Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Online as Last Resort

Okay, it’s late August, your college has a policy that nothing outside of a few specialized classes (clinicals, studios, labs, and developmental, mostly) runs with fewer than fifteen students. You have an outlying section with seven students. Will it run?

The bane of administration is having to predict the future like that over and over again.

Long-term patterns are helpful, but they work best in the middle, not at the margins. If you’re running hundreds of sections overall, then a percentage point shift is, by itself, enough to affect multiple sections. And a single point is well within normal variation.

(This year we have the additional consideration of coming down from the 2009 spike, making the margin of error larger than usual.)

I’m noticing that this year, even more than last year, the usual best-guesses are of little help when applied to online classes. Simply put, they fill later and more erratically.

It’s looking like the online classes consist of two relatively distinct groups of students. The first groups actively seeks out online classes, whether for pedagogical preference or for work-life scheduling reasons. The second group is late-registering students who discover that all the most popular timeslots have filled by August, so they take online as a last resort.

If that’s the way of things, then I think we need to introduce a control variable into any discussion of comparative pass rates. We need to control for late registration.

Nationally, students who register last are far less likely to succeed than those who register months in advance. That makes sense, if you think about it. In practical terms, it’s easier to get the more convenient sections if you register early, and you have more time to get your transportation, work, and childcare arrangements in place. And psychologically, the early registrants are usually the more driven and conscientious students, who tend to do better anyway. A straight-up comparison of a prime time classroom section to its online counterpart may be misleading, if the prime time class filled with type A students three months early and the online section filled at the last minute. At that point, you aren’t seeing what you think you’re seeing.

At one level, this may be a passing problem. As long as online education remains the side dish, it will be prone to irregularities like this. As it becomes more integrated into the college offerings, some level of routine will start to develop.

I guess we could respond with an earlier registration deadline for online courses, or even an earlier deadline altogether. Heaven knows that would make certain kinds of management easier. If we had the funding base to do that and not die, there would be a compelling argument for it. But in this climate, as tuition and fees occupy an ever-larger percentage of the budget, closing too soon would be devastating.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found the same phenomenon on your campus? Is there a more elegant way around it that I’m not seeing?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Selfish Tech

Why can’t you re-sell a “used” e-book?

I can’t come up with a decent technical reason that it couldn’t be done. Yes, e-books are “licensed,” but licenses can be sold or transferred. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. If I buy (or “license”) a kindle book for ten bucks, why can’t I sell that license to someone else, for, say, five?

The only answer I can come up with is that the booksellers don’t want it to happen. They don’t have much choice with paper books, so they grudgingly tolerate used sales there, but they have the option -- for now -- of not tolerating it with e-books.

In a very limited sense, I can see their argument. Physical items deteriorate with use and with age -- sigh -- so their lower cost reflects at least the risk of lower quality. But an e-book reads just as well for its fourth or fifth reader as it did for its first. If secondary e-books became easily available, why would anyone buy new?

Of course, this is the same logic the music industry used to use. We know how that movie ended.

All kinds of new and nifty technology seem to be designed with a single user in mind. They offer real appeal for a single user, but fall apart when more users enter the picture, and I don’t think technology is the limiting factor.

Music subscription services are like that. Spotify is nifty, but if I want to make a cd for The Boy to play in his room, it’s no-go. For him to play it there requires another two hundred dollar gadget, and The Girl can’t listen to something else at the same time. The tablets I’ve seen, including the ipad, assume a single user; they don’t have the option of multiple sign-ons, the way that even a low-end windows netbook does. Sharing an ipod raises the same issue; it can’t be partitioned, so TB is stuck with my default email and my nerdy podcasts. I guess we’re supposed to buy separate ones for everyone in the house, but again, that adds up quick.

Even cell phone plans are like that. Try putting two smartphones on a family plan and you’ll see what I mean. They let you share an absurdly large and expensive bucket of voice minutes, but you pay full freight per phone for data and even texting. It adds up quick.

Contrast these with their physical counterparts. If I buy a cd -- yes, kids, we used to buy music that way -- I can play it in my car, then bring it inside and let TB play it in his room. It will work with any player. If a buy a book, I can lend it or sell it to anyone, and there’s no issue.

The tech world loves to bandy about the term “social,” but its concept of “social” seems to be based on what single twentysomethings do. “Social” in the sense of “families” is off the radar, as is “social” in the sense of “sharing.” It’s happy to make recommendations for individual purchases social, but shared purchases are verboten.

It’s shortsighted. If the demise of the music industry has taught us anything, it should be that walls don’t work. Sooner or later, demand will find a way around. The blistering success of itunes showed that there’s a substantial market for aboveboard, legal ways to allow people to get what they want; this isn’t just about piracy. But piracy may have to happen to make the literary version of itunes acceptable to publishers.

Put differently, the industry needs to learn to lean into change, rather than resisting it. I foresee a monster market for e-textbooks as soon as they offer something analogous to re-selling your used copies. Until then, the value proposition mostly isn’t there. (Yes, there are issues with disability access, but those strike me as solvable if the will is there.) Students will continue, quite rationally, to buy paper textbooks and re-sell them.

In theory, I could imagine a sort of kickback scheme for ebooks. If I re-sell my e-book license, maybe Amazon charges a buck to the second user as a transfer fee. So I sell my fifty dollar textbook for twenty-five, and the new purchaser adds a buck to Amazon to activate the new license. Amazon (and maybe even the author?) makes more than it has ever made from the secondary market, the buyer gets a flawless digital copy for relative cheap, and I recoup half of what I spent on something I don’t want anymore. This isn’t unthinkable.

Techies, I know that most developers are affluent single twentysomethings without kids. I get that. But if you step outside yourselves for a moment and notice that the world is bigger than that, you’ll open the floodgates of sales. Until then, you’re missing a major opportunity, and many of us will just stay on the outside, looking in. That is, until someone else figures this out and makes all the money you’re leaving on the table. I’m just sayin’...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Cabin Fever

The good news is that Hurricane Irene didn’t inflict any major damage on us. I know that’s not true for everyone, and my sympathies to those who were hit. TW’s parents were up all night on Saturday bailing out their basement, which is no fun at all.

But all was not sweetness and light. Anyone with youngish kids knows what happens when the entire family is stuck inside for the entire weekend due to weather.

Cabin fever. It ain’t pretty.

We had been warned to expect extended power outages, so we spent much of the weekend plugging in anything that would charge. You don’t really appreciate just how much electrical gadgetry you have until you’re forced to take stock of it all.

TB and TG built, tore down, and rebuilt a series of sofa forts in the living room. One fort featured a fairly impressive bunk bed built out of a series of chairs with quilts draped over them; another one featured a reading room. (My nerdy heart swelled with pride at that one.) They tried repeatedly to lure The Dog into various forts, but she wouldn’t until I did. Let’s just say that there’s a reason that kids built living room forts and adults don’t.

TB built a convenience store out of legos, in preparation for a stop-motion video he’s trying to make. (Anyone with helpful tips on how to do a good stop-motion video on an underpowered two-year-old windows laptop is invited to share...) He also discovered how to order books on the kindle, which I may live to regret.

We spent entirely too much time watching the Weather Channel, which can work you up into raw panic if you let it. TW and I got a kick out of Governor Christie’s statement to beachgoers (“Get the hell off the beach!”), which seemed very Jersey. Later, the kids caught Hoodwinked Too, for which I managed to stay awake for about twenty minutes. I think I inherited bad-movie-induced narcolepsy from my Dad.

Conversation fragment from the weekend:

TG: What’s dating?

TW (smiling): What do you think it is?

TG: Well, it’s when you go out to dinner and stuff, and then you get married!

So we’ll have to work on that. I guess it’s technically true, depending on how you define “and stuff.”

By Sunday afternoon, though, the novelty had worn off. There’s only so much togetherness a family can take. Work never looked so inviting...

Friday, August 26, 2011

Carey: Perry Visionary?

Kevin Carey, whom I consider one of the more thoughtful and interesting higher ed writers out there, made a startling claim this week that Texas governor Rick Perry is an underappreciated higher ed visionary.

After wiping the spat coffee from my monitor, I actually read his piece. It’s contrarian, obviously, and I’d also say incomplete, but worth chewing on.

Carey bases his claim on the 7 principles for improving university education that Perry has endorsed. The 7 principles primarily center on the need to focus universities more on teaching and less on research. Carey even goes out of his way to attack faculty at research universities who accept the light teaching loads that are supposed to enable research, and then don’t publish anything.

Concur in part, dissent in part.

Working at a community college, I have to say that the idea of a teaching-focused institution isn’t terribly abstract for me; I see it every day. I’m fairly sure they have community colleges in Texas, too. (Full disclosure: I don’t live in Texas.) Has Governor Perry put his money where his mouth is and shifted resources from universities to community and state colleges? Are the teaching-focused institutions getting heretofore-unimaginable -- that is, visionary -- support?

Hmm. Didn’t think so.

If that hasn’t happened, has the Perry administration at least been strongly supportive of structural innovations in higher ed that are geared to improving teaching?


I agree with Carey that several of the 7 principles have much to be said for them, in the abstract. Yes, it’s reasonable to require decent teaching for tenure, given that teaching is a job requirement. (The reasonableness of tenure in the first place is another issue, but I’ll skip over that for now.) Public recognition and reward for excellent teaching strikes me as an obvious good, assuming that we’re measuring the right thing. And it’s certainly true - painfully, obviously true -- that some awful teaching goes on out there, especially at the university level. Given the disconnect among state needs, student needs,and faculty incentives, it’s not surprising that some pretty dysfunctional behavior goes on. (In my own graduate training, my professors told me bluntly to put as little time as possible into teaching, since it “didn’t count.” Thanks, guys. I’ll give them credit at least for practicing what they preached.)

Others of the principles are far more deeply problematic than Carey allows. “Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both” is either disingenuous or just stupid; splitting one pile of money into two piles doesn’t make it more money. If anything, the proposal would seem to ratify the split between highly paid researchers who don’t teach much and poorly paid teachers who don’t publish much. In other words, it’s at cross-purposes with the rest of the proposal. And the proposal to “put state funding directly in the hands of students” would set off a tuition skyrocket the likes of which we have never seen. (If a university moves from, say, twenty percent state funding to zero percent, it has to make up the difference somewhere. And Texas being Texas, it won’t come from football...) It also sits at cross-purposes with tenure, which the principles otherwise seem to endorse. What happens to a department that students ignore, but that several tenured faculty? The principles don’t say.

The larger flaw in Carey’s analysis, though, is that it mistakes saying for doing. If Governor Perry really wanted to remake Texas’ higher education system into something more teaching-focused and less research-focused -- a debatable goal, but not an absurd one -- I’d expect to see him beef up the teaching-focusd institutions that already exist. If he shifted state funding from, say, Texas A&M to the state and community colleges, then yes, I could start to buy the argument that he actually means it. If he decided that other parts of the country have the whole “research” thing well in hand, and he wanted to focus Texas on teaching, I’d expect to see him divert money from UT-Austin and send it to the K-12 districts and the community colleges. One could argue the wisdom of that, but at least it would be a vision.

No. He’s endorsing an attack on universities for not being high schools, an attack on community colleges for being high schools, and an attack on K-12 for, well, being there. Yes, some isolated bits of rhetoric could make sense in another context, but that’s not what’s happening. I agree with Carey on the oft-noted paradox that academics who are otherwise liberal become dogmatically, idiotically conservative when discussing their own profession, but their skepticism about Perry is fairer than that. Some of Perry’s rhetoric may be interesting, but at the end of the day, his only vision for higher education is hostility.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fragments from Orientation Week

-- Watching audiences from the back of the auditorium is always enlightening. For Liberal Arts orientations, I saw many tattoos and handheld electronics, and few strollers. For Teacher Ed orientation, I saw many strollers and few tattoos or electronics. Criminal Justice usually leads the pack in baseball caps per capita, using per capita in the most literal sense.

-- We need to figure out a way to make “information security” appealing to the masses. It's one of the few areas in which well-paying employers are going begging for people, and we can't fill classes. To the extent we do get students, they're exclusively men. Young women should know that if they go into this field, they can write their own tickets. Not entirely sure what's keeping them out, though I know it's not just a local issue.

-- My best theory, and I’m not entirely happy with it, is that male computer nerd culture acts as a sort of female repellent. While there’s probably some truth to that -- a female friend who attended a mostly male technical university reports that the saying among the women there was “the odds are good, but the goods are odd” -- it’s not obvious why that’s unique to a narrow band of fields. A generation or two ago, most fields were male-dominated; now, at least at the cc level, women are in the majority. There seems to be something about the computer field specifically, though I don’t quite know what it is.

-- Watching HP flub the Touchpad/WebOS thing has been an education in itself. I was honestly hoping the Touchpad would take off, if only to get some &#(%^)& apps in the pipeline for my Pre Plus. Instead, they drove the entire platform into the ground. If nothing else, maybe the touchpad's abrupt posthumous success at firesale prices will at least convince other manufacturers to lower prices. I can't justify five hundred bucks for a tablet, but one hundred? Now you're speaking my language...

-- The Boy and The Girl started music lessons this week. He chose guitar, and she chose piano. It would be lovely if the public school offered those, but alas. (They offer nothing until fifth grade, at which point they push instruments like french horns and trombones. No disrespect intended, but given the choice between french horn and guitar...) We found a little local music school run by a guy who could have been Jeff Bridges' role model as The Dude. TB's guitar teacher is a slightly fatter version of Shaggy, from Scooby Doo. But they're amiable, and I kind of like the idea of exposing the kids to some, uh, let's say “type B” personalities in small doses. Diversity takes many forms...

-- You'd think there would be a limit to the number of times a day that a seven-year-old girl would play “Oh Christmas Tree.” You would be wrong.

-- An earthquake and a hurricane in the same week seems like a bit much. I'm just sayin'. And choosing orientation week is just cruel.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two and Out

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the students who get their two-year degree here, and hope to get a job with it.

It’s just not as easy as it used to be. And I’m not just referring to the recession, though that certainly made a bad situation worse.

My college has an enviable record as a pre-transfer school, sending students on to various four-year colleges and universities where they tend to do quite well. That’s great, and I’m happy to embrace and support that side of what we do. But many students have no intention of doing that.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when that was fine. The economy was such that you could come out with a two-year degree in, say, business, and find a job. It might not be a high-end job, and you might eventually have to go back to school to move up into management, but you could start making money in relatively short order.

Now, outside of the health care area, that’s mostly untrue.

Some of our programs have adjusted by becoming de facto transfer programs. They didn’t make a conscious change, exactly, but students started beating different paths and the facts on the ground changed. Other programs have slowly withered on the vine, as students have sensed, usually accurately, that their time had passed.

But we still get significant numbers of students hoping to do two-and-out.

This piece in the Atlantic spooked me a little. It’s a long one, but worth the read. Among other things, it notes that income gains in the larger society over the last few decades have accrued almost exclusively to those with graduate degrees (and/or inherited wealth). Even four-year degrees typically won’t do the trick anymore. At that point, a standalone two-year degree starts to look a little suspect...

The dilemma of public higher ed is that we’re trying to create a middle class for a society that no longer wants one.

Yes, there’s more to education than employment. Of course that’s true. But it’s also true that student loan burdens are a lot higher than they used to be, and they’re getting harder to pay back. When students who are already on the ragged edge of economic disaster come to us hoping for a pathway out, I feel an ethical responsibility to do right by them. And outside of the health care programs and the transfer function, it’s getting harder to do that.

On campus, we haven’t really had that conversation yet in any serious way. Individual programs have looked at individual outcomes, but we haven’t had the broader discussion of just what, exactly, we should be doing. The “produce the middle class” strategy worked brilliantly in the 1960’s, when community colleges boomed, and tolerably well in the 1980’s. The college was built around that. The world has since changed, but we haven’t.

This question is really for readers who work at community colleges. Has your college had a robust, campuswide discussion of its role for students in the new world?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

One Chart to Rule Them All


If you haven’t seen this chart yet, go look. It shows the cumulative growth of student loan debt in the US since 1999, as compared to cumulative growth of household debt outside of student loans in the same time period. In brief, the student loan amount increased by 511 percent since 1999; overall household debt outside of student loans increased roughly 150 percent.

Keep in mind, too, that the period of the graph includes the 2000-8 housing bubble. So it’s not like we’re comparing a growing sector to a frugal population. And as the accompanying article points out, it’s not as if the number of college students grew by 511 percent.

This weekend Marketplace Money carried a report of a woman who lost out on a job opportunity because of her credit report. She had taken out loans to go back to grad school to get a Master’s degree in her field to become more employable. She lost her job in the recession, and fell behind on her loan payments because she was unemployed. Now she can’t find work because employers don’t like her credit rating, which is a result of the combination of student loans and unemployment. That’s what she gets for going back to school, apparently.

This is insane. Yet the dialogue within higher ed doesn’t take this seriously at all.

Yes, it’s true that public subsidies to public colleges and universities aren’t what they once were, especially since 2008. Even just restoring levels to what we had in, say, 2007 would help get tuition increases under control which, presumably, would help level off the student loan growth. But that’s not the entire answer; a quick look at the graph, for example, shows a huge spike starting in 2005. If the Great Recession were the primary driver, that wouldn’t be true.

As several helpful folks pointed out on Twitter, some of the increase can probably be explained by the explosive growth of for-profits during most of the decade, since for-profits as a group generate higher per-student debt. The last statistic I saw indicated that for-profits account for about a quarter of current student loans. So even discounting the ramp-up period, if we take 25 percent as the for-profits’ share of the cumulative total -- which is ‘rounding up’ in the extreme -- that would take the growth down into the 380 percent range. Lower, yes, but still catastrophic. It’s probably accurate to accuse the for-profits of making a terrible situation even worse, but they are not the primary drivers. Factor them out, and the picture is still terrible.

From a strictly selfish perspective, I like to think that developments like these augur well for community colleges, since students can pick up transferable credits here on the cheap and keep their overall debt burdens down. And there’s probably some truth to that; locally, at least, we noticed an uptick in middle-class, traditional-aged students when the Great Recession hit; presumably their newly-shaky family finances made starting at a community college a more appealing option. For some students, this can be a good strategy.

But community colleges are hardly immune to large percentage increases in tuition; they’re just starting from a much lower base. Unless the slope of the curve flattens, eventually some of the same issues will hit here, too. And the perversity of politics is such that anger at elite institutions is often taken out on the ones that serve the many. Harvard is comically expensive, so we’ll cut aid to state and community colleges. Um...

The more fundamental issue is the cost of delivery. Here I’m referring not to the cost to the student, but to the institution. As long as the cost of delivery keeps increasing rapidly, that cost will get passed on, whether to the student, the taxpayer, or someone else. There’s a perfectly valid argument to be had about the proportions of the increase that should be passed on to this stakeholder as opposed to that one, but the underlying issue is the cost spiral. Sharing pain is a hard sell when the pain keeps increasing.

This is where I’m pessimistic. After slightly over a decade in higher ed administration, I’m increasingly convinced that change will have to come from outside. The forces of inertia from within are as powerful as they are shortsighted. They insist on continuing to frame a structural problem in personal terms.

To take one example, Benjamin Ginsberg seems to think that “deanlets” are the problem, which might make sense if their numbers weren’t actually decreasing. Staff is increasing, but management is shrinking. And the staff increases are mostly concentrated in a few discrete areas: IT, financial aid, and students with disabilities. Prof. Ginsberg is invited to specify which of those he considers unimportant.

Among the blogs, you’d get the impression that the biggest problem facing higher ed was its overreliance on adjuncts. Put differently, you’d get the impression that colleges are too frugal. The preferred alternative usually offered is a dramatic and sustained increase in labor costs. From whence the money to pay these increased costs would come is usually left to the imagination.

My best guess is a sector-by-sector crackup. The colleges on the top -- elite, expensive, brand-name -- and on the bottom -- community colleges -- are in the best long-term shape. But those privates in the middle -- expensive but not exclusive, tuition-driven, living and dying by the “discount rate” -- are in very deep trouble. Their strategy of going with all student loans, all the time, is hitting its limits. The ones that hope to survive are, paradoxically enough, the best hopes for innovation. Nothing focuses the mind quite like a gun to the head; with institutional survival at stake, some of them may be able to break through internal inertia and actually make some necessary changes. The rest will die.

If the only way to support more of the same is to accelerate the upward slope of the curve, then it’s time to stop trying. As a famous economist once put it, trends that can’t be sustained, won’t be.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sharing a President

Can two mature campuses share one President?

Apparently, in a cost-cutting move, the SUNY system is considering having three of its sitting Presidents become Presidents of two colleges each. The idea is to save the salaries of three Presidents, and to make a conspicuous public statement about moving resources out of administration and into teaching.

It's an audacious move, and I'll be interested in watching it play out. My guess is that it will be far more difficult than most other forms of administrative consolidation, such as group purchasing agreements or consortia for payroll services. The reason is the word “mature.”

Nationally, there is no shortage of multicampus systems that report to a single President or Chancellor. In some states, they're called “districts,” in the manner of K-12 public school districts. A given community college district might have several different colleges all in the purview of a single chancellor. It's also common to have a single institution with multiple campuses, or a main campus with satellites or off-campus locations.

This is different.

First, in most of those cases, the growth was organic. A college established a branch campus to meet enrollment demand, but the branch always understood itself as part of the original college. Alternately, a district was formed by fiat in the 60's when campuses either didn't exist or were brand new. In those cases, distinct identities hadn't been formed yet. Things were malleable.

In this case, though, mature institutions with distinct, separate identities are being forced to share someone at the top. That's a different challenge. That’s especially true when the institutions in question have been frenemies over time, competing for the same pool of students.

There’s also a difficult issue around fundraising and the public profile. Although it’s less true in the public sector than among the private nonprofits, it’s increasingly the case that the bulk of a President’s job is external relations. That means fundraising, first and foremost, but it also extends to public relations, relations with local businesses and community groups, relations with other colleges, and, in the case of publics, relations with the state. In many ways, the President is the public ambassador of the college.

It’s one thing to be the ambassador of a single college or institution; it’s quite another to be the ambassador of two. Yes, some fundraising events could be combined, but donors don’t usually give to consortia; they give to single places with clear identities. The folks who work in “development” -- that is, fundraising -- have as a mantra that fundraising is friendraising; it’s all about relationships.

That wouldn’t matter much, or at all, if we were talking about combining payroll services, say, or getting a group discount from a software vendor for an ERP platform. But in courting alumni and donors, any whiff of divided loyalties could cause serious issues. Donors have no shortage of causes courting them; if they aren’t comfortable with one, they can move right on to another.

“Okay,” one could say, “but fundraising at this level usually means scholarships anyway. The colleges will still realize operating budget savings.”

Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. A quick look at existing multicampus systems explains why.

Typically, in those cases, each location has a chief operating officer. Depending on size, that person might go by the name of 'dean,' 'provost,' or 'president,' but there's someone with whom the buck stops locally. In the business world, this would be the Chief Operating Officer. Running a college is not something to do off the corner of someone's desk; the complexity doesn't allow it. Given how many things are going on at each campus, someone will have to be in charge locally.

Depending on the structures they have in place now, that could mean creating a provost or a COO position at each campus, with that person reporting to the multicampus President. (Think of it as the principals of various schools reporting to the district superintendent.) Instead of paying for a president, each campus may wind up effectively paying for a president and a half.

That’s not to say the plan can’t work. If the campuses already run on the provost model, and you have excellent people in those roles who are willing to step up their responsibility dramatically for little or no extra pay, you might be able to get away with it for a while. In fact, I’ll venture a prediction. It will “work,” more or less, for a few years, but it won’t prove sustainable. Over time, each campus will clamor for attention, and the divided loyalties of the president will prove a real challenge externally.

In the meantime, though, kudos to SUNY for at least trying. I’ve been wrong before...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Should I Complain to the Dean?

A frustrated student writes (it’s a bit long):

In a nutshell: I got a B and should have gotten an A, can you see why I'm uncomfortable going to talk to the dean about this? However, the letter grade isn't my gripe.

Please forgive my ignorance, but, this is the bigger picture that I can't seem to gain a sense of reasoning on.

I took Interpersonal Communications over the summer and we had a typical first day; Professor IC introduced herself, we ran down the syllabus, discussed what a condensed summer schedule meant, etc etc. We were also assigned the first couple chapters. I found a couple significant errors in the book (about self-concept, misquoting studies and findings, and definitions) and pointed them out to her at the next class. I was very careful not to attack her, and just let her know that they were there, in case she wanted to glaze over those pages again, and asked her if any of this mis-information would be on the test... she was extremely confrontational about it, but going forward things seemed okay, so I thought nothing of it.

The class had 5 written assignments, and, Professor IC would write feedback on them. I always incorporated the feedback on the next assignment, but, always scored low. This is very puzzling because most of the time we would watch a movie such as Antoine fisher and then be asked a question like "How do you think your communication style would be similar to Antoine's if you had grown up in foster care and which communication style would you use?". Well, I did grow up in the foster care system for many years, and I also answered according to the text definitions. I'm unsure how you can gauge and grade papers that ask for opinion, especially when they are reflective of one's life experience, when they've answered within the guidelines and not something such as "I like cheese".

Again, I thought nothing of it, and tried harder yet to incorporate her feedback.

Then we were paired into groups for our final project. I was grouped with students who: 1. didn't show up 2. had parent's on the staff so they didn't care about the work because they would "pass anyway" 3. only needed a "C'' to please their parents 4. had no idea what the word "alienation" meant and wasn't "alienated" any of the five times she had been arrested (and some combinations of the above.)

I knew I was sunk. I tried to speak to her several time and she made it impossible. I FINALLY got her locked into a 12:00 appointment (class started at 12:20)... to which she showed up at 12:17 and literally said "You're doing fine and should be able to get an A".

So, I did everyone's work on the final. Had it not been for that, I wouldn't have carried my classmates. I don't believe everyone deserves a ribbon just for participating.

After all that, my question is basically this, I never thought there was a problem because the class is a communications class and I wasn't informed of one, but, is there such a thing a teachers apathy? Or something similar?

Last semester I took 6 classes and have always had a heavy workload. I've always excelled and I work hard to do so.. I'm very annoyed when people complain they want a grade they didn't earn because it devalues the grade I DID earn. Normally, I would think I'd be satisfied with a B, if I earned a B. In this case, I don't feel I did.. and even more insulting is I saw what little work was put into the class to yield a B and I was only 2 points away from an A. Prior to this class I had a 4.0 GPA.

If I need to, I'll retake it with another teacher to "grade" out of the B, but I'm unsure what that would do on my transcript and I'm confused as to why a teacher wouldn't be flattered and excited that a student is reading the material and challenging their knowledge on the subject to strive and grow; instead of thinking that just filling the seat warrants a good grade.

This reminds me of a class I took in college. I got a B, which seemed roughly right, but I was annoyed at how the B happened. The grade was based primarily on two papers. The first paper, which I knew was weak as I handed it in, got an A-. The second one, on which I worked hard and of which I was proud, got a B-. Had the grades been reversed, I wouldn’t have felt aggrieved; since they seemed utterly disconnected from performance, though, I was upset. It felt random.

In retrospect, I suspect that his criteria and mine were different. It happens.

A few thoughts.

GIven that the class was Interpersonal Communication, starting off by correcting the text in class suggests a certain tone-deafness. I wonder, too, if some of the disappointment in your classmates came through, affecting your performance more than you realized. To the extent that group work was a part of the grade, contempt for the other members of your group could well have come through, to ill effect.

The point about grading papers based on “opinion” is a bit of a red herring. Typically, an assignment that asks you to explain an opinion is focusing on the quality of the explanation, rather than on the direction of the opinion itself. In other words, whether your answer was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ was probably less important than how, and how well, you supported it. Any experienced professor in fields with significant disagreement has had occasion to give A’s to papers with which they disagree, and to give lower grades to papers with which they sympathized.

Is there such a thing as teacher’s apathy? Yes. Teachers are human, and any given person is subject to the usual range of human limitations and failings. I don’t know if your instructor falls into the apathetic category or not; s/he may simply have been demanding. But there’s nothing in your story that would suggest to me that a trip to the dean is in order.

It’s true that judgment calls are part of grading, and that reasonable people can disagree on some of those calls. But from a dean’s perspective, that’s nowhere near what it would take to overturn a grade, or even question an instructor. The standard on my campus involves proving either an error (of computation or data entry) or a gross injustice, such as “he demanded sex for an A, and I didn’t, so he failed me.” Something like “she seemed brusque, and the other kids were jerks, and I deserved an A instead of a B” isn’t even in the ballpark.

As with my annoying class in college, I’d take it as a life lesson and move on. Sometimes authority figures disappoint. It’s part of life. Maybe later you’ll see wisdom in what she did, or, maybe you’ll decide she was just wrong. It happens. But no, I wouldn’t pursue this one. And I wouldn’t want to teach anyplace where a complaint like this actually resulted in a dean taking action.

Good luck. I hope you’re able to put this behind you and move on to bigger and better things.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? What should the student do?

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

Thursday, August 18, 2011


TW took the kids to visit her parents for the last few days, so The Dog and I have been on our own. Faced with an unaccustomed bit of alone time, I’ve been attacking the basement. This has involved unearthing all manner of stuff from decades past.

Helpful Psychological Tip: If you want to maintain your self-esteem, never reread any of your papers or letters from high school or college. Seriously.

Old photos are bad enough. They bring back memories of long-lost hair, and of unfortunate fashion choices. But old papers and letters remind you of how you thought.


“Callow” would be a good description. “Painfully naive.” “Completely clueless.” “Trying so, so, so very hard.”

In reading them, I’m reminded of watching a child put on his father’s suit. Except that the child knows it’s play. I didn’t.

These were the days before email, let alone Twitter. Back then, “long distance” phone calls were hideously expensive and postage was cheap, so penniless students wrote letters. And by “wrote,” I mean “handwrote.” I haven’t used cursive for anything longer than my signature since I don’t know when, but there it is, in all its glory.

One particularly painful exchange from my senior year of high school, with a young woman who had just gone off to college, featured an exchange of...I am not making this up...poems. Apparently I had written and sent some to her -- really? I did that? -- for feedback, and she politely declined to critique them, noting that it would be “like Virginia Woolf critiquing Richard Brautigan.” (We tried soooo hard...) I’m sure I didn’t get it at all. Reading her letter now, it reeks of “what-ever...,” but I didn’t get that at the time.

You forget what the world looked like at 17...

I even found a picture of me with my college girlfriend, who later came out as a lesbian. (My preferred interpretation: you’ve had the best, why try the rest?) My mullet was mighty and untamed.


The most painful part is knowing that even if fortysomething me could time-travel back and give twenty-year-old me a clue, it wouldn’t have helped. I wouldn’t have understood it. Some things just have to be learned firsthand.

Every so often now I’ll see young students doing things that remind me of the callow, clueless kid I was. Part of me wants to pull them aside and give them a clue, but I know it wouldn’t work. To them, I’m just some old guy. They have to figure it out for themselves, as painful as that is.

If nothing else, the excavation exercise is usefully humbling. Some of those kids wandering around with deer-in-the-headlight expressions will eventually be fine; they just need some time to grow into themselves. And those of us on the other side can’t try to rush them. The generation coming up may never have this experience, since they never used paper this way. At least my juvenalia isn’t floating around on the web somewhere.

Meanwhile, the shredder is getting a hell of a workout.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Yesterday I had a chance to catch up with an old friend -- High School Friend on Wrong Ocean was doing an East Coast tour -- and I realized that, in our very different settings, we’re telling ourselves the same stories.

She teaches at a law school out there, when she isn’t doing other amazing things. We got to talking about teaching, and she made a comment that stuck with me.

“Do you ever feel guilty about preparing students for jobs that don’t exist? I do...”


It’s one of those uncomfortable questions for which you have a set of stock answers, but even after running through all of them, you’re still a little uneasy.

It’s a different question than the one I was trained to answer. Having gone to Snooty Liberal Arts College and majored in something not obviously employable, I was trained to answer the disbelieving “what are you going to do with that?” The subtext of the question was a belief that jobs exist in some fields and not others, so the responsible thing to do is to get a degree that will launch you into something employable. It’s the question the engineering major asks the art history major. The usual responses involved either subsequent schooling (law school, grad school) that would address employability -- yeah, I know, but we were sold the “great wave of retirements” line -- or something about soft skills. (Remember the movie Office Space? “Dammit, I have PEOPLE SKILLS!”)

I don’t hear that question as much anymore. My friend’s question hit home because it relied on a different, updated subtext. Now, the assumption is that jobs are scarce all over, especially for folks just breaking in. Whether they know it or not, students are all philosophy majors now. In the absence of reliable, legible paths to a good income, we’re left with skill-building and hope.

That’s more than nothing. Even in the law school at which she teaches -- a well-respected one -- my friend reports that many of her students have trouble putting a coherent argument together, especially in writing. I would have expected people with strong undergraduate records to have mastered that skill.

There’s a very real sense in which the loss of legibility in the economy argues for colleges to focus more on the skills developed through the liberal arts. I don’t know what the next hot thing will be, or what the major economic trends of the next decades will be. But I’m willing to bet that people who can handle ambiguity, communicate effectively, and synthesize coherent meaning out of disparate information will be in better shape than those who can’t. In the aggregate, they’ll be better able to adapt to change, to roll with the punches, and to add value that automation couldn’t.

But ‘in the aggregate’ is a tough sell. It’s just not as appealing as “get a degree in x and you’ll get a job that pays y.” “In the aggregate” leaves a lot of room for “gee, that shoulda worked...” A student might even learn to appreciate the aggregate, but that doesn’t change the fact that he needs a paycheck. And emotionally, it’s about as satisfying as probabilistic social science usually is.

The other story I tell myself is that economy isn’t our fault. That one doesn’t really satisfy, either.

My friend’s question didn’t dissuade me -- or her -- but I couldn’t quite shake it. Wise and worldly readers, have you found a better story to tell yourself while sending a generation of students into the meat grinder?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No More Spring Scrambles

This year, we're trying something different.

As many a frustrated academic knows, there's a hiring season for full-time faculty. Broadly speaking, it starts in October and runs through about February for tenure-track positions, and starts in January and runs through April or May for one-year positions. (The preferred term for those is usually “visiting,” though that seems a polite fiction at this point.)

Unfortunately, the hiring season doesn't align well with budgets. So we've often had to trail the calendar, looking in the late spring or even early summer for tenure-track positions. At that point, convincing people to relocate is an uphill battle, and many of the candidates who stand out in the early running get snapped up by other places.

Although we've been aware of the issue for years, it has been hard to get ahead of the curve. That's because the budget is fully spoken for, so new positions only become available when current faculty leave. The budget supports x number of full-time faculty. Most of the time, we have x number; the only way to hire is through replacement, even if the replacement isn't necessarily in the same department.

(As awful as that sounds, even that is only possible because we've systematically thinned the ranks of administration. If we hadn't done that, we'd be at x-5 by now.)

The calendar wouldn't be an issue if people submitted retirement letters in September to take effect the following May, and if those letters were irrevocable. But neither is the case. Some people here have submitted retirement letters annually for the last several years, only to revoke them in the winter or early spring. Every time they do that, they reinforce the folly of starting searches when the rest of the world does. Without the funds freed up by their retirement, new hires simply can't happen. But it's politically impossible to make retirement letters irrevocable, and mandatory – and therefore predictable – retirement remains off the table.

Last year a surprising number of people left, some of them waiting until late in the year to give notice. There just wasn't time to put together reasonable searches to replace them.

So this year, we're trying something different. And no, it doesn't involve a visit from the money fairy, who is apparently being held hostage somewhere in the Goldman Sachs building.

Instead of frantically throwing together a search at the last possible minute and hoping for the best, we're carrying openings for a year so we can join the standard search calendar. So someone who quit in May of 2011, say, will be replaced in September of 2012. We'll cover the classes with adjuncts for a year, and use that year to do a search the way it should be done. If we make the offer early enough in the cycle, we might stand a better chance of convincing our first choice candidates to move here, if they need to. (Over the past few years, first choices have been about evenly divided between local and non-local, though many of the non-local first choices wound up turning us down.)

It's not an ideal solution, admittedly. It increases, if slightly, our already uncomfortably high adjunct percentage. But when positions are finite and people can change their minds about leaving until the last minute, the options aren't great. We could do what some colleges do and just plow ahead with searches anyway, canceling them when people rescind their letters, but that tends to leave a bitter taste all around. Not only is it brutally unfair to the candidates, but it also burns out the members of the search committee who conclude, understandably, that their efforts were wasted. Do that a couple of times, and good luck getting people to serve on committees again.

Some places fill the one-year gap with one-year hires, and we've done that intermittently, but the culture doesn't handle it well. No matter how many times you emphasize that it's a one-year appointment, people interpret the non-renewal at the end as being fired. Worse, the culture tends to assume that unless the temporary hire is an axe murderer, she has first dibs on the permanent position. At that point, the integrity of the permanent search is badly compromised.

I'm not thrilled with this solution, but it seems to me the best we can do under the circumstances. If we could make retirement letters irrevocable, we could hire right away, but that's not gonna happen. If mandatory retirement returned, then we wouldn't even need letters; we'd just know, and we could move forward. If the money fairy paid a visit, we could chance the occasional double coverage and call it good. And if the culture didn't have such a strong belief in 'dibs,' we could at least patch with short-term hires. But at least this way we'll have a shot at the very best people for these jobs, which is, after all, the point. No more spring scrambles; this year, we do it right.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Dorsal Fin

It’s that time of the summer. Now that the rest of the world has passed “shark week,” we academics can see the dorsal fin in the water. It’s almost September.

We aren’t quite there yet, happily. By about 3:00 in the afternoon, the campus is pretty much empty. But you can make out the silhouette on the horizon.

The telltale signs are there. Back-to-school sales are popping up. Afternoon thunderstorms are becoming more common and violent. The visitors’ parking lot is suspiciously full.

In administration, this is the season of last-minute decisions about which low-enrolled sections we think will climb, and which we have to cancel. (No matter how you do it, this is guaranteed to annoy somebody.) Invariably, we have at least one unforeseeable, bizarre personnel emergency between mid-August and the start of classes. Some years it’s a medical issue; some years it’s a last-minute offer elsewhere, and some years, people just vanish. You don’t know exactly where it will hit, but you know it will.

I’m also starting to get frantic calls about adding sections of popular classes. I’d be happy to, if we had spare classrooms laying fallow and faculty sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Since neither is the case, the frontline staff is doing its usual heroics to help students fill out realistic schedules that don’t violate prerequisites or require superhuman feats of timing. This is their worst time of year.

Campus collegiality tip: be particularly nice to the financial aid staff in August. For them, August is pure hell. Cut them some slack if they seem flustered. They’ll relax in October. Right now, just be glad you aren’t one of them, unless you are, in which case, my condolences.

On the home front, the deliciously empty evenings are starting to fill with commitments again. Kids’ sports tend to take the summer off, since it’s impossible to field a consistently among all the vacations. They return with a vengeance in the Fall. We’re also signing the kids up for music lessons this year -- The Boy chose guitar, and The Girl chose piano -- so that’ll add to the chauffeur duties. At least this year we’re skipping soccer and gymnastics. It doesn’t get really punishing until basketball season starts.

Only a couple more weeks of relative calm. Our major vacation is behind us, and it went beautifully. (Befitting my Presidential campaign, we made the trek to New Hampshire. If you were there you might have seen me -- I was the white guy.) TW convinced me of the wisdom of leaving a buffer day on either side of the trip. So with a week off, instead of leaving on Saturday and returning on Sunday, we left on Sunday and returned on Saturday. It made a world of difference. Having that extra day to sleep in your own bed, do laundry, buy groceries, and just shake off the cobwebs makes a difference.

So now it’s time to clear up the last few loose ends and put on a game face. The shark isn’t here yet, but I can hear the music. People on shore are starting to point. I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Friday, August 12, 2011

College Websites

I know this is a big topic, but it has become salient recently in my world.

My college is taking a fresh look at its website. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the previous version won't be missed.

But in trying to put together a new one, it's becoming clear that different sets of expectations are crashing into each other. This can't be the first time such a thing has happened, so I'm hoping my wise and worldly readers can shed some light.

If I had to boil it down, I'd say that there are three fairly discrete purposes of the website, and they don’t always work well together.

The first, obviously, is the student or external user experience. At this point, a good website isn't just an advertisement; it actually allows you to get work done. It should be easy for a prospective student to find a particular course of study or professor; for a current student to see the next semester's course schedule and even to register; and for local companies to scan the workforce development offerings. You’d expect to find an employee directory, a list of faculty by department, and any job postings, too. And yes, there should be an obvious path for prospective donors to follow to find the development office.

The second is usefulness to employees. Websites make great repositories of forms and policies, for example. While prospective and incoming students may care only about the current course catalog, internally it's crucial to have access to previous years' catalogs, since students stop and start, and degree requirements are frozen at the point of entry. Some colleges handle the difference by putting the internal stuff on an intranet; we aren't doing that, but I wouldn't rule it out.

The third, and this is where things get tricky, is as an expression of institutional values. What does the college choose to highlight about itself to the world? How does it explain what it is, and what it aspires to be?

The symbolic function can clash pretty directly with the first two. What works from a marketing perspective can be pretty hard to swallow for the employees. Internally, we’re justly proud of academic rigor, the excellent transfer record, and the like, but those can be hard to represent visually. (And just about every college likes to claim that its academics are strong, so it’s not much of a differentiator unless you already know.) The things that the marketing folk tell us are the most appealing aren’t necessarily what we’re most attuned to internally.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m looking for the wisdom of experience. Have you seen a site that balances these three sets of demands well? If you have, what makes it work? (Alternately, have you seen a real train wreck?)

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I’ll miss Borders.

Although most people remember Borders as a big-box suburban store, to me it was always a big-box chain awkwardly appended onto a really nifty, quirky store on State Street in Ann Arbor.

It’s hard to remember now, and young folks now have no memory of this at all, but there was once a time when academic and/or small press books were hard to find. That was especially true if you didn’t live in or near a huge city. Back then, bookstore choices were limited to small mall chains -- Waldenbooks, anyone? B. Dalton? -- or very tiny independent bookstores with charm but without inventory.

The original Borders combined Midwestern earnestness with then-ambitious inventory with a sense of place. The model may be hackneyed now, but twenty years ago, it was really something. (For those who spent time in Ann Arbor, you’ll get the reference: it was the Schoolkids’ Records of bookstores. Anyone remember records? God, I’m old...) And for years, the arrival of a new Borders store in a culturally bereft area was a Very Big Deal.

Borders defined itself as a relatively affordable luxury. It never really discounted much, which, in retrospect, was a colossal mistake. Part of the reason that people hung out there was that they couldn’t afford to actually buy very much. It even charged full price for CD’s, which nearly nobody did by the mid 90’s. But in the original context, its costliness at least gave it an aspirational feel.

I was never entirely convinced by the superstore version of Borders. It kept the full-price policy, and the selection was still usually quite good, but quirkiness doesn’t scale easily. In growing, it washed out a bit. It became interchangeable, sacrificing some of that sense of place. And of course, Amazon came along and ate its lunch. After a while, I started using Borders as a sort of Amazon showroom; I’d check out the books in the store, then order the appealing ones from Amazon for a lot less money. An interesting new hardcover that went for 26 bucks at Borders would go for 14 on Amazon, and the ‘discovery’ function that the store offered was hard to monetize. (Best Buy is falling into the same trap now.) Barnes and Noble faces many of the same issues, but at least its Nook is a hit; Borders never figured out how to make the internet work in its favor.

Josh Kim did a nice piece a couple of weeks ago on the lessons of Borders for higher ed, and I think he got it right; in getting big without getting distinctive (or, I’d add, cheap), Borders lost its niche. In an era of rapidly expanding options, being merely okay at a whole bunch of things is a losing strategy. It’s entirely too easy for someone who wants a specific thing to comparison shop. Mediocrity isn’t redeemed by volume anymore, since supplies aren’t scarce anymore. At this point, you need to decide where to excel, and then do that.

By analogy, I suspect that the colleges in the most trouble in the next few years are the expensive-but-nothing-special privates. They lack the distinction to justify their prices. Publics can use price as a lure, and the better publics offer the prospect of high quality at a relatively low price; there’s always a market for that. The elites can sell exclusivity, and demographically specific institutions (I’m thinking of a place like BYU) can sell identity. But the smallish, nonelite, fairly expensive private colleges out there look a little like Borders, circa 2005. They were able to survive when competition was limited, but that’s not the case anymore; even far-flung areas now have access to a growing panoply of distance ed options.

As those places fade away, we’ll lose something. A college that’s “meh” overall will still have some terrific people in it, and they’ll lose their jobs along with everyone else. And the death spirals won’t be pretty. But the environment has changed, and a survival strategy that made sense a few decades ago just doesn’t cut it now. Borders was small in the 80’s, big in the 90’s, huge in the early 00’s, and dead in 2011. We who don’t want our colleges to follow a similar path need to learn the lesson. I miss Borders, but I read just as much without it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of Visions and Videogames

Gary Olson, a former provost, has a piece up over at the Chronicle detailing advice he would give to a new administrator. As with any “if I knew then what I know now” exercise, there’s some value in it, but this paragraph has been bothering me since I read it:

For purposes of contrast, think of administrators as falling into one of those two types. Bureaucrats just want to be in charge. They have no real vision or desire to advance a department; they simply want to be "the boss" and have people report to them. Consequently, they have little interest in change and are quite comfortable with the status quo. True academic leaders, however, are dedicated to productive change. They want their programs to be among the best of their kind. They are not content with simply being in charge. All of us in administration make a choice, consciously or not, as to where on this spectrum we will fall.

If I believed that, I would have quit years ago. The underlying assumption of this binary is that change can only come from above, and it must be driven by strong leaders. Accordingly, as an administrator you are either an empty careerist turning a blind eye to the status quo, or a heroic visionary forcing change on recalcitrant faculty. (To be fair, he refers to a “spectrum,” but this is the line along which the spectrum runs.)

No, no, no.

It’s an easy binary to fall into. It’s usually presented as the difference between “management” and “leadership.” And it misses something crucial.

What is the assumption about those being managed or led?

In this binary, the assumption is that the faculty are self-interested, recalcitrant, obstinate, and out of touch. Left to their own devices, they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done. Therefore, change must be done for them, or, worse, to them.

Admittedly, there are elements of truth in that. Anyone who has never seen those traits in faculty -- especially tenured faculty -- simply hasn’t looked. But that’s when they’re at their worst. The management/leadership dichotomy reinforces their worst tendencies.

I never thought of myself that way in my teaching days. Yes, there were elements in the inner workings of the institution about which I had no clue, but I was so focused on my own classes and my own students that I was content to leave those to others. (Ah, for the glorious days when I had no need to know what an ERP system was...) What I saw in myself and my colleagues was a bunch of dedicated, if flawed, people mostly trying to do what they thought was right. I didn’t always agree with others’ interpretations of what was right, but that was to be expected.

When I moved into administration, I did it with a sense that the job of administration was to enable people to do their best work, within certain resource constraints. That doesn’t involve simply taking their word for everything; people have blind spots, hobbyhorses, knowledge gaps, and, yes, self-interest. Some ideas have to be challenged, and some requests have to be denied. But the point is to bring out people’s strengths. Administration is about doing the background work to create the environment in which faculty and staff will bring their best selves to the job. That means rewarding the willingness to experiment, and accepting the possibility that change will move in a direction you didn’t foresee.

That’s different from imposing or enacting a vision. A vision comes fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This is more like enabling, in the best sense of that word. To the extent that it’s possible to move a college away from silo-based warfare and towards a shared sense of the point of it all, smart and creative people will come up with stuff they’d like to try. And if you’re really good -- I’m still working on this part -- you can even get to the point where people are willing to admit when an experiment has failed, and move on to trying something else. What that “something” is should only rarely come from administration.

Where administrators have something unique to offer is in access to information. I’ve had to learn things about transfer, credit hours, registration procedures, financial aid, and accreditation requirements that simply weren’t on my radar as a professor. Good administration involves bringing that knowledge to bear in the conversations about improvement. When everything works, administrators help bridge the gap between a nifty-but-impractical idea and what needs to happen to make the best parts of the idea real.

It’s an incredibly difficult job to do well. Resource constraints are constant, political battles are everywhere, and academic culture trains faculty to distrust your motives. And you don’t really appreciate how dysfunctional some folks are until you have to say “no” to them. Let’s just say that narcissists with tenure are not pretty, and leave it at that.

But if you go in assuming that it’s all either a battle or a scam, heaven help anyone who reports to you. It’s not about them, and it’s not about you. The choice is not between coddling and coercing the selfish faculty. The choice is whether to at least try to rise above personal issues, including your own, and to unleash the collective talent already there in service of the point of it all, or to fall back on frustrated visions of heroism. Best to set the conditions in which unpredicted innovations can emerge, and save the Heroic Leader fantasy for videogames.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Hate Mail

A returning correspondent writes:

I received a communication from a student who failed my class. The communication was short and not so sweet: f*** you! I replied saying that I understood the student's frustration, but that he violated the student code of conduct and that I forwarded his email to the dean. Well, it seems the emails I sent the dean entered a black hole. The dean does not answer my emails and the student has not been disciplined. Is this the usual course of action that takes place when students violate the student code of conduct? Does this not create a hostile work environment?

My first thought is, I’ve seen worse. (In fact, that note is the title of a disarmingly catchy pop hit.) But maybe that’s me.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give a definitive answer on the “hostile work environment” claim. My impression -- and it’s only an impression -- is that it takes more than one verbal incident to constitute an ‘environment.’ It’s also harder to get legal recognition of harassment from below than of harassment from above. Although contrapower harassment is real, it’s generally given less consideration than top-down harassment. People in authority positions -- which professors certainly are, relative to students -- are generally expected to tolerate a certain amount of abuse as a cost of doing business. A certain thickness of skin is expected. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the way things currently are.

Leaving aside the merits of the case, though, the question seems to be about perceived administrative non-response to a complaint. Here, too, my first question would be whether this is a single incident or part of a larger pattern. Since you refer to “emails” (plural) I’ll assume that you’ve followed up and eliminated the possibility that it was just a matter of a message getting lost.

It may be the case that your Dean is ignoring you maliciously; there’s nothing in your note proving otherwise. It could be that s/he is trying to make you so miserable that you leave, for whatever reason. But it could also be something less sinister than that.

For example, depending on your college’s rules, you may or may not be privy to the outcome of the case. Just because you haven’t heard the outcome may not mean that there wasn’t one. Alternately, the hearing may be delayed until the Fall, when everyone is back. The student may have dropped out and/or transferred, rendering internal discipline moot. The student may be known to the college as having psychological issues, so the college may be addressing the situation on that basis, rather than a disciplinary one. (In that case, there could be very real limits to what it could disclose, even assuming it wanted to.) Or the Dean may be using prosecutorial discretion, deciding that the case is too trivial to be worth pursuing.

A few suggestions:

First, consult the student handbook. Look up the disciplinary procedures, and address your followup questions to the Dean’s office in those terms. (“I see that there is supposed to be a hearing within thirty days. Do you need any more evidence from me?”) Although you’re experiencing this as an employment issue, the college is more likely looking at it (if at all) as a student conduct issue. Knowing the procedures there can tell you what to expect, especially in terms of timeframes. The answer may be something as simple and pedestrian as “the wheels turn more slowly than that.”

Second, talk to a trusted mentor on campus. This could be a union rep, if you have one, or it could be a department chair or senior professor whose judgment you take seriously. (For that matter, if you have a good rapport with another administrator, you could even try that.) Since local culture matters a great deal with something like this, it would be helpful to know the patterns over time. Is the Dean of Students (I assume that’s who is handling this) usually slow to respond, or is this out of character?

Finally, you could always approach the Dean personally and just ask. I wouldn’t advise doing that until you’ve done your homework on processes and deadlines, though. If you can make this about process, rather than about you, you stand a better chance of getting an outcome you want.

Or you may be told to suck it up. Again, local culture matters.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you advise? Is this a ‘hostile environment’ claim, a student conduct issue, or a nuisance of modern life? And is there a better way to handle it?

Good luck. Whatever happens, I hope you don’t let it rattle you.

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

Monday, August 08, 2011

Blind Pigs

Dontcha hate it when when someone whose views strike you as generally asinine happens to score a really good point?


In an otherwise awful essay in IHE, Robert Martin strikes a chord in discussing groupthink:

When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced

To which I have to say, ayup. In fact, I can top it. A few programs here went prereq-happy a few years ago, putting up all manner of prerequisites on courses that had previously been open to anyone. The argument was that some students were simply underprepared, so their failures were unsurprising. Put up curricular walls, the argument went, only the worthy would find their way in, and pass rates would soar.

Um, nope. Enrollments in the affected courses dropped, predictably, but pass rates didn’t budge. This has held for several years now.

Confronted with evidence that the barriers to student enrollment have achieved exactly nothing, the departments in question have simply shrugged off the facts. They won’t hear of “going backwards,” though they still want the increased resources that flow to departments with higher enrolllments. Any attempt to point out the contradiction is greeted with ritual invocations of corporate style management, bean counting, Wal-Mart, and the like.


I recently slogged my way through Benjamin Ginsberg’s atrocious polemic The Fall of the Faculty, for which I’m steeling myself to write a full review. (First I have to decide which genre it is: science fiction or parody.) Almost despite himself, though, Ginsberg backs into one good point. He notes in passing that faculty with part-time administrative roles -- such as himself -- are the ideal, since they bring faculty awareness to administrative decisions. Leaving aside both the reasoning -- the term “skill set” doesn’t occur once -- and the workload, there’s an argument to be made for the same idea in reverse. Get enough faculty who have had real administrative experience, and maybe the groupthink will abate somewhat. People who have actually had to balance budgets will understand that you can have curricular gatekeeping, or you can have resources, but you can’t have both. Indignation won’t pay the bills.

The common thread, I think, is holding open the possibility that you could be wrong. The enemy isn’t one group or another; it’s any one group deciding that it is in unproblematic possession of the truth. Ginsberg assumes as a matter of theology that faculty are Right and administrators Wrong. It just doesn’t work like that. Even a blind pig finds the occasional truffle, and even a sharp and virtuous soul will occasionally stick his foot in it. The test isn’t whether someone is pure or evil; it’s whether you’re willing to concede a truth you’d rather not, from a source you’d rather not.

So okay, Robert Martin scored one. One of my goals for this year will be to get some departments to acknowledge some facts they’d rather not. And I’ll promise to do the same.