Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spiked Cities

I’ve been a fan of Richard Florida’s for several years now. He’s a student of cities who has famously argued that the key to growth is in the “creative class” which tends to cluster in major urban centers. In contrast to Tom Friedman -- admittedly, that’s sort of like contrasting Sonny Rollins to Kenny G -- Florida argues that the world is “spiky.” Cities with high concentrations of creatives are the economic engines of the future; they stand out on charts like spikes.

Having followed Florida on twitter for a while, I’ve noticed that his position goes beyond noting creative clusters. There’s a general pro-urban, anti-suburban flavor to his thought. Add a few bike paths and a vibrant gay community, and you’ve pretty much found his recipe for growth.

Florida’s work strikes me as a really elegant way to contrast New York or Boston with, say, Detroit or Pittsburgh. It also reasserts, correctly, the importance of geography in the digital age. There’s a distinct -- and acknowledged -- echo of Jane Jacobs in his work, updated for the age of the web.

All of that said, though, I can’t help but wonder about the urban/suburban distinction when you get to the second- and third-tier cities; spiked, rather than spiky, cities. It’s one thing to say that lower Manhattan is more culturally interesting than Long Island, and even a better place to raise kids. It’s quite another thing to apply that to, say, Syracuse and its suburbs.

The smaller and declining cities of the Northeast and Midwest -- it may hold true elsewhere, too, but I’ll write whereof I know -- can generate many of the negatives of city life: crime, terrible schools, corrupt government, even a lack of supermarkets. But they do it without many of the advantages that Florida seems to assume come with urbanity: robust cultural life, walkable neighborhoods, the excitement of young people taking chances on startups.

In these settings, it seems to me that suburbs hold a real appeal. Yes, they can be sterile and boring. But the schools are better, the crime is lower, and the hassles of daily life are fewer. You can give your kids decent lives without being wealthy. Car dependency is a real issue, but frankly, most small cities don’t have public transportation at a level anywhere near Manhattan’s.

I bring all this up for a few reasons. One is the basic fact that these lower-tier cities may not have many people individually, but taken together, they and their suburbs encompass a huge proportion of the population. They support the majority of the community colleges in America -- you knew I’d get around to that -- so you can’t really understand community colleges without some sense of the communities they serve. And you’ll have a terrible time understanding American voters if you don’t understand the daily reality in which most of them live and work.

There’s also a real danger of missing the reasons that people make the decisions they do. It’s easy to stereotype suburbanites -- and I’ll admit some truth to some of it -- but if you have an unspectacular income and a couple of kids, there’s a good argument for them.

Fun trivia fact: in which state do most New Jersey residents work? Answer: New Jersey! Suburb-to-suburb commuting is the daily reality for much of the American workforce. The old “spokes of a wheel” pattern -- live in the burbs, commute to the city -- is the exception now. Yes, it’s cool to see cities embrace mixed-use development again, and I hope to see it continue. But the big story is that the suburbs have been going mixed-use for about the last thirty or forty years. The prototypical bedroom community has businesses now, and those businesses have employees.

Seen in this light, the spiky world starts to look less about geography and more about income. And the community college mission of filling the middle class starts to look harder. Cc’s are place-bound, often in places that live in the shadows of Florida’s spikes. While they produce some grads who transfer to elite places, they mass produce grads who are qualified for middle-income jobs. A few doctors, but lots of nurses. A few researchers, but a bunch of high school teachers.

And they do it in settings in which public sectors are struggling to provide even basic services. The economically powerful are able to pit one location against another in the battle for the biggest tax breaks, guaranteeing that the public sector takes a hit everywhere. The employers that hired community college grads in the past are exactly the ones being defunded, just as the colleges themselves are. The spikiest cities may be insanely prosperous, but most of the cities I’ve lived in and near are not. They’re struggling to maintain the basics of civic life, and community colleges are feeling that struggle.

Community colleges, like many of the cities that house them, prospered in the less spiky twentieth century. As much as I like Florida’s analysis, I fear its accuracy; if he’s right -- and I think he is, broadly speaking -- cc’s are at cross-purposes with history. We’re trying to generate a middle class for a country that no longer really wants one.

Bike paths in San Francisco are great, and I enjoy Boston and Seattle as much as anyone. But most of the country is more like Syracuse than Seattle. Spiky cities are great, but spiked cities are everywhere. They were the products of economies that generated a middle class that was the envy of the world. To the extent that community colleges carry those roots in their DNA, I fear they’ll get spiked, too.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Plagiarism, Process, and the Point

This exchange from The New Inquiry has been wending its way around the intertubes of late. (Thanks to @colinized on twitter for flagging it for me.) It’s a dialogue between “Teach,” an adjunct professor of philosophy, and “Cheat,” a term-paper-writer-for-hire. It’s surprisingly thoughtful in its consideration of the motivations behind plagiarism and the ways that faculty deal with it.

The discussion boils down to a sigh. The students don’t see the relevance of what they’re assigned to write about, so they see the requirement as merely arbitrary. Given an arbitrary hurdle to a credential they need for a middle-class life, they find a way around it. The instructor admits that there’s considerably more plagiarism in the class than he bothers to bust, drawing the line only at the most egregious cases. “Cheat” points out, too, that the adjunct’s own marginal standing in his own workplace is a sign that the institution itself doesn’t take his work seriously, and suggests that, at some level, students are picking up on that.

But the showstopper for me was this statement by Cheat: It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days.

To his credit, “Teach” notes that plagiarism pre-dated the web; the web just makes it easier.

The whole thing makes me fidgety, and not only as an administrator.

(The administrator in me bristles at the frontier justice style of enforcement that “Teach” embraces, if only by default. When enforcement depends on mood, “disparate impact” is almost a foregone conclusion. At that point, hellooo lawsuit. Better to have a uniform process.)

It’s true that there’s typically little direct relation between the content of a philosophy paper and the day-to-day tasks on most jobs. (From Hannah and Her Sisters: “How do I know the meaning of life? I don’t even know how the can opener works!”) But it’s not about the content. And that’s why Cheat is trivially right and colossally wrong.

The point of philosophy papers isn’t the content; it’s the process. It’s the work that goes into coming to grips with difficult questions in a rigorous way.

While the exact questions addressed in that paper may never come up again in the student’s life, the process of wrestling with a difficult question almost certainly will. The point of teaching philosophy is to give students the chance to practice those skills in the relative safety of the academic environment.

Students who outsource their papers short-circuit the entire enterprise, and not only for themselves. To the extent that they go undetected, or unpunished, they raise the cost of experimentation for the honest students. They blow the curve, thereby discouraging honest students from going out on risky limbs. That’s why I’m absolutely old-school when it comes to policing plagiarism. It cuts to the heart of the academic enterprise. Put differently: if we academics don’t take writing seriously, why should anybody else?

The argument about adjunct status strikes me as similarly misplaced. It mistakes compensation for the nature of the task at hand. The task at hand is to teach philosophy. Doing that well requires taking the class seriously, and conveying to the students why they should take it seriously. If you’re unwilling to do that, for whatever reason, don’t teach the class.

The cynicism underlying the piece is based on the conceit that the entire educational enterprise is a sham, an elaborate euphemism for crass instrumentalism. The cynic says that the way to ‘win’ in that setting is to cut to the chase first. If it’s all about the Benjamins, then he who gets to the Benjamins first wins. But that doesn’t leave you anywhere to go. Okay, education is bullshit and you got paid. Now what?

No. I don’t buy for a minute the argument that the internet has rendered individual writing irrelevant. If anything, I’d go the other way with it. The internet has enabled incredible flows of information, opinion, and argument. Making sense of those flows requires highly developed critical reading and thinking skills. What makes classes -- as opposed to websites or twitter feeds -- useful is that they offer the increasingly rare chance to slow down and focus on one thing.

I had a professor once who said that there are two philosophies of teaching: you can cover, or you can uncover. In the age of rampant information, I see the “covering” function as less relevant, and the “uncovering” function as far more. But students aren’t going to learn to uncover what’s going on in an argument unless they spend serious time engaging with them. And that means forgetting about copy-and-paste for a while and actually doing the work. I won’t get fit by paying someone to exercise for me; I won’t get smarter by paying someone to think for me. Sometimes you have to do it yourself. And some students need that pointed out. That was true before the web, and it’s just as true now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

ABE, ESL, and Financial Aid

Why doesn’t financial aid cover adult basic education?

My college’s community has a significant population of adults whose first language isn’t English. Many of them face severely limited employment options as a result. The community also has significant numbers of people with limited literacy and basic math skills.

The college offers a series of responses to these needs. It offers developmental courses in math and English, and credit-bearing courses in English as a Second Language (ESL). It also offers non-credit ESL courses -- starting at a lower level -- and it contracts with some local literacy agencies to run Adult Basic Education courses (ABE) in reading and very basic math. The ABE courses are “below” the developmental level, so they’re run outside of the semester/credit system.

Developmental and credit-bearing ESL courses are eligible for financial aid, as long as the students declare that they’re degree-seeking. (The term of art is “matriculated.”) ABE courses, including the ESL versions, are not eligible for financial aid. Outside of a few small grants, ABE programs have to be self-supporting or close to it. That means that the supply consistently trails the demand. The courses run small -- the students need them that way -- and the waitlists are enormous.

Some students appear to have figured out that the way to get around the waitlists is to declare themselves degree-seeking and to enroll in the lowest level of credit-bearing ESL. Financial aid covers it, and they get top-notch instruction. They get through part of the sequence but leave before finishing, often with perfectly decent grades, having gotten what they actually wanted.

And here’s where it gets sticky.

Since the students declared themselves degree-seeking for financial aid purposes, when they leave, they count as attrition. When I’ve asked the ESL department about their attrition numbers, they’ve responded that many of the students never really meant to get a degree in the first place.

Um, okay, but there’s this pesky issue of financial aid fraud, not to mention legislators looking askance at what appear to be distressingly high attrition rates...

If the ABE programs were eligible for financial aid, we wouldn’t have this problem. Students who just wanted to learn enough English to talk to their children’s teachers and get along at work could take the ABE courses honestly, and the credit-bearing ESL courses would be reserved for students who are actually trying to get degrees.

But for reasons I can’t explain, we’ve decided as a country that helping immigrants learn English is a lower priority than, say, incarcerating them. And we put the smarter ones in a position where lying about their intentions is the best way to get help. To put the cherry on the sundae, we then punish community colleges for the resultant high ‘attrition’ rates.

This is madness.

My modest proposal: let’s fund ABE programs at some reasonable level, so people who just need to pick up some quick English can do so honestly and then go about the business of integrating into the larger society. Yes, there’s an upfront cost, but compared to incarceration, rehab, and all the costs of persistent poverty, it seems like a pretty good deal. And let’s stop saying, with dollars, that the only way to get help with your education is to pretend that you’re in it for the long haul. As long as we have a substantial immigrant population -- and we do -- it’s worth getting this right.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Yes, College is Worth It

A quick thought experiment: if you were offered your tuition back -- minus any financial aid -- in return for surrendering your bachelor’s degree -- and any graduate degrees thereafter -- would you take it? Just to make things interesting, let’s say that along with returning the credentials, you also have to surrender any intellectual strength you built in college, along with any jobs that required college (and/or higher) degrees and the money you made in them. In return, you would get the money you would have made and experience you would have gained with the jobs you could have had right out of high school.

Would you take the deal?

The flavor of the month on the interwebs is the suggestion that college is not worth the trouble. The usual critique combines concern about student loans, academic rigor and the lack thereof, the job market and relative lack thereof, and general distaste for higher education as a system. Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, has made headlines by offering high-achieving high school students a pile of cash to stay out of college for at least two years, and to use that cash to start their own businesses. He’s trying to prove that it’s all about animal spirits, rather than skills.

Those who oppose the flavor of the month have all manner of reasons. David Leonhardt did a nice summary of some of them in the New York Times yesterday, noting that while incomes for college grads haven’t risen as quickly as they once did, incomes for high school grads have dropped sharply. Given a choice between “slowly improving” and “going to hell in a handbasket,” one could be forgiven for choosing the former.

From a strictly economic perspective, it’s counterintuitive to suggest that the way to survive a nasty recession is to hit the job market with nothing more than a high school diploma. Yes, it’s possible to find people who can make that work, and that’s great, but the odds are tough. And with the desiccation of the unionized industrial sector that once made it possible to support a middle-class family without a degree, options that may have made sense fifty years ago just don’t now. If anything, I’d suggest that this is the worst time in American history to hit the job market without a college degree. The real story is economic polarization, not anything colleges do or don’t do.

The elements of truth in the critique don’t require junking higher education; they just require knowing how to play the game. Yes, student loan burdens are a real problem. To my mind, that suggests that the nothing-special, private, high-cost, tuition-driven colleges are in for a rough ride, and the for-profits may have to watch their step. But using the cost of a year at Bennington to suggest that a community college is a waste of money is just sloppy reasoning. The costs are an order of magnitude apart. Most public colleges and universities -- even the ones with national reputations -- are still dramatically cheaper than their private counterparts for those who live in-state.

One way to test the truth of the proposition that college isn’t worth it is to observe elite behavior. Are applications to Stanford dropping? Is Harvard going begging? Are the Fortune 500 recruiting at public high schools across America?

I didn’t think so.

The whole enterprise just smells to me like the latest variation on “let’s privatize Social Security” or “let’s replace Medicare with vouchers.” It’s the wealthy and their worshippers sloughing off any social obligation, basically dropping the ladder behind them. If that weren’t the case, if they actually believed what they said, I’d expect to see the best and brightest from Choate and Philips Exeter eschewing college and doing startups or joining the military instead. Um, no.

Obviously, the virtues of college go beyond the strictly economic. I’m shying away from that argument, since it can be applied to just about anything.

And I’ll draw a distinction between “college is for everyone,” which I don’t believe, and “college should be an option for everyone,” which I do. The latter suggests that some folks will never take the option, and that’s fine. And some people who are perfectly capable of benefiting from college may not be capable at 18; they may need to live some life first, and come back with a sense of purpose. That’s fair.

But I’m wary of elites telling teenagers to avoid education for their own good. If they actually believed that, why do those same elites keep sending their own kids to college?

Friday, June 24, 2011


When I was a kid, the first real graduation ceremony came at the end of high school. The second was at the end of college.

Now, graduations are everywhere. Yesterday The Boy graduated from the fourth grade. (Officially, it was a “moving up” ceremony, since fifth grade is held in a different building, but everyone called it graduation.)

It’d be easy to do the standard “Kids Today...” rant, so I won’t. If anything, the fourth grade version was much sweeter than the college version.

The dress code for the kids broke pretty clearly along gender lines; most of the girls wore pretty dresses, and most of the boys looked like they had just rolled out of bed. (To his credit, TB was dapper.) Since the ceremony was held in the un-air-conditioned cafetorium, nobody wore caps and gowns. The kids performed several songs as a chorus, including choreography and mass playing of recorders. The audio was terrible, the room dimly lit, and the cafeteria tables and benches uncomfortable and sticky.

But they did a slideshow that broke my heart. They showed a baby picture of a student, without a name, and wrote under it that student’s career ambition. Then they showed a current picture of the student, with his/her name. (Apparently, in 2000-1 someone passed a law that all girls had to be named Madison, Sophia, or Kayla. There wasn’t a Jennifer, Susan, or Ann in the entire fourth grade. And Hunter is the new Brian.) The combination of baby pictures, kid pictures, and career ambitions was better than any graduation speaker I’ve ever seen.

To judge from the slideshow, about twenty years from now we’ll be amply supplied with veterinarians, video game designers, teachers, basketball players, and -- surprisingly -- engineers. One kid wanted to be an “astroveterinarian,” which I assume would involve tending to ailing aliens. (“Open, uh, an orifice and say “ahhh...”) Another kid just wanted to own a mansion. One identified “rock star,” and one brave soul named “anything.”

We don’t do that in college. At this level, graduation is about the institution bestowing something upon recipients who have shown themselves worthy. In the fourth grade, it’s more like celebrating each individual kid, and trying to capture the memory before they get even taller.

Afterwards, we took TB and The Girl out to lunch to celebrate. The Girl, all of six, used air quotes correctly in doing a spot-on imitation of her art teacher. (“She tells us that if we talk while we’re painting, we lose (air quote) our power (air quote).” We all laughed out loud, even knowing we really shouldn’t.) Grandma, visiting for the occasion, presented TB with a “build your own skeleton hand” kit, which he had assembled by the end of the day, and which he used to pet the dog.

If this is what the next generation looks like, I feel much better about the future. And if this is what a fourth-grade graduation looks like, then I officially renounce the “Kids Today” huffing about graduations.

Rock on, TB. The fifth grade won’t know what hit it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Chairing at the Hotel California

A long-suffering correspondent writes

I am long serving chair at a CC, and no one in my division wants to run for the position. In fact, it is a widespread problem at my college. With a few overloads, faculty can actually make more money teaching than they can as a chair, but our complaints to the administration fall on deaf ears. When an impasse is reached, the administration threatens to appoint someone from outside the division, so I get stuck with another term, taking on more responsibility without any additional compensation or release time. BTW, I am not really that great of an administrator. I am just the least incompetent person available. Any advice?

Like the song says, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Actually, though, you can.

Lower-level administrative positions, like department chairmanships or associate deanships, can really suck. You get saddled with all kinds of work, and the pay bump, relative to teaching, is usually either negligible or negative. This can make recruitment a real problem.

Since the obvious answer -- increase the pay bump until the position becomes attractive enough -- isn’t culturally acceptable, especially at the cc level, people tend to take the jobs for other reasons. Some actually enjoy the work, or take it as a needed break from teaching. Some are control freaks. Some see it as testing the administrative waters. Some do it out of fear of the catastrophes that would ensue if someone else did it -- these are the good soldiers whose work either mitigates or enables an unsustainable structure.

Having been the administrator with deaf ears before, I can attest that sometimes none of the available options is very good. Okay, you step down; now what? Assuming that the resources aren’t there to hire a new full-timer from the outside as a chair -- and if you reward dysfunction with resources, you will open the floodgates of dysfunction -- then you either have to accept a substandard chair or face a department without a chair. (The issue with that is that the work doesn’t go away just because the worker does.) Sometimes a chairless department can be put under the protective custody of a nearby department, though that often brings resentment if it’s for more than a year. I’ve even seen deans attempt to run departments themselves, though I’ve never resorted to that personally and don’t recommend it.

In the best case, a not-too-abrupt resignation sets in motion a series of candid conversations about the state of the department. Does the department actually need to be freestanding? If it does, then what does it tend to do to own its status? If it’s unwilling to do that work, then what, exactly, does it propose? It could go to a “co-chair” model, which can work if there’s a clear and logical way to split the duties -- say, one handles the adjuncts and the other handles the labs. It could go to a rotation system, in which everybody takes a turn for a pre-set number of years. Or it could decide that chairing just isn’t worth the trouble, and propose a merger with another department with relatively solid leadership.

The nightmare scenario is that you resign abruptly, and someone power-hungry but incompetent steps in and does untold damage. Assuming that’s not the case, though, I’d suggest telegraphing your resignation early to give the department and the administration a year to come up with a new plan. If you say now that you’ll step down next June, then you’ve given ample opportunity to everyone involved to come up with something without a gun to their heads. You’ll have to put up with one more year, but it sounds like you’d need to do that anyway, and you’ll have the consolation of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes well, people can have a badly-needed discussion before it’s a crisis.

Good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way?

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Mandatory Workshops

An annoyed correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct at a community college. My community college recently instituted a requirement that everyone who teaches an online class take an eight hour workshop, which is quite burdensome. I understand you cannot offer any specific legal advice, but by requiring a specific workshop taught only by the college, isn't the college asking me to act as an employee, rather than as contractor? It seems like there's a blog post in here about what colleges can and cannot require adjuncts to do.

In my specific case, I don't want to do it both because the workshop conflicts with my other job (so I have to burn eight hours of vacation time) but also because the workshop is probably worthless....

I’ll open by saying I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t address the finer points of employment law.

That said, it’s pretty common practice among colleges to require training on the web platform used for online classes. That becomes particularly important when a college “migrates” from one platform to another, as we’re doing this year.

I’ll discuss how we do it where I am, and then open up the comments to see if others have found good ways to handle it.

Both the adjuncts and the full-time faculty here are unionized, so questions like these are collectively bargained. The union has agreed that adjuncts can be “required” to attend one meeting per semester as a condition of employment; we don’t typically enforce that beyond the first semester, but the option is there. For something like this, where a one-hour meeting is unlikely to address the issue, we pay a stipend.

Even with that, of course, there are issues. Some people need all the training they can get, while others already know quite well what they’re doing. In the case of something like a web platform, some of our adjuncts have already learned that platform at the other places they teach, and they may have already been using it for years. The most elegant solution I’ve seen to that is to find an online training with a certificate of completion at the end; if you’re already fluent enough that you can blast through a six hour program in thirty minutes, more power to you. Present certificate, receive check, end of discussion.

Theoretically, one could simply leave the training up to the initiative of the instructor. Ten years from now, online education will probably by commonplace enough -- and the platforms streamlined enough -- that that may be a realistic option. But for the moment, the issues of quality control are serious enough that I wouldn’t recommend it. The problem is that newbies don’t know what they don’t know, until a mob of angry students storms the dean’s office. At that point, the damage is done.

In terms of the legal issue, I don’t know of any legal prohibition against paying adjuncts for workshops. Yes, there are issues to address around uniformity, but we address those as a matter of course. The legal issue I’m concerned with is a “permatemp” claim, not a complaint about a one-day workshop.

That’s how it works here, anyway. Wise and worldly readers, how does your campus handle workshops for adjuncts?

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Transfer as a Get Out of Jail Free Card

This piece in Salon has drawn some attention lately. It's a recounting of an academic advisor's usual responses to parents who ask, regarding their children who have chosen liberal arts majors, what they're going to do with that. The piece basically sides with the parents, noting that the combination of a backbreaking recession, what Richard Florida calls a “reset,” and record-high student loan burdens makes the usual question much more relevant than it once was. The author wrings her hands a bit, but essentially concludes that the folks asking the question have a much more valid point than most academics would like to admit.

I'll confess that one of the perks of working at a community college is that we have an easy answer for that one. You use the liberal arts major to transfer. What happens after that, you can discuss with the destination school. Next!

The great virtue of this answer is that it's true. Although the 'workforce development' side of things gets most of the attention, the largest major on campus is the transfer major. It's built around gen ed requirements, and that's by design. It's supposed to fulfill the distribution requirements for most liberal arts majors, and to give students a chance to sample electives in various disciplines while they're here. The idea is that when they move on, they will receive full credit for the first two years of their four-year degree, and will have done so at much lower cost. And we have articulation agreements and statewide mandates to ensure that this actually happens.

I know I shouldn't make predictions, but I'll venture a pretty conservative one: I hereby predict...and you can hold me to this...that the cost of four-year colleges will continue to go up. And since they're starting from a dramatically higher base than most nearby cc's, even smaller percentage increases will amount to larger absolute increases. (That is, five percent of $50,000 is more than ten percent of $3,000.) Put differently, the cost savings of a cc – as opposed to the first two years of the typical four-year school – will continue to increase.

As long as that's true, I'd expect to see the transfer function continue to thrive. Intro to Psych doesn't change dramatically from one college to another, so why not take it where it's affordable and convenient?

That's not to say that evasion is the only answer, of course. We all know the usual responses to “what are you going to do with that?” Communication skills are crucial in any professional job; you need to learn how to learn; adaptability is key in a rapidly-changing economy; it’s good in itself to be a well-educated person. Those are all true, as far as they go. I’d also add that chasing this year’s hot field is a serious roll of the dice; these things are notoriously cyclical. In the 90’s, petroleum engineers were not hot at all; now, they can write their own tickets. A few years ago, new nurses were rock stars; now, they have to scrap like everybody else. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t study something hot, of course; if you love what you’re doing, you stand a good chance of succeeding whichever way the wind blows. If you want to be a nurse because that’s what you’ve always wanted to be, then by all means, go for it. You’ll be the nurse I’ll want to have. But if you’re doing it because it’s the only way you can see to make money, I’d recommend pausing to reconsider.

From the provider’s perspective, the two-year perch is a pretty good place to be. You wouldn’t know it from the popular discussion, but the liberal arts disciplines live remarkably guilt-free (or angst-free, if you prefer) at the two-year level. Sometimes I forget how oppressive that vague sense of guilt can be at higher levels.

Wise and worldly readers, have you developed an elegant answer to “what are you going to do with that?”

Monday, June 20, 2011


The always-interesting Tenured Radical has a worthwhile post on the priorities that “development” (that is, fundraising) offices tend to have in higher ed. Her particular focus is high-profile athletics, and she asks the time-honored (and still valid) question of why development offices are much quicker to raise money for bigtime sports than for, say, English departments.

In the community college world that I know, half of her question doesn’t apply. The sports programs here are small, cheap, and low-profile; in budgetary terms, they’re negligible. No skyboxes or six-figure coaches’ salaries here. (For that matter, there’s no football team at all.)

But there is a development office, and there are serious budgetary challenges. Is it realistic to assume that we can offload faculty salaries onto “endowed” positions, and use the savings to plug the budgetary gap?

Um, no. Not by a long shot.

The first issue is legal; in my state, as in many others, community colleges are legally forbidden from carrying endowments. We work around that, to some degree, with a dedicated “foundation” that can set up endowments, but the foundation isn’t allowed by law to pay for operating expenses (that is, salaries) of the college. It mostly endows scholarships, and occasionally covers buildings or lab equipment. (Those are considered ‘capital,’ as opposed to ‘operating,’ so they’re fair game.) Scholarships are of great value to the students who receive them, but from the college’s perspective, they don’t help much. They probably reduce financial aid outlays somewhat, but we charge students less than the cost of educating them, so enabling more students to attend tends not to solve major financial issues.

Capital outlays certainly help. The foundation here has picked up the cost of some fairly expensive lab equipment that probably would have otherwise come out of general revenues. That’s welcome. And naming rights for buildings can generate significant donations that help defray the cost of their construction. These are to the good, but they don’t pay for faculty. It’s easier to raise money for a building than for the people who would work in it.

Even if the legal issue were lifted, though, there’d still be the issue of donor preference. Donors tend to respond to success, rather than to need, which is why philanthropy often results in the rich getting richer. They also have a strong preference for making a difference that they can see. That tends to favor conspicuous and name-able things, like buildings and scholarships, and tends to disfavor something as squishy as the operating budget.

There’s also a question of incentives. If donors started contributing to operating budgets in significant ways, I’ve got ten bucks that says that the state would cut our appropriation even faster than it already is, and would tell us to make up the difference with donors. In other words, rather than actually solving the problem, we’d dig a deeper long-term hole.

All of this, of course, assumes that donors’ preferences don’t do anything to influence academic decision-making. At this level, that has been true, but that’s because the funding remains at a safe remove from operations. Once they start covering operations, well, he who pays the piper will sometimes try to call the tune. Build whatever “Chinese walls” you want; over time, the force of economic gravity will work its will. It always does.

I’m trying to identify ways to use donor funding to offset certain operating cuts without ignoring the raw facts of visibility and difference-making. Some colleges have a “Center for Teaching Excellence” model, in which donor funding covers professional development funding -- travel grants, mostly -- for faculty. I’d like to get something like that running here. It wouldn’t make an overwhelming difference in the operating budget, since travel funding is thin to begin with, but it would at least insulate travel funding somewhat from the whims of the legislature.

These are sensitive issues, since nobody wants to disparage or discourage what are, at the end of the day, acts of voluntary generosity that do real good. But just as I don’t believe that we can reverse the adjunct trend just by yelling indignantly at administrators -- if that worked, it would have worked by now -- I don’t believe we can make fundamental changes in donor preferences just by telling the development office to drop the football fetish.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Rare Moment of Sanity in Congress

Recently, the Federal Education Department promulgated new rules -- ostensibly motivated by concerns about abuses in the for-profit sector of higher ed -- requiring colleges that offer distance education programs to be licensed in any state in which they have students, or risk losing Title IV money. It also promulgated an attempted standard definition of a “credit hour.”

Both of these rules were terribly wrongheaded and counterproductive. I was surprised and pleased to read yesterday that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed H.R. 2117, which would block both regulations and would prevent any federal standardization of the credit hour.

As regular readers know, I’m no fan of the credit hour. In the age of distance education, project-based education, and all manner of self-directed study, tying funding to an early twentieth century construct based on butts in seats makes no sense. A strict reading of the regulation as promulgated is that it would make productivity increases illegal. A given amount of student achievement is supposed to take x amount of time; if you manage to get it done in less, you’re presumed to be somehow cheating. It may be possible to come up with a more effective way to prevent innovation, but it would take real effort. Given that tuition increases are a public concern, this is exactly wrong.

The distance education licensing requirement wasn’t as awful conceptually, but it threatened ridiculous deadweight costs. In a recent statewide meeting with my counterparts at other campuses, we spent about an hour trying to figure out how to comply with the mandate. As the regulation reads, if a school in Delaware gets a single online student from California, then it has to undergo California’s licensing process.

Under that scheme, states have every incentive for de facto protectionism. They wouldn’t have to call it that, of course; they could just enact byzantine licensing requirements with high fees, and then take their sweet, sweet time processing applications. Since the regulation did not allow for interstate reciprocity -- astounding, and probably unconstitutional, but true -- every single college would have to approach the other 49 states one at a time. This, in the name of what, exactly?

Ironically enough, the institutions most capable of handling the new regs were actually the larger for-profits, since they’re already interstate anyway. The University of Phoenix could comply without breaking a sweat, but the typical community college couldn’t. If rogue for-profits are the problem, this is hardly the solution.

If they wanted to make themselves truly useful, the feds could stop mucking around in issues they obviously don’t understand, and instead tie state-level eligibility for Title IV to maintenance-of-effort requirements for state subsidies to public higher ed. (The mechanism is essentially a grant-in-aid; that’s much the same way the feds got the states to raise the drinking age just before I turned 18. Thanks, guys.) If a state wants its students to have access to federal financial aid, that state would have to commit to funding its public higher ed at a minimum of some specified level. The logic, straightforwardly enough, is that higher subsidies can keep tuitions down, and thereby keep student loan burdens down. Better, this approach would actually reward innovation, rather than banning it; colleges that found ways to teach more efficiently would reap material rewards, and colleges that didn’t would continue a slow bleed.

In the meantime, I’m hopeful that this bill passes the full House and eventually makes its way to law. I’d much rather have my cc spend its limited resources on innovative teaching than on the paperwork hoops of 49 other states. Kneecapping public higher ed is not the way to get the for-profits under control; if anything, it just gives them an even larger opening than they already have. If you want to get the for-profits under control, the single best way is to beef up the publics. Give the for-profits real competition. But if you can’t or won’t do that, at least stop doing active harm.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Seniors and Seniors

Our population of seniors is declining, but our senior population is exploding.

Historically, high schools have been among our largest feeders. This should be no surprise. Over time, our enrollments have generally tracked fairly closely the enrollment of high school seniors in the area. The local high school senior population peaked two years ago, and is projected to decline fairly steadily for the next several years. By itself, that suggests some enrollment challenges in the coming years, especially as the shockwave of enrollments that accompanied the Great Recession gradually recedes.

The one demographic that’s really growing in this neck of the woods, and expected to continue to grow, is senior citizens. Historically, although we’ve usually had a few senior citizen students, they’ve formed a tiny percentage of our overall enrollments.

A few of us are starting to wonder if there’s a way to serve this new kind of senior.

The few senior citizens we’ve had as students have been well-received over the years. They take classes because they want to, and they bring life experience to class discussions. (King Lear reads differently if you have daughters.) They tend to cluster either in the liberal arts or in “I’ve always wanted to...” areas, like culinary. They’re much less common in criminal justice or business administration.

They get a significant discount, so they aren’t terribly lucrative, but as any political scientist can tell you, they vote at very high rates. There’s an argument to be made that having local senior citizens identify the college as having something for them can only be to our long-term benefit. They also frequently carry great weight as advisors within families; if Grandpa had a great experience recently at the local cc, the grandkids will probably hear about it. They’re also frequently well-connected within the community. In terms of building allies and community support, this is not to be dismissed lightly. Besides, since the mission of the college involves serving the community, there’s a clear upfront argument for serving the community as it exists.

The trick is in figuring out how to offer services in ways that make sense to more seniors.

Most of them aren’t looking for employment, or if they are, it’s along the lines of “I’ve always wanted to...” part-time jobs. They don’t have the focus on getting a good full-time job that the 19 year olds have. Some want to get degrees to prove that they could, but many either don’t focus on that or already have degrees.

I’ve seen one-off “senior days,” in which a college contracts with some local groups to bring a bunch of people to campus for a day of programming. At my last college, I used to participate in those every year, and they were wonderful. I’m hopeful that we can do that here, too. But a one-day event is a one day event.

I’m kind of casting about for ideas. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective and constructive way for a college to provide services to a local senior citizen population? If you’ve been involved in something like that, what made it work? Did you learn anything that you wish you had known at the start?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who the Students Are, Part 1

Over 90 percent of our online students aren’t online students.

They’re onsite students who also take online classes. They use online classes to round out their schedules and reduce conflicts with work. In most cases, the majority of their coursework is onsite. The pure “online student” is very much the exception.

From what I’ve seen at other cc’s, my cc is pretty typical in this respect. While many cc’s offer online classes, they haven’t resulted in vast numbers of students logging on from points unknown. They mostly result in students being able to fit in all of their classes before 1:00 so they can go to work.

Most of us in the trenches know this, but the public discussion of online education seems to ignore it. From popular discussion, you’d think that online students were all “pure,” all thirty years old, and logging on after the kids were in bed. Those students exist, but they’re a distinct minority.

Unfortunately, the accrediting agencies are thoroughly in the grip of the stereotype. This does more damage than they know.

The regional accreditors -- and I’ll admit that I’ve only worked with three of them -- have very different criteria for “online programs” than they have for “online courses.” Offering a stray online section here and there is not terribly difficult. Show that you’re adhering to the same academic standards and learning outcomes, show some assessment measures to back it up, and you’re mostly good. (There’s more, but you get the idea.) But run an entire program, and you suddenly have to show not only that you’re meeting the same student learning outcomes, but that you’re providing student services similar to what an onsite student would receive. If you have, say, a counseling office on campus, then you need online counseling services. If you have student activities onsite, then you need student organizations online. Financial aid, academic advising, registration, library services, tutoring -- anything you offer onsite, you have to offer online. (They seem to make an exception for athletics, mercifully.)

The theory seems to be that online students are awarded the same degree, so they should get the same education. And it’s hard to argue with the logic of having, say, online math tutoring available if you’re running online math sections.

But ramping up every campus service to a comparable level online is a significant cost, and it’s based on a false assumption. It’s based on the assumption that there are two distinct groups -- traditional students and online students -- and they each stick to their own camp. This is simply not reality.

Since our online offerings have continued to grow, we’ve beefed up online offerings in several key support areas. Other than registration, which really should have gone online for everyone by now, they’ve been significantly underused. The 90-plus percent of “online students” who regularly come to campus to take their other courses use on-campus offices to transact their other business. If they need to work with the Financial Aid office, they go when they’re here. If they need something from the library, they go when they’re here. Oddly, we’ve found that even online math students often come for in-person tutoring, rather than using the more convenient online service.

From the student’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. “Online” is less a brave new world than a scheduling convenience. One of the benefits of that convenience is that students are free to do their other business as needed. But the popular discussion of online education hasn’t figured that out, and neither have the accreditors.

In a time of budget struggles, it’s frustrating to have to devote scarce resources to establishing separate-but-equal parallel services that most online students don’t use anyway. It’s a waste of staff, and it’s based on an assumption about who the students are that simply isn’t true.

Yes, it’s conceivable that a student could use online courses to stay off campus entirely. But most don’t. Could we please make rules around the students we actually have?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Should I Run for Chair?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a rather new full time faculty member at a community college. I have not been here long enough to qualify to run for chairperson of my department. My dean has expressed to me that he wants me to run for this position. I love teaching and really don't feel that this is the direction I want to take right now. Further, most of my department is off contract currently and I feel that if I were elected chair, this would serve to divide the department.

Would it be wiser to to run for chair rather than refuse?

Part of me thinks that “I have not been here long enough to qualify” pretty much answers the question. Why run if you’re forbidden to win?

But assuming that the phrase is meant figuratively, I’d still advise not running.

A couple of weeks ago IHE published a piece on staffing trends in higher education in the US in which it noted that tenure-track faculty positions have declined by nine percent, and academic management positions (deans and higher) had declined by twenty percent over the last decade. The so-called “administrative bloat” wasn’t actually administrative; it was concentrated in IT, with some support in Financial Aid and student services. On the academic side, the full-time administrative ranks have declined. In practice, that tends to mean an increased number of opportunities (or burdens, depending on your preference) for the faculty who remain to pick up a course release or two by filling in some of the gaps. In the coming years, I’d expect no shortage of opportunities to step up on the administrative side without actually crossing over.

My hunch is that your dean was doing a hamhanded job of complimenting you. Some perfectly wonderful professors make awful department chairs, because the skill sets involved are so different. Chairs typically need to be even-tempered and good at finding imperfect-but-workable solutions. Some people have that profile and some don’t. I’m guessing that you do, and that your dean has noticed. Since your dean mentioned it, I’m also guessing that some of the eligible local candidates don’t have that profile. So it goes.

(One of the many banes of my existence is the department with nobody willing to chair. Since creating a brand-new full-time position for a new chair just isn’t the local reality, there’s no elegant way around this. That’s one reason why newer folk who seem grounded sometimes get recruited a little earlier than would be optimal.)

The good news is that your talents will still be there in a few years. Better, at that point you may be a more palatable choice politically within the department than you would be now, thereby making relative success more likely. Since many of the duties pretty much rely on people’s willingness to take you seriously, it’s better if you don’t come in under a perceived cloud. If you’re happy in your current role and want to solidify your standing in that role, I don’t see a downside.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should he bide time or go for it?

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

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ask the Administrator: A Budding Young Economist...

A longtime correspondent writes

My oldest, 16, mentioned the other day that he's thinking about going to community college before heading to a four-year school. He's very into economics, so the cost savings piece of attending a cc was the main argument he made. From my standpoint as his parent, I also know he's not the strongest student (though he's incredibly smart) and needs some time to mature before being thrown in headlong into a residential program with all its attendant distractions. My question for you is how does one go about finding a good community college? We're in an area with many, many options. Does one look at them the same way one looks at 4-year schools? Do some cc's have residential options? Will he be bored with classes if he's taken all honors classes in high school? I suspect when it comes time to consider colleges, we will be exploring both 2- and 4- year options. What I know is the four-year world.

Variations on this question pop up from time to time, but it’s worth revisiting.

In true “economist” fashion, I’ll open with “it depends.” It sounds like his purpose in going to a cc is to transfer, so you’d be looking for cc’s with strong transfer records. If maturity is the issue, I wouldn’t recommend looking at residential options; the “attendant distractions” would be just as bad there as anyplace else. I’m guessing that an optimal plan would involve living at home, minimizing both paid work hours and student loan debt, and focusing strongly on academics. If he plays his cards right, he may even be able to swing a transfer scholarship after two years, reducing the total cost even more.

Since the Great Recession started, we’ve been seeing more students like these. These are the kids who might have gone directly to four-year schools in years past, but who have been essentially priced out of them. If they play the game right, they can do very well.

I’d recommend looking for the following features at the cc’s in your area:

1. The transfer coordinator. If they ask “what’s that?,” walk away.
2. The Honors program.
3. At least one, and preferably more than one, full-time economist on the faculty, since that’s your son’s area of interest.

Some cc’s also have Learning Communities, which can be wonderful challenges for talented students. It would also be worth stopping by Student Life and finding out about the clubs and organizations available on campus. Typically, the range will be somewhat less than you’d find at a four-year school, but the better ones will surprise you.

If you get in touch with the transfer coordinator, I’d strongly encourage you to ask about the recent track record with destination colleges, as well as any articulation agreements with the destination schools you have in mind. For a reality check, you might want to talk to the Admissions departments at some of the local four-years to see what their feeders are. In some regions, different cc’s will develop informal specialties, so it would be worth hearing from the destination colleges as to which cc’s they prefer.

Given the cost advantage of most community colleges, they have to make up the difference somewhere, and that’s typically in dorms, athletics, and extras. Most cc’s won’t have football Saturdays, climbing walls, or breathtaking architecture. (Brutalism is overrepresented, tragically.) You kind of have to accept that as the price of admission. But for a student who needs to focus on academics, that isn’t necessarily bad.

In terms of statistics, I wouldn’t focus on graduation rates, since those tend to tell you more about the demographics of the community than about the quality of instruction. I’d look at numbers of students who transfer successfully. If they’re got a well-worn pipeline going to places you’d like your son to be, you’re in the right place.

Good luck! Whether he goes this route or not, I hope your son finds a good fit.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

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

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bertie Goes to College

Several alert readers pointed me this week to the launch of the New College of the Humanities in England. Although much of what I’ve read about it has been maddeningly vague, it seems to be a for-profit enterprise in which students will be charged premium tuition for access to courses (though not yet degrees, apparently) in humanistic disciplines, with a smattering of employment skills.

Though details remain sketchy, it looks like the business model relies on drive-by lectures by famous people for the marketing appeal, and actual instruction by adjuncts to keep costs down. Given that it costs several multiples of what British universities typically charge, I can only imagine P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster -- more money than brains -- as the prototypical student.

I’m drawn to the story because it combines a few of my pet obsessions. As regular readers know, I’ve held for a while now that the Next Big Thing will be the upscale proprietary. This appears to be a varation on that. The story also gives me an opportunity to name-check Wodehouse, which doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

(Bonus to Wodehouse fans: check out Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. Quoting from memory: “People accuse me of loathing work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could watch other people work for hours.”)

I don’t see the British model working in its current form, though it’s likely to evolve quickly. The only American attempt I’ve seen -- Founders College -- crashed and burned within a year. But one failed implementation does not disprove a concept.

An upscale proprietary could work, I suspect, if it combined very selective admissions with low class sizes, an extremely narrow set of curricular choices, hotel-style student housing, and a clear identity. The “hear occasional lectures by famous people” hook won’t cut it, since anyone who wants to can go online and subscribe to TED talks for free. The structure would have to be intensely student-centered, with the hook being something like “project-based from day one.” The value proposition, aside from the self-fulfilling value of exclusivity, would be that if offers what the online world can’t. I’m envisioning something close to “spend four years in close quarters with smart people doing self-directed projects.”

In the meantime, though, the for-profits have clustered mostly on the low end of the prestige hierarchy, competing with community colleges. The community colleges have a significant cost advantage that would be even more significant if they didn’t keep taking body blows from state budgets. But either way, the open-admissions end of the market is amply covered. But I don’t think that celebrity guests are enough, at this point, to claim prestige.

So no, I don’t see the new British version working in its current form, but I’m fascinated at the attempt. I consider it version 1.2 of the idea; version 2.0 will be the breakthrough. (Any VC’s looking to make a splash, I’d love to hear from you...hint, hint...)

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there merit in the British proposal that I’m just not seeing? Or is it doomed to be yet another quixotic episode for Bertie?

Thursday, June 09, 2011


“But this is a wonderful program! The students love it, and the results are impressive! Why aren't you a fan?”

I've had variations on this conversation too many times. The programs in question are typically “boutique” offerings: labor-intensive, expensive, narrowly targeted, and small. Some of them originated through grants, and others developed as local projects championed by someone who made it his baby. Typically, the folks who direct or otherwise lead these programs are convinced that they're doing God's work, and if you look only at their own program in isolation, they often are. They can produce passionate testimonials from program alums on a moment's notice, and they can produce statistics showing some sort of positive outcomes. They work hard, mean well, and touch lives.

So what's the problem?

They can't scale up. They work only so long as their per-student cost is off the charts. And those costs are covered by cutting other things.

That's a difficult position to take politically. Say you have a program with a full-time director, a part-time assistant, and a student cohort of about sixty. That program produces a ten percent improvement in student retention rates, and the folks who work in the program are justly proud of the double-digit contribution they see themselves making. Besides, the students who are in the program swear by it.

A full-time director and a part-time assistant, both with benefits, probably add up to over $100,000 per year. If the student cohort typically has a twenty percent graduation rate, but now has a thirty percent graduation rate, you're talking about a difference of six students. You're spending $17,000 per additional graduate. This in the context of a college at which per-student spending overall is a small fraction of that.

The coordinator of the program suggests that her program is a model for the college as a whole. But to scale it up to the college as a whole, you'd have to more-than-triple your operating budget.

That's not to say there's no place for small programs. It can make sense for many programs to start small, on a pilot basis, to see if they work. That way you're containing the cost of failure if it doesn't, and you're learning valuable lessons if it does. But to my mind, the difference between a boutique and a pilot is that a boutique intends to stay small. A pilot intends to grow.

When they’re grant-funded, boutique programs are hard to object to. If someone else wants to foot the bill so a hundred students get some extra attention, that’s great. But when they move to the operating budget and crowd out other things -- like full-time faculty hires -- it’s fair to look at comparative benefits.
The political challenge is twofold. At one level, the costs of boutique programs are diffuse, but the benefits are concentrated; therefore, their advocates tend to be passionate, and the folks who indirectly pay for them tend not to notice. The political noise does not correspond to their true cost. Secondly, and more delicately, boutique programs are usually targeted at at-risk student populations. Therefore, questioning the programs is taken as attacking at-risk students. Depending on the local political climate, this can be a conversation-stopper all by itself.

The better answer is to avoid placing too much stock in boutique programs in the first place. Economically sustainable solutions have to be scalable. But if your resources are diverted into a bevy of politically unassailable boutiques that you can’t close, even modest initiatives are off the table. And for leaving them unassailed, you’ll be hailed as a hero by the champions of each little program, each firmly convinced -- and not without reason -- that you’re doing the right thing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Consolidating Boards

Several alert readers sent along info that Connecticut and Rhode Island are considering streamlining their internal education governance systems, presumably to save money. Connecticut’s proposal involves combining oversight of community colleges, state colleges, and compass direction universities in a single board. (UConn would remain separate.) Rhode Island’s is more ambitious, combining every level of public education from K-12 through the University of Rhode Island.

The upside of proposals like these is a small short-term cost savings. Boards don’t teach or provide front-line services, so I would expect the usual critics of “administrative bloat” to be happy. But oooof, I’d be leery of moving forward on either.

As I understand it, these both refer to statewide governing boards, as opposed to boards of trustees of individual campuses. I’m not sure how or whether those would be affected. Consolidating or supplanting those would be disastrous; trustees need to identify strongly enough with a given institution to be effective fundraisers for it. That’s simply not going to happen when you replace a single institution with an entire system.

Even at a purely governance level, though, the complexity of the issues facing public higher ed requires people who both understand the details and have the emotional self-control not to try to micromanage them.

That’s hard to do with a single institution. It’s that much harder with a statewide system. (Admittedly, that distinction may not mean much in Rhode Island.) It’s harder still with multiple statewide systems operating at different levels.

I’ll use myself as an example. After over a decade in college administration -- most of it in community colleges -- I feel pretty confident in saying that I’m conversant in many of the key issues facing community colleges in my state. When I meet with my counterparts from different parts of the state, I know what they’re dealing with and vice versa.

Four-year state colleges have some similarities, but they deal with residential student life. That -- thank goodness -- is not part of my world. The flagship state university deals with graduate programs, major research funding, dorms, and high-profile intercollegiate athletics; again, none of that is within my expertise. And when I took a more active interest in the local K-12 district this Spring, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly everything I knew was useless. The funding model is completely different, student recruitment is a non-issue, and they have a bus fleet. Snarky jokes aside, graduate students and five-year-olds have very different needs.

I can’t imagine a single Board being intelligently aware of the issues at every level. (And that’s before even addressing the different labor unions, accreditations, mandates, etc. that are unique to each level.) By necessity, the Boards would go in one of two directions: either ridiculous, one-size-fits-all policy pronouncements that land with thuds at some levels, or heavy delegation, thereby defeating any cost savings.

Yes, multiple layers can look more cumbersome than a single layer. I get that. But rules that don’t make sense are much more cumbersome. You can pay upfront, or you can pay to clean up the damage, but you’re going to pay. Better to get it right the first time. Don’t ask anyone to be an expert on everything from kindergarten to grad school. One level is hard enough.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Structures and People

“What about Dave? Um, I mean the Registrar?”

In working through the implications of some recent and pending retirements, I’m running headfirst into the legacy of structures built around individual people.

In any rational organization, Smith would have reported to Jones. But Smith and Jones just couldn’t get along, so Smith was moved to report to Johnson. When Smith retires, it’s fair to ask to whom the replacement should report.

But of course, moving one person has a ripple effect. If a Director reports directly to a Vice President, shouldn’t she be a Dean? But if she’s a Dean, then won’t three other directors in that division want to be Deans, too? And if some of the people who used to report directly to Jones now report to Smith’s replacement, will they see it as a demotion?

Over time, workflows have adjusted to accommodate the unusual reporting lines. Undoing those lines means redirecting those workflows. That will involve impacts on people’s workloads, with implications for their classifications, titles, and salaries. If any of those people are unit members, it will also involve impact bargaining with the union.

The first law of reorganizations -- even those ostensibly involving just one or two people -- is that everyone else who gets wind of it will ask first “what does this mean for me?”

It’s tempting to fall back on the old “transparency” ideal, and to try putting everything out for public discussion first. But having tried that myself, I can attest that the strategy has real limits. People who are perfectly willing to stab you in the back won’t stab you in the front; they’ll wait until the public discussion period is over and then file charges. And some who completely ignored the public discussion period, whether out of skepticism, incomprehension, or just other things to do, will suddenly storm the barricades when they figure out that the ripple effects have implications for them.

The root of the problem, of course, is that Smith should never have been moved in the first place. It’s bad practice to create Frankenstein org charts around difficult personalities, since it makes succession so difficult and it rewards bad behavior. Worse, it creates a precedent. But if you inherit a Frankenstein org chart and have the task of fixing it, time travel isn’t an option.

In industries with more normal turnover rates, these issues have ways of sorting themselves out. But when entire cohorts of people stick around together, in close quarters, for decades at a shot, it can be maddeningly difficult to separate personalities from structures.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a reasonably effective way to avoid (or resolve) these awful dilemmas, in the absence of meaningful turnover?

Monday, June 06, 2011


This weekend’s tale of the tape:

4 10 year old boys
1 annoyed 6 year old girl
2 basketball games
1 baseball game
3 innings pitched by The Boy
8 strikeouts
0 runs
1 softball game
1 pizza
1 cake
2 2-liter bottles of soda
3 ipod touches
1 Adam Sandler movie
2 bags of chips (1 nacho, 1 potato)
1 riled-up dog
1 backyard tent
1 hour spent assembling backyard tent
1 boy attacking backyard tent with wiffle bat
50 degrees
5 hours of sleep
1 loud neighbor
1 ill-advised exchange with loud neighbor
2 air mattresses
1 living room fort with air mattress walls
4 burping contests
1 clear winner of burping contests
2 insinuations of secret girlfriends
1 impressive blush
3 boys wearing the same clothes the next day
28 pancakes prepared
22 pancakes eaten
1 dog looking suspiciously well-fed
3 wii tournaments
2 rounds of living-room wrestling
0 name-calling
0 injuries
2 wiped parents
1 successful sleepover

Friday, June 03, 2011

Class, We Have a Guest...

This was Career Week at TB and TG’s school. Parents and other adults came in and talk to the students about their careers.

I hadn’t done Career Week in previous years. I just couldn’t figure out how to explain my job to grade schoolers. “Kids, do you know what a rubric is?” “Kids, let’s talk budget cuts!” Academic administration lacks the kid appeal of, say, firefighting.

I was set to skip it again this year when TW discovered that last year’s participating parents were a truck driver, a postman, a stay-at-home Mom, and a tattoo artist. Those are all honest ways to make a living, but it would be nice to show some examples of jobs that require college. So I reluctantly agreed.

I invited my friend, High School Friend on Right Ocean, to join me. He’s a professor of chemical engineering at a prominent university, and he was game.

The first shock was just how polite and welcoming the kids were. On the job, I’m used to crowds exuding a volatile mix of boredom and contempt. These kids had none of that. They were curious, attentive, and endearingly earnest.

I told them how I use reading and math on my job, and how the college employs people doing all sorts of different things. But the part that seemed to click for them was when I told them that my job involves getting grownups to play nicely with each other and share their toys. They seemed shocked that grownups would need that. I told them that if they could learn to play well with others now, they’d be in good shape. Then I mentioned that my job involves helping teachers do their best work, so to illustrate that, I introduced my friend the professor.

HSFRO knocked it out of the park. He had much better props, which is where scientists always have an advantage. He brought rubber balls that looked alike but bounced very differently, which let him talk about how different chemicals behave. He plugged reading and math -- reading different journals and doing equations to figure out how different chemicals are likely to behave, so they can make adjustments to get balls to bounce the way they want them to.

The highlight was the hair gel. He brought a pyrex bowl, which he placed on the overhead projector, and he put a dollop of hair gel in the bowl. It showed up on the whiteboard as a splotch. He outlined the splotch with a marker, and then started talking about chemical reactions. He mentioned that hair gel is supposed to hold hair in place -- one first-grader with a Mohawk seconded him on that -- and then asked if any of them had ever tasted ocean water. Most had, and they knew it was salty. He trotted out the classic lab science line -- “watch this!” -- and put some salt on the hair gel. It immediately liquefied and overflowed the perimeter outlined on the board. That got “oohs” and “aahs.” He explained the science behind it, and suggested that knowing the science would help you understand why hair gel doesn’t work in salt water.

The kids were fascinated, engaged, and eager to participate. (When HSFRO asked for volunteers to bounce the balls, every kid in class did a stiff-armed hand-raise. He commented later that that never happens at the university.) They already knew that engineers come in many varieties, and were able to name mechanical, material, agricultural, civil, and electrical. (At their age, I thought an engineer was someone who drove a train.) A few of them wanted to know how to become chemical engineers, which struck me as a great question for a first-grader to ask.

I don’t think that anything we covered will show up on the statewide exam they have to take to satisfy No Child Left Behind. But I can’t help but think that getting first and fourth graders excited about chemical engineering has to be good. And it did my heart good to see such inquisitive, engaged, endearing children surrounding TB and TG. We’ll come back anytime.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Interregnum

Don’t tell anyone...

The brief gap between graduation and the start of summer classes is blissfully quiet.

I can actually get some work done. I can even have open-ended conversations without looking at my watch every ten minutes. (Yes, Gen Y readers, I wear a watch. It’s a generational thing. Boomers wear digital watches. X’ers wear analog watches. Y’s just use their phones.)

These respites are fewer and shorter than they once were. There was a time, not too long ago, when summer classes were mostly afterthoughts. They still aren’t as popular as the regular semesters, but they have momentum. That’s mostly to the good; the literature I’ve seen on low-income student success suggests that continuity of study over the course of the year tends to lead to better results, since students can get into a groove and stay there. And I’m a huge fan of students who need developmental classes getting them during the summer so they can hit September on-track to graduate.

But there’s also something to be said for a moment of relative peace and quiet.

Earlier this week I had a glorious morning without a single meeting. I was able to spend consecutive hours -- plural! -- actually thinking about one project. By myself! As a parent of young children, that’s pretty much out of the question at home, and at an active campus it’s pretty much unheard-of at work. But this week, it actually happened. And it brought a clarity that wasn’t going to happen any other way.

But don’t tell anyone! If people find out how productive a quiet campus can be, they’ll start swarming in, and it won’t be quiet anymore.

It’ll just be our secret...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Spreading the Good Word

A thoughtful returning correspondent writes:

For 20+ years there have been all kinds of boards and national
commissions recommending changes in classroom practice but little
seems to come of it (maybe that's just my perspective?). There's lots
of innovation in curricula, pedagogical practices, and general
approaches to teaching that have gotten lots of funding from people
like the NSF (just what I know, I'm sure that someone else could say
something about other fields). Some examples: in Physics there's
project Scale-Up (resource intensive), and in math there are
"group-work focused"* curricula for stats, "general math," calc 1, 2,
and 3, differential equations, ... But, for all of these, market
penetration is tiny.

Thinking in terms of higher education research generally, there's lots
of fairly traditional routes for dissemination: talks at conferences,
papers in appropriate journals (academic and practical), but how much
really penetrates via these routes?

Are there non-traditional routes that, given your experience as an
administrator, you would suggest that a researcher (faculty) wouldn't
necessarily know about?

Are there routes of dissemination to faculty that make sense, but
don't seem to be tried much (the usual list: papers, presentations,
workshops and booths at conferences)?

That is, we spend all this time doing research and, hopefully,
learning useful things. Or, is it that none of what we learn is
actually that useful?

This is one of those “harder than it looks” ideas, and I’ll stipulate upfront that much depends upon context.

It’s certainly true that there’s a wealth of information out there that often doesn’t find its way to the folks who could gain from it. Off the top of my head, I can think of several reasons for that.

The first is incentives. All else being equal, doing something the way you always have is easier than trying a new approach. Learning curves are real, and a new preparation or a new methodology is much more time-consuming than one you’ve done many times before. In a college that values research over teaching, there’s a valid argument to be made that too much time spent on teaching will result in too little on research, with severe career consequences. In a teaching-focused college, the sheer size of the courseload becomes the obstacle. Yes, there’s a conceptual interest in improved student success, but when you have your hands full just doing what you’re doing now, and the benefits from your additional work don’t accrue to you, there’s a strong gravitational pull to just not bother.

(Underlying that paragraph is the annoying truth that outside of a very few settings, the more a college values teaching, the more teaching it requires. The more teaching it requires, the higher the cost of pedagogical innovation. Mass production requires standardization.)

Theoretically, we could get around that by drastically reducing faculty courseloads. But the economics of that are simply prohibitive.

Then there’s the cultural taboo among faculty against being “told what to do.” Any innovation that comes packaged with administrative approval is often regarded as suspect simply because of the approval. I’ve seen settings where that was warranted, and settings where it wasn’t, but there it is.

Field specificity also matters. Techniques that may work beautifully in a lab science may not help much in history. Courses intended as stand-alone samples of a discipline often have more flexibility than first courses in a sequence. “Skills” courses and “content” courses have different demands. These days, there’s also a divide between traditional classes and online classes.

Travel funding matters, too. Most community colleges, as far as I know, have pretty limited travel and conference funding. That means that even when there’s a will to go exploring, there may not be a way. Virtual conferences and webinars try to fill the void, but they’re not the same thing.

Finally, there’s knowing where to look. In the spirit of making failure safe, limited travel funding and limited time tend to place premiums on sure things. In the absence of the time and money to take flyers on multiple different things, there isn’t always much to be gained by looking for alternatives.

It’s a shame, really. The students who most need innovation -- those for whom traditional instruction has largely failed -- are often the least able to get it.

I’ve seen a few expedients that help a bit, but I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers with more.

One is to make it somebody’s job to keep up with this stuff. Titles like “instructional designer” describe people whose job it is to maintain currency with the latest pedagogical innovations, and to work closely with faculty to adapt what’s useful to a particular context. That costs money, of course, but it has promise.

Another is to remove travel funding from the operating budget, and to put it under some sort of endowment. At community colleges, that’s often done through a “Center for Teaching Excellence” or something along those lines. If the Foundation funds it, then it’s immune from state cuts and other budget cuts.

In a more perfect world, individual faculty would have actual job-based incentives for classroom improvement; the issue there is in definition and evaluation. The union at my college is convinced that merit pay is a tool of the devil, and simply won’t hear of it; accordingly, pay is based on seniority. Over time, you get what you pay for.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface on this one. Have you seen (or come up with) an effective and realistic way to disseminate pedagogical innovations so that they might actually get used?

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