Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Has your college found a reasonably elegant way to handle grades of “incomplete?”

We’re struggling, and I know we’re not alone.  I’m hoping that crowdsourcing the question will lead to a better idea.

The idea behind the “incomplete” grade, at least at the undergraduate level, is to allow students who had some sort of real personal emergency a chance to finish a course once the emergency has passed.  The textbook example is the student who gets into a car accident shortly before finals, and can’t make it to the exam because he’s hospitalized.  Most of us, I hope, would agree that giving that student a zero on the exam would be needlessly mean.  So the instructor can offer an Incomplete, and give the student a chance to finish the class for a grade once he has recovered.

The Incomplete comes with an expiration date; if the work doesn’t get done by a particular date, the grade reverts to an “F.”  It’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card; it’s just an extension.

When the “I” grade works well, the expectations are clear, the amount missing is small, and the resolution is quick.  Under those circumstances, the “I” grade isn’t really an issue.

But it isn’t always that easy.

Some people give “I” grades without actually talking to the student first.  It’s a mercy grade, on the assumption that surely, Johnny wouldn’t have skipped the final without a good reason.  This seeming act of mercy – which I have no doubt is well-intended – actually has serious ripple effects throughout the college.

For one, it wreaks havoc with prerequisites.  If Johnny would have received, say, a C without the final, but he gets an Incomplete instead, then he isn’t eligible to move on to the next course in the sequence.  He would have been eligible with the C.  By the time the “I” gets resolved, it’s either too far into the subsequent semester to take the next course, or all the seats in the next course are taken.

If Johnny received financial aid, the picture is even murkier.  The financial aid office has to assume that Johnny simply walked away.  If the professor didn’t note a last date of attendance, then Johnny’s aid may be cut.  Had Johnny received the C, his aid would have been fine.

The “I” grade doesn’t immediately count against a student’s GPA, but it does count against the Satisfactory Academic Progress that a student has to maintain to keep aid eligibility.  Depending on what else he took and how he did, Johnny may lose academic eligibility for financial aid even before the eventual “F” is posted.

But the real nightmare is the professor who assigns “I” grades unilaterally, and then vanishes. At that point, even determining what’s missing -- let alone what an appropriate grade would be -- becomes a serious challenge.

I need to clarify here that I’m working in the context of undergraduates.  Grad school incompletes are another animal entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways for a college to keep the option of the “I” grade without falling into these traps?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

That One Stings

As regular readers know, I grew up in a city with minor league baseball.  As it happened, a few of the players from the years I paid attention went on later to significant major league careers; one of them even became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  (Yes, I saw him play in the minors.  Even then, you could tell he’d be special.)  

Following a minor league team is a different enterprise than following a major league team.  In the majors, you root for excellence, and the better the players, the better.  It’s simple.  But in the minors, when a player gets really good, you brace yourself for his departure.  The really great ones don’t stick around long.  So you hope to catch moments of brilliance, but when you see someone really stand out, it’s bittersweet; you know he’ll be gone soon.

That came rushing back to me this week when a really outstanding employee attracted interest from a higher level.  She’s terrific, I absolutely understand the interest, and I’ll be right there cheering her advancement.  But in the short term, it’ll be a loss that stings.

It’s the same sting I remember from thirty years ago.  Any ethical manager knows the feeling.

I’ve been lucky in my own career; on the occasions I’ve gone to bosses to tell them that I was looking elsewhere, they’ve been supportive.  They took the position that fostering the growth of your people is what you do, even when that means they grow away from you.  It’s based on an ethical sense of how to treat people, and a faith that taking the high road consistently will generally pay off over time.

Not every organization or manager believes that.  I’ve seen managers punish outside interest as disloyalty, and punish people directly or indirectly for failed attempts to leave.  That’s common enough that a widely understood etiquette  has developed about reference checking that says you don’t contact references until someone has reached the “finalist” stage.  Why endanger their standing in their current job unnecessarily?  

I abide by the etiquette, but I don’t like where that perspective leads.  If jobs become jails, why bother trying to excel?  And if nobody ever grows or stretches, what happens when the folks on top retire?

That possessive style doesn’t lead anywhere good.  It assumes that the present is the best that could ever happen, and therefore that any change amounts to decline.  It’s pessimism as an organizing principle.  No, thanks.

I’d rather bet on the future.  (It’s what educators like to do anyway.)  Encourage people to develop and grow, and accept the occasional sting as a cost of doing business.  The folks who are capable of more than they’re doing now won’t stick around forever, but while they’re there, you’ll get their best.  Enjoy the flashes of brilliance.  And smile when the rest of the world discovers what you already knew.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Just Like a Real College Student"

A colleague here likes to tell the story of the evening student who visited her office in tears.  The student had been trying to locate an academic advisor for a while, and at the time, they weren’t easily available in the evenings.  (We’ve since changed that.)  By my colleague’s telling, the student complained that it wasn’t fair; she had to work during the day, but she still wanted to feel “just like a real college student.”  That meant advisors, and faculty, and even student clubs.

This story in IHE about the kids of the upper middle class finding their way to community colleges reminded me of that.  It’s old news to those of us on the ground, but still apparently unknown in the larger political discussion.  I hope they notice the story before they go and do something stupid.

When the Great Recession enrollment bump hit us in the Fall of 2009, we got calls from the local paper looking to write the story that we were retraining huge numbers of displaced workers.  It would have made a great story, if it were true.  But the major bump in enrollments didn’t come from displaced workers; it came from 18 year olds who, in flush times, would have gone directly to four-year colleges.   Since we’ve come down a bit from the peak, the major drop has been among the 18 year olds.

Nationally, the political discourse has no room for these developments.  Presidents Bush and Obama made references in State of the Union addresses to community colleges as centers of workforce training.  The academic blogosphere takes for granted that the liberal arts are under attack everywhere.

But on the ground, that’s not how it looks.  Here, the liberal arts are flourishing.  Yes, some of that is the effect of classifying certain courses as “gen eds,” but even allowing for that, the transfer major has experienced remarkable growth.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  With student loan debt becoming a major issue, spending the first two years living at home and paying cc tuition makes good economic sense for many students.   The humanities and social sciences are hotbeds of innovation on campus, since they have the enrollments and the staffing to do it.  (That’s not to deny that we rely entirely too heavily on adjuncts; it’s just to point out that the enrollments are strong.)

The well-intended political leaders who are looking at cc’s as training centers should be careful what they wish for.  The vocational programs we run are generally far more expensive to run than the classic liberal arts classes; they require specialized equipment and facilities, for starters, and the class sizes tend to run lower.  A dirty little secret of higher ed finance is that certain disciplines – the chalk-and-talk liberal arts classes, mostly – subsidize higher-cost disciplines.  All those full-to-the-brim Psych classes help pay for the small and expensive Nursing clinicals.  Take away the Psych classes, and the college’s per-student costs will skyrocket.  You heard it here first.

American history shows pretty clearly that programs for the poor get punished, while programs for the influential classes become sacred.  If community colleges start to serve people who could afford to go elsewhere, that bodes well for their institutional survival.

In that light, the story showing that the scions of the influential classes are finding their way to cc’s actually gives me some hope.  Right now, much of the discussion is based on stereotypes, even when the speakers mean well. (Even on the blogosphere, I’ve noticed cc voices remain badly underrepresented.  Must be the teaching loads.)  But if their own daughters come here -- the sons remain an issue -- it’ll be a little harder to ignore the facts on the ground.

And that will redound to the benefit of all the students here, particularly including the less wealthy ones.  If the daughters of privilege start demanding the services that “real” colleges offer, then the single moms who come here will have access to those, too.  We won’t have students showing up in tears, asking to be treated like real college students.  They’ll finally be treated as the real college students that they actually are.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Statewide Razzie Awards

The Razzie awards are given each year to movies and performances that truly, impressively, memorably stunk.  Adam Sandler is up for several this year, which seems about right.  (Halle Berry won serious good-sport points in my book for actually showing up to accept her Razzie in person for Catwoman a few years ago.)  I’d like to nominate Joel Schumacher for a Lifetime Achievement Razzie award, for somehow sustaining a high-powered career as a director over several decades without ever making a single watchable film.  

We in higher ed should establish our own statewide Razzie awards, to call attention to those states that have really gone above and beyond in treating public higher education stupidly and destructively.

A quick list of this year’s nominees might include:

1. Arizona.  The stupid, it burns.  A few weeks ago I noted its breathtaking new year’s twofer: mandating G-rated language by faculty at all times, both on- and off-campus; and establishing political conservatives as a protected class.  Now, as an alert reader brought to my attention, they’re considering requiring all students on financial aid to contribute a minimum of $2,000 a year to their own education.  (Athletes and merit scholarship recipients are exempted.)   If you don’t have a spare $8,000 for a four-year degree, tough rocks.  I’m not exaggerating.  As this article from the Arizona Republic notes:

Supporters of the bill believe students should have more "skin in the game." Opponents believe students already pay a lot for their education, and tuition is only part of the expense of going to school.About 100 students signed in to oppose the bill, and a handful spoke out against it. James Allen, UA student-body president, told legislators that by passing the bill, legislators would make it harder to achieve a higher-education degree.Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, replied, "Welcome to life."

Welcome to the Razzies, Arizona.  

2. Florida.  I’ve heard of states cutting higher education funding.  And I’ve heard of states establishing new campuses (though admittedly not recently).  Florida offers the first case I’ve seen of doing those two things at the same time.  

Apparently, a term-limited Republican State Senator, J.D. Alexander,  has decided that his legacy will be a new campus.  But he doesn’t want to spend money to do it.  The obvious solution: cut the overall system funding while mandating spending on a new campus!

I’m not usually a fan of term limits, but if they get this guy out of power, I’ll have to reconsider my position.

The only metaphor that makes sense is jamming both the accelerator and the brake at the same time.  It’s physically possible, but why the hell would you do it?

3. California.  California is the Cal Ripken of stupidity: it just keeps performing, year after year, and at a remarkably high level.  

The state is facing a multibillion dollar structural deficit for the umpteenth consecutive year.  Its community colleges have wait lists of tens of thousands of people.  And its solution is...set tuition absurdly low, and don’t let the colleges keep it!  Make up the difference with furloughs for employees and waitlists for students.

Wow.  Just, wow.

If California is the future, we should all be very, very scared.

Wise and worldly readers, who would you nominate for this year’s public higher ed Razzie?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Friday Fragments

The Dog has developed a habit of kidnapping The Girl’s stuffed animals.  We find them scattered around the house, sometimes with their eyes missing.  The motive is unclear, and the dog isn’t talking.


In a meeting this week, a frustrated professor described politics as “trying to get one group of rich guys to convince another group of rich guys to do the right thing.”  I thought he nailed it.


This year’s Daddy-Daughter dance was lovely, though notably different than the last few.  In previous years, The Girl danced only with me, and happily so.  This year, she alternated between dancing with me and dancing with her friends.

And so it begins...


Life’s little ironies.  My publisher has given me a fish-or-cut-bait deadline on the book.  I’m making better progress than I thought, but it requires some extended periods in which I shut myself in the dining room for some quality time at the keyboard.  So I have to tell the kids to leave me alone so I can write wry and insightful prose about work-life balance.

That just seems wrong, somehow.


Gremlins attacked the campus email system recently, so the system has been down.  Having been without it for a while, I’m not entirely sure I want it back.  Without email, I’ve been weirdly uninterrupted and able to complete a few thoughts.  Even better, I’ve been able to have longer-than-usual, unpressured conversations.  Yes, arranging meetings by phone is cumbersome, but if it cuts down on the number of meetings, this may not be altogether bad.  


From out of the blue, The Girl asked me what causes wars.  I said that wars happened when countries couldn’t use their words.  She said that was silly.  I couldn’t argue.


I’m looking forward to the League for Innovation conference in Philly in March.  If you want to find me, I’ll be the middle-aged white guy.


The Boy blasted through the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books some time ago, and recently finished the Hunger Games series.  He’s looking for something new, but I don’t have any ideas.  Any suggestions for action-packed fiction for an unusually literate ten year old boy?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Montesquieu Goes to College

Should different economic classes have different colleges?  And should those colleges have different missions?

I’m not talking about the elite-of-the-elite letting in a few scholarship students, as welcome as that is.  I’m thinking more of art history and philosophy at community colleges.  

With what I have to assume is basically good intent, President Obama and many governors are pushing the idea of community colleges becoming workforce training centers.  They’re redirecting funding from general operational budgets -- the budget that supports every program at a college -- to grants targeted at favored programs.  Generally speaking, that means either STEM fields or fields with presumed local employability.  The motivation seems to be to do something about jobs, in hopes of getting the economy moving (and the votes flowing).

On the ground, though, the effects are disturbing.

This report from Diverse Issues in Higher Education suggests the effects of, in essence, replicating the K-12 “tracking” system in higher education.  Simply put, it increases the social separation between those who can afford (or can slip into) elite institutions, and everyone else.  

Tuesday’s post discussed the value of cross-class exposure and interaction in college.  That kind of interaction is only possible when different classes are present.  And that will only happen when colleges aren’t rigidly stratified by class.

This isn’t -- at all -- an argument against vocational programs or training.  Those programs meet specific needs, and they’ve done wonders when done right.  

Instead, it’s an argument for properly valuing the liberal arts in a community college setting.  Literature, philosophy, art history, political science, and economics shouldn’t be the privilege of those who have money.  They’re the shared (if contested) heritage of a culture, and they bespeak possibilities beyond the present.  They’re enriched by a panoply of perspectives, but that panoply is unlikely to be robust if everyone in the discussion went to prep school.  

Besides, if you take the whole “student loans are choking the young” argument seriously -- which I do -- then a robust liberal arts transfer route from the community college level becomes part of the solution.  If you do two years at the community college, incurring little or no debt, and then transfer to a traditional four-year college, you can escape with a lower debt burden than you otherwise would.  To the politicians out there, I’d mention that this is its own form of workforce development.  The student who transfers to a four-year college and then goes on to medical school -- and yes, we have those -- does quite well in the job market, thank you very much.  

Some faculty locally have opined that the drive to reduce community colleges to workforce training centers is based on a desire to strip the lower classes of the faculties of critical thought, the better to keep them down.  That argument strikes me as a little self-flattering, a little patronizing, and oddly enough, a little too credulous.  A good nurse needs critical thought to do the job well, for example.  More to the point, though, in my discussions with political leaders, I just don’t think they’re that deep.  They aren’t trying to wall off philosophy from the proletariat for fear of revolution; they just want to get past the recession as quickly as possible, and this seems as good a way as any.

In other words, the issue isn’t so much nefariousness or corruption as shallowness.  Paradoxically enough, the shallowness goes all the way down.

Perorations on the wonderfulness of the liberal arts are fine, as far as they go, but they tend to land on deaf ears.  If we academics want to keep the liberal arts available for students of limited means -- and having been one, I am firmly on board with that -- the arguments to make are around cross-class contact, transfer, and student debt.  We can orate to each other to keep up morale, if we want, and the old-time religion makes great fodder for graduation speeches.  But if we want to preserve this audaciously idealistic mission of bringing the liberal arts to the masses, we have to start from where we are.  

The alternative is to recreate the economic segregation of our neighborhoods in our colleges.  And that would be a loss for everybody.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


As regular readers know, I enjoy my technology.  Though largely useless with analog technology -- like hanging curtain rods -- I have great fun trying to get black boxes that beep to do stuff that they weren’t entirely meant to do, or to do it for a lot less money than its producers had hoped.  Technology allows me to be both forward-thinking and cheap, which is a lovely combination.

But sometimes, the way forward is backward.

This year, the library on my campus took a daring step, with my enthusiastic support.  It set aside one room as...wait for it..a tech-free quiet study space.  It consists of carrels, chairs, lights, and almost nothing else.  Other than furniture, the only expense was a sign on the door designating the room for quiet study.

It was an experiment.  What would happen if students were given the option of a space where nobody spoke, where group study was entirely verboten, and were nothing was beeping or going clickety-clack?

The students love it.  The space has been both popular and self-enforcing.  And that’s before we even hit midterm exams, let alone finals.  It turns out that in the era of electronic this and group that, there was an untapped demand for the classic “shhh!!” library environment that you would have found a hundred years ago.  Already, students busy studying have asked intruding talkers to leave.  And they left.

Admittedly, the cynic in me imagined that the space might become a haven for enthusiastic young couples to, um, do what they do.  Apparently it hasn’t.  The library staff reports that the place is usually more than half full, and often packed, with students actually studying.

Studying!  In the library!

This warms the cockles of my academic heart.  Not that I’m entirely sure what cockles are, but it’s good when they’re warm.

At a commuter campus, quiet space is at a real premium.  I recently saw a presentation by our facilities guy, who reported that building consultants (yes, there are such things) advise that community colleges’ buildings age faster than four-year colleges, since the pedestrian traffic per square foot is so much higher.  Without dorms or (in most cases) large-scale student centers, whatever space is available gets used.  Among other things, that means noise.

American culture loves noise.  This is the country that invented the open work space, the car radio, and the group-bonding “retreat.”  But there is something to be said for having a quiet space for concentration.

One of the least-commented findings in Academically Adrift was that length of time spent in group study bore no correlation to improved critical thinking skills, but length of time spent in individual study was strongly correlated to improved critical thinking.  The social pressures of group work seem to work against digging deep.  This year’s “aha!” book, Quiet, by Susan Cain, notes that what Cain calls “The New Groupthink” defeats intellectual breakthroughs precisely by valuing social fluency over content.  Sometimes, you need the content.  And if you can’t be an introvert in a college library, of all places, where can you be?

Peace and quiet can be hard to come by when you have young children, you work part-time to get through school, and your apartment is in a marginal neighborhood.  In those circumstances, high tech study pods are all well and good, but what you really need is for everyone to just shut up and let you focus.  Student, chair, table, lamp, book, pen; that’s it.  Calm should not be an upper-class preserve.  Calm should be for everyone.

Gadgetry is fun, and sometimes even useful.  But all the data in the world is only helpful if you actually get a chance to think about it.  Score one for the introverts.  Just don’t say it too loudly...

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Wake-Up Call

We have family friends whose older son started college this Fall.  Apparently, when he got his Fall grades last month, he had his head handed to him.  Having reeled from the shock for a while, now he’s studying much more aggressively than he ever has before.

The same thing happened to me in my first semester of college.  Having learned certain expectations in high school, the first semester at Snooty Liberal Arts College came as a rude shock.  Part of it was poor course selection, but part of it was simply not appreciating the level of effort that I had to muster.  

In my case -- and, I’m fairly confident, in the case of our family friend -- that first semester functioned as a wake-up call.  I raised my game after that, and the results followed.  

But for many students, a rough first semester doesn’t result in redoubled effort.  It results in a fatalistic shrug, and either an immediate departure or a de facto one.  

I’m not entirely sure what makes the difference.  

The literature on resilience suggests that expectations have much to do with it, and that makes intuitive sense.  I remember being sort of offended that other guys in my dorm -- most of whom were no smarter than I was, as far as I could see -- did just fine, and I didn’t.  It struck me as ridiculous.  If Lumpy could do well, I could.  I mean, jeez.  These guys weren’t mysterious beings with inscrutable superhuman powers.  They were relatively well-spoken jocks who liked to pour vodka on the linoleum and light it on fire. (True.)  If they could succeed, I thought, I’ll be damned if I can’t.

By that reasoning, a student who is the first in his family to go to college, who commutes from home and doesn’t hang around with strong students, and who has picked up some shaky academic habits in high school might well react differently to a rough first semester.  He might be more vulnerable to the impression that people who know how to do this are fundamentally different from him.  He might take that first negative report card as confirmation of his self-doubts, rather than as some sort of insult requiring an answer.  

To the extent that’s true, then there’s probably a direct academic consequence to the increased segregation by income that characterizes both our towns and our colleges.  If the first-in-his-family student had family friends with college degrees, and was exposed to other successful students outside the classroom, he might be quicker to decide that success is attainable.  After all, if his none-too-impressive classmates could do it...

But never having that exposure means never having that reality check.  

One of the unadvertised benefits of attending SLAC was seeing the sons and daughters of the elite up close.  Other than a sort of blithe weightlessness, they really weren’t that different from the rest of us.  Nothing demystifies like a shared bathroom.

To the extent that neighborhoods were once more mixed economically than they are now, it was once possible to get at least some cross-class exposure in the course of daily life.  That’s mostly not true anymore, which leads to a sort of narrowing of one’s sense of the world.  If the elite only ever see other elites, they can lose touch with reality pretty fast.  And if the working poor only ever see other working poor, a certain fatalism can come to seem like clearsightedness.

Colleges can be wonderful places for that kind of cross-class interaction, though it’s obviously harder when students live at home and commute.  

Our family friend has parents who went to college, and who are cracking the whip on him now.  (“Improve your grades or start paying rent.”)  I hope that’s enough to get him back on track.  But for the kids who don’t have that at home, I wonder.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ability to Benefit

I’m told that community colleges will lose the option to admit students on an “ability to benefit” basis as of July 1.

Right now, students who don’t have either a high school diploma or a GED are allowed to take a general skills test for admission.  If they score high enough, they are deemed to have the “ability to benefit” from college level work, and are eligible for admission and financial aid.  For reasons of its own, the Federal government is not only removing the eligibility for financial aid, but even making entire institutions ineligible for financial aid if they admit any ABT students, even those who are paying their own way.

That may seem reasonable enough at first glance.  The argument, to the extent that there is one, is that students who lack either a diploma or a GED should be directed to get one of those first.  Once they have it -- usually a GED -- then they’re fine.  (The rule does not apply to high school students in dual enrollment programs.  Obviously, if the rule did apply, dual enrollment would cease to exist.)  

But I wonder if they’ve really thought this through.

The collision of this rule with the effects of No Child Left Behind isn’t pretty.  In my state, as in many others -- I’m not sure if it applies to all -- high school students have to pass a standardized statewide exam in order to get a high school diploma.  If they finish their senior year with passing grades but don’t pass the exam, they don’t get a diploma.  Instead, they get a lesser certificate that does not pass muster under the new Federal guidelines.

Sociologists of education will not be shocked to learn that the students who fall into that category are disproportionately low-income, non-white, and male.

Now the students who complete high school but don’t graduate -- a category that exists only because of the effects of NCLB -- will have to get GED’s before enrolling in community college.

And this is a good idea...why?

I’ll agree without hesitation that it would be great if everyone who completed high school passed rigorous exams with flying colors.  It would also be great if ice cream cured cancer.  Some things just aren’t going to happen.  

In the real world, the effect will be to put up yet another obstacle in front of the students who most need social mobility.  You went to a crappy high school?  Tough break, kid.  Now you have to go through yet another program before taking yet another exam before getting into college, where, in all likelihood, you’ll have to start with developmental courses.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

I foresee a few possible outcomes.

One is a severe and permanent drop in the enrollment levels of the most disadvantaged students.  The implications for their future employment levels, salaries, and life options are clear.

Another is a proliferation of quick-fix GED workarounds.  If you think the for-profits are predatory now, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  

It gets worse when you consider the idea of making community colleges the default workforce training centers for their communities, as President Obama suggested in his State of the Union address.  If you have to go to the community college for your post-secondary training, but you can’t get in without a GED and you don’t already have one, then the hurdle to economic mobility just got that much worse.

Honestly, I don’t know what problem they’re trying to solve with this.

A more productive approach would be to fund studies on ATB students, and to find the programs in which they succeed at the highest rates.  What do those programs do right?  If the problem is a perceived lack of completion, then let’s address that.  But addressing it by putting up even more hurdles doesn’t make sense at all.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ask the Administrator: How Soon Can I Leave?

A new correspondent writes:

Six months ago, I accepted an assistant deanship at an institution that requires a long daily commute. I've since come to regret my decision, finding that the 60+ hours away from home is damaging my family life, which, in turn, makes me ineffective in both work and family roles. In your experience, what is a reasonable amount of time for a junior administrator to spend in a position before moving on? Do I need to tough it out for a year before beginning my search, or can I start applying for positions now?

First, condolences on learning the hard way about long commutes.  A few years ago my commute shortened dramatically, and I have to admit that my quality of life improved significantly.  It’s an easy variable to overlook, but we overlook it at our peril.

Having said that, I’ll answer the question with an “it depends.”  It depends on how many quick departures you have in your history.

Most prospective employers will forgive one oddly short stopover.  If asked, you can simply say that life events made the job untenable -- which is substantially true -- and you had to make a change sooner than you would have liked.  If the rest of your history has you doing five years here and six years there, a single aberration isn’t fatal.

But if you have a history of a new job every year, that’s a serious red flag.  If you have a long history of playing job hopscotch, then I have to assume that that’s what you do.  

The administrative job market is fundamentally different from the faculty job market.  There’s much more lateral movement, and much more turnover.  (The two are directly related.)  That means that some level of movement isn’t necessarily alarming, particularly in the early stages of a career.  If a tenure-track professor leaves a college after six or seven years, the default assumption is that s/he was denied tenure; if an administrator leaves after six or seven years, that’s generally considered a good run.  

So if this would be the first ‘quickie’ on your record, I’d start looking for new positions as soon as possible.  One quickie isn’t the worst thing in the world.  If your record is nothing but quickies, though, I’d start asking some hard questions.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in administration -- what do you think?  

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Friending Students on Facebook

A longtime reader writes:

I've been told by one of my employers that I am not allowed to accept friend requests from students on Facebook or any other social media site save Linkedin.   In my field (probably in most fields)  networking is really important and therefore this is a serious bummer.
I tend to have multiple classes with the same students, so Facebook or no Facebook they're going to get to know me.  Pretending I'm a personality-free teacher bot isn't going to work.  Not sure yet if I'm supposed to unfriend current friends, but if so that's super rude (and potentially time consuming).
I think there's some freedom of speech issues here, but I work at the pleasure of the college so I guess they can tell me to say/do whatever they want outside of school and I can like it or lump it.

This is probably one of those cases in which someone went overboard, and administrators who didn’t quite get the concept overreacted.

I’m just old enough to remember a time before Facebook.  Back then, people used to interact in all kinds of ways, some of them in ways that would give administrators pause.  But there wasn’t a written record most of the time, so with exceptions, there usually wasn’t much proof.  With Facebook and other social networking technologies, there’s a written record.  (Rep. Anthony Weiner discovered that the same principle holds on Twitter.)  

Worse, social network etiquette is still evolving.  People present different selves in different contexts -- necessarily, and sometimes to their credit -- but those styles of presentation can get all jumbled up on Facebook.  Since people can easily spend far more time interacting on a social network than they probably would have in real life, all that jumbling can lead to confusing and dangerous places.

We administrative types have a healthy fear of confusing and dangerous places, since we deal regularly with lawyers.  I could see where a risk-averse administrator might just decide that anything insufficiently buttoned-up (as opposed to, say, LinkedIn) should be avoided altogether.

It’s a mistake, though.  

You’re right that there’s an issue with regulating speech outside the workplace.  There’s also a basic issue with confusing a medium with a message.  Yes, some people have done stupid stuff online.  But they have also done stupid stuff offline.  Email can be used abusively, as can telephones, as can hallway discussions, as can in-class lectures.  At a certain point, savvy administrators have to learn to let go of the idea of control -- absurd when dealing with creative people -- and instead focus on setting a climate of expectations and, when things go wrong, controlling the damage.
A more constructive approach would instead focus on helping faculty and staff understand the implications of various kinds of interactions.  The rule of thumb with email, for example, is to keep in mind that any message you send could be used in court.  The same is true on social networks.  Even when the messages aren’t lurid or illegal, they can be socially awkward.  If you’re trying to maintain a certain authority within the classroom, pictures of you doing awkward and silly things might be counterproductive.  (And yes, the impact of that can vary by age, race, sex, and all the usual variables.)  Once you’ve seen your professor on youtube shirtless, wearing Groucho glasses, and singing the theme to Rawhide, you can’t unsee it.

Not that I would know anything about that.

As to the issue of “at-will” employment, that’s a much larger question.

My advice would be to try to find well-respected faculty at your institution who use social networking in recognizably productive ways, and ask them to educate your dean.  As long as s/he is acting from fear, you won’t get far.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone found an effective and responsible way to educate administrators and/or other faculty about social networking?  

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

Monday, February 13, 2012

An Open Letter to the U.S. Census Bureau

Dear Census People,

The folks at BlogHer picked this up, and I just saw it today.  

In a study of childcare arrangements done by the census, childcare provided by mothers is counted as parenting, but childcare provided by fathers is counted as babysitting.  

And the report isn’t subtle about it.  In the words of the report, on the first page:

In households where both parents are present, the mother is counted as the designated parent.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse just one sentence later:

If the mother is not available for an interview, the father can give proxy responses for her.

Proxy responses.  You know, if you can’t find the real parent.

The survey only asked about child care provided by the father for the time the designated parent was working.

Wow.  By that logic, since TW stays home, I don’t do any parenting at all!

This comes as news to me.  I would have thought that the hours I spent lying on my back, with my arm outstretched upward, holding little TB’s hand through the crib slats until he stopped crying and went to sleep, counted as parenting.  Apparently not.  Or maybe the week that I spent shuttling between home and the NICU, where I held my newborn daughter gently, so as not to disturb the IV stitched into her head.  No?

Sorry, my bad.

All those books read aloud, diapers changed, baths given, meals made, sleep lost, dishes done, soccer games, t-ball games, baseball games, soccer games, basketball games, parent-teacher conferences, emotional crises, family trips, skipped evening events, training wheels,  heart-to-heart talks, tickle fights, board games, unwatchable kids’ movies, sledding, skiing, hiking, holding...nothing?

No.  Apparently, that pesky Y chromosome invalidates it all.

This is madness.

You don’t encourage men to step up as parents by dismissing our efforts as babysitting.  

Census people, I have endured idiotic charges of “patriarchalism” from critics who assume from my pseudonym that I’m some kind of Archie Bunker character.  And I’ve endured charges of aloofness from coworkers who don’t understand why I go straight home every night after work.

I will say this one time.

I am a parent.  A devoted, sleep-deprived, frustrated, proud, consumed, active, worried, imperfect, unapologetic, parent.  As are millions of other men just like me.  I am not a babysitter, a stand-in, a substitute, or a proxy.  I am a father, and a damned good one.  

My seven-year-old knows that.  That man taking her to the Daddy-Daughter dance this week isn’t a babysitter.  He’s the man who has been there from the beginning, walking the walk, talking with her before she had words to respond, and who’s still here.

We’re done with this.  


Dean Dad

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Raising Arizona

Given the level of stupidity regularly emanating from Arizona, I’m almost reluctant even to raise the topic.  But stupidity has a way of metastasizing if left unchecked.

The Arizona legislature is considering a pair of measures affecting higher education: the first requiring the use of G-rated language in class, and the second establishing political conservatives as a protected class.

As to the former, I’ll just note that hey, at least they’re speaking English!  Checkmate.

The latter, though, requires more of a response.

First, the obligatory snark.  I’m glad to see that Arizona is so conscious of civil rights!  It’s heartening to see the state that allows police to randomly stop brown people and ask for their papers suddenly develop a concern for the equal protection of the laws.  For conservative white people with graduate degrees, anyway.

Okay, that’s done.  On to the substantive objection.

If political conservatives are given “protected class” status, then they’ll be able to use the “disparate impact” standard to claim discrimination.  In other words, they won’t have to show actual discrimination; they’ll simply be able to point to a predominance of liberals in a given venue and use that as presumptive evidence that discrimination has occurred.  Clearly, the intent of the law is to bully colleges and universities into hiring conservatives and/or getting rid of liberals.

Revealingly, the opposite is not true.  Liberals will not be able to make that claim where conservatives predominate. (The bill is written only to apply to certain corners of higher education.  It would not apply to, say, the state police.)  By itself, that’s reason enough for a court to throw out the law.  If the first amendment means anything at all, it means that one’s legal standing does not depend on one’s political views.  For conservatives to have rights that liberals don’t have would be such an obvious violation of state neutrality regarding political speech that any judge who didn’t throw it out would be immediately discredited in the legal profession.

But back to protected class status.  “Protected class” status can be used as a legal battering ram against an institution.  Typically, therefore, it has only been available where a person’s membership in it can be verified.  Race, sex, and even age are mostly verifiable.  Sexual orientation is trickier, but there’s typically enough to go on.  But in the age of the secret ballot, how does one prove (or disprove) one’s political leanings, especially if one’s publication record is either thin or concerned with other matters?  This is why affirmative action for political inclinations is not comparable to affirmative action for, say, race.

And if “imbalance” is the issue, what, exactly, would constitute “balance”?  Should faculties be evenly split?  Should proportions reflect the latest election results?  (If so, then any sort of long-term employment commitment is literally impossible.)  And what, exactly, is the legal definition of “conservative” or “liberal”?  What’s to keep people from lying on a questionnaire to keep their jobs?  Would people have to testify before the House Un-Republican Activities Committee about their doctrinal purity?

If it’s a matter of party registration, this will accomplish nothing.  It’s perfectly easy and legal to register as a Republican and vote Democratic.  For that matter, it’s perfectly easy and legal to register as an Independent and vote for whomever you damn well please.  (Does “damn well” pass the G-rated test?  And how would I know?  But I digress.)  

If it’s a matter of political perspective, who gets to define them?  My own political beliefs, for example, tend to be pretty liberal, but not on every issue.  How do you count people whose beliefs don’t fall into an easily defined camp?  How do you count, say, libertarians?  And what about people whose views evolve over time, based on their discoveries within their fields?  The one group guaranteed to lose, in this environment, is people who actually think for themselves.

I’d hate to be hired to help fill a de facto quota for a given political position, only to find my own views evolving away from what my employment requires.  In that setting, “academic freedom” is entirely dead, and there’s simply no point in inquiry, since answers are assumed to be pre-defined and pre-approved.  And what happens when the political winds shift?  

Arizona has had its share of bad ideas over the years, some of which it has passed into law.  I hope this bill doesn’t get that far.  Preventing any serious intellectual inquiry for fear that it might run afoul of the political majority is a stake in the heart of higher education.  

Of course, political majorities aren’t permanent.  And payback is a bitch.  (Well, I guess there goes the G rating.)  I’d suggest that the legislature keeps that in mind...