Monday, January 31, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Self-Evaluations and Jargon

(Program note: A huge “Thank You!” to all the readers who volunteered info on how their colleges handle grade appeals. There’s quite a bit of variation out there! I appreciate the feedback.)

An occasional correspondent writes:

I filled out a faculty self evaluation yesterday. Of course it was not called that. Rather it had some crazy acronym I don't really recall... maybe a
P-PEAR (Personnel Personal Evaluation Assessment Revue)?

The first question was "describe how you create a student centered learning environment". This question confused me because it seems self-evident that a learning environment is centered around those learning, so I Googled it. There were interesting things about teacher vs. student centered styles, but the fact that I had to google it to understand is concerning to me.

My question is this: Do people that write in doublespeak think everyone understands, or do they speak in doublespeak to obscure? Or perhaps to justify their own existence with magic incantations?

How about some plain English here? They could have gotten at the same thing with this question: "What happens in your classroom on an average day?". Or maybe part of the test is that I can respond with doublespeak to their doublespeak?

Concur in part, dissent in part.

“Describe a typical class” is far too vague, and it doesn’t give any clues as to what you’re actually trying to achieve (or, more darkly, what you’re being evaluated on). That said, something like “student-centered” assumes a level of familiarity with educational theory that may or may not be there.

My guess is that the idea behind the form is to push you in a given direction. Instead of asking how your class went, which could mean anything, it’s asking you what you did to get away from lecture and to have students participate in some meaningful way. That may or may not always be the best goal, but it’s both specific enough and broad enough to work across most disciplines. (I’ve long thought that, say, history should have a longer leash on the ‘no lecturing’ idea than many other fields, just because there’s so much raw material. But that’s another discussion.) If nothing else, it should show whether you’ve given any thought to how you structure your class.

I have to admit being increasingly skeptical of self-evaluations generally. Mediocre performers often rate themselves quite highly; whether that’s obliviousness or a reflection of another sense of how things should be done, I’m not sure. (“My job is to present the material. If they learn, great.”) To the extent that self-evaluations play into performance evaluations that actually matter, they discourage candid reflection and encourage happy talk. To the extent that they’re disregarded, I guess, you defeat the objection from puffery, but then raise the issue of why they exist at all.

In the academic world, we’re frequently torn between assessment or evaluation as formative, and assessment or evaluation as declarative. Is the point of the evaluation to make you a better instructor, or to decide whether you’re good? (Grading often falls victim to a similar confusion.) If it’s the latter, then self-evaluation strikes me as obviously absurd. If it’s the former, then some clarity in the process seems necessary.

Were it up to me, the entire process would look very different. Rather than trying to prescribe methods or, worse, simply taking the professor’s word for it, we’d judge teaching performance by how well the students did in subsequent courses. Alternately, we could separate teaching from grading, and have faculty grade each other’s sections. In both cases, the idea is to introduce some sort of objectivity into the process. If the students you gave A’s couldn’t pass the followup course, then I have some questions about what you’re doing. If the students constantly bitch and moan about you, but they hit it out of the park the following semester, then I assume you’re doing something right. Let the results tell the story.

(This would also defeat the usual objection that faculty could game evaluation systems through grade inflation. If they didn’t control the grades, that would be impossible.)

At PU, I once saw a completely unintelligible survey go out to faculty from Home Office. They had taken a slew of categories from some study they had done, broken them into subunits, and then just thrown them out there raw. The levels of code were such that even the good sports had no idea how to respond. It happens.

If I had to read faculty responses to the question you were asked, I’d be looking for evidence that you’ve given serious thought to how you structure your class. (That is, instead of “I cover chapter 2, and then I cover chapter 3...,” I’d want some sign that you vary your methods as appropriate.) But yes, the question is a bit perplexing as asked.

Good luck.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a self-evaluation mechanism that actually made sense? Alternately, what do you think of a separation of teaching from grading?

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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"A Professor in a Suit"

I’ve seen some very intelligent professors crash and burn as deans. This article reminded me of a phrase I’ve heard to describe them: as deans, they were just professors in suits.

Academic deans are in awkward institutional positions. (I say “academic” to distinguish them from, say, a dean of students or a dean of HR.) They’re usually responsible for a given set of academic departments, and are expected to have some sort of scholarly background in a discipline within their purview. A liberal arts dean is assumed to be the advocate for the liberal arts departments, for example.

In most cases, deans aren’t elected, and they don’t report to the faculty. They report to the chief academic officer, who usually has a title like ‘vice president’ or ‘provost.’ (At smaller colleges, sometimes it’s ‘associate deans’ reporting to the ‘dean of the faculty.’) Although deans are nominally affiliated with a given set of academic programs, they are actually accountable to central administration.

That fundamental tension can make the role hard to sustain.

Deans who forget either side of the dilemma tend to fail. She who presents herself entirely as The Administration’s Emissary will quickly alienate the faculty and thereby become ineffective. But she who thinks of herself as the faculty’s defense attorney is also setting herself up to fail. At the end of the day, while deans can and should have a good sense of faculty culture and needs, they need to put the needs of the college first. Often, that will involve saying ‘no.’

The tensions are worse during budgetary crises. When budgets are (relatively) flush, it can be possible to have one’s cake and eat it too. But when cuts follow cuts and more cuts, the basic contradiction in the dean’s role becomes painfully clear.

The most successful deans I’ve seen -- and it took me years to really figure this out -- understand that there’s something like a credibility bank. Showing the CAO that she understands institutional needs and perspectives can buy her the credibility to go to bat for her departments from time to time. (The corollary to that is that becoming known as the uncritical advocate actually reduces one’s effectiveness as an advocate. When people roll their eyes at your turn to speak, it matters little what you say.) When the chronic whiner whines, it means nothing; when the “good soldier” complains, it carries weight.

Implementing cuts means saying ‘no’ far more often than anybody likes. It can easily exhaust the dean’s (or the administration’s) credibility account, even if it needs to be done. This is an emotionally draining position to be in. People tend to shoot messengers, and to ascribe motives. In settings in which faculty have tenure and deans don’t, it’s no wonder that smart people aren’t exactly lining up for these jobs.

The IHE piece pointed out again that there’s a pretty severe succession crisis looming for upper-level academic management. That’s true, and I’ve seen it myself, but the roots of that crisis are at lower levels. Chief academic officers typically come from the ranks of the deans. As deans’ roles become less appealing and more tenuous, I’d expect to see fewer people try for them. In fact, that’s already happening.

I can hear some folks thinking “hooray! fewer administrators! more money for me!” There may be some truth to that in the R1 world, but at the cc level, administrations tend to be pretty thin already. Some tasks simply have to be done to keep the institution running. Those tasks can be done by people with teaching experience and a sense of academic culture, or they can be done by people from the business world. There’s a pretty good argument that the former would be preferable, but attracting successful and respected tenured faculty to jump into a no-win, untenured role in which they will be routinely vilified, for a surprisingly small salary bump, is a hard sell.

Yes, good mentoring would help. ( In the absence of that, I took to pseudonymous blogging to crowdsource my mentoring.) But even good mentoring can’t get around a basic structural problem. In the meantime, as long as deaning consists largely of saying ‘no’ and absorbing personal abuse, I expect the paucity of good candidates to get even worse.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January Hires

In the “real world,” hiring is usually year-round. There might be peaks and valleys, with some variation by industry, but generally speaking there’s nothing unusual about hiring in April, or July, or October.

In the colleges I’ve seen, that’s still true for certain types of positions. There’s nothing unusual about advertising for building maintainers in March or financial aid staff in August. But faculty hiring has a rhythm of its own.

Since semesters happen when they happen, hire dates are usually timed to have someone start at the beginning of a semester. Typically, there isn’t much sense in having a new professor start, say, the week of Thanksgiving. Since my college adheres to the traditional September and January start dates for semesters, most of our faculty hiring is timed for September starts.

(When I worked at Proprietary U, this was not the case. Semesters there started in July, November, and March. Hiring out of cycle like that was a nightmare, since so many candidates simply assumed traditional start times.)

We have done some January starts over the years, and I’m starting to see a pattern. (Any Ed.D.’s out there looking for a dissertation topic, you might want to check this out!) January hires are much more likely to go to incumbent adjuncts than are September hires.

In a way, that makes sense. Most of the people looking from a distance have some sort of position for the academic year, and are looking to find something for the following one. Moving for January would involve leaving in the middle, which many people are unwilling to do. The lead time for January hires also tends to be shorter. Since search committees generally can’t be bothered to focus until late October at the earliest -- maddening, but true -- I’ve seen interviews for January hires extend well into December. That’s not necessarily a problem if you’re already local, and it’s especially easy if you’re already adjuncting and don’t have a full-time job. But if you’d have to relocate, that’s not much notice.

In practice, then, January hires tend to go to incumbent adjuncts.

The positive side of that is that it gives folks who’ve been undervalued in the market a chance to turn their availability into an advantage. From a darkly cynical perspective, a run of adjunct conversions also helps the college hang on to the other adjuncts, since they’ll see the position as not-necessarily-dead-end. After all, if nobody ever won the lottery, people would stop playing it. I’m okay with that as long as the wins are real.

But it does lead to a certain lack of diversity. The adjunct pool reflects the demography of people in this area who have advanced degrees. It’s difficult to diversify that when you keep drawing from the same pool over and over again. That’s true whether you define diversity according to race, or location of graduate training, or just about anything else.

(Interestingly, in some of the evergreen disciplines, we’re getting close to the point of using ‘diversity’ to favor men. I don’t think that one has much to do with geography.)

I haven’t seen any actual literature on this, so I don’t know if I’m observing a local quirk or a broader truth. Vox blogosphere, vox dei, so I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers. Have you found January start dates generally favoring adjuncts on your campus?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Watching Football with The Boy

This past weekend all four of us started watching the Jets-Steelers game. The Wife and The Girl peeled off early, but The Boy stuck with me for almost the entire first half.

(I rarely watch football, other than the Super Bowl. This was unusual for us.)

I didn’t have a strong rooting interest going in. My pro football universe consists of the Forces of Light (Buffalo), almost everyone else, and the Forces of Darkness (Dallas). Admittedly, the Forces of Light have had a rough decade, but these things happen. Since both the Jets and the Steelers fall into the middle category, I wasn’t terribly invested. I’ve rooted for the Steelers before, since I like any team that routinely makes the Cowboys’ lives miserable. And I’ve rooted for the Jets before, just because I dimly recall that they once had a quarterback for about ten minutes who was named after Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which struck me as cool. (Browning Nagle -- look it up!) But neither could be called fandom.

This time around, though, it was all Jets. Explaining that to The Boy was tricky.

Although I have nothing against the Steelers as a team, I couldn’t abide Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault case. Though never convicted, what he did was apparently bad enough that the league suspended him for four games. I’m no expert on the case; my impression was that it amounted to rape. (I’m at a loss to explain why raping a woman leads to a lighter punishment than staging dogfights does, but I’m no expert on football.) I don’t ask athletes to be role models in all aspects of their lives, but sexual assault was a bit much.

I just wasn’t sure how much to share with TB.

This may all sound trivial, but football is one of those iconically masculine touchpoints in American culture. TB is curious about what it means to be a man, and I’m acutely aware that he sees me every single day. He hasn’t yet hit the age at which I turn stupid; in his eyes, I’m still a pretty smart guy. He wanted to watch the game with me not because he particularly cares about football -- he doesn’t -- but because it was the kind of thing that boys do with their Dads. He wants to be part of the club, and he looks to me to teach him the rules of the club.

So I told him that I was rooting for the Jets because the Steelers’ quarterback attacked a woman, and that that is not how a real man treats women. I told him that a man who treats women that way is not worthy of respect. He seemed to accept that.

Later, after he went to bed, I thought about it some more. He’s not some androgynous cipher, or a tabula rasa. He’s a specific, three-dimensional boy. He’s tall for his age, and well on his way to being tall for any age. He plays basketball and builds sculptures and wants to go to M.I.T. In a few years, the hormones will kick in, and he’ll have to find his way through the sheer hell of adolescence.

He needs a model of manhood that he can actually use. Asking him to transcend gender right before junior high would be stupid, if not insane. He will want to be part of the club, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t.

For all the gender theory I waded through -- and yes, dear readers, I did -- the on-the-ground version of masculinity that I keep coming back to as a regulative ideal is something like a gentleman. Not a Sensitive New Age Guy, since that always struck me as creepily passive-aggressive, and certainly not a frat guy. Something more like a self-possessed, confident man who thinks enough of himself to treat others with respect. Not a saint or a martyr, but a decent man who understands, even if imperfectly, that his actions affect other people. My grandfather was like that, even if he would never use terms like these.

There’s no reason that a good man couldn’t watch, play, and enjoy sports. TB loves playing basketball, and we’ve even made the pilgrimage to the Basketball Hall of Fame. (I can’t wait to make the trek to Cooperstown for the baseball version.) It’s great that he gets exercise and plays with other kids. It’s fun to win, and healthy to learn how to lose. And as he gets older, he’ll find that some level of basic fluency in high-profile sports is a valuable cross-class and cross-race topic of conversation with other men. In some settings, opting out of that would be conspicuous, and even costly in certain ways.

I just don’t want him to have to buy into macho-jock-asshole culture to do it. I want him to understand that there’s a difference between being a man and joining the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club.

Teaching a thoughtful boy is a challenge in this culture. One of his friends at school told him about watching games at a Hooters restaurant with his Dad; I had to explain, carefully, why we don’t and won’t go there. Boys in groups can get carried away -- being in the group while maintaining your own sense of boundaries can be hard even for adults. And if I hear about one more kid at school whose parents let him have a tv in his room...

The Steelers won the game, so we’ll be cheeseheads for the Super Bowl. I’ll explain why again. The game will be fun, we’ll have snacks, and we’ll do a running commentary on the ads. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, he’ll carry some emotional memory of that with him in a few years when the hormones kick in and Dad is suddenly, inexplicably dumb. We’re not quite there yet; he can still hear me. I hope he hears the right things. Roethlisberger may be a great quarterback, but TB has a shot at being a good man.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Let's Play...What Would You Cut?

Arizona and Texas have apparently decided that community colleges have way too much money. They're taking different approaches to solving the “problem.” In Arizona, they're proposing a fifty percent across-the-board cut in state aid. In Texas, they're combining a smaller-but-still-substantial across the board cut with actually closing four campuses.

Let's say that you're a chief financial officer at a community college. You've been told that next year's state allocation will be half of this year's, and the political tea leaves suggest that the direction after that will continue downward. Since the state allocation is already, say, half of your budget, this amounts to about a 25 percent cut.

What would you cut?

To get a sense of just how bad this is, you could reduce every salary at the college by 25 percent, and still not make up the gap. (That's because labor isn't the only cost.) Alternately, you could lay off 25 percent of the employees and still not make up the gap.

The 'squishy' things would be the first to go. That means travel, professional development, and food for college functions. This adds up to well under 1 percent.

Obviously, any new full-time hiring for non-unique positions is out of the question. Normal attrition, unreplaced on the staff side and adjuncted-out on the faculty side, might get you another percentage or two.

You'd take an axe to the library acquisition budget, the software budget, and the technology upgrade budget. Depending on how ambitious you got on the software/tech side, you might gain something here.

You'd raise tuition and fees, to the extent that you could. I'd be surprised to see this gain you much more than maybe five percentage points, assuming the most extreme case.

You'd call a halt to all non-emergency building maintenance. Construction projects that use college operating money would stop. (Projects based on separate bond issues might continue, oddly enough.)

You'd stop all pay raises, and maybe impose furloughs. This could net you a few points overall. Now, maybe you're at about ten to twelve points total. Where do you get the rest?



Program discontinuations.

Larger class sizes, both minimum and maximum.

Admittedly, I'm making several assumptions. I'm assuming that many of the low-hanging fruit for raising money – renting out unused classroom space for conferences, running profitable noncredit offerings – have already been done; they're part of the baseline. I'm skipping over severance packages for the laid off. I'm also assuming flat energy costs, flat health insurance costs (ha!), flat legal costs (ha!), and no other significant exogenous shocks. (In my neck of the woods, this year's snow removal budget is taking a severe hit. I'm guessing that's not an issue in Arizona.)

So even with several rosy assumptions, a significant tuition hike, and some unsustainable parsimony in physical plant, you're stuck with layoffs.

You could draw from reserves (or “rainy day funds”), assuming your college has any. But most cc's have only a month or two of their operating budgets in reserve. Worse, once they're gone, they're gone. In practice, you'd probably have to use reserves to pay for severance packages. A reserve draw could make sense in the context of “teaching out” the last semester of a dying program, but barring a political sea change, using a reserve draw more globally would simply prolong the inevitable.

I play out this thought exercise to illustrate a basic point: the choices administrators make are not always the choices they (we) would like to make. This is the fallacy in the oft-heard line that “budgets reflect priorities.” They also reflect constraints. When external funding shocks are severe and unremitting -- this year’s cut reflects the fourth year in a row -- and certain costs are either fixed or simply uncontrollable, your room to maneuver is much smaller than many people seem to imagine.

That’s not to say that the choices are entirely dictated or automatic, of course. But I’m constantly amazed at just how little my personal preferences -- or those of my colleagues -- actually matter. When resources are relatively flush, it’s possible to have significant agency. But when cuts pile on top of other cuts, there are only so many choices you can make. Blaming those who have to make the choices doesn’t help.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Spontaneous Speeches

“The President can’t make it. Can you step in for him? It starts in ten minutes.”

Uh, sure.

That isn’t the worst. I’ve actually been called on to “say a few words” on the spot. That’s always a little unnerving.

I mostly write about either the management dilemmas of my job, or the larger structural issues that underlie them. But there’s also a ceremonial aspect to the job. Sometimes, you have to be the public face of the college. Presidents expect that, of course, and they’re always the first choice. But sometimes the President’s schedule doesn’t permit, and suddenly, it’s showtime.

It gets less scary the more it happens, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit having to pause a bit each time.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a few rules of thumb for spontaneous speeches. I’d love to hear more from readers who regularly deal with this sort of thing.

- Audience, audience, audience. If it’s a graduation ceremony, or an orientation, or a celebration of something-or-another, they aren’t there to hear you. The “few words” are purely ritualistic. To the extent that they can include a reference to why they’re there, all the better. Brevity is your friend. Serve the purpose of the gathering, and it’ll be okay.

- Flattery. When in doubt, flatter the audience. Since the occasions at which spontaneous speeches tend to be celebratory, in one form or another, this is usually easy.

- Simplicity. This is not the time to show off your vocabulary. Clear, direct, simple.

- Safe humor. This is tricky, and it’s where years of practice in the classroom really pay off. The safest humor is self-deprecating. Avoid puns, irony, and complexity. I also avoid “jokes.” Better to find humor in your own fish-out-of-water moments -- relatable, but safe -- then to try to pass as a comedian. Doing comedy well is astonishingly hard, and watching a wannabe comedian bomb is physically painful.

- Quotes. I generally avoid them, since they often come off as clunky and pretentious. To the extent that I do use them, they’re simple, and usually in the context of telling a very brief story. Never, ever, ever, under penalty of death, quote a dictionary. Ever.

- Positive. In the words of Ren and Stimpy, “happy happy joy joy.” (That’s the kind of quote I’ll actually use.) The spontaneous speech is not the time to plumb the depths of your soul. Be positive, flattering, and brief, and sit the hell down.

Wise and worldly readers -- there’s the flattery! -- have you found graceful ways to handle spontaneous speeches?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Snow Day Dominoes

We’ve had a few snow days over the past couple of weeks, and it looks like we may get some more in the next week or two. The damage is starting to add up.

At home, it’s not so bad. The kids love it, the dog doesn’t know the difference, and TW is a good sport. But on campus, it’s becoming a real problem.

For all of the progress we’ve made with automating various processes, it’s still true that much of the business of student registration happens in person. Some students, for reasons of their own, simply won’t register online, and others have issues of such complexity that it’s much better if they actually talk to some people in the know. And yes, there’s procrastination. Which means that we do serious business in the middle of January, signing students up for the Spring.

Lose a few of those January days, and the enrollment impact is substantial. That’s an educational problem for the students, and a fiscal problem for the college.

It’s hard to make up that lost time. We can keep registration open a few days later than usual -- which will almost certainly happen -- but that causes issues of its own. That will probably capture some of the students who were shut out by snow days, but I’d be shocked if we caught them all (or enough others to make it a wash). And the later the students register, the harder it is to get everything squared away in time to give them a fighting chance to succeed. Aligning financial aid packages, getting textbooks, arranging work/childcare schedules and transportation, and simply getting into the sections that make the most sense with a given schedule are all harder when done at the last minute. And when advisers have lines out the door, it’s that much harder for them to work their usual miracles with each student.

Delayed registrations will also inevitably lead to much more churn during the drop/add period. That’s a strain on staff, obviously, but it’s also a real educational problem. It’s hard for an instructor to get meaningful traction that first week when students appear and disappear randomly.

Making matters more frustrating, over the past few years my campus has made good progress on cutting down on last-minute registrations. I’m hopeful that we can get back on that path after this semester, but anyone who has done this long enough knows the danger in moving a baseline. Since budgets are based on enrollment projections, anything that shifts the projection one way or the other will have ripple effects. Once the gains from lower standards are baked into the cake, higher standards become a cost. I fought that battle for years at Proprietary U, always unsuccessfully; it’s a movie I’ve seen before.

To the extent that states reduce their operating aid to community colleges and force greater cost-shifting onto students, I expect to see more liberties taken to keep enrollment numbers up. Institutions do what they have to do. If you want to change what they do, change the imperatives.

(Some states take a very different approach. There, all tuition revenue goes back to the state government as part of general revenues; aid is allocated by the legislature. In that setting, there is almost no incentive to enroll students, and there may be a very powerful incentive not to, since preventing enrollments cuts costs. I’m not at all surprised to hear that colleges in those states are imposing lower enrollment caps. If you want to change what they do, change the imperatives.)

I wish I could share my kids’ glee at snow days. But right now, another snow day is the last thing I want to see. The college can’t afford it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Opting Back In

Last week’s article in Salon by Katy Read about the flip side of “opting out” of the workforce struck a chord with me.

The world was different when The Wife dropped out of the paid workforce in 2004.

When she made the decision to stay home full-time, The Boy was three, and The Girl had just been born. TW was already on a reduced-hours schedule, having gone to 30 hours when TB was born. TB’s daycare alone was over $250 a week, and that was seven years ago. We realized that with both kids in daycare, her entire paycheck would have gone to daycare, and we didn’t see much point in that. We both wanted to see the kids more than the dual-career shuffle would have allowed -- we had several years’ experience of that with TB -- and she wasn’t happy in her job anyway. So she dropped out of the paid workforce, taking her MBA and her experience off the market to give the kids the attention we both wanted them to have.

The plan was that she would stay home until TG was in school; at that point, she’d find something part-time. As the kids got older, she could ramp back up at work.

Then, shortly before The Girl started school, the economy had a meltdown.

Opting back in is proving much harder than we anticipated.

Part of it is the way that the public schools around here do their schedules. Beyond the obvious question of summers -- what do dual-career couples with young kids do in July? -- there’s a panoply of half-days, quirky holidays, and random breaks throughout the year. (And that’s not even counting the “sick kid” days or snow days that throw dual-career schedules into chaos.) The schools clearly assume that there’s a parent at home; when there isn’t, you’re suddenly doing some high-stakes juggling.

Worse, the few local employers who have shown signs of life have apparently been burned by Moms before. At one interview last Fall -- a very small business -- the interviewer told her point-blank that they’d grown weary of trying to accommodate the school/Mom emergencies the last woman had, and that they had no interest in going through that again. That was the end of that.

My job allows for occasional forays -- I’ve made every “lunch with the parents” event -- and a few days off, but it’s not part-time. Depending on the time of year, sometimes it’s more than full-time. I don’t have the summers at home that faculty have, or the freedom to leave at 3:00 on a regular basis. It’s a twelve-month, five-day-a-week office job, with some weekends and some travel. Since pay doesn’t scale on a linear basis with hours -- there’s a quantum leap from part-time to full-time, as any adjunct knows -- the only way to provide reasonable income for the family is to have at least one person work full-time. Two part-time positions add up to less than one full-time one financially, so “just split everything evenly” is not a realistic division of labor. Instead, we have to specialize.

But we’re finding that what felt like an open invitation to return has been cancelled. Even with her credentials and experience, TW hasn’t had a single offer, even for a part-time position.

The economy is not designed for parents.

The kids have had a level of attention that I wish more kids had. They’re great kids, and I’m glad they’ve had that. But we always assumed that when the time came, TW could return in some capacity as the educated professional that she is. Apparently, not.

Any younger couples reading this should probably know that opting back in is a lot harder than it should be. I don’t know that we would have done anything differently, but it’s certainly a cold splash of reality.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Buying Freedom

Although community colleges enroll more students than flagship state universities do, the flagship state universities hog most of the public attention. They have the football teams and the statewide constituencies, and nearly everyone in the state has heard of them.

Unfortunately, that often leads to political or policy decisions being made for entire state systems based on the circumstances of a single outlier campus.

This article struck me as yet another example of that. Following the example of Virginia, university leaders in several states are proposing a form of fiscal secession from their states. The idea is that in exchange for acceding to ever-greater budget cuts from the state, they will be granted much greater autonomy in decisionmaking. They’re essentially trying to buy their freedom.

In the context of a single campus, this may be making a virtue of necessity. If you expect to take a series of budget cuts anyway, you might as well at least get something back. And it’s certainly true that local decisionmaking can sometimes be more efficient than statewide, though I tend to think the numbers thrown around are on the high side of optimistic.

But a model that might, conceivably, make sense for a flagship would be a disaster for a community college.

Flagships are research-intensive, meaning that grant income is a significant revenue stream. They typically have dramatically higher tuition than do the community colleges around them. They have much more highly developed fundraising (“development”) operations. They also have armies of graduate students at the ready to do most of the undergraduate teaching. While continued budget cuts would hurt, state aid is already low enough in many cases that much of the pain has already happened.

Community colleges are different. Here, grant revenue is typically much lower, and what grant revenue that does exist is typically earmarked for very specific, narrow uses. (Many Federal grants now come with prohibitions against using their funds for “supplanting” local funds. In other words, they can only be used for add-ons; they can’t make up for cuts in base operations.) The fundraising arms are typically much less productive, and what money they do raise usually goes directly to student scholarships, rather than to the institution. (Perversely, that actually increases the incentive for colleges to cost-shift to students.) Cc’s don’t have their own graduate students to exploit, and don’t have the high-visibility sports programs to persuade the public to allow tuition to rise to flagship levels.

In this setting, whatever gains might be realized through relative autonomy would be more than swamped by the losses incurred by what amounts to privatization. Since federal grant money couldn’t be used for operations, and private philanthropy isn’t anywhere near what would be needed, the only remaining options would be service cuts and tuition increases. And it’s not like those both haven’t been happening for years already.

(It’s also hard to imagine that the alleged autonomy would last very long. As long as there are political points to be scored one way or the other, there will be interference. And the giant sucking sound from public money being hoovered by the plutocracy won’t suddenly stop just because subsidies go away. Next they’ll want PILOTs -- Payments in Lieu of Taxes -- and an end to student loan subsidies.)

It’s simply impossible to fulfill the mission of a community college without community support. A flagship that sells exclusivity can raise prices out of the range of most people and get away with it, but a community college that did that wouldn’t be a community college anymore.

Cutting red tape is nice, but not at this cost. I just hope the distinction between flagships and cc’s doesn’t get lost in the political debate. Unfortunately, it usually does.

Friday, January 14, 2011

How Do You Know?

This week, nearly everyone on campus has been talking about Jared Lee Loughner. Aside from the obvious shock at what he did -- as the father of a nine-year-old, I can’t even begin to imagine -- we’ve all been questioning the role of the college. As it happened, he attended Pima Community College for a while, having accumulated quite the record of incidents before being dismissed. We’ve all been asking ourselves what would have happened if he had been enrolled here.

I don’t have any inside information about him, and I don’t work at Pima. This is less about him than it is about the next Jared Lee. I assume there will be a next one.

In the abstract, it’s easy to say that the college should have done something. But it’s remarkably hard to “do something” that would have an impact outside of the college.

Like many, my college established a Threat Assessment Team after the Virginia Tech massacre. The team has faculty, counselors, student affairs leadership, an academic dean, and the head of security on it. It examines cases brought to it by concerned members of the college community about people on campus who are exhibiting signs of being dangerous.

That’s a tricky business, though. In clear-cut cases, such as direct threats, there isn’t much need for a review team; you call security and that’s that. By definition, the team deals with ambiguous cases.

The challenge there, though, is the burden of proof. Okay, a student is pale and withdrawn, young, male, socially awkward, sometimes angry, and frequently in his own world. Is he dangerous or just weird? How do you know? That same student writes a paper in which he admits fantasizing about buying an Uzi, driving to the worst part of town, and “doing some justice.” (I’m describing a student I had in one of my classes about ten years ago.) Is he a mass murderer in the making, or just someone who has watched way too many action movies? How do you know?

If you only look at one case, and have the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the “right” answer. But if you look across a campus with a cast of thousands, and new faces every few months, you can’t help but notice that the usual ‘profiles’ would turn up an absurd number of false positives.

Open-admissions colleges with thousands of students can’t possibly keep close eyes on everybody. It cannot be done. (And I’ve got just enough Foucault left in my system to say, “and a good thing, too.”) At most, faculty and staff can report observed behaviors; if the same kid turns up over and over again, as Jared Lee did at Pima, the college can take action. But even there, the action will usually be limited to dismissing the student from campus. That helps the campus, to some degree, but it leaves the general public unprotected.

It’s not just students, either. Employees sometimes come unhinged in various ways, whether through illness, substance abuse, lost relationships, or whatever else. In most cases, people manage to keep it together enough to be okay at work over time, but sometimes not. The cases I’ve seen have been sad and mystifying; in a few cases, they’ve led to terminations. In none of those cases could I plausibly claim to have seen it coming.

Laws and policies can be misleadingly clear. It’s easy to say things like “you should have known” or “the college has a responsibility.” But people aren’t that clear. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the underlying decency and humanity of some people from whom I would not have expected it, and I’ve been disappointed and even shocked at the inhumanity of some people who initially seemed fine. And that’s over the course of years. When it’s a student who has been in your class for a few weeks, knowing the difference between ‘disruptive’ and ‘dangerous’ typically isn’t easy. Is the creepy young man in the corner a threat, a victim, or just a jerk? And how do you know?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Professional Development Days

Like many colleges, mine requires a few days each year for faculty and staff professional development. They’re tolerated somewhat grudgingly on all sides, which I think is about right.

“Professional development” is a pretty elastic term; depending on who you ask, you’ll get wildly different definitions. Some people see it as little more than a euphemism for conference travel. Some see it as something close to a personal slush fund; I’ve had professors tell me, with straight faces, that each professor should just get a set dollar figure for the year, to spend as they see fit on anything they consider relevant. I replied that they already get that: it’s called a “salary.”

From a relatively narrow institutional perspective, professional development refers to maintaining and improving your ability to do your job. That might involve travel, or it might involve subscriptions, or it might involve workshops. (Savvy employees use professional development to develop the ability to do their next job.) I consider this blog part of my own professional development, since it actually helps me on the job (though I’ve refrained from mentioning it at annual reviews).

With faculty covering a gamut of disciplines, and professional staff with varying responsibilities, any professional development event held in common will necessarily tend to focus on job-related, rather than discipline-related, content. Those can be painful, but a few of them have actually worked. A FERPA presentation from a few years ago was well-received, since much of it was counterintuitive and the relevance was obvious. The single best one was a presentation on the latest technologies for student cheating -- it was both shocking and useful. (Did you know they have websites now that offer papers with the errors characteristic of speakers of various languages? If your first language is Russian, for instance, you could order up a paper in which the use of articles is confused. The idea is to make it sound like you wrote it. Amazing.) I once heard of a college in a poor city using its professional development day to give the employees a walking tour of the city; that struck me as daring, and potentially pretty useful. I’ve also heard of them being used as “days of service” in the community; though probably well-intended, it strikes me as missing the point of professional development.

Yes, sometimes the days flop. At PU, every so often, they’d bring in motivational speakers. I’m sure some of them meant well, but sheesh. Motivational speakers and I don’t mix. There’s such a thing as managing one’s own emotions. And anything involving a Big Name Guest Speaker is likely to land with a thud.

The idea behind having a day like that before the semester starts, it seems to me, is to establish some sort of minimum level of participation. Some people avail themselves of all kinds of travel opportunities and other resources, but some don’t at all. These collegewide days, for all their very real limitations, at least prevent complete stasis.

Have you seen a collegewide professional day work well? If so, what did they do? Why did it work?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Diversity Hiring

I’m on the horns of a dilemma here, and I’m hoping that crowdsourcing the problem might lead to a sustainable solution. Wise and worldly readers, I’m counting on you!

Like many colleges, my college's faculty does not reflect the demographics of either its students or its community. Bluntly, it's a lot whiter. The disparity is largest on the faculty side.

The Board of Trustees has made a public commitment to diversifying the college. However, opportunities for hiring are fewer and farther between now than they once were, with the recession-driven cuts in state aid. The pincer movement of 'a drive to diversify' and 'a paucity of openings' means that the college has to take a serious shot at candidates from underrepresented groups whenever it can. That’s proving harder than one might expect.

The teaching load here is typical for community colleges in this region, which is to say, it's not for the faint of heart. And while the benefits are good, the starting salaries won't blow the doors off.

Even in this economy, we've had trouble recruiting minority faculty. We've made offers, but we keep losing out to places with higher salaries or lower teaching loads. Minority candidates are in much higher demand than others, so even in this market, they can command offers far sweeter than what we can muster. And faculty salaries here are determined by a pretty mechanistic collective bargaining agreement.

We've exhausted the low-hanging fruit. We advertise in venues likelier to attract minority applicants. We have racially mixed search committees. We screen job posting language carefully to ensure that nothing in them creates unnecessary barriers. The low-cost, nonconflictual stuff is already done.

Which means, in practice, that the available options are few.

One is to simply make the salary offers the contract allows, and to hope for the best. When we get turned down, turn to whomever else is available. It's legally clean, but in practice, it makes an already very white faculty that much whiter. It winds up placing a value of 'zero' on diversity, with predictable results.

Another would be to go above the grid and simply endure the grievances. If paying an extra, say, 5k will make the difference, and the Trustees have determined that the difference is worth making, then so be it. The advantage of this approach is that it stands a greater chance of actually recruiting people. The disadvantages, though, are several. For one, it virtually guarantees protracted legal battles with the union. For another, it stirs up resentments that tend to get ugly fast. And at a really basic level, it raises the question of just what, exactly, the candidate is being paid for.

The union, of course, would prefer that we simply raise the entire salary scale until the whole thing is high enough that we can recruit without premiums. But that's a budget buster, and it would actually freeze the existing imbalances in place. It's both unaffordable and unhelpful. It's a nonstarter.

(And please, don't start in with the usual “bloated administrative salaries” crap. We've already shed administrators, and I'm looking now at the fourth consecutive year at the same salary.)

Which means that the second option is rapidly becoming the preferred one. Without it, recent results have shown, the racial gaps will simply continue to grow.

But if we go with the second option, the question of magnitude becomes real. So, wise and worldly readers, is there a reasonably elegant and sustainable way to improve our minority hiring results within the confines of limited resources and a vigilant union? I’d honestly like to know.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Liberal Arts or General Education?

I read with interest the exchange Historiann had with Anthony Grafton, the new President of the American Historical Association. It had an otherworldly quality to it that took me a while to pin down. I think I’ve got it.

History, English, and the rest of what I like to call the “evergreen” (as opposed to “seasonal”) disciplines think of themselves as part of the liberal arts. They each have a history -- contested, yes, but recognizable -- and a sense of their place in the academic firmament. (My own scholarly discipline in the social sciences is very much the same way.)

At many larger universities and comprehensive colleges, it seems, the liberal arts as liberal arts perceive themselves as under sustained assault. They don’t seem vocationally relevant enough for parents to like them, and they don’t bring in the enormous grant dollars that would make adminstrators love them.

It’s odd, because at the community college level, the picture is very different. Here, the liberal arts fields are all considered part of “general education,” which is at the core of every degree program. Business majors have to take history classes, and culinary arts majors have to take English. In practice, Grafton’s caricature of history as economically parasitic on more lucrative programs is exactly wrong; here, the evergreens are the cash cows, and the narrower, more vocational programs are ‘parasitic,’ if you want to use that language.

The single largest major on campus, in terms of enrollment, is the liberal arts transfer major. It’s composed entirely of evergreens, with the explicit goal of preparing students to transfer for bachelor’s degrees.

I don’t dispute Grafton’s or Historiann’s portrayals of life in their respective institutional settings. I’m just noticing that their descriptions don’t come close to the truth here. (And with over 1100 community colleges across the country housing nearly half of the country’s undergraduates, I’d offer that this milieu is actually representative of far more people than theirs. It’s just that faculty from cc’s don’t attend national conferences as much. Part of that is the relative lack of travel funding, but part of it is the palpable institutional snobbery that manifests itself in nametag-glancing. If you want to relive the worst of junior high, try walking through a national disciplinary conference with “community college” on your nametag. I’ve done it; it’s not pretty. If you base your impression of a discipline on its national conference, you’ll bear some pretty serious sampling bias.)

I’ve never been terribly happy with the term “general education.” It sounds like “miscellaneous.” But it’s commonly accepted, and it serves a purpose. At its worst, it denotes a distasteful obligation; if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “get your gen eds out of the way,” I’d be a wealthy man. But at its best, it suggests a core understanding of what it means to be a college-educated person. Whether you majored in culinary arts, graphic design, or philosophy, you should be expected to be literate and numerate, capable of reading with perspective and writing with clarity, familiar with social analysis and quantitative reasoning.

At that level, part of the appeal of the ‘general education’ rubric is that it shifts the grounds of discussion of course requirements. Instead of “this is what we do,” the relevant argument is “this is what students need.” (On the ground, it often boils down to “this is what will transfer.”) Getting your course required should involve showing that your course is uniquely helpful for students. I’ve endured enough Curriculum Committee meetings to know that they often devolve into horse-trading and a sort of caricature of interest group politics, but the idea is still there.

In my world, the evergreens help pay for the seasonals. The high enrollments and low facility costs of, say, psychology help offset the high facility costs and low enrollments of radiography. In this context, getting rid of the history department and its counterparts would be madness. As the funding crises continue, the evergreens would be the last things to cut.

This isn’t intended as a rebuttal, exactly, but as an amendment. To read Historiann’s and Grafton’s accounts, you’d think that history was under assault nationally. It isn’t. The liberal arts as liberal arts may be; general education, by contrast, is doing quite well, thank you. You just have to look in places you normally might not see.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Ed.D. Candidates

Dear Ed.D.’s,

I know y’all have it a little rough. Many academics don’t take your credentials terribly seriously. Until recently, I gave this very little thought.

Over the past year or so, though, I’ve been contacted by email a series of times by various Ed.D. students doing surveys of college administrators. And I’ve been struck, consistently, by just how off-base the surveys are.

Without giving anything away -- I get the impression that some of the surveys are still in process -- I’ll reveal that they usually focus on decisionmaking. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but I’ve actually stopped filling out several surveys after just one or two questions when it became clear that the direction of the thing was so wrongheaded that any direct answer would have been misleading.

So as a service to Ed.D. candidates who are trying to put their dissertation projects together, let me give you a hint about administrative decision-making.

Context is everything. Hypotheticals simply miss this.

I routinely, as a matter of course, make decisions contrary to my own personal preferences. These range from the trivial -- distinguishing a stipend from a fee -- to the fundamental, like supporting tenure candidates while simultaneously believing that the institution of tenure is a problem in itself.

Asking me what my preferences are is missing the point. Asking me what I would do if I had my druthers is missing the point. Context is where the action is.

For really important decisions, the question is not how I would make them, but why I would. In most cases, important decisions are made by groups of people, whether synchronously or in sequence. I lend support, or don’t, but my position is rarely dispositive.

Decisions are also made in particular legal and economic contexts. If I support using the one free faculty line for, say, math instead of psychology, that’s not because I like math better than psychology. (The idea doesn’t even make sense; I wouldn’t know how to compare them.) It’s because in my estimation of the current local context, the college would benefit more from another math professor than from another psych professor. On another campus, or another time,I could easily have gone the other way. My personal taste is irrelevant.

One of the frustrations of administration is the remarkable lack of autonomy. You make decisions because you have to; you play the hands you’re dealt. Yes, over time you can push things slightly in one direction or another when circumstances permit, but the room for individual influence is notably small. Organizations have their own imperatives; a dean who fails to recognize those, and who tries to substitute her own preferences, is courting disaster. The most effective decisions are those that are most in line with organizational needs, rather than personal preferences.

The trick is that organizational needs change over time. In the 1950’s, the greatest challenge to higher education was political; tenure and professionalization offered (mostly) effective counters to red scares. In the 1980’s, the greatest challenge was cultural; the canon wars and the hand-wringing over multiculturalism reflected the demographic anxieties of integration. Now, the greatest challenge is economic, and mechanisms that made sense in earlier contexts may not make sense anymore. (Several years ago I single-handedly, if accidentally, stopped an entire diversity workshop when I mentioned that “diversity hiring” was a subset of “hiring,” and we hadn’t hired anybody in years. The workshop was solving the previous problem, rather than the problem at hand. Nobody had an answer for that.)

Making good decisions is a relatively late step in the process. Earlier steps include getting the context right, getting the question right, and getting the range of possibilities right. If you abstract from those, and focus only on what happens at the end, you’re getting it importantly wrong. Knowing when it’s time to make a decision, and whose decision it properly is, is most of the trick. Treating “decisionmaking” in isolation assumes that problems show up predefined, which they rarely do.

Asking the right questions strikes me as the first step to improving the quality of research, and to gaining respect in the academy. I hope this helps.


Dean Dad

Friday, January 07, 2011

What I Wish Would Come Out of CES

This time of year, I take a break from my higher-ed wonkery and indulge in gadget wonkery. It’s the Consumer Electronics Show! (Sadly, I’m not there. Just musing...)

Unfortunately, the folks at CES seem to be obsessed with the wrong problems. I’m not waiting with bated breath for the forty-seventh variation on an Android tablet. I don’t especially care about 3D tv, and all the cool 4G stuff just serves to remind me that my neck of the woods barely has 3G. Any time y’all would like to leave to cozy confines of New York City and San Francisco, feel free...

What I’d like to see come out of CES:

- A variation on a Roku box that has enough good content on it that I can finally drop cable tv. Right now there’s a plethora of stuff you can add to a tv, but not quite enough to cut the cord. (That’s especially true when you have kids who love SpongeBob and Chowder.) Based on my experience with Comcast, if you were to tell me that it was the second shooter on the grassy knoll, I’d believe it. The first company that issues a wifi-connected box with enough goodies that I can drop cable will get my business.

- Actual honest-to-goodness broadband competition. Right now my choices for home broadband are basically 1) Comcast or 2) suck it. Unregulated for-profit monopolies are not pretty. While we’re at it, let’s get some serious net neutrality rules in place so Comcast-as-ISP couldn’t kill the super-Roku box in the name of preserving its monopoly on video on demand. Because they would, the scum-sucking cretins.

- The following tweaks to the Ipad: a case with a foldout keyboard that folds out to full size and isn’t all spongy; a usb port; and a serious price cut.

- A printer that works consistently, and uses affordable ink. While we’re at it, an office-caliber photocopier that doesn’t know the meaning of “paper jam.” (I still think that someone will make a fortune with a laptop that has its own built-in printer, like a Polaroid camera. It will spit out documents on command. You heard it here first...)

- Cheaper solid-state drives. Hard drives are just not reliable enough, but a small laptop with an SSD immediately hits a thousand bucks. Let’s see something like the smallest current Macbook Air, but around three hundred bucks.

- Two words: battery life.

- Y’know, it wouldn’t actually physically kill app developers to write some stuff for WebOS. I’m just sayin’...

- A dog-to-English translator.

- A “car diagnostic” app. I’d love to know if something is on its last legs, or if the mechanic is lying to me.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you like to see?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Ask the Administrator: HR as Black Hole

A new correspondent writes:

What happens when a community college Human Resources department receives
application materials for a job (in this case, a Deanship)
and never passes them onto the respective hiring committee? I
have evidence that this recently happened in my case, and have written
to the office many times without a response. I even wrote the
President of the college, whom I had met once about six years ago: no
response there either.

I mean, I might not have gotten the job anyway, but this seems . . .
very curious. Do I have any recourse here?

In a nutshell, yes, HR can intercept applications. There are caveats, however.

In private industry, it's fairly common – if a bit nutty – to allow HR to make actual hiring decisions. I've never really understood that, but it's widely practiced and accepted. In academia, as far as I know, that practice remains an exception. However, it's fairly common for HR to function as a first level screen (or what some less humane sorts call a “bozo filter”).

Most postings stipulate both “minimum qualifications” and “preferred qualifications” for the position. The minimum qualifications are exactly that; if you don't have them, you will not get the job. It's fairly common for colleges to empower HR departments to intercept applications that lack the minimum qualifications before they even get to a search committee. The reason given is usually saving the time of the committee members, and there's some truth to that, but it's also a way to prevent a committee from violating the ground rules by falling in love with someone unqualified. That's important from a legal perspective. Imagine the lawsuit if a minority candidate who met the minimum qualifications lost out to a white candidate who didn't. Ouch.

(It has the secondary salutary effect of reducing the number of lawyers in the pool. Once more and for the record: being a lawyer does not, in itself, qualify you to teach across the entire curriculum. It does not. Does my PhD allow me to practice law? I thought not.)

“Preferred” qualifications are a different matter. Those are stipulated to give a committee ironclad grounds to prefer one candidate over another, even if it's entirely possible that a chosen candidate will have, say, only five out of seven of the preferred characteristics. (It's pretty rare to find someone who has absolutely everything.) For example, at my college, the default setting for faculty positions is something like “master's required, doctorate preferred.” That gives the college the flexibility to hire an excellent instructor with a master's, but it establishes that a doctorate carries some weight.

In most cases, HR will intercept applications that lack minimum qualifications, but won't filter based on preferred. It leaves that up to the search committee.

In many settings, HR will also highlight any self-identified minority candidates who meet the minimum qualifications. Depending on the position, it may require that all qualified minority candidates get interviews; at the very least, it will raise a question if none of them do. (Contrary to popular myth, those who don't meet the minima get thrown out. Affirmative action does not trump minimum qualifications, even if it carries some weight against preferred qualifications.)

I won't claim that the HR filter gets everything right; it's entirely possible that you were inaccurately lumped in with candidates who had no real shot. The best way to prevent that is to ensure that your application materials address clearly, even pedantically, the minimum qualifications in the job posting. If you're in a field where hundreds of applications per position is the norm, you have to know that readers are looking first to winnow down the pile. If your qualifications aren't obvious, you may not make the cut.

In terms of legality, my understanding – and consistent with above, I am not a lawyer – is that HR can screen, but it has to do so in a consistent, rational, and nondiscriminatory way. As long as it applies its rules evenly, and the rules themselves are reasonable, then there's no legal issue.

I know that's small consolation when you feel like you've been wronged, but it's the way the game is played.

Good luck. I wouldn't wish this job market on anybody.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had any weird experiences in that nether zone between HR and the search committee?

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

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A New Model?

According to IHE, Tiffin University and Altius Education -- the former a small traditional college, the latter a for-profit -- have combined forces to form a third entity (Ivy Bridge) that offers an all-online general studies Associate’s degree. The for-profit runs enrollment management and student services, and the traditional college is in charge of faculty and curriculum. Warming my heart, the traditional college has a renewable-contract system for its full-time faculty.

I read this with considerable interest.

At one level, it seems like the perfect solution. Use private-sector money to fund operations, but leave the academic decision-making to the academics. On its face, it’s close to the dream model of any college: write me a large check and shut the eff up. Since American culture has decided that pooling large sums of money in the public sector is immoral, but pooling historically unprecedented sums of money in the private sector is wise and virtuous, getting that large check from the private sector seems like a minor adjustment to restore the more appealing parts of the status quo ante. Replace state money with private money and get back to work. After all, as the robber Willie Sutton said of banks, that’s where the money is.

As an academic administrator whose roots and loyalties are to and within academia, I like the “Chinese wall” model of separating the funding from the teaching. I’d love to be able to confine my worries to the quality of delivery and the next area of curricular or pedagogical innovation, rather than constantly scouring travel requests for loose change. Sounds good to me.

(Of course, the thing about Chinese walls is that they get breached. Sooner or later, he who pays the piper will want to call the tune. As I discovered in my time at Proprietary U, the financial folks may be content to be hands-off while things are growing, but they tend to panic and demand changes when the growth cools. But that’s another issue.)

There’s an old joke among economists, who aren’t generally known for jokes. Two economists are walking through the quad. They spy what looks like a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. As the first one bends down to pick it up, the second one says “don’t bother. If it were a real twenty, it would have been picked up by now.” I was reminded of that in reading this piece. If it were really that easy, why hadn’t it already been done?

Follow the money.

Tuition for a year of full-time study is $9,450. At my cc, tuition and fees total well below $4,000. (The article doesn’t mention whether fees are included in the $9,450.)

I think I found the twenty.

A little back-of-the-envelope math should take care of this. Tuition/fees at my cc constitute over half of the operating revenues of the college. (State funding used to be the majority, but it has been dropping severely for several years no matter how you choose to measure it: percentage of college budget, percentage of state budget, inflation-adjusted dollars, or even nominal dollars. And don’t get me started on health insurance costs.) They’re currently well below 4k. If we were to nearly triple the tuition and fees, which already account for more than half of the budget, we’d have money to spare!

Of course, in this political climate, a public institution couldn’t get away with that. But since Americans give private institutions license to do all sorts of things that we’d never let publics get away with, the Ivy Bridge venture gets a pass. Its breathtaking innovation isn’t student service or online education or renewable contracts, all of which exist elsewhere; its breakthrough is in finding a fig leaf for the equivalent of a colossal, otherwise-unthinkable tuition increase. (Bristol Community College’s arrangement with Kaplan University for its Nursing program follows the same model: Bristol handles the academics, but students are charged Kaplan-level tuition.)

Gail Mellow, the President of LaGuardia Community College and one of my personal heroes, has argued for years that what community colleges need more than anything else is funding parity with four-year schools. The folks at Tiffin have found a way to run a two-year college while charging four-year tuition, and getting away with it. I salute their ingenuity and envy their budgets.

Over the long term, I expect to see many more arrangements similar to this one. Quality education is costly. It doesn’t necessarily need to be as costly as it is -- longtime readers have seen me pop off on that once or twice -- but doing it well costs money. Since Americans as voters have decided that it’s immoral to pay real money for any public service that doesn’t involve weaponry, but Americans as consumers have no problem paying for-profit companies several multiples of what their public counterparts charge for the same damn thing, the public-private partnership may give the ideological cover needed to find the funding to do this right. That comes at a cost, of course -- it amounts to a catastrophic regressive transfer of wealth from poor students to wealthy investors, as the students pay higher tuition to support profits for the investors -- but that seems to be the way Americans would prefer to do it. The price people are willing to pay to sustain an ideology should not be underestimated.

Of course, we could just fund publics at reasonable levels, paid for through progressive taxation, and siphon off some of the windfall gains of the wealthy to support quality institutions that don’t burden students with backbreaking debt. Hell, while we’re at it, we could divert money from wars of choice to, say, high-quality subsidized preschools or affordable housing.

Sorry, I slipped into “Swedish” mode for a minute there. I actually wish Ivy Bridge well. It’s not a pretty hybrid, but it may be a more sustainable model in this culture than anything else that has come along. That says more about the culture than it does about the college, but I’ll take what I can get.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

How to Read Salary Ranges

The academic job market differs from most others in any number of ways. Salary ranges are one of the ways that nobody ever talks about.

I'm not referring to the absolute level of salaries; everybody knows that teaching is not the path to great wealth. I'm referring to how 'salary ranges' are handled.

Since I'm writing from the context of a teaching-focused institution, we don't go out of our way to recruit national superstars. We post openings, sift through applications, and hire the best teachers we can find. The Harvard/Princeton model of hiring is simply irrelevant here, as as its salaries.

I'm writing, too, from a union shop. The collective bargaining agreement sets out a rigidly prescriptive formula for determining salaries. The intention is to prevent inequities, though it often also prevents hiring.

In this context, published salary ranges bear almost no relationship to what a new hire can actually expect to get.

That's not because we're lying jerks, or bad at math, or out to screw people over. It's because salary ranges are defined by the highest-paid and lowest-paid people at the college holding that rank. And in a context in which salaries are determined mostly by seniority, it's possible for someone to command a salary at a given rank that has far more to do with how long they've been there than with anything else. Worse, since some fields command salary premiums – Nursing, most obviously – their relatively inflated salaries are included in the published ranges. An Assistant Professor of Nursing in the last year before promotion makes more than a new hire in History ever will.

The problem is that, as a public institution, we have to make our salary ranges public. Candidates frequently see the range, and assume that if the range is, say, from forty to seventy, that they'll get around fifty-five. They won't. In practice, most will land between forty-two and forty-six, depending almost entirely on factors beyond their own control.

Based on some discussions I've had with frustrated candidates, it would have been better if they hadn't seen the range at all. In the corporate world, it's normal to expect to start somewhere in the middle of the range; after all, if you were at the minimum, why would they hire you at all? But here, with a mechanistic grid, that's just not reality. (And heaven help the poor sap who tries to go above the grid for a candidate who seems especially appealing. One of my predecessors tried that, and the union grieved it. It wanted to stop its own members from being paid “too much.” I am not making that up.)

It's one thing to offer an unimpressive salary. It's another to offer an unimpressive to salary to someone who thought she had good reason to expect about ten thousand more.

Unfortunately, in this context, that's the way it has to be. So my free advice for job candidates at unionized schools is to read salary ranges, if at all, as only vaguely relevant. To do otherwise will just set set you up for disappointment.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Vacation Fragments

- Strange juju at home in the weeks before Christmas. A hard drive died, a radio died, the DVR developed a mind of its own, and a cellphone bricked. The electricity gods were clearly angry, though I know not why. (The dvr eventually returned to normal, and the cellphone and radio were still under warranty. The jury is still out on the hard drive.). Or maybe it’s all Comcast’s fault. I prefer that theory.

- TB is on two basketball teams: one CYO and one “in-town.” I hadn’t appreciated the differences until seeing them back-to-back. The caliber of play in the CYO league is tremendously higher than in in-town, which is good and bad. He’s far from the strongest player on his CYO team, but he utterly dominates his in-town games. The confidence boost from in-town has done him good, and the coaching in CYO does him good. It would be lovely if he could get both in the same place, but alas. It’s not his fault his Dad doesn’t know anything about basketball.

- Once in a while, you hear some unambiguously good news. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs. Let’s toast that one this year.

- As regular readers know, I have a love/withering contempt relationship with The New York Times. It has continued its maddening ways with a few recent stories that, for unknown reasons, it failed to connect. First was this story about young college graduates in China who find themselves unable to find work that requires a college degree. Shortly thereafter followed a story about young (and not so young) college graduates in Italy who find themselves unable to find work that requires a college degree. On that same day it ran a story about public employee unions in the US finding themselves under the gun as states face austerity budgets. And I thought, hmm. In every case, excess stability for some people is paid for with excess instability for others. Sooner or later, someone will write about that.

- Several years ago, Eric Klinenberg wrote an unjustly neglected masterpiece called Heat Wave. It detailed the city of Chicago’s response to several weeks of crippling heat in the summer of 1995. His thesis was basically that too much focus on ‘efficiency’ in budgeting left the city first responders too lean to handle an outlying case. I thought of that last week as I read about towns in New Jersey that didn’t get plowed for three or four days after the big storm. Apparently, Gov. Christie’s budget cuts led to layoffs for many of them, effective December 31. Some of the layoff victims decided to stage a “sickout” in this storm, to give the state a taste of life without them. One skimps on disaster preparedness at one’s peril...

- One of the joys of a holiday break is the chance to read stuff just to read stuff. Dirk Hayhurst’s The Bullpen Gospels, based on his experiences as a minor league pitcher, was perfect vacation fodder. I will never see the words “Spiderman” or “Jessica Simpson” the same way again. Some passages aren’t for the easily offended, but the arc -- ‘dark’ to ‘ribald’ to ‘sweet’ -- works. And it paints a picture of baseball as played by actual people, behaving in recognizably human ways. Just don’t read it anyplace where suddenly laughing out loud would be considered inappropriate.

- Jefferson Cowie’s Staying Alive was also worthwhile. It’s a history of the 1970’s in the United States, told mostly from the perspective of the white working class. Some of it was old hat, and some of it a little more inside-baseball than I really cared about, but one part in particular brought me up short. Apparently, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act was originally conceived as the necessary corollary to affirmative action. The idea was that in the absence of full employment, affirmative action would inevitably lead to zero-sum conflicts that would fragment the Democratic party. The act eventually passed, but in such watered-down form that its own supporters largely disowned it. Which, I must admit, explains a hell of a lot about the politics of the subsequent decades.

- Christmas was lovely. We saw grandparents on both sides, ate far too much, partied with cousins, watched Heat Miser and Snow Miser, and actually got some sleep. No lutefisk this year, but not every tradition needs to survive...

- Finally, it’s a pleasure to introduce a new cast member to the blog. We got The Dog over the break, and already it’s hard to remember life without her. She’s a shelter rescue, mixed breed, two years old, and a little shy. The kids have been pining for a pet for a long time, and we ran out of reasons to say no. We found an organization that rescues dogs from “high-kill” shelters in the South and places them in foster homes, pending identification of “forever homes” in the Northeast. (It was the subject of the “Last Chance Highway” tv series.) The Dog had a looonng ride to get here, but we’re hoping it’s her last. If you find your faith in humanity starting to flag, show up in a park and ride lot on a cold morning to watch twenty or so families adopt shelter rescue dogs. The Boy and The Girl have been admirably restrained with The Dog, letting her settle in and (mostly) not overwhelming her; as a parent, I couldn’t be prouder.