Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Swimming Upstream

A new correspondent writes:

I am thinking of making a change in my career path. I am a non-tenure track, full time instructor, starting my 8th year in this job. While I enjoy my job and it is reasonably stable even in a terrible economy & job market, it is obviously untenable as a seriously-long-term career option. But I really like working in a University community and I want to find a way to stay in that environment.

I have also done some administrative work at this same campus and find that I am reasonably good at it and willing to do it (boring meetings, aside, and yes I know there are lots of those). And the work is never-ending, it seems. So I am considering going back to school and getting an MA (possibly PhD) in Higher Ed Admin from a well-regarded program. Now admitting this to fellow faculty on my campus would be like announcing that I have an undesirable social disease. The relationship between faculty and administrators on our campus is pretty toxic and "switching sides" is typically not looked upon with favor. So I'm here seeking outside input. Good idea/bad idea? Why?

I’m pretty sure the modifier “undesirable” coming before the noun “social disease” is redundant, but never mind that.

Depending on the branch of administration you’d like to enter, your plan might work. In my observation, though, people in those programs are usually already in some sort of administrative position, and are pursuing the credential in order to move up; an assistant director of admissions wants to become a director, say. That way, they can do their ‘fieldwork’ on their own campus.

Higher Ed Admin degrees don’t always get the same level of respect from faculty that degrees in traditional academic disciplines do, but that shouldn’t matter if you’re in, say, Student Services. I’m told that in some regions of the country, this isn’t as true as it is in the Northeast, either, but I’m open to correction on that.

In terms of employability, you may well find the job market in administration easier than the job market for faculty, depending on discipline. Of course, one rarely-noted reason for that is the dramatically higher turnover rate in administrative jobs. More firing leads to more hiring. (What this suggests about the effects of tenure on faculty hiring, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Since you don’t have a tenured position anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about increased risk.

The undertone of the question, though, is about braving public disapproval. Is it worth the opprobrium to pursue an opportunity?

At some level, of course, only you can answer that. But I’ve been in that spot myself, and I can attest that curbing your own ambitions to satisfy the embittered is a losing proposition. They won’t be satisfied anyway -- they never are -- and your sacrifice will gain the world exactly nothing. (If you don’t become the next Assistant Dean, someone else will.) Taken to its logical conclusion, the “never cross over” perspective quickly becomes absurd.

Suppose you do sacrifice yourself on the altar of other people’s crankiness. When your position gets cut, will they defend you?

Academics tend to have been good students, and good students are often people pleasers. But you need to be willing to do what you need to do. If you decide, upon reflection, that administration isn’t what you want, then by all means stay away. But if you think it suits you -- you like the environment, you’re good at it, and you can see the contribution that good administration makes -- then I wouldn’t pay too much heed to the naysayers. Absorb the parts of their critique that could help you do your job better, but don’t let it stop you from trying in the first place. The more thoughtful critics of administration will usually concede that it’s better to have smart administrators than dumb ones; if you have it in you to be a smart one, and the idea appeals to you, I say go for it.

Besides, there’s no law saying you have to work at the same college forever. Getting the credential could help you find work elsewhere, where you would come in already having crossed over; ‘betrayal’ wouldn’t enter into it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Should s/he tune out the naysayers, or is there something critical that I’ve missed?

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

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ask the Administrator: How to Get a Grade Changed?

A student writes:

I failed a class (obtained an F), and was planning to retake it based on the rules of the university. I did, and I received B. However, I was unaware that the retake policies changed (they changed after I entered the university my first semester). The retake policies changed to enable a person to drop a bad grade from a transcript and retake the class.

However, I didn't know this was possible (and I was supposed to do the paperwork during the first week to enact this policy for myself). I was unaware and ignorant the policy had changed. I would really like to have my grade changed, though.

I feel as though I've been wronged, because I came in with knowledge of the policies when I first entered, which was the Fall of 2009. I failed the class in the Fall of 2009, and retook it during the summer of 2010.

I have talked to my advisor (and I'm 23 going on 24 soon), and he said it's not people's responsibility to be hand-holders and notify people. Of course, this was an insult, because I've helped raise children. It seems like he is implying that I'm a child. He also claimed it was my fault to not have done something. I keep thinking that these are arguments that assume I have free-will. Fact is, though, I did not have any determining factors that lead me to reading about the policy changes, as such, I didn't enact upon them.

I rebutted saying that I would have done something if I had known, for I wouldn't have wanted to do something as self-destructive as not filling out the paperwork (which would have helped me in this case to remove a bad grade from my transcript).

He told me to go to the Office of Student Affairs. I've been around that place, and I've been told about how inefficient it is at getting things done. My general belief is that they are going to deny me the ability to fix my grade. Why? I don't know. Life is cruel and society is out to get people, which is something I have come to believe as I get older.

As the Office of Student Affairs will most likely ignore me, turn me away, and call me a fool, I've considered talking to the dean. He seems to be a pretty high-up guy. I'm not sure how feasible it is to visit and directly talk to him. However, I am starting to feel that is what I have to do.

I put in the hard work for the class. I don't know why they won't be kind enough to change the grade.

What do you think I should do?

I don’t know the ins and outs of your particular university, so I won’t comment on that. Instead, I’ll address the general issue of what to do when you’re caught between shifting requirements.

Something I’ve had to learn over the years is that there’s frequently a gap between written policies and their execution on the ground. While that can be a source of endless shenanigans, it can also help address equity in cases in which someone is harmed by unintended consequences.

The spirit of the new rule, it seems to me, is to allow a student to reap the rewards of doing better the second time. You actually did do better the second time. The requirement to fill out the appropriate paperwork seems to me a bureaucratic convenience, rather than a necessary part of the requirement. (I could be wrong on that, not working there, but that would be my first guess.)

I don’t blame your advisor for reacting the way he did; at some level, students have to be responsible for keeping up with the rules. But advisors, typically, are not empowered to make changes (or overrides) in cases like these. Their job is to help you understand where you stand within the rules as written.

Typically, someone with a title like “Dean of Students” would be the one to see. She would have the authority to override certain requirements based on her professional judgment. Keep in mind that she isn’t obligated to do so; her authority to do so is discretionary. As such, your argument to her should be based on substantive fairness.

If you were actually trying to get a professor to change a given grade, the advice would be different. But since you aren’t contesting the grade you received the second time -- you’re only contesting what gets recorded where -- this is a properly administrative question.

When you make the appointment, bring as much documentation as you can. What was the policy when you enrolled? What did your advisor tell you (or not tell you)? What extenuating circumstances can you document to show that you were not reasonably capable of keeping up with the changes?

Since you’re asking for a dispensation, rather than the enforcement of a right, be sure to present your request appropriately. Deans are people too, and going in guns-a-blazing is unlikely to help in this case.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you advise the student to do?

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

Friday, August 27, 2010


As regular readers know, I’m kind of obsessed with questions of structure in American higher education. I’m working on a book on the subject now, and I keep bumping into a series of suspicions that I can neither prove nor disprove.

I don’t know if anyone has done a serious study of this. If someone has, I’d love a reference. But if not, here’s an idea for an enterprising Ed.D. student looking for a dissertation topic...

Nationally, there are two popular funding models for community colleges. (Yes, there are infinite minor variations within them, but in general terms, this is true.)

1. The state provides a subsidy, and tuition/fees provide the rest.

2. The state provides a subsidy, the county or other local entity provides a second subsidy, and tuition/fees provide the rest. (Sometimes a service area will comprise multiple counties, but the concept is the same.)

Based on my admittedly limited observation and experience, I have a couple hypotheses about differences between the two systems.

1. All else being equal, cc’s in state-funded systems are likelier to add bachelor’s degree completion programs than cc’s in county-funded systems.

2. All else being equal, cc’s in county-funded systems will be funded at higher levels than cc’s in state-funded systems. Although there are several reasons for this, competition will be a major one.

3. All else being equal, cc’s in county-funded systems will have much more highly-charged debates about the residency status of undocumented students than will cc’s in state-funded systems. (This is because of the tuition premium for out-of-county students.)

4. All else being equal, credit transfer between cc’s and four-year state colleges will be smoother in state-funded systems than in county-funded systems. (That’s because he who pays the piper calls the tune.)

By “all else being equal,” I’m referring primarily to the population density and wealth level of the area. In other words, the relevant comparisons would be between cc’s in demographically similar areas. Such distinctions as rural/suburban/urban or wealthy/poor will obviously swamp the more subtle differences I’m trying to isolate.

Does anyone know of any good empirical work already done on any of these questions? Alternately, does anyone have some good counterexamples?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Jumping Into the CC World

A new correspondent writes (edited for anonymity):

I have spent the last [many] years as [an academic administrator] at a faith-based private school. I interviewed [recently] for the academic dean role at a community college. Supposing I were to continue down this path, what are the biggest challenges I'll face in transitioning from a liberal arts college environment to a community college environment? I realize I don't know much at all about workforce development or how to hire a good welding instructor but it seems that much of the core task (recruiting, scheduling, assessing, troubleshooting) remain the same.

What would you advise in terms of getting one's bearings as quickly as possible?

It’s a great question, but to answer it, I’ll have to shift the terms a bit.

I’ve never worked in a faith-based institution, so I can’t speak directly to that particular angle. Some of them are relatively loose in their religious identification -- I’ve heard it said that Notre Dame would recruit Satan himself if he could catch a pass -- and some are quite rigorous in their adherence to a particular religious identity. If you’re coming from the latter, you should expect a degree of culture shock in moving to an open-admissions public institution. Depending on region, you may well find a level of diversity of styles among students and staff that will far surpass what you’ve seen before. That affects things like what you can take for granted, what’s acceptable material for jokes, and what variables you have to consider when making decisions.

The more fundamental shift, though, will be from the world of private institutions to the world of public ones. I’ve made that shift myself, and I can attest that it took a while to adjust.

As public institutions, community colleges draw funding from the public and are accountable to it. They’re government agencies, subject to all manner of regulation and mandates. In some states, they’re also heavily unionized, which is a difference of such degree as to be a difference of kind.

I’m a fan of the community college sector, obviously, but it has its quirks.

At the most basic level, you’ll be dealing with a much more transient and diverse population of students, and a much more diverse population of faculty and staff. By ‘diverse’ I’m not primarily referring to race or ethnicity, but to outlook. You’ll have atheists and Christians and Jews and Baha’i; veterans and leftists and poets and engineers; activists and cynics and alcoholics and miracle workers. You’ll have to consider fairness to all, which in practice often means junking a substantive conception of The Good in favor of a procedural one.

If you’re in a collective bargaining environment, that’ll be even more true. You’ll find yourself bound to perfectly absurd procedures and settlements simply because of an infelicitous turn of phrase that nobody noticed before in an obscure corner of the contract. You’ll settle for fourth-best outcomes because the first three each violate somebody’s pet issue. You’ll have to address each issue as a potential precedent for future issues, which sometimes means acceding to objectionable or even silly outcomes in present cases. (It’s even more frustrating in reverse, especially in a statewide system: you can’t do perfectly sensible action A because someone at another college in the system grieved action B a few years ago, and the overly-broad language of that settlement is binding on you. It can be utterly maddening.) At a really basic level, you’ll have to give up on the idea of ‘managing’ in any recognizable sense, and instead imagine at least four parties to every discussion: yourself, the union leadership, the written contract, and the unwritten contract. It’s much more about diplomacy than about calling shots.

The trick is in looking at the situation as a puzzle.

In the private college setting, authority is often limited to a few key players. But in a public college, it’s wildly -- sometimes dysfunctionally -- overgrown. It’s everywhere, and therefore nowhere. Your job is to bring clarity to confusion, the better to allow people to focus on their actual work.

Paradoxically enough, doing that often involves doing the precise opposite of what might work in a private setting. Instead of Making a Splash (and luring donors by doing it), you’re much better off starting out slowly. Go on a listening tour, take things under advisement, and when you have to make decisions, decide first how to decide. (Hint: the more you can confine your decisions to processes rather than outcomes, the better off everyone will be.) That might sound like doing nothing, but it’s more like calming the waters. I’ve never seen a public institution that didn’t have significant internal drama. That drama typically diverts energy from the actual mission of the place. It also leads to still more legalistic hair-splitting, which, in turn, spawns drama of its own.

If you can establish confidence that you care more about the overall climate than about ‘winning’ this battle or that one, you may be able to gradually redirect the college’s energy from internal politics to actually teaching students. That will require patience, and humility, and a really finely honed sense of the absurd. (I use the safety valve of the blog for the occasional venting, so I don’t have to vent on campus.) If you can get to the point where you can have candid discussions with the union leadership about some of the more baroque consequences of the contract, you may be able to reach agreements on work-arounds that reduce the absurdity. That’s a real contribution. Over time, you may even make meaningful progress bushwhacking through the legal underbrush; your successors will thank you.

One admin’s perspective, anyway.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who’ve made similar jumps -- what would you suggest?

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Transferring to a Private College

A new correspondent writes:

I have been away from the academic world for a while, and have been made an offer to use the local community college as a means toward reintegrating myself into the university environment, with hopes of transferring fairly rapidly to a liberal-arts college or university. The quick transfer would be most desirable to me as I already have a number of disparate credits under my belt from my years as an academic dilettante, and would think it best to be able to search the various faculties at the college from which I intend to matriculate for those professors with whom I share similar interests and ideas before I declare my specialty. Thus, I wish to ensure that kindred spirits will be advising my thesis and recommending good graduate or professional programs to me—and likewise me to them.

I have attempted to make applications to these B.A.-granting colleges before, only to be stymied by the volume of paperwork, particularly as such “paperwork” becomes increasingly computerized. Thus, the bureaucratic assistance hopefully provided by the community college would be of great benefit to me.

My questions are these:

All the institutions to which I would desire to transfer are private; knowing that each college may have different policies in this regard, is it most likely that the credits gained at the community college will carry over? It is not that I personally would mind retaking classes in Western civilization, Shakespeare, or rhetoric, or gaining an additional year in which to do my investigative work, but rather that my wallet would.
Even if the credits are not likely to carry over, would the evidence of current academic activity nevertheless incline the admissions personnel at the B.A.-granting institution to look upon my application for study more favourably?
Most generally, is taking classes at a community college an advisable way to progress toward my above-stated purposes, or would you recommend something else?

You will note that I have not specifically named any of the colleges involved herein, as I’m not certain that the specifics are yet relevant; if they are, though, I can gladly provide them. As for myself, though, it may help to note that I would be considered a non-traditional student, being 30 years of age. Those concentrations which would most interest me are philosophy, literature, and languages, all of which I’ve been studying autodidactically for over a decade. I have published poems and essays, worked as an editor, am bilingual, and have finally come to the decision that it would likely be best for me to make my career in academia.

(In a followup, he noted that he’s American and writing in the American context; the English spellings are for reasons of his own. I asked because I can only answer within the American context.)

I feel ethically bound to warn you that full-time positions in academia in the areas of philosophy, literature, and languages are hotly contested, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. While the decision to take that path is your own, I would strongly advise avoiding heavy debt burdens to do it.

That said, I’ll take a shot at each question in sequence, and then ask my wise and worldly readership to help fill out (or correct) the picture.

1. Will the credits transfer? Given that you’re looking at private colleges, the answer will vary from college to college. I can imagine two effective ways to get specifics here. One, if you already know which four-year schools you’d target, would be to talk to them directly. With which cc’s do they have “articulation agreements”? From which cc’s do they take transfers? What are their expectations or requirements for transfer students? It’s common, for example, for them to take certain courses but not others; if you know that when you start at the cc, you can build your schedule to maximize transferability.

If you were targeting public colleges or universities, this would be somewhat easier, since many states have statewide policies or agreements on transfer credits. But private colleges can set their own policies.

You’ll also need to be very specific in your questions. Sometimes a college will “take” certain courses, but it won’t count them towards your degree program; instead, it will assign them “free elective” status. “Free electives” are where credits go to die. Beware.

The other way would be to go to the cc you have in mind, and ask to speak to the transfer counselor. (This person is usually connected to the Admissions office.) Ask about the cc’s recent record of transfers to the colleges you have in mind. How many students went? How many credits were accepted? What are the quirks of admission to each?

Obviously, these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and you may be well advised to do both.

2. Is a fresh start likely to improve your chances of admission? If your previous experience was an an “academic dilettante,” then probably. Nothing proves the ability to succeed like a record of success. If you can build a convincing story to the effect that you lacked focus at 18, but you’ve gained life experience and a sense of what you want since then, and your record at the cc shows talent and drive, you should be a very compelling candidate. (Of course, if you do poorly at the cc, that won’t help.) A couple of years at or near a 4.0 should put to rest any misgivings about ability or focus. At cc tuition levels, they should also take the edge off your loan burdens later. Some private colleges even have scholarships specifically for transfer students, so you could conceivably finish with a prestigious degree at a very deep discount. In this market, that’s a pretty good deal.

3. Is a community college a good starting point? It may well be, though again, not every cc is the same. Do some legwork. Does your particular one have a good record of transfer? Does it have enough of the courses you would need? Are you willing to forego the joys of dorm life? (At your age, that may be a blessing.) On the flip side, are you comfortable saving thousands of dollars and having small classes?

If you can honestly answer ‘yes’ to each of those, then yes, it may be a very good option.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or correct)?

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


The nieces came to visit this weekend. The older niece is three, and the younger one is five months.

The glory of an infant niece -- I’d imagine grandkids work the same way -- is that you get all of the cuteness, without the hard labor. When Younger Niece made the untoward digestive noises they make at that age, I could look at my brother without guilt. And when you’re a few years out of having an infant around, a little one makes a great nostalgia trip.

There’s something wonderful about the way a baby nuzzles her head into you when you’re holding her and she’s falling asleep. The distinctive baby noises -- the snorts and grunts and coos -- bring it all back. At one point, all of the adults were just starting at the baby in her Gymini on the floor. TW was the first to notice that we were doing it; it was so natural that we didn’t even realize we were doing it.

The Older Niece immediately bonded with The Girl, and they quickly resumed being partners in crime. They treated us to some live, improvisatory theatre, in which The Older Niece played a princess, and TG played, variously, a kittycat, a dog, and a monster. In the way that kids always have, they gathered all the adults into a room to watch, announced the ‘play’ with fanfare, and made up the plot as they went along. (“I know! You be the princess, and I’ll be a doggy!” “Okay!” “Woof, woof! (pant, pant)”) They finished to applause each time.

Even TB got in on the act, being a gracious host and doting on the baby. He valiantly volunteered to air-mattress duty without complaint, and held the baby gently when he got the chance. TB and TG put aside their occasional low-level conflict altogether, acting as hosts and role models. TB got to feel like an adult, and TG got to be older than somebody, which doesn’t happen very often. They made us proud.

It wasn’t all smooth, of course. My sister-in-law had loaded her itouch with games for her kids; now TB and TG want me to do the same. (“Fruit Ninja” is the current favorite.) I may never get it back. And after a few days of sleep deprivation, even the best of us can get a little snappy.

But seeing the kids step up like that was wonderful. They were mature, sweet, welcoming, and utterly themselves. And getting a baby-fix without having to change a single diaper is a pretty good deal.

Now it’s back to reality...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Define “In the Discipline”

Who’s qualified to teach college level math?

This isn’t limited to math, but I’ll start there because it’s concrete. Similar issues arise in any number of other disciplines.

According to some in the math department, you either have a master’s (or higher) in mathematics, or you do not. Engineering isn’t math; computer science isn’t math; physics isn’t math; mathematics education isn’t math. The folks who hold this view claim that they’re upholding standards, and preventing a slow but presumably inevitable slide towards perdition.

At the topmost tier of the discipline, I suppose there may be something to the argument. But I have a hard time with the claim that a physicist or electrical engineer lacks the subject matter expertise to teach College Algebra. It just lacks basic plausibility.

The issue is real because sometimes the classes in areas like physics or engineering don’t fill, and we have tenured faculty who need to “make load” (meaning, have a full schedule). When people can fill in gaps in loads with classes from other disciplines, it’s easier to hire and keep them. When they can’t, the economic burden of their light loads has to be made up elsewhere.

I’ve seen similar issues in other disciplines. Does a Ph.D. in comparative literature qualify someone to teach English? Does a Ph.D. in American Studies qualify someone to teach history? (Put differently, if we insist on disciplinary purity, we couldn’t run, say, women’s studies. The faculty for that teach primarily in departments like English, psychology, and history. The enrollments don’t justify a ‘pure’ full-time hire.)

Depending on the rules of the regional accrediting agency, local culture, past practice, and the issues that individual departments have, I’ve seen each of these questions answered in different ways.

The argument from ‘purity,’ I think, is based on fear of a slippery slope. But it fails to acknowledge the often-arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries -- quick, is “modern political thought” history, philosophy, or poli sci? -- and the very real economic costs of specialization for staffing. If the physicists can only teach physics and nothing else, then I have to hire no more than enough to cover the lowest likely enrollments for the next few decades. If they can fill in gaps by teaching math, then I can hire a little more aggressively and not worry as much.

On the other side, I have to acknowledge that the fear of the slippery slope isn’t entirely unfounded. I remember having some teachers in high school who simply lacked subject matter competence in what they taught. It led to some embarrassing moments in the classroom. Gym teachers teaching Health were always crapshoots, but it wasn’t limited to that; I clearly recall my high school American History teacher trying to claim that the Missouri Compromise was when Missouri was divided in half. Um, no. Depending on how far ‘out of position’ an instructor is teaching, the odds of content-matter screwups can increase.

Wise and worldly readers, how does your campus draw disciplinary boundaries? Can a physicist teach math? A comp lit scholar teach English? Should they be able to? In the absence of a really bright line from the regional accreditor, I’m looking for a position I could defend that would respect subject matter competence without reifying disciplinary boundaries and/or locking unsustainable costs into place for decades to come.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Towards Answers

In this week's kerfuffle about the New Faculty Majority – from which other administrators seem to have learned that such things are best ignored, since engaging just brings flame wars – several commenters asked, with varying degrees of civility, what my answer was.

It's severalfold.

First, if you're adjuncting and you feel like you're being exploited, stop adjuncting. Just stop. Walk away. You are an adult, responsible for your own choices. If your college didn't specifically promise you a full-time job after x semesters of adjuncting, then it does not owe you one, no matter how badly you want it. Colleges don't exist to provide jobs for academics. It's not about you.

Second, I strongly encourage all second- or third-tier graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines to stop accepting new students. This is what keeps replenishing the reserve army of the underemployed. If we don't get a handle on this, we will never bring things into alignment. The basic arithmetic of this is so obvious that I'm amazed that the compass-direction-state U's of the world still get funding for graduate programs in history and English and sociology.

Third, don't blame the culture at large. The cost of higher education is much higher now than it has ever been. Given the cost trend, I don't see a fundamental attitude shift between, say, forty years ago and now. The culture valued education at x forty years ago, and still does now. The problem is that the cost has gone from .5x to 2x. The culture didn't turn its back on us; we just mistook respect for open-ended entitlement. Raging at the booboisie is easy, self-flattering, and doomed to fail. You don't gain the support of the public by calling it stupid or philistine.

Fourth, and this is why I wrote my posts the way I did, don't give people false hope. It's precisely that false hope that keeps luring bright young people into a dying career. I don't simply think the NFM proposal is na├»ve, though it is; I think it does active (if unintended) harm. It does harm by perpetuating the myth – I should say, the lie – that there's a full-time job owed to every adjunct, if they just stick around long enough. There is not, and there never will be. Let people come to grips with the economic – yes, economic – reality of the situation, instead of trying to dress up wishful thinking as high principle.

Fifth, let's retire the tired “it's all the fault of the administrators” line. The cost spiral and the adjunct trend have been gone on for decades, in every corner of higher education and every region of the country. Thousands of administrators have come and gone in that time, with no discernible effect on either trend. Good administrators help the institutions do what they do well, but at the end of the day, the drivers are mostly structural. And the changes will be structural. The only question is whether we will make the changes, or they will be made for us.

It's time to have some serious discussions about structure. I've mentioned before that this needs to include such costly anachronisms as the credit hour, tenure, and the agrarian calendar; I'm increasingly convinced that it also needs to include the notion of the “comprehensive” college. The era of “all things to all people” passed decades ago in most other industries. At a really fundamental level, it's time to rethink the “diffuse mission, few funding streams” model in favor of a “diffuse funding streams, focused mission” model. Instead of counting on an ever-stingier state to support ever more programs, let's diversify the funding streams and channel them into fewer, stronger programs. At the community college level, I see that boiling down to the liberal arts, criminal justice, and nursing, with some regional variation. Let the proprietaries handle the vocational stuff; it's what they do, and we can't keep adding boutique programs on ever-declining revenue. Let's get the benefits of specialization, and do a few things well rather than a lot of things just a little bit worse every year.

Of course, we don't have to have those difficult conversations. Instead, we could simply continue the unthinking slide of the last forty years until the for-profits and various online companies eat our lunch.
I would consider that non-decision utterly tragic, but it's the path of least short-term resistance. If I wanted to make my readers happy and enhance my career prospects, I could just write the umpteenth peroration on the joys of tenure and the wonderfulness of academia and our collective misunderstood tragic beauty, but I didn't start blogging to lie. I care too much about higher education to let it die of neglect without at least trying to save it. But it has to want to live. It has to stop pretending that it isn't badly sick. It has to stop pretending that eating its young is a viable long-term strategy.

I'll admit becoming increasingly impatient with positions that amount to trying to squeeze ever more people onto the Titanic. It's the wrong battle. And I'm too young for fatalism. This isn't about defending the current system; it's about bending it so it won't break. If higher education is going to survive in a form worth having, it's going to have to change in some pretty dramatic ways. We in higher ed can take leadership roles in driving those changes, or we can let the University of Phoenix do it for us.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Saving Stimulus

This is one of those “individually rational, collectively insane” moments.

The New York Times reported that some of the federal stimulus money that was supposed to save the jobs of teachers, police officers, and other public employees is instead being squirreled away by states and school districts, in anticipation of even lower tax revenues next year. The quote that jumped off the screen for me was:

“We’re a little wary about hiring people if we only have money for a year, but we know that’s the intent of this bill,” said Jeff Weiler, chief financial officer for Clark County schools.

Exactly so. And yet, the whole point of a stimulus is to be spent quickly for maximum impact.

We’re facing something similar here. We have some ARRA money for this year, and it has certainly helped us deal with the fallout from disappointing state revenues. But the ARRA (stimulus) funding will go away next year, whether the recession goes away or not. (Even if it does, education funding typically lags recoveries by a year or two.) Given that the federal fiscal year overshoots the state fiscal year -- don’t get me started -- there’s a pretty good argument to the effect that it’s prudent for the college to save what it can, while it can; if we’re going over a cliff a year from now, any cushion is better than none.

Short-term funding can work when the emergency itself is short-term, or when the projects being funded are short-term. It’s great for abrupt emergencies, like natural disasters, or for one-off tasks, like replacing a furnace. But it’s a terrible fit for staffing, and a ridiculously terrible fit for tenured staffing.

If you have a realistic expectation of having to let somebody go next year, how eager will you be to hire this year? Especially in cases in which they get tenure this year? The termination costs alone...

I don’t mean this as an anti-stimulus argument. I’m convinced that it has made things somewhat less bad than they otherwise would have been, and to the extent that we’re able to buy time, it’s at least possible that revenues will rebound enough (and quickly enough) to avoid catastrophe. If it tides us over, great. And it has allowed us to address some lingering capital needs on campus that probably would have gone neglected even longer than they already have. In some cases, replacing old and inefficient equipment with new and more efficient equipment may even redound to some savings in ongoing energy expenses, which is all to the good.

But saving permanent staff requires long-term money. It requires sustained, predictable, don’t-mess-with-it, long-term money. For colleges without huge endowments -- that is, for every community college I’ve ever seen -- that makes short-term infusions look like good candidates for saving.

If we really want to save permanent jobs -- and I absolutely believe we should -- we need a structural change. We need dedicated, long-term, predictable, don’t-mess-with-it funding that the institutions themselves control. Right now, by default, that usually means tuition. This is actually one of the drivers of the cost-shift to students: tuition is much less subject to the whims of state legislators than state aid is. When your costs are mostly fixed and your funding maddeningly variable, you’re up against it any time the state has an issue. Cost-shifting to students equates to sustainability, from the institution’s perspective, even if it’s severely damaging from a social justice perspective. If we want permanent staffing and low tuition at the same time, we need a hugely different funding model. Stimuli are great, but on the ground, institutions will do what they need to do. If you want to change what they do, change their needs.

To play by the intended rules of the stimulus -- that is, to blow it all quickly in the name of ginning up local demand -- would be institutionally suicidal. Yes, it would (at least arguably) be of great collective benefit, at least in the very short term, but it would require a level of denial bordering on negligence.

I’m only surprised that this is news.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Girl Discovers Anthropology

Last Sunday, when it was particularly hot outside and we were mostly stuck inside, TG declared that she was going to pretend to be an alien from another planet, observing human behavior. (That’s my girl!) She followed us around for a while, writing down her observations. I’ve transcribed them below; only the spellings have been changed.

People play on computers.

People grill on a grill.

People read books.

People talk to people.

People write on paper.

People write and read papers.

People read magazines.

People lay on couches.

People can talk and see.

People can be a boy or a girl.

People have flowers.

People have houses.

People love people.

People have lives.

Apparently, she inherited the social science gene from her father...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Response to The New Faculty Majority

The New Faculty Majority has drafted a proposal calling for adjuncts to get tenure (or its functional equivalent) and proportional pay and benefits for their teaching.

A few thoughts:

First, I understand the impulse, and there’s some validity to it. Folks on my side of the desk often claim, correctly, that part of the appeal of adjuncts is flexibility. In return, union activists typically brush aside concerns from flexibility as euphemisms for cheapness. Controlling for cost actually isolates flexibility as a variable. Given parity, would we still have adjuncts? I say yes, because enrollments aren’t perfectly predictable, departures aren’t perfectly predictable, and some subject areas will never have high enrollments. (Will we ever have enough students to justify a full-time professor for every instrument the music department teaches? No.) When you have enrollment peaks and valleys following economic cycles, you simply can’t have perfectly steady-state staffing. It cannot be done. Flexibility is not just a euphemism.

It’s also true that the expectations for professionalism in the classroom are the same. I don’t expect adjuncts to attend meetings for which they aren’t paid, but when teaching a class, I fully expect them to do a good job. And most do. In my adjuncting days, I did. If the expectations are the same, there’s an argument for the pay to be the same.

I’ll even grant that it’s true that many newer adjuncts are as qualified, if not more so, than some of the folks who get tenure decades ago. To my mind, that says as much about tenure as it does about adjuncts, but you can read it the other way, too.

And I get the basic awfulness of trying to cobble together a living one course at a time. Been there, done that. No argument there.

I’ll stipulate that the NFM basically means well, and is motivated by sincere concern for some folks who’ve been struggling for a long time.

All of that granted, though, I’m not convinced. In fact, I’m not even convinced they’re asking the right questions.

I’ll start with a really basic fact. Over 80 percent of my college’s budget is labor, and instruction is the single largest part of that. The college’s operating income -- that is, the money that we can use to pay for salaries and ongoing expenses -- comes from exactly two sources: tuition and the state. If you push through a drastic increase in labor costs, how, exactly, do you propose to pay for it?

Do you propose doubling tuition? Are you seriously trying to argue that the major issue with the economics of higher education is that tuition hasn’t been going up fast enough? That students are graduating (or dropping out) with insufficient loan debt? To my mind, and to most of the public’s mind, this argument is dead on arrival. If anything, we need to reduce the rate of tuition increase, not accelerate it. A drastic hike in tuition costs is simply off the table.

Do you propose squeezing more out of the state? I’d love to see that happen, too. What’s the missing tactic? What can we try that hasn’t been tried? And how do we ensure that the increase survives administrations of both parties, and both good times and bad? How do you help the state meet its obligations to K-12, corrections, health care, and pensions, and still have enough left over to meet the newly-raised needs of higher ed? If you have an idea, I’m all ears. If not, your proposal is not to be taken seriously.

You could always demagogue it and go with administration and/or athletics. Go ahead. Do the math. I make less than the average tenured English professor at the state university; if you want to talk bloat, let’s really talk bloat. In the community college world, administration and athletics are not, by and large, big ticket items. My college has fewer deans now than it had two years ago, and it has cut several teams already. I have no issue with those who say that, for example, Rutgers University’s decision to double down on football was tragically stupid; it was. But we don’t have a football team. You can’t cut below zero.

In terms of administration, what would you cut? Should we stop trying to comply with the ADA? Should we stop evaluating faculty altogether, and just trust that everybody is perfect? Perhaps we should stop giving financial aid, since it requires so many staff. Who cares about accreditation? Who cares about IT? Who cares about payroll? (Whoops.)

In my experience, carping about “administrative bloat” is similar to Republicans carping about “wasteful government.” It feels good, it gives a common enemy, and it lets you dodge some difficult questions. But until you actually specify what you’re talking about, it’s bluffing. You want to reduce the salaries of a few Big 10 Presidents? Knock yourself out, but don’t pretend for one minute that that’ll help me balance my books. It won’t.

Can you guarantee that enrollments will never go down? How? Because if you can’t, then asking me to commit to the current staffing level -- which is what tenure for adjuncts would amount to -- would guarantee insolvency at the first enrollment dip. If you can, I’d love to hear how...

Can you guarantee that the distribution of students among programs will never change? If not, then building in tenure for everybody will guarantee underused staff the first time the enrollments shift. And it will guarantee seat shortages in the newly popular areas, since I’ll be so swamped trying to pay for the tenured that I won’t be able to hire new people.

Or, are you proposing that we add up all the tenured and adjunct salaries, and simply divide? That would be revenue-neutral, and would result in some serious raises for the adjuncts. The tenured folk would probably get a little crabby, though. (For that matter, I’d love to see the faculty meeting in which you guys float your proposal to ban overloads. Hoo boy, good luck with that...) Hell, while we’re at it, ‘parity’ with whom, exactly? Different tenure-track professors make different salaries, based on all kinds of variables. And would freeway fliers get tenure at three or four different places simultaneously? Would I be obligated to work with those schools for years to come to cobble together schedules? If so, we’ll need a lot more administrators to coordinate it...

This proposal is so far removed from the reality of running a college that it’s genuinely difficult to take seriously. It’s the result of asking the wrong questions.

The right question is not how to squeeze more people into an unsustainable structure. The right question is how to make the structure sustainable. That requires serious discussions of flexibility, productivity, accountability, and funding streams. It requires acknowledging the reality of the tuition cost spiral, state budget deficits, and Republicans. Wish lists won’t cut it.

If the NFM wanted to engage the right questions, I would be more than happy to welcome it to the discussion. But if the best it can muster is “the same, but more,” I have work to do. We all do.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Ranks

A new correspondent writes:

Why are ranks at Community Colleges sometimes different from those at 4-year schools? For example, my rank is "Instructor," but I'm full-time tenure track. I only achieve the rank of "Assistant Professor" in five years, after I get tenure. The other ranks are for various levels of promotion.

I know it's a minor issue, but frankly it drives me a little nuts having to explain to people that I am, in fact, TT and that I'm not a part-timer. Sometimes I just fudge and say "Assistant Professor," to avoid the confusion.

Any idea why the ranks are so often different? How naughty am I to refer to myself as Asst. Prof. if that's not what it's called at my school?

This may seem weaselly, but my first response is to ask the context in which you refer to yourself that way. On a cv, in an official document, or in a job interview, it would be fraud. In informal conversation, though, I don’t see the issue.

DIfferent systems use different criteria and definitions for names, but the names themselves don’t change much. This leads to no end of confusion.

It starts with something as simple as “professor.” Much of the unhappiness in the profession, I think, stems from people having very different ideas of what a “professor” is. Is a “professor” a researcher with graduate assistants who occasionally gives an auditorium lecture, or a teacher who relies on group discussion, or a learning coach who helps students navigate self-paced learning modules? I’ve seen it carry each of those meanings and many more, but if you think it means the first and you get hired somewhere that believes it means the third, I foresee heartache.

It’s even worse for administrators, if that helps. Is a “dean” an august leader, a middle manager, or a low-level paper pusher? I’ve seen them all...

The instructor-assistant-associate-full ladder is fairly standard across the industry, but each rank carries different meanings in different places. I’ve seen schemes in which ‘instructor’ is reserved for full-timers off the tenure track, though in other places I’ve seen those called “visiting” assistant professors. I’ve also seen schemes in which new t-t hires are called ‘instructor’ until tenure, unless they have Ph.D.’s, at which point they’re called “assistant professor” until hire. (For my money, the best line reading of “assistant professor” belongs to Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But I digress.)

Oddly enough, in some places, ranks are entirely disconnected from tenure status. I’ve never understood that -- it seems to me that if you have a tenure system, then tenure and promotion should be connected somehow -- but it happens. I’ve seen systems in which you could gain tenure, work for decades, and retire still at the rank of assistant professor. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but there it is.

The issue isn’t really that different colleges define the terms differently. The issue is that they don’t know it. Since most tenure-line faculty don’t move around much, they often only know the system in which they personally work. When you try to move between systems, you’ll often see assumptions made based on a lack of awareness that different systems use the same words differently. Are ‘instructors’ on the tenure track? Maybe, maybe not. Do assistant professors have doctorates? Maybe, maybe not. (On the administrative side: do deans have tenure? What’s the difference between a director and a coordinator? Are department chairs administration or faculty? The answers to each of these varies by institution.)

I hope that the quirkiness of the local naming scheme doesn’t cause any real issues for you. As long as you don’t lie in an official context, I say call yourself whatever is easiest.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a particularly odd rank/naming scheme? How did it work?

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

Friday, August 13, 2010


In our never-ending quest to help students succeed, we’re taking a fresh look at how we do academic advising on campus. From asking around, it seems like there are several different schools of thought on academic advising, each pretty much talking past the others.

First, there’s the “advising is scheduling” school. This group sees advising as a discrete function to be carried out almost entirely in the first week of registration, consisting almost entirely of helping students decipher degree requirements and sequences of prerequisites. I think of this as the sherpa function; the sherpa doesn’t ask why you want to climb this mountain; he just guides you to the top. The appeal of this line of thought is its implied humility: I don’t know why people do the things they do, I just help them realize their revealed preferences. The downside, of course, is that people don’t always know what they want, or they may not understand the difference between, say, “criminal justice” and “prelaw.” If you don’t ask the second question, you’re just helping the student dig herself in deeper.

Then there’s the “whole person” school of advisement, which elevates the adviser to something like guru status. This school holds that the adviser is supposed to see past the student’s self-delusion and suss out what s/he really wants. When it actually works, it’s lovely, but it’s hard to reproduce at scale, and it’s certainly open to charges of arrogance or self-dealing. (My adviser in college was a physics professor who just couldn’t understand why anybody would ever major in anything other than physics. I’m sure he meant well, but he didn’t help me any..)

A close variation on that is the “role model” adviser. This usually gets applied to students in underrepresented groups. The idea is that people make assumptions about what they can do based in part on who’s doing those things now, so putting some recognizably similar faces in key roles can send a powerful message. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this line of thought, but there’s some empirical support for it, so I hold my tongue.

There’s also a basic tension between those who insist that the faculty should own advisement, and those who believe that it’s reasonable to have full-time advisers. I side with the latter camp, only because the faculty simply aren’t around during the summer and vacations, but students come in year-round. I don’t want to say to a kid who shows up in June “sorry, come back in September and someone will talk to you.” I get the philosophical argument for faculty ownership, and in some tightly-constructed cohort programs (Nursing, music) we go with that by default. But in the fairly popular and loosely-built transfer major, the pragmatic argument for having some folks around whenever seems more persuasive to me.

“Intrusive advisement” is all the rage in the national literature now. I think of it as systematic nagging, though that may say as much about me as it does about intrusive advising. The intrusive model -- yes, they actually call it that -- involves deputizing certain staffers to become a variation on truant officers, chasing down students who miss class to ask them what’s up and help them get back on track before they fall so far behind that there’s just no hope. The whole enterprise strikes me as demeaning and vaguely creepy, but the results I’ve seen suggest that for certain populations, it can actually work.

Finally, there’s the libertarian line of thought, which I think of as the old computer helpdesk term “RTFM” (for “Read the F-ing Manual”). This school says that learning how to navigate bureaucracies is a life skill, and part of what a college graduate should be able to do. As long as the catalog and related information is available and accurate, it should fall to the student to figure out both what she wants to do with her career and how she should do it. If she can’t be bothered, well, let her learn the consequences of that, too.

I’ll admit some philosophical affinity with this view, but pragmatically, it doesn’t work. Part of the reason for that is that the manual itself changes, and I can’t claim with any certainty that it’s flawless. The manual also rests on a series of assumptions about students -- they’re full time, they start in the Fall, they don’t fail anything -- that don’t always hold. (In this setting, they’re actually the exception.) There’s also a perfectly valid argument to the effect that learning how to seek out good help is a useful life skill; a little humility isn’t always a bad thing.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a reasonably successful way to handle undergraduate advisement?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Full-Timers with Overloads

This piece in IHE, and its comments, hit home with me. It’s a variation on a dilemma I face every single semester.

Broadly, it’s about the zero-sum truth that if professor X gets assigned a particular class, then it cannot also be assigned to professor Y. When there’s a limited number of sections of a given course or in a given discipline, and they both want the same one, someone has to lose. Determining who has to lose is the enviable job of administration.

Apparently, the solution at Madison Area Technical College has been to allow full-time faculty to load up on overloads first, until they hit a certain ceiling, and then to allow the adjuncts whatever is left. It’s an imperfect solution at best -- not my personal perference, certainly -- but the comments to the piece largely miss the point.

The issue is not that someone has to lose. That will happen in any system. If you increase your percentage of full-time faculty, you will jettison adjuncts to make room for them. If you increase your number of adjuncts, you probably do it by giving them fewer classes each, or as a way to decrease your full-time faculty. If you go with full-on ‘parity,’ you either hike tuition to the moon -- thereby hurting your students -- or you reduce the pay of full-time faculty to some median level, which is sure to be popular. (In the cc world, “administrative bloat” is largely chimerical, and sports just aren’t a big ticket item. We have fewer deans and fewer teams on my campus now than we did just two years ago. Financially, those wells are dry.)

Although overloads are actually quite common, I rarely see them discussed when people talk about adjunct ratios. Full-timers teaching overloads fall between categories. When determining something as basic as “the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts,” how should the overload sections be counted? I have departments in which the overload sections are as plentiful as adjunct sections; depending on how you choose to count them, you could wind up with very different pictures of what’s going on. If the argument is based on perceived quality or health insurance, I’d argue that the full-timers are full-timers. If the argument is based on salary, it’s more context-dependent.

I’ll admit some cognitive dissonance in talking to full-time faculty who manage to complain about their teaching load and then volunteer for overloads simultaneously. From a labor solidarity perspective, I could imagine a good argument for a full-timers’ union to cast a skeptical eye on overloads, since significant and sustained overloads cast some doubt on claims from workload. Folks who teach overloads also tend to be less available for committee meetings, since they’re more likely to be in class at any given time. Others have to do more unpaid labor so they have time to do more paid labor. It doesn’t smell right, and it somewhat discredits the idea that full-timers should be paid more because of their college service. If they aren’t available to do that college service, what, exactly, are we paying for?

I don’t know if there’s an elegant solution to this, but it’s nice to see the issue acknowledged.

Wise and worldly readers, when you ask about a college’s adjunct percentage, how would you could sections taught by full-timers as overloads?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Girl, Mastermind

Okay, I’m a little nerdy, but this was a huge moment for us.

The Girl, who is 6, loves playing games with me. We usually play Connect Four -- at which she routinely cleans my clock -- or twenty questions. But lately she’s been on a Mastermind kick. Mastermind is a guess-the-pattern game in which one player constructs a pattern of four colors, and the other player has to suss it out through a series of guesses with feedback. If you get a correct color in an incorrect position, you get a white peg; if you get the color and position right, you get a red peg. If the color is just wrong, no peg. The game has six colors altogether, and as we play it, there are no repeat colors allowed in the pattern, so you couldn’t have three blues in the same row.

Over the last week or so, whenever I’ve been the one trying to guess the pattern, I’ve vocalized my thought process. “Let’s see, I only got two white pegs on that one. That means that both of the ‘wrong’ colors must be here, which means that they two colors I didn’t use here must be right.” I’ve even stopped and repeated it when TG looked puzzled.

Last night we had the breakthrough.

TG was guessing the pattern, and got two white pegs for one guess. The play-by-play:

TG: that means I must need orange and blue.

(tries another row, this time gets three white pegs)

TG: hmm. From the first row, I know I need green. That means the other color must be white. And from the second row, I know that orange must go here (places orange) and white must go here (places white). I’ll try blue here and green there.

(gets two red pegs and two white pegs)

TG: Ha! I’ll just switch green and blue.

(I reveal that she got it right.)

I was so excited I gave her a high-five. When The Wife came by, I had TG walk her through the process, and TW made a fuss, too.

Using a perfectly elegant process of elimination, she used clues from earlier rows to piece together the solution. She got it.

She was excited, of course, but she seemed a little surprised that we made as much fuss about it as we did. I thought it was HUGE. She walked herself through a non-trivial bit of deductive logic and found the right answer herself, without hints or lucky guesses.

She didn’t use numbers as such, but I think of the approach as basically mathematical. She was able to discern patterns, and to accumulate clues from multiple turns to narrow down the possibilities.

As a parent, I was fairly bursting with joy. A six-year-old was putting together the basic operations of deductive reasoning, and enjoying the “click” when things fell into place. And she was doing it in the context of a game with Daddy, where she got affirmation for walking deliberately through the thought process.

This must be how other Dads feel when a kid hits a home run. In my world, this was a home run.

Just had to brag a little.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Build Your Own Orientation

We’ve had some discussions on campus recently about new employee orientation, which starts in a few weeks. The general consensus seems to be that some sort of orientation is called for, but nobody seems terribly happy with the current version.

The constituency for the orientation is new employees across the college. That means faculty, but it also means full-time staff from various offices. (The faculty start with the staff for the first week, then have a separate series of faculty-only meetings focusing mostly on classroom issues.) The idea is to help the newbies put faces to names and offices; to go through some basic information on employee benefits; to make some statements about the mission of the college and its commitments to fairness and diversity; and to introduce a few basic policies.

In the past, it was a two-day event, with fairly significant griping by the end of the second day.

Then it morphed to a one-day event with a series of 90-minute followups monthly for a semester. By the end of the semester, though, attendance flagged badly.

Since many sets of eyes are better than one, I’m hoping to crowdsource a solution to this. Given that certain institutional needs have to be met -- for legal reasons, for example, it’s useful to be able to say that everyone was introduced to the sexual harassment policy -- is there a way to make new employee orientation more useful and compelling for the new employees?

Do you remember anything particularly good (or awful) about your own orientation? If you could have constructed it , what would you have done differently? (And no, “Not having one” is not an option.)


Monday, August 09, 2010

Pulling the Goalie

In conversation recently with a colleague at another college, I realized that what she was describing something I’ve seen a few times, too. I call it pulling the goalie.

In hockey, if a team is behind near the end of the game, it will sometimes take out its goalie and put in another offensive player. (The total number of players on the ice is six per team.) The rationale is that it’s easier to score with an extra shooter, and if you’re losing anyway, what’s the difference between losing by one and losing by two? It’s a high-risk maneuver, obviously, and it would be suicidal to try to play an entire game that way. But when you have little to lose and you need a quick score, it’s a reasonable strategy.

I’ve seen administrators who are angling for higher-level jobs in other places do the equivalent of pulling the goalie on their home campus.

It works like this: Dean X wants to be a Vice President elsewhere. She tries for a while, to no avail. Out of impatience, she pulls the goalie by abruptly going from a traditional management approach to rampant backroom deal-making, complete with mutually contradictory promises behind the scenes. The idea is to “get things done” in a hurry, to make a conspicuous splash and line up support artificially to put her application over the top before people figure out what has happened. Let the next person clean up the mess.

In the very short term, it can work. If you have a reputation for being trustworthy, there will be a time lag between when you start lying and when people figure it out. If you can land another job during that lag, you win.

But the clock is ticking, and if you don’t beat the clock, things will get ugly. And even if you do, things will get ugly on the campus you left.

Unlike the hockey move, I consider this a major ethical violation, since it subordinates the good of the campus to one person’s career ambitions. It also makes the job much harder for whomever comes next, since folks who’ve been burned are much slower to trust again. The first few months are sort of like the Spring thaw in the East River, when all the mob victims suddenly turn up as floaters. Ugliness keeps getting unearthed, and just when you think it’s over, there’s more.

Doing this job well, I’m increasingly convinced, means playing the long game. It means having patience, accepting setbacks, and keeping your expectations realistic. Quick hits happen, but forcing them to happen usually costs far more than it’s worth. If you’re planning to stick around for the entire game, you don’t pull your goalie early.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen administrators pull the goalie on your campus? If so, how did the campus recover?

Friday, August 06, 2010

If Only We Had a Government Capable of Making Rules...

As regular readers know, I used to work in for-profit university. I fled it for various reasons, but still find some of the commentary about them unhelpfully reductive. Naturally, I’ve been following Senator Harkin’s hearings -- and the responses to the hearings -- with interest.

Broadly, the hearings are addressing abusive and/or misleading and/or illegal recruitment practices at various for-profit colleges and universities. The stated idea is to prevent taxpayer money (in the form of Federal financial aid) from being squandered on diploma mills or colleges that charge far too much for what they deliver. The unstated idea seems to be to have a referendum on the very idea of for-profit education.

It seems to me that it would be a lot more productive to focus instead on the rules of the game.

In my time at Proprietary U, there was a chronic internal tension between Admissions and Academics. The folks in Admissions were accountable for hitting their numbers -- they did somersaults and backflips to explain how that wasn’t commission pay, but it was commission pay -- and some of them did pretty much whatever they had to do. On the positive side, that meant helping students set up carpools, navigate paperwork, and get scheduled. On the negative side, it led to some pretty dramatic overpromising, some really unhelpful denigrating of the gen ed classes that students still actually had to take, and a level of ‘message management’ that sometimes became silly.

On the Academic side, we had to actually teach the students who got recruited. The numbers by which we were judged were retention percentages and job placement statistics. As some of us never tired of pointing out (hi!), those two numbers often pointed in different directions. Those of us who believed that fighting attrition by lowering standards was a bad idea would cite the employability of graduates, but we weren’t always on the winning side.

When the market was booming, the conflict was more stylistic than substantive. Students stayed in programs because they saw the payoff; retention efforts amounted to little more than open discussions of starting salaries. (For a while there in the late 90’s, the truth was good enough that you didn’t have to sugarcoat it.) Since the institution charged more per student than it cost to educate each student, growth was a source of profit, so it could grow quickly to meet mushrooming demand. On the national level, that growth has continued, and has far outpaced anything happening in the nonprofit world, where growth is typically a cost.

When the market turned, though, things got ugly fast. And this, oddly enough, is where the nonprofits have an advantage (or would, if the states would step up).

In most public colleges, there’s an allocation from the state and/or county and/or city that goes directly to the operating budget. In practice, if not in theory, that allocation is usually pretty independent of enrollment numbers. During enrollment booms, that means that the percentage of the budget paid for by the students directly increases. But during declines, there’s at least the cushion of some revenue that’s independent of tuition.

The for-profits can grow much more easily, but they have a harder time dealing with decline. That’s because they don’t have the enrollment-independent cushion of funding that the non-profits have.

Now it’s certainly true that the state-provided cushion is proportionately much smaller than it used to be, which means that declines hurt more now than they once did. But a drop that might register as ‘difficult’ for a community college could put a for-profit out of business altogether.

That is, unless the for-profit does what cornered animals tend to do. I’d expect to see any ethical gloves come off in times of decline, as they fight and scrap for every single student.

And this is why my position on for-profits is neither ‘for’ nor ‘against.’ It’s that they need to be meaningfully regulated. If they’re forced to fight fair but still manage to thrive, then presumably they’re adding value somewhere. At that point, the sober objection to their existence seems to fade away. But leaving them alone to do as they will is madness. Left to their own devices, they’ll act much like the cable tv monopolies did when they were deregulated; it’s naive to expect that they wouldn’t..

In the hearings, the for-profits have raised some fair points in their own defense. The one I find most compelling is the (correct) contention that the investigation doesn’t have a control group. Do we really, honestly believe that unethical behaviors are confined to the for-profit sector? Do we really believe that desperate tuition-driven nonprofits won’t do whatever they have to do to survive? For that matter, do we really believe that every accredited nonprofit actually provides a quality education?

But there, too, my response is that picking one side over the other misses the point. The point is a need for rules of the game, evenhandedly enforced, that will punish institutions for giving in to the temptations of untoward behavior. That’s true whether the institution is publicly traded, church affiliated, or state-identified. If a college is incompetent or corrupt, I don’t much care that it’s not for profit.

Ideally, the nonprofits would learn from the best elements of the for-profits. Is the agrarian calendar really cast in stone? Might a ‘career development’ style class make sense as a requirement, at least in some majors?

And ideally, higher ed will get past the kabuki of outrage at the existence of profit and actually address the rules of the game. If only we had a government capable of making rules...

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Well, That’s Different...

This Fall’s enrollment patterns aren’t looking anything like historical norms. I’m curious to see if that’s a local quirk, or if folks elsewhere are seeing the same thing.

Traditionally, cc enrollments go up during recessions. (That’s because when the job market collapses, so to does the opportunity cost of college.) That happened with a vengeance last year, when we broke records with a double-digit percentage increase in a single year. The severity of the increase was unusual, but the direction was what we expected. Of course, recessions also bring cuts in state funding, making for a nasty financial pincer movement, but that, too, was predictable, even if the severity of it wasn’t.

This Fall, with just a few weeks to go before the start of classes, we’re seeing a weird bifurcation. Applications for enrollment, and applications for financial aid, are both up significantly even when compared to last year. But students who have actually registered are significantly down. Put differently, the number of students who started trying to attend and then vanished is dramatically higher than it has been in past years.

The folks in Admissions have done follow-up calls to the folks who’ve applied and taken their placement tests but not registered, to see what happened. I was hoping to hear that the most common reason was something like “you were my safety school, but my first choice school came through with a great offer.” Instead, the most common answer was “my unemployment ran out.”

I didn’t expect that.

This is where the “education as private good” idea has real social costs. If you have a significant population that just can’t find work because the economy is in the tank, and that population would like to go to college but doesn’t have the income for living expenses -- financial aid is great for tuition and such, but doesn’t do much for living expenses -- then what would you have that population do?

I agree that college isn’t for everybody. Some people prefer to jump straight into the work world; some would likely benefit from something like an apprenticeship or short-term training. But for the twentysomething without a job or any realistic near-term prospect of one, I have to think that community college is one of the better options. Ride out the recession by brushing up on skills and credentials; when the recession is over, hit the job market as a stronger candidate. I can certainly imagine worse strategies.

Last year many of those twentysomethings had enough support to come to college for the first time. Our largest increases were among young men of color, who are otherwise at pretty severe risk in this society, and who don’t typically come here in large numbers. I’d hate to see that population sink back underground, both unemployed and uneducated. That movie doesn’t end well.

Obviously, education is only one component of what needs to be a much larger economic change, but it’s one we can actually sort of control. We can choose to make college an economically accessible option, or we can let unemployment benefits run out before the recession does. I just don’t know how we can do both?

Wise and worldly readers who have access to numbers like these, are you seeing something similar in your neck of the woods?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Incivility Amok!

A new correspondent writes:

This morning I followed up on a Chronicle article from the tail end of last week (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Do-All-Faculty-Members-Really/25897/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en), and I was truly disheartened by the comments. The idea itself I liked, mainly the idea of common space for casual interactions (I have experienced isolation both as a faculty member and as an administrator), but the comments were disturbing. How is it acceptable for "scholarly and educated" people to spit out such personal attacks? There were a number of comments that simply said "I think privacy and student conversations will be an issue", but many more simply went straight into the "what an idiot, what a stupid idea" mentality.

I have noticed this in the comments on a number of higher ed sites, even occasionally in the comments on your blog.

Has higher ed always been this way? Have you noticed an increase in this type of attitude? Or is this just an easy outlet for angry people?

I have been working at a community college for 12 years- 9 as faculty, in various ft/pt configurations, and the last 3 as an administrator. While overall I believe the faculty and staff at this college are dedicated and want to see things work, people (on both sides) are still keen to make personal comments and pass judgement on situations of which they have very little understanding.

Although I am a firm believer in the mission of the community college, and of higher education in general, I am considering exploring other industries that might have less rancor.

I suppose the easy answer is to just not read the comments, but then you miss the dialogue and sharing of actual ideas.

Is this something you have noticed?

Before venturing some thoughts, I’ll just make a distinction between the general topic and the historical angle. I’m generally skeptical of “people used to be nicer” arguments, and it’s hard to say in the context of blogs and online discussion boards since their history doesn’t go back terribly far. So I can’t really give an intelligent answer one way or the other on the question of historical trajectory.

But the larger issue of personal attacks is very real.

I’ve read that social psychologists have a term -- the “fundamental attribution error” -- for the common mistake of ascribing others’ objectionable behavior to character flaws, rather than to missing information or external constraints. (I stopped abruptly because someone cut me off; the guy who cut me off is just an asshole.) I’ve seen that both online and in my day job.

In the day job, I’ve been accused repeatedly -- to my face and in public -- of harboring secret agendas to “do in” this program or that one, of thinking of faculty as piece workers, and of being -- in the words of one particularly charming public interlocutor -- “just idiotic.” All of those have been in response to budget-driven decisions. None of them suggested realistic alternatives to my ideas; when pressed, none of them even involved a recognition that budgetary decisions need to get made at all. I’ve had to learn not to take the bait, and to recognize the lashing out as a function of propinquity more than anything else. If I’m goring somebody’s ox, it must be because I’m an asshole; surely there’s no such thing as a real resource constraint. When other administrators do the exact same thing -- since we’re all working against the same state cuts -- well, we’re all just assholes.

Online, of course, it’s frequently worse. In the comments at IHE to my recent posts about the tenure/adjunct dialectic, for example, I was accused of “pathetic self-absorption,” “turn[ing] into a monster,” and my personal favorite:

Dean Dad, when you are meeting with a candidate for a tenure track position at your college, do you tell that person, "You should be aware of the fact that I oppose the idea of tenure and believe higher education would be better off without it"?

It’s easier than actually engaging the argument, I guess, but it doesn’t exactly encourage others to join the debate.

It’s frustrating, but I’m not sure what’s to be done about it beyond sticking to the high road as much as possible. Online, I’ve had to learn to restrain myself from hitting back at comments like those, since the exchanges quickly devolve into free-for-alls.

On campus, of course, “contrapower harassment” is legion, and even blessed with honorifics like “gadfly” or “thorn in the side of the administration.” For a professor to attack me personally in front of two hundred people is considered academic freedom; for me to hit back would be considered retaliation. The double standard does nothing to encourage honest discussion, and frankly, drives a lot of good people out of administration over time. (Oddly, the folks who attack the hardest also complain about administrative turnover, and never connect the dots.) Tenure enables contrapower harassment, which is probably why the harassment is much worse in higher ed than in most settings.

The irony is hard to miss. The same tenure that’s supposed to protect the free exchange of ideas actually enables a culture of embedded hostility that frequently prevents honest discussion. In his wonderful book The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton notes that tenured academia is one of the most difficult settings in which to change a culture, since it’s structured almost perfectly to reward me-first behavior. (Notice that it’s a structural argument.) Once you reach a certain critical mass, there really isn’t much to be done.

That said, though, I’ve found a few techniques generally effective in settings that haven’t reached critical mass.

The most basic one is actually listening. People shout when they think they aren’t being heard. The longer they feel ignored, the more blustery and unhinged they tend to be when they finally have a moment. If you make a habit of actually listening, I’ve found that over time, most people will slowly calm down. (I say “most” because some never will. Just a fact of life.) If you only have one shot at being heard, you’ll swing for the cheap seats; if you know you’ll be heard on a regular basis, you can choose your moments more judiciously.

A second, related one is admitting when you’re wrong, and/or incorporating better ideas when you hear them. I’ve made a point of noting changes derived from public input, and of crediting the folks who made the input, whenever possible. It seems to help, since it shows (correctly) that constructive input can actually work. A lot of the more histrionic stuff seems to come from a sense that it’s all just futile anyway; disprove the futility thesis, and some folks will adjust accordingly. Show respect, and eventually some of it will find its way back.

Of course, there’s also modeling. This is tricky since nobody’s perfect, but there’s something to be said for leading by example. At first, it can feel like unilateral disarmament, but it ages well.

And then there’s just knowing your own limits. We all have our hot buttons, and we all have our lesser moments. Sometimes it’s best just to change the subject or postpone the discussion. And some people will be contrary or difficult for sub-rational reasons no matter what you do; once you suss out who those folks are, tune them out.

So to answer your question, yes, I’ve noticed. I wish it weren’t so, but there it is. Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of dealing successfully with folks who think it’s reasonable to yell insults across crowded auditoriums?

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

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Lessons from the Woods

The vacation was a much-needed blessing. We were lucky in many ways: the weather cooperated, the kids were on their very best behavior, traffic wasn’t awful, the car behaved, and I was able to shed most of my workweek crankiness by midweek.

Scenes from the middle of nowhere:

- Kids plus large rocks equals climbing. This is true regardless of the depth of the prospective fall, the depth and temperature of the water below, and the relative agility of the kid. This is how parents age.

- At six, bless her, The Girl doesn’t have any sense of how some of her words sound. In a discussion that somehow touched on gumballs, TG announced unselfconsciously that something “tastes like caribou balls.” I informed The Wife that her daughter was talking about caribou balls. This occasioned some philosophical musings on the nature of paternity, the fluidity of language, and the likelihood of quoting that back to her at, say, thirteen..

- It’s amazing what a group can accomplish when nobody whines. I’m just sayin’.

- Nerdiness can pay off. TW questioned why I needed to bring the laptop and aircard until the hotel lost our reservation, and I was able to pull up the email receipt on screen and show the manager at the front desk. Note to self: bring printouts of reservations in the future. Still, it worked.

- When the kids simply refused to get up, they incurred the wrath of the Daddy Monster. The Daddy Monster used his monster-truck-rally-radio-commercial voice, combined with an apelike gait, professional wrestling language, and deadly tickling moves to move the unmovable. (“The Boy won’t stir? (TB giggles) He’s in for a world of pain!” (TB giggles again) Then I’d blow a raspberry on his belly. Worked every time.) At home I just sing. (My version of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and Peter Brady in that episode where his voice changed. You know the one. Yes, you do.)

- Hotels that offer breakfast are better than hotels that don’t.

- Some people smoke on the beach, apparently on the theory that one form of cancer isn’t enough. Cigarette butts in the sand are disgusting. It gives the beach a “litterbox” feel that kinda doesn’t work for me.

- Restaurants that don’t have children’s menus are missing out. And the first restaurant that goes beyond the same three or four items on it (chicken fingers, burger, mac and cheese, pasta) wins.

- Whoever invented Dramamine deserved the Nobel prize. That’s all I’m sayin’.

- There’s something wonderful about being able to read whatever you want. The gender gap in action: TW read a William Styron novel, and I read Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. The last chapter is worth a blog post unto itself. Somewhere, someone is going to write a brilliant essay rereading John Dewey’s notion of “organized intelligence” in light of crowdsourcing. Hell, if not for the day job, I’d write it myself. Anyone so inclined, go for it.

- A week away from office politics is a glorious thing. It clears the system of bile. When overlooking some of the most beautiful vistas nature has to offer, all that silly status-jumping stuff just fades away. There’s a lesson in there somewhere...

Monday, August 02, 2010

Textbook Alternatives

My psychic powers tell me that in the next few weeks, as the back-to-school rush hits, we’ll be inundated with complaints about textbook costs. This is about as risky a prediction as guessing that the sun will rise in the East.

Textbook costs are remarkably high and climbing quickly; in the context of a community college, they frequently equal or exceed the actual tuition for the class. Textbook publishers have been remarkably brazen about tamping down competition from the used-book market, whether relying on online codes, frequently updated editions, or ‘bundling’ of textbooks with ‘free’ extras that don’t come with used editions. The idea has been to push students into buying new editions, since that’s where the publisher’s profit is. (Bookstores themselves, I’m told, often make more profit on used books, which creates some interesting internal tensions.)

Financial aid often covers textbook costs, but that’s less transparent than it seems. Financial aid usually consists, at least in part, of loans that must be paid back. In some cases, financial aid includes vouchers for textbooks, but the vouchers are only good at the college bookstore. (As far as I know, the new law requiring disclosure of ISBN numbers for textbooks doesn’t address that, though I could be wrong on that.) And then there’s the uncomfortable fact that many colleges get a cut of textbook revenues, whether directly (when the bookstore is owned by the college) or indirectly (when a bookstore leases space and preferred access). In the latter case, the more profitable the bookstore, the more rent it’s willing to pay, so the incentives wind up pretty similar.

I’ve been hearing predictions of catastrophic, technology-driven change in the textbook market for years now, but haven’t seen it yet on the ground. Among the game-changers, I’m told, are the ipad, the kindle, free/open websites, and textbook rental programs.

Based on my own experience with the kindle, I’m skeptical there, at least so far. Yes, they’re cheaper than they once were, but they’re hard to use for quick thumbing-through. Note-taking is inelegant at best, and you can’t share (or sell back) downloaded copies when you’re done with them. The same seems to apply with the ipad, which is also (in my limited observation) kinda heavy for a reader.

Free/open websites are platform-independent, which is nice, and the price is right. But they require screen and internet access, they often require printing, and if they vanish, they vanish.

Textbook rentals sound promising to me, though I’m not entirely sure how highlighting or marginal note-taking works with that model. In my student days, I sometimes made some less-than-civil comments in the margins as a way of making even the driest text “interactive.” If you have to treat the book like your aunt’s sofa with the plastic still on it, I suspect that many students will take the path of least immediate resistance and simply not bother with it at all.

The new Higher Ed Authorization Act requires making public the titles and ISBN’s of assigned textbooks as early as practicable, with the goal of introducing some competition -- or at least the prospect of competition -- into the textbook market as a way to control costs. (The idea is that an enterprising student could crib the list and get the same books on Amazon for less.) In some limited contexts, that may help, but I’d be surprised if it made much of a dent overall. Too many professors wait until the last minute to pick books anyway, too many students wait until the last minute (or later) to buy them, and too many financial aid packages include nontransferable book vouchers. But at least it’s something.

Since my campus has been relatively slow to move on this, I’m eager to hear from those of my wise and worldly readers who’ve seen some or all of these tried. If you’ve taught (or studied) on a campus that used open source, or kindle, or rental solutions, how well did they work? What didn’t work? What do you wish you had known first? I’m hoping to find some practical way to help students avoid getting shocked on cost without sacrificing usefulness.