Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Biden Summit

One of the privileges of the first amendment is the ability to call out the government when it’s dangerously off-base. Jill Biden’s community college summit looks like it’s set to go dangerously off-base. It’s designed to miss the point.

Look at the roster of participants. Not a single community college professor or on-campus administrator, but the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is there, as is the CEO of Accenture.

Would that happen the other way around? If we had a national summit on the military, would we invite, say, the president of the NEA and leave out active duty soldiers? I’m guessing the answer is “of course not.” Hell, if we had a national summit on, say, taxing capital gains as income, would we invite anybody at all from any branch of public education?

Of course, one could always argue that we need fresh eyes on the topic. What do they promise to bring to the discussion? According to the White House website, the goals are twofold: workforce development and increased graduation rates.

Ask the wrong questions, and you’ll get the wrong answers.

Graduation rates are helpful indicators, but they’re easily manipulated. For example, right now the rates that “count” are the IPEDS cohort, which are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, usually fresh out of high school. That’s an excellent description of most of the students at Swarthmore, but it’s a distinct minority at most community colleges. To the extent that we’re compelled to focus primarily on those students, we will necessarily relegate the needs and concerns of other students to lower status.

If we wanted to ‘game’ our graduation rates, we could just put in place policies that favor the first-time, full-time student over the returning student or the part-time student. That’s easy enough -- sometimes it happens without our even trying -- but it’s contrary to the mission of the college.

Workforce development is tricky, too. Most basically, the two-years-and-transfer option is clearly a version of workforce development, even though we don’t get credit for it. Given the higher lifetime earnings of people with four-year degrees, I would think that preparing people for four-year degrees would be the epitome of workforce development. But when policymakers use the phrase, they mean vocational programs.

It’s certainly true that a strong vocational program in the right place can be a real community asset. Nursing is an easy example. Subtract the graduates of community college nursing programs from the applicant pool, and good luck staffing local hospitals and nursing homes. In many areas, the local cc will have a program to prepare students for a dominant local industry. That’s all to the good, as long as that industry remains healthy. Having lived through the tech boom and bust, though -- and now a slack market even for nurses -- I have to caution against assuming that it’s easy to pick winners. (Anyone who doubts that is invited to reread the Bowen/Bok report predicting a hot faculty job market by the year 2000.)

More basically than that, workforce development is something most cc’s already do. Some of it takes the form of degree programs, but much of it is non-credit (and therefore uncaptured in statistics like graduation rates). When a large local employer contracts with the continuing-ed arm of my cc to run some ESL classes for its entry-level employees who mostly speak Spanish, that’s a version of workforce development, but it’s completely disconnected from our IPEDS numbers, and it won’t show up in certificate completions.

Industry partnerships are nothing new, either. Those can range from apprenticeship programs to vendor-specific certifications (i.e. Cisco) to on-site contract training to nursing clinicals. This is stuff we already do.

What we need is not a reiteration of the “education is the key to success” mantra, or exhortations to work with industry partners. We need a sustainable funding model.

Part of that implies a direct, long-term, sustained infusion of operating cash. Money won’t generate success by itself, but you won’t generate success without it. When community colleges are struggling just to keep doing what they’re already doing, asking them to do even more with even less is just silly. If you want real improvement, you need to pay for it. Whether that means direct federal infusions, or bloc grants (with strings) to states, or dramatically higher Pell grants, is open to debate. The mechanism could be any number of things. But unless the bottom line is increased dramatically and permanently, we’re blowing smoke.

Beyond that, though, we need a sustained federal effort to focus on getting rid of some maddening inefficiencies that blunt the impact of what little money we do have. The most obvious is the credit hour. As long as we denote academic achievement in units of time, we will never -- by definition -- increase the real productivity of the heart of the enterprise. But any one college, or even any one state, that goes first will get severely penalized; the federal financial aid system is based on credit hours, as is most transfer. No matter how clever the local leadership, this simply cannot be solved locally. Federal leadership here could make a tremendous, lasting difference that would open up the possibility of getting more bang for what few bucks we have. The Lumina foundation has done some work on this, but Federal leadership could accomplish much more and much more quickly.

I’d also suggest some really serious looks at the unintended consequences of certain federal laws and court decisions -- the ADA, the repeal of mandatory retirement ages, the judicial assertion of a property right inherent in tenure -- that add tremendously to overhead and don’t result in better student outcomes. Here, too, local leadership is simply out of the question; it has to come from the feds.

Finally, of course, there’s the K-12 system. The Gates foundation has decided that the way to deal with the K-12 system is to escape it, by sending troubled high schoolers to college early. That’s one approach, I guess, though frankly I’d much rather see the high schools (and earlier) actually improve. If every high school grad arrived literate and numerate, most of the remediation quagmire would simply fade away.

Instead, we’ll get talk of standardized tests and industry partnerships. It’s a tragically wasted opportunity, and one that could have made a real difference. The first step is to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It Boils Down to...

I had a conversation a few days ago with a professor who helped me understand some of the otherwise-puzzling opposition faculty have shown to actually using the general education outcomes they themselves voted into place.

Several years ago, before I got here, the faculty senate adopted a set of several student learning outcomes that they attributed to the ‘general education’ part of degree programs. These are the outcomes that graduates of the various programs, regardless of specialization, should be able to demonstrate. For example, whether your program is Nursing, criminal justice, or music, you should be able to write coherently and clearly. The idea was that by specifying the goals of the gen ed part of the curriculum, the college would have something to measure against to see where improvement was needed.

Yet getting those outcomes from ‘adopted’ to ‘used’ has proved a long, hard slog.

I had thought it was a case of the usual fear of standardization and quantification, along with some level of paranoia about results being used to evaluate individual faculty. I was also prepared for the workload argument (“it’s just one more thing to do”). Instead, I heard that when the outcomes were adopted, it was under duress, and the outcomes had been presented with insinuations that if you (meaning faculty) weren’t at least achieving these, then you weren’t doing your job. Worse, some of them took away the message that the content of their individual courses was irrelevant; these were what education was supposed to “boil down to.”

Ouch. Suddenly the foot-dragging made a lot more sense. In that setting, I’d foot-drag, too.

When I went into my scholarly field, it wasn’t a random choice, or based on a sense that it was uniquely suited for teaching critical thinking. It was because I thought highly of the field; I liked many of its questions, and much of its subject matter. (Methods, admittedly, were another issue.) When I taught my classes to skeptical students, I took conscious steps to address skill development, but I never stopped trying to convey that the subject matter was fascinating in its own right. I never reduced it to a live-action workbook for basic skills, and would have been mortified at the suggestion.

The delicate balance is in respecting the ambitions of the various disciplines, while still maintaining -- correctly, in my view -- that you can’t just assume that the whole of a degree is equal to the sum of its parts. Even if each course works on its own terms, if the mix of courses is wrong, the students will finish with meaningful gaps. Catching those gaps can help you determine what’s missing, which is where assessment is supposed to come in. But there’s some local history to overcome first.

If there’s some boiling down to do, I think here it boils down to trust. If the faculty trust that they’ll be part of the solution to the gaps, I’m guessing they’ll be more receptive to finding the gaps. But as long as the trust gap lingers, they’ll just keep dragging their feet.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Everything Else Major

You major in criminal justice because you want to work in law enforcement. You major in Nursing because you want to be a nurse. You major in business because you think that’s how you get a job in business. You major in liberal arts because...?

The liberal arts major is actually the highest-enrollment major on my campus, even though it’s probably the least well-defined. Broadly speaking, it attracts the type A students who intend to transfer to the better four-year colleges en route to professional careers, and the type C students who take it for lack of any better ideas. It’s the home of most of our Honors students, and it’s simultaneously the default major for students who don’t know what they want. It’s the program for the purists, and it’s the program for the folks who just want to get their gen eds out of the way, as they inevitably put it.

It’s structured like the classic Chinese menu, with generous helpings of electives in various disciplines. Beyond a few basic requirements -- the composition sequence, notably -- students can fulfill most of it with choices from within categories. You can take multiple philosophy classes or none at all; you can build a mini-major in psychology or avoid it altogether.

The transfer advisers try to steer students who have particular destination schools in mind towards the electives that those schools prefer. For example, certain schools have a foreign language requirement, and others won’t look at any math “below” calculus. Some will take any lab science, but others won’t take science for non-majors.

All that freedom, or vagueness, can make the major difficult to explain and difficult to assess. The two go together.

Given the program’s open-endedness, it can be a hard sell to first-generation students. Yes, it keeps options open, but first generation students as a group don’t exactly crave uncertainty. It works well for transfer, but if just sticking around for two years is daunting, that may or may not seem terribly relevant.

When the program is chock-full of electives, and built largely for transfer, how do you know if it’s succeeding? Yes, we can measure transfer rates, and sometimes we can get information from destination schools as to how well our grads are faring. That’s something, but it’s dependent on the kindness of strangers, and necessarily a lagging indicator. Attrition rates for the liberal arts major tend to be fairly high relative to other programs, though I suspect that’s more a function of its serving as the ‘default’ major than anything else. If we differentiated ‘liberal arts’ from ‘undecided,’ we might get a truer reading, though I’m told there are financial aid implications to that.

Deciding what’s missing from a liberal arts major isn’t always obvious, either. Doing it right would involve holistic assessments of student skills at graduation, with the goal of identifying gaps to be addressed. But a program as flexible as this will necessarily result in many different kinds of outcomes, and will necessarily resist much intervention. (The extent to which that’s good or bad is another question.)

Wise and worldly readers, does your campus have a default major? How does it handle students who aren’t entirely sure what they want?

Monday, September 27, 2010

When “Degree” Becomes “Kind”

There’s an old saying to the effect that a difference of degree eventually becomes a difference of kind. One could say, for example, that Albert Pujols is a better hitter than I am, but the difference in our respective skill levels is so drastic that subsuming both of us under the category of ‘hitters’ is misleading. The chasm between us amounts to a phase shift.

We’re beginning to see that phase shift with online education.

My cc, like most others, started with entirely face-to-face instruction. It built not only its curriculum that way, but its support systems, schedules, workload calculations, registration procedures, and everything else, too.

In the early years of online instruction, the comparatively innocent 1990’s, the college only ran a few sections here and there with early adopters. The numbers were small enough that any quirks of the online format could be handled with relatively labor-intensive workarounds that didn’t fundamentally change the way we did anything. It wasn’t terribly efficient, but the numbers were small enough that the inefficiencies didn’t matter much.

Over the last decade or so, the number of online sections has steadily grown, and has become a progressively larger percentage of overall instruction. It’s still a smallish portion, but it’s outgrowing the labor-intensive workarounds. It’s starting to exert pressure to remake the ways we do all kinds of business, from registering students to providing advisement to administering financial aid to accommodating disabilities to providing counseling. The difference of degree is becoming a difference of kind.

When changes like that happen, they upend “cost per student” calculations. When the marginal cost of another section is simply the cost of the adjunct who teaches it, the college comes out ahead with reasonable enrollments, even at our low tuition level. But when enrolllment gains hit the point that you have to start adding staff in the library, the financial aid office, OSD, and the like, you fall behind again pretty quickly. That’s roughly where we are with online. The enrollments, and expectations of those enrolled, are getting to the point where we can’t just run it off the corner of someone’s desk anymore. That means an abrupt increase in our overhead costs at a time when any increase in overhead is deeply suspect, if not out of the question.

Much of the popular discussion of the economics of online education -- both in the press and in the academic blogs -- just gets it wrong. The institutional savings, if any, don’t come from larger class sizes. If you do online education right, it’s labor-intensive. Frankly, if reducing labor costs is your primary motive, you can’t do much better than the traditional overstuffed lecture taught by an adjunct. On a per-student basis, the labor costs of that are miniscule. The institutional savings from online education come mostly from infrastructure. Adding server space is dramatically (and increasingly) cheaper than adding classroom space. You don’t have to add parking, or heating costs, or seats in the library. When your physical campus is running full, this is no small consideration.

When you can add students without adding to infrastructure, and without adding to your support staff, you can come out ahead. We’ve coasted on that for several years now.

It’s becoming clear, though, that we can’t keep coasting that way. Online students are starting to demand a full panoply of services, and to expect that those services will be available on the same basis as the classes themselves. And the numbers now are big enough that the workarounds are simply untenable.

One could always say that we should have planned for that, and there’s some truth to that. But we didn’t plan for the Great Recession and the consequent evisceration of our state funding, or on the consequent enrollment boom. Both of those have strained resources to the point that even well-thought-out plans have been scrapped entirely.

It’s frustrating to have to spend untold staff hours on re-engineering the website to allow for remote drop/adds, or on trying to retrain some longstanding support staff to expand their skills to include helping students who can’t come to the office. But that’s where we are.

Somewhere along the way, online education turned pro. It’s not Pujols yet, but it’s climbing the minor leagues. I just hope we can keep up.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday's Post Removed

Friday's post has been removed, by request of the original correspondent.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


The Wife and I have hit the “chauffeur” stage of parenting.

The Boy has Fall baseball now, and will have basketball shortly. The Girl has gymnastics and soccer. TW is taking an evening class. I have evening events at work, and a manuscript deadline looming.

Family life is largely about transportation.

It would be lovely if we had public transportation worth a hoot, but we don’t. And here in suburbia, the distances are too far (and the roads too busy) for young children to walk or bike to these things. Once in a while we can trade kids with other parents, but everybody is on different schedules, so it only works occasionally.

The weekly event calendar is becoming much more important than it has been, or, frankly, should be. In some ways, it feels like running a small business or planning a wedding.

We were lulled into a false sense of security for a while. When TB had sports but TG didn’t, we still had some gaps in the calendar. And many of the time commitments go away over the summer, so we just came off several months of relatively open evenings. Now we’re paying for it with interest.

Now TG has her own stuff, and rightly so; TW has a class and a book club; and my calendar is much fuller than it was over the summer. (Not to mention the book deadline...)

I think this is why people get personal assistants, or develop drinking habits. It’s hard when nearly every conversation is in the imperative case. (“Don’t forget to...”)

Part of me wonders if part of the whole ‘childhood obesity’ epidemic stems from parents doing the chauffeur thing for a while, until finally just saying “screw it” and planting the kid in front of a screen. Honestly, on some days, I understand. I’m not saying I agree with it, but I understand.

In classic introvert fashion, I need recharging time. When work is work and home is work, where do you recharge?

Wise and worldly readers, I know we’re not the first to face this. Those of you who’ve been through this and come out on the other side, is there a better way? Is there a trick?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Climate Change

A thoughtful reader forwarded me a link to his blog post, in which he sets out a few, fairly narrow conditions under which he considers it appropriate for administrators to “tackle the faculty.” They are:

- When you have a legal obligation or a mandate from further up the administrative food chain. "I know you don't like it, folks, but we have to do it."
- When you have some actual power to enforce. "If we don't get cooperation with the new policy, we won't be able to fund Project X. Take your pick."
- When you have strong support from vocal and respected campus leaders. "On the recommendation of the Faculty Senate, I am instituting the following policy."
- When your position is so morally compelling that you couldn't do anything else. "I cannot in good conscience support the current policy."

I responded less graciously than I should have. Having had a few days to think about it, I think I wasn’t so much responding to the four conditions as to the question itself.

In managing creative and independent-minded people with different scopes of responsibility and finite resources, some level of conflict is inevitable. But there’s conflict, and then there’s conflict.

In the very short term, when a given issue is on fire, the options can be pretty stark. But over time, what really matters is the climate in which the issues are discussed. Savvy administrators who intend to stick around a while understand that the real issue is climate change.

(Full disclosure: it took me years, and a lot of patient feedback from both readers and faculty, to figure this out.)

The climate will affect even the way that questions are heard. In a nervous and antagonistic setting, a dean asking “what went wrong?” will sound like “whose fault is this?” In response, then, you’ll get either blame-shifting or histrionic counterattacks (“how dare you?”), neither of which addresses the question. In a high-trust setting, you might get actual answers to the question, which could lay the foundation for actual improvement in the future.

With that in mind, the real task is not to figure out how to ‘win’ this battle or that one, or even deciding which battles to pick. It’s to figure out how to establish a climate in which searching discussions don’t have to become battles. Make conflict the exception, rather than the norm.

That’s a slow process. Trust is earned slowly and lost quickly; building it where it hasn’t existed for a while will be halting, gradual, and uneven work. The transition will be awkward, as people don’t quite know what to believe, and will sometimes strain to interpret benign moves in sinister ways. As some move faster than others, some miscommunications will occur, and old habits will sometimes die hard.

But it’s worth it.

I have to admit being pleasantly surprised at the ways that some folks on campus have stepped up lately. They’re beginning to notice that it’s safe to tell the truth, and that playing “follow the bouncing blame” isn’t worth it. As the climate warms up, some questions that used to be too risky to even bring up are becoming speakable, and in some areas we’re actually starting to get a handle on some issues that would have been radioactive a couple of years ago. In a couple of cases, I could feel a palpable sense of relief in the room when difficult questions resulted in thoughtful and honest discussion, instead of the usual posturing. Dare I say it, we’re actually starting to address reality.

In this setting, hard rules about when to fight and when not to just seem off-base. The point is to get to where most issues don’t result in fights.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Should professors with full-time positions at college A be allowed to teach as adjuncts at college B?

According to this story in IHE, the administration at Texas Tech thinks not. It’s calling on some for-profit colleges at which some of its full-timers might also teach to reveal who’s teaching there, to allow for cross-referencing. The idea is to ferret out anyone who’s working at both. (Revealingly, the Texas Tech folk seem to take for granted that adjuncts will do that; it’s only focusing on full-timers.)

According to university policy as cited in the article, full-time employees are supposed to declare in writing if they work anyplace else, in order to prevent any conflicts of interest. (That’s standard in public higher education.)

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m being obtuse, but I’m not sure why Texas Tech sees a conflict of interest here.

I’ve gone on record many times over the years saying that faculty jobs are jobs. They aren’t higher callings, they aren’t pronouncements of personal worth, and they aren’t declarations that some people are Special. They’re jobs. As such, they involve pay for the performance of certain tasks as outlined and evaluated by the employer.

Assuming that the employee performs those tasks satisfactorily, what else the employee chooses to do on her own time strikes me as her own business.

Admittedly, I can come up with a few exceptions. If a professor sleeps with a student for whom he has grading responsibility, then the fact that it happened outside of class time is no defense. But that’s a logical extension of the work relationship. Why teaching somewhere else would be a conflict of interest isn’t obvious to me. (And since they don’t seem to mind adjuncts doing it, it doesn’t seem to be obvious to them, either.)

Faculty have long moonlighted (moonlit?) as a matter of course. Sometimes it’s by writing, sometimes by teaching, sometimes by consulting, and sometimes by jobs you wouldn’t necessarily expect -- park ranger, bus driver, store owner. (I’ve seen all of those.) As long as they’re performing their full-time job satisfactorily, I’m at a loss to say why I’m entitled to object. And if they’re falling down on the full-time job, the issue isn’t moonlighting; it’s falling down on the job.

One oft-stated objection I hear to limits on overload courses for full-timers is that if they can’t teach here, they’ll just teach at the college down the street. Well, maybe they will; I can only control what I can control. From an institutional standpoint, relying too heavily on any one person is a bad idea, since it concentrates risk. Spreading the courses around a bit deepens the bench, and reduces the exposure if any one person gets sick or quits abruptly. If the professor compensates by teaching down the street, the extra risk falls on the college down the street; it’s the other college’s problem, not mine. I treat it accordingly.

I’ve heard objections from ‘quality,’ but that strikes me as a category mistake. You’ve heard the saying that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. Some people can fire on all cylinders and are actually most comfortable when doing so; others can’t. Judging performance by inputs seems backwards to me -- it’s similar to a student complaining that she tried really hard and therefore deserved a better grade. Either you performed or you didn’t. If you can carry a herniating courseload and do it in style, more power to you. If you fall down on the job, I don’t much care that you were ‘faithful’ to one institution.

Lurking beneath the article, and spelled out in the comments, is an implied ‘non-compete’ clause with for-profits. The objection here seems to be that for-profits are uniquely suspect, and therefore the rule should apply especially strongly to them.


Work is work. If the issue is competition, let’s take that one to court and see how well it holds up. Can police officers work private security? If so, why can’t professors at state schools moonlight at for-profits? Another commenter objected that for-profits are parasitic on the production of knowledge; taken literally, that comment would seem to apply to any teaching-focused institution. Community colleges aren’t hotbeds of disciplinary research. And the whole ‘transparency’ argument seems premised on a falsehood, that non-profits routinely disclose their faculty rosters. We disclose our full-timers, but our part-timers change every semester, and in the schedule their sections are marked “staff,” which is industry standard.

Trying to think through Texas Tech’s position, the only arguments I can imagine in its favor are the anticompetitive one -- the one that should get thrown out of court -- and the category mistake one, which they might try to explain as a side effect of tenure. I have my own objections to tenure, as regular readers know, but this is not the way to address that. Faculty are entitled to private lives, just like everybody else; if they choose to spend some of their private time doing part-time work elsewhere, let them. I don’t see the conflict of interest here. Am I missing something?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Students Who Don’t Get Into Nursing

Maybe it’s the time of year, but I’ve received several variations on the same question recently: when a student doesn’t get into a Nursing program, what should s/he do next?

It’s a great question, but the answers aren’t easy.

At many community colleges, including my own, students don’t enroll fresh off the street into a Nursing program. Instead, they spend the first year or so taking prerequisite courses -- gen eds plus a generous helping of Biology, more or less -- and then apply on a competitive basis. The idea is that seats in Nursing programs are badly limited -- both by cost and by the number of clinical sites available -- so it makes sense to allocate them to students who are likely to succeed.

Even though the market for new Nursing grads isn’t what it once was, it’s still better than most other markets for new grads, so there’s a tremendous surplus of applicants. Students with GPA’s in the low threes typically don’t get in, at this point. These aren’t bad students by any means, but the bar is so high that even good students can be left in the cold.

(In what is otherwise an open-admissions institution, this island of hard selectivity can make for some awkward moments. Many students have been brought up short when “come here and succeed” abruptly turns to “go away, you aren’t good enough.”)

Some students will try to transfer to Nursing programs at other, neighboring community colleges, but that rarely works; they’re just as swamped as we are. They also tend to favor their own, just as we favor our own.

Some students switch fields entirely, deciding that if Nursing is cold to them, they’ll go where it’s warm. Assuming a genuine interest in that other field, that can be a perfectly valid choice. The 19 year olds tend to have an easier time with this than the 35 year olds, though, since the adults tend to be under more immediate economic pressure. And in this economy, there aren’t that many sure things at the two-year level.

The college can’t really expand its way out of the problem, since it loses boatloads of money on Nursing. The equipment requirements alone are staggering, and the tiny class sizes for clinicals are economically backbreaking. Even if we wanted to, the economics of growth are simply prohibitive.

Some colleges have dealt with that by partnering with for-profits that have Nursing programs. The idea is that they charge something like five to ten times the tuition, so they can cover their costs and more. I’m not a fan of this strategy -- the whole “express lane with lower standards for higher tuition” thing rubs me the wrong way -- but it’s out there. Others have taken what I consider a much more constructive approach, using a “career ladder” structure in which a student who stops out after, say, a semester or two will leave as a Certified Nurses’ Assistant, which can at least help her find work. It doesn’t pay Nursing-level salaries, but if you just need to cut your losses and bring in some cash, it can work.

I’d like to hear from folks in other settings to see how they handle this issue. What does your college do -- if anything -- to offer alternatives to the students who don’t get into Nursing?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Will They Still Need Me When I’m 64?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a year away from going up for continuing contract. This is my state’s version of tenure which is not quite as iron-clad as what I was familiar with elsewhere. It is roughly the equivalent to a three-year rolling contract. I love my job. I spent much of my 20's kicking around through various pursuits and I can recognize that I've found the right fit for my talents and interests. I am also quite good at my job so I do not really worry about losing it for performance. But for some reason that I cannot shake I live in fear of the entire endeavor (full-time community college liberal arts professor as a vocation) disappearing well before the end of my working days. At all of the community colleges that I've worked at as an adjunct or as a full-timer I've seen a rising percentage of students taking online classes. It does not strike me as unreasonable that some day in the not-to-distant future we could have one full-time person designing classes for hundreds of schools with graders taking care of the day-to-day running of the classes. You are far better positioned than I to see what might be in the future, so I write to ask you whether this is a realistic fear or not. Should I settle into my job and invest my free time and human capital in improving my performance or should I spend that time improving skills that might lead to a future second career (e.g. a latent interest I've always had in accounting)?

My first thought is that predicting the state of any public institution thirty years out is a fool’s errand. But keeping in mind Yogi Berra’s observation that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, here goes. As Easterbrook likes to say, all predictions guaranteed or your money back...

Although many of my readers would laugh out loud at the assertion, I think of myself as pretty moderate on this question. I don’t believe the apocalyptic visions of a Bill Gates or an Anya Kamenetz, who foresee in their various ways the imminent dissolution of place-based education. Contra Kamenetz, I see a positive value in the ‘bundling’ function that institutions perform. There’s a value in having a single place to go that answers multiple needs at once. In the debate between Thomas Friedman (“the world is flat”) and Richard Florida (“the world is spiky”), I think it obvious that the match goes to Florida; place is incredibly important, and that applies as strongly to higher education as to anything else. Putting a whole bunch of related functions together in one physical location will continue to matter. If it didn’t matter, we’d see all the tech companies relocate to Kansas, where office space is cheaper.

That said, I’m not nearly as sanguine as the Cary Nelsons of the world, who seem to assume that the fundamental structure of mid-twentieth-century higher education was the best of all possible worlds, and that we just need the political will to restore it and make it bigger. (To be fair to Nelson, he’s following in a tradition of labor leaders -- Sam Gompers famously just wanted ‘more.’) History doesn’t move backwards, and the undeniable reality of the productivity cost spiral renders the older vision simply untenable. Besides, you can’t stuff the internet back into the tubes. The public has voted with its feet, or mice, or whatever, and no amount of huffing and puffing will change that.

I consider the far likelier outcome to look something like this:

1. The elites will continue to do pretty much whatever they want. They’re insulated from economic pressure, and the product they sell -- exclusivity -- seems likely to continue to increase in value as the economy polarizes.

2. Community colleges and four-year state colleges will change many of the ways they operate, but they will continue to exist since they provide an excellent value proposition. As the productivity/cost spiral continues to climb, the low-cost but good-quality providers will get even more appealing than they already are. Admittedly, this assumes that some level of quality control will remain, but I’m optimistic that way. The public colleges that decide to shape reform themselves -- ahem -- will be in the best shape twenty or thirty years from now.

3. The for-profits will continue to grow, though they may take some different tacks than they do now. Unlike the publics, which experience growth as a cost, the for-profits experience growth as, well, profitable. Given that difference, I’d expect to see most of the capacity increase in the near future to occur here. The real breakthrough waiting to happen -- I’ve been saying this for years, a lone voice in the wilderness of the interwebs -- is the high-prestige proprietary. Any venture capitalists looking to blow a quick fifty million or so are invited to drop me a line at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com. Founders College has tried this, but got distracted by an ideological overlay. This idea is just one good practitioner away from breaking big.

4. The less prestigious, but still expensive, private colleges will fade away. I’d expect Antioch to be the template for many more. I understand paying fifty thousand a year for Princeton, and I understand ten thousand a year for Compass Direction State. But forty thousand a year for Nothing Special College just doesn’t make sense anymore. The non-prestigious independents are where I’d expect to see the bloodletting.

Admittedly, I’m making a whole pile of assumptions here. I assume the world won’t end in 2012, we won’t devolve into some sort of Mad Max style barbarism, and we aren’t on the cusp of a massive social democratic revival. But based on the shifts visible now, I consider these the likeliest directions for medium-term change.

If I’m right, then as a young faculty member at a community college you’d be well advised to make yourself adaptable in your current role. Your vision of a rump faction of full-timers becoming curricular czars for armies of adjuncts parallels pretty clearly the for-profit model, and I’d even suggest it’s within shouting distance of some of what the National Center for Academic Transformation has been pushing for a while. There’s a fairly powerful gravitational pull in that direction, as well as in the online direction.

Having said that, it’s also true that technology is changing at an astonishing rate, and I simply refuse to predict what it will look like even ten years from now, let alone thirty. I foresee accelerating technological change, but what that change will look like on the ground is entirely beyond me.

The people who will do well in the future system -- in which I’d expect to see such 20th century conceits as “credit hours” tied to “seat time” go the way of the typewriter -- will be those who can adapt to change as it unfolds. That doesn’t mean blindly adopting each new fad as it comes along; it means bringing that wonderful critical intelligence to bear on new possibilities.

A cliche of economic history is that the early railroads failed because they thought they were in the railroad industry, but they were actually in the transportation industry. Trucks ate their lunch. The educators who will thrive in the future will be those who understand that they aren’t in the Tenured Professor business; they’re educators. That may mean online delivery, or mediated delivery, or modular approaches, or structured group tutoring, or mentoring, or I don’t know what. But outside of the elites, the one strategy I can almost guarantee will lose is digging in your heels and trying to stop history. If you don’t believe me, ask your local newspaper editor.

So yes, I imagine you’ll still have a job (assuming you do it well), but the job you still hold decades from now may not look a lot like the job you have now. If you’re smart, you’ll lean into the change.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what are your crystal ball visions?

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rain in Spain...

Last week, there was a thought-provoking post over at IHE about lessons that the nonprofit sector of higher ed could learn from the for-profit sector. It’s worth checking out.

Having worked in both, I mentioned in the comments that the lower-tier nonprofits, such as community colleges, would do well to learn certain lessons from the for-profits. One really basic one is the importance of addressing a certain kind of cultural capital that elite students already have, but that community college students generally don’t.

At Proprietary U, all degree students were required to take a Career Development class before graduating. (They typically took it in their last or second-to-last semester.) It covered the basics of resume writing, interview etiquette, and even professional dress. The idea was to ensure that the students didn’t sabotage themselves with presentation styles that suggested that they wouldn’t fit in a professional setting. It was badly needed; I recall intercepting one student I knew on the way to an interview and suggesting that he lose the “do rag” first. I couldn’t imagine doing that here.

In the more elite provinces of higher education, a course like that would probably be considered redundant, if not insulting. When you have students mostly from upper-middle-class or just plain wealthy backgrounds, you can usually assume some level of attendant cultural capital; they know how to present themselves in certain settings. (They often choose not to, but they can when they focus.)

But if you’re in the first generation of your family to go to college, and the folks around you are blue collar or marginally employed, the world of the professional workplace may be mysterious. The skills that the Swarthmores of the world could largely take for granted may or may not be there.

PU could get away with it because its mission was unabashedly vocational. Students went there to get jobs. The institution knew that, and embraced it. Nobody had to explain the relevance of, say, interview skills.

Even in class, faculty were encouraged to include some grade points based on “professional conduct” or something similar. The idea was to try to inculcate certain habits of punctuality, presentability, and civility, so they’d become second nature over time. I recall explaining to my students that the style of argument that worked well on Jerry Springer probably wouldn’t work if they tried using it on their boss. They had to learn a new style. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but the effort made sense.

At my cc, though, and at most cc’s, this kind of discussion simply doesn’t occur. The blind spot exists for reasons both good and bad. On the good side is an understandable fear of racism, classism, and general stereotyping. Given the reality of all of these in American life, and the real damage that they do, this is not to be dismissed lightly. There’s also a sense that subjects like ‘deportment’ are not properly academic, and that we have no business teaching those when we can barely get the job done teaching, say, math. Besides, the diversity of the student body goes well beyond race and gender to include age and life experience; a course on professional etiquette that may fill a real gap for a clueless 19 year old may not suit a returning 35 year old. But we can’t construct different curriculum requirements based on students’ age.

Still, avoiding a difficult issue doesn’t make it go away.

Ideally, some of these issues could be resolved through extracurriculars, and sometimes that happens. (I learned a great deal about organizational behavior through my time on the radio station in college.) But typically, the students who gravitate towards those organizations are the ones who least need the polish. They already have it.

Have you seen an effective and non-creepy way to help students from non-traditional backgrounds make up the gaps in cultural capital they need to succeed? I wouldn’t mind stealing a great idea or two...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ask the Administrator: The ""Disloyal" Dean

A foreign correspondent (I’ve always wanted to write that) writes:

Let me begin by admitting that I created my own problem. I work in an
institution where the bulk of the senior management team, including
the president, come from non-academic backgrounds, and almost all have
arrived at the university during the last year. The new president is
keen to push through reforms of the academic programmes, involving
massive cuts based on simplistic criteria. The current deans have
been running profitable and academically reputable faculties for up to
a decade, and there is some resentment of the reform programme. I
stupidly made a comment in a meeting with my faculty which wasn’t
supportive of the way the reforms were being carried out, although I
(like any good academic) have absolutely no issue with the idea of
regular, rigorous scrutiny of our curriculum.

Inevitably, this has got back to the President in a highly-coloured
form. She has called me in and suggested that I am disloyal. I was
surprised to still have a job at the end of the meeting, but I am
wondering what to do now. Can an administrative career ever recover
from this kind of damage, or do I need to start thinking about packing
my tent and moving on?


Yes, an administrative career can recover from something like that. But it takes some doing, and/or some luck.

Being stuck between a bad move from above and pushback from below is no fun at all. I’ve been there enough times to feel your pain.

Deans have many roles, but one of the least appreciated roles is ‘translator.’ They have to translate the faculty to the upper administration and vice versa. That’s harder than it sounds, since the two groups often start with different assumptions and judge ideas by different criteria. In a context of relatively new senior management and relatively entrenched faculty, that’s particularly difficult; the faculty don’t trust the new management yet, and still bear the scars from (real or perceived) mistreatment by previous presidents. The new president doesn’t get the local culture yet, and may or may not perceive herself as an agent of cultural change.

As any student of history can tell you, cultural revolutions from above are rarely bloodless.

The mistake you made, and I’ve done it myself, was in forgetting to play the translator role and instead inserting yourself into the discussion. The effect on certain faculty is similar to when kids hear Mom and Dad disagree on something: it creates perceived running room, and undermines whoever spoke first.

The usual rule for disagreements among administrators is that they should occur behind closed doors. Once the decision is made, the job of the folks lower on the food chain is to carry it out.

That can be a real dilemma when the decision strikes the dean as asinine.

Assuming that you need a salary, I’d advise a two-part strategy: play for time, and look for another job. Playing for time will give you time to look for another job, and it will also give you a chance to try to outlast the current president.

Playing for time will involve some conscious efforts at damage control. If you can, try to get another solo meeting with the president to explain that you understand that you violated administrative protocol. Although she may just be a narcissistic egotist whose anger is beyond rationality, there may also be a legitimate reason for her concern: if you’ve undermined her authority in public once, you may do it again. Don’t go into the merits of the disagreement, since that will just solidify her negative impression; instead, just emphasize that you understand the breach of protocol, and that you won’t do it again. Let her know that you understand the role. Even if you don’t completely mean it, and/or she doesn’t entirely buy it, it may cool things down enough to buy you some time.

I was in your shoes several years ago. The VP made a series of decisions I considered ridiculous, but I had to carry them out anyway. My disagreement was too visible, and too many faculty were eager to score points wherever they could for reasons of their own, so I got the ‘problem child’ label. I did what damage control I could until I was saved by the bell; the vp left for another college, and I was able to start fresh with the new one. Had the first vp stuck around, I probably couldn’t have.

The upside of all this instability is that jobs open up with some frequency, and bad blood in one setting tends not to transfer to another. (Strange, but usually true.) As long as you’re willing to entertain the possibility of working elsewhere, you should be able to land on your feet. Better, at the new job, you’ll have the benefit of this experience without any of the political baggage.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When We Say “College,” We Don’t Mean You...

Sigh. The New York Times strikes again. This time it’s with a four-part colloquy of important people discussing “why are colleges so selective?”

How is someone at a community college supposed to read the question “why are colleges so selective?”

a. ironically
b. as a direct slap in the face
c. as yet another indication of just how provincial the New York Times is
d. all of the above

To explain the Times’ thinking, I’ll trot out my old friend, the syllogism. Colleges are selective. Community colleges are not selective. Therefore, community colleges are not colleges.


Honestly, sometimes reading the Times I channel my inner Lou Ferrigno. “HULK SMASH PUNY RECORDING SECRETARY OF RULING CLASS!” What’s the difference between the New York Times and David Hasselhoff? One is a pathetic joke, and the other is David Hasselhoff. This story is so bad, it almost makes me long for the only-mildly-embarrassing musings of Stanley Fish.


I couldn’t really expect them to acknowledge the existence of community colleges. There are only 1100 or so of them in the U.S., enrolling just under half of the entire undergraduate population of the country. By contrast, there are over seven schools in the Ivy League alone!

Of the four -- count ‘em! -- contributors to the “dialogue,” only one, Jane Wellman, even bothers to note the existence of non-elite colleges. Only one -- Stephen Trachtenberg -- has actually worked in college administration. It goes without saying that none of the four works at a community college.

Lest this be written off as status anxiety, I’ll note that I’m a graduate of one of the colleges the authors actually name. Been there, done that, graduated with honors, thanks. It’s not about sour grapes, and don’t even try to get all ad hominem on me. I got my hand stamped.

It’s about objecting to elite provincialism. Put differently, it’s about acknowledging reality.

From this story, you’d think the greatest challenge facing students today is too much perfectionism. If only! Most of our students require developmental math. Perfectionism is the least of our problems.

Here’s a thought. Instead of wringing our hands over the poor lost souls who miss out on Dartmouth and have to settle for Bucknell -- oh, the humanity! -- let’s send some fraction of that money and time and money and focus and money to the institutions that actually educate most Americans: the non-elite publics. That would mean community colleges, and it would also mean most of the four-year state colleges. You know, the backbone of the middle fucking class. Those schools. The ones that actually compete with the for-profits, and that provide the best hope for most people. The ones that have taken draconian cuts even while their enrollments have risen. Those.

Hell, while we’re at it, let’s make a point of generating enough math teachers so that every state in the country can require four years of math in high school. Get the public K-12 system up to basic competence, and see what happens. Yes, it might lead to even more competition for the elite colleges, as all those talented-but-lower-income kids finally get a chance to shine, but frankly, that’s a problem worth having. And if we can fund public higher ed the way it should be funded, it will provide plenty of capacity for the strong students who didn’t get into Princeton. Speaking for my math department, I’ll attest confidently that we’d be happy -- thrilled! -- to add more sections of differential equations. Bring ‘em on! The English department would be more than happy to run more upper-level literature electives. Admissions would be thrilled to process more AP credits. We can handle this problem.

Elite college angst isn’t a symptom of the human condition. It’s a direct and predictable consequence of class polarization. You know, the kind of class polarization in which it never even occurs to some people that some colleges aren’t selective. Because they don’t mean to include those when they say ‘college.’ The kind in which other classes are so far removed as to become simply invisible. The kind in which you’d convene a group to discuss college admissions without once mentioning open-admissions institutions. That kind.

I’m tired of watching mysteriously-annointed experts solve the wrong problem. Times, if you’re the least bit serious about higher education -- a colossal ‘if,’ I’ll admit -- would it actually, physically kill you to acknowledge the colleges to which most Americans go? And when you do, could it please be in the same section of the paper as the stories about safety schools and selective admissions? The blind, smug elitism is really getting to be a bit much, even for you. Community colleges are news fit to print, too. Honestly.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rat Girl

As regular readers know, I’ve been a fan of Kristin Hersh’s for years. She has a new book out, Rat Girl, which is adapted version of her diary from 1985. It’s far better than that description makes it sound.

In 1985, her band, Throwing Muses, was starting to gain some recognition on the emergent indie scene. It went on to some level of fame and critical respect, though it never really broke big. The band consisted then of Hersh; her “step-twin” Tanya Donelly (referred to in the book as Tea) who would later achieve fame with Belly, on guitar; Leslie Langston on bass, and Dave Narcizo on drums.

I finally got to see her in concert recently, and I can report that the disjuncture between the singer and the song is striking. She performed songs, and did readings from the book; the songs are urgent and dramatic, but the stories are ironic, well-constructed, and frequently funny. She acknowledges the gap at one point in Rat Girl, during a break from a recording session when she’s trying to explain to her producer why a song isn’t working:

“So why don’t you sound like yourself? “ He squints into the sky. “What’d make you sound celebratory?”
“I do sound like myself. That’s the problem. This is my voice. The song’s voice is the one you’re looking for and I honestly don’t know where it is.”
Gil’s eyes widen. “The song’s voice?”
“The song isn’t Kristin?”
“Oh god, no.” Geez, that’d be awful. “It’s best if I’m not feeling anything. Otherwise, I crawl into the song and start messing it up.” (p. 287)

She frequently refers to herself as a scientist, one who goes into a lab and produces whatever truth there is to produce. That could sound cold, but there’s a warm humanity throughout Rat Girl. Hersh writes as a sympathetic, if somewhat distant, spectator to her own life. She recounts being airborne after being hit by a car while she was on her bicycle: “Flying through the air in vivid slow motion, thinking, so this is what this feels like.” (p. 74) After the accident, she started getting the auditory hallucinations that slowly became music, but even that process is presented matter-of-factly.

The contrast between her scientist’s temperament and the insanity of much of her life (both her bipolar disorder and the nuttiness of the music business of the mid-1980’s) makes for most of the comic relief of the book. She notes affectionately her time as a college student at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, where her father -- here identified simply as Dude -- taught philosophy. (Her depiction of an “art therapy” class is worth the price of the book by itself.) Improbably enough, while at college she formed a fast friendship with the 1940’s movie actress Betty Hutton, who took classes there. (Fans will recognize her name -- Elizabeth June -- as a Muses song, and apparently much of “Day Glo” was a eulogy for her.) Betty and her priest became regular presences at Muses shows in Providence, with Betty unsuccessfully imploring “Krissy” to make eye contact with the audience. Betty became a showbiz mentor of sorts, despite some pretty glaring generational differences:

Betty sings about starlight and champagne. I sing about dead rabbits and blow jobs. When I say playing music is owning violence, she says it’s owning love; when I say it’s math, she says it’s tap dancing; when I say it’s my gun, she says it’s her dance card. (p. 35)

All of the named characters come off well; Hersh seems too humane to go after anybody identifiable. Oddly, that even extends to her baby’s unnamed father; she just goes from ‘not pregnant’ to ‘pregnant,’ and that’s that.

When she chooses to be, Hersh is an adept chronicler of detail. She refers to the junker she and the band used to drive as the Silver Bullet; I couldn’t help but laugh, remembering an ex-girlfriend’s junker that I used to call the Flying Deathtrap. After the band moves to Boston, she notes (correctly) the arrogance and general ickiness of the Harvard frat boys; I recall being shocked at SLAC at just how graceless and entitled the rich kids were. Even the descriptions of the nasty little houses they lived in were spot-on; anyone who did the starving grad student bit will smile with recognition.

For my money, though, the highlight and encapsulation is a reconstructed interview with a journalist, when the Muses were starting to find an audience:

“‘Self-expression,’” says a woman with glasses, her army t-shirt bunched and sweaty. She holds her tape recorder out to us. We look at it.
“What about it?” asks Dave politely.
“Let’s just talk a little bit about self-expression,” the woman says.
Leslie looks at her. “What, just ‘talk about it’?”
“How important is it?” she asks, squinting thoughtfully.
“Self-expression?” says Dave. Tea and I just sit there.
The woman begins to rethink her impression of us as articulate. She turns to me and puts her tape recorder under my chin. “Tell me your thoughts,” she says slowly, “Regarding songwriting and expressing yourself.”
I’m confused. “My self? Why would I wanna express that?” (p. 201)

There’s an honesty in that distance, and a real discipline, too.

Hersh may be a mad scientist, but she isn’t an evil one. As absurd as many of the situations are, it’s hard to miss her underlying humanism. She comes off as a smart woman who just happens to channel broken songs, and to write well. She hears things most of us don’t, and has the uncommon grace to share them with anyone who wants to know. (Even now, she gives away her songs for free online, so anyone who wants to know, can.) Sharing her teenage diary with the world is just about as open as it gets; sharing one this well-written and thoughtful is a joy.

And check out the art therapy class. Seriously.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ask the Administrator: When Tuesday Becomes Monday...

An occasional correspondent writes:

I realize it takes some gymnastics to make the number of class meetings equal out what with Monday holidays and whatnot. That being said, as an instructor I find it madness when I teach two sections of a class with one or even TWO less meetings in one than its counterpart. It causes me to have to skip things, or insert total fluff "lab classes" to equal things out. What do your wise and worldly readers think about solutions like "Monday Classes Meet on Tuesday" or twice a week meetings once a semester vs. the merits of keeping it simple and letting the chips fall where they may?

I won’t presume to speak for my readers, but In my own observation, there’s no winning this one.

Briefly, the dilemma is that holidays are not evenly distributed across the week. In the U.S., historical personages seem all to have been born on Mondays -- odd but true -- and Labor Day is always on a Monday. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday. Most colleges face the dilemma in the Fall of trying to squeeze everything in between Labor Day and Christmas, without spilling over, running low, or bumping up too closely against holidays. (Wednesday night classes before Thanksgiving are notoriously quixotic undertakings.)

(I refer here to the holidays most commonly observed. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur don’t always play well with the academic calendar, either, since they typically happen just a few weeks into the Fall, and they move each year. I’ve heard some pretty valid arguments from some Jewish faculty that it’s unfair that they have to use personal days for their holidays, but Good Friday is a freebie. Honestly, they have a point.)

One way to handle the calendar is just to ignore it. Mondays are Mondays, Tuesdays are Tuesdays, and holidays happen when they happen. The beauty of this approach is that it’s intuitive, and it’s in line with what most of the rest of the world does. It allows people with commitments in multiple places to juggle them with relatively little additional nuttiness. That could mean students with jobs, adjuncts with courses at other schools, or even regular employees who need to schedule, say, dentist appointments well in advance.

The problem with that is that the number of class meetings will vary, sometimes non-trivially, depending on which days of the week the class meets. In lab sciences, say, losing multiple Monday lab sessions to holidays could put the students in a real bind relative to students who happen to have their labs on Tuesdays.

In response to class-time inequities, some colleges relabel a few days. For example, I’ve seen the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving conducted officially as Thursday and Friday, respectively.

It’s pretty effective at leveling out the number of class meetings. But the other hurdles it creates are substantial.

The most basic one, embarrassingly enough, is forgetfulness. Somebody always forgets that the day has switched, and so you get wrong professors in wrong rooms.

Beyond that, though, most campuses don’t only have people whose only time commitments are on that campus. Freeway-flying adjuncts may suddenly have schedule conflicts when a Tuesday becomes a Thursday on one campus, but remains a Tuesday on another. Students with part-time jobs -- that is, most of them -- may not be able to move their hours just because the college did. Even things like meetings with external agencies can become tricky.

In a perfect world, every class would be flexible enough that we could just go with the actual calendar and not worry about it. (Alternately, holidays would be evenly distributed.) That might take the form of additional out-of-class assignments, online components, or some other work-around. That would help not only with the predictable stuff, like holidays, but also with snow days and other abrupt interruptions. (I lived through one winter in which every blizzard seemed to hit on a Tuesday. The folks with Tuesday night classes were apoplectic.) But I know that’s not always possible.

As a student, I was always a little miffed when a professor would announce that we’d need to shift gears to deal with missing a day for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is predictable; failing to plan for it just struck me as lazy. But given the realities of snow days, instructor illnesses, and the random stuff of life, I’m increasingly convinced that instructors are well advised to build some reasonable level of flexibility into their plans. (Instead of blow-off days, I’m a fan of online sites as backups, but that’s me.) That’s easier in some courses than others, but neither I nor anybody else can guarantee that blizzards will never strike on Tuesdays.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a reasonably graceful way to deal with uneven distributions of Wednesdays, and/or snow days?

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

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ask the Administrator: How to Play the Reorg?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a librarian at a community college. The Library and Tutoring Center together make up the Learning Resources department and we're part of the Liberal Arts Division. The dean of our division has been in his position for (many) years. One of his primary goals since he arrived here has been the renovation of the library building to update it and reallocate much of the library's space to other support-services like the Tutoring Center, Reading Lab, and Language Lab. The construction has finally begun.

Within a week or two of demolition commencing, the college president suddenly announced his intention to create a new dean position. If the board approves his proposal, the new dean would be in charge of Distance Education, Learning Resources (including the library and tutoring center but not the reading and language labs), and Basic Skills.

Our president's style is to make drastic decisions and announce them as "proposals." This dean position and reorganization was announced at a managers' meeting before the president ever discussed it privately with my dean. It has, therefore, taken on the air of a scandal. The librarians (the only faculty who would directly report to the new dean) are being expected to make a statement about the proposal to the Academic Senate next week. If the plan goes through, the new dean could be hired by next semester. Of course the people who oppose it are invoking "process" and those who support it are willing to forget about the process.

So, I figure that the safe thing is to be political in our approach and support our current dean without criticizing the president's plan. We can manage that. The reason I'm writing to you, though, is because I desperately want the reorganization to take place and I want to make a case for it to the other librarians. But I'm trying to figure out if my personal antipathy toward my dean is making me too quick to embrace the new plan.

What I want to know is if there are structural issues that I might be ignoring or misunderstanding. I'm hopeful you can offer some insights that, while not specific to my college, could be generally true about a) the logistics of two divisions having to share contended space, b) the effects of moving from being the forgotten department in a large division to being the big dog in a smaller division, c) the consequences of this type of managerial upheaval at a critical point in the construction process, and d) other things I haven't considered.

There’s a lot here, so I’ll pick at some of it and ask my wise and worldly readers to help fill out the picture.

First, you’re wise to try to separate personnel from roles. Too often, colleges will use reorganizations as expedients to exile or fire low performers; once the low performers are gone, though, the ad hoc structure remains. I’ve seen entire programs moved simply to separate two people who didn’t like each other; later, when both people have moved on, the college still struggles to make the awkward structure work. Just because you don’t like your dean doesn’t necessarily mean that there shouldn’t be one.

I’d be intrigued to find out whether the dean who stands to ‘lose’ your area is ‘getting’ anything in return. If so, then it may be a relatively non-contentious affair. If not, then depending on how your President likes to operate, it could be a sign that your dean is on his way out anyway. If that’s the case, then you can satisfy your antipathy without caring about the reorg one way or the other.

(Fwiw, there’s a method to a successful reorg. It involves public discussion, multiple alternatives, revisions, more discussions, ‘impact bargaining’ with the unions, etc. The idea is to give people time to get used to the idea, to troubleshoot and thereby improve the proposal, and to force the knee-jerk naysayers to specify a preferred alternative.)

Switching divisions always makes people nervous, for reasons both good and bad. It may have an impact on your resources, and it will very likely have an impact on work climate. Both of those changes can cut either way. My guess is that moving from a division in which you’re pretty much an afterthought to one in which you matter a great deal can only help. If nothing else, you’ll have an easier time advocating for your own area’s needs within the division.

Sharing space may or may not matter, depending on the degree of budgetary autonomy among divisions. If your college follows the “each tub on its own bottom” model, then I’d expect chronic low-level conflict as each area tries to pin costs on the other. If the vp’s office holds most of the resources, I’d expect the conflict to be considerably less. Not ‘zero,’ of course -- egos are egos -- but less.

If this is just part of a larger reorg, with a non-trivial increase in the number of deans, then you may see the relative influence of each individual dean decline. The newbie will probably have a honeymoon for the first year, so the impact on you may be delayed. And of course, the provost/vp is a wild card. Having worked before in situations in which I was undercut from above, I’d expect your current provost/vp to walk pretty quickly out the door. (Getting undercut from above is demoralizing in most cases, but for an administrator, it’s fatal.) The president will most likely try to find someone more pliant to his impulsiveness, someone who’s good at sweeping up messes after he causes them.

You’re in the enviable position now of being able to stay above the fray and still probably get what you want. That’s how I would play it. If the LA dean is out of favor, you don’t need to pile on; all you need to do is not save him.

One admin’s opinion, anyway. Wise and worldly readers, how would you play it? What have I left out?

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

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

They’re Baaack...

The first week of classes has a charm all its own. Students are everywhere, professors are rested and ready, nobody’s behind yet, parking is a nightmare of Biblical proportions, a few professors turn up missing at the last minute, and everyone -- everyone -- complains about the bookstore.

It’s the same every year. It’s actually sort of reassuring.

I can count on hearing certain things, and have already gone through most of the list for this year:

“Books are too expensive!” Yes, they are.

“Can you believe what some students wear in public?” No, I can’t.

“How was your summer? Oh, right...” Grrrr.

“We need more faculty/tutors/labs/classrooms/time/stuff” True.

“So-and-so hasn’t retired yet?” Nope.

“I heard rumors of more state budget cuts.” Yup, and I heard the sun would rise in the East.

“You need more parking.” Yup, and the sun rose in the East.

That’s not to say that it’s entirely predictable. Each year brings a weird new personnel issue, but you never know exactly where it will strike. (Past years have included a full-timer taking another job three days before classes started, an aneurysm, a last-minute medical leave for the entire semester, and a request three days into the semester for a change to a three-day schedule.) There’s also usually a really annoying IT glitch somewhere, but the exact glitch is always different. And each year the new students look juuuust a little bit younger.

The trick is to remember that no matter how many iterations of the first day I’ve been through, it’s the very first one for a whole lot of people. They’re excited, and scared, and lost, and easily overwhelmed. For others, it’s the second time round, but after a long layoff. They’re excited, too, though they show it differently. (They’re usually the ones who show up a week early to figure out where their classrooms are. I love that.) And I remember from my faculty days that wonderful feeling on the first day of class when nobody is behind and there’s nothing to grade. At that point, anything is possible.

That feeling of new possibility gets me every time. Educators as a breed are susceptible to it; it’s why we do what we do.

Good luck, everyone. The cafeteria is that way.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Hybrid Positions

A new correspondent writes:

After completing my MA in Rhetoric and Writing in 2008, I started adjuncting at a community college, teaching multiple sections of academic writing. After one quarter of teaching, the economy tanked, the state slashed funding to higher ed, my college felt the squeeze, and sections were cut. As a new adjunct with no seniority, I was among the first to be told the college wouldn’t be able to offer me any teaching work in the foreseeable future.

There was, however, a silver lining in the layoff. The day after I was let go as an adjunct, a different department on campus specializing in grant programs announced an opening for a temporary exempt staff job. I promptly applied for it as a matter of survival, even though I had absolutely no experience managing grants. I ended up getting hired. Furthermore, what began as a temporary position has since morphed into a somewhat permanent full-time position (I'm contracted year to year) with a good salary, paid vacation, a predictable schedule, medical benefits, and a retirement plan. Sometimes life picks you up after it knocks you down.

While I miss teaching, I enjoy working the financial side of higher ed. My office administers a spread of grants that help low-income students pay for school, which means I get to work with a wide spectrum of disadvantaged populations. Overall, my job has instilled within me a sense of professionalism and confidence; opened my heart to the plight of high-need, non-traditional college students; given me opportunities to network with directors and administrators; helped me get a handle on how the two-year college system works as a whole; and equipped me with a variety of skill sets that will be useful to me in whatever employment opportunities come my way in the future.

This, finally, brings me to my question. I’m not out to shake things up at the moment but if, down the road, I get the bug to get back into the teaching gig and if the opportunity presents itself, do you think someone like me – who has about 3 years of college-level teaching experience, a good amount of grant management experience, and a big-picture understanding of the community college system – would ever have a shot at landing a tenure-track job in my field of study? I realize I'd have less teaching experience than other applicants in this hypothetical scenario, but my time away from the classroom has sharpened me, and continues to sharpen me, in ways that strictly teaching never could have.

I think the key phrase here is “in my field of study.”

Although nearly every thoughtful academic I know concedes that reality is not divided neatly into academic disciplines, most faculty hiring is. If, say, an English department gets the opportunity to hire, it will usually hire according to what it considers important. Someone who brings an ancillary skill set won’t be disqualified, necessarily, but won’t get extra points, either. A line that “belongs” to a department will get defined by the incumbent members of that department. As remarkable as it is, I’ve actually run into English departments at community colleges that won’t even hire comp/rhet graduates, on the theory that they’re somehow ‘less than.’ They want literature people and only literature people. How that meshes with the course offerings at most community colleges is utterly beyond me, but I’m not in an English department.

In other words, I wouldn’t expect your grant administration experience to help you very much, if your goal is a tenure-track job in English.

However, that isn’t the only worthwhile goal in the world.

As community colleges increasingly adjust to a new normal of even lower state subsidies than before -- and that’s saying something -- they’re starting to move much more purposefully towards grant-funded opportunities. In the meantime, several large foundations -- Gates being the most conspicuous example -- are offering substantial sums to community colleges that are willing to experiment. For example, the Gateway grants typically require paying for “resource specialists” who are hybrids of ‘faculty’ and ‘counselors.’ (This causes no end of issues with the union, but that’s another post.) The idea is that the students in the program will have a single ‘go-to’ person to help them adjust to college.

Many grant funded programs have ‘directors’ who occupy what would normally be considered hybrid positions. In the beginning, these were seen as exotic, but as the funding streams have moved, they’ve moved the ground right with them. College teaching experience can be a valuable asset in a program director. (It’s also fairly common for program directors to teach on the side as adjuncts.) If you understand faculty culture and the reality of the classroom, you will be much more effective in your administrative role.

In the case of English, specifically, you may also find Writing Center directorships appealing. Those have always been administrative positions, but with a strong teaching component. A rhetoric/composition background makes a lot of sense in that role. I know some of my wise and worldly readers have done writing center directorships, so I’ll ask them to fill in some gaps explaining that world.

In some smaller or more adventurous colleges, a utility infielder may hold more appeal. In those settings, there are typically fewer people than there are functions, so people have to hold more than one. Larger colleges usually have the luxury of allowing people to specialize. If you really want to find your way into full-time faculty, I’d focus on smaller and/or rural colleges, where they care more about flexibility.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Is there a better way to play this hand?

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

Friday, September 03, 2010

Random Bullets of Friday

- I don’t get the Apple tv thing. It only gets two networks, and they’re ones that I can get over the air for free. Apple, I enjoy following you guys, but you’re missing the point here. The point is to make it possible to drop cable tv, or at least to cut it back all the way to the very basics. Gaining the option of paying again to watch shows I could have tivo’d the first time they were on, on a connection I already have to keep anyway, is not a selling point. I don’t need another way to get ABC. I need another way to get Comedy Central. (Besides, the wii already streams Netflix.) A swing and a miss, Apple.

- Note to granting agencies: it’s one thing to be months late disbursing grant money. It’s quite another to then say that we aren’t allowed to backfill money we fronted to the program while waiting. Grants are supposed to help, not become unfunded mandates. Either be prompt or be flexible; ‘late and strict’ is a terrible combination. Not cool, guys.

- From the 2008 edition (the most current one) of The American Community College, by Cohen and Brawer:

“Sixty percent of the community colleges where faculty are working under [collectively] negotiated contracts are located in just five states: California, Illinois, Washington, New York, and Michigan.” (p. 148)

I did not know that. Food for thought...

- A modest proposal for state legislatures that are getting persnickety about attrition rates in community colleges: either require (and pay for) four years in math in high school or shut the eff up.

- A new definition of “bittersweet”: watching your six year old daughter bound happily onto the bus for the first day of first grade.

- Actual conversation at home:

TG: Daddy, with all those meetings, when do you get your work done?
DD: That is my work.
TG: Really?
DD: Yeah.
TG: Ewwww...

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Importing Administrators

In a follow-up to an earlier discussion, a correspondent wrote:

Do outsiders stand a chance at landing admin jobs on your campus? Most admins on my campus are promoted/drafted from within the ranks of tenure-track faculty with an assumption that they'll serve for a couple of years, get a big pay bump, and then return to their academic positions (which results in a lot of self-serving behavior, poor administration, and acrimony upon return, but it happens anyway). Consequently outsiders, or even non-tenure insiders, are rarely offered a shot at admin jobs. But maybe, hopefully, things are just strange on my campus?

Having been hired as an outsider, I can say that context is everything.

Coming in from the outside as a dean is a unique challenge, since deans’ jobs frequently are built on relationships. (Here I’m speaking of community colleges, where nobody has money to throw around. An R1 with serious cash is another universe altogether.) That’s especially true in tenured settings with superannuated departments; there, a newbie might as well be from Mars. When everyone has history except you, you’re opaque and therefore distrusted. Navigating a setting like that is like trying to start a Faulkner novel in the middle.

If you walk into a context in which several former admins have returned to faculty and are still nursing old wounds, it’s that much harder. I have personally been in situations in which Professor Smith and Professor Jones will not work together for any reason, because Professor Smith’s husband offended Professor Jones’ wife at a social gathering in the 1980’s. When your success or failure is predicated on relationships, and you’re walking into that from the outside, well, good luck to you.

Of course, sometimes the whole point of hiring an outsider is to try to shake up a division or college that has grown stale. I’m not a fan of that; middle managers, which is what deans are, are uniquely unsuited to be change agents. They aren’t high enough on the food chain to have real power or resources, and they aren’t in the trenches to do it themselves. Over time, if a bunch of tenured faculty decide that the untenured dean is a pain in the ass, it isn’t hard to figure out who’ll win.

Inside hires have it easier in many ways. They often carry tenure with them, which at least makes for a fair fight. They have a sense of local history. They’re rarely expected to be change agents, so the standards to which they’re held tend to be more realistic.

The downsides are that they’re often too steeped in local politics to have fresh eyes; they usually lack the comparative perspective that an outsider can bring; and sometimes there just isn’t anyone local who’s both willing and capable. Oddly enough, this suggests that outside hires may make more sense at higher levels -- presidents and vp’s, say -- than at lower levels.

The outside hires I’ve seen succeed have arrived quietly, almost humbly, and have spent time asking questions and listening before trying to make waves. That’s possible only when they aren’t hired to be change agents.

To answer the direct question, yes, outsiders sometimes have real shots, and occasionally even get hired. But when they do, they have a narrower strike zone.

Wise and worldly readers, do outside hires have a good track record on your campus? Do inside hires? Is the variable even relevant?

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

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Hint, Hint

This article brought back memories.

My first administrative gig was at the same college where I got my first full-time faculty job, so I crossed over without switching institutions. That meant that former colleagues were suddenly on the other side.

I expected some distance, and the occasional awkward moment, and those both happened. I also ran into the brick wall of antipathy toward administration with some, and even some brown-nosing with others. (If you had asked me in advance who would have gone which way, I would have guessed wrong.) Some folks who had previously seemed reasonable were suddenly hypercritical, and some who had previously been cordial were suddenly suspicious.

But to my eternal gratitude, some of the more self-assured ones actually helped me learn the new etiquette on the fly. It was a real kindness on their part, even if it also improved the chances of their own lives being easier.

At one early point, for example, a professor popped in to say hi and pass along something of only passing importance. I was juggling several torches at that point, so without thinking, I pulled a “while you’re here” on him and asked if he could help with something taxing. He was a good sport, but he pointed out that if I made a habit of “while you’re here”-ing people when they drop by, they’ll stop dropping by. If I wanted to ask something of him, I should go to him.

He was right, of course, but I probably would have missed it if he hadn’t taken the time to spell it out for me. I didn’t think of what I had done as ambushing -- it wasn’t planned, for starters -- but in effect, that’s what it was. His congenial, but clear, admonition was a real favor.

At another early point, I made a fairly snarky comment in a department meeting about a course that I hadn’t enjoyed teaching. It was the kind of comment that I had made many times before while on faculty, to no great effect one way or the other. I thought of it as blowing off steam. But another professor let me know later that the same comment coming from a dean had a different valence, and that I needed to keep that in mind when I spoke. She was right. Without meaning to, I had sent a message that some received as What The Administration Really Thinks. I hadn’t intended to act on it, but not everybody in the room knew that. Her hint stuck with me, and has probably saved me untold drama in the years since.

For reasons I’ll probably never fully understand, higher ed doesn’t really train deans. Although we put people through absurdly extended and picky training regimens for faculty jobs -- the research part, anyway -- we don’t train administrators at all. I had to learn Academic Management 101 on the fly, largely through trial and error. (My CAO at the time meant well, but it was really a case of the blind leading the blind.) Traditional management training isn’t terribly relevant, since the culture of higher ed is a creature unto itself, so that won’t save you. And C.K. Gunsalus hadn’t yet published her absolutely invaluable Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide. (Hint to new deans: buy it, read it, read it again, keep it handy.) I’ve been lucky enough to be able to blog my way through some dilemmas, but that option still seems idiosyncratic.

The comments to the IHE piece were mostly incendiary, which is both discouraging and representative of what new administrators will encounter. But for those of goodwill, the occasional hint can go a long way.