.

One easy improvement would be to have a discussion within the department to boil down the appeals to a few key points, like a checklist. Restrict the content of the appeals to the items on the checklist. It should be a useful clarifying exercise for the department to decide what it cares about most. It would also make subsequent comparisons easier; was item 1 more or less predictive than item 2? To the extent that you can replace hunches with data, you have a better shot at real fairness.

(Even if you can't get to a checklist right away, you can at least suggest that the appeals be in writing. You'll have much cleaner recordkeeping that way, and it will be less likely to introduce factors you oughtn't consider. It'll also speed up the process considerably.)

At Proprietary U, I spent a chunk of time on the appeals committee, reading applications for re-admission by students who had been academically dismissed. Since PU derived its profits from tuition, there was a strong presumption in favor of the student. I quickly earned the nickname "Dr. No," since I assumed that someone who had flunked out had probably flunked out for a reason. We didn't have a lot of data to go on, but at one point someone actually crunched the numbers and found that fewer than ten percent of the students who were readmitted eventually graduated. I took that as a sort of personal vindication. My personal criterion was always "what's different now?" If the best they could offer was "I'll try harder,' I didn't buy it. The more persuasive cases cited a documented medical issue, or sometimes the simple passage of time. (My personal fave was from a student who had been dismissed over 20 years earlier. He offered as his reason for flunking out that "I was young and stupid. Now I know better." I voted yes.)

I haven't seen any research literature on student appeals, though it's probably out there. Readers who've seen some that might be helpful are invited to share it in the comments.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on the right process for student appeals?

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

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Girl Strikes Again

The Girl lost her first tooth on Sunday! It came out while she was eating pancakes. She spent the rest of the day beaming with gap-toothed pride.


TW is redoing the downstairs bathroom, which involved buying a new top for the sink. The sinktop came in a huge cardboard box, which, as any parent of young children can tell you, is an irresistibly tempting toy for young kids. Naturally, TG and TB descended upon the box, and set about making a fort of it in the family room.

(When I was a kid, we had a pretty good grapevine for relaying news of any major new appliance purchase in the neighborhood. The idea was to get a hold of the big empty box and play with/in/on it before it got taken away or rained on. Refrigerator boxes were the best -- they made great tanks -- but stoves, tv's, or just about anything big would do.)

The kids quickly came up with a disappearing act. I brought up another big empty box from the basement, and they created a sort of habitrail with a blanket covering the connection. Then they put on a magic show. TB got in the box, and TG draped the blanket over it. She declared "abracadabra" a few times while the boxes rattled mysteriously in sequence. Then she'd lift the blanket, and voila, TB had vanished. She re-draped the blanket, said "abracadabra" a few more times, and he was back.

Of course, once wasn't enough. Each of us had to play every role, including me. We hadn't quite appreciated the size limit for the magician's assistant until I tried crawling through. As I tried making my way to the secret compartment, TG declared that "Daddy! Your butt is ruining everything!," a statement to which there's really no graceful response. But they enjoyed it, and I couldn't argue the point.


Last week the four of us went to a basketball game. At one point, the crowd chanted "de-fense! de-fense!" TG chanted "T-Rex! T-Rex!" When TW asked her why, TG said "a T-Rex says 'Grrr,' and scares the other team!" Makes sense to me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In Which a Reader Hits a Nerve

A longtime correspondent writes:

Is there anyone who specializes in remedial education, especially math? Or is it kind of farmed out? I ask this, because I'm working on becoming an economics instructor, but I've actually gotten pretty good at remedial math out of gross necessity (my students are not remotely prepared for my courses). How does that work?

(gulp) (adjust tie) (wipe sweat from brow)

A terrible confession: although the majority of the math sections taught at most cc's fall into the developmental or intermediate categories, full-time faculty frequently aren't hired with an eye to that. Generally -- with noble exceptions -- you'll find higher concentrations of adjuncts at the lower end of the curriculum, even though that's where the students need the most (and best) instruction. Depending on where you are, it may be typical to require a master's degree in math to teach any level of math at all.

For the record, I consider this insane. The research on student attrition is pretty clear that developmental math is the highest-risk part of the curriculum; I recall Kay McClenney commenting at a presentation once that students who fail developmental English generally come back to try again, but students who fail developmental math usually just walk away. Yet it's still unusual to see candidates present themselves as developmental specialists, and I've never seen a graduate degree in teaching developmental math. (I hope that's just a function of my own limited experience, and that there are such programs out there. Readers who know of any are invited to share in the comments.)

In my own experience, it has been a real struggle to find instructors who both love and excel at teaching developmental math. I found (and hired) one at Proprietary U: he was a former high school math teacher who got tired of public-school politics and wanted to teach algebra in a less regimented setting. Although it was many years ago, I remember my class observation clearly. He was gentle and patient with the students, literally walking from desk to desk, helping each student individually work through the problem on the board. Even students who failed the class loved him, and asked for him by name when they came back for a second try (which, in his case, they usually did). If I could figure out how to find more like him, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

There's an ongoing debate in the cc world about whether developmental classes should be housed in their disciplinary departments, or in a department like 'preparatory studies.' The advantage of the former is that it becomes difficult to ghettoize the program. The advantage of the latter is that recruitment is less likely to focus on traits that don't usually lend themselves to enthusiastically embracing developmental courses. I've sided with the former so far, since I haven't seen the latter done well. Again, though, I'm open to counterexamples.

So for this, I turn for guidance to my wise and worldly readers. Are there graduate programs that specialize in teaching people to teach developmental math? Can candidates with this inclination be spotted in some sort of reliable way? And is there more merit to the 'preparatory studies' model than I've assumed so far?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ask the Administrator: PhD's at CC's

A new correspondent writes:

I read your blog posting about the reasons people went/go to graduate school in the humanities. The legibility idea made sense to me, I went to grad school for an MA because it seemed like a stable path. I never thought I would make money but it made sense. All through my MA program, I found that I wasn't happy, doing good work, or connecting to a community. I'd put off a dream to join the Peace Corps to go to grad school and decided in my second year that I shouldn't put off that dream anymore. I left for Morocco the week after defending my thesis and didn't look back.

The Peace Corps gave me 2 things I didn't get in graduate school. First, I got some real job skills. I was in charge of projects, I wrote grants, and became a better teacher. I learned to teach without technology or handouts (any future job interview will have stories of me working with a broken chalkboard). Second, I got out of the R1 cult. People in a PhD program from an R1 school tend to think the only good career choice is teaching at an R1 school. When I talked with PhD students about my going to the Peace Corps, they said "I wish I'd done that." Their reason for talking about Peace Corps as impossible was because the students thought a recent grad that joined the PC or another public service group would appear unemployable and get cursed by universities. Is that true?

I'm still considering a PhD program because it could offer an advantage. I decided I'd rather work at a small school or a community college. I found that working with the lower level students was more rewarding because I feel more useful. People that taught at both large universities and ccs told me the cc students were more motivated. This is the point where I ask your advice: is a PhD worthwhile to teach at a community college?

The short answer is that a PhD may help, but so could a lot of other things. And if a community college gig is what you really want, the reward for time and effort getting a PhD is likely to be a bad bargain. (I won't address universities, since they inhabit a different niche.)

Looking at the hires on my campus in the humanities from the last five years or so -- and yes, there have been some -- some have doctorates and some don't. There were enough applicants in the various pools that if the doctorate were a de facto requirement, it would have been easy to fill every position that way, but we didn't. Since there's no publication requirement for tenure, there's no PhD requirement for hiring.

What makes a non-doctoral candidate stand out?

Teaching experience with student populations like ours. Evidence of genuine interest in teaching freshman and sometimes pre-freshman classes. Familiarity with current instructional technologies, philosophies, and practices. Tutoring experience is great.

Non-academic experience certainly isn't a stain on the c.v. To the extent that you've veered from the traditional path, you will have something in common with many of our students. The key is in being able to present it that way, and in coming in with the right attitude.

I'd like to say that cc students are more motivated, but the truth is more complicated. They range from highly motivated to clearly not, with all levels in between. We all enjoy working with highly motivated students; the real craft comes in working with those who aren't quite sure what's going on. The best professors I've seen at the cc level have managed to show respect for students even while challenging them, somehow convincing them that they're more capable than they think they are. That's no small feat, and the people who can do that day in and day out are rare and valuable.

Given the mission of the community college, it wouldn't make sense to get the second- or third-best research faculty. We want the best teachers. Frequently, those teachers also have fairly active research agendas, even if the forms that research takes wouldn't count for tenure at an R1. That's fine with me. If you can show that you love teaching, you keep current in your field, and you can relate to all kinds of people, you'll leapfrog untold numbers of Ph.D.'s. (Of course, the ideal candidates have all that and the doctorate. We have some of those, and they're wonderful. But even now, Master's status is not a dealbreaker.)

From what I've gleaned elsewhere, my impression is that the preference for doctorates is also at least partially regional -- stronger on the coasts, less so in the middle. But even in my neck of the Northeast, it's hardly a requirement.

One admin's opinion, anyway. I'd be curious to see what my wise and worldly readers would add.

Good luck!

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rights of Return

I just got an email from a reader who has tenure at hir current college, but is considering a deanship at another college which will not bring tenure with it. S/he asked about the absence of a right of return to faculty in an administrative role.

Regular readers know I'm not a fan of tenure. At its base, the objection is ethical: I don't believe that anybody should be unaccountable for performance. (And spare me the flaming based on hair-splitting. In the real world, tenure raises the cost of accountability to such comical heights that it's effectively prohibitive.) However, I'm also enough of a realist to know that a systemic shift to something more defensible would have to come from the outside, so I don't address the issue locally. There's nothing to be gained by doing that, so I don't. I'd probably be run out of town on a rail -- this in the name of academic freedom, ironically enough -- and it couldn't work one college at a time. In the meantime, I make periodic arguments on the blog for a long-term renewable contract system and hope for the best. But while I concede the political argument, I remain utterly unpersuaded on the ethics.

The ethical objection is far worse when the faculty have tenure and administrators don't. At that point, the lack of accountability on one side easily becomes a weapon against the other. The structural incentive to sabotage anything unpopular by simple foot-dragging is so powerful that it would be surprising if it didn't happen. Anybody who has watched department meetings knows that academics are incredibly good at foot-dragging. And anybody who says that sabotage-by-foot-dragging never happens simply doesn't know what s/he's talking about. It does. It defined several years of my career.

So there's a conundrum. On the one hand, simple reciprocity demands that if faculty have job security, administrators should, too. Fair is fair. On the other, guaranteeing a right of return could lead to some very weird staffing imbalances over time, and could put people in classes they haven't taught in years. Failed Administrators Returning to Teaching -- FARTs -- may or may not be the best candidates for open teaching gigs; when they aren't, the students suffer. And job security in administrative roles as administrative roles -- not a right of return, but a deanship for life -- is such an obviously bad idea that I sometimes wonder why people don't draw the obvious inferences.

My preferred solution -- contracts for all -- cuts the Gordian knot cleanly and elegantly, but most campuses aren't quite ready for that yet. So the conundrum persists.

In my experience, many of the people who protest the loudest against administrative salaries also protest the loudest against rights of return, and they don't notice the contradiction. If moving into administration requires giving up tenure, and tenure has economic value, then it's perfectly reasonable to expect to be compensated for its loss. If you don't compensate for the loss, I'd expect to see very few people give it up. (When I propose a contract system for faculty, tenured bloggers apply this point to themselves very quickly.) So my short answer is, if you have to give up tenure to get the deanship, get a salary that makes the loss worthwhile. If someone carps about "bloated administrative salaries," ask how much they'd charge to give up tenure themselves.

(There is another option, of course: stop drawing administrators from faculty ranks altogether. Set up a completely separate career track, and have people choose one or the other at the outset. I'd argue that this option is completely insane, since it would lead to decisions that are completely out of touch with the classroom, but it's at least conceptually possible.)

So no, I don't have a solution that's both clean and politically possible. Good luck with your decision, though. These things would be a lot easier if the system were more rational.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Becoming Accident Prone

I read somewhere that you can't make accidents happen, but you can make yourself accident prone. I'm looking at ways to make my college accident prone, and I'm hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have some hints to share.

Some community colleges have something like a Center for Teaching Excellence or an Instructional Technology Center, in which it's somebody's job to chase down the newest innovations in academic technology and/or instructional design and bring back the ones most likely to be useful locally. Ideally, this person becomes a resource for instructors who are looking to try something new in class. What that means will vary from class to class, and rightly so, so the Resident Geek would have to have a fairly broad understanding of both pedagogy and technology. If all goes well, the Resident Geek makes those accidental breakthroughs more likely and more common, to the benefit of all.

The problem I'd like to solve with an RGC is the 'last mile' of innovation. There's no shortage of stuff flying around out there, but most faculty are far too busy with their own subjects and courses to spend a lot of time mucking around with it. I'm hoping that a Resident Geek with a budget and some sense of teaching would be able to do a lot of the bushwhacking so the faculty wouldn't have to, and could come back with only the most useful stuff, presented in understandable ways.

I'm flirting with this idea locally, but I'm running into a few conceptual roadblocks that I hope my readers know how to get past.

First, how do you keep the Resident Geek's center -- I'll call it the RGC -- from becoming Where Ideas Go To Die? I've seen this on another campus. There, the Resident Geek is a former professor who apparently won respect in her previous role, but she has somehow made herself utterly irrelevant to the rest of the faculty in her current role. She dutifully maintains a full slate of programs, readings, podcasts, etc., which the rest of the campus seems to take as license to ignore it all. Their attitude towards new ideas has become "we have people for that sort of thing." Is there a reliable way to prevent the RGC from becoming little more than a repository for whatever nobody else wants to deal with?

Second, should the 'techie' part and the 'instructional design' part go together, or should those be separate people? I'd love to see them go together, for obvious reasons, but I'm not sure how realistic that is. We have full-blown techies on my campus, but they don't speak Faculty. As a result, a great many opportunities fall between two stools. A techie who actually understood instruction would know what to highlight, how to frame it, and what to ignore. I'm not sure where these people are to be found, but I'm reasonably sure they're out there.

Third, does it make the most sense to give a professor some course reassignments to wear two hats, or is this really a full-time gig unto itself?

So, wise and worldly readers, do you have a sense of this? Have you seen a model for an RGC that actually worked? Anything helpful would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Charter Colleges?

A longtime reader writes:

Here in [unnamed state] state support for higher education is shrinking fast. Some of this is cyclical, but those cycles can't mask a longer term, downward trend. Where once the state provided support for about 65% of our operating budget, that number has fallen to around 17%. I'm writing from a four year university, and don't have comparable numbers for community colleges. They are funded through a separate state agency.

There still remains a substantial overhead structure for the [unnamed state] state universities, and second guessing and restrictions on activities, tuition/fee increases and the like. And, to a limited extent, there are some joint operating arrangements - mostly in terms of legacy information systems.

Though most of my colleagues hope we can just hold our breath until times get better, I am more pessimistic and don't expect any windfall increases in state funding once the recession cycle is gone.

So - is there something we can learn from the charter school movement in primary and secondary education? Should our university work to become more private and less public - at least in terms of organizing our educational process? If we could gain the higher education equivalent of charter school status, could we free ourselves from self-limiting regulation? Anecdotally I'm aware of some state-sponsored schools that look more private than public, so the model is not brand new.

I'm an economist so worry about fixed and variable costs and the like. I'm not sure there is enough cost savings if we could "shed" the burden of state administration. Presumably we could keep, at our option, any joint purchasing/operating arrangements with the other schools. The major advantage that could come from this arrangement would be more strategic flexibility, and perhaps, over time, more buy-in from our own faculty for innovative, cost reducing processes.

Honestly, I'm conflicted on this one.

Certainly, the direction of things is an accelerating pace of cost-shifting from the taxpayers as a group to students individually. Your state isn't alone in that. Last week IHE had a story about somebody proposing a new public college in Philadelphia, which struck me as odd since Temple University is already there. The story mentioned that Temple is "state-related," as opposed to "public." That was a new one to me. I don't know the particulars -- Pennsylvanian readers are invited to clarify that in the comments -- but it struck me as similar to what you're proposing here: greater autonomy in exchange for less funding. (I think UVA, in Virginia, did something similar a few years ago.)

The arguments in favor of this boil down to making a virtue of necessity. If the funding is drying up anyway, why not acknowledge the fact, get ahead of the curve, and at least gain some operating autonomy for your troubles? If he who pays the piper calls the tune, then stiffing the piper means you have to shut the ()&^^ up. I've noticed in my own state that the state's share of our budgets is dropping like a stone, but its demands in terms of restrictions, reporting, and all flavors of 'accountability' keep growing. Presumably there will come a point at which the trade-off simply isn't worth it.

That said, though, most of the reforms I think would help couldn't really be implemented on a single campus. Movement away from a time-based measure of learning ("credit hours," "four-year degrees," etc.) is an absolute necessity for long-term cost control, but it would only work if it were done on a large scale. If my cc decided unilaterally to move to credits based on, say, demonstrated competencies, then our students would be in for a series of nightmares when they tried to transfer. Financial aid, which is largely federal, would get even more complex than it already is.

It gets worse. Even if the states pulled back, the feds would still be involved through financial aid. We'd still have all the compliance costs of the various pieces of federal legislation, and the omnipresent carrot-and-stick of federal funding and oversight. In some states, too, community colleges draw local funding as well as state funding, usually from counties. If the state pulled back but the county didn't, the potential for local county political shenanigans would be even greater than it already is. In states that fund cc's through 'millages' -- dedicated property taxes passed by referendum -- the voters would be given a free pass never to support millages again. (Alternately, we could theoretically see incredible disparities in funding from county to county, just like we do from school district to school district. This strikes me as a terrible outcome.)

Then, of course, there's the basic issue of fairness to low-income students. Financial aid is great, and it helps, but most of the increased cost to students would come in the form of loans. Student loans are a nasty deadweight cost when you're just starting out in the workforce, especially when the workforce is shrinking.

Yes, there are some costs involved in rules unique to the state, but they're a pretty small part of the overall picture, at least from here. And the structural issues that create the cost spiral and that stand in the way of real improvement don't come from the states. I won't deny the existence of some quirky rules that don't help, but they're not the real problem.

All of that said, though, I concede that I'm no expert on the charter school movement in the K-12 system. Is there a magic bullet that I've missed? Alternately, is there something unique to higher ed that makes "public but self-supporting" a better model? I'm hoping that my wise and worldly readers can see something that I don't.

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

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Donations to CC's

A longtime reader writes:

My elite liberal undergrad institution, annual cost
~$55K vs median annual U.S. income of $50K, high in US News rating but
never at absolute top, wants me to come back for the 20th anniversary
of my graduation and write them a big check. Sustain excellence, don't
you know. Fulfill mission, don't you know.

I want to persuade my fellow alums to write their "Class Gift" checks
to a worthy CC or similar. I am wrestling with all of the data and
arguments here, but I need to shape them into something that will persuade a bunch ofGen Xers looking back fondly. Have you any more ammunition for me?
Papers? Essays? Recommended rhetorical strategies? Ways to ensure the
CC we give to is actually worthy?

Oooh, I like this question.

Community colleges typically don't have endowments, so they don't usually have the option of using the interest or investment earnings on accumulated donations to subsidize operations. I don't know if that's because they can't, or if it's just because they haven't, but I've never seen a cc that did.

(Endowments shouldn't be confused with reserves. Reserves are typically quite small, and are the equivalent of rainy-day funds. Over the last year or so, the utility of reserves has become painfully clear. The danger in letting reserves get too large is that legislatures see them as found money, and have been known to reduce appropriations on the theory that they obviously aren't needed. I've seen colleges make conscious decisions to spend reserves down on construction projects in order to fend off prospective cuts. It's the monetary equivalent of 'smoke 'em if ya got 'em.')

Many cc's have foundations, though, through which donors give money that typically goes either to student scholarships or to equipment purchases. As with most colleges, extraordinarily large donations often give 'naming' rights, so you could endow the Big Muckety-Muck Science Building.

One of the biggest barriers to philanthropic growth in the cc sector is that people usually identify most strongly with the college to which they subsequently transfer. Since four-year schools are usually much more practiced at and attuned to 'development' – the approved euphemism for fundraising – it can be hard to catch up.

The perverse economics of philanthropic giving are that people like to give to success, rather than to need. That means that the Harvards of the world have a much easier time soliciting donations than do the cc's of the world, even though Harvard certainly needs it less.

There's no shortage of good arguments as to why cc's make good targets for donations, but from what I've seen, most donations aren't motivated by good arguments. They're motivated by relationships. Those relationships are cultivated quite intentionally by the savvier colleges, using everything from alumni associations to personal appeals to football. (A contact of mine at a respected private university told me last year that her uni is starting to retreat from the adjunct trend because it discovered that students whose professors came and went didn't feel as attached to the uni, and the administration was afraid of the consequences for future donations.) Colleges with more part-time students, no dorms, and no high-profile athletics are already disadvantaged at this game.

If you want to support a particular cc, my first recommendation would be to call its foundation office, if it has one. Let it know that you'd like to be supportive, and you'd like to see what you could do beyond just writing checks. Many cc's host local events – wine tastings, golf outings, silent auctions, etc. – on the theory that these events are twofers: you raise money directly through the event, and you build a brand loyalty that leads to future giving. I've seen people buy entire tables at events, and then recruit people to join them there; the idea is to start building a sense of identification. If you're in a position to help with an event, mention that. If you can help the foundation reach a new group of alumni or local people with money to give, mention that. If you can bring an entire table of new people to an event, that's huge.

The foundation office can also provide anecdotes indicating the quality of the school. (If it can't, that's a huge red flag.) Most cc's have particular traits or programs that are sources of special pride, whether it's the nursing program, the transfer pipeline, or its success with underrepresented groups. Interestingly, I've found that some very conservative people are often much more comfortable giving to community colleges than to many other causes, since the 'moral hazard' of 'charity' is mitigated by the fact that students have to work hard to get through the programs. Getting in is easy enough, but getting through takes real work. Rather than producing dependence, colleges produce independence. There's something gratifying, and socially useful, in that.

As far as arguments or rhetorical moves go, I'd go with terms like 'opportunity' and 'independence' rather than 'need.' 'Need' can connote helplessness or fecklessness, and even futility. We're about hope. Leave the 'need' appeals for where they make more sense, like Haitian earthquake relief. (I support Doctors Without Borders, but that's only one choice among many.) This is about building the capacities of the people in your hometown.

Some people like to set very specific terms on the use of their gifts. That's fine, if it meshes with what the institution needs, but over time those earmarks can lead to some weird imbalances. “Unrestricted” gifts are the gold standard, since they can be used for the areas of greatest need, rather than whatever is fashionable or somebody's pet program. If you're happy either way, I'd strongly encourage specifying that your gift is 'unrestricted.' It will do much more good for the buck that way. Of course, if some sort of earmark is what the relationship is built on, the foundation office can work with you to craft the earmark to do the most good while still honoring your intentions.

I'll admit to having shifted my view of philanthropy in the cc context. A few years ago, I was concerned that it would give too handy an excuse to legislators to cut the budget. Now I'm convinced that that ship has sailed, and we need to diversify funding streams. When even solidly blue states are hacking away at the appropriations, it's time to put the misgivings aside and build sustainable alternative revenue streams. The students need opportunity now more than ever, and giving could fill that need.

Thanks for your interest, and good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – especially those with experience in philanthropy – what would you add or correct?

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

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Loss of Legibility, Or, Why Do People Still Pile Into Grad School?

Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts?

My generation had an excuse; we were told that a great wave of retirements was imminent, after which jobs would spring from the ground like mushrooms. In other words, we were lied to.

But the adjunct trend is so well-established at this point, and the economic irrationality of grad school so screamingly obvious, that it's fair to wonder why many departments are actually experiencing record applications.

I have a few thoughts, but I invite others.

First, of course, is True Love. Some people can't imagine doing anything else, and won't be dissuaded. I won't discount the idea that people will do self-defeating things for love, but I don't think that explains variations over time. I'd assume that True Love is constant over time, so we need to look at something else to explain variations.

Second is self-delusion. Here again, though, I don't think self-delusion fluctuates with economic cycles, so I'm inclined to assume that this holds pretty constant.

Third is the "port in a storm" hypothesis. If there aren't any jobs to be had anyway, why not ride out the recession in grad school? You get loan deferments, maybe a fellowship or T.A. line, a dignified excuse for poverty, and more education. Applications tend to climb during recessions, so I imagine there's something to this. The degree may not pay off, but if nothing else is paying off either, what the hell?

(The problem with this line of reasoning is that grad school lasts a lot longer than most storms.)

In a conversation with a colleague, though, I heard a fourth explanation, and it made sense to me. I'll call it the Loss of Legibility.

In my college days, in the 80's, we assumed that there were several relatively clear paths to upper-middle-class prosperity. You could go pre-med, or pre-law, or sign up with an investment bank, or do 'consulting,' or go to grad school to prepare to ride the great wave of retirements. Each of those options offered a legible path. It had steps, it had hoops, you knew (more or less) what to do. Each had pitfalls and risks, but at least you could imagine how to get there from here.

In the early 90's, the era of "post-" everything, the old order stopped hiring, but the new was still emerging. A cohort that had played by the old rules found itself locked out, blocked by Boomers and bad economics.

Now, the old stuff is largely dead, and even the New Economy stuff isn't what it used to be. But academia still offers a surface legibility. Yes, the odds are daunting, but good students have spent years rising to the top of academic competitions. There's still a path, there are still hoops, there are still rules. They don't really work very often anymore, but they're there. As the rest of the economy has become less legible, this holds real (if misguided) appeal.

I think this explains some of the wounded indignation people express when they can't get the tenure-track jobs they wanted. In many other lines of work, it's simply understood that the climate of opportunity fluctuates, and you'll get both good breaks and bad. But academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility. When you follow the rules for twenty years, only to find nothing waiting for you at the end, it's easy to move to angry disbelief. Academia likes to tell itself that it's immune to economics, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It's supposed to be clear and fair, economics be damned. So some people hang on for years on end, waiting to redeem what they think they're owed.

The problem, of course, is that academia isn't immune to economics, and can't be. And the huge wave of applicants now will discover that that in some really unwelcome ways in a few years.

The meritocratic myth does untold damage. Part of the damage, I think, comes from people hanging on to the dream for far too long, since doing something else would constitute failure. The failure isn't theirs, but it feels like it, and that counts for something.

But until people stop buying the myth of the legible path, I suspect this will continue. I hope not, but it will. In the meantime, I think we owe it to the next generation to steer them away from grad school whenever possible. The path is legible, but it doesn't lead anywhere good.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those on the brink of grad school, I'd like to hear your theories. Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts? And what do you make of the legibility theory?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Does Anybody Really Enjoy This?

A new correspondent writes:

I’m now serving (on an interim basis) as director of a small program at a university, and I am struggling with the question of whether to apply when the search to fill the director position gets underway.

About 60% of the job involves things I enjoy and am fairly good at. The person to whom I report says I’m doing a good job, and also tells me that others with whom I interact on campus say I’m doing a good job. The other 40% of the job, however, involves things I either 1) do not seem temperamentally very suited to do, or 2) things I know little about which happen to be kind of messed up at the moment and which the new director will have to fix.

The teaching position that I’ve had for several years in this program is something I still really enjoy. (Yes, I call it a teaching position rather than a faculty position, but explaining this could compromise anonymity.) I’m still doing almost my usual load of teaching on top of the interim director job—let’s call it an additional 70% of a job on top of the 60% and 40% mentioned above—which may also explain why aspects of the interim director job seem overwhelming at times.

At this point, I could happily just go back to the teaching side of things. At least once per week, I fend off discouragement at the end of the day just by reminding myself that I can walk away from the administration side of things if I want to. But what about the 60% of the job that I enjoy? And what if I can become more comfortable with the other 40%? I have appreciated the opportunity to do this work on an interim basis, and I do want to grow as a professional. I worry that if I leave this position in the rearview mirror, I may regret it later.

I guess my ultimate questions are these: How much of an administrative job does anybody really enjoy? How much growth is necessary/possible in order to become comfortable with it? For academics who have faced this type of decision, what tipped the scales for you and how did your decision work out?

I'll start with the obligatory disclaimer that I don't know the specifics of your personality, employer, or position, so I can only address this in general terms.

That said, a few things to consider:

- All else being equal, having more range is better than having less range. A track record of success in both faculty and administrative roles will give you more opportunities than a track record consisting entirely of teaching. The more thoughtful discussions of tenure I've seen have referred to a distinction between official tenure and real tenure. The former is what we usually refer to, but the latter refers to being marketable enough that even if one institution becomes inhospitable, you have the option of moving to another. You may have to give up official tenure -- though judging by your aside about 'teaching' vs. 'faculty,' that may or may not be the case -- but if you do the job well, you could come closer to the kind of real tenure that makes it easier to move if that becomes necessary.

- I've never seen a job that was 100 percent fun. I loved teaching, but didn't love grading papers. Most jobs involve at least some level of unpleasantness, which is why they have to pay people to do them. It also sounds like you're doing about a job and a half, which will tend to give you an artificially dark picture. (My first full admin gig was like that, which made for some very rough days.) There's also a very real difference between the authority granted to someone in an 'acting' role, and someone in the same 'permanent' role. A bit more authority to actually carry out the responsibility of the job may help. Responsibility without authority is a stress machine.

- In my experience and observation, growth into the role is slow, and some people never make it. If you're attracted by the prospect of power, don't do it. The best admins I've seen put 'mission' before 'ego,' and do their jobs for the benefit of the college as a whole. That means taking a longer-term view of most issues, being willing to let others take credit, and being a good enough listener to be able to reflect back on your own preferences and motives and put them aside when necessary. Many admin roles require a keen sense of confidentiality about certain issues, which can be a real struggle for people who make themselves important (or who just process information) by gossiping.

- What's fun about it? Some things are never fun. Laying somebody off is not fun, and if you think it is, I don't want to know you. Saying 'no' to great ideas is not fun. Although some would disagree, I find the mountains of administrivia to be not fun. (Some people actually like that stuff. I'm glad they do.) And some contexts are simply no-win; the local culture is so poisoned that you can do everything right and still get nowhere. But if you're in a basically positive context, and you have the right outlook, there are satisfactions to be found. My most satisfying moments -- I wouldn't call them 'fun,' exactly, but satisfying -- occur when I'm able to help the parties to a seemingly-intractable conflict find a solution that allows them both/all to save face, move forward, and focus on the actual task at hand. That takes practice, and you have to earn trust over time, but when it works, it's really something. The satisfaction is largely vicarious and behind-the-scenes, but no less real for that.

What tipped the scales for me? Several things, really, but it boiled down to what social scientists call 'comparative advantage.' I was a good teacher, probably somewhat above average, but I wasn't a star. My contributions as a teacher could be replicated, and even surpassed, without much trouble. But the folks with whom I worked at the time simply didn't 'get' administration. I suspected that I could contribute more as an administrator than I could as a professor, and all these years later, I think that was true. I wasn't a 'failed' professor by any means -- can we please take that cliche out back and shoot it in the head? -- but I was a replaceable one. As an admin, though, I felt like I could do the job better than most. Can that arrogant if you want, but there it is. Whether that holds for you or not, I can't say.

One admin's view, anyway.

I'd love to hear from others who have made the leap, including those who later leaped back. What have you enjoyed about the admin side? For those who jumped back, what tipped the balance for you?

Good luck with your decision!

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cluster Hiring

A few years ago, during the brief window when there was money, a few colleges engaged in 'cluster hiring.' As I've heard the term used, it refers to allocating new faculty positions in clumps, rather than spreading them evenly around. Giving three lines at the same time to sociology, while telling psychology to hold its horses, would be an example.

I've never tried it myself -- those moments of actual money have been remarkably few and far between in my experience -- but I'll admit being fascinated by the concept. As near as I can figure, the arguments for cluster hiring are several:

First, it's much likelier to effect real cultural change in a department that needs it. Bringing one new hire into a department every few years is much less likely to shift the culture than bringing on several in one shot. In my estimation, this is, by far, the best argument in its favor. Some departments grow stale over time, especially if they've shrunk by attrition over the years. In those contexts, it's possible for the 'new kid' to be the one who has only been there ten years. (I've actually seen this.) When a department gets too backwards-looking, bringing in a single new person is unlikely to matter much. Bringing in a clearly-defined new cohort, though, can actually shake things up. That can work both ways, of course, but if the status quo is bad enough, it can be a risk worth taking.

Second, and somewhat related, affirmative action is much easier to practice when you have multiple hires at once. Instead of those awful, no-win battles between "the one they really want" and "the diversity hire," you can get both. (I'll grant without argument that these are sometimes the same person. But sometimes they aren't.) I'm not saying that's right or wrong; I'm just saying that pragmatically, it makes successful compromise far easier.

Third, it gives the new kid/s allies. Having a cohort can lessen the sense of isolation or freakishness. This can be especially important when the department has a habit of sloughing off the most time-consuming service work on the junior members.

All of those granted, though, I'm still a bit skeptical.

First, there's the basic fact of economic cycles. If you were reasonably confident that you could hire a few clusters every year, then "taking turns" can make sense. But if you only get a meaningful number of hires once every five or ten years, blowing them all on one or two departments pretty much guarantees starving out everybody else. I've been through enough downturns now to know that counting on multiple, consecutive bounteous years is a fool's errand. The next time we're actually able to hire in meaningful numbers, the backlog of departments needing people is so long that bestowing the lion's share on any one (or two) would constitute something between favoritism and insanity.

Second, the pig-in-a-python model leads to predictable and difficult issues down the line. Many of the staffing issues facing higher ed now stem from an unintentional pig-in-a-python hiring pattern, in which the huge group hired in the 60's slowly makes its way to the end. Replicating that model on a micro level now will replicate those issues on a micro level later. In my observation, the most successful departments tend to have a range of career stages in them at the same time, so the experienced folks can mentor the newbies, and the newbies can keep the veterans from getting too complacent (or bitter). Too much sameness isn't good.

Third, there's quality. In some disciplines, it may be easy enough to get one or two good hires in a given year, but more than that involves some stretching. (The evergreens are mostly immune to this, but it holds true in some specialized areas.) If new 'lines' are distributed across the curriculum, you can be pretty confident that the batting average will be high. Clustered in one spot, that isn't as true.

Admittedly, right now, cluster hiring is pretty much theoretical. (Hiring at all is pretty much theoretical.) But in a sense, that makes this a good time to think about it, since we can look at its merits without getting bogged down in local circumstances. In discussing it now, I'm not implicitly passing judgment on any one department.

Wise and worldly readers, have you lived through rounds of cluster hiring? If you have, are there pluses/minuses I've neglected? I'd like to get some clarity on this before it becomes relevant, so if/when it does, I'll be ready.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Remains to be Seen? A Response to Marketplace

As regular readers know, I listen to Marketplace podcasts faithfully. But this story nearly made me drive off the road.

It was ostensibly about the difficulty new liberal arts Ph.D.'s are having in finding tenure-track jobs, using the latest numbers from the American History Association as a starting point. Okay, fair enough; the AHA numbers indicate that a bleak situation is getting bleaker, and it's hardly news to some of us that tenure-track positions haven't grown on trees for a long, long time.

But the discussion goes badly off-track.

The bulk of the story consists of an interview with one Katharine Brooks, the director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas, Austin. A few excerpts:

Brooks: Back in 1960, about 75 percent of faculty were full-time tenure; now, it's only about 27 percent. So if you're getting a PhD in history this is a tough market.

Okay, fair enough. But she quickly follows that with:

I think what remains to be seen is if this sort of a temporary shift, due to the economic climate? Or is this more of a permanent trend?

Um, temporary since 1960? Temporary for fifty years and counting?

Bookending those sentences was this weird exchange:

What about schools? How are they responding to this? Are they cutting back on the number of -- just to keep picking on history for a second -- history courses and adding more mechanical engineering and you know, stock portfolio theory courses?
BROOKS: There are fewer tenure track positions available, certainly. In fact, I think the number of tenure track openings for history dropped about 24 percent this year and I believe at this conference, something like 15 percent of the interviews were canceled.

Wow. I almost don't know where to start.

First, no, the issue is not a sudden surge in mechanical engineering. (I wish!) In fact, at my cc and many others, the liberal arts are doing just fine. It's just that the "just fine" they're doing is with a significant cohort of adjunct faculty. (Astonishingly, the word 'adjunct' doesn't appear once in the entire story.)

Second, this year's drop -- as real and calamitous as it is -- isn't new. The shift from full-timers to adjuncts has been going on for decades, driven primarily by the cost difference. (I've read assertions on the blogosphere that it's about administrators wanting people they could bully. That may be the case somewhere, but in my near-decade in administration, I've never seen a dean or vp who believed that. If anything, we want more full-timers, both for quality and for predictability of staffing. The issue is cost.) This year's drop is as painful as it is because it comes from an already-low starting point. The Great Recession simply sped up the decline.

Third, there's a basic structural mismatch between short-term market fluctuations and the length of PhD training. In most of the liberal arts fields, five years would be considered pretty quick; seven or eight seems about average. That can encompass entire swings of the economic cycle. And it's not like someone in the late ABD stage can decide on the spur of the moment to switch from history to finance. It just doesn't work like that.

Fourth, as Marc Bousquet has made great hay of noting, there's a structural mismatch between the need for fewer Ph.D.'s and the constant demand for new graduate assistants. Graduate departments rarely reduce their admissions for any length of time, since they need the cheap labor. When that cheap labor graduates, the adjunct problem gets that much worse. Until the supply side gets addressed in some serious way, new PhD's will face a rough market.

And all of that is without noting the two-body problem, fashions and fads in scholarship and hiring, etc.

Mechanical engineering and "stock portfolio theory" courses aren't the issue. Neither is a turn away from the liberal arts, if you actually look at the number of classes taught. It's the shift to adjuncts, and that's driven by cost. New Ph.D.'s are up against it to an even greater degree than ever, and that's saying something, but the direction isn't new, and doesn't remain to be seen. It's painfully visible.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ask the Administrator: How to Talk to a Dean?

A Canadian correspondent writes:

My husband and I have to go talk to the dean at our local college regarding our son who is going into his final semester there(our son of course will be joining us as well). He has been accused of "Academic Dishonesty" because he used a template for a resume and cover letter(I told him to do this so I now feel terrible)....the assignment was supposed to mimic a "real" job situation complete with interview, so our son thought that to mean "what he would do in a real life situation" and didn't see it in the same light as an academic paper. Our son also has a Learning Disability and has received little help at the college level(that's another story).

My question for you is "How do you talk to a dean?" I was a social worker for many years and have never spoke with a dean at any time in my life or my children's lives. I'm very anxious, kind of like going to the principals office , and am worried that he will "circle the wagons" so to speak and will not allow our son to complete his education. We are all very upset about this issue and my son now feels that he has been branded a "cheat" without being able to explain himself. It is important to note that in Canada, college level professors do not need a university degree necessarily or have any experience teaching. My son describes this teacher as a "train wreck" in terms of her teaching style and never knows(and he's not alone) what she is really talking about.

Thanks for your note, even though your situation sounds awful.

In the US, there's a law called FERPA that prevents administrators from discussing anything about students with their parents or anybody else without the student's written consent. I don't know if there's a Canadian equivalent, but if there is, I wouldn't be shocked to see the dean invoke it quickly. (I also don't know whether your point about degree requirements for professors in Canada is true or not. It's irrelevant to the case at hand, but I'm curious now. Readers who know are invited to comment.)

Normally when a student has an issue with a professor, my first direction is to discuss it with the professor directly. In this case, though, the contact was initiated from the other side, so it's appropriate to go to the dean level.

Since your argument is based on the assignment being ambiguous, you might want to have as many supporting details at the ready as you can. Does your son still have the handout with the assignment on it? Does the syllabus mention anything about it? To the extent that you can show that a reasonable person, acting in good faith, could misinterpret the assignment, you may be able to shift the interpretation from 'cheating' to 'getting it wrong.' He may need to re-do it, but that strikes me as fair.

I wouldn't go in attacking the professor. In my experience, people lash out when they're cornered, so I assume that somebody who is lashing out is cornered somehow. Better to take the high road, leave the professor out of it, and simply focus on how easily a good student could misinterpret ambiguous or under-developed directions. (This may be the time to invoke the learning disability, if the university doesn't already know about it.) If the conversation becomes an exercise in problem-solving, rather than a point-counterpoint of blaming, you're likelier to find your way to a positive ending.

In terms of the learning disability, the way that's handled here is that students have to self-identify (usually with an Office for Students with Disabilities or something similarly named), and present some sort of documentation. The student works with the office to craft requests for reasonable accommodations, and it's the student's responsibility to present that documentation to the professor at the beginning of the semester and "self-advocate" for the accommodations s/he needs. If your son did that and the request for accommodations was ignored or dismissed, you'd have another argument on your side. Again, though, I don't know how Canadian law treats this issue; any readers who do know are invited to share in the comments.

Good luck!

I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. What advice would you give?

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

Thursday, January 07, 2010

What Are You Going to Do With That?

One of the saving graces of working at a community college is that I don't hear the dreaded "what are you going to do with that?" question directed at students who major in liberal arts. At the two-year level, the answer is frequently obvious: transfer.

From this neck of the woods, "liberal arts" also gets called "gen ed," and it forms the easily-transferable core of many (though not all) majors at four-year schools. While articles like these detail the agonies of philosophy departments at some four-year colleges, our philosophy sections routinely fill, thank you very much. In fact, philosophy is actually a moneymaker for us, since it doesn't require expensive labs (though it's a fun thought exercise to imagine the Nietzsche lab). We have great full-time faculty there, good adjuncts aren't that hard to find -- any underemployed philosophers out there? -- and the classes transfer beautifully. The same holds in most of the other evergreen disciplines in the liberal arts -- English, history, poli sci, psychology, etc.

Although you wouldn't know it from the national political discourse, in which community colleges are routinely reduced to 'remedial education plus workforce development,' the largest single major on my campus is the liberal arts transfer major. My college isn't unique in that, either. The appeal of the program is severalfold. It gives students two full years' worth of easily transferable credits, but at the cc tuition level. It gives students a chance to sample courses in many different parts of the curriculum, to see what clicks for them. It gives students who truly don't know what they want a couple extra years to figure it out. When you're 17 or 18, fresh out of high school, and lost, the value of this is not to be underestimated. I've had some bracingly frank discussions with parents in which they've said variations on "Johnny doesn't know what the hell he wants, so I'd rather he floundered here for $3,000 a year than there for $50,000 a year." It's not exactly "learning for learning's sake," but it creates the opportunity. I've seen clueless 18 year olds become motivated 19 year olds; they just needed a little more time and experience before the lightbulb went on.

(Btw, the 'fresh out of high school' demographic is our fastest-growing segment. Our student body is getting younger, more traditional, and more full-time. With those changes, the liberal arts major just gets more popular.)

It's not for everybody, of course. If you know from the get-go that you want to be an engineer or nurse, there's a pretty strict chain of prereqs you need to follow. (Interestingly, that's less true for becoming a medical doctor.) But I get a little cranky every time I read a statement from a politician who should know better claiming that community colleges are all about job preparation. That's part of the mission, but only a part, and frankly, that part is harder to sustain over time because the market keeps changing. "Can't miss" fields have a way of missing after a few years, what with market cycles, technological change, and people flooding them. The job projections we were told in the late 90's were pretty accurate, if you substitute "Bangalore" for "America." Five years ago, nursing was a can't-miss field; now, new grads have to really scrap for jobs.

None of this refutes the battles that some liberal arts departments are facing at some schools, of course, but it suggests that the picture is more subtle than a straightforward "business is crowding us out." On the ground here, the liberal arts are alive and well.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Ask the Administrator: How the Hell Do I Break In (and Out)?

A frustrated correspondent writes:

I just stumbled across your blog and thought it would be worth a shot hearing someone else's perspective on my situation. I have been teaching English at the CC for seven years now and I feel that I am just about at my breaking point. I saw this coming around the corner a couple of years ago so I enrolled in a prominent PhD program in Ed. Leadership, hoping it would prepare me for an administrative position. After attending class while working full time, I now know that my angst to leave the classroom is now unbearable. I've applied for Associate Dean positions and my letters, references and CVs have gotten me interviews, yet I fear that my lack of administrative experience has shut me out of a few...others have been "fit". In any case, how do you suggest I prepare myself for moving into one of these positions? I do realize that most Deans come from the ranks of Program Directors/Chairs, but I cannot see myself teaching much longer and such opportunities at my institution are far and few between.

This brings me to my last dilemma: I can't seem to permeate the inner sanctum to accomplish anything at my own institution. After expressing this same concern to some of my colleagues and peers at my home institution, it was expressed to me that I would probably never earn a position in administration here because some are intimidated and fearful of the credibility my credentials bring. You see, most of the CC administrators here have earned or are earning their PhDs at a so-called "diploma mill". Now I am not an elitist in any sense and could care less where a person earned their degrees, but it was expressed to me that they are concerned about where I earned my own (nationally ranked with scholars in the field as my mentors). What am I left to do? Am I forced to leave to start at another institution as a faculty member and work my way into administration? Or is there a chance that I can begin at an institution as an Assc. Dean? What do you think?

I see several issues here, but I hope that my wise and worldly readers will chime in with their insights, too.

First and most basically, I'm concerned about the level of burnout expressed here. There are plenty of valid reasons to move into administration -- really there are! -- but being at your breaking point is a little suspect. Bitterness has a way of coming out sideways, and it's deadly at interviews. Your lack of administrative experience tells me that you haven't been in a position to compare administration to teaching, so it's not like you have a basis for the preference; you just want out.

That's okay, but it's not a compelling reason for someone to hire you.

It sounds like part of the issue, too, is that the pipeline is clogged. This is a common, and devastating, side effect of the generational inequities in higher ed that I may have mentioned once or twice over the years. As the generational pig slowly makes its way through the career python -- don't try metaphors like this at home, kids, I'm a trained professional -- the folks who came after the pig can find themselves blocked. (The Great Recession slows the pig even more, as people who were flirting with retirement decide that it's best to eke out a few more years in the name of security, and those who actually do retire often don't get replaced.) At that point, the classic catch-22 of 'no promotion without experience, and no experience without a promotion' kicks in.

So you're stuck. And it sounds like you're really feeling it.

To the extent that you can, I'd recommend taking some kind of break. Maybe a sabbatical, if your college offers those (mine does), or maybe a leave of absence if you can afford it. You don't want to make decisions while caught up in emotionally intense tunnel vision. Get some distance, however you do that, and don't think about it until your brain snaps back to its original shape. Then assess where you want to be.

If that's not an option, either financially or temperamentally, then I'd recommend baby steps. It's pretty unusual to go directly from full-time faculty to an associate deanship without some sort of administrative duties in between -- department chair, participation in an accreditation self-study, coordinator of an Honors program, something like that. Most colleges have certain administrative tasks for which they give faculty members reassigned time. While you do those tasks, you still teach but not as much, and a chunk of your time is spent on admin work. You get to keep your main job, so if the foray doesn't work out, you can go back. Doing some of those can give you greater credibility as an admin candidate, but they can also give you a better sense of whether you actually enjoy this kind of work, or if it just seems like the most plausible escape route.

One admin's opinion, anyway. I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one, especially from any who have been (or are) in a similar spot. Is there a more elegant way to handle this?

Good luck!

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

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Saving Alma Mater

As part of my bury-myself-in-books break, I finally got the chance to read Saving Alma Mater, by James Garland. Garland is the former President of Miami University of Ohio, a public research university, and the book is his attempt to address the economic crisis of higher ed in America. It's a hit-and-miss affair, but it scores some points and asks some of the right questions.

For example, it rightly points out that the time spent on shared governance doesn't appear in budgets. Since time is undervalued, it's overconsumed. (Anyone who has endured interminable committee meetings can see the truth of this.) Unless we're willing to assume that the time spent on committee work could not possibly have been spent in any other way -- uh, no -- then it makes sense to account for it in budgeting.

Garland also notes, correctly, that the trend for public higher ed's fiscal decline has been going on for forty years, and that the lobby-for-more-money strategy would have worked by now. The subtext of that observation, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that it isn't just a matter of making good arguments to legislators. Plenty of very smart and savvy people have been doing that for a long time now; several decades of decline are the result. It's time to look to other strategies, like increasing the economic productivity of what we do.

However, in discussions of increasing productivity, Garland never gets below 30,000 feet. The specifics don't get much beyond the usual: target tiny and expensive programs for elimination, allow some institutions to specialize, and redirect funding from colleges to students to force colleges to compete with each other. (Garland's roots in the selective four-year sector are visible here.) But the core issue -- measuring work in 'credit hours,' or fixed units of time -- goes unaddressed.

By throwing his argument behind inter-campus competition, he takes a number of things for granted. For one, he implicitly assumes a geographically mobile student body with ample options. Anyone who has worked at a community college can tell you that geography still matters.

He also assumes that there won't be any kind of race to the bottom. Having worked in a for-profit college -- which he has not -- I can attest that standards rise and fall according to the economic need of the moment.

These aren't small issues. They cut to the core of his argument. If students are not realistically free to comparison-shop in meaningful ways, then the market discipline he expects won't come to pass. And while I'll certainly concede that inefficiencies abound in the current system -- longtime readers have seen me point out a few -- it's simply naive to assume that subjecting colleges to even purer market pressures won't have an impact on the core of the academic enterprise. It can't not. A tuition-driven college that finds itself circling the fiscal drain is unlikely to take kindly to hard grading. That's just a fact, though it's curiously absent from the book.

Although he denies the analogy, he essentially argues for a voucher program with a sliding scale.

Although he targets his system at four-year colleges -- noting cavalierly that community colleges may be collateral damage -- it actually makes even less sense at the four-year level than at the two-year level. At least community colleges know they're all about teaching, so accelerating the slide to a purely tuition-driven model might not change all that much either way. But four-year colleges, and especially universities with serious graduate programs, exist also to generate new knowledge. To do that, they adopt a number of expedients, including lower course loads for full-time faculty. (At my cc, full-time faculty teach 15 credits per semester, which is fairly standard for the sector.) The idea is to give them more time to do research.

If you completely do away with operating subsidies and default to being purely tuition-driven, what happens to the support for research? At that point, outside of a few hot fields, the economic argument for community-college-level teaching loads would be irrefutable. There may be an argument for that, but to set up a system that would inexorably lead that way without even acknowledging it is unconvincing, at best.

He's got some of the symptoms right, but the treatment wrong. If the issue is stagnant productivity (in the strictly economic sense -- cost per unit of instruction), then the answer is to improve productivity. You don't do that by just adding more work. Until now, we've done it by simply raising prices. The real way to do it is to decouple academic credit from units of time. A three-credit class takes the same forty-five hours of seat time that it took twenty years ago. If that's how long it takes to generate credits, then real productivity increases will forever be zero, by definition. (The only way to eke out gains would be to stuff ever more students into classes, to raise tuition faster than inflation, and/or to pay faculty less. For those keeping score at home, those are all very real.) When productivity doesn't increase in one sector, but it does in the economy as a whole, then basic arithmetic tells you that costs will rise faster in this sector than in the rest of the economy. And they have. For decades. Unremittingly.

And while I'm all for increased public support for higher ed, Objective F-ing Reality suggests that we can't expect a fire hose of dollars for the foreseeable future. It simply isn't gonna happen. Cary Nelson can opine all he wants about 'conversion' of millions of adjuncts to full-time status, but until someone ponies up the money, it's irrelevant. I've been voting Democratic since I've been voting, and even with the most community college friendly President in American history, one for whom I voted proudly and gladly, we're still sucking wind financially. The same productivity issues that hurt higher ed also hurt K-12, law enforcement, corrections, and health care. And unlike K-12, law enforcement, and corrections, we can charge customers. From a legislature's perspective, a college can turn to its alternate revenue stream, but an elementary school or a prison can't. I'm not happy about it either, but the force of economic gravity is both strong and clear. We continue to ignore it at our continued peril.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I hope your Christmas break was restorative. A few highlights of ours:

- The Boy scored his first gametime basket! As the center, he usually focuses on rebounding, but he made an elegant shot despite good defense. He was grinning ear-to-ear as he made his way downcourt after that. Go, TB!

- We had the worst tree ever. It toppled over at one point, dropping needles and spilling water from its base onto the carpet. Even upright, it dropped more needles than I thought possible. When we finally put the flippin' thing out of our misery, I spent over an hour vacuuming on hands-and-knees to get all the needles out of the carpet. I'm thinking it may be time to relent and get an artificial tree.

- Since they've been great and we go pretty light on trendy toys, we relented and got the kids a wii. I had thought of it as a videogame system, but the kids see it as a video paper-doll kit. They spend most of their time making and remaking their avatars (called "mii's"), as well as some of TW and me. That use hadn't even occurred to me.

- Bowling is the family-friendly game on the wii, but even there the generational differences show. The Boy throws his entire body into his swing, throwing his arm at such a severe angle that the ball actually crosses the entire lane, going from extreme right to the left gutter. The Girl does a little jump when she swings, landing on one foot with the other leg bent at the knee at ninety degrees. Practice, practice...

- We did the cross-multiple-states thing to see family, and again got lucky with timing and traffic. I think we're gonna pay that back with interest on a forthcoming trip. TB is about the same height as his eleven-year-old cousin, which is pretty impressive for an eight-year-old.

- Reading! Glorious reading! I actually got to read stuff just because I wanted to! Ah, the joys of breaks. TW got me All Over But the Shouting, an oral history of the Replacements, which I devoured in an afternoon. The highlight was Westerberg's recollection of trying to convey setlists to Bob Stinson, the guitarist who never actually learned the names to their songs: "The fast one, Bob." "The sorta fast one, Bob." "The one that sounds like this, Bob." If you know the mighty 'mats at all, you know that sounds right.

- I also did a "what the hell happened to Northern Town" twofer, Hollowing Out the Middle and Methland. Reading those two back-to-back was a wee bit depressing, but they painted a hell of a picture. (Yes, this is the kind of stuff I read of my own volition. Yes, I know.) The first detailed how the public schools in flyover territory encourage the best and brightest to get the hell out of flyover territory; the second detailed what happened to some of the folks who stayed. If you're old enough to remember when flyover country held a vibrant middle class, it's alarming. Together, they confirmed my suspicion that my adolescent drive to get the hell out of Northern Town wasn't just teen angst; it was also substantively correct. The culture there has never really been captured on film, though Beavis and Butthead got close. (If you've seen Dazed and Confused, imagine a much less affluent version of that.) This is the culture that gave rise to Timothy McVeigh, who actually struck me as a familiar type. It may not be in the immediate best interest of areas like that to export young talent, but you can't blame the young talent for leaving.

- Finally, I got to take a crack at Saving Alma Mater. That one gets its own post, probably later this week.

- TW and I took the kids to a children's concert in a lovely old theater. Children's music is far better now than it used to be; many of the old 'alternative' rockers have gone this route as they've gotten older, with heartening results. TB and TG had a blast, and it was nice to be able to see a band I had caught in its grownup incarnation about fifteen years ago playing for my kids. The band made the obligatory reference to playing in the daytime, but I kind of like that.

- Ah, sleep. If I were king of the universe, I'd mandate that workdays couldn't start until, oh, ten-ish. Alas. And now it's back to the land of the living...