Friday, April 30, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Hiring Earlier in the Cycle

A new correspondent writes:

I work in an English Department at a mid-sized community college and currently chair a search committee for my department.

Our department would like to change the way we recruit and hire folks in English for full-time positions.

Currently, we anxiously await the budgetary calculus of Senior Administration (VP level, trustees and president) to find out the number of lines we will be hiring for the next year, although we typically know pretty clearly (based on retirements and/or massive enrollment jumps) whether or not we will be hiring at all. By "pretty clearly" I mean about 95% certainty.

We currently do not have the authority to advertise for positions, conduct interviews, or even recruit for said position(s) until we get The Word from Senior Admin that we are actually going to fund the line or lines. We typically get The Word either just before or right after Christmas, sometimes as late as February 1st. In the meantime, other public CCs and four-years in our state system have put up adverts in October or November in all the usual discipline-specific and CC-specific national publications (MLA job list, CC Jobs etc...) with language along the lines of "position pending budgetary approval."

We feel that the practice I just described allows the most desirable candidates, particularly highly-sought-after diverse candidates, to consider and take other positions while we wait on the sidelines. We would like to change this top-down strategy to allow us to compete with our sister institutions for the best candidates. In short, we want to advertise earlier (with the caveat I just mentioned about budgetary approval, or some such), recruit at appropriate national and regional conferences like CCHA and MLA (something we tried 8 years ago with great results) develop relationships with regional MA and PhD-granting institutions and involve more of our 40 or so FT department members in the recruiting efforts I just mentioned.

The gain for the college, as we see it, would be a better chance at a quality diverse hire (our senior admin puts lots of pressure on departments to make diverse hires) and, of course, a better chance at a quality hire, somewhat lower turnover and all the other things that come with hiring the best people.

Questions: (a) Do the moves we are proposing make logical sense from your "wise and worldly" perspective? Why/not? (b) If such a proposal makes any sense from your administrative perspective, what is the best way to sell these changes to HR (a semi-independent, rule-bound and change-resistant administrative unit with its own VP) and Senior VPs/president?

Been there. (And it's my readers who are wise and worldly. I ride their coattails.)

I get the argument, and I concede that there's a hiring cycle. But the college's policy isn't just persnickety. It has a certain logic to it.

Let's say that your department is as accurate as you claim. Can we say the same for every department? If not, then opening up the floodgates for aspirational advertising will probably lead to a substantial number of false positives for job candidates. Committees will be formed for searches that won't happen. Money will be spent on advertisements for positions that won't exist. Depending on how far the processes go, you might spend money flying candidates in, putting them up in hotels, and covering the various travel expenses. That doesn't count the value of the time the committee members sacrificed on a wild goose chase.

From this side of the desk, I know it's harder to say 'no' to a face than to a concept. Chances are that the savvier departments would talk up their aspirational hires to try to swing the resources their way. Over time, other departments would notice, and before long, everybody who wants to hire would jump the gun. False positives would abound.

And having been an unsuccessful candidate in many searches, I can say that there's a serious ethical issue with putting candidates through the paces for a job that may not actually exist. People devote time, money, and emotional energy in going on interviews; putting them through that for a chimera just isn't right. (For example, imagine the candidate who turns down an interview for a real job to go on an interview for an imaginary one. Ouch. Or the candidate whose job search is held against her at her current institution once it become known through reference checks, all for a job that doesn't exist. Not good.)

Yes, there's usually language about "pending budgetary approval," but that isn't intended to be a blank check. It's typically used to acknowledge the possibility that a position may get yanked at the last minute due to severe external economic changes, like midyear cuts in state appropriations. It's not generally understood to be a free pass to play "what if."

In my experience, position authorizations typically come relatively late in the budget cycle (meaning Spring) because the college is waiting to get a sense of next year's state and/or county budget. In the context of the Great Recession, some caution in that area is almost mandatory. It would be lovely if colleges could reliably count on appropriations to increase at a set pace every year, but that's just not reality. When appropriation bills swing wildly in the last few weeks before passage, asking colleges to guess a year ahead of time is asking a lot.

The argument from "quality of applicants" strikes me as less true now than it has been in the past. Having done some recent hiring, I can attest that the Great Recession has filled even late-season pools with amazing people. Perversely enough, the very instability that makes getting a position harder makes actual hiring easier. In English and most of the evergreen disciplines, there's no shortage of terrific candidates at any time of year. In hot fields during hot years, the argument from quality may hold some water, but in humanities disciplines in this market, it's just not convincing.

I'm not trying to suggest that waiting until after the big kids have had their shot at the market is necessarily optimal. If budgets were more predictable, I could see a compelling argument for aligning your search calendar with your discipline's. But the reasons for waiting can be valid, and the cost of waiting (in terms of quality of applicants) is probably the lowest now that it has ever been. Eight years ago was a different world. And trying to force the issue by jumping the gun could lead to awful results for all concerned.

In terms of convincing your senior management, I'd think these would be the concerns you'd have to allay.

Good luck!

I suspect that the aforementioned wise and worldly readers will have something to say on this one. What do you think of aspirational advertising?

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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

PowerPoint Hates Freedom

A few weeks ago, I aired out some thoughts on webinars and their seemingly endemic suckitude. This week, several alert readers directed me to this story in the New York Times about how PowerPoint is directly responsible for the failure to catch Bin Laden.

Okay, that may be a slight overstatement. But apparently the military is starting to complain openly that boiling everything down to what will fit on a slide often requires leaving out important information. When the truth of a situation is complicated -- which strikes me as a fair description of, say, Iraq -- oversimplification can turn a good idea into a disaster.

The shame of PowerPoint is that -- unlike webinars -- it doesn't have to suck. PowerPoint can make sense for information that ought to be visual, like maps or charts. It makes a world of sense in, say, art history or architecture classes.

But bullet points are not inherently visual. Text is not inherently visual. And treating text as picture doesn't do justice to either. (This cartoon that made its way around the web last month captures my sense of it pretty well.)

Imagine if Winston Churchill had used PowerPoint.

Where We Will Fight Them:

- beaches

- hills

- trenches

It loses something.

We all have our PowerPoint Pet Peeves. One of my worst is the Abstract Flow Chart. Flow charts make sense in very specific contexts, like if you're tracing the path of approvals that a purchase requisition has to follow. But when you have a chart that connects "community" to "ideals" to "resources," with circular arrows everywhere, well, someone needs a punch in the mouth. It's a mystifying exercise in what we used to call "reification" back in the 90's. It implies a false concreteness, and thereby misses the point. It substitutes pretty pictures for the hard work of specifying actual transitions between thoughts.

Then there's the paper. One of the great laugh-out-loud predictions of the tech crowd a few decades ago was the paperless office. As anyone who has been to an academic conference in the last ten years knows, audiences expect full printouts of PowerPoint presentations to be handed out. Interestingly, they don't expect transcripts of talks, whether scripted or off-the-cuff. So an audience of fifty that in prehistoric times might have consumed a collective ten pages of paper taking notes will now easily consume 300 pages of printouts per presentation. PowerPoint hates both trees and freedom.

(For the record, I agree with Molly Wood that the next great tech breakthrough should be a printer that actually works on a consistent basis. Let's just admit that we're gonna use paper, and spend a little time figuring out how to get the printer to stop sounding like a pair of copulating geese. But I digress.)

It also completely disrupts the relationship between speaker and audience. Unless the point of the talk is to examine a visual object, the speaker's focus should be directed at the audience, and vice versa. PowerPoints have a way of diverting attention, and therefore making it harder to develop a good rapport.

Lest I be mistaken for a Luddite, I'll point out that I'm making this argument on a (%&+^# blog. This isn't mossback antiquarianism masquerading as high principle. It's an objection to using a sophisticated tool in an unbelievably stupid way.

Wise and worldly readers, what are your PowerPoint Pet Peeves?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dog that Didn't Bark

Mid-April to Mid-May is always the hardest time of year. All of the end-of-year stuff comes to a head at this point. The students are stressed about papers/projects/finals, and the faculty are in grading jail. This is when my evenings fill at an alarming rate, with various 'culmination' events and ceremonies. With the clock ticking on the semester, anything that requires faculty involvement (i.e. program reviews, faculty hires) has to happen now.

Which is to say, I'm wiped. That's normal for this time of year.

In a discussion commiserating with a colleague who is also up against it, I realized that this year's greatest achievement is something that didn't happen.

In the context of the largest single-year funding cut in the college's history, and the largest single-year enrollment jump in the college's history, here's what happened:

- the course completion rate held steady this Fall

- several strong new programs were developed

- labor relations remained positive

- we hired a few new full-time faculty

- we continued to improve shared governance

- the culture continued to shift, slowly, in a positive direction

- nobody flipped out

Going into this year, I thought this would be the big one. For a while there, I was honestly concerned that something was going to either fall apart or explode. I'm not ordinarily given to drama, but when you're caught in a pincer move as severe as this year's, it's fair to wonder just how you'll get through.

Instead, the college got through without catastrophe. Layoffs were minimal, and confined to administration. We actually hired some faculty. And the largest student cohort in history did remarkably well, all things considered.

Some victories are conspicuous and easily explained. This year, the victory was the dog that didn't bark. Very few will notice the victory, but it's real. In an environment as straitened as this one, that's what victory looks like.

I'll take it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

After the Peak

This piece in the Chronicle got me thinking about Presidents and Vice Presidents I've worked under who had stayed on too long. It has happened more than once.

In every case, the hangers-on had tremendous reputations built on past achievements. In each case, I'm told, the achievements that made their names were genuinely impressive, and people on the outside still held them in high regard.

But on the inside, you could see the decay.

In one case, the President was simply a creature of another time. He had a sharp-elbows style that made sense when the college was small and had to scrap to survive. But as the college got bigger and more accepted, it had to move more toward the mainstream academic culture, and he just couldn't. At times, it was almost painful to watch. He was a hard-charging small business guy who just couldn't negotiate a large organization. The college outgrew him. When I was there, in the last few years of his tenure, the mismatch between what he had to offer and what the college was so obvious that it was hard to imagine how he ever got the job in the first place, or why he still inspired some measure of loyalty and respect among the old guard.

When he retired, he was replaced with a nearly polar opposite. He had never really changed, but the college had changed beneath him.

Subsequently, I worked under a long-term President who (initially) had a cadre of long-term vice presidents.

There, the issues were different. These folks had diplomatic skills, and a much better sense of academic culture. They were undeniably smart, and had achieved some impressive things in the past.

But by the time I got there, they had passed the limits of the good they could do. They had largely stopped learning and experimenting. They had hit the impatience that comes with boredom, and consequently were often either detached or impulsive. By that point, every experiment was a foregone conclusion, and every personality was reduced to an agenda. (To be fair, much the same dynamic held among the faculty.)

When the leadership grew detached and/or impulsive, there was no sense of overall direction. Consequently, petty fiefdoms abounded, and turf wars were everywhere. Campus dialogue veered from 'cynical' to 'toxic,' with expressions of hope written off as naivete. I started the blog in that environment, largely as a way to vent frustrations. As a youngish dean with ambitions to achieve positive things, the setting was alternately maddening and dispiriting. Some of those early posts reflect that.

Now I'm in a setting with an experienced President, but one whose experience has been in a number of places. The difference is noticeable.

From what I've seen, a few thoughts on leadership and longevity:

- Wheeler/dealer types burn out fast. They don't always know it, but it's apparent from the outside. Part of it has to do with the energy involved in trying to keep a close eye on hundreds of different things. Part of it has to do with the encrusted layers of debts accumulated over time through those deals. And part of it has to do with encouraging a culture of backstabbing. Presidents are outnumbered; if they encourage backstabbers to multiply, the eventual consequences are predictable.

- Effective leaders aren't afraid to get back to first principles. When you go too long taking the point of it all for granted, you enable a corrosive cynicism. When the first principles espoused in public match the criteria used for actual decisions, you can neutralize the incentives for backstabbing. And you can't be afraid to repeat those first principles over and over again. Don't assume it goes without saying. It doesn't.

- Experiment. That means trying new projects, but it also means taking chances on trusting people who would be easy to reduce to caricatures. Some of those experiments will fail, and you have to be comfortable enough in your own skin to withstand that. But when they succeed, it's really something.

- When you've got everything right where you want it -- when you could describe the place as a well-oiled machine, or describe your mission as preservation -- it's time to quit. "It's right where I want it" is just another way of saying "I'm out of ideas." Don't wait for entropy to do its cruel work.

Age isn't the critical variable here. It's something closer to "a sense of priorities." When you hold tight to some core values, and hold pretty loosely to any given method to achieve them, you're in good shape. When you can't distinguish the two, or when you're so sure of the answer that you can't even wait for someone to finish the question, it's time to walk away. And it's better to walk away from your college than to watch it walk away from you.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Breaking Even

I had a good discussion last week with a well-meaning professor who wanted to know why the minimum enrollment to run a section is higher than the break-even cost of paying an adjunct.

Her position was that another section doesn't add much marginal cost, and as long as you've paid the adjunct, what's the problem?

It was one of those "where you stand depends on where you sit" moments. I'll make it a multiple choice.

If another section doesn't add much marginal cost, and it generates enough tuition/fee revenue to pay the adjunct, what's the problem?

a. Nothing. The Administration is just unable to do simple math.
b. Nothing. The Administration just hoards the profits and rolls around in them in a locked vault, like Scrooge McDuck.
c. Slippery slope. If department x gets smaller sections, then department y will want them, too. After a while, there's nothing left to pay for the library.
d. Opportunity cost. If room 320 is devoted to a break-even section, it's displacing a larger section that would have met there. The difference is what pays for the library.
e. c and d

The correct answer is e. But that's largely beyond the purview of any given department. If a small psych section displaced a larger history section that would have met there, neither actually sees the conflict directly. Psych just gets its section, and history just gets told the rooms are full. But that doesn't mean the conflict isn't there. (That also explains why we're looser with minima in the summer; when the classroom would otherwise sit empty, the 'opportunity cost' argument becomes moot.)

Since it's impossible to forecast where every little micro-conflict will happen, most colleges (including my own) will set a default minimum enrollment for a class to run. The idea is to keep small classes from crowding out larger ones. Then, every semester, we deal with exceptions and requests for exceptions. It's messy but necessary. (Exceptions for small classes include single sections that are required for a major, 'safety valve' sections in which every other section of that course is full, and classes with facility or accreditation constraints, like Nursing clinicals.) Since students don't usually sign up for just one class, but instead for entire schedules, moving people around at the last minute is incredibly time-consuming and awkward; that's why we can't default to some sort of bidding or overbooking system. We have to get it (mostly) right the first time.

As with any system that uses blunt instruments to reach best-available (as opposed to optimal) solutions, it's clunky. As we get to the last few weeks before the semester starts and we have to make the "go or no go" decisions, there's some level of guesswork involved, and some of it will turn out to be wrong. Most of the decisions are made without regard to Excellence or Virtue or Beauty, just because they have to be. It's reductionist in the way that all scheduling is. But that's not out of indifference, tone-deafness, or malice; it's out of necessity. Scrooge McDuck has nothing to do with it.

Admittedly, that isn't as viscerally satisfying as a story with a clear hero and a clear villain. Break-even propositions rarely are.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Stain on a Background Check

I suspect that variations on this will become more common in the next several years. A new correspondent writes:

I had a felony drug possession conviction 11 years ago, went to drug rehab for 18 months (outpatient) while I worked, then had the felony dropped due to graduation of rehab in 2001. I still have a misdemeanor drug possession in 1998 that I am getting expunged in 2 weeks. The problem is I just got back from an interview that went well. They did a background check and the head hunter said it was due to the background check that they dropped me. What should I do? I have been trying for months and have an excellent resume and very good references but I got involved with drugs for a couple years in the 1990's.

(This was for a technical staff position, which explains the 'headhunter' reference.)

With any background check issue like this, I'd look at your role as setting context. If you wait for them to discover what's out there -- and on something like a criminal conviction, they usually will -- then you're at the mercy of how they choose to interpret it. But if you can get out in front of the story and frame it for them, you at least have a chance of getting past it. As they say in politics, it's not the crime; it's the coverup.

A few years ago I agreed to hire a faculty member who had a drug conviction in his distant past. The key issues were that the past was, in fact, distant; he had kept his nose clean (no pun intended) since then; he had established a strong local record as an adjunct; and he brought it up. (By contrast, and I swear that I'm not making this up, I had a case several years ago of an adjunct who had been terminated for missing class on a regular basis. He appealed the termination, but missed the hearing because he got pulled over for driving under the influence of a controlled substance on his way to the hearing. The decision stood.)

The etiquette of when and how to disclose is the tricky part. If the felony conviction has been dropped, I'd argue that you're on solid ground to answer 'no' to the felony question. (I have to stipulate here that I'm not a lawyer.) However, if you get to the first interview stage, that would be the time to disclose. The key is to frame it much as you did here; you went off the tracks for a brief period many years ago, but you paid your penalty and you've been trouble-free for over a decade. In the meantime, you've built your impressive credentials, and now let's talk about your love of teaching.

From a hiring perspective, a few things may be going on. One is fear of liability. Another is skepticism about whether you've truly come clean; I'd think that a decade or more should be enough to establish that, but that's me. Then there's just the generally awful job market, and the fact that in many cases, committees are actively looking for reasons to exclude candidates. An old drug conviction is something to hang your hat on if you're looking for it. That may seem cruel, but when you're winnowing down a pile of 200 applications to a shortlist of ten, you'll grab any excuse to exclude.

You can't necessarily control how people will respond to the information they dig up, but you can offer other information to offset it. In the age of Google, that may be the best we can do.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an effective strategy for getting around something like this?

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010


From much of the discussion of 'data-driven' reforms that take place at the national level, you'd think that all that we'd need to do is educate some administrators on the use and interpretation of data, tell them to use what they've learned, and that would be that.

If only it were that easy...

Over the last couple of years, I've been pushing a much stronger adherence to data-driven decision-making. In the process, I've seen firsthand many of the obstacles to its adoption. I put these out there not in the spirit of opposing data-driven decisions -- I still think it's a damn good idea -- but in the spirit of explaining why it's so hard to move from idea to implementation.

First, there's the availability of personnel. Although most colleges have Institutional Research (IR) departments, they're typically understaffed and overwhelmed with federal and philanthropic reporting requirements. It's harder to argue internally for resources for an IR staffer than for a direct service provider, since most of what IR does is at at least one remove from working with students. If you don't get that Nursing professor, you'll have to shrink the program next year; if you don't get that IR staffer, well, what will happen, exactly? Since it's harder to argue for short-term direct benefits, it tends to lose battles to positions that are easier to explain. While that makes short-term sense, over time it means that the quantity and quality of data at hand will be limited.

Second, there's the data itself. Looking backwards, we can know only what we thought to track at the time. Sometimes we can rejigger old data to tell us new things, of course, but if certain key questions weren't asked -- it usually takes the form of "we didn't flag that in the system" -- then it's just not there. Colleges weren't designed as research projects, so a great deal of what has gone on over time was done without any kind of eye towards future research. Even when something is done self-consciously as a 'pilot' -- meaning as a research project -- it's often difficult to isolate the relevant variables. Did the small project succeed because it was well-designed, or because it was small?

Third, there's the clash between the need to plan ahead and the need to wait for the data. The owl of minerva spreads its wings at dusk, but we can't always wait that long. When you have to set up next year's schedule before the results from this year's experiment are in, you have to default to hunches. If the program in question uses the gap time to tweak its own delivery, it can always explain away the first, lousy results with "yes, but that's before we did such and such." Worse, in any given case, that could be true.

Then, there's the clash between the drive to innovate and the deference required to "past practices." This can sound trivial, but it's actually a major issue.

For example, one of the Gates foundation programs contemplates setting up dedicated classes for at-risk students in which the program manager serves as the primary contact person for the students, including being their academic advisor. The idea is to give students a trusted person to go to when issues arise. But the union here has taken the position that academic advisement is unit work, and can only be done by unit members. Since management is not unit work by definition, we can't follow the Gates guidelines even if we wanted to. It's a shame, too, since the program seems to have good early results where it has been tried.

The 'past practice' issues become hairier when you look at 'modular' or 'self-paced' alternatives to the traditional semester schedule. By contract, faculty workloads are based on credit hours and the semester calendar. (Similar expectations hold in the realm of financial aid.) If you break away from those models, you have to address workarounds for financial aid -- which have serious workload impacts for the financial aid staffers -- and unit concerns about workload equity. Maintaining workload equity while experimenting with different workload formats is no easy task, and some unit members are just looking for an excuse to grieve, for reasons of their own. It's not impossible, but the process of 'impact bargaining' and its attendant concessions amounts to an unacknowledged deadweight cost. That's before even mentioning the time and effort involved in dealing with grievances.

Then, of course, there's the tension between fact and opinion. When there's a long history of decisions being made based on group processes that have been dominated by a few longstanding personalities, they'll read anything data-driven as a threat to their power. Which, in a way, it is. I saw this a couple of years ago in a discussion of a course prerequisite. A particular department argued passionately that adding a prereq to a particular course would result in much higher student performance. The college tried it, and student performance didn't budge. After two years of no movement at all in the data, I asked the chair if he had changed his mind. He hadn't. Facts are fine, but dammit, he wanted his prereq, and that was that. Facts were fine in theory, but when they got in the way of preference, preference was assumed to be the "democratic" option. Since facts aren't subject to majority rule, reliance on facts is taken as anti-democratic.

Alrighty then.

Finally, there's the tension between the culture of experimentation and the culture of "gotcha!" The whole point of the data-driven movement is to get colleges to try lots of different things, to keep and improve what works, and to junk what doesn't. But when a college has an entrenched culture of "gotcha!," you can't get past that first failure. If something didn't work, you'll get the self-satisfied "I told you so" that shuts down further discussion. A culture of experimentation, by definition, has to allow for some level of failure, but that presumes a cultural maturity that may or may not be present.

None of these, or even all of them in combination, is enough to convince me that we should stop testing assumptions and trying new things. But they do help explain why it isn't nearly as easy as it sounds.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Collision Mix

Back in my radio days, a fellow dj used to specialize in what he called "collision mixes." He'd pick two songs that had absolutely no business going together and play them back to back, just to enjoy the carnage. I admired his craft, though not enough to imitate it.

My current-events reading today featured a collision mix.

I started with the IHE and Chronicle accounts of this year's AACC meeting, which is focused largely on improving 'completion' at the community college level. The idea is to reduce the number of students who drop out, and to increase the number who complete their intended course of study, whether that leads to a degree, a certificate, or a successful transfer after a year. While I have my own reservations about particular methods and definitions, I have to agree that the impulse and direction are good. Let's find ways to help more students succeed. With ya.

Then, that very same day, this, from the New York Times:

School districts around the country, forced to resort to drastic money-saving measures, are warning hundreds of thousands of teachers that their jobs may be eliminated in June.

Hmm. Well, maybe it's just posturing. Surely they aren't talking specifics?

A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that 9 of 10 superintendents expected to lay off school workers for the fall, up from two of three superintendents last year. The survey also found that the percentage considering a four-day school week had jumped to 13 percent, from 2 percent a year ago.

Okay, not encouraging. I wouldn't expect students to use their Fridays off to do physics problem sets. But it isn't really that bad, right?

In the U-46 district in Elgin, Ill., José M. Torres, the superintendent, said he also had to contend with a budgeting roller coaster this spring. At this point, the only uncertainty is whether the district’s 53 schools in Chicago’s western suburbs will feel “high pain or low pain,” Mr. Torres said.
Seeking to cut at least $44 million from the district’s $400 million budget, Mr. Torres has eliminated early childhood classes for 100 children, cut middle school football, increased high school class sizes from 24 to 30 students, drained swimming pools to save chlorine, and dismissed 1,000 employees, including 700 teachers.


I'll admit not minding the pool part -- never been a fan, myself -- or the football. But eliminating early childhood classes, increasing sizes of high school classes, and firing 700 teachers doesn't quite sit right.

The research I've seen suggests pretty clearly that students with strong academic preparation in high school tend to do better in college. Some of that may reflect inherent talent and/or good habits, but some of it may also reflect actually learning something in high school. Hollowing out the K-12 system will pretty clearly overwhelm any adjustments we can make internally at the cc.

If we thought in terms of systems, shoring up the K-12 system would be an excellent college completion initiative.

As collision mixes go, this one was especially jarring. There's 'juxtaposition,' and then there's 'insanity.' This is insane. And unlike a collision mix on the radio, the effects will last far beyond a couple of three minute songs.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Interviewing Your Next Boss

A bufuddled correspondent writes:

We are in the process of interviewing for a new program director. I am a staff member in this particular program.

I've never been in a position where I have been able to interview the person that could potentially be my next boss. There are so many things that I want to know about this person - what type of leader is he? Is he the micromanager type or will he set the direction and let me decide how I manage daily work? Will he be collaborative or dictatorial? Will he be supportive of my current journey to my doctorate or will he be threatened? I currently have a couple major projects in the hopper and while I would like some support and assistance, I don't want him to be the type of person who comes and tells me everything I'm doing is wrong in order to make himself look better.

Furthermore, how do I diplomatically ask questions so that if he is eventually hired, I don't face retaliation. After all, I'm not a colleague, but rather a subordinate. I don't want to make enemies, but I also don't want a reincarnation of the previous director.

This is that rare case of "it's easier than it looks." I like those.

Every one of my administrative positions has involved being interviewed by, among other people, the people who would report directly to me. It's actually standard practice. I've also been in your shoes, interviewing prospective bosses of mine.

As you suggest, it's possible for this arrangement to go horribly wrong. People could try to pick bosses based on the degree to which they'll be manipulable from below, or they could somehow try to give the impression that the boss 'owes' the job to the underlying who fought for her in the search process. But in my observation, this tends not to happen. And it shouldn't.

While it's entirely understandable that you're concerned about your own fate with the arrival of a new boss -- no surprise there -- it's also bad form to be too blunt about it. You need to be able to take a leap of faith and assume that if you do your job well, and you get a boss who basically understands both the mission of the program and some basic principles of management, you'll be fine. So the trick is to see if the candidates understand the mission of the program and some basic principles of management.

The questions I've found the most useful are usually the most experience-based. Instead of asking "are you a micromanager?," to which nobody in the history of the universe has ever said "you betcha!," it's better to go with something like "can you tell us about a time when you faced an angry client/student/parent? How did you handle it?" You're moving at least one step away from your actual concern, but keeping it concrete enough to make answers like "I believe in working with people" clearly unacceptable. When you can get the discussion away from hypotheticals and into actual history, you can get much more revealing answers. Some managers will take complaints at face value, and immediately try to 'solve' them themselves. Others will follow protocols, and channel the complaints accordingly. Still others will simply dodge them altogether. (I'm a fan of the second strategy.) In the abstract, these can sound similar, but when you get down to cases, the differences emerge.

In terms of retaliation, you have a pretty good shot at controlling your own destiny. If you only ask fair questions, and you choose well, what's to retaliate against?

Since doctoral completion is a priority for you, you could ask about past practices regarding the development of his staff. That should give you some clue where he stands. (Past practices are much better guides than "what do you think about professional development?" As with the 'micromanager' question, the 'right' answer is far too clear to tell you very much.) Have people stayed on after completing graduate programs? Has he been flexible with time off for dissertation work? Or is it really a matter of your time and your dime?

Admittedly, experience-based questions don't work when dealing with a rookie manager. Every manager has a first gig at some point, and if you have a talented but green candidate, you'll have to allow for some abstraction in the responses. Here, it may be more effective to ask about practices he has observed that he liked. It isn't quite as good, but it's better than pure theory.

One question I personally like: "can you tell us about a mistake that you've made, and what you did when you realized it was a mistake?" It's a good way to sniff out Perfect People, who are toxic. It can also inadvertently reveal blame-shifters, who are even worse.

Wise and worldly readers, I imagine some of you have some contributions to make on this one. Any helpful hints (or horror stories) to share?

Good luck!

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

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ask the Administrator: The Paradox of Good Citizenship

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

I'm in a humanities dept. at a very good SLAC. One of our faculty members is retiring soon, and so our departmental meetings have been focusing (in ten-minute snatches, unfortunately....despite meeting WEEKLY) on arguing for his replacement and determining what curricular lacunae might best be covered by this new person.

My sense is that, while we could use some coverage in the area of the retired person (and in related areas he didn't cover), our enrollments do not justify it. Indeed, I think skipping the hire might 'right-size' us in relation to student demand. The #1 most-mentioned course the person could teach (let's call it 21st century art), could in fact be taught decently (though not expertly) by a # of us in the dept. OTOH, it would be great to liven up the joint with a real live scholar and hu's presence might have cross-fertilization potential w/other classes we offer.

Like every college, we were hit hard by the economic crisis. We're still determining where to cut (continued salary freeze vs. increased enrollment or 'temporary' courseload increase, etc). Several people in the department feel that we should just request what we "need" and let higher-ups decide whether it's reasonable in this fiscal environment. While I get that, I also think it's our responsibility to demonstrate that "need" in concrete terms. It would be nice, for example, for the college to give us some ballpark FTE -to-students-served ratio. Or something like that. My question, then, is what figures do we use to gauge our need? We have a fairly generous leave policy, so actual FTE per term or year fluctuates.

I'm frustrated that I have no clear way to gauge my department's relative efficiency, and no way to know how it compares (or whether it even SHOULD be comparable ---maybe bio and chem work differently, and it's fine that we have smaller classes) to others in the college. Moreover, some people are operating from the "the college is more or less o.k" budget perspective while others think aggressive cuts are in our medium-term future (say, 10 years). How do I know who's Chicken Little and who's Ms. Informed? How does one act as a good citizen of the college as well as the department in the absence of clear guidelines for planning?

I really struggled with this one. Because depending on local context, you could easily get punished for doing the right thing.

If you decide to go without in the name of fiscal responsibility, it's entirely likely that some other, more aggressive department will get the position instead. If their 'merit' was less than yours, you could wind up with thinned ranks and nothing to show for it. Worse, when the across-the-board cuts come, you'd be hit just as hard as your more profligate counterparts.

On the other hand, it's true that until there's some thoughtful discussion of what we really can do without, we'll never get the economics right. Just off the top of my head, I can rattle off at least a dozen departments at my college that could easily use additional full-time faculty, and I can rattle off another dozen or so glaring needs on the staff side. In that kind of setting, requests that fall under the "well, it might be nice..." category are noise pollution at best, and criminally wasteful at worst. That's not the fault of the people who propose them, though.

What's missing here, I think, is a clear understanding of how to define relative need. That's probably the place to start.

At my college, we've developed an okay-but-not-great mechanism for allocating faculty positions. The VP sets some baseline criteria, which include things like ft/adjunct ratios in a given area, accreditation requirements for programs with special accreditations, and foreseeable programmatic changes. A few weeks later, the various deans come back with the strongest proposals from their own areas, and they present their arguments to each other using those criteria. Then they (and the vp) vote, and the priority ranking is established. The college goes as far down the list as the budget will allow. (A similar forced-ranking process occurs on the staff side, with the various vp's doing the voting. The President decides how many faculty vs. staff positions get funded.)

It's grossly reductive, but at least the forced ranking compels some level of honesty. Yes, I know your seven positions are all absolutely crucial, but if you can only have two, which two would they be? Moving the discussion from absolute need to relative need takes a lot of the posturing out of it, and takes the onus off the departments to decide whether to be good sports or to press for everything they could get. If the criteria are fairly clear, then the departments can judge in advance whether they have a potentially persuasive claim or not.

If you don't know your college's criteria, the first step might be to ask the dean. If the criteria don't exist, then I could see a strong argument for developing some. If they exist but they don't make sense (i.e. administrative favoritism, blind adherence to tradition, etc.), then there's an argument for changing them. If they exist but the departments don't know about them, then there's an argument for making them known. Admittedly, this is one step removed from solving the immediate problem -- for the record, in the very short term I'd say go for it and let the chips fall where they may -- but it would improve the chances of healthier allocations over time.

In many cases, I'm told, the 'criteria' consist of a blend of opportunism, favoritism, and buying off the loudest complainers. If any of that sounds familiar, then starting a campus conversation about criteria could be a very healthy exercise. Whether it solves the immediate problem or not, it may very well position the college to handle future staffing issues more thoughtfully, and/or more congruently with the sense of the community.

What I wouldn't recommend doing is internalizing blame for your administration's failure to make criteria clear. Based on my own experience, I'd guess that it's operating on the old "we have x positions, let's see who makes the best argument" strategy. That's not your fault. Take the shot, but use the moment as an opportunity to start a much larger, and badly needed, conversation.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I'm sure some of you have faced variations on this. Any hard-won lessons to share?

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

Epic Fail

What should a college do when a professor fails 90 percent of the students in an intro class?

Apparently, at LSU the answer is to remove the professor unilaterally, mid-semester. The comments to the IHE story are about 90 percent from faculty trading in the worst anti-administration stereotyping, laced with an intoxicating brew of outrage and moral superiority. But they really miss the story.

Based on the article, I can see heaping piles of wrong on all sides.

Professors have every right to expect that their grading decisions will be afforded tremendous weight, and will be questioned only in exceptional cases and through due process. In this case, there's no sign of anything resembling due process, and the degree to which the case is exceptional is hard to discern. Was she planning to curve at the end? Who knows? If deans go around raising grades just to pacify annoyed students, there will be no end to it, and the highest grades will go to those who whine the loudest. In the absence of a nearly unimaginable smoking gun, the dean was clearly in the wrong in unilaterally overriding grading decisions en masse without an investigation. No argument there.

But that's only a part of the story.

The article also mentions that the professor hadn't taught an intro class in 15 years. From a workload perspective, I find that literally incomprehensible. It could also explain a certain detachment from the reality of what can be expected in an intro course.

More to the point, though, there's no mention of departmental norms for intro courses. While it's easy to retreat to 'academic freedom' and stop thinking after that, we need to remember that there's a legitimate expectation among students that variation among professors' grading standards will fall within a certain range. If a particular professor decides to take it upon herself to become a one-woman generational avenger, then the students who had the rotten luck to get her class will suffer long-lasting damage to their academic careers through no fault of their own. The students who took the exact same course in any semester over the last 15 years -- cough -- will have higher GPA's, and the opportunities that come with that.
Assuming that hers was not the only section taught that semester, another student taking a different section of the exact same class at the exact same time could have a dramatically better chance of a higher grade. Some level of variation is to be expected, but a 90 percent fail rate in an intro course for non-majors fails the plausibility test.

In my time at Flagship State, I was frequently advised to grade harshly in the first month of a class to drive away as many students as possible; the idea was to get my grading workload down. The subtext of that was that teaching generally was to be considered a time-suck, something to be minimized in the name of a research agenda. I never liked the idea -- it struck me as selling out the students -- but it was hard to miss.

I don't know if the professor in this case was trying to make a point, was intending to curve, was wildly out of touch, or was just trying to thin the herd and got carried away. (The fact that she gave multiple-choice tests suggests that reducing the time on grading wasn't the motive.) Maybe she thought of herself as a champion of academic rigor.

The comments to the IHE story frequently fall into the simpleminded trap of equating high fail rates with academic rigor. They are not the same thing, and one does not imply the other.

For example, at my cc, remedial algebra has a much higher fail rate than pre-calc, which in turn has a higher fail rate than calculus II. Does that mean that remedial algebra is more academically rigorous than calculus II?

Of course not. And the same inverse relationship between course level and fail rates holds across the curriculum; it's not confined to math. The lower the course level, the higher the fail rate. My cc has a much higher fail rate than does Harvard. Does that mean my cc is more academically rigorous than Harvard? (Okay, bad example. Let's go with Swarthmore instead; the argument still stands.)

Students fail classes for all kinds of reasons. Obviously, what the students bring with them matters a great deal. Strongly-prepared students will generally outperform more weakly-prepared students. Students without full-time jobs will generally outperform students with full-time jobs. And students of effective teachers will generally outperform students of ineffective teachers. If a professor simply can't teach her way out of a paper bag, her students won't do well. Assuming that this year's students aren't meaningfully different from last year's students, but the teacher is, there's a certain surface plausibility to the idea that she is the critical variable.

I'd suggest that the missing link here is the academic department.

As long as the issue is understood either as "heroic prof faces down lazy students and corrupt dean" or "heroic dean protects innocent students against crazy prof," we won't get anywhere. What's missing here is any serious sign of engagement by the academic department in defining its own expectations.

Here I have to give kudos to the English and math departments at my college. Both of them have "grade norming" workshops for faculty -- both full-time and adjunct, and the adjuncts get paid for attending -- in which they go over papers or problems and discuss how they ought to be graded. Although an absolutist might view this as a violation of academic freedom, I actually see it as a fulfillment of academic freedom. Academic freedom in teaching is not an individual right; it is an institutional right. It is up to the college as a whole to determine what is or is not to be taught; that's why colleges have curriculum committees, and it's why departments are free to choose standard textbooks to assign to every section of a given course. (Academic freedom in research is another matter.) When a department sets about defining its courses and its standards, it is not infringing on the rights of its members; it's living up to the responsibilities inherent in owning curriculum. When a department chooses not to bother, and to cede its collective responsibilities to its individual members, it makes a category error and loses the ability to corral outliers.

This is why my preferred method for addressing grade changes is to have a faculty review committee empowered to make the call, under guidelines voted on by the faculty as a whole. As an administrator, I'm happy to stay out of it; besides, nobody can be a content expert in everything. Better to allow the faculty collectively to exercise its institutional academic freedom. In practice, I imagine that this would result in very, very few changes, and that's as it should be. In this case, the dean made the colossal error of substituting his own personal judgment for that of the faculty, and to do so impulsively.

But the better response to a correct revulsion at that dean's action is not to fall back on student-blaming or absolutist (and incorrect) claims of academic freedom. Students deserve some level of protection against arbitrary and punitive grading, which implies that professors do not -- and cannot -- have unlimited power in grading. The college as a whole is allowed to define what shall be taught. Boiling this down to two individuals misses the point. This case suggests strongly that LSU is missing that crucial space in between, in which faculty act collectively to define the academic mission of the college and to uphold standards of professionalism precisely to protect the students. The missing piece is shared governance, properly understood. With that missing, this is just an epic fail all the way around.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Interview for First Administrative Job

A new correspondent writes:

I am a faculty member in the humanities at a small comprehensive college, and I may be a finalist for a chief academic officer position at another small comprehensive college. The next step in the process will include an on-campus interview. I've experienced these interviews as an applicant for a faculty position, but can you give me any insight as to what I should expect when the position is an administrative one? What advice would you give for someone experiencing his or her first-time on-campus interview for an academic administrative position? What are questions that various constituencies may pose that will be different from the first two rounds of interviews? What questions should I ask at this stage?

First, congratulations on the interview! Jumping from faculty to chief academic officer is quite a leap, so I'm impressed that you've made it to the interview stage.

Having been through several of those, I've noticed a few patterns:

- The college is reacting to whatever its most recent failures were. Those failures could be anything: mercurial management, political infighting, budgetary drama, whatever. Some of the people there will be looking to you to fix those failures. You need to be careful not to overpromise, as tempting as that will be, since if you get the job you will already have set yourself up to fail. Manage expectations.

- The goal for you is not to get the job. The goal for you is to present a truthful version of your better self. This requires some self-awareness, which isn't part of many people's toolkits, but it's tremendously important. If you get the job because they misunderstood you, you will fail. If you're usually a shoot-from-the-lip type, go with that at the interview. If you're more the 'think first, then speak' type, go with that. Go with the version of you you default to over time. If that's what they need, you will have a real shot at success. If that's not what they need, you're better off not getting the job.

- Have anecdotes and examples at the ready. People will be anxious about where they'll fall in the local hierarchy when the new CAO comes in, so expect lots of semi-veiled versions of "what's in it for me?" Referring to concrete examples of ways you've solved problems or conflicts in the past will allow you to remain true to yourself, and will allow your questioners to get some sense of your style without extracting promises written in blood.

- Many of the hypotheticals you'll be posed will be very thinly disguised versions of specific live conflicts. Not knowing the facts, you're much better off talking about process. If even that's too freighted, default to principles.

- Remember that the goal is not to get the job. The goal is to find the right fit. This may or may not be the right fit; there's no way to know yet.

Part of finding that out involves you asking the right questions. Those will be contextual, and will require you to listen well. In an interview for a deanship back in the early oughts, I asked the outgoing interim dean if the faculty were unionized, expecting a yes or a no; he responded "not yet." From that point on, I knew what to ask about and what to look for. (I dodged a bullet with that one. A few months later, the CAO had been run out of town, and a few months after that the Presidency changed hands.)

Of course, there are the usual standbys. Students will ask about textbook costs, faculty will ask about your support for professional development, staff will ask about your relations with staff (which is a proxy for their relations with faculty), and other administrators will ask about your management experiences.

Good luck! I hope you're able to find the right fit.

Wise and worldly readers -- any tips to share?

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Boy Rocks the Science Fair

The Boy has his mother's spatial sense and a touch of my nerdiness, so he was all over the science fair.

He loves bridges and earthquakes, so this year he decided to do a project that combined them. His project involved building bridges of two different designs -- 'beam' and 'suspension' -- and subjecting both of them to simulated earthquakes while supporting weight. The idea was to see whether one design would hold up better than the other.

It takes a village to do a science fair project.

First was the design phase. Both bridges feature two vertical supports and a 'road' that connects them, all made of wood. The suspension bridge includes additional vertical supports holding up the twine arches on either side. From each twine arch, he hung strings that went under the road and connected to the twine arch on the other side. His hypothesis was that the additional support would help the suspension bridge hold up better.

The "shake table" was the cool part. TW took TB to Home Depot, where I think we should get the frequent-customer discount by now, and got two 2 foot by 2 foot squares of wood and two huge rubber bands. She took four rubber balls, about an inch in diameter, from one of TG's old games, put them between the squares, and held the sandwich together with the rubber bands. Once the sandwich was assembled, you could simulate an earthquake by pulling the top layer an inch or two toward you, and letting go. It's basically a slingshot effect. The idea was to put each bridge on the shake table in sequence, and to see at what weight each would break while moving.

Then came the test phase. Experienced parents can guess what happened here.

Balsa wood is a lot stronger than it looks.

Thinking back to the cheesy toy airplanes of my youth, I assumed that a couple of cans of beans would do the job. Not so. Even stacking four cans across and two cans high didn't do it; all that happened was that the top layer went flying when the earthquake hit. Then we tried one-liter water bottles; no dice. We tried books, but they had to be stacked with the title page vertical in order to fit between the strings on the suspension bridge, which made stacking them impossible. (Surprisingly, even my monstrous American Heritage Dictionary couldn't get the job done.)

We didn't have any spare steel weights lying around -- anvils aren't nearly as common as years of cartoons had led me to believe -- so we did the next best thing: call my old high school chemistry lab partner. (He's a named professor of engineering now, so it wasn't quite as silly as it sounds.) He suggested planing the road thinner, which would have made sense if I had a plane and much greater mechanical skills than I actually have. He also mentioned something about a torque wrench, but that fell victim to the same objection. Finally, he suggested putting 'wings' across the road so it could hold larger objects, but TB vetoed that on the grounds that bridges don't have wings.

The kid has a solid grasp on the obvious.

For lack of any better ideas, I resorted to the last gasp of desperate Dads everywhere: let's take it outside! Admittedly, there wasn't a second step to the plan, but I figured that if we had to stack a third level of cans, at least they wouldn't dent the kitchen table when they went airborne.

Luckily, we found a few hunks of brick lying around for no visible reason. A few earthquakes later, victory! The beam bridge collapsed, but the suspension bridge held the same weight. It took three bricks, but we got the job done, and the driveway survived. And through the miracles of digital photography and cheap printers, we could even show each step on the display board.

Happily for us, TW had the foresight to have TB build two of each kind of bridge, so he had unbroken ones to display at the science fair. The display was a hit, and it was fun to see the fashion trend. In past years, volcanoes and "how high can I drop this egg" were huge; this year's trend was food spoilage. Several kids did variations on "which storage unit lets food spoil faster?" Those experiments are elegant in their design, but you don't really want to display spoiled food, so they lose something in translation. At least with construction, you have something to show. (My all-time favorite is still the build-your-own-Zamboni.) The obligatory baking soda volcano was there, but I was glad to see it relegated to the margins.

TB won a ribbon and beamed with pride as he explained his experiment to passersby. We celebrated with ice cream and a gloating call to Grandpa. The Girl was jealous that she couldn't participate -- for reasons unknown, they set the entry at first grade -- but I suspect she'll give him a run for his money next year.

This may not sound like much, but as an academic Dad, this is a clean win. The Boy rocked the science fair, and all is right with the world.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In a meeting today, I heard a smart person use "wi-fi" as a verb, as in "we wi-fi'ed the room, and now it's functional." I died a little inside.

I try not to be a killjoy linguistic purist. As regular readers can probably tell, I usually judge word choice based on effectiveness, rather than 'correctness.' (I don't always get it right, but that's to be expected.) That's why I don't mind phrases like "an idea of such staggering wrongitude," since 'wrongitude' makes intuitive sense. (So does "a steaming pile of wrong," for that matter.) I'll admit getting annoyed at people who are just a little too enthusiastic about catching prepositions at the end of sentences, or who hold the injunction against splitting infinitives somewhere above "thou shalt not kill."

But there are limits. And wifi as a verb is just a steaming pile of wrong.

In the 90's, I occasionally heard someone use "calendar" as a verb, as in "I'll calendar that appointment." It always made me want to poke them with a sharp stick. I couldn't figure out what "calendar" accomplished that "schedule" didn't. Somehow, I don't have the same response to "google" as a verb, probably because there's no obvious, easy substitute. "I'll look it up online" is kinda clunky, and "I'll search for it" is misleading. "Google" also didn't have a common meaning independent of this usage. It referred to a seldom-used number, and occasionally it would become a modifier ("googly eyes"), but prior to the search engine I don't recall using either much. "Calendar," by contrast, was a perfectly ordinary noun.

Back then, I also heard students use "sex" as a verb, as in "they were drinking and sexing all weekend." It got the point across, I guess, but it never quite sounded right to me.

Admittedly, I've committed my share of crimes against verbs. I've used "Kubler-Ross" as a verb, as in "the department is still Kubler-Rossing outcomes assessment, but it'll get there." (Most of them are at the "bargaining" stage.) I thought of it as a species of gallows humor, but if someone were to wince, I couldn't argue the point. I also have a guilty fondness for the "so-with-a-dropped-predicate" structure made popular by Jennifer Aniston. ("I am so not going to do that.") Again, no argument with those who take offense; it's just useful for indicating where a metaphor would go if you could actually think of one.

I'm not claiming perfection here. If I were, I wouldn't have used "kinda" a few paragraphs ago. But even acknowledging the need for flexibility, some words just clang.

Technology can lend itself to some awkward constructions, just because it moves faster than the language. A few years ago, there was no need for a verb that meant "to install a wireless internet connection." Now, apparently, there is. "Text" became a verb not because of post-structuralism, but because of cell phones. I've made my peace with "texting" as a verb, just because I can't come up with a more elegant substitute. The meaning is specific, and I haven't found anything else that quite captures it. "Tweet" still strikes me as an inelegant term for posting on Twitter, but since "twit" is so much worse, I deal with it.

Wise and worldly readers, has anything clanged for you lately? I don't know if we can stop any of it, but just getting it out there can be weirdly therapeutic.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Is This Normal?

I love this question. A returning correspondent writes:

A month or two ago, I wrote and asked for advice about a phone interview with a local community college for a faculty position. Yesterday, I had the on campus interview. I have never experienced anything like that before (even with all my interviewing in industry) and I'd like to get your take on this.

First of all, the interview was extremely scripted. First I had an interview with the Academic Vice President (45 minutes). Then I was taken to a room for 30 minutes to prepare a teaching demonstration on a topic that was given to me when I entered the room. I was not allowed to leave the room during this prep. One of the staff of the college babysat me while I did my prep. I was given white paper, a book, and pencils. Then the dean came and walked me to a classroom. I gave two teaching demos in front of the committee (the one I had just prepared and a prepared demo that I had brought with me). Then they "interviewed" me for 45 minutes. Each committee member had a written question that they asked in a very specific order. At the end of 45 minutes, the dean took me downstairs and escorted me out.

Here's what they got: everything they wanted to know about me to determine if they wanted me as a colleague. Here's what I got: nothing. I know absolutely nothing about this department. I don't know how they teach, I don't know what books they use. I don't know what their offices look like and what resources they have. I don't know what course management software they use or if they use any. I don't know how they assign courses. I don't know how they mentor new faculty or if they mentor new faculty. I could go on, but you get the picture. So if they offered me a job, I would have no idea if I wanted to work for that department or college.

Is this normal? One of my full time faculty colleagues told me that this is the way they interview also. Apparently, interviewing at a public institution has to be totally the point where the interview is totally one way.

In my previous life in industry, an interview was more an exchange of information. In general, you interviewed one on one with different people and you could ask questions also. You had at least a lunch with the team you would be working with and you could ask more questions. At the end of the day, both sides had a pretty good idea of whether you would fit in.

So I wanted to know if this is the way it is at your community college. What do you do to allow your candidate to get enough information to make a good decision?

Different institutions have different protocols, and it's true that in general, public institutions are much more hamstrung by all manner of things than are private ones. (That's one reason I have much less respect for corporate managers than for academic ones. Can you imagine how easy it would be to manage if you could just make decisions? A reasonably well-trained chimpanzee could do that. And then they have the nerve to call themselves "thought leaders"! But I digress.)

In my experience, scripted questions are normal. They offer several advantages: they ensure consistency from candidate to candidate, to ensure that you're comparing apples to apples. They can be screened in advance for all the HR minefields, so you can prevent the errant committee member going off on variations of "you're not going to have kids, are you?" They keep committee members from tearing into each other, and turning the interview into a mudfight. (I've seen that happen.) Given the size of many hiring committees -- more than once, I've been interviewed by a room of two dozen people -- you need some tight choreography to prevent a descent into chaos.

At my college, there are typically two rounds of interviews for faculty positions. (I'm referring here to full-time positions; adjunct hiring, by necessity, is much more streamlined.) The first round is done by the faculty search committee, which is comprised mostly of faculty from the department in which the position resides. Those are pretty tightly scripted, and the committee will usually interview eight to ten candidates. (This is also where the teaching demonstration happens.) It then puts three or four forward to the next round, which includes the chair of the first committee, the division dean, and the academic vp. At that level, the scripts are somewhat looser, but they still exist. At the end of that one, the candidate is invited to ask her own questions, and the savvier ones come prepared with several.

I've never heard of the spontaneous class prep, and I'm honestly at a loss to explain it. I don't mind having faculty give more than forty-five minutes' thought to a class before teaching it. In fact, all else being equal, I prefer faculty who give their lessons plenty of thought. I don't even mind if they consult their notes while preparing. Improvisational skills are great, but they should be gap-fillers, rather than standard operating procedure. That's especially true if the teaching demo should include technology; preparing a good interactive presentation with visual aids could easily take well over forty-five minutes.

In this market, colleges often assume that they don't really have to sell themselves, and there's some truth to that. Recent searches here have resulted in applicant pools of over 200 each, most of whom were at least minimally qualified for the job. (Note to lawyers: being a lawyer does not, by itself, qualify you to teach anything and everything. I don't know why they think it does, but every liberal-arts position always attracts substantial numbers of applications from lawyers. Not gonna happen.) When it's that much of an employer's market, it's easy for the employer to get, well, cocky. But the danger in that is that you wind up hiring people who've made a number of crucial and incorrect assumptions about the job, and who quickly curdle into malcontents. I'd much rather have people walk in with their eyes open, even if that means a few prospective hires walk away instead. The job simply is what it is, and someone whose heart is really in research and travel will really be miserable here. Better that they know that upfront.

Giving applicants multiple chances to ask questions can work incredibly well as a screen. A few years ago a finalist for a music position asked if we'd mind if she regularly took October off to tour Europe. Uh, we'll call you. If all the questions are about research support, sabbaticals, and course releases, then I know what I need to know. On the other hand, if the questions are about outcomes assessment, efforts to improve student success rates, and ways that new professors can get involved on campus, that tells me a lot, too. Choose your questions carefully, and come prepared with several.

The protocol you describe sounds like it was designed to be maximally lawsuit-proof, rather than maximally useful. I'm all for avoiding avoidable lawsuits, but there's such a thing as too much caution. At the end of the day, I'd rather have enough of an exchange to prevent a bad hire, even if that exchange involves the terrifying risk of actually trusting my own people.

One admin's thoughts, anyway. I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one, since I'm pretty confident that they've seen a lot. What oddball hiring practices have you seen?

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

Friday, April 09, 2010

Job Guaranteed or Your Money Back!

An alert reader sent me this story from Time. Apparently, Lansing Community College (MI) is guaranteeing students in certain pre-career certificate programs that they'll get jobs within a year of graduation, or they'll get their tuition back.

Gotta admit, I never thought of that. Of course, there's a reason for that.

First, credit where it's due. It takes what, in a less enlightened time, we used to call "balls of steel" for a community college in Michigan -- Michigan -- to guarantee anybody employment in anything. The college is hedging its bets somewhat; as the story notes,

The new money-back guarantee will apply to the four most in-demand technical jobs in the area: call-center specialists, pharmacy technicians, quality inspectors and computer machinists. The average pay for these jobs in 2008 ranged from $12.10 an hour (call-center specialists) to $15.72 (computer machinists).
The cost for one of these six-week training courses — which don't come with a degree but rather a certificate granting qualification in a specific area — averages about $2,400.
The money-back guarantee is only open to a total of 61 students in Lansing's pilot program. And the applicants are expected to be élite and competitive, says Ellen Jones, the college's director of public affairs. (All must have a high school degree.) Those who are accepted can't miss any class or assignments. They have to go through employability skill training and attend job fairs, and after they complete one of the six-week training courses, they must prove that they're actively applying for jobs.

So okay, this isn't quite at the level of covering, say, English majors. But still, for central Michigan, this is not to be sneezed at.

I can certainly see the appeal for students. If you're unemployed and looking at the prospect of staying unemployed for a long time, the idea of job readiness in six weeks is attractive. The money-back guarantee gets around the fear of student loans, or of being scammed.

And these are vocational certificate programs, not degree programs. The whole point of a vocational certificate is to get a job, so there's no issue of impurity.

Still, the whole idea makes me uneasy.

Part of it is because the college hasn't made any arrangements with any local employers to actually guarantee spots, so it's essentially bluffing. Average pay figures from just before the economy went off the cliff may or may not reflect what's actually available now. Even if they're accurate, the job market is very much an independent variable. The college can do a great job with the parts it can control, and the students may still hit the wall simply as a function of market conditions. For a college to have to issue a pile of refunds at exactly the moment when it's least economically able to do so strikes me as dangerous, if not crazy.

And then there's precedent.

Once students in other programs and at other colleges get wind of this, look out. They'll start demanding similar guarantees elsewhere. No college can guarantee a future job market in anything, but that won't stop the demand. Colleges with relatively little to lose -- because they're circling the drain anyway -- will take fliers on irresponsible guarantees, creating market pressure on the more responsible ones. Over time, I don't like where any of this leads.

I've mentioned before my experience at Proprietary U, where I saw the grads go abruptly from "in demand" to "out of luck" through no fault of the institution. That happens. In fact, I'd suggest, there's an excellent argument to be made that the best long-term job preparation is a transfer program. I've seen some programs, especially in allied health, manage to satisfy both by building in stop-out points on the way to a degree: leave the Nursing track early, and you can still find work as a CNA. That makes sense to me, especially if the program is structured to allow the newly employed student to come back and finish while working. But it's not a quick fix, and it's not a guarantee.

Still, any ray of hope in central Michigan is welcome. Good luck, Lansing. I wouldn't have tried it, but I've been wrong before...

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Outsourcing Grading

I have to admit getting a good laugh from this.

Apparently, there's a company that employs people in India with graduate degrees to grade papers for American professors. For twelve bucks a paper, they'll give not just a letter grade, but comments. The idea is to free up faculty to focus on instruction (or, more accurately, research), rather than grading. It also saves the university money, since outsourcing the grading allows you to run classes at much larger sizes.

From the comments to the article, you'd think that this had never been done before. You'd think that professors have always done their own grading, and that the grading was a form of deep examination of each student's soul, resulting in unparalleled insight and bonding.

Um, no. And I have the scantron invoice to prove it.

Those of us who went to grad school in the paper-writing disciplines, such as my own, probably did some time as a T.A. or grader for a large lecture class. (I did both.) Students signed up for a class taught by The Sage On The Stage, only to have their grades determined by twenty-three-year-old grad students who had never taught classes of their own. And this was in an auditorium setting without even an internet hookup; the most advanced technology in the room was a microphone. The university in question was a flagship campus of a state university you've heard of, and that has a respected name in American higher ed. The practice was of long standing, and was generally accepted. Students didn't even expect the Sage to recognize them individually, and he didn't.

As near as I can tell, the breakthrough this company offers isn't the separation of grading from teaching, since that has been standard practice at the university level for decades. Nor is the breakthrough the new involvement on non-Americans; anyone who has spent any time on a major public university campus lately can attest that foreign students are nothing new. No, the only real change here is location. Instead of paying local grad students to do the scut work, now we can use email attachments to pay grad students in India to do the scut work.

Of course, one could always object that grading shouldn't be considered scut work, that it should be located at the core of the teaching enterprise. But at the university level, that ship sailed decades ago. Bringing it up now seems a day late and a dollar short.

By contrast, at my cc, we cap English classes in the low twenties, and social science classes in the low thirties. Professors do their own grading. And we charge less. Not coincidentally, the success rates of our grads who transfer to the state university is actually higher than that university's 'native' freshmen. As a result, our prestige is...wait for it...lower.

(Bang head against table here.)

If you're willing to grant the existence of certain basic irrationalities, though, the whole email-your-paper-to-India scheme could actually offer some benefits.

For one, it eliminates the potential conflict of interest when professors do their own grading, and are judged -- one way or another -- by pass rates. Teaching to an external standard can change the role of the teacher from 'judge' to 'coach,' with beneficial results. External exams have long existed in some fields -- Nursing and law come to mind -- and they can serve as reality checks on grade inflation. 'Blind' external graders can also put to rest the usual charges of race/gender/personality bias in grading, since someone in Bangalore reading essay 54789 has no flippin' idea who you are.

For another, though -- and I actually like this one a lot -- it offers the very real possibility of finally starting to shrink graduate admissions in badly-flooded fields. I've heard of graduate programs trying to do the right thing by restricting admissions for a year or two, only to discover abruptly that they need the cheap labor. So they open the floodgates again, and the reserve army of the overcredentialed just keeps getting bigger. But if they don't actually need as many T.A.'s or graders, they can actually reduce admissions and keep them down. If we're ever going to get a handle on the exploitation of adjuncts, we simply have to start reducing the supply. Until now, there often didn't seem a realistic way to do that; now there is.

(Of course, one could object that this is simply displacing our problem onto India. But I'm willing to let India worry about that.)

I don't buy the 'quality' argument against it, either. If radiologists in India can read images, and programmers in India can work on developing and fixing incredibly sophisticated software, then surely some smart folks in India can handle some freshman comp papers. Seriously. Other information-based industries have endured outsourcing without the quality of the work suffering. Given the inarguable indifference with which our large universities have handled undergraduate teaching for so long, to suddenly get huffy and puffy about standards is disingenuous at best.

The simple truth of the matter is that universities have engaged in a bait-and-switch with intro undergraduate classes for a long time, and have built an entire economic model on it. This may be a case in which following the model to its logical conclusion actually prompts looking more closely at the entire enterprise, which strikes me as a good idea. In the meantime, we'll keep running small classes with real faculty who actually do bond with their students, and doing it at a fraction of the cost. If folks would sneer at us a bit less, I'd be much obliged.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Do I Need a Doctorate to Make the Leap?

A self-identified Gen X correspondent writes

I am currently at a somewhat senior level in finance at one of the largest proprietary schools. While I am very happy in my job right now, I anticipate that someday I will need to change organizations in order to move forward. My work history includes everything up to director level at a not-for-profit (ivy league in fact), but I have only a Master's degree. I have completed all my coursework for a PhD but still need to write my dissertation. As you know, in the world of proprietaries the PhD doesn't make much difference outside of the academic leadership (deans, provosts, etc). Administration beyond that tends to brag about their MBAs. My question is this: What challenges will I face moving from a proprietary back to a not-for-profit at some point, and will completing my dissertation be helpful for that eventual move? Will my experience be sufficient, or will the PhD be what convinces traditional higher ed to accept me back?

Having made a similar leap myself, though on the academic side, I'd venture to say that the doctorate itself will be less important than the shift of perspectives.

The economics of the non-profits are different, and not just in the obvious way. Hitting profit goals is hard, so I can imagine thinking that being liberated from that would make life easier. But that issue is replaced by others. What do we think next year's state/local funding will be? When you lose money on your core operations by design -- that's the business model of public higher ed -- how do you expand? In some states, public higher ed brings with it union contracts, which are both good and bad, but which -- in my observation, anyway -- are completely absent from the proprietaries.

(Which brings up an idea. I know that some of my wise and worldly readers are academic union activists. If the trend of things is towards the for-profits, how about unionizing the for-profits? An AAUP chapter at the University of Phoenix, say, is a fascinating thought exercise, and likely to be far more productive than just rolling your eyes at the one rapidly-growing sector of higher ed. I'm just sayin'.)

In the world of public higher ed, you'd have to deal with a level of public scrutiny that goes far beyond anything you've had in a for-profit. A finance vp at a community college is closer to a town manager than to a CFO of a business. In this setting, you have to take for granted that some parts of the operation will never pay for themselves, and you have to decide how much you're willing to lose on what. Although some of those decisions will be financial or technical, many of them will reflect a sense of priorities, which inevitably pits various abstractions against each other. To make matters more challenging, in this setting you can't just make the call and execute it; you have to have a general consensus of interested parties, or they'll foot-drag (or worse) you into oblivion.

You'll also have to deal with categories of funding unknown in the for-profits. I'm thinking here of grants, philanthropy, and state-level capital funding. Each of those brings its own unique set of rules, and you'll get to learn terms like "matching requirements" and "in-kind contributions." Construction in the public sector is a completely different animal than in the private sector; if you haven't had the pleasure, count yourself lucky.

In terms of moving up, I haven't seen too many finance vp's with doctorates. I'm sure they exist, but I haven't seen them. Gaining public sector experience, or some systematic exposure to it, would mean more.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- your thoughts?

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

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Reading Titles

My new co-blogger at IHE has a nice piece on job titles that raise more questions than they answer. It's basically a call for titles that describe at least something about the duties of the job.

In some ways, though, I think the trouble with titles is that even such basics as "dean" and "provost" are frequently opaque, even before getting to "special assistant to..." and suchlike. So as a public service, below I've listed a few common academic titles, and the ways I've seen them defined in the community college world. I haven't done administration in a research university setting, so I grant without argument that your mileage may vary.

Department Chair: I've only ever seen this apply to academic departments, which are clusters of faculty in the same discipline. In some settings, chairs are elected by the department; in others, they're appointed by deans. In some cases, chairs evaluate faculty; in others, they belong to the same bargaining unit as faculty and therefore don't evaluate them. Department chairs carry faculty rank, and can keep tenure if they had it in their faculty roles. Although department chairs are first-responder administrators, they're generally considered faculty first and administrators second.

Division Dean: Not to be confused with the "dean of the college," a division dean is a middle manager between the department chairs and the senior management. Depending on the locale, the dean may or may not teach a class, but s/he is considered an administrator first. Deans are typically chosen by the senior management, and usually have to have terminal degrees (usually doctorates) in their academic discipline. (This may not hold for divisions on the non-credit side, like "continuing ed.") In the contexts I've seen, division deans manage budgets and deal with personnel issues as they arise. They are usually the go-to people for articulation agreements, accreditation reports, outcomes assessment, and faculty evaluation. It's a difficult role, since it involves a great deal of responsibility with relatively little authority, especially when money is tight. Most division deans come from the ranks of department chairs and/or associate deans.

Chief Academic Officer: This is the highest-ranking administrative person at the college with a direct line of responsibility into the academic side. Depending on the size of the college and local tradition, this person's title may be "dean of the college," "dean of the faculty," "academic vice president," "vice president for academic affairs," or "provost." This person reports to the President, and is responsible for the deans and the faculty. (Other "chief officers" typically include one for student affairs, one for business and finance, one for continuing ed, one for the foundation, and one for IT.) CAO's often don't carry faculty rank or tenure, though they usually came from faculty ranks. I read a few years ago that the average length of service for CAO's in America is three years, which is amazingly brief. Although it's losing the monopoly on the franchise, this is still the most common last job for first-time Presidents.

Provost: Although precise definitions vary, a provost is usually understood to be second-in-command at the college, and to have a wide scope of responsibility. In some cases, the various VP's report to the Provost, who is the academic version of a Chief Operating Officer. In the Western states, I'm told, the 'strong provost' model is particularly common. The virtue of that model, if you want to call it a virtue, is that it frees up the President to fundraise full-time. In my neck of the woods, provosts usually encompass both academic and student affairs, and often continuing ed. I've seen vp's report to a provost, but I've never seen the other way round.

Dean of the College: At small colleges, this is usually the CAO. At large universities, this is like a division dean, but one who actually has authority and resources.

Associate Dean: This is usually a full-time administrator who reports to a dean, and who takes care of certain areas of responsibility so the dean doesn't have to. (Budgeting and outcomes assessment are common portfolios.) I had a wonderful associate dean at Proprietary U; his skills were strongest in the areas where mine were weakest and vice versa, so between the two of us, we had it covered. My cc doesn't have associate deans, so the deans have to fly solo.

Assistant Dean: Danger! Danger! Don't be fooled by the seemingly familiar assistant-associate-full hierarchy. In the contexts in which I've seen them, assistant deans aren't really in line for anything; they're usually dead-end positions. They're often (though not always) relatively young and just passing through, and they're given discrete tasks without much supervisory responsibility. These people often either leave higher ed or become 'directors.'

Directors: Directors are sort of like deans, but the people they manage aren't faculty. A cc might have a dean of liberal arts, but a director of counseling. Directors are closer to the 'managers' you see in the typical corporate setting. Although the jobs are fairly well defined and usually full-time, they often don't lead anywhere within the organization.

Coordinators: Coordinators are more like department chairs than like directors. They're usually full-time employees who wear multiple hats. They're usually faculty, though I've seen them in more purely administrative functions as well. You might have a history professor who doubles as coordinator of the Honors program, or a counselor who coordinates the women's center. In the cases I've seen, most coordinators have a primary responsibility as something else.

"Senior": This is what the pomo types used to call a "floating signifier." It can mean just about anything. I've seen 'senior vice president' used to mean 'provost,' and I've seen it used to mean 'vice president with a salary bump.' 'Senior' can refer to either rank or length of service; when the two diverge, the usages can get socially awkward. A 'senior associate dean' seems like an oxymoron, but it's out there.

Specific functions can vary. I've seen deans do course scheduling, and I've also seen chairs do it. Sometimes student complaints go to the chair, and sometimes to the dean. I've heard of systems in which chairs allocate merit raises, which I'll admit strikes me as a colossal conflict of interest, but there it is. Sometimes deans allocate faculty lines, but sometimes CAO's do. I've even heard of a few places in which the deans are unionized, oddly enough, though it's not entirely clear to me how that squares with their managerial responsibilities.

As long as we're talking titles, I'll bow to the inevitable and ask the obvious. What's the weirdest or most opaque title you've seen on campus? Alternately, have you seen one of these terms defined very differently?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Taking the Leap

My friend and erstwhile colleague Lesboprof has a wonderful, thought-provoking post up about deciding not to take a shot at a job she wanted for fear that she wasn't ready, only to discover that her record would have stacked up well against the finalists. It's worth reading, and it got me thinking about the whole "I'm not ready" kind of hesitation.

LP characterizes that kind of humility as gendered, which I'd say is mostly right, but it strikes me as easier to address than many other gendered issues.

Part of it, I'm guessing, comes from long-ingrained habits in academia. If you entered the faculty ranks in the last twenty or thirty years, you probably had to run a really nasty gauntlet to get there. Graduate school teaches self-doubt so effectively that some people never recover, and the faculty job market reinforces the lesson. Depending on institutional context, going up for tenure can also involve some pretty serious self-doubt, so by that point you've been inculcated.

On top of that, add the academic cultural taboo against "crossing over to the dark side," the cultural baggage of expectations on women (the "good girl" syndrome), and relative ignorance of what it is that jobs higher on the food chain actually entail, and you have a pretty strong recipe for avoidance.

A few thoughts on taking the leap:

First, if you can, try to get some exposure to the people in the jobs you're thinking about. The last time I made a leap in levels, it happened after my previous boss let me pinch-hit for him at some statewide meetings of his counterparts. Participating in the discussions, I couldn't help but notice that most of the folks in that role were no sharper than I was. While that was depressing at one level, it was encouraging at another: it suddenly didn't seem weird to imagine myself in that role. I really can't recommend this method enough.

Second, for the first time in most of our careers, our generation will finally have the wind at its back. LP notes correctly that the pool for senior administrative hires is relatively thin, which is largely a consequence of the failure to hire meaningful numbers of full-time faculty for the last couple of decades. Neglecting the farm team has led, gradually but predictably, to a shortage of hot prospects. Since the Gen X and Gen Y cohorts have been fighting for scraps for so long, it may take a while to make the attitudinal adjustment to suddenly being in relative demand.

Part of the subtext of this blog has been to help develop the next generation of academic leadership by giving it reports from the front lines, in hopes of demystifying the profession and encouraging bright people to step up. Folks like LP -- smart, humane, genuinely concerned about the social mission of higher ed -- are exactly the ones I hope will step up.

(I expect to see this accelerate quickly, now that retirement portfolios have substantially recovered from the drubbing of late 2008-early 2009.)

Third, there's no shame in taking a shot and missing. In my own case, I can share that I had plenty of interviews that didn't result in offers, but those interviews helped me anyway. You learn a lot about a college during administrative interviews: some of it from the questions they choose to ask, some of it from asides that people make under their breath, and some just by being there and noticing what you see. You bring that knowledge back with you. You also become a better interviewee, which is a skill unto itself. I've actually heard people say that they won't apply for a position unless they're guaranteed to win it; to my mind, that's insanity. If you know the kind of job you want, and you have some basis to believe that you could do it well, go for it. Accept some no's as the price of the eventual yes.

Admittedly, rejection as an internal candidate is worse, but it can still get people used to seeing you in a new light. Making an unexpectedly strong run -- even if unsuccessfully -- can make a very positive impression.

Finally, it's relatively rare that someone will give you the tap on the shoulder. It's nice when it happens, but if you wait for it, you may wait forever. You have to decide to put yourself out there.

Thanks, LP, for a thought-provoking post. Sooner rather than later, you're gonna knock it out of the park.

Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on knowing when to take the leap?