Thursday, June 28, 2012

Friday Fragments

The bloggers’ union called and threatened to revoke my card if I didn’t at least try to write something about UVA.  

If nothing else, I hope the whole episode will help some folks understand the crosscurrents that academic administrators have to navigate.  Within the confines of a college or university, it’s easy to fall into the default assumptions of academia.  Outside of higher education, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes of absent-minded or elitist faculty, or colleges as dens of iniquity.  Academic administrators have to be conversant with both, and able to translate each side to the other.  

That can be a severe challenge.


The interwebs have been abuzz about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece about working women’s struggles to “have it all.”  Though I wasn’t the piece’s target demographic, this part resonated with me:

Today, however, women in power can and should change that environment, although change is not easy. When I became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, in 2002, I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life. Thus, I would end faculty meetings at 6 p.m. by saying that I had to go home for dinner; I would also make clear to all student organizations that I would not come to dinner with them, because I needed to be home from six to eight, but that I would often be willing to come back after eight for a meeting. I also once told the Dean’s Advisory Committee that the associate dean would chair the next session so I could go to a parent-teacher conference.
After a few months of this, several female assistant professors showed up in my office quite agitated. “You have to stop talking about your kids,” one said. “You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.” I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice, but it is interesting that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together.

As a blogger, I adopted the name “Dean Dad” because those are the two roles that occupied most of my waking hours.  I’ve deliberately written about my kids as part of a self-conscious attempt to slowly make normal the idea that many adults -- not just women -- are parents.  It’s easy to say that incorporating more women into positions of authority would result in more parent-friendly expectations, though the experience of the last forty years strongly suggests otherwise.  But even taking that position ignores the fact that fathers as fathers have not been nearly as conscious as they could and should have been about blending parenthood and work.

On the job, I’ve made a point of neither embodying, nor expecting, superhuman hours at the office.  That’s not to say that long days never happen -- evening events come with the gig -- but that people here don’t gain brownie points by looking like they never go home.  And that’s not just laziness or entitlement; it’s based on a clear sense that frazzled people generate far more unnecessary conflict than do balanced people.  I’m gambling that people will do their best work over the long term when they aren’t fried.  That means having time to have lives.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  When The Boy was little, The Wife worked nearly full-time, and I worked full-time, and the stress was unbelievable.  (For example: you both have important stuff coming that day, and the kid wakes up too sick for daycare.  You have twenty minutes before you have to hit the road.  What do you do?  Repeat, and repeat, and repeat.)  When we hit the point where she could stay home, she did, and that reduced the logistical stress tremendously.  And we’re lucky to have two healthy kids with no “special needs.”

My takeaway from the Slaughter piece was that too many workplaces still assume that workers aren’t parents.  That strikes me as true.  And those of us who have had front-row seats to the issues faced by working parents -- women and men -- need to make a conscious choice to do something about that.


The Girl has a bit of Wednesday Addams in her.  Actual conversation this week::

TG: I think heaven is in space.  

DD: Okay.

TG: So that means God is an alien.

DD: Well, I guess so.

TG: And since God created people, then we came from space.  That means we’re aliens, too.

DD: God created trees.  Does that mean trees are from space?

TG: Mm-hmm.  Everything is!

DD: Well, if everything is, then the word “alien” doesn’t mean much.  Seems like we should save it for certain things.

TG: I think I’m more alien than (The Boy).

DD: How?


TG (deadpan): Haven’t you noticed?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adult Basic Education

Why do those who need the most get the least?

Elite universities and colleges get far more funding per student than their less elite counterparts.  Community colleges, which are even less elite, get even less.  And adult basic education, which serves the very most vulnerable students, gets the least of all.

Adult basic education is a clunky umbrella term that encompasses a range of non-credit skills courses.  Typical offerings include ESL/ESOL, adult literacy/basic writing, arithmetic, study skills, personal finance, GED prep, and very basic applied computing.  They’re the kinds of classes that recent immigrants, high school dropouts, and people who have had very challenging lives take in order to move into the mainstream of the society and the economy.  

Community colleges don’t always teach much ABE, but they frequently work closely with agencies that do.  In the best cases, they might even share facilities and build explicit pathways for students who make good progress, and who want to, to find their way to college.  But even for students who have no intention of trying college, the payoff from improving literacy and basic numeracy is palpable.  The payoff is even greater when you realize that many ABE students are also parents.  When parents learn how to read to their kids, the payoff plays out over generations.

And as badly as community colleges are funded -- longtime readers may have noticed me mention that once or twice -- ABE programs are often even leaner.

It’s certainly not for lack of demand.  Many of our programs have long waiting lists, and the only limiting factor in running them is funding.  Prospective students are out there in tremendous numbers, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  With the decline of low-skill manufacturing jobs, the legal options for someone barely literate to make a decent living are few and far between.  Increased economic segregation has clustered the most desperate people together, meaning that the informal connections that may once have existed to opportunities aren’t what they once were.  And it’s not as if the K-12 system is flawless.

At the college level, declining funding from states has led -- at least in part -- to cost-shifting to students.  (It has also led to various budget cuts on campus, but that’s another post.)  That’s a significant part of what’s driving tuition increases, particularly since 2008.  But cost-shifting to students isn’t really an option in ABE.  The courses don’t carry academic credit, so they aren’t eligible for financial aid, and most of these students are barely scraping by as it is.  Philanthropy helps, but it’s not up to the scale of the problem; federal and state grants help, but they also tend to be too small, and to carry high administrative costs.  In the absence of a sustained direct subsidy, these programs largely depend on the kindness of strangers.

In a more rational world, programs like “adult literacy” would be much higher priorities.  If a kid who might have gone to Penn has to settle for Bucknell, she’ll be fine.  But if a young mother never learns to read, the damage done is real, and felt over generations.

Sorry to get so preachy this time.  I just saw some ABE students today talk about their experiences and the differences that the programs had made in their lives, and I haven’t been able to shake the sense that as a country, we have done something badly wrong.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Open Letter to Selective Colleges

Dear Selective Colleges,

You know I’m a fan.  I’m a proud grad of one of your number, and I’m glad to report that my community college has a strong track record of sending students your way, where they’ve done markedly well.  So I’m writing this in the spirit of constructive criticism.

As you know, you guys aren’t getting any cheaper.  Community colleges aren’t either, but since we’re starting from a much lower base, the cost gap between what you charge and what we charge grows larger every year.  The very best of our students -- as you know -- come here more because of cost (or high school record) than because of a lack of ability.  The pipeline from a good community college honors program to a selective liberal arts college is a great option for the strong student who may have been underrated.  I’m glad that the pipeline has been open, and I hope to open it even more in the next few years.

That said, though, we need to talk about online classes.

Many of your number -- I won’t name names, you know who you are -- simply will not accept online courses in transfer.  This is starting to become a real problem.

In the community college world, online education is the area of rapid growth.  It’s where the students are going, and some of us are getting good at it.  It helps address the very real scheduling issues that non-traditional students bring to the table.  For something like an honors course or a special-interest 200 level course, it can help put together a critical mass of students who otherwise couldn’t all meet at the same time.  (That’s why we’ve never been able to run honors classes at night.  An online honors option could give the stronger evening students a chance to participate.)  

Innovation at community colleges faces obstacles that don’t exist at other levels.  There’s the obvious issue of funding, of course, but there’s also the question of transferability.  We can’t experiment with courses in a transfer major if the destination college won’t accept them.  

I can understand where the policy came from.  In the beginning, online courses were unproven and sometimes identified with the more vocational or opportunistic parts of higher ed.  But that’s just not true anymore.  When MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are offering classes online, it’s hard to argue that nobody reputable takes the format seriously.  Years of studies show that online learning outcomes rival those of in-class courses (and hybrids are even better).  And in some cases, it’s getting more difficult for students to avoid online courses.  For a whole host of reasons, the market is shifting.  Even very strong students take online classes.  You can tell who they are by looking at their GPA’s.

I understand that some faculty style themselves proud docents of the Way Things Were When They Were Young, and/or the Guardians of Virtue.  But too much reverence for the past means missing out on the future.  In 2012, it’s difficult to take seriously the argument that anything online must, by definition, be inferior.  As more students take online classes, holding the line against them will progressively shrink the pool from which you can draw.  Why you’d want to do that, I have no idea.

With all due respect, the ground is shifting from under you.  It’s time to shift with it.

If you can do that, I can promise that we’ll keep right on sending our annual cluster of alarmingly talented and driven students.  



Dean Dad

Monday, June 25, 2012

Self-Fulfilling Cynicism

This piece in IHE was painful to read.  It’s about being a sacrificial lamb candidate for jobs for which the internal candidate has the inside track.  The author winds up asserting that there’s simply no point in applying for jobs when there’s an internal candidate, since the fix is presumably in.

As a factual matter, the assertion is just false.  Internal candidates often lose.  But I get the emotional appeal of the argument, even as it leads to self-defeating behavior.

As a veteran on both sides of the search committee table, I can attest that anyone who claims the ability to read the mind of a committee is lying.  I’ve had committees that report to me send me lists that left me scratching my head.  And I’ve walked out of committee meetings with my mouth open, wondering just how the discussion veered from candidate A to candidate B.

The core of the essay, aside from a palpable bitterness that seems to stem from a sense of betrayal, is an assumption that there’s a single list of qualifications against which every candidate can be ranked objectively against every other.  If there’s a Great Chain of Being, then either you hire the highest person on the chain that you can, or you’re corrupt.  A or B.

But that’s just not true.  And despite the more conspiratorially minded fulminations of the interwebs, “fit” isn’t just a euphemism for bias.  

Sometimes, the “best” hire is the one whose speciality is the most immediately useful.  Quick, who’s the better historian: an Americanist or a Europeanist?  Out of context, it’s a nonsense question.  But in a department with ample coverage of the U.S. and nothing outside of it, the Europeanist is the more desirable hire.  A math department that fights over the few sections of calculus, and grudgingly teaches basic arithmetic, is probably better off hiring the gifted algebra teacher than the next great theorist of knots.  (Seriously, mathematicians get all excited about knots.  Don’t ask me.)  

Sometimes it comes down to hiring for the future.  If you have a department with a chronic leadership vacuum because nobody ever wants to step up, the candidate with some administrative facility becomes attractive.  “Diversity” hiring may seem offensive when viewed through a purely individualist lens, but if you look at hiring as something like casting, some roles need to be filled.  You wouldn’t hire Meryl Streep to play the action hero, no matter how well she does accents.  

Internal candidates have the advantage, and the curse, of being more fully known.  External candidates come with experience, but without baggage.  Sometimes that amounts to buying a pig in a poke, but sometimes it means getting someone whose talents weren’t entirely welcome in their previous role.  

If you read blogs by adjuncts, you’d think that internal candidates never get hired.  If you read this IHE piece, you’d think external candidates never get hired.  Those can’t both be right, because some people are actually getting hired.

The IHE piece advises candidates not to apply for jobs for which there are internal candidates.  I know bitterness when I see it, but that’s terrible, terrible advice.  I’ve defeated internal candidates personally, and I’ve hired both internal and external candidates at different times.  It can happen.  The better advice, I think, is to focus on what you can actually control.  You don’t control who else applies, and you don’t control what a committee or a hiring manager will think.  You don’t control the market, the economy, or the legislature.  But you do control your own responses.  

The most effective candidates -- both faculty and administrative -- are those who present believable versions of themselves as actual people.  Yes, there’s some element of polishing that goes into an interview -- that’s understood -- but the basic truth of who you are as a professional should come through.  If that turns out to be what the college needs, not only will you get the job, but you’ll have a good chance of being successful in it.  If you get the job under false pretenses -- which is pretty rare in my experience -- you’re setting yourself up to fail.  

And unless you’re a certified superstar, accept the fact that you’re going to collect a staggering amount of rejections.  That sucks, but it’s par for the course.  Rather than retreating into bitterness and conspiracy theories, just take it as how the game is played.  (If that’s too difficult, there’s always the option of leaving the field and playing another game.  I don’t mean to put that lightly, but it’s true.)  I’ve endured my share of rejections, and I’ve had to deliver rejections to some perfectly wonderful people whose only mistake was being in the same pool with someone who fit the college’s needs even better than they did.  But rejecting yourself, and then taking your continued unemployment as evidence that the fix is in, is just self-fulfilling cynicism.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Day Two of NCPR: Looking for Hope

The second day of the NCPR conference struck a funny note.  Many of us had noticed that the persistent theme on Thursday was “here’s a study that shows that (pick your intervention) doesn’t work.”  Honestly, it was a little dispiriting.  To start Friday’s discussion, Tom Brock of the CCRC opened by acknowledging the relative bummer of the first day’s findings, but then suggesting that, tone aside, some consensus had emerged about measures that actually do work.  For example, multi-factor placement actually does work better -- in the sense of more accurate placement -- than single tests do, and all else being equal, shorter developmental sequences work better than longer ones.  The devil was in the details.

Mike Weiss of the MDRC profiled the ASAP program at CUNY, which basically uses a boatload of grant money to treat part-time working students as if they were full-time, middle-class students.  (It requires them to be full-time, and it provides free tuition, books, and subway passes.)  The program is still young, but the results are promising.  Most of us, though, shrugged at what seemed like yet another demonstration of “given infinite funding, you could do a lot.”  Well, yes, we could.  That would be lovely.

The rest of the opening panel focused more clearly on constraints.  Janet Quint, of the MDRC, coined my new favorite title -- “Scaling Up is Hard to Do” -- and shared the challenges of taking a program that succeeds on a small scale and growing it to a larger scale.  Most of us could probably rattle them off from experience: the staff isn’t cherry-picked, manual workarounds for backoffice systems break down when the numbers are too large, resources are thin, and buy-in is rarely universal.  Nikki Edgecombe, of CCRC, and Susan Wood of the Virginia Community College System Office discussed the implementation of a statewide developmental math redesign in Virginia.  Starting in January of 2012, DE math was divided into 9 discrete credits, and the portion of that 9 that a given student needed varied by path of study.  Every campus in the state had to make the switch to the new system, although they each had some room to move in terms of implementation.

To their credit, Edgecombe and Wood noted that some of the resistance to the new approach stemmed from a sense among local faculty that they were being told what to do and basically deprofessionalized.  It’s hard to maintain an artisinal craft structure -- such as a guild -- and still achieve meaningful change on a large scale.  As David Longanecker would later point out, political leaders are growing impatient, and they don’t wait to wait ten years for everyone on campus to get used to a change; they want to see it now.  While it’s clearly madness to try to fulfill that literally, it’s probably quixotic to pretend that we can continue to indulge fantasies of smooth, conflict-free progress measured in generations.

In a breakout session focused on the developmental ed initiative at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, Kathleen Cleary walked us through the implementation details of what happens when you actually try to change how sequences are taught.  As with several other initiatives at the conference, Sinclair started by targeting the “near-miss” students -- those whose placement scores barely put them in developmental -- and put them through academic boot camps, rather than full semester developmental courses.  (They started with math, and then moved to English.)  Apparently, the boot camp model achieves higher success rates most of the time.  Sinclair got around the “resistance” issue by continuing to run the old model alongside the new one, to give the new model a chance to either win people over or fail.  

They also moved to a self-paced math model, but quickly discovered that if they didn’t build in intermediate deadlines, students would procrastinate.  That finding shocked approximately no one.  

In English, they’ve adapted the Baltimore County model, which I have to admit seems to have some legs.  There they’ve found that although the co-req model (as opposed to the pre-req model) of developmental English doesn’t necessarily result in higher pass rates for the given course, it does result in much higher completion rates for the sequence.  Lose an exit point, and fewer people exit.  (SInclair is also apparently moving from a quarter system to a semester system, which should muck up the data pretty good for the next year or two.)

When the conference reconvened, much of the discussion turned from “here’s what works and doesn’t work” to “how do we move from study to implementation?”  Karen Stout of Montgomery College expressed a concern that many “flip the switch” models only work for the near-miss students, and leave the most vulnerable behind.  David Longanecker responded that most interventions do no harm and some seem to work, and “flip the switch” models at least answer the political pressure we’re under.  

Intriguingly, offline private conversations throughout the conference kept coming back to the same theme: what good is all this research if we’re too constrained to use it?  The constraints are both internal and external, both economic and political, some intentional and some just random, but they’re powerful.  Any intervention that relies on an unsustainable influx of funding, for example, is not a serious answer.  

That said, though, it was hard not to detect a high note as we left.  Yes, scaling up is hard to do, and yes, some of the studies didn’t inspire confidence.  But the fact that there are enough well-designed intentional experiments going on at community colleges to make a conference like that worthwhile is, in itself, a new development.  And the emerging areas of consensus, while modest, are both real and useful.  The obstacles we’re facing are many, varied, and intimidating, but at least we’re actually facing them.  It’s a start.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Learning Communities, Student Success, and Real Pizza

I spent Thursday at the “Strengthening Developmental Education” conference presented by the MDRC at Columbia University in a shockingly hot New York City.  It was an odd cluster of presentations.  On the one hand, the intellectual firepower present and the quality of evidence mustered was encouraging.  There was an honesty about findings, and a humility in the face of facts, that’s all too rare at academic conferences.  On the other, though, that meant that many of the findings suggested that much of the student success toolkit -- learning communities, summer bridge programs, and dual enrollment, to name a few -- just won’t live up to our hopes.  

A few highlights:

Martha Kanter, from the Department of Higher Education, made the point that we need to align Federal funds with evidence-based reforms.  When questioned about the persistent mismatch between an education department that favors innovation and a financial aid bureaucracy that’s in clampdown mode, she mentioned that the Education department has “experimental site authority” to work around financial aid regs in special cases.

Reader, I was heartened.

The tone set, much of the rest of the day was about experiments at various community colleges around the country.  Refreshingly, since most of the presentations were not first-person accounts, they could be honest about things that didn’t work, or about promising early effects that faded over time.  We desperately need more of this.

Mary Visher, of the MDRC, presented findings on learning communities that suggested that they have no impact on student persistence, and a small and fast-fading impact on credit accumulation that vanishes entirely by the third semester.  The one exception to that was a college that only offered LC’s to students who came in “college-ready.”

Limiting exit points was a major theme of the day.  Shanna Jaggers, of the CCRC, presented some findings on the Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County and its close cousin at Chabot College in California.  At Chabot, shortening the developmental English sequence paid off most for the students at the top of the academic range, less for those farther down, and not at all for those who placed into ESL.  Angela Boatman looked at the Tennessee Developmental Course Redesign Initiative, and reported that a modular approach to developmental math seemed to pay off for students near the top of the cutoff.

In the followup breakout session, Katie Hern from Chabot clarified that students are given a choice for developmental English: they can do one semester or two.  Most choose one, unsurprisingly, and those who choose one make it to college level English in higher numbers than those who choose two.  (Hearteningly, the developmental English class -- which includes both reading and writing -- is taught as what Hern called “a junior varsity version” of the college-level class.  Students write papers of the same genre they’d write in the college level course; they don’t do the “first you do sentences, then you do paragraphs” model.) The higher success rate has held true even as the proportion of one-semester offerings has grown, so it doesn’t appear to be a function of student self-selection.

The Baltimore County ALP -- as explained by Peter Adams -- puts developmental and college-level students together in the same college-level class, but follows it with an appended extra help class for the developmental students.  The idea is to provide the extra help at the point of need.  The effects on student success have been remarkable.

At lunch, Scott Jaschik, Kevin Carey, and Kay McClenney fired off a few zingers.  McClenney asked -- in response to someone noting the difference between knowing what should be done and actually being able to do it -- where the boundary is between academic freedom and academic malpractice.  Scott Jaschik noted that, oddly enough, if you want to get really good empirical data on experiments that work, the for-profits and the military academies are the best places to get them.  That’s because the for-profits and the military academies aren’t shy about telling faculty how to teach, so when they mandate a new approach, they get one, and they get clean data.  (From my time on the faculty at Proprietary U, I’ll just say that there’s compliance, and then there’s compliance.)  Kevin Carey noted that the major issue with many of the innovations in the literature is scalability.  Yes, project x worked well with cherry-picked faculty and students and lots of per-capita money, but that doesn’t tell you how it will perform if it’s generalized across an entire college.  

The afternoon plenary was oddly fatalistic.  Cecilia Speroni presented findings based on a study of dual enrollment in Florida that found that dual enrollment gets good results when it occurs on a college campus, but does not get those same results when taught in a high school.  (She noted that Florida defines eligibility for dual enrollment relatively stringently, so it draws an unusually capable group of students.)  Judith Scott-Campbell showed that placement tests don’t do a very good job, though she found that a composite indicator combining placement tests with high school GPA does somewhat better.  Intriguingly, the tests were considerably more accurate in math than in English.  And Heather Wathington did a study of developmental summer bridge programs that found that they had no impact on enrollment, credit accumulation, or persistence.  

Vaguely dispirited, I left in search of solace.  Happily, I found it.  My current region of the country has its charms, to be sure, but the pizza -- and I mean this in the nicest possible way -- sucks.  They just get it wrong.  What they call pizza sort of resembles pizza visually, but, well, it is to pizza what reality television is to reality.  It’s just not the same.

But New York City is different.  I found a perfectly ridiculous hole in the wall called Big Nick’s, on Broadway.  It’s about five feet wide, and it looks and feels like a galley kitchen.  It’s ugly as sin, poorly ventilated, and festooned with pics of d-list celebrities from the 60’s.  

But the pizza!

It’s nice to know that some art forms are still practiced.  Learning communities, summer bridge programs, and dual enrollment programs may all let us down, but as long as there’s pizza this good in the world, there’s hope.

On to day two.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pattern Recognition, or, The World at 16

A quick description of the world that appears before local sixteen year olds now:

- Paths to jobs that pay enough to actually want are less legible than they’ve been in generations, but to the extent that they are legible and you aren’t a standout athlete, they tend to go through college.

- Starting July 1, colleges that want to be eligible for Federal financial aid -- which is to say, just about all of them, including all of the public ones -- have to stop admitting students on an “ability to benefit” basis.  That means that students will have to have either a high school diploma or a GED to be admitted.

- The GED is about to become markedly more expensive.

- High school diplomas now are contingent on passing a high-stakes statewide standardized test.  If you fail the test -- even with good grades -- you get a “certificate of completion,” rather than a diploma.  As of July 1, that certificate won’t be enough to get into college.

- So now if you finish high school but don’t do well on the test -- say, your district is struggling and you didn’t learn English at home -- you need to find your way to another standardized test that’s about to become more difficult and more expensive just to get into community college.  

- Or you could try your luck with the local job market for workers without degrees, certificates, or specialized skills.  Jobs exist, but moving beyond single digits per hour requires the next tier of credential.  The middle-class unionized blue collar jobs of yesteryear are gone now.

- You can’t blast your way through college as quickly anymore, either, since summer Pell went away.  And if you don’t get full Pell, you’ll probably notice that tuition and fees are increasing at a rapid clip, even as the minimum wage just sits there, assuming you can find a job at all.

We can argue about what people “deserve,” or about how much of this was a function of deliberate choice and how much just sort of happened, but ultimately those arguments miss the point.  For a host of reasons, the landscape confronting today’s lower-income 16 year old as a found fact is pretty forbidding.  

And that will matter for the rest of us.

A market economy, even a mixed market economy, will have winners and losers.  Some of that will be luck of the draw, and some of it will be the results of untoward shenanigans, but as long as people perceive that there’s a generally fair method of winning that’s somewhat under their control -- such as hard work -- then they’re pretty willing to tolerate some shenanigans on the side.  I might be a little annoyed at some of what investment bankers have been allowed to pull, but as long as my family and I are doing fine, it won’t rise above the level of annoying.

But if legitimate avenues up start all closing at the same time, a certain fatalism starts to make sense.  That fatalism can be politically passive, as in drug addiction and small-time crime, or politically active in ways I prefer not to think about.  

If we want to maintain a mixed market economy, we need to maintain some perceived level of basic fairness.  That means realistic and ethical ways for a kid whose parents don’t make much money to climb by his own effort.  Piece by unthought piece, we’re blocking those ways.  Some of that may be outside of our conscious control, but much of it isn’t.  Before we send a message to an entire generation that there’s just no point in bothering, let’s at least stop blocking constructive effort.  Kids can read patterns, and if the pattern says that they needn’t bother, they’ll draw some pretty awful conclusions.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The “What If?” Committee

My college needs a “what if?” committee, but I’m not sure how to make it happen.

Most of the existing committees are task-based.  Curriculum committee, for example, approves or disapproves suggested changes to courses or programs.  That’s a necessary function, and it’s fine as far as it goes.  But it’s necessarily reactive; it responds to proposals brought to it.  

The generation of proposals is left to the various departments, each with its own interests (in boht senses of the word).  And each proposal is considered in isolation from every other.  Over time, this has led to an explosion of prerequisites that has greatly narrowed the choices available to students with developmental needs, for example.  Considered individually, each prereq makes sense, or is at least defensible, but over time, the accretion of those individual decisions has created channels into which students are steered, pretty much by default.  Those channels matter much more than the individual decisions did, but they’re beyond the jurisdiction of the curriculum committee.  

What I’m envisioning is a relatively small group, comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators, that wouldn’t be charged with responding to an ongoing series of concrete proposals.  Instead, it would be charged with discussing -- in an open-ended format, without having an “action item” on the table -- issues that cross departments or divisions.  At most, it might be empowered to make recommendations to, say, the college Senate or whatever body or office is relevant in the given case.

It’s not at all clear to me how to make this -- or something like it -- happen.  

The membership, in my ideal world, would be defined more by temperament than by office.  It would require people who are willing to be speculative, but who are also willing to do background research and to drop proposals if they turn out to be impractical.  They’d have to be willing to lean into the future, which may involve looking past short-term comfort.  And they’d have to be the sort who could offer criticism of an idea in the service of making it better, rather than just killing it preemptively or showing off their mad critical thinking skillz.

And they’d have to be discreet enough not to go around quoting speculation out of context, or presenting “what if?” scenarios as done deals.  People would have to be able to say “never mind,” and not have an earlier draft come back to bite them.

In techie terms, I’m thinking of a skunkworks for academic policy.

It would be very, very easy for something like this to fail.  Paranoia could lead to it becoming far too large to be effective, or, alternately, nobody showing up.  People with hobbyhorses could easily crowd out more thoughtful discussion, in a tragic version of Gresham’s law.  Impatience with open-ended discussion could quickly lead it to devolve into just another task force.  Personalities would matter.  

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone out there seen something like this actually work?  Is there a model for a “what if?” committee that doesn’t quickly get captured by True Believers or bloated beyond recognition?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Strategic Whatnow?

In the wake of the mess at UVA, in which a President was pushed out by a rogue faction of a Board that felt she lacked “strategic dynamism,” those of us who follow these things have been left to wonder just what that might mean.

Apparently, it has much to do with emergency-style centralized management.  The idea seems to be that an organization in which a single maximum leader can turn on a dime can be more responsive to shifting external trends.  By this reading, President Sullivan’s primary sin would have been something like “not being mercurial enough.”

Prior to this episode, I had never heard of “strategic dynamism,” and I have to admit feeling like I didn’t miss much.  At first blush, it seems absurd.

But even granting its absurdity -- which I eagerly do -- doesn’t answer the question of its appeal, or of its best alternative.  Why would intelligent people accede to mercurial dictatorship -- what this piece in the Chronicle diagnosed as narcissism -- as the answer?

I’d guess that it’s based on a regrettable but entirely defensible sense that democratic and participatory environments don’t do cuts well.  They’re great at growth, but they buckle under the pressure of cuts.  And when cuts need to be made, it’s better to make them in the service of a single vision than just by choosing the path of least political resistance.

InsideHigherEd’s account suggests that President Sullivan’s grave sin was defending the classics and German departments from elimination.  Most of the commentary, unfortunately, centered on the choices of departments.  The real issue is the willingness to make choices.  

Over the last few decades, colleges and universities have proven quite capable of not making choices.  The default mode of handling cuts -- attrition -- has led to an increasingly adjunct faculty.  When those who are at the table reach a “compromise” that involves shifting the vast majority of the sacrifice onto those not yet at the table, an ethical violation has occurred.  

On the rare occasions when a college or university tries to take the opposite route -- close some programs to preserve others at full strength -- the political pushback is catastrophic.  Invariably, the folks who lose will claim that they “weren’t consulted,” as if they would have agreed to their own terminations.  Votes of no confidence and censure follow, and the college retreats to treating everybody just a little bit worse.  As Peter Drucker put it, culture eats strategy for lunch.

(Something similar is true in our politics.  The California death spiral is largely a function of the polity’s unwillingness to face reality.)

So I can see where a Board that sees what it considers an emergency might be attracted to a decision-making process that short-circuits internal interest-group politics.  That’s not to say that the UVA board was anything other than amateurish in what it did and how it did it; it’s just to say that I can see how it got there.

That leaves people like me in a lurch.  I reject the “mercurial narcissist” model, but I share a hard-won sense that the conflicts of interest within the existing system render genuine deliberation nearly impossible.  After all, I’m hard pressed to name a single case of a college or university making significant cuts -- entire programs, say -- in a way that was both strategic and democratic.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one.  (Readers who know of cases are invited to share them in the comments.)

“Strategic Dynamism” is a placeholder that goes where you would put an actual answer if you had one.  (Put differently, it’s a euphemism for “whatever the boss wants at the time.”)  But rejecting the answer doesn’t mean rejecting the question.  Are open and inclusive settings actually capable of making unpopular and painful decisions?  

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Some topics never go away.  Collegiality and its evil twin, incivility, is one of them.

I had to smile at the discussion of the issue in this article.  It suggests, correctly, that while nearly everybody agrees that wanton douchebaggery is a major issue in higher education, there’s a tremendous reluctance to actually do anything meaningful about it.  The AAUP makes its predictable “anything useful could be abused” argument, otherwise-thoughtful people suggest that academic freedom includes the freedom to abuse all and sundry, and we pretend that the entire field of social psychology doesn’t exist.


I think a more useful approach might be to look at other venues in which educated professionals work, and to see how they handle the talented-but-insufferable.  Academe isn’t unique in having egos, or power struggles, or internal politics.

In much of corporate America, power struggles play out as follows.  Sanders and Patterson are at war over competing visions of a project.  Each deploys a power base, and each tries to outflank the other.  In short order, Sanders wins, and Patterson leaves the company, either by force or under the threat thereof.  Patterson takes her project, and some of the people, elsewhere.  Over time, the market decides who was right.

In that setting, the academic strategy of chronic low-level sniping wouldn’t make sense.  Conflict gets resolved -- usually with a clear winner and a clear loser -- and over time there’s a bottom line that tells you if you picked the right winner.  If upper management consistently picks the wrong winner, it’s eviscerated in the marketplace.  If it consistently picks the right winner, it does incredibly well.  Kodak didn’t want to deal with digital photography, so the market dealt with Kodak.  

In politics as politics -- that is, the organized and ongoing battle for control of the government -- there’s no shortage of low-level sniping, but there’s still a recurring bottom line.  Every few years, the voters render a verdict, and that’s that.  Party leaders can pay attention or not, but if they don’t, they quickly become irrelevant.  (One could argue that the electoral bottom line is entirely too much in thrall to certain people’s economic bottom lines, but that’s another post entirely.)

In fields like law, the bottom line may be less directly legible, but there’s always the option of leaving to hang your own shingle.  (On the corporate side, that’s called “consulting.”  In medicine or law, it’s called “private practice.”  In art, it’s called “freelancing.”)  If Sanders and Patterson just can’t stand the sight of each other, one or both of them could just say “screw it” and light out for the territories.

In each of those settings, there’s some version of a bottom line -- a moment in which, as I’ve heard it said, money talks and bullshit walks -- and/or the option of going independent and setting up your own shop.  The combination of a bottom line and a credible threat of exit makes the “war of attrition” strategy pretty unattractive much of the time.  

I’ve read recently that worker dissatisfaction with jobs is just about as high now as it has ever been, since the Great Recession has reduced the credibility of the threat of exit for many people for several years.  If/when demand bounces back, I’d expect to see the pent-up demand for exit suddenly express itself.

In traditional higher ed, there is neither a meaningful bottom line for most individuals, nor a credible threat of exit.  There’s an institutional bottom line, in the sense of a budget that has to be met, but the consequences for, say, an individual professor if the college fails to meet that line are usually independent of that professor’s performance.  A pay freeze hits the productive and the unproductive alike.  If Sanders and Patterson can’t stand the sight of each other, but they both have tenure at the same place, there’s usually neither a bottom line to settle the question nor a credible threat of exit for either.  (Superstars can and do leave, of course, but most people aren’t superstars.)  The “hang your own shingle” option is not realistic -- I’ve never heard a disgruntled professor threaten to start his own college -- and the market for other jobs sucks, especially for higher ranked people who aren’t superstars.  

Life tenure just makes matters that much worse.  Neither can deal the other a real death blow, and they both know it.  So instead of settling the question, they just get crabbier and crabbier, poisoning the working environment for their colleagues and the learning environment for their students.  And they claim the moral high ground of “academic freedom” all the while.

A more robust job market would help, of course, but for some of these folks, it would take a far more robust market than anyone can realistically expect before it would reach them.  (Would I be eager to hire someone, especially at “full professor” rank and salary, who was fired elsewhere for being a horse’s ass?  No, I would not.)  I don’t see the “start your own damn college” option becoming realistic, either.  The proliferation of online options may open up some more prospective employers, but as long as most adjunct gigs pay as badly as they do, that’s hardly an attractive option.  

Until we get at some of the basic underlying issues, I suspect, we’ll just keep having the same conversation over and over again.  Or the market will settle it for us.  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Girl Discovers the Transitive Property

Earlier this week, The Boy’s baseball season ended, and the team went out for ice cream.  The Girl and I had been at the game, so we went, too.  While the team took over the inside booths and did the things that sugared-up eleven year old boys do, TG and I stood in line by the outside window to get our cones.

While we waited, a girl in front of us in line -- who knew TG -- offered her advice on what to order.  I’ll call her Other Girl.

Other Girl: You should be careful what you order.   A medium here is like a large, and a large is like an extra large.  You should get a small, because it’s like a medium.

TG: A small is like a medium?

OG: Yeah, and a medium like a large.

TG (deadpan): So if a small is like a medium, and a medium is like a large, and a large is like an extra large, then a small is like an extra large.

The other girl looked perplexed.  I smiled and told TG she had a good point.  

After discovering the transitive property, she proceeded to make short work of a small cone that really was like an extra large, and then to arm wrestle -- successfully -- the younger brother of one of the players.

World, you have been warned.  The Girl may be small, but in her way, she is like an extra large.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An Open Letter to the Feds

Dear Feds,

I know it’s a little awkward to refer to “Feds” as if you all acted in unison.  That’s sort of my point.

Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about (or from) some Federal initiative asking community colleges to solve this social problem or that one, generally by being innovative and forward-looking.  And I’m actually sympathetic to many of the calls.  By all means, let’s get more underrepresented students into STEM fields, more students through to graduation, more civic engagement, financial literacy, eating vegetables, and helping old ladies across the street.  With ya.

But then -- at the very same time -- not a week goes by that the financial aid guidelines don’t get tighter.  More reporting requirements, new data requirements -- now we have to do surveys of employers? -- shifting definitions of demographics, and more exacting rules about what, exactly requires an override and just how much work is involved in doing them.

Do you folks actually talk to each other?

My college, like many, is trying to innovate in ways that we believe -- and research suggests -- will improve student success, and will do so without imposing severe new costs.  (Many of them are calendar-based.)  Yet every time we have a trial-balloon meeting to figure out the particulars of implementation, financial aid squishes the new idea like a bug.  We’d like to try going modular, but it would wreak havoc with “satisfactory academic progress.”  We’d like to try some accelerated courses, but breaking the semester would require manual overrides for every single student.

This isn’t a new issue, but it’s getting worse.  Last year I attended a conference in D.C. for a certain Federal grant program that shall go unmentioned.  At the plenary session, one speaker got up and exhorted the attendees to be innovative, to reach for the stars and dare to be great.  The very next speaker -- I am not making this up -- reminded us that if we allocate expenses in the wrong categories, we could go to Federal prison.  The audience actually laughed at the abrupt shift in tone.  In my radio days, we used to call that a “collision mix.”  

Now with Democrats concerned about abuses at for-profits and Republicans concerned about spending on the non-wealthy, the crackdowns are coming left and right, so to speak.  But they’re coming at the exact same time that we’re supposed to be increasing the number of college graduates and improving the success rates of students who haven’t succeeded using the very rules that are now being made stricter.


Here’s an idea.  Lock the financial aid people and the “let’s innovate!” people in a room for a while, and let them fight it out.  When they’ve come up with a set of rules that doesn’t involve flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, then start putting out RFP’s.  


Oh, and I appreciate you guys not “outing” me with all the electronic surveillance whatnot.  Quite sporting of you.


Dean Dad

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Civic Engagement and Online Learning

Yesterday’s post was about the contradictory pressures facing many colleges.  Today I was confronted with another dilemma.  Colleges are being pushed to increase “service learning” and “civic engagement” initiatives at the exact same time that they’re being pressured to move online.

These don’t have to be opposed, necessarily, but in practice they generally are.

Service learning and civic engagement projects -- I’ll float between the terms, though they aren’t identical -- are high-touch.  They’re labor-intensive, and they require close community connections.  In fact, their labor intensity and rootedness in place seem to be keys to their success.  To the extent that they tend to pay off in improved rates of retention and graduation, that seems to be tied to a sense of belonging to a community.

Online instruction and service provision are built specifically to make place (and, to some extent, time) irrelevant.  Good online teaching is labor-intensive, to be sure -- some of its major boosters, and major bashers, don’t know that -- but it’s still based on the assumption that students can be anywhere, including in their homes logging in after the kids are in bed.

The former is about doubling down on place.  The latter is about escaping it.

Both are presented as forward-looking alternatives to the traditional classroom experience.  Civic engagement is supposed to help make theory seem real by embedding it in lived experience; online learning forsakes place altogether in favor of disembodied speech.  Civic engagement is seen largely as a public good; online education is seen as a financial necessity.

In a way, of course, they’re two sides of the same coin.  As the panoply of educational options continues to grow, it makes sense for each option to play to its unique strengths.  The traditional classroom has its strengths, and I don’t see it going away, but it no longer has a monopoly.  For a college that wants to continue to grow in useful ways -- that is, to meet the needs of an ever-changing population -- multiplying the options allows the possibility of deploying the right options for the right needs.  In a perfect world, it’s even possible to imagine some level of integration, in which folks could do site reports online from wherever they happen to be, and the “reflection” part of service learning -- as opposed to the “service” part -- could be done at least partially online.  And locally, I know that one of the most frequent requests we get from community partners is for students who can help the various small nonprofits with their websites.  To the extent that we can recruit some of our tech-savvy students into service learning, I’d expect to see some of that service rendered as tech support.

But it’s harder to be great at multiple modes of delivery than at just one.  (And even harder still when we’re expected to continue to multiply modes, and to be held accountable for results, while funding is frozen or cut.)  And it’s hard to maintain a consistent message about expectations when the pressures are moving in contradictory directions.

Monday, June 11, 2012


The abrupt departure of President Sullivan from UVA, coming on the heels of well-publicized leadership vacuums in California, legislative bans on remediation in Connecticut and Kansas, and the ongoing issues of underemployment of new graduates, got me thinking about expectations.

Are our expectations of higher education realistic?

As an administrator, managing expectations is a key part of my job.  That’s not the same as “lowering” them, though people often experience it that way; it’s more like “harmonizing” them when they conflict.  We need to be flexible and responsive while maintaining life tenure and a tradition of shared governance, for example.   (Just getting something through Curriculum Committee and approved takes a year, assuming it passes on the first try.)  We’re supposed to be daring and innovative, without breaking the back-office systems (such as financial aid) that are based thoroughly on the semester system.  We’re supposed to compete aggressively with for-profits, while sustaining budget cuts and unfunded mandates.

And that’s just on the operational end.  We’re supposed to undo the damage of a struggling K-12 system at low cost, and in a year or less.  We’re supposed to train students for the jobs of the future, which we really hope will be there.  (The economy isn’t exactly helping.)  We’re even supposed to be able to predict future labor trends accurately.  If I could do that, I’d buy stock in the relevant companies.

It’s hard to be both a change agent and a consensus builder.  (No matter what you do, there will be a non-trivial number of people who will argue that the status quo is just fine, thank you very much.)  It’s even harder when the external forces pushing on you are pushing in contradictory directions.  Be more nimble and high-tech, but do it with less money.  Undo the damage done to the economy by the financial services sector, even while tax dollars are diverted to bail out that very same sector.  And measure yourself by the same metrics devised to measure exclusionary four-year residential colleges, even while taking all comers and charging about a tenth of what they do.

I’ve noticed that while it’s relatively easy to fill most faculty positions outside of a few discrete areas – computers and nursing, mostly – it’s markedly harder to fill leadership positions.  If the blogosphere’s obsession with administrative salaries were true, I’d expect it to be the other way around.   Part of that is the significant – though rarely noted – gap between the headline salaries of presidents at Big Ten universities and the actual salaries earned by, say, community college deans.  (Hint: move the decimal point a couple of times.)  But part of it is an increasingly accurate sense that success in these positions is becoming impossible.

Nonprofits carry the burden of murky missions in the best of times.  But when you add external pressures moving in strange directions, it’s that much harder.  Whatever the blogosphere wants to claim, it’s still true that most of us want to be good at our jobs.  (At many colleges, too, administrators aren’t allowed to carry their faculty tenure with them.  Wash out, and you’re gone.)  When even highly accomplished presidents, like Terry Sullivan, are forced out by political crosswinds, the rest of us notice.  I suspect UVA will have as difficult a time recruiting a good successor as the California systems will.

If you want effective management, you need a clear direction.  In the face of mutually exclusive directions, even the savviest manager will ‘fail.’  My condolences to UVA, and to President Sullivan.  And in the meantime, I’d sure appreciate some external peace so I could recruit some good people.