Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Wish List for 2012

1.  The Girl actually -- and I am not making this up -- asked for her two front teeth for Christmas.  As she put it, utterly deadpan, missing her front teeth “makes it hard to eat apples.”  I thought she had a pretty good point.

2. Some successful hires at the college.

3. A year without hurricanes, earthquakes, microbursts, extended blackouts...

4. The state finally figures out that “workforce development” includes sending students on for bachelor’s degrees, and some funding follows.

5. We finally get real, viable competition among internet providers.  Actual choice.

6. The Boy gets at least another year of relative immunity to the inevitable cruelties of early adolescence.

7. President Obama remembers that he’s a Democrat.  He forgets sometimes.

8. My wise and worldly readers have a wonderful year.  

Program note: the blog will take a brief break, returning on Tuesday, January 3.  See you in 2012!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Let's Play...Spot the Contradiction!

It’s time for another round of every administrator’s favorite game, “Spot the Contradiction.” See if you can isolate the double bind that drives good people around the freakin’ bend. First, there’s MIT’s move into open, free credentialing. According to the press release, the idea is to enable not only individuals, but entire institutions, to avail themselves of MIT’s subject matter expertise without shouldering the cost. It nicely combines a response to the Occupy movement’s concern with student loans with a nod to MIT’s historical status as a land grant university. Presumably, an enterprising college could choose to honor MIT’s certificates, and could even use its online offerings in lieu of traditional onsite or homegrown instruction. Those of us who want to give our students access to the very best, but who need to keep an eye on costs, suddenly have a new, exciting option. The very same week, AFT-FACE published this post arguing for an "instructional loss ratio" whereby institutions that receive federal student aid are required to devote a certain percentage of their budget to instructional services and support, including full-time faculty, counselors, advisors, and other key academic staff. The idea, cribbed from health care reform, is to cap “non-instructional” expenses as a percentage of overall costs. Presumably, given the source of the idea, the beneficiaries would be faculty. When you understand the appeal of both ideas, and yet see the contradiction, then you are ready for the exciting world of academic administration. Cost control is obviously necessary. And the adjunct trend is obviously objectionable. But the adjunct trend is motivated primarily by...wait for it...cost control. The MIT model lays the groundwork for replacing underpaid instruction with completely unpaid instruction. As a cost control measure, it’s brilliant. But as a labor measure, it’s objectionable in the extreme. Welcome to my world. The external pressures for cost control are chronic and increasing. And the internal pressures to increase spending are chronic and increasing. Navigating between the dog and the fire hydrant is the task of the academic administrator. Sometimes, we can get grants. But grants bring strings, and reporting requirements, and project managers, and expiration dates. Increasingly, they also bring “non-supplanting” requirements -- you can’t use the money for things you’d usually use money for -- and “sustainability” requirements, in which you pledge to keep using your own money for those things you wouldn’t use your own money for once the grant expires. And that’s assuming the grant programs haven’t been desiccated in the first place. Santa, you know what I’d like for Christmas? An operating budget that lets me actually pay for enough full-time employees to get the work done that needs to get done, without having to hire a brand-spankin’-new project manager for every couple hundred thousand. That would be nifty. If that won’t fit under the tree, then maybe at least a return to the levels of, say, 2008. Until then, I’ll just try to stop noticing the contradiction.

&#(^&# New Interface

Dear Readers, I'm sorry for the hiccups on this page this week. The new Blogger interface is giving me fits. (Among other things, it's eating my formatting.) I hope to get back to some semblance of readability soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Free, If You Can Get It

Is a free textbook a good deal? It depends. Textbook costs are a real issue for students at many community colleges. For the intro to biology sequence, for example, the textbook and lab manual combine to cost over three hundred dollars. That’s pretty close to the tuition and fees for the course. For students who are paying their own way, or who work at minimum wage jobs to get through college, that’s real money. Multiply that by several courses over a few semesters, and the impact on, say, loan burdens is no small thing. Some universities are experimenting now with programs to encourage faculty to draw their course materials from free online resources. The idea is to help offset costs for students and, more cynically, to make tuition increases easier to swallow. After all, from a student’s perspective, total cost is the key issue. If a student saves a few hundred bucks on books, a slightly larger than usual tuition increase suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. If a college can shift money from publishers to itself, why not? The devil is in the details. Most of the examples I’ve seen rely on electronic resources. E-books, databases, and even selected websites (i.e. Khan Academy) can often fill in for paper textbooks. But they all require internet access on a device with a big enough screen. We can’t always assume that. We have computer labs on campus, but they’re frequently full. We have wifi on campus, more or less, but it still requires that the student provide the device. And when students are off campus, the cost of internet access falls on them. Given that students often do their reading and homework off campus, this is a major issue. Mobile broadband seems like one possible solution, but in these parts, the coverage is spotty and maddeningly inconsistent. (Annoyingly, only one carrier has good enough coverage here to be a viable option, and even that one is flawed.) Dead-tree books have the clear advantage of portability. A book that’s readable in the library is also readable in the cafeteria, on the bus, or at home, and at no additional cost. It doesn’t require the student to invest in infrastructure beyond a backpack and maybe a lamp. Electronic resources aren’t quite there yet, at least for commuter schools. (I suppose a residential college could make this work, given enough connectivity on campus. But that’s not my world.) Which means that the cost savings offered by electronic resources are predicated on an already-existing investment. If you already have, say, an ipad, and you already have wifi at home, then the savings are real. If you don’t, they aren’t. (ADA compliance remains an issue with cheaper delivery systems. I don’t know if the Nook is ADA compliant, but I’m told that the Kindle still isn’t. Ipads are, but they cost much more.) None of this strikes me as necessarily permanent. If mobile broadband coverage finally hits a critical level of ubiquity and reliability, then I could imagine some sort of leasing program for ipads with 3G (or, ideally, 4G) connectivity. But we aren’t there yet. For now, freebies are only free if you can afford them.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Gift Cultures

I don’t think of myself as Scrooge, but this time of year the endless questions around “secret Santas” and informal gift exchange always crop up. Lesboprof’s take is particularly thoughtful. Having worked in a few different places, I’ve noticed that cultural expectations around gift exchange are strongly local. Rules that seem inviolate in one place would seem utterly strange in another; the folks who move from one to the other are expected to just know. I’m not a fan of expected cross-rank gift-giving. Having worked in a place where it was effectively mandatory, I saw it as an ethical time bomb and a constant headache. How much gift is appropriate? If you receive a gift, are you obliged to reciprocate? What else does a gift imply? (Gifts to the person who does your annual evaluation strike me as obviously thorny.) And it’s hard not to notice that strict reciprocity in gift expectations fails to account for different salaries. The folks on the bottom wind up getting hurt by that. Larger cultural issues obviously intrude, too. Not everybody is Christian, and not everybody celebrates holidays at this time of year. (I’m told, too, that Chanukah isn’t nearly as central to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity. Apparently, Passover is a much more important occasion than Chanukah.) Those who don’t shouldn’t be coerced into playing along, and/or subtly punished for not. That should be obvious, but the whole “put the Christ back in Christmas” movement has overlaid a layer of reactionary politics on the entire question. In this climate, opting out or playing it low-key can be taken as the equivalent of open hostility. (Similar issues arise around Christmas decorations. At a public institution, it’s fair to assume that some of the taxpayers whose money is being used don’t celebrate Christmas. But there’s always someone who insists on going over the top to make some sort of point about a perceived hostility to religion. I grant without argument that the issue may play differently at a religiously-affiliated college.) Some places have adopted the wonderful strategy of organizing gift-giving for some local charity, and/or for scholarships for deserving students. That way, people who would like to give have a constructive venue for doing it, and those who would rather opt out have the choice. Locating the beneficiaries outside of the workplace does wonders for the ethical issues, and restores some healthy progressivity to the impact. But some folks just can’t be content with that. The new-manager’s dilemma is in confronting long-entrenched practices that really don’t make sense. The first person to interrupt the circuit of cross-rank gifts is often considered the jerk, even if most people silently breathe a sigh of relief. (Actually, that’s a pretty good description of administration generally.) And getting the persecuted true believer to take it down a notch is always a risky endeavor. Wise and worldly readers, have you found productive ways to redirect gift cultures gone horribly awry? Alternately, have you found successful ways to get the most militant over-the-top decorators to tone it down without causing a huge issue?

What Do You Mean, I’m Not Graduating?

It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s time for some students to figure out that they’ve taken the “wrong” courses for their programs.

This happens every single year.

When it happened at Proprietary U, I couldn’t really blame the students. PU had an odd habit of changing requirements annually, if not faster than that, so it was easy to lose track. (It wasn’t unusual to have three different versions of a curriculum running simultaneously. The scheduling headaches were awful.) Worse, Home Office used to change the requirements without paying attention to total credit hours. The ADHD culture led to all manner of confusion, with the students ultimately paying for it.

Here, that’s less of an issue. Curricula change much more slowly, and there’s no issue of people in one state making rules for people in another without looking at the relevant regs. But still, every year, some students profess themselves shocked to discover that whatever lineup of classes they chose didn’t add up to a program.

In my first few months of administration, I was surprised every time the question came up. Now, not so much.

Typically, confusion arises from any of several sources.

1. Curricular change. That’s still relevant when you have a student who started many years ago, took some time off, and returned, with the requirements having changed while she was away.

2. Inattention to advisement. “My advisor never told me” frequently translates to “I wasn’t paying attention when my advisor told me.”

3. Inattentive advisors. Yes, sometimes advisors get it wrong. The most frustrating cases are the ones in which they get defensive and try to explain that they’re actually right.

4. Procrastination. Some students will try to put off their math classes until the last possible moment, not noticing that they’ve placed into developmental courses. That means that instead of just needing the one class, they need a sequence of classes that can’t be taken together. There’s no elegant way out of this, once it happens.

5. Changing majors. Courses that counted towards the first major may or may not count towards the second. Students don’t always catch that, though.

6. Scheduling. This is usually the easiest to work around, assuming you aren’t in California. Sometimes a student will need a social science elective on a Tuesday night, but we don’t have one she hasn’t already taken on a Tuesday. In consultation with advisors, they can usually find an acceptable substitute. (For a business major, does “Early Modern History” seem like a viable substitute for “The Middle Ages?” I took the position that it did.) If they play their cards right, we just fill out “course substitution forms” and call it good. Of course, the substitutions have to be academically defensible. One literature elective for another is typically fine, but I’ve shot down requests to substitute literature for engineering.

Where this approach falls flat is where students can’t get anything resembling anything they need. In a case like California’s, in which colleges have waitlists thousands deep, there’s often no reasonable substitution available. Happily, that’s not my world.

My free advice to students and prospective students out there is to keep a checklist of course requirements from your very first semester forward. When you see your academic advisor, bring the checklist and go through it. It’s sooooo much easier to make adjustments to courses you haven’t taken yet than it is to find funding for an extra semester to make up for that one requirement you somehow missed.

And for the love of all that’s good, don’t put off your math. It won’t get any easier.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen other ways that students wind up with courses that don’t quite add up to a program?

Friday, December 16, 2011


I’ve never really come to terms with taking attendance in college classes. Maybe it’s me.

Yes, there are good pragmatic, and even academic , reasons to take attendance. Financial aid rules require noting a “last date of attendance” for students on aid who drop classes; you can only get that right if you bothered taking attendance. (“Dunno – maybe Octoberish?” won’t fly.) Financial aid is important enough to both colleges and students that one does not dismiss this lightly.

Attendance obviously matters for any class involving group work. If half the group doesn’t show up on a given day, that leaves those who did show up in a bad spot. (That’s especially true if you have stable groups over time, as in the case of group presentations.)

There’s also a reasonable argument to the effect that showing up for class on time is analogous to showing up for work on time. Yes, some workplaces are more flexible than they once were, but even that has limits. (In my observation, the flexibility is usually in exchange for more work – the old “you can work any sixty hours a week you want.”) We teach by what we do; if we want to graduate the kind of students who can be depended on, the argument goes, we need to inculcate the habits of promptness in the course of what we do. That means requiring students to show up for class.

More recently I’ve been confronted with arguments from social justice. This argument relies on data showing that attendance in class correlates strongly with passing grades – one of the great “no shit” findings of social science – and suggests that “attendance optional” policies wind up defaulting to pass rates that correlate too closely to economic class. If we want to raise the chances of the least advantaged, this argument goes, we have to push a bit. That means requiring everyone to show up.

I can concede some truth in each of those, but somehow, it still just doesn’t feel right. (Full disclosure: I have the same misgivings about “college success” courses.) At some level, especially outside of group-based courses, I can’t help but think of class as a resource that students are given access to in order to succeed at their courses. Students who take advantage of that resource will tend to do better than those who don’t. Figuring that out is part of the process. If some student is a gifted autodidact, I can’t help but shrug and say more power to him.

My ambivalence is compounded by online classes. What exactly does ‘attendance’ mean in the context of an asynchronous online course? It’s getting harder not to notice that the trend towards more prescriptive attendance policies for onsite classes is occurring at the same time as the explosion of online classes, for which there isn’t even a place to be.

Of course, attendance policies carry with them the inevitable haggling over “excused” absences. In my teaching days, I hated that haggling enough that I just banned it; instead, I gave the students a set number of “cuts” they could have without penalty, and I counted the top three out of four tests. My argument to them was that in any given workplace, nearly everybody got some level of benefit of the doubt, but that it was finite; miss too much, even for good reasons, and people just get tired of hearing it. The great relief of online courses, paradoxically enough, is that they curtail the perceived need for surveillance (i.e. excuse verification) even more; either you got the work done or you didn’t.

This may wind up being one of those cases in which I just have to swallow my own misgivings and roll with larger pragmatic considerations. (Certainly I have no intention of messing with Title IV.) But it still doesn’t sit right.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a way to satisfy the need for Last Date of Attendance and suchlike without getting too infantilizing? Is there a better way?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Easy Online Collaboration

I love this question. A longtime reader writes:

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday. As we talked, a common theme emerged: neither of us has found a way to do the following
1) Easily and collaboratively share and revise documents or other materials on our college’s content management system
2) Easily and collaboratively share and revise documents or other materials on our college’s course management system (or on other open-source course management systems used on campus) e.g create a moodle course for a particular committee or task force and use this as a space to get some collaborative work done on a project.
3) Easily and collaboratively share and revise documents or other materials on an independent webspace such as a blog.
As this came to light in our conversation we also expressed the same argument: the ability to easily and collaboratively share and revise documents and materials is one of the key things that we need to do on campus in order to effectively and strategically get things done. Whether it be a new project involving faculty collaboration on the development of a new course or the writing of a program review report within an instructional department, sending back drafts and forth with changes tracked ain’t cutting it. Yet, say, uploading a google doc to a campus webpage is clunky and doesn’t work for all faculty based on my experience. Likewise, while we’ve been experimenting with the use of moodle and other systems for this type of collaboration, we haven’t yet found one which is satisfactory.
Have you or anyone else out there figured out a simple and effective way to do this type of collaborative authorship which has been, at least to an extent, institutionalized at your college?
Also, side note—I think that our need for this is somewhat specific to academia. For example, my husband works in the corporate world. His schedule allows the flexibility to schedule meetings to talk about drafts of presentations, documents, etc. Especially for folks who are teaching a full load of courses, scheduling a time where schedules don’t clash can be incredibly challenging. Unfortunately, in my estimation, this would then have a more pronounced effect on the ability of faculty who are primarily teaching to collaborative discuss or address issues connected to teaching and learning. Without an easily usable virtual space for dialogue and discussion, it is really hard to move forward with these types of projects because it’s often not possible to find a time to meet.

I don’t have a quick answer, but I need one.

On my campus, we’ve had many of the same issues. Venues like blogger require either openness to the world or a level of password/username specificity that quickly becomes clunky. Moodle seems more labor-intensive than a simple task warrants, especially for people who aren’t already teaching online. Google sites aren’t awful, but they’re pretty basic. It’s possible to ‘share’ google docs, but the functionality is pretty limited. I’ve heard people swear by wikis, but they’ve never really caught on locally.

I’ve seen potentially interesting collaborations die on the vine because nobody wants to learn an entirely new platform. (One of them memorably involved sending “yams” to each other. Seriously? Yams?) Given the half-life of social media platforms, the learning curve needs to be short or people just won’t bother. And it needs to be both reasonably secure and not a pain in the neck.

Wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Is there a tool that lends itself to the kinds of online collaborations that faculty at teaching-intensive places actually need to do?

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Long Term, Short Term

Why hasn’t the Great Recession triggered a massive restructuring of American higher ed yet?

By all rights, it should have. It brought to the fore long-festering negative trends in public support, student loan burdens, tuition costs, employability, and whatever else you care to mention. But so far, despite plenty of public discussion and no shortage of of public pressure, we haven’t seen basic structural change.

Part of it, I suspect, is the differing timelines at work in what is -- let’s face it -- a very mature industry. Most states don’t finalize their budgets until the last minute, and sometimes later than that. (California just announced another round of cuts for this academic year! “California -- putting the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunction’!”) That means that public colleges won’t have reliable budget figures until shortly before classes begin, if they even have them then.

That’s a tremendous problem for a semester-based business. Once a class starts in September, its costs are fixed through December. And once an employee starts an annual appointment in September, those costs are fixed until next summer. Abrupt changes are impossible to handle elegantly when costs come in big, fixed chunks like that.

Theoretically, a college could always decide to maintain quality by sacrificing breadth, but the internal (and often external) politics of that are frequently prohibitive. SUNY Albany’s experience last year was instructive. Merely floating the idea of discontinuing a few programs set of a political firestorm across the country. Watering down programs across the board wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow. If the cost of program paring is a year of heated internal politicking, a vote of no confidence, horrible press, and eventually having to back down anyway, it’s easy to decide that it’s just not worth it. Until the internal and external constituencies are ready and willing to understand that sacrificing breadth can sometimes be preferable to sacrificing depth, I’d expect to see very little movement here.

A decade ago, I expected to see the for-profits swoop in and become the radicallly disruptive force that would bring change. That looks considerably less likely now. The better for-profits -- I won’t even try to defend the worse ones -- got a few big things right, like junking the agrarian calendar. But they never actually solved Baumol’s cost disease. Now that student loan debt is a hot topic -- and rightly so -- they’re at a disadvantage.

In most industries, radical disruptions don’t come from incumbent players. Change is too painful to endure when it isn’t yet obvious that you have to; by the time it is obvious, it’s too late. Even when the disruptions come from within the incumbents themselves -- Xerox’s development of the GUI, say, or Kodak’s invention of digital photography -- it takes others from the outside to bring the potential disruptions to fruition.

My guess for the next big disruption is that it will involve a move away from the degree itself. Alternative credentialing is the logical answer to Baumol’s cost disease. If you insist on defining degrees in terms of time, but the real world cares far more about competencies, then it seems like there’s an opening for certificates defined in terms of competencies. Once you break the stranglehold of the credit hour, all things are possible.

But getting to that would require either a completely fresh start -- as in a new institution -- or an unprecedented flexibility of new funding. For example, the certificates would need to be eligible for financial aid, or they’re non-starters. And in the early stages, at least, they should be “stackable,” so that if someone wanted to, she could accumulate them towards a degree. (Ideally, that would eventually become irrelevant, but it would be a short-term necessity.)

In the meantime, faculty workloads, union contracts, financial aid guidelines, and cultural expectations are all calibrated on an inflexible measure. The pressure is building on that, but it hasn’t broken yet. To the first one who succeeds in breaking it will go the spoils of innovation.

I’m just sayin’...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Twelve Ways of Looking at a Lego League Meet

The Boy’s team competed in the local Lego league championships last weekend.

A few observations:

1. If you ever want to feel better about your looks, spend some time at the Lego league. I usually lament my bloated, balding self, but compared to some folks there...let’s just say that regular bathing puts you in the upper echelon. TW stood out even more than she usually does.

2. Although TB’s team is all boys, the kids generally were pretty well mixed. Since TG is only a couple of years away from competing, I was glad to see that she’ll have some allies.

3. I couldn’t help but notice that TB has way more fun with his Lego league teammates than with his basketball teammates. Different kids. Couldn’t blame him.

4. No matter how positive and worthy the cause, any kid-related large gathering gets old by about the fourth hour. By the eighth hour, I was live-tweeting my boredom.

5. Organizations need to make choices. Either go the “trophies are for the victors” route or the “everybody gets a trophy” route, but don’t try to split the difference. The awards ceremony at the end dragged for a full hour, with musical interludes, so they could give a dozen variations on “most congenial.” TB’s team got skunked anyway. Losing wasn’t so bad; they knew going in that victory would be difficult. (They finished fifth out of 21 teams, which isn’t bad.) But to then sit through an hour of consolation prizes and still walk away empty-handed just felt mean.

6. The coach makes a huge difference. Last year’s coach was a disaster, and the year ended in a humiliating flameout. This year’s coach was positive, engaged, and dedicated, and I could see the difference on a daily basis. The kids loved practices, and they worked together well. They were still unmistakably energetic ten year old boys, with all that implies, but they never turned bitter or contentious. Even in defeat, they were gracious.

7. I don’t know when the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” song -- and dance -- came out, but apparently, every kid in America knows it.

8. If you’re going to ban outside food so you can capture the revenues from the concession table as a fundraiser, make sure you have the infrastructure to handle the entire crowd at one time. I’m just sayin’.

9. Having learned from experience, this year the league added an ethics category. Judges spoke to the kids separately from their coaches, asking a series of pointed questions to try to suss out the teams on which the coach actually did the work. Perhaps coincidentally, I noticed a significant dropoff in attendance this year.

10. At one point, when everyone was sitting on the bleachers, the emcee asked for a show of hands. “How many parents here today are engineers?” It looked like about half. I’m guessing that if so many engineers think this is good training ground for engineering, well, they probably know what they’re talking about.

11. I was far prouder of TB’s team’s finish than I ever was of any of his basketball outcomes.

12. Next year, we smuggle in lunch.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Punching Above Their Weight

Yes, I know, sports metaphors are inherently suspect, since they’re culturally coded as ‘male’ and therefore patriarchal and they subtly resinscribe the very blah blah blah.

But sometimes they’re really useful.

In boxing, “punching above his weight” refers to a boxer whose strength is greater than you would expect for someone in his weight class. Since size and power are roughly related, a middleweight who hits with the power of a heavyweight is said to punch above his weight. It’s a compliment; in essence, it’s saying that you overachieve relative to your resources.

Kevin Carey’s recent piece on picking high-performing community colleges reminded me of this old truism. The best performing community colleges aren’t necessarily those with the highest graduation or transfer rates; they’re those that consistently punch above their weight.

In this case, I’d take “weight” to refer to a combination of student characteristics and budget. Given a student population of x demographic profile -- age, race, income, even gender -- and a budget of z dollars per student, in general we should expect your grad/transfer rate to be y. If you did notably better than y, you punched above your weight, and you must be doing something right. If you did notably worse than y, it’s time to ask some difficult questions.

In that formula, “y” will differ from college to college. For example, I’m not shocked to discover that community colleges in South Dakota have some of the highest graduation rates in the country. Given the paucity of four-year options out there, I’d expect that many of the higher-achieving high school grads start out at the local community college, since it’s often the only game in town. In the more densely populated Northeast, by comparison, four-year colleges are everywhere, so community colleges tend to draw more uniformly from the lower ranks of the high schools. That fact, all by itself, changes the “y.”

Sports fans have been doing this kind of math for years. In baseball, for example, it’s easy enough to add up a team’s aggregate statistics and develop an “expected wins” total. A team that’s well above its expected wins total is either clever or lucky; a team well below is either snakebit or inept. By that measure, it’s entirely possible to say that the manager of a third-place team did a far better job than the manager of the second-place team. If the third place team didn’t have much to work with, and the second place team underachieved relative to its gargantuan payroll, then just looking at wins and losses won’t tell the story.

I’d like to find the colleges that are consistently doing better than their expected wins, and find out how they’re doing it.

I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this to catch on, even though it seems like a no-brainer. The winners in the current system have no incentive at all to upend the rules, especially when they probably wouldn’t fare terribly well. (Put differently: let me swap the student body at my college with the student body at Swarthmore, and let’s see what happens to graduation rates at each.) But if we’re serious about improving the performance of the masses, we’re not going to achieve that by competing to see who does the best job of keeping the masses out. Given that nearly half of the undergrads in America are at community colleges, coming up with measures that are contextually relevant seems like an obvious good. If you have x percent of students in poverty, and y percent who don’t speak English, and z percent over the age of 25, and you do a far better than predicted job for those students, then you’ve really achieved something. I’d like to find out which colleges fit that profile, and what they’re doing that I can steal.

I suppose one could object that this amounts to a kind of profiling, but I’d argue that it’s much more realistic and useful than pointing out to someone in a low-income part of the northeast that racially homogeneous states without four-year colleges achieve higher grad rates. The point is not to remake every college into a racially homogeneous cluster of high achievers; too many would be left behind. Telling me I could improve the college’s numbers by changing its demographics doesn’t help me at all; telling me who does better with the same demographics at least gives me a place to start.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Every College's Nightmare

My condolences, once again, to everyone at Virginia Tech.

Once again, we will stand with you and learn from you.

Sometimes, there are just no words.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Filtering Applications

A longtime reader wrote me a mini-rant occasioned by frustration at an overwhelming pile of applications for a faculty position at his university. As he characterized it, the vast majority of the applications weren’t even vaguely appropriate for the position, and he resented the loss of time in filtering through them all. As he put it,

almost none of the applications we have received have come from people who have the qualifications to teach in the specialty for which we are searching. And none of them address this in their cover letters. In fact, reading their cover letters makes it clear that these letters have not been written specifically to us, and that the applicants have done no—zero—research on who we are or what we do (google is your friend—or should be).

It’s becoming obvious that new Ph.D.s are being told (or are assuming) that they should just apply for every position in the broader field. Indeed, I am hearing that graduate programs are even paying the postage for their letters (although, since we accept only on-line applications, that’s not an issue). In effect, for these applicants, the costs of applying are very low. So they apply for anything and everything.

He goes on to vent some spleen at a couple of graduate programs that sent several candidates apiece, each with nearly identical letters.

It’s a real issue, though it would be easy for someone who has been looking unsuccessfully for years to mutter some oaths at the very thought. “So what do you want from me?” I imagine the frustrated candidate asking. But this isn’t really about the candidates; it’s really about internal screening processes. Like it or not, search committee members’ time is valuable, and after people have gone through the wringer a few times, even finding people to serve on committees can be a major challenge. Given the importance of getting good people to pay serious attention to the most plausible candidates, it’s important for the institution to minimize the time spent on the ones who don’t have a realistic shot.

(When those unrealistic ones are internal -- long-serving adjuncts, say, or trailing spouses -- the “courtesy interview” rears its ugly head. Some people believe that certain candidates are automatically or ethically entitled to courtesy interviews, even if they have no shot. I don’t subscribe to that perspective; to my mind, if they have no shot, the interview just gives false hope and wastes everyone’s time. But I know that view isn’t universally held.)

The most successful (and legally defensible) strategy I’ve seen is to divide the screen into a few steps. The first step can often be delegated to HR. Draw up a clear, short list of “must haves” for a candidate to be considered. (You should already have this in the job description and/or posting.) Instruct HR that any application that’s a clear miss on the required minima doesn’t even make it to the committee. If you require a doctorate in hand, for example, anyone who tops out at a Master’s or ABD doesn’t even get past HR.

Then have a separate grid for the committee. Assign numerical scores to each of several desiderata. (That’s where knowledge of subfields comes in handy.) Depending on the clarity of the criteria and the level of trust, you may be able to delegate this to the committee chair.

Ideally, this should mean that the other members only bother with the candidates who meet the basic plausibility test. Yes, there will still be issues with cookie-cutter letters, and with candidates who just don’t match in person what they promise on paper, but at least you’ll be able to whittle down the time commitment.

The other advantage of breaking it down into steps is that it makes the implementation of affirmative action easier. It would go after the second step. The way we do it at my college, anyone from underrepresented groups who clears the second step is offered an interview. That way there’s no issue of unqualified applicants getting interviews.

The usable tip for candidates here, I think, is to make it obvious when you match the criteria, and to address it upfront if you don’t.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably efficient and fair way to winnow down the pile to manageable size?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Reading the academic blogosphere, you’d think there were only two kinds of faculty: tenure-track (or tenured) and adjunct. But that’s not true.

Some other types are well-known. For example, many colleges and universities have “visiting” full-time positions. These are term-limited, full-time positions off the tenure track. They were originally intended as sabbatical or medical leave replacements, and sometimes they’re still used that way. Some colleges have full-time faculty with no clear expiration date, but without a tenure system. (That was my situation at Proprietary U.) Monday’s story about Grand Canyon University treats this as news, but honestly, I did that back in the 90’s.

But then there’s the full-timer, tenure-track or tenured, who teaches overloads.

At my college, as at many others, full-timers who teach overloads get adjunct pay for the extra classes. (I’ve also heard of pro-rating, though never in a community college context.) From a budgetary perspective, there’s really no difference between Full Professor John and Adjunct Jane picking up that extra class. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the Full Professor Johns of the world as “overloads,” as opposed to “adjuncts,” but that’s just a linguistic convenience; institutionally, they’re the same.

At some levels, overloads are wonderful. They allow faculty to earn some extra money, which some of them really need. We already know they’re good teachers, so the quality control issue isn’t so urgent. (Amazingly, some manage to maintain high levels of performance even with workloads I would have considered herniating.) They already have offices and they already know the college, so they can provide the kind of attention that we may not be able to count on at adjunct pay. (Some adjuncts go above and beyond and provide that anyway, of course.)

But overloads do raise a few issues.

The most basic one is workload. When I have professors who routinely teach, say, 24 credits in a semester, I have to wonder why others claim that 15 is humanly impossible. Their colleagues obviously don’t think so.

Then there’s the dicey issue of entitlement. When a professor gets those extra, say, nine credits a semester for years on end, she often starts to think of it as her salary. And she will defend her salary against any perceived threat, such as new full-time hires. This can lead to distortions over time.

With department chairs, the issue can get even stickier. The temptation to self-deal in scheduling, so that the chair gets every section she wants, can be hard to resist.

From an institutional perspective, there’s a further issue with human frailty. If someone teaching a standard full load goes out on medical leave, we have to cover 15 credits. If someone teaching several courses above that goes out on leave, the coverage hole is that much bigger. The more you rely on any one person, the worse off you are if that one person gets sick.

The overload issue also makes it difficult to answer a superficially simple question, like “what percentage of your classes are taught by adjuncts?” Before answering that, I need a definition. Is John’s sixth course considered adjunct or full-time? He could decide not to teach it without losing his full-time job, and it’s paid at the adjunct rate, so that would suggest that it belongs in the adjunct category. But John is full-time faculty, possibly with tenure and certainly with an office and institutional support; by that criterion, it seems like full-time. Given the number and level of overloads taught, this is not just a marginal quibble; it materially changes the answer to the question.

(In a collective bargaining setting, the issues get even more complex. We have to specify upfront which sections are overloads and which are regular load, so that when we do faculty evaluations, we look only at the proper category. I can’t base a full-timer’s evaluation on his performance in an overload section. Don’t ask.)

A few years ago I inquired about limiting the number of overload sections that full-timers could teach, only to be told by the college attorney that I couldn’t apply a differential quota to people who happen to have full-time jobs with the college than I could to people who didn’t. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, the attorney mentioned that even if I tried, in the brief interim before the inevitable legal challenge they would just go to other campuses. At least this way they’re here, and students aren’t losing their travel time that could have gone to mentoring.

I’m not sure why overloads are so invisible in the popular discussion, since they’re very real on the ground. If anything, I’d like to see a more robust discussion of them so we can start to come to grips with some intelligent policies around them. In the meantime, some professors will claim that their existing workloads are unconscionable and others will routinely do half again as much without breaking a sweat. And I have to believe both of them.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Administration and the Two-Body Problem

In response to yesterday’s piece about the lack of generational turnover in college leadership, a particularly thoughtful comment deserved a post in itself. “Shannon” wrote:

I think one thing that gets overlooked in these analyses is the two body problem. Many faculty are part of dual career partnerships - both inside and outside academia. That tends to limit geographic mobility or put burdens on the non-administrative half of the partnership. DD - you often mention the rubber chicken dinners; attending those meant TW had to take responsibility for the kids. I also believe she left the work force for a while because of the demands of your career - right? I think some may feel that's a lot to ask of a partner. I'd like to enter into administration, but my husband is also a faculty member and we have small kids. So, I'll probably look locally so he can keep his career; luckily, there's a lot of options around where we live, but without a faculty fall back, that creates a lot of risk for our family - if things don't work out in a new position, our two body problem will come back. I'll also probably wait until the kids are older; this phenomena is similar to the one in politics where female candidates tend to enter the ring much later than male candidates. Unfortunately, administration doesn't lend itself to work/family balance, and I think that helps to dry up the pipeline somewhat.

A few thoughts, then I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this.

First, no, TW did not leave the work force because of the demands of my career. She chose to stay home with the kids because she wanted to; it was a positive goal, rather than a retreat. (The fact that nearly her entire paycheck went for daycare also played into it.) I know that not everyone experiences staying home that way, but that was how it played out for us.

That said, yes, her presence at home makes my work easier. When she went to work and TB got sick, we had to do the sick kid shuffle, which any working parent can tell you is a stress bomb. Now when the kids get sick -- like this week, in fact -- it’s less disruptive, at least at first. (It gets more disruptive with each passing day, though, since she has obligations of her own.)

But the larger point isn’t about TW and me; it’s about the two-body problem as limiting the availability of Gen X candidates for administrative positions. It certainly rings true to me.

When academics marry each other -- don’t do it!!! -- they set themselves up for some real challenges. Finding a tenure-track job you actually want to keep is a challenge; finding two of them within reasonable drives of each other is much more so. Once a couple finds that situation, it would take quite a bit to dislodge them. (That’s even more true if they’re underwater on their mortgage.)

Since many administrative positions don’t come with tenure, they carry real risk. For a couple that finally won the academic lottery, the prospect of leaving that for a job without the protection of tenure is a tough sell. And even if the administrative job comes with tenure in a department, the spouse may be left high and dry.

Administrative careers often require moving in order to move up. That’s just a fact of life. If you’re in a college-rich area, you may be able to switch institutions without actually moving, but most of the time, that’s not an option. So if one (or both) of the spouses wants to climb the ladder, they’re in for some hard decisions.

Spousal hiring is a topic unto itself, of course. Suffice it to say that the ‘softer’ solutions -- polite requests to neighboring colleges to find a spot for someone -- tend not to work. If, say, the history department gets its first hire in a decade, just how eager do you think it’ll be to spend it on a trailing spouse it didn’t choose for itself?

Exactly. Some of those hires turn out well, but the resentment is real. And in this market, where positions are few and far between, it’s a much harder sell than it once was.

I don’t really have an answer for this. To require colleges to hire spouses assumes a level of loose resources lying around that generally isn’t the case, and it also becomes de facto discrimination against single people and folks married to non-academics. Tenure and higher salaries for tough-to-fill positions would help, but would be politically toxic. Sometimes it’s possible to move up within a home institution, and that’s great when it works out, but counting on it is assuming a lot.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone found a reasonably elegant way to handle the two-body problem in administrative careers?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Leadership Crises Ahead

As an industry, we’ll be in serious trouble as long as it’s taboo to speak the truth. The responses to these two pieces suggest that we aren’t yet ready to come to grips with reality.

Jeff Selingo’s piece on the graying of college presidents met with the usual and ritualistic accusations of ageism, which both missed the point and attempted to foreclose further discussion. Which is a shame, because it’s a crucial topic.

Selingo notes, correctly, that the average age of college presidents and senior administrators has been moving dramatically upward for some time; at this point, it’s noteworthy to find a college president under fifty. (Notably, many of today’s senior leaders started younger than that.) The generation currently in leadership roles came to those roles with a tailwind, and has presided over a serious explosion of costs. At this point, senior leaders change institutions with some frequency in a high-stakes version of musical chairs. When the same faces keep trading seats, with interim appointments filling in the gaps, it’s difficult for anyone to come to grips with major structural issues. So they don’t, and the game of annual tuition increases and budget cuts continues unabated.

It’s hard to break the generational lock, though. For one thing, the pipeline is thin. Decades of replacing full-time faculty positions with adjuncts has thinned out the farm system, so there isn’t a ready cohort in the wings. And nobody gets in trouble for hiring experience.

That can matter for a whole host of reasons, but the most obvious ones are demography and unspoken assumptions.

Demography is relatively clear: each generation of academics is more racially diverse than the one before it. The more interesting reason, though, is what a generation has in common. The Gen X’ers started their careers in scarcity, and have lived in scarcity pretty much without interruption. They didn’t catch the demographic tailwind of their elders. That means that, in the aggregate, they’re more likely to be attuned to the climate of possibility now. There’s no temptation to try to recreate a golden age that occurred when you were in preschool. This generation is likely to be more attuned to the new normal.

This other article from IHE suggests, hamhandedly, what some of the next challenges may look like. I have my issues with the piece, especially around its proposed regional typologies, but at least it suggests that the next cohort of college leaders will need a willingness to tackle some key issues that the current cohort has postponed. The catch is that dealing with fundamental issues will necessarily generate conflict, and some Boards won’t touch anybody who has a history of conflict. The “conflict aversion” playbook is dogeared, but it’s dogeared for a reason. From the outside, it can be difficult to distinguish the brave teller of truth from the arrogant jerk from the idiot who just can’t handle conflict. (To be fair, there is some overlap...)

Too often, academe slides from “shared governance,” which is a good thing when properly understood, to a premium on “consensus,” which is far more problematic. In a democratic process -- even if modified -- it’s possible that some people will lose on an important issue. But in a consensus system, there’s not supposed to be such a thing as losing. When difficult choices require that somebody actually loses, the resulting conflict is sometimes read as a failure to generate consensus. It isn’t, really; it’s a cost of coming to grips with reality.

A fair reading of the last few decades would suggest that the trend towards adjunct instruction has been driven by the desire for consensus. By offloading economic shortfalls onto people who aren’t actually at the table, it’s easier to maintain peace among the people at the table. (The same argument could be made about tuition increases and financial aid; it’s easy to raise prices when the students don’t pay the increase directly.) When consensus is taken as a good in itself, “path of least resistance” solutions that dump the costs onto people who aren’t there at the time become particularly attractive. Let that dynamic roll, uninterrupted, for several decades, and you end up where we are.

If the Occupy movement has taught us anything, it’s that we’re reaching the end of the “dump the costs on the next generation” strategy. If higher education is going to remain viable as a mass phenomenon -- I’m not talking about the elites here, since they’ll survive anyway -- it will have to start making choices. That means that we can expect more open conflict, less consensus, and a need for leaders who are willing to make choices. I just hope that the unthinking, ritualistic excoriation that Selingo’s piece generated isn’t indicative of how far we are from being able to start having honest conversations. If we don’t come to grips with the new normal, it will assuredly come to grips with us.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Fragments

Lego League is in the home stretch. TB’s team has its big competition soon, so it’s ramping up the practice schedule. The team meets in the coach’s garage, in which he has a massive robot obstacle course where his car should be. The team consists of a half dozen boys, all around ten or eleven years old.

The boys spend the first hour and a half or so actually working on the obstacle course, and the last half hour shooting each other with improvised lego weaponry. By the time I come to pick up TB, the geek-chaos is impressive.

Just walking into the garage, the “we will never get dates” vibe is palpable. There’s no rule against girls, but they aren’t exactly breaking the door down. Part of me wants to shelter TB against diving too deeply into geek culture, for fear of the social cost he’ll pay soon, but part of me is proud that he’s so un-self-conscious about it. He just really enjoys building stuff, and really enjoys being around other kids who build stuff, too.

He gets much more excited about Lego League than about basketball. I enjoy that more than I probably should.

Here’s hoping that junior high schools now are more geek-friendly than they were in my time...


Meanwhile, The Girl marches proudly to her own drummer, too.

A few days ago she went to her friend Jason’s house (not his real name). Jason is a sweet, but very energetic, seven year old boy. Since TG play-wrestles with TB, she can rough and tumble when she wants to, but Jason’s Mom didn’t know that. So when Jason and TG started rough-and-tumbling, Jason’s Mom interrupted them to scold Jason for wrestling with a girl. As Jason stood there, sheepishly listening to his mother’s scoldings, TG flying-tackled him from the side.

I think she’ll be fine.


Although Spotify markets itself as a music app, it works really well with comedy albums. I’ve gone through about a half dozen of them in the last couple of weeks, during drives to statewide meetings. After a serious discussion of important policy stuff, there’s something therapeutic about listening to Amy Schumer or Patton Oswalt in the car on the way home.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, I heard someone actually say this:

“I don’t want to just stand here and thank everyone for their hard work. I just want to thank everyone for their hard work.”

Words to live by...

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Too Many Daves

Meet Dave. Dave doesn’t exist, but his real-life counterparts do.

Dave was, well, let’s say a “casual” student in high school. He got through, but his efforts could be fairly described as uninspired. When he graduated, he had a sense that college came next, though his concept of college mostly involved beer, girls, and sleeping late. Dave’s long-suffering parents agreed that college comes next, but didn’t see much point in paying big bucks to send Dave off to Compass Direction State or St. Somebody-Or-Other, given the palpable risk that a hangdog Dave would drink his way through a failing semester and wind up back at their doorstep bearing nothing but student loan payments and a lot of laundry.

So Dave’s parents struck a deal with him. They let him live at home rent-free and helped him attend the local community college for a year, mostly taking gen eds. In return, the agreement went, Dave had to do reasonably well academically and show that he was taking college fairly seriously. If Dave got a solid year under his belt at the community college, they agreed, then his parents would foot the bill to send him where he really wanted to go for his sophomore year. Dave spent a year at the cc, did reasonably well, transferred to Compass Direction State, and lived happily ever after.

Dave showed up in our statistics as attrition. As far as the government was concerned, he dropped out of the community college, and the only possible explanation is that the community college didn’t do a good enough job. Perhaps some funding cuts will bring focus!


We have a lot of Daves. And we pay a political price for it.

That’s why I was so heartened to see this story. Apparently, the federal Committee on Measures of Student Success will recommend to Secretary Duncan that community colleges’ “graduation” rates should be recalculated as “graduation and transfer” rates. We’ll finally start receiving due credit for all the Daves who spend time here on the way to graduating from other places.

Yes, yes, yes. If we’re going to base funding decisions on institutional “performance,” then let’s at least measure the performance reasonably.

If you ask Dave about his experience with the community college -- I’ve done this with Dave’s real-life counterparts -- you’ll hear good things. The cc gave him an affordable chance to get his act together, and to prove to his parents that he could succeed in college. It allowed him to start out living at home, so he could get a little more maturity before jumping into the temptations of dorm life. He was happy to use it as a springboard.

The comments on the IHE story raised a few useful caveats. In the absence of a unit record system, for example, it may not be possible to get aggregate numbers on how many Daves eventually graduated from their destination schools, as opposed to how many just bounced around. And as Cliff Adelman pointed out, some students never really enrolled in any meaningful way in the first place, so counting them as attrition is really a category mistake. I’d also suggest that we need to have much more thoughtful discussions about the relevance of the graduation measure for people who enroll in ESL or developmental courses for life/work purposes, rather than for graduation purposes, but can’t get financial aid for adult basic ed.

But those can come next. For now, I’m just hoping that we stop getting punished for having too many Daves.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Texting and Teaching

I suspect this one isn’t unique. A new correspondent writes:

I teach at a community college and find that many of my students text in the classroom. My policy, which is stated on my syllabus, is that I ask students who use the phone to leave the class for the day. This doesn't seem to discourage cell phone use. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

A few thoughts, before I open the floor to my wise and worldly readers, many of whom have been in the classroom more recently than I have.

First, it’s great that you have a policy stated in your syllabus. From this side of the desk, it’s easy to stand behind a professor who sticks to the rules she set out in the first place. My nightmare is the professor who changes the rules midstream or applies them with obvious selectivity. A blanket ban is clear, easy to describe and defend, and obviously well-suited to a smallish class.

That said, sometimes there’s a gap between what’s clean on paper and what works in class.

One issue may be clarity. Those of us of a certain age -- sigh -- may think of ‘texting’ as included in the phrase ‘cell phone use,’ but some youngish students may see the two categories as separate. To them, ‘cell phone use’ may imply voice calls or web surfing, whereas texting is texting. They may think of texting as a less intrusive alternative to calling. If that’s all it is, then a little clarification may help. (And just having a policy on a syllabus usually won’t cut it, since students tend not to read syllabi. Make sure you announce in class the parts you want to emphasize.)

If clarity isn’t the issue -- that is, if they know perfectly well that you don’t want them texting but they keep doing it anyway -- then things get trickier.

It’s tempting to try to channel John Houseman’s character from The Paper Chase, but outside of a few select settings, that’s just not realistic anymore. And given cell phone ubiquity, student solidarity, and the reality of limited political capital, adopting a hard line position may wind up being more trouble than it’s worth.

Instead, I’d recommend thinking through what you’re trying to achieve with the ban, and then sharing your thoughts with the class. Presumably, most of us would be okay with exceptions based on childcare or medical emergencies, and it’s increasingly true that students often have such complicated lives that just trying to define “emergency” can become neverending. But it’s also true that it’s hard to have thoughtful class discussions when half the class is distracted by little screens in their hands. (In our house, we have a “no technology at the table” rule during meals. We’re not Luddites by any stretch -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets -- but family mealtime is human contact time.)

I’d recommend sharing your concerns with the class, and moving from “police” mode to “problem solving” mode. If it’s you against them, I don’t like your chances. I won’t go all Cathy Davidson on you and suggest incorporating texting into the class, but incorporating the students into the class as adults, rather than treating them as recalcitrant children, may get you about 80 percent of what you actually want. Share with them what you envision a great class looking like, and let them know you think they’re capable of achieving that, but you’re concerned that they won’t get there if they aren’t looking. See what they have to say about it. Best case, you avoid the “police state” atmosphere that can easily poison the class dynamic, and actually improve the class climate through some thoughtful reflection on what you -- and they -- are really trying to achieve.

Good luck! I know you’re not alone in this.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those currently teaching -- what would you suggest? Is there a more effective way?

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

States and Regions

Culturally and economically, Buffalo is closer to Toledo than to New York City. But Buffalo is part of New York State, and its legal and political realities reflect that.

New York is an extreme case of a state in which a single city overshadows the rest of the state. It’s easy to come up with other examples, of course: Atlanta isn’t typical of Georgia, Baltimore isn’t typical of Maryland, and so on. (New Jersey has the unique distinction of being dominated by not one, but two, cities outside of its own borders.)

I was reminded of these intrastate imbalances in looking at Richard Florida’s recent series in The Atlantic about interstate mobility. Florida compares rates of native birth in various states, and notes correlations to economic class, physical health, religiosity, and the like. Broadly, folks in states with relatively little in-migration tend to be more religious, more extroverted, and less open to new experiences than folks in states with higher interstate migration rates. In a sense, he’s mapping the creative class/blue collar divide onto the states.

I have to concede his point as he made it, yet it doesn’t describe much of my daily reality. That’s because I’ve spent much of my life living in regions that tend to get overshadowed by major cities. Politically and economically, they get treated as afterthoughts.

When you’re in the Uticas or Rockfords of the world, it’s easy to regard statewide policies as stalking horses for the agendas of, say, the Manhattans or Chicagos. (I’d guess that many of my non-Northeastern readers would have an easier time identifying the mayor of New York City than the governor of New York State.) That gets even more true as the major metros experience significant in-migration, and the outlying cities don’t. Over time, it’s easy for policymakers -- both offficial and unofficial -- to conflate the large cities with the state as a whole. But what makes sense for Seattle may not make sense for Richland.

That can have real consequences for the overshadowed regions. Just because insurance is huge in Omaha doesn’t mean that it can be duplicated in Hastings, which presumably has needs of its own. Whatever efficiencies centralization might promise could easily be overwhelmed by deadweight losses caused by blindness to local conditions.

Even the folkways are different. I’ve found that it’s harder to break into social circles in areas with lots of people who were born there than it is in higher-turnover areas, just because people in the more settled areas already have what they need. They already have well-developed networks, so they aren’t particularly looking to expand them. That’s not meanness, even if it can sometimes come off as chilly; it’s just satiety.

Politics in the more settled areas tend to be much harder to shift, too. This year’s battles carry echoes of last year’s, which, in turn, were proxies for battles fought a decade before. When the same ruts get run year after year, they get pretty deep and hard to break. That can look like stabilty, or it can look like stasis. Worse, a sort of provincial chauvinism can arise as a defensive response to feeling overshadowed. That kind of insularity -- even if well-intended -- is actually a handmaiden of decline. Breaking that pattern is no small feat, but it’s a necessity if the overshadowed regions hope to rise anew.

Community colleges straddle an awkward divide in places like these. Most community college students intend to stay local after graduation and, in fact, most do. But in the afterthought regions, opportunities tend to be pretty limited; often the only way to move up is to move out. The afterthought regions often export their most talented young people to the metro cities, simply because the metros can offer things other places can’t. That “springboard” function serves a real social purpose, and I’m glad for it, but it can lead to some awkward political moments locally.

Statewide policies written with a single dominant metro in mind can do real damage to the rest of the state. Rochester isn’t just a smaller version of New York City; it’s an entirely different animal. It would be lovely if state lines matched economic and social lines, but they don’t. (Practically, they couldn’t; the economic and social lines move too often.) As long as they don’t, I just hope that the lure of economies of scale won’t tempt states to mistake single -- albeit important -- parts for the whole. Some of us live out here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Joaquin Luna DREAM Act

This story makes my heart hurt.

Joaquin Luna, a high school senior in California, committed suicide on Friday. He wanted to become an engineer to provide a better life for his mother, but realized that his status as an illegal immigrant made that impossible. Despondent over the failure of the DREAM act to pass, he dressed up in a suit and tie, said goodbye to his family, and shot himself in the head.

Any parent knows, intuitively, that the death of a child is the single worst thing that can happen. My condolences to his family, and to all who knew him.

I’ll concede upfront that it’s impossible to know everything that was going on in someone’s mind. Many people face obstacles and disappointments and don’t respond the way he did.

But it’s hard not to admit that he had a point. That’s what makes the story even more wrenching than so many others.

The DREAM act offers legal status to people who came to this country illegally as young children, conditional on their attainment of a college degree or on performing military service. It gives people who simply came with their parents a chance to attain full membership in the society in which they grew up. Since many of the people covered by the act came across the border as toddlers or young children, the United States is really their home. K-12 districts are required to educate these kids, so many of these kids go all the way through and graduate, only to hit a wall at the end of high school.

I recognize that there are complicated issues around adult immigration. But around kids who come with their parents, I have a hard time seeing it. Joaquin saw, correctly, that he was essentially confined to a lower caste through no fault of his own. He got the message -- again, with some warrant -- that the United States didn’t really want him. And since he wanted so badly to be here and to work hard for his family -- values that, in other contexts, we claim to hold -- he just couldn’t accept a life sentence to being the working poor.

It’s fashionable lately for people with highfalutin’ degrees to ask whether college is necessary. But on the ground, it clearly is. Yes, student loan debt is a serious issue, but the basic truth still holds that you’re economically better off with a degree than without one.

Yes, there should be economically viable alternatives for people who don’t go to college. But that category shouldn’t be decided by the time a kid is six years old. The way to tamp down the student loan bubble isn’t to ban brown people from college; it’s to get costs under control and restore subsidies through progressive taxation.

Joaquin Luna was, I’m sure, a complicated, three-dimensional person. It would be a mistake to reduce his suicide to a simple political statement. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the message that he was apparently trying to send. He saw that his adopted country was willing to visit the sins of the father upon the son, and the burden was too great for him to bear. Now a family is grieving, and a country has lost a driven young man cursed with insight.

I hope that when the act comes up again -- and passes -- it bears his name. Let the Joaquin Luna DREAM act ensure that we never consign anyone to a lower caste because he followed his parents here as a child.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wait for It...Wait for It...

I was never much of a batter. I wouldn’t make contact terribly often, and when I did, I only ever hit down the third base line. If you’re a right-handed batter like me, that’s a sign of swinging too early.

Far too late to make much difference, I picked up a tip that helped. At the plate, I started actually saying the words “wait for it...wait for it...” before swinging. The reminder corrected the too-early swing at least some of the time, thereby opening up the other three-quarters of the infield. My swings may still be slow and weak, but at least they’re better timed.

I’m learning to apply the same forced patience on the job.

There’s a school of thought around strategic planning or project management that says that the way to plan is to draw up an outline at the outset, with subtopics and sub-subtopics, and to attach deadlines to each. The idea is to create legibility and accountability.

But the flaw of that model is that it assumes omniscience. It assumes that you know upfront what all of the relevant variables are, how they’ll interact, how long they’ll take, and what the outcome will be. That’s fine if you’re dealing with a mechanistic system, but it has a way of not working when the raw material is people.

Instead, it’s useful sometimes to build in gaps. My plans are increasingly looking like this:

1. Specify a broad, long-term goal.
2. Assemble the folks who could help achieve it.
3. Explain what you’re trying to do. Repeat step 2 if necessary.
4. Provide resources.
5. wait for it..wait for it...something good will happen...
6. Celebrate successes and tweak failures.

That crucial step five can’t be rushed or micromanaged. It’s the step during which you have to suppress the urge to swing.

Obviously, step five doesn’t always work. Some projects just don’t gel, for various reasons. But the most glaring successes usually come from an extended period of staying out of the way while creative people connect with each other.

That can be a difficult step to explain to people on the outside of the process. Grants, for example, prefer very specific timelines with pre-defined breakthroughs happening on an evenly-spaced schedule. Which would be lovely, if things worked like that. Academic calendars can be pretty rigid, too, especially at teaching-focused places. The trick is in using deadlines as tools, rather than rules. Any writer can tell you that nothing gets the words flowing quite like a looming deadline. The same is true of group projects, as long as the deadlines have some wiggle room.

I just have to figure out a way to write “sandbox time” into grant applications. How hard can that be?

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to build sandbox time into your institutional routines? I’m hoping there’s a way to honor and sustain a productive practice that gets too often confined to the interstices of the day.

(Program note: for the rest of the week, we’ll be on a multi-state Thanksgiving trek. Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, or, as my Canadian friends call it, Thursday. The blog will be back on Monday, November 28.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

“General Education,” Within and Without

What do you expect a college graduate to know? What do you expect a college graduate to be like?

The questions are very different. They start from different assumptions, and are usually asked by different people with different goals. A good answer to one may not shed much light on the other.

Higher ed providers tend to look at “general education” as a body of knowledge (the traditional faculty view) or a set of competencies (the assessment-driven view). Either way, the assumption is that whatever the major, all college graduates should have a common base of knowledge and/or ability. Whether you look at it as a set of Great Books or the ability to think critically, there’s a shared sense that whatever else happens in college, students should come out with something specific and name-able that can be traced to a particular moment in the curriculum. It’s a sort of lowest common denominator that, paradoxically enough, draws on the highest traditions of Western thought. (The tension between the two is constant.)

In practice, general education is usually addressed through a set of either required courses, or distribution requirements for courses. Students freely discuss the imperative to “get their gen eds out of the way,” which speaks more to the “lowest common denominator” function than to the “highest traditions of Western thought” function. To students, gen ed requirements are the spinach they have to finish before they get to have dessert.

Having gone through yet another round of employer advisory boards, though, I’m consistently struck by how differently the non-academic world sees gen ed. Their expectations are dramatically different, which may explain why their suggestions (or complaints) are always the same.

I’ve never heard an employer complain that graduates hadn’t read a particular book or engaged a particular theory. That has never happened. I’ve also never heard an employer ask to look at our outcomes assessment rubrics.

Their feedback, regardless of the program, has been that whatever else graduates bring with them, they should bring basic employee skills. By that, they mean promptness, diligence, a positive or at least congenial demeanor, the ability to work with other people, and the ability to get the big picture. (To be fair, they also sometimes mention writing skills, though the version of writing they have in mind is usually grammatical correctness and basic clarity.)

The version of gen ed we use internally is content-based. The version employers seem to use is almost Calvinist. You are the kind of person who makes a good employee, or you are not. If you are, the specifics don’t matter that much; they can train you. If you aren’t, the specifics don’t matter that much, since a well-read screwup is still a screwup.

The vision the employers are using is a variation on cultural capital. It’s the idea that a college graduate is a particular kind of person, with a sense of how the world works and how to work within it. Their consistent feedback is that some graduates manage to get through the programs, sometimes even with decent grades, without quite ‘getting it.’

Even allowing for a certain amount of reverse ageism -- even the best-educated 22 year olds tend to be a little more volatile than the average 42 year old -- I have to admit there’s something to the complaints. Replacing this gen ed requirement with that gen ed requirement is unlikely to make headway on the sort of enculturation function the employers have in mind. I’m just not sure how to achieve that, especially in the setting of a commuter college with many students who haven’t grown up around that model.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to bridge the two visions of gen ed?

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Open Letter to Chancellor Katehi of the University of California, Davis

Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I imagine you’re feeling burned right now. You trusted the wrong people, and find yourself in a completely untenable position.

You know perfectly well that what the police did to peaceful protesters was beyond reason. There’s really no disputing that. The right to peaceable assembly is well-enshrined in American law, and for good reason. The videos speak for themselves.

Your people overshot. But you know that.

I’m not writing you to educate you about free speech or police brutality. I assume you’re smart enough to understand both, and to see clearly that the University was badly on the wrong side here.

I’m writing as a fellow higher ed administrator. Like you, I’ve been on the receiving end of smug tirades by people who don’t have to balance competing goods. It’s frustrating. And I’ve also had to deal with the fallout when people who report to me make decisions I wish they hadn’t. It happens.

Now you’re in that awful position where the protesters are right. It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true.

At this point, as I see it, you have exactly two ways to play this. You can resign, or you can jump out in front of the issue. The one thing you absolutely cannot do is be careful.

Resignation is obvious, and your hand may be forced, so I’ll leave it at that. The second option is admittedly risky, but with the egregiousness of the police conduct and the international attention being paid, the usual “let’s appoint a committee to look into it” won’t work.

The ground has shifted from under you. You cannot defend the police. You just can’t.

If you’re up to it, though, you can try to defend the purpose of the university. You can’t dodge this, but you may be able to lead your way out.

The way to do that would involve, first of all, admitting fault. You’ll have to eat a fair bit of crow, both privately and publicly. Then you have to admit that this has been a wake-up call.

The point of the university is the pursuit of truth through the open exchange of ideas. You need to admit -- even better, assert -- that the conduct of the police was directly antithetical to the purpose of the university. You need to prosecute the police involved, and replace the chief. You need to establish some sort of community board to monitor the police. The campus police will hate you for that, but it has to be done.

Then you need to take active steps to make UC-Davis a civil community in the fullest sense of ‘civil.’ That doesn’t mean ‘polite’ or ‘quiescent.’ It means a setting in which vigorous debate is actually possible -- and sometimes even encouraged -- with the shared understanding that we separate the speaker from the speech. I’d start by personally engaging the Occupy protesters on campus, and then by inviting speakers from all over to debate each other in public, both formally and informally. You need to attend those debates personally.

This can’t be delegated. You can’t ask your associate dean of whatever to handle it. As the chancellor, you have to get out there yourself. And you have to steel yourself emotionally for the vituperation that will come your way. You can’t take the bait.

Like it or not, the only way around this is through it. You have to own this, personally and publicly. You have to get out there yourself, take the risk of public humiliation, and change the way the university treats the people who get on its nerves.

If that’s too tall an order, just resign. But make up your mind quickly. Twisting in the wind will do untold damage to everything the university stands for.

Good luck. I’m glad I’m not you right now.


Dean Dad

Friday, November 18, 2011

Black Boxes and Bumping

A few years ago, I read a piece about airlines “bumping” passengers who had legitimate tickets. (I’ve never understood how it’s legal to sell the same seat twice, but that’s another post.) The article made the point that some central computer makes decisions that result in bumping, but that agents at counters have to deal with angry passengers, so over time, agents at counters started entering ‘dummy’ passengers with names like Mickey Mouse so they could outsmart the computer. Mickey Mouse wouldn’t yell at them if he got bumped. Over time, the computer compensated by overbooking even more.

The flaw there was that the folks who designed the central system never thought about the needs of the folks on the ground.

I’m watching a few state/national higher ed initiatives -- well-intentioned ones -- come to grief, and they all seem to be flailing for the same reason. They treat colleges as black boxes. They fail to grasp the motivations of the various actors.

Take transfer, for example. It’s one thing for a state to declare that its entire public higher ed system should be a coherent whole, with seamless transfer from each college to every other. And on paper, many of them have that.

But that doesn’t mean students escape having to re-take (and pay again for) courses they’ve already taken and passed.

That’s because while broad policy decisions may be made at the top, actual implementation occurs in the departments. And departments often have very different interests.

In the world of transfer, the usual evasion involves giving a course “free elective” status. The chair of the receiving school’s art department, for example, typically won’t raise an issue with accepting English Comp or Intro to Psych, since her own department doesn’t teach those anyway; the nits she’ll pick will be among the art classes. I’ve had chairs say, to my face, that they don’t want to “give away” too many credits. But if she’s under a mandate from above to accept credits in transfer, she can simply allow the transferring art credits as “free electives.” If her major doesn’t happen to have any free electives in it, well, tough luck. That way, her department gets to re-teach whatever it wants, while she still gets to claim compliance with the mandate. Her interest -- keeping the enrollment and funding levels of her own department high -- are at odds with the larger systemic interest in seamless transfer.

Now that states are starting to define college “performance” in terms of graduation rates, I can see a similar -- considerably more sinister -- version of the same thing on the horizon.

Graduation rates reflect any number of variables, including quality of curriculum and instruction. But those variables also include things like the student profile. To take an easy example, students who arrive at college with strong academic preparation in high school graduate at much higher rates than students who arrive with serious skill gaps. Nobody seriously disputes that. So the quickest and easiest way for a college to nudge its graduation rates upward is to become exclusionary. If you don’t let the higher-risk students in, they can’t drop out.

Some colleges build that into their missions, and that’s fine. If you need developmental math, MIT won’t take you. It’s a private university -- albeit a land-grant, oddly enough -- and it can choose its own path. But to compare graduation rates of places that can cherry-pick with places that take all comers is simply to load the dice.

My concern here is that unthinkingly adopting a single bottom-line standard will push the more accessible colleges to become much less so. They won’t necessarily want to, but if funding depends on it, they’ll do what they’ll have to do. If we assume the same kind of self-interest as in the case of the department chairs, it isn’t hard to predict either evasive or perverse maneuvers.

Those maneuvers could be overt -- admissions requirements, say -- or they could be sub rosa. Moving ESL and developmental classes onto a separate set of books, for example, would immediately elevate the graduation rate. Discreetly reducing outreach into the most disadvantaged communities would elevate the graduation rate. It isn’t hard to come up with ways to game the measure.

As with the airlines, I’d expect the people on the front lines to engage in evasive maneuvers to meet their own needs. The folks who would get bumped would be the most vulnerable students. Bumping is one thing if it’s Mickey Mouse, but something else altogether if it’s a kid from a shaky high school who’s trying to escape poverty. Colleges aren’t black boxes or agents of a single mind; they’re complicated operations with self-aware moving parts. Policies need to reflect that. If they don’t, entire generations will be left sitting on the tarmac.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Scenes from a Strange Week

The computer club had a bake sale on campus. As I neared the table, one of the students called out “Save a nerd! Buy a cookie!” Impressed, I complied.


TW called one afternoon to let me know The Dog had been skunked. (Since the storm did a number on the local trees, varmints of all sorts have been unusually public.)

The tomato juice bath was a nonstarter for any number of reasons, so I did some quick Googling and found a recommended mix of peroxide, baking soda, and Dawn. After getting home and changing, I mixed the ingredients in a bucket, took The Dog and a sponge out back, and did what needed to be done.

Apparently, peroxide works on fur like it works on hair. Now The Dog has subtle blonde highlights.


Overheard in a meeting: “If you boil down the soup to the nuts and bolts...”


Sign of a planetary alignment: at the end of a recent evening advisory board meeting, the chair (not me) proposed a follow-up meeting in six months. The group rebelled, saying it was too energized by the excitement of what it was doing, and it wanted to meet sooner and more often.

Over a decade in academic administration, and I had never seen that before. The Force is strong in this one.


This week’s activities: basketball practice, music lessons, makeup trick-or-treating, lego league, PTO, swim lessons, leaf bagging. Anyone remember the argument that Americans didn’t have “social capital” anymore? We’ve got social capital coming out of our ears. Real capital, on the other hand...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subscriptions and Attrition

What if college got cheaper as you went along?

Because I am a Big Giant Nerd, I’ve been reviewing literature on financial aid programs in various states. Most of them are either need-based or merit-based, and they tend to fall victim to the predictable pathologies of either genre. The need-based ones can’t keep up with real need, and they’re hard to sell politically. The merit-based ones are easy to sell politically, but they tend to flow disproportionately to the most affluent. Worse, both tend to fall behind rising costs over time.

A few years ago I toyed with the idea of a graduation deposit, like a security deposit: you hand over a chunk of money when you enroll, and if/when you graduate, you get it back with interest. If you don’t graduate, you don’t get it back. While I still like the concept, it’s increasingly clear to me that it, too, would wind up being regressive. The folks who would most need the refund would be the ones least able to cough up the deposit in the first place.

Then I thought of subscriptions.

A typical magazine subscription offer will look something like this: $30 for one year, $50 for two years, and $65 for three years. The idea is to entice readers to commit for longer periods by making the marginal cost of additional years lower. If you want to go year-to-year, you can, but it costs more; by committing upfront to a longer run, you get a lower price.

And I thought, hmm.

In higher ed, we do the polar opposite. We charge by the semester or year, and each year costs more than the year before it. Then we wonder why students leave.

The magazine model comes closer to reflecting actual costs, in some ways. It costs more to recruit a new student than it does to keep a current one, for example. By the time a student is well-ensconced, use of services tends to be more routinized and less catastrophic. It’s the newbies who are the highest-maintenance.

The parallel isn’t perfect, obviously. Upper-level classes tend to be smaller than intro courses -- at least once you get past the remedial level -- so they have higher costs. But that’s really a function of attrition. If sticking around got easier, attrition might decrease, and the upper-level classes would be more fully populated (and therefore more economically sustainable).

Better, students could gradually decrease their paid work hours as they immerse themselves more deeply in a given subject. Unpaid internships and/or co-ops would be less exclusionary than they are now.

The major issue I could foresee would be transfer. If a four-year college adopted this model, it would basically ship its entire freshman class to nearby community colleges. The savvy students would load up on cheap cc credits, then transfer to the newly-affordable third and fourth years. The obvious way around that would be to treat funding for community colleges and state four-year colleges as a single system, and to put the funding where it needs to go for that to work.

Which would involve putting economic value on teaching.

The loss-leader model works well when the issue is attracting people in the first place. That’s not the problem that most of higher ed currently faces. Given the ever-growing wage gap between the college-educated and the high-school educated, I don’t foresee a huge dropoff in overall national demand anytime soon. (Regional dropoffs are another story.) The issue at this point isn’t generating demand or creating access; it’s turning prospective dropouts into prospective graduates. Our issue isn’t recruitment, really; it’s retention.

I’m pretty sure that an idea this big and hairy has some perfectly awful unintended consequences, but I’m not sure what they are just yet. Wise and worldly readers, what say you? What would happen if college got cheaper as you went along?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Future of For-Profits

I have a close, longtime friend who has lived the mixed blessing of getting what she has wanted, when she has wanted it. Luckily for her, she generally has good taste, but she has boxed herself into corners a few times when circumstances refused to conspire to save her from herself.

I’m thinking that the last couple of years are conspiring to save for-profit higher ed from itself.

Having worked in both the for-profit and community college worlds, I’ve been arguing for years that the right move for the for-profits is to go upscale. Apparently, they’re starting to figure this out for themselves, even if only as the result of newfound Federal scrutiny.

Historically, for-profits arose in the gaps of traditional higher ed, focusing primarily on the fields that traditional colleges either ignored or neglected. That made some sense at the time. But since then, the non-profits have greatly expanded their coverage, and the for-profits have greatly expanded their offerings to chase enrollments; at this point, the programmatic overlap between the sectors is substantial. Some for-profits have even earned regional accreditation (and others, horrifyingly enough, have bought it.)

Now that they’re offering many of the same courses of study as community colleges and the midtier state colleges of the world, the for-profits are finding it difficult to compete. For a while, many of them managed by taking all manner of ethical liberties with financial aid packaging and deceptive recruiting; the Feds, rightly, have made that more difficult.

They’ll never be able to compete on cost. Community and state colleges are subsidized and, just as importantly, untaxed; for-profits are taxed and unsubsidized. (Proponents of public higher ed rightly note that the subsidies aren’t what they once were, but they often fail to note that the tax exemptions remain.) Yes, for-profits can minimize the taxation issue with online offerings -- property taxes don’t apply to cyberspace -- but the publics can go online, too.

The way to compete is on value, as opposed to price. This is where the for-profits can escape the ethical and legal issues they’ve caused for themselves, set up a lucrative niche, and even expand.

That would actually mirror the way that privatization works in most other industries. Most of the time, “public” offerings are considered less desirable than private ones. Public housing, public transportation, and public schools are generally -- with exceptions, yes, but generally -- considered inferior to their private counterparts. I don’t see any obvious reason that for-profit higher ed couldn’t try the same strategy.

Granted, it would have a hard time competing on academic prestige, at least initially. But by combining programmatic focus with a year-round schedule and concierge-level staffing in career services, it could offer a pretty compelling value proposition. And by being selective, it could screen out the high-default populations and avoid the ethical traps into which the sector as a whole tends to fall. It’s one thing to object to boiler-room sales tactics and shoddy curricula; it’s quite another to object to specialization and good service.

In fact, a high end proprietary could become known for its high academic standards. If it could truthfully market its grads to employers as being among the best in a given industry, it would have a legitimate selling point for prospective students.

The ethics of it all are debatable, but to the extent that they actually chose to compete on quality, I’d argue that the rest of the industry would have to step up. Bottom-feeding is insane when you’re competing with institutions with built-in cost advantages, and you can only run on the boiler room model for so long. The way up is the way out. The for-profits are being forced to figure this out; the winners will be the ones who lean into the change.