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.