Thursday, March 29, 2012

All You Can Learn?

A few days ago I mentioned that the credit hour must die, and several readers asked for clarification.  (In a Leslie Neilsen voice: “Death is the end of life.  But that’s not important right now.”)  

Now I see that a new for-profit, New Charter University, is trying to kill the credit hour.  I have to admit being fascinated.

As the Chronicle tells it, New Charter charges students a set fee per month as a sort of membership.  As long as their membership is current, students can take as many or as few courses as they want at any given time.  The courses are offered online -- “taught” might be too strong a word -- and students can move through modules at their own pace.  When they’re ready, they take exams.  As they accumulate something like credits, they move toward a degree.  (The article mentions that NCU isn’t regionally accredited at this point, so the degree may not count for much, but I anticipate the accreditation coming.)

It sounds like a wonderful setup for older, self-directed students who have significant life experience but lack paper credentials.  The beauty of it is that students who already know certain parts of courses can just blast through them and spend more time on the parts that require actual effort.  And since it’s self-directed and asynchronous, there’s no issue of transportation, work hours shifting, or the various stuff of life that makes showing up consistently in the same place and time for fifteen weeks a challenge.

Put differently, even if students earn “credits,” they don’t need “credit hours.”  The unit of time has been broken.  If you can blast through a basic course in ten hours instead of the prescribed forty-five, good for you -- your efficiency isn’t punished.  Conversely, if you need a hundred hours, well, hell, they’re your hours.  Take what you need.  Instead of failing after forty-five and retaking all forty-five -- including the parts you already mastered -- you can just take the time you need and get it right.

In a way, it seems like an obvious thing to try.  But ask any experienced administrator why we don’t, and we’ll all give the same answer: financial aid.  The entire financial aid system is based on credit hours which, in turn, are based on clock time.  And rather than getting away from that as distance education has rendered clock time less relevant, they’ve actually tightened the screws on clock time in light of perceived abuses in the for-profit sector.  NCU’s breakthrough is to skip financial aid altogether.  You put cash on the barrel every month, and it’s all you can learn.  How you get the cash is your problem.


To recap: productivity refers to value divided by time.  When your value is denominated in units of time, your productivity can never increase, by definition.  (Its cost can and will inflate, but that’s not the same thing.)  Public colleges -- those designed to serve people who may not have much money -- are legally forbidden to increase their productivity.  But for-profits can, as long as they skim only the student population that doesn’t need financial aid.  In other words, the sector that most needs to innovate is forbidden to do so, while its growing for-profit competition can barrel ahead without compunction or restriction.  And while the publics experience a pincer movement of flat productivity, increased costs, and decreased state support, the for-profits charge more than their cost of production and plow some of the proceeds into marketing, all the better to skim the students who aren’t constrained by financial aid.


The credit hour must die.  As someone who is dedicated to public higher education, and who believes strongly that the publics will be worth saving only if they stay good enough to attract people who have other options, I don’t like where this leads.  If we’re going to compete, we’re going to need to be free to experiment.  And we’re going to need the financial aid rules, union contracts, state regulations, and regional accreditation agencies to adjust, to let us do that.  They all assume the credit hour as traditionally understood, and they have the cumulative effect of tying us to an anchor.  No wonder we struggle to stay afloat.

I don’t know if NCU will work, but it’s trying some of the right things.  I’d love to see the publics free to experiment like that without forcing students to go without financial aid, but we’re not there yet.  Maybe, just maybe, a high-profile success in another sector will finally break the logjam.

So good luck, NCU.  I hope to be able someday to adapt some of your innovations to a setting that’s also based on access and fairness to everyone.  Preferably while the change is still voluntary.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Getting Your Discipline Noticed

A new correspondent writes:

I am an adjunct instructor at a large, urban university and I'm very happy with my job - this spring will mark the end of my third year here. Every so often a student approaches me to express their desire to switch their major to my discipline (anthropology) and I have to tell them we do not offer it as a major or minor. My classes are only on the books in order to enrich the actually existing majors of sociology and criminal justice, and because my department chair (sociology) sees that I'm doing a good job and genuinely likes me.

This was not always the case. In the recent past, say 10-15 years ago, the university had two full-time faculty in my discipline and offered the major. Then, in quick succession, one retired and the other suddenly died. Rather than bring those lines back the program was shuttered. Now there's just intro classes and adjuncts, and that's about it. Every time someone asks me how they can take more classes in my subject I wish I could tell them there was something we could do to bring the major back.

Is there any hope for getting my university to expand its commitment to my admittedly esoteric discipline? My classes are popular and pique students' curiosity, but they have to go to another institution to study it more. Is there an appropriate way to bring that popularity to the administration's attention?

It’s a great question, because it gets to the heart of what the institution chooses to support.  And it shows a basic flaw in “shared governance” as it’s usually understood.

Most community colleges below a certain size have to make some difficult choices about which majors to support (or combine).  Those choices tend to reflect transferability and/or employability, enrollments, historical commitments, what was hot in the fat years, the availability of external funding, and incumbent employee preferences (both faculty and administration).  It doesn’t usually reflect the academic merit of one course of study as against another, since that varies so greatly depending on who’s measuring.

That may sound cold and offensive in the abstract, but when you get to cases, it makes sense.  Okay, you’re in charge of allocating faculty positions this year, and you have one to give to a department that makes a good proposal.  You get impassioned arguments from both photography and anthropology.  Quick, which has more academic merit, and how do you know?  

It’s a remarkably difficult question to answer with any level of confidence.  (And heaven help the administrator who explains to an incumbent department that its program lacks academic merit!)  But you could look at enrollment data, transfer/employment data, and external funding; those are all much easier to defend, if need be, and they speak to the ability of the college to sustain the program over time.  It’s easy to caricature that as “corporate” or “soulless,” but I think of it as an expression of epistemological humility.

For a major that doesn’t currently exist as a major, it’s usually not enough to say that the course of study is inherently worthwhile, or even that some students have asked you about it.  You should be able to show not just demand -- though that’s certainly helpful -- but also what problem you’re solving.  If your college already offers a sociology major, what would an anthropology major give the students that they don’t already have?  Could they transfer to a four-year college and major in anthro if they majored in sociology at your cc?  If so, what would your proposed major give them that they don’t already have?

Shared governance, as usually understood, is premised on the idea that the incumbent faculty are in charge of curriculum, and the administration handles the budget.  But the two categories are hard to separate when it comes to new program development.  And when incumbent employees vote and prospective ones don’t, there will be a pronounced tendency to direct resources to where they already are.  A new program that can draw entirely on faculty who are already there is an easy sell, but one that would require existing departments to forego badly-wanted hires in favor of something entirely new is harder.  There’s a conflict of interest to overcome.  It can be done, but it’s harder.

The few successful cases I’ve seen have either involved entirely new technology or belated recognition of massive external economic forces.  It’s not immediately obvious to me that either would apply in the case of anthropology as such.  But you might be able to work with sociology to hitch a ride with something else.  Could you develop a course that might be of particular interest to allied health majors?  Maybe something with human services?  Sometimes a program can develop organically simply by becoming the common denominator among disparate areas.  But there’s no guarantee of success, and it’s a hell of a lot of work.

Sorry to be a downer, but that’s how it looks from here.  

I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one.  Is there a better way to raise your discipline’s profile within the institution?  Have you found a more effective route?

Good luck!

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Non-Academic President

A new correspondent writes:

I work at a comprehensive community college.  The president has announced his retirement and a search committee is being formed.  Several of the faculty and staff have mentioned nominating a candidate who might be a great fit for the position, but he has no graduate degree and limited direct experience in higher education.  His experience in other areas, however, makes him attractive.  He has served in elected state offices and on a number of educational boards and committees and has a history of supportive relationships with higher education in general and the college in particular.  He certainly possesses some of the managerial skills necessary to do the job and brings some unique qualifications to the table.  While his lack of driect experience is certain to be objectionable to some, his pro higher education history and reputation are likely to favorably influence others. Is it critical that a president come from the academic ranks?  What problems might we expect to encounter during the hiring process?  What issues have others encountered working for a president from outside the profession?

I’ll open by noting that region matters.  In my neck of the woods, a candidate without a graduate degree of some sort would be a non-starter.  That may or may not hold in your area, depending on regional accreditation requirements and local culture.

Assuming no bright-line rule from the accreditors, the trustees, or the state, the question would be what the likely challenges are.

Community college presidencies are at an inflection point.  The average age of a community college president in the US is 61 and climbing.  The cohort that moved into community colleges during the great growth period is aging out, but the bench behind them is often thin.  Historically, the most common “feeder” job for new presidents was chief academic officer – usually called either an academic vice president or a provost – but the average age there is climbing, too, and surveys suggest that fewer CAO’s want presidencies than was once the case.  Those two developments suggest that more presidents will come from other places.

And that’s not necessarily bad.  Presidents’ jobs have become much more about external relations – community, philanthropic, and political – than they once were.  (That’s a major reason that fewer CAO’s see the appeal.)  Someone who can work those relationships well, such as your preferred candidate, stands a decent chance of being successful at the role as it has evolved. 

The major issue will be with the faculty on academic issues.  It’s one thing to be broadly supportive of education; it’s quite another to understand academic culture and the needs and fears of faculty.  Many faculty will fear – with some warrant – that a president whose major focus is financial or political will neglect academic matters, or sell them out to the highest bidder with the best of intentions.  (That’s remarkably easy to do.) 

My advice to a candidate who fits the profile of your candidate would be to establish, quickly, a strong provost system.  Keep or appoint a provost with unimpeachable academic credentials and a solid sense of academic culture, and then back the provost fully.  If the entire college understands the president/provost relationship as similar to a CEO/COO relationship, and they trust the provost, it could work.  But a non-academic president who isn’t humble or self-aware enough to hire his weakness will run aground quickly through tone-deafness.   Faculty culture is a creature unto itself; at some level, either you get it or you don’t.  And even if you do, lacking the credentials will mean you start with a strike against you. 

That’s my sense of it, though I can’t claim to have seen every case.   Wise and worldly readers, have you seen cases where this kind of president has succeeded?  Or is this ultimately a fool’s errand?

Good luck!

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

Monday, March 26, 2012

Connecticut Goes for Broke

Several alert readers sent me links to this piece from the Hartford Courant.  Apparently, the Nutmeg state is considering abolishing standalone remedial courses in community colleges altogether, starting in 2014.  They’ll allow colleges to replace them with “as needed” remediation offered in the context of credit-bearing courses.

I have to admire the chutzpah, though I haven’t a clue how it could work.  I’ll be following the experiment with considerable interest.

The rationale for the change is hard to dispute.  Apparently, Connecticut community colleges statewide have a four-year graduation rate of 13 percent, which is low even by sector standards.  (To be fair, with the exception of Alaska, there’s a nearly inverse relationship between four-year graduation rates by state and two-year graduation rates by state.  It’s about the student population finding its way into each sector.)  

It wasn’t long ago that Connecticut centralized control of its community colleges.  Now it’s considering the kind of broad strokes that centralization makes possible.  That can be very good, or it can be disastrous.  In this case, possibly both.

The upside is clear.  Graduation rates -- or even just rates of making it to 100-level classes -- are not good for students who start in developmental courses.  Students who have more than a semester of developmental work do particularly badly.  Research from the CCRC suggests that the drivers of poor outcomes are a combination of a greater number of possible exit points -- the longer it takes, the more time for life to get in the way -- and the incredible demotivating effect of being told that nothing you’re doing really counts.

But I’m having trouble envisioning the logistics of it.

Let’s say you have 30 students in a section of English 101.  20 of them require some level of remediation, but the levels required range from just-a-brushup to here’s-how-to-write-a-sentence.  As near as I can figure, at the end of the 101 meeting, the ten students who don’t need remediation would leave, and the 20 left behind would get some sort of attention.  

The instructor would need absolutely heroic range to reach all of those students at appropriate levels.  Alternately, if you had multiple sections running simultaneously, the followup classes could be grouped by ability, but at that point in the absence of a lockstep curriculum in 101 you’d have serious discontinuity issues.  That would defeat much of the pedagogical gain that could otherwise be realized through just-in-time remediation.  Or you could do a lockstep curriculum, but that would likely be pretty demoralizing to the faculty.

Alternately, you could do drop-in remediation and rely on students to know what they need and when they need it.  But I’d strongly advise against it.  As Kay McClenney likes to say, students don’t do optional; if they aren’t forced into the extra help, they’ll underuse it, and the fail rates will reflect that.

However Connecticut engineers it, I’d advocate giving serious thought in advance to how they would define success.  Comparing pass rates of the “new” English 101 to the previous 101 will almost certainly suggest terrible failure, since the previous one featured only those students who had already made it through (or bypassed) remediation.  The relevant measures, I’d think, would include success rates in the followup course (Composition 2, say), graduation, and measures of student outcomes on defined learning objectives.  Even if the pass rates in 101 are abruptly lower than they once were, they may still be higher than the combined pass rates of two semesters of remediation plus 101.  Ultimately, if more students make it into comp 2, you’ll know it “worked.”

If I were advising Connecticut -- Nutmeg state readers are invited to pass this along to whomever -- I’d suggest having some campuses try the new system while other ones stick with the old one.  Do that for a few years, then compare the results.  If you see a significant improvement, finish the shift; if you see a significant decline, revert to the status quo ante.  Centralization doesn’t have to mean standardization.  This is a chance to run a wonderful experiment with national implications.  Otherwise, it’s just another state-level policy change.

Good luck, Connecticut.  It’s a brave move.  I’ll be curious to see if it’s bold or foolhardy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fish? Check. Barrel? Check.

So the interwebs were abuzz this weekend with discussions of an editorial in the Washington Post arguing that professors are vastly overpaid relative to their work, and that their relative laziness is a primary driver of the higher ed cost spiral.

The usual suspects responded with the usual flurry of attacks.  Several pointed out that the Post is owned by the Kaplan company, which also owns a host of for-profit colleges.  Predictably, there were plenty of “not me!” statements, assertions of superhuman workweeks, and ritualistic denunciations of “administrative” costs.  

As is usually the case in straw man conflicts, neither side really got to the heart of the matter.  The op-ed completely whiffed on causality, and the major objections whiffed on relevance.

The op-ed purported to condemn academic labor costs, yet it never mentioned adjuncts.  That’s a remarkable omission, especially at the two-year level.  And while it addressed salaries -- which have gone up in the low single digits annually at best for a long time -- it never mentioned benefits, the costs of which have gone up far faster.  (As long as that’s true, the gravitational pull towards adjuncts will be hard to fight.)  

It also took a number of stupidly cheap shots.  Measuring faculty workload solely in terms of classroom time is like measuring athletes’ workload based on how long the event takes.  By that measure, sprinters are the laziest people on earth -- they work only seconds per day!  The idea that a 5/5 load equates to a fifteen hour workweek is true only if you assume no preparation or grading.  (Having taught that load myself, I can attest that the assertion is pure crap.)  If there’s a real issue here, it’s the mismatch between what’s good for the organization and what it chooses to reward.  Because in the system we have, there’s often very little incentive for the professor to do more than the bare minimum.  Many do, to their personal credit, but those that don’t, don’t really face consequences for it.  

Which begins to get at the actual issue.  The higher ed cost spiral has outpaced inflation at every level of higher ed, in every institutional type, in every region of the country, for decades.  To attribute that to personal failings is preposterous by definition.  Clearly, the cost issue is structural.

Some have claimed that “administrative bloat” is the heart of the problem.  (This tends to be the favorite whipping boy on the interwebs.)  Never mind that this assertion has been empirically discredited, or that the “supervisory” ranks in colleges have shrunk even faster than the full-time faculty ranks.  The only actual growth has been in IT, services for students with disabilities, and financial aid.  Firebrands are invited to explain which of those they’d cut.

Although I find the “administrative bloat” canard both offensive and tiresome, the real problems with it are twofold.  First, it’s simply false.  (I like to think that matters.)  Second, it’s politically tone-deaf.  College administrations are the people whose job it is to manage college budgets.  Painting administrations as bloated and incompetent will push legislators in exactly one direction: cutting budgets.  Would you entrust growing sums to people who don’t know what they’re doing?  If we want to encourage more generous appropriations -- which I’d think we would -- the first thing to do is stop disparaging the folks who would manage the money.  That’s Politics 101, and I’m still amazed at the number of intelligent people who don’t see it.

So if the real issue behind the cost spiral isn’t faculty laziness or administrative bloat, what is it?  Is it climbing walls?  (Most cc’s, mine included, don’t have them.)  Is it football?  (Ditto.)  Lavish dorms?  (Ditto again.)  

Is it financial aid?  Has financial aid loosened the sense of fiscal responsibility on college campuses?

That has a certain first-blush appeal to it, but it flunks the comparison test.  The health care cost spiral hasn’t been hampered by over fifty million Americans lacking health insurance.  Remarkably, the veterinary health care cost spiral has been similar, despite the almost entire absence of pet insurance.  (It’s also hard not to notice that single-payer health care systems have much lower costs overall, which is the opposite of what the “external payer hurts discipline” theory would predict.)  The “Pell is the Problem” theory also completely fails to explain the rise of private lending, which covers the increasing amounts that subsidized aid won’t.  

So no, that’s not it.  I’ll boil it down to two.

The first, which is easy to explain, is cuts in public appropriations.  My own college gets about five million per year less from the state than it got four years ago.  (That’s over ten percent of its total budget.)  That’s before adjusting for inflation.  In many other states, it’s considerably worse.  You simply cannot remove that much money that quickly without consequences.

The only problem with this theory is that while it’s unassailable in explaining the last few years, it isn’t as strong in explaining the preceding decades.  Yes, the recent fiscal sinkhole matters, but tuition went up fast during better years, too.

The longer-term issue is productivity.  And no, that’s not a euphemism for “you’re too lazy.”  It’s simply to say that if you continue to measure learning in units of time, and those units don’t change, then your productivity increases will forever be zero, by definition.  When the rest of the economy grows a few percent per year for decades, the gap compounds.  It’s called “Baumol’s cost disease,” and it’s endemic to education and health care.  And that’s true whether the professors or doctors are lazy, conscientious, or even heroic.  It’s not about them.

I have to admit being of divided mind on this one.  Long-term, I’m convinced that the only way to break the spiral is to break free of time-bound measures.  The credit hour must die.  But in the short term, no amount of innovation is likely until we get sustainable operating budgets on the political side and some room to move on the legal side.  As long as we’re stuck fighting rearguard battles externally -- and dodging circular firing squads internally -- we’ll continue down the path we’re on.  

That’s a lot harder than pointing at some lazy professor and laughing, or pointing at some insipid op-ed and sneering.  It requires a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the core of what we do.  That’s not sexy, or easy, or fast, or cheap.  But unlike shooting fish in a barrel, it’s actually worth doing.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Friday Fragments

Note to software/hardware vendors: if you want to make the case that what you’re selling will overturn teaching and learning as we know them, don’t do so with a four-hour lecture.

I’m just sayin’.


A rare “bravo!” to Colorado for considering legalizing a multiyear contract system for college faculty.  The only way we’re going to move to sustainable fairness is to get away from the Manichean tenure/adjunct dichotomy.  Here’s hoping the idea starts making its way East.


The Girl demonstrated some unnerving ingenuity last week.  We stopped for ice cream in celebration of The Boy’s terrific school conference, and TG had a cone.  She poked a hole in the side of the cone, about an inch up from the bottom, and stuck her straw in it.  Then she started sucking the melting ice cream through the straw.  

Yes, dear readers, my daughter invented the ice cream bong.

I am fairly bursting with pride.


You read that your local community college has a 25 percent graduation rate.  Leaving aside the crimped definition of ‘graduation rate’ that has become the industry standard -- in which students who transfer elsewhere before finishing, then finish there, count as dropouts -- does it then follow that if you enroll there, you have a 25 percent chance of graduating?


If you don’t understand why that is, please don’t write articles and books in which you attack community colleges.  Because you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

Hint: different demographic niches of students graduate at very different rates.  Different majors graduate at different rates.  Students who intend to graduate do so at much higher rates than those that don’t.  The overall institutional number is the average of all of those.  But you aren’t.


Great Moments in Parenting: The Boy is casting about for this year’s science fair project.  He’s trying to come up with some sort of renewably-powered engine.  Conversation ensues:

TB: Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make a car that runs on poop?

TW: Or maybe one that runs on Daddy’s farts!

DD: They are renewable.

TB: No, that’s a fossil fuel.

DD: I am not a fossil!


Of course, to a ten-year-old, I am a fossil.  Sometimes I forget.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mandatory Moodle?

Should every professor on campus be required to use the college’s LMS system, whether they’re teaching online or not?

Lasell College in Massachusetts is trying that.  It’s requiring its entire faculty to use Moodle.  (I have to admit scratching my head at the headline: “getting its money’s worth.”  Moodle is free.)  The story doesn’t actually give a reason, so the reader is left to guess.

Off the top of my head, I could come up with a few:

- Disaster preparedness.  When snow days or other natural disasters strike, you can minimize disruption to classes by having a robust online presence.  If students are capable of shifting to online mode when classes can’t meet physically, then you have improved the continuity of instruction.

- Reducing printing and photocopying costs.  

- Speeding the development of entirely-online curricula.

- Ensuring/improving accessibility for students with disabilities.

- Nudging curmudgeons to retire.

I can’t imagine getting away with something like that here.  

The boundaries of where administrative jurisdiction ends and individual faculty jurisdiction begins aren’t always clear or obvious in online classes.  With traditional classes, certain rules are clear.  The administration selects the time, days of the week, and location of the course, and the instructor does the content.  So if you have, say, a Math 101 class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 in room 144, the content the professor chooses to fulfill the goals of the course fall under that professor’s academic freedom.  But if the professor just decides one day to switch the location and time to something more personally convenient, the administration has the right to put the kibosh on that.  Students build schedules around expectations, and there’s a finite number of classrooms to go around.  The traffic cop function -- this class meets here and that class meets there -- properly belongs to administration.

With online classes, it isn’t that easy.  We’ve had cases in which a professor who teaches in, say, Blackboard at another local college doesn’t want to learn Moodle for us; in those cases, we’ve taken the position that the LMS is analogous to the classroom.  It’s where instruction happens.  If you teach online for us, you use the LMS we use.  That way we can be sure that we can provide technical support and ADA compliance, and students don’t have to learn different systems for each class.

But to my mind, there’s a difference between saying “all online classes must use Moodle” and saying “all classes must use Moodle.”  The former strikes me as reasonable and sometimes even necessary, but the latter seems like a stretch.  

The way to go, I think, would be to make the universally-relevant parts of the LMS ridiculously easy to adopt.  Putting up the syllabus means not having to bring spare copies with you all the time for students who lose theirs.  Having a quick way to contact every student at once comes in handy for days the instructor is absent.  Give faculty a way to get some of the low-hanging fruit with minimal effort -- there’s always some, but it’s getting easier -- and over time, I suspect, most will.  

That said, I’ll admit being intrigued.  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Would it make sense to require some sort of standard online presence for every class?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fear, Blame, and Financial Aid

Some stories have deeper roots than others.

This story is about a change to Federal financial aid policy that’s taking effect July 1.  At that point, no new students can receive financial aid -- or from what I’ve been told, could even pay their own way if the college itself is financial aid eligible -- to attend college if they don’t already have a high school diploma or a GED.  (Dual or concurrent enrollment programs are exempted.)  That means that the “ability to benefit” test will no longer work; students who show up without either a diploma or a GED have to go get one.  (Students previously admitted under ATB will be allowed to finish.)

At the same time, as an outgrowth of No Child Left Behind and the various state-based “accountability” movements, 28 states have instituted high-stakes, must-pass standardized tests that students have to pass to graduate high school and receive a diploma.  Depending on the state, students who finish the twelfth grade but don’t pass the test fall into a sort of limbo.  They’ve run out of high school, but they don’t get diplomas or GEDs.  

I don’t think the new policy was written with this cohort in mind, but it’s not a trivial-sized group. Yes, theoretically they could get GEDs, and maybe, eventually, a few will, but it’s one more hurdle, and a uniquely dispiriting one.  

Worse, Adult Basic Education programs are often oversubscribed already.  Adding a whole new client base without adding new funding -- call me cynical, but I’m not holding my breath here -- is just asking for trouble.

The punish-the-dropouts movement is colliding with the test-’em-all movement to create a cohort of students who stuck out high school until the end, only to leave without diplomas and without eligibility for a second chance in community college.  Add an underfunded ABE network and you’ve created a real problem.

Underlying the collision, I think, is a tension between a drive to punish and a need to offer second chances.  

American culture gets scarily enthusiastic about punishment.  We lead the industrialized world in incarceration rates, and still apparently feel so scared of dark people that we’re willing to look the other way when a gun nut chases down an unarmed black teenager carrying nothing but iced tea and skittles and shoots him in the chest.  We’re scared enough of women being sexual that we pass laws mandating stillbirths to be carried to term because, well, that’ll teach ‘em to have sex.  And we’re scared enough of failure that we want to believe that people who fail are somehow at fault themselves, and that failure will go away if they do.  

But that’s not how things work.

If half of the students in a given high school don’t graduate -- some drop out, others run out the clock but never pass the test -- who do you punish?  Punishing the students, which is what the new policy will do, has the undesirable effect of essentially punishing the poor for being poor.  It also leads to a loss of hope, which can lead to some awful places.  

Punishing the teachers doesn’t solve issues of student transience, unstable home lives, or suboptimal peer groups, and it virtually guarantees that good teachers will avoid those districts in the future.  Punishing principals doesn’t seem to help, judging by the “meh” effects that the charter school movement has had nationally.  

No.  We’re not going to get through this by punishing our way out.  Okay, some school districts struggle more than others; the statistics are easily available, and we all know the major variables involved.  Are we content with that, or can we find ways to help people climb out?  (Knowing that one could climb out -- even if the option is never taken -- has value.  Nothing is more dangerous than fatalism.)  Yes, eventually it would be lovely if every school did a great job the first time, nobody ever needed remediation, everyone was college-ready, and the economy was begging for new employees at all skill levels.  That would be nifty; sign me up.  But in the absence of that option, we have choices to make.

By all means, let’s work on improving the high schools.  But we have students graduating now for whom even the best improvements will come too late.  What to do about them?

Where fear and hope collide, let’s choose the second chance over the punishment.  Let’s not write off entire classes of students when they turn 18, if they even make it that far.  We need to get past the destructive and self-defeating drive to punish people who have already lost, and instead get serious about bringing the outsiders back in.  This should be an easy place to start.  Let them in.  And then let’s get serious about facing those fears.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ask the Administrator: If I Become a Dean, Will My Faculty Colleagues Shun Me?

A new correspondent writes:

I've been thinking a lot lately about how much I do (or don't) want to move farther into academic administration.  I've been chair of my department, as well as chair of my division of my institution, but I haven't (yet) taken on a full-time administrative position.
I often see articles these days about how isolating and challenging academic leadership can be.  And I can see how being a provost / dean of faculty would significantly limit one's ability to have casual conversations with faculty colleagues, which would feel like a loss.  On the other hand, I could imagine that being in such a position would allow one to cross paths with a wider cross-section of interesting faculty colleagues, and to learn about and support their work.  What have you found the balance of these costs and benefits to be in your position?

On a related note, in a recent post you mentioned (in a slightly different context) "the need for well-prepared people to step up to handle the increasingly difficult challenges" of academic leadership.  I realize that you were paraphrasing someone else's message, but to what extent do you think there is an obligation for faculty members who might be effective administrators to at least consider taking on that role?  
I’ll take the second point first.  No, there’s no individual personal obligation to move into administration.  Some professors are absolutely wonderful in the classroom, but just don’t have the temperament for management.  (I assume that they have the intelligence.)  And that’s fine.  Part of the satisfaction of administration is knowing that you’re creating the space in which creative and independent-minded people can do their best work.  If you can enjoy, vicariously, knowing that you’re protecting the brilliant teacher, then administration might be for you.  If you need to be the one in the classroom yourself, probably best to avoid the dean’s office.

On an institutional level, though, there is a need for smart and capable people who understand the larger context of what they’re doing.  If people who understand the classroom don’t go into administration, people who don’t, will.  

In my case, self-awareness played a role.  I was a pretty good classroom instructor, but not a great one.  But I felt like I’d be much more above the average in administration, since I felt like I had a better since of the big picture than many of the people already there.  Over a decade later, that still feels right.  It’s easy enough to find other professors as good as me, if not better, but I still feel like I do better at admin than most.  In a way, it was the doctrine of comparative advantage, applied to occupational choice.  Were I a rock star in the classroom, I probably would have stayed there.  I was fine, but so are lots of other people.  I’d rather be a real asset in an admin role than a fine-but-nothing-special instructor.  That may say as much about me as it does about administration, but that’s what happened.

The first part of your question reflects something real, though it isn’t as bad as all that.  Yes, if you move into a deanship (or something similar), your rapport with many faculty will change.  Some of that is a function of stereotyping, some of different tasks, and some of different work calendars.  When I made the shift at the college where I started as faculty, I noticed quickly that some relationships changed drastically, and others very little.  

On the plus side, though, you’ll find quickly that you’ll have a certain camaraderie with other administrators, and for many of the same reasons.  They’re up against the same things you’re up against, and often at the same times.  They’re around when you’re around, and they get the same cold shoulder from some faculty that you do.  Unlike many external critics, they understand that one ‘good’ often conflicts with another, and that choices are inevitably made among flawed options in imperfect conditions with limited information.  You do the best you can, and you live with it.

The key is to remember where you came from, and why you’re there at all.  

Different people have different ways of doing that.  Getting out of the office on a regular basis is helpful.  If you’re in a setting in which administrators are allowed to teach -- I’m not, frustratingly enough -- then teaching the occasional class can keep you grounded.  To the extent you can, try to send the message -- and live by the message -- that you don’t shoot messengers; without that, you may fall prey to people telling you what they think you want to hear until something explodes.  Better to find out while you can still do something about it.

Even just reading the academic blogosphere can help.  If I ever forget how admins look to faculty, it’s easy enough to find reminders.

Finally, the farther up the food chain you go, the more isolated you can become.  Having strong outside-of-work support networks is huge.  I’ve seen people who let their work become their life; over time, they invest far too much emotional energy in trivia, just because it has to go somewhere.  Having people close to you who don’t give two hoots what you do at work can keep you sane.

Good luck!  If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you’ll make the right decision for you.

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Is there an ethical obligation for capable people to step up?  And is living in a bubble inevitable?

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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Chairing a Nest of Vipers

An occasional correspondent writes

I'm the most junior tenured member of my department, in which some ofthe more senior tenured faculty are not on speaking terms with eachother. For complicated reasons, I'm also going to be the chair of thisdepartment next year. Any tips on how to handle this situation?

Sometimes less is more.

In my experience, long-standing feuds are seldom about what they’re about.  Whatever the initial cause may have been, they’ve long since snowballed and become things of their own.  Even if you were somehow able to get at the initial cause, it wouldn’t be enough.  And the simple act of prying would reopen old wounds and just make matters worse.

Modesty of ambition is your friend.

Rather than trying to resolve the disputes -- a fool’s errand -- I think you’ll have more luck with a strategy of making them irrelevant.  

In some contexts, a department chair can set a tone for the way a department runs.  I’d recommend setting a tone of “just the facts” and focusing simply on the work that needs to get done.  Whatever happened in 1985 to set two professors against each other is really none of your concern at this point; your job is to ensure that the current and future work of the department gets done.  

I’ve had some luck -- limited, but nonzero -- in stressing the difference between coworkers and friends.  Nobody has to hang out socially with anyone against their will, and nobody has to be on anybody’s Christmas card list, but the book order needs to be done when it needs to be done.  

If you want to get more ambitious, you could always try setting up some sort of common project.  Having Professor Cobra and Professor Mongoose craft, say, an outcomes assessment protocol for the intro course might have the salutary side effect of uniting them against a common enemy.  If you’re willing to be the common enemy, you might be able to move them forward.  But be prepared to be ignored, or to get the “hollow yes” of upfront agreement followed by endless foot-dragging.  

Depending on the size of the department and the percentage of it dealing with feuds, you may be able simply to marginalize the cranky ones.  To the extent that there are goodies to be shared, share them with the people engaged in positive, forward-looking activities.  (I say that fully recognizing that goodies are often in short supply.)  If the past is poisoned, which it apparently is, all the more reason to focus on the future.  
Depending on your relationship with your dean, you might want to sit down with her and strategize a bit.  What forward-looking project could you focus on to harness the positive energy within the department?  Are any resources in the offing?  To the extent that you can distract the rest of the department from any long-simmering conflicts, all the better.  Richard Rorty wrote that progress occurs in philosophy not so much when great questions get answered as when someone changes the subject.  Change the subject.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any advice?  Anything that has actually worked would obviously be welcome.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Small Victory

As an administrator, some victories are so subtle that you’d miss them from the outside.  This week we had one of those, and I just want to write it down before I forget it.

A student complained in a vitriolic email that she was first given contradictory information, and then treated condescendingly, when she tried to enroll in an online program.  Her email listed all of the people to whom she spoke, her interpretations of what they had said to her, and some not-very-nice things about the college in general.  Naturally, she cc’ed everybody she could.

Here’s where the victory happened.

The first person to whom the student spoke tracked down the second one and compared notes.  Then, she tracked down the third and did the same.  All three got together, and quickly realized that they had interpreted the student’s question differently.  The first one thought the student was asking about a particular class -- call it basketweaving 101.  The second thought the student was asking about an entire degree program -- every course in the basketweaving major.  We offer the former online but not the latter, so the answers the student received were different.  By the time she got to the third person, the student was flustered and confused enough that he couldn’t make sense of her question one way or the other.

Once the source of the error was clear, the first and second folks who talked to her reached out to her, explained and apologized for the mistake, and offered to help her in any way they could.  Between each other, they decided that if a student came in quoting one to the other in a way that didn’t seem to make sense, they’d call each other to verify before addressing the claim.


That may sound boring and pedantic from the outside, but it made my day.  Here’s why.

In a less functional culture, one or more of the following would have happened.

- The second employee would have blamed the first employee for spreading misinformation.  Attributed motives would have included incompetence, sabotage, and/or indifference.

- The first employee would have blamed the second in all the same ways.

- The third would have complained about both of the first two, and possibly tried a quick fix to make the complaining student go away.  The quick fix would set a precedent that would come back to bite everyone later.

- At least one of the employees would have claimed amnesia.  Alternately, at least one of them would have attributed the later questioning to discriminatory motives.

- At least one of the employees would have complained to the other one’s boss.

- Alternately, the student would have been entirely forgotten in the flurry of charges and countercharges.

Instead, the employees assumed mutual goodwill and competence, patiently tracked down the misunderstanding, worked together to help the student, observed all the relevant rules and policies, patched a hole in our systems, and got back to the student in a constructive and professional way.

It wasn’t glamorous.  It won’t be celebrated in song and feasting.  But it was professional, civil, respectful, and practical.  It would not have happened if the culture still punished mistakes and rewarded blame-shifting.  It was an unforced sign of positive culture change really taking root.

It was a small win, but it was a big one, too.  I’ll take it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Express Lanes Redux

Santa Monica College in California is proposing setting up new, premium sections of popular courses at higher cost for students who are shut out of subsidized sections.  The cost difference is dramatic: rather than the $36 per credit they’d pay in subsidized classes, students would have to pay about $200 per credit.  The idea is to allow the college to run the extra sections on a break-even basis.

This has been tried before.  The IHE piece doesn’t mention it, but a couple of years ago Bristol Community College in Massachusetts tried something similar with its Nursing program.  Student demand far exceeded available seats in the program, so the college briefly contracted with a for-profit provider, the Princeton Review, to offer extra sections at a tuition premium.  The Princeton Review would set up the extra sections, the curriculum would be the same, and students who were shut out of the low-cost sections would have the option of either waiting their turn for the cheap seats or paying extra for immediate availability.  It’s the academic equivalent of a next-day shipping option.

In both cases, it’s easy to raise objections from equity, fairness, incentives, and in the earlier case, motivation.  It’s also not entirely clear whether California law will allow Santa Monica to pull it off. But in both cases the objections miss the underlying dilemma.  

Public colleges, especially at the two-year level, offer services at far below cost.  That’s by design; the idea is to encourage people to go to college.  Some of the gap is filled by proceeds from for-profit community and corporate education programs, and a little from bookstore revenues, but most of it comes from state and/or local subsidies.  The theory behind the subsidies is that the entire population benefits from having an educated workforce and citizenry, so it’s fair to have the entire population kick in some money.  Even if nobody in my family attends the local community college, we all benefit from having police, nurses, and various local employees -- that is, taxpayers -- who did.  

But when the subsidies don’t track enrollments -- which they absolutely have not for many years now -- growth is a problem for a college.  In the Massachusetts case, student fees didn’t come close to paying for the cost of more Nursing seats.  In the California case, incredibly enough, the low tuition that students pay goes entirely to the state; the college keeps none of it.  In that system, new enrollments are pure cost.

For-profit colleges are the polar opposite.  For them, new enrollments more than pay for themselves.  For them, growth isn’t a problem; it’s a goal.  

As long as the incentives line up this way, I expect to see variations on the “express shipping” option continue to arise.  They already exist at the macro level; students from wealthy families can buy their way into undistinguished private colleges, whether for-profit or nonprofit, where they can take whatever they want.  Public colleges are supposed to be the alternative to that, but the funding constraints on them are making that harder to sustain.  

Of course, as public colleges start to behave more like their tuition-driven private competitors, they start to lose their reason to exist.  That’s fine if you’re Grover Norquist, but for normal Americans, that’s catastrophic.  The masses will never be able to afford the express option in large numbers.  As bad as the student loan numbers are now, just imagine how much worse they’d be if every community college followed Santa Monica’s example and quintupled tuition.  

Bristol and Santa Monica are open to all sorts of critique, but I’m glad that they’re at least showing us the logical consequences of continuing down the path we’ve been on for the last few decades.  Let’s put “quintupled tuition” on the ballot and see what happens.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Return of Happy Harry...

A returning correspondent writes:

I am trying to figure out whether and how to give advice tocolleagues at another public institution in my state, in my field,where it's fairly clear the chief academic officer has set up insaneinternal incentives (insane here meaning not inherently unethical butfundamentally unsustainable, "White Queen thoughts-before-breakfastmonetary assumptions" insane). From conversations it's clear at leastthat both faculty and the unit's administrator feel they have to danceto the academic officer's tune. And I don't know how long thispie-in-skie chump is going to sit in that office.
Because my last conversation included the unit administrator, I'malso not sure if the faculty was parroting the party line or are trulyunaware of the risky setup. I like them, I worry about theconsequences of what's happening, and I am not sure what my ethicalobligations are from being part of the same field with the sameessential mission in the state. We don't often meet, so this may havebeen a rare opportunity to provide an outside perspective. But can I?I have perspective, but I don't have local knowledge to fine-tune itor to make a persuasive case using facts they know intimately. On theother hand, I feel like it's unethical for me to sit on my handsseeing colleagues trapped in an academic version of the Dancers ofColbeck. Do I go on active-listening alert mode with my mouth shut fornow about my assessment, do I talk vaguely about the environment forpublic institutions and hope they get the sense their institution'sapproach is non-viable, do I anonymously send job postings I think myfriends and colleagues would be good candidates for?

A little over twenty years ago I saw a movie called Pump Up the Volume, with Christian Slater.  Slater played an alienated high school student -- that was kind of his wheelhouse at the time -- who made life tolerable by operating his own underground radio station.  The conceit of the movie was that he developed a growing cult following by bravely telling the truth about life in high school.  He called himself Happy Harry Hardon, as a play on the name of his school, Hubert Horatio Humphrey High.  His motto -- “the truth is a virus” -- suggested that you could bring down a corrupt system, gradually, simply by telling the truth.  The truth is tenacious, contagious, and hard to un-hear once you’ve heard it.

I loved the movie.  It featured a hero with an alliterative pseudonym who used alternative media, told the truth as he saw it, and got the girl.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

I’m thinking something similar could work here, albeit without the romance angle.

If you’re willing to trust that your interpretation of their CAO’s initiative is correct, then you could adopt the strategy of introducing a virus into the system.  Break your argument down into suggestive nuggets -- anecdotes are always good -- and just share those nuggets with the people you know there.  Don’t hit them over the head with full-blown arguments, since they’ll probably tune out.  An email here, a conversation there -- put the dots in circulation, and trust that over time, people will start to connect them.  If you choose the right dots and the right people, they probably will.

The risk of this approach, obviously, is that it takes some time to work.  But once it starts to work, it will take on a life of its own.  (I read somewhere that viruses are “sort of” alive, so that’s only sort of a mixed metaphor.)  A well-chosen aphorism can slip into the system almost undetected, and gradually but inexorably wreak great change.  In this context, that could involve invocations of ominous parallels (“remember what happened at Southeast State?”), predictions of inevitable shortfalls (“grants expire, you know...”), or even just questions (“and after the grants expire, then what?”).  

There’s no guarantee of success, of course, but I like this strategy’s chances better than a full frontal assault.  Let the truth sneak up on them.  

Good luck...

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way?  Or should he just look away and hope for the best?

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