Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Fragments

If you can read this, the world didn’t end.  So there’s that.


As a gadgethead who’s also budget conscious, I’m frequently torn.  I enjoy the latest and coolest toys, but hate paying much for them.  Smartphones are the worst; they’re unassailably cool, but also stupidly expensive on a monthly basis.  (In my neck of the woods, Verizon is the only carrier with consistently reliable coverage.  Their smartphones start at 90 dollars per month and go up quickly from there.)  

But I found a workaround.  I got a used 4G tablet on ebay, and paired it with a cheap prepaid phone.  The phone handles what calling and texting I actually do -- not that much, really -- and the tablet offers the apps with a bigger screen.  The total monthly cost is about half of what I used to pay on an iphone.  Victory!


Speaking of budgets, the second and third graphs on this page may not suggest the end of the world, but they seem to suggest the end of something.  Apparently, student loan delinquency rates are skyrocketing.  This is not good.


Oh, sure.  This happens, and suddenly, the world ends.  That’s just great.


For the MLA conference in January, Scott Jaschik is putting together a group of IHE bloggers on Friday afternoon at 1:30 in the exhibit hall; we’ll be discussing the academic job market from various angles.  I’ll be there to chime in from a community college perspective.  If any regular readers are in the area, I’d love to meet you.

This will be my first MLA conference; as a political scientist and then administrator, I never had much reason to attend before.  From what I hear, it’s quite the experience.  

My Dad used to attend, back in the 1970’s.  In those days -- and I think until quite recently -- it started the day after Christmas.  That was not popular on the home front.  Kudos to the MLA for eventually recognizing that some humanists have families, too.


Speaking of hiring, the new year will bring searches for several new deans on campus, along with a host of new faculty.  The world may not be ending, but a generational torch is finally being passed.  The current crop is strong, but it will be fun to bring in the next cohort.  They’ll have plenty to do...


The Boy and The Girl had their first major music recital last weekend.  They each had their solo moments -- TB on guitar and TG on piano -- but they also played in a band along with a drummer, another guitarist, and a singer.

If you’ve never seen a pop/rock band comprised of 8 to 11 year olds, you’re missing out.  To their credit, they didn’t have any sort of taped backup; every sound on stage was there because they made it.  They played two songs -- “Love Me Do,” and a lyrically edited version of “I’m Glad You Came,” by The Wanted -- and did it without the usual swagger and ego that pop/rock bands try to project.  The band had three girls and two boys, and it worked together supportively and sweetly.  The music sounded good, but we were especially proud of the maturity the kids showed in working together.  I know adults who struggle with that.


Program Note: The blog will take a holiday break, so I can enjoy a holiday without deadlines.  It’ll be back on Wednesday, January 2, unless the Mayans were right.  Have a great break, everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

And on a Lighter Note...

The Girl tried out for a part in the church Christmas play.  The play is based on the nativity scene.

Conversation at the tryout:

Teacher: TG, are you hoping to play Mary?

TG: (deadpan) Meh.  It depends on who plays Joseph.


Teacher: (sotto voce) smart girl.

She’s playing a shepherd.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Administration and Critique

Last week, IHE featured a story about a prominent professor at Texas Tech whose bid for a deanship was denied on the basis of his stated opposition to the tenure system.  This week, a court upheld the termination of an HR director for stating her opposition to gay marriage.  Although one case is much more sympathetic than the other, they really address the same issue.  Should administrators be allowed to raise policy objections in public?

Note here that I’m referring to policy objections, as opposed to, say, confidential personnel information, or personal attacks on co-workers.  And I’m not referring to refusal to carry out a job duty.  This is about policy objections.

I’ve thought a lot about this, for obvious reasons.  And I have to concede that I have a dog in this fight.  I like my job, and I see value in sharing my thoughts about some of what I see.  

That said, though, this isn’t just about me.   Shared governance can’t work without administrators being able to tell the truth as we see it.  Real improvements won’t happen when the very people who are the most informed about the consequences of various policies are under effective gag orders.  

Policy disagreements can be awkward, and nobody likes awkwardness.  If the big questions were broadly settled, I guess one could argue that the awkwardness isn’t worth it.  But we’re in a period of massive transition.  The 1960’s model of public higher education is becoming unsustainable, but it isn’t yet clear what will come next.  At this point, informed, vigorous, thoughtful public discussion is more important than it has ever been.  We need to hear from the people in a position to know about what happens when, say, the rules for Pell or Perkins money change.  We need to be able to discuss the virtues and, yes, the failings of both new and old ways of delivering education.  

That’s difficult in an industry on which so much is based on reputation.  In the absence of good, public information with which to compare one college to another, colleges do what they can to protect and enhance their reputations.  In some ways, they have to; a college that chooses not to will be brutalized by those that do.  There’s a market-based incentive to prevent anything resembling dirty laundry from getting out there.

But that’s a fallback position, based on an absence.  As an industry, we’d be much better off basing arguments on facts available to the public.  Which first involves getting them out there.

If we insist on muzzling policy disagreements among administrators, we’ll be left with either true believers -- those who are least capable of dealing with change, by definition -- or people working below their cognitive capacity.  Neither seems appealing.

Healthy debate can be clarifying.  I’ve had times myself when I initially disagreed with a policy, but was persuaded by arguments I hadn’t thought of.  That’s only possible when those arguments are stated and spelled out.  And the whole point of shared governance, or any decisionmaking process with a multiplicity of veto groups, is quality control.   That only works when people can actually say what they think.  If faculty have freedom to disagree and administrators don’t, then the debate will be one-sided, and therefore consigned to irrelevance.  If we want the discussions to matter, they have to be open.

Obviously, the issue would be different if a disagreement over policy became a refusal to carry it out.  That would be actionable, and rightly so.  But if someone is doing the job and doing it well, then the fact that if he had his druthers he’d do things differently strikes me as immaterial.  Given the speed with which things are changing, I see much more risk in the status quo than I do in people who are capable of seeing beyond what’s right in front of them.

The problem with any free speech argument is that it has to apply to speech that’s hurtful, asinine, and wrong.  I’d describe the homophobic HR director as falling in that category.  Her case is particularly difficult in that one could easily imagine a “hostile environment” claim relying on her comments; the same could not be said of the prospective dean who doesn’t like the tenure system.  But free speech applies not only to the wise and likable, but also to the stupid and hurtful.  It has to.  That’s how freedom works.

The etiquette issue here is real, but solvable.  My own line involves a distinction between a policy critique and a personal attack.  The former strikes me as well within bounds, and as part of a healthy public sphere; the latter strikes me as an abuse of power.  In any given case, the line can be blurry, but the basic distinction makes sense.  The rule of thumb should be that the more general the issue, the more public it can be.  If I have a problem with Ottmar, I should take it up with Ottmar; if I have a problem with a federal policy, I should be able to take it public.

Enforced groupthink is comfortable in the short term, but deadly over time.  At this point, unthinking perpetuation of the status quo is an existential threat to public higher ed in a way that some intemperate comment couldn’t be.  We need the people who know what’s actually happening to be able to say so.  Otherwise, those who don’t know will be free to spout at will, and those who know will be under gag orders.  Under those rules, what do you think will happen?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Corporate Governance, Shared Governance, and Higher Ed

The only thing scarier than higher education with administrators is higher education without them.

Last week, Lee Skallerup Bessette and Paul Fain both had thought-provoking pieces in IHE about StraighterLine and the possibility of “freelance” higher education.  It’s sort of a supply-side version of Anya Kamenetz’ DIY U.  Instead of students breaking free from the shackles of individual colleges, the idea is that faculty will break free from the shackles of individual colleges.  Absent such dead weight as institutional identity, curricula, student services, marketing departments, unions, and outcomes assessment, the theory goes, faculty will be free to capture the fruits of their labor on the open market.  Let the bureaucrats shake in their uninteresting shoes as the glorious market-based revolution restores all power to the workers.


Anyone with a sense of history will detect familiar echoes in this story.  

Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means anticipated much of the twentieth century American economy in their classic The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932).  Berle and Means suggested that the model of corporate governance then ascendant was a fundamentally new and different thing.  They pointed out that the rise of a distinct “managerial” class -- neither proletarian nor owner -- effected the separation of ownership from control in the modern corporation.  Stockholders owned the company, but managers ran it.  Aligning the interests of the two groups was not a trivial endeavor.

Managerial capitalism created some weird issues for theorists of the market.  When ownership is relatively dispersed among stockholders around the country, but managerial authority is centralized in a relatively small group, it becomes easy for the managers to run the company for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of the stockholders.  And there’s a good case to be made that during the halcyon days of the American corporate economy -- call it 1946-1973 -- that’s what they did.  They bought labor peace by negotiating contracts with unions that were more generous than they strictly needed to be.  They accepted salaries much lower, proportionally, than either their predecessors or their successors.  They favored a certain stability over pure profit maximization, sometimes to the frustration of stockholders.

That arrangement started to crack in the 1970’s, and to transform in the 1980’s.  Mutual funds aggregated scattered stockholders into single voices.  “Raiders” used newly available credit to “liberate shareholder value,” which is to say, to sack existing management and replace it with people who wouldn’t be so soft on workers.  401(k)’s, stock options, and quick trigger fingers worked wonders to align management’s goals with those of stockholders, even if that meant teaming up against workers.  

Now, private sector union membership is in the single digits, and concentrated mostly in shrinking, older industries.  Median wages have been stagnant for decades, even as rewards for those at the top have skyrocketed.  And the image of the peace-seeking manager as a pillar of the community is remembered, if at all, as quaint.  

I suspect that higher education may be following a similar script, with its characteristic tape delay.

In this version, though, the management was what held together -- through carefully balanced frustration -- the centrifugal desires of students, faculty, and taxpayers.  Doing that well means annoying a lot of people a lot of the time.  Each of those groups is only vaguely aware of what the others want; what it sees more directly is those annoying bureaucrats always putting on the brakes.  Each group imagines, at some level, that it could liberate value by attacking the institution as an institution.  Call it expropriation, call it shareholder democracy, call it unbundling; it’s all the same move.  It’s all about undoing restraints on the market.

Be very, very careful what you wish for.  The market has no respect for “shared governance” or “life tenure” or “unions” or “academic freedom.”  It wants what it wants when it wants it.  Imagine three hundred different professors you’ve never heard of, each offering some variation on Intro to Psychology online, each naming her own price.  How, as an 18 year old of average talent and no special inside information, do you choose?  Until recently, you chose an entire institution, and it assigned you instructors, and advisors, and counselors.  Now, you can be on your own.  Power to the people!

If the rest of the economy is any guide, moving away from institutions will involve a much more dramatic polarization of wealth among people in the industry.  It will mean much more instability, much more cutthroat competition, and, yes, a few incredibly well-paid superstars.  It will mean much less coherence in courses of study, and an explosion of fraud.  

And I say all of that knowing full well many of the flaws of the current system.  

My modest proposal: let’s learn from the past.  We don’t have the option of simply digging in our heels and refusing to change; Kodak tried that, which is why it’s now worth less than Instagram.  But we do have the option of navigating that change actively rather than just being buffeted by it.  Taxpayers are anxious, students don’t want huge debt but do want good jobs, and employers want capable employees.  There’s validity in each of those.  If we can adapt, rather than just refuse, we may be able to thrive and to do well.  That will involve making some difficult choices, but we still have the option of making those ourselves.

Until recently, there wasn’t really an alternative to the old model, which is probably why it lasted so long.   But now there is.  Whether StraighterLine or someone else does it is beside the point; the point is that interesting and intelligent alternatives are springing up almost weekly.  

Administrators are the enemy if we think of institutions as total.  But they aren’t total.  They’re porous, and they’re fragile.  The alternative isn’t blank checks written by grateful students; it’s digital adjuncting.  We’ve seen this movie.  We can change how it ends.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sandy Hook

We’ve stopped in Sandy Hook any number of times over the last few years, driving between Massachusetts and New Jersey.  It’s a cute little town just off route 84, about halfway between Danbury and Waterbury.  It has several good lunch places, and a lovely upscale toy store in an old house that couldn’t be any more New England-y if it tried.  Behind the toy store there’s a creek with several decks overlooking it, and if I remember right, even a mill wheel.  The last couple of times we were there, we spent more time than was strictly necessary, just because we liked it so much.

It never occurred to me that it would make national news, and certainly not like this.

From the pictures on the news, Sandy Hook Elementary looks a whole lot like TG’s school.  It has the same grades, and was probably built around the same time.  The kids who were walked through the parking lot could have been TG’s classmates.  

As a parent, there’s no way to avoid thinking like that.  It’s just too vivid.

On Saturday I took The Boy to the Lego League state championship at WPI in Worcester.  The spectator-friendly part of the event took place on a basketball court, on which teams of nine-to-eleven-year-olds ran their programmable robots through obstacle courses.  (The meet also featured closed-door judging of projects the teams designed to make senior citizens’ lives easier.  TB’s team developed a mechanism for putting on socks without bending over.)  The parents -- hundreds of us -- were careful not to mention anything in front of the kids.  But when the kids were out of earshot, most of the conversation was about the shooting.  And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit wondering about the wisdom of gathering all those kids in one easily accessed place so soon afterwards.  Anyone could walk in by just walking in.

Of course, the same could be said of shopping malls and movie theaters.  At some level, risk is just part of life.  I know enough statistics to know that mathematically, the drive to Worcester was more dangerous than the event itself.  But knowing that and feeling it are two different things.

Colleges are no strangers to these issues.  Over the last several years, they’ve started taking a more focused approach to security issues, simply because they’ve had to.  

But no single institution can become a bubble.  In a culture in which gun ownership is a right and health insurance is a privilege, some awful outcomes are probably inevitable.  In America, young men with serious issues can get weaponry more easily than they can get treatment.  That isn’t true everywhere, which is why these shootings don’t happen everywhere.

I’ll probably get accused of “politicizing” the shooting in saying that, as if periodic massacres of innocents were just acts of Nature.  But the truth is the truth.  As a parent, I’d be negligent if I didn’t try to protect my kids against mortal threats.  In this case, the mortal threat is political.  I’m tired of having to leave the newspaper face-down on the kitchen table in the morning so TG doesn’t see the latest news about people who look like her being shot dead with legal assault rifles at school.  I’m just tired of it.  If that annoys some conservative somewhere, then so be it.  I care a lot more about my kids than I do about appeasing someone who only read the second half of the second amendment.  And I’m tired of having to find just the right words to convey to an eight year old girl why a grown man would shoot his way into a school just like hers and kill children, but that she shouldn’t worry.  There are no right words for that.  The very topic is an obscenity.

Until Friday, Sandy Hook was known only as a cute little town.  Now it’s famous for a reason nobody would ever choose.  I struggled for the right words with TG, but I think I know the right words for us adults: Enough.  Enough.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Certifying Soft Skills?

“Lose the do-rag.”

A dozen or so years ago, I actually had to say that to a student who was on his way to a job interview.  It simply hadn’t occurred to him that wearing a “do-rag” (a bandana over his hair) would be a problem.  (Now, faculty tell me, similar conversations occur with young women who favor bare midriffs.)

That didn’t happen at Williams.  There, most of the students arrived with the informal folkways of the professional class already at hand, and those who didn’t, picked them up quickly.  We knew that you didn’t go to an interview in a t-shirt, or unshaven.  We knew about the handshake, the small talk, and the rule about showing up 10 minutes early.  We didn’t necessarily know how to write resumes, but we knew that they existed, that they mattered, and that we could get help from career services.  

That’s because Admissions screened for a certain cultural capital.  Students who got in, by and large, had already figured out how to succeed in mainstream institutions.  The college could pretty much assume that between what students brought with them, and what they picked up from each other in four years of close quarters, they’d know what to do on job interviews and in professional workplaces.  Students who didn’t already have the basics simply didn’t get in.

In the community college world, it’s a mistake to take any of that for granted.

That’s why I’m sympathetic with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s move to start grading, and certifying, “soft skills” in its students.  It has noticed what employers have been saying for years, and has decided to stop pretending that its students just pick up those skills by osmosis.

I’ve been to more than my share of employer advisory boards over the last dozen years, at three different colleges.  They’re remarkably consistent; every time, the feedback is that we’re doing well with the specific technical skills, but that many students arrive with serious gaps in communication, presentation, and general employee conduct.  

I’m not pining for the old “finishing school” model.  This isn’t about formal state dinners or pretending to be Thurston Howell the Third.  It’s about helping students understand that being on time matters, that deadlines matter, and that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of communicating frustration in the workplace.  (Honestly, I know some professionals who could use some brushing up on that last one.)  None of those is entirely neutral, but that really doesn’t matter; the relevant comparison is to ignorance,  not to some imagined utopia.  If students want to be successful in professional workplaces, they need to know the rules of the game.  If they aren’t brought up learning those rules at home, then they need to be taught.  And what better activity for a college than teaching?

Besides, rules change.  Ways that men in the workplace were once licensed to behave towards women are no longer okay.  Dress codes are constantly evolving.  Electronic communication brings its own set of etiquette issues.  (Hint: beware the “reply all” button.)  The odd blend of surface egalitarianism and deep hierarchy that defines many workplaces can be a minefield if you don’t know how to read it.  Learning not only what the current rules are, but why they are, and how they change, can help a student adapt when the next big shakeup comes.  

Ignoring gaps in cultural capital is not egalitarian.  Fixing them is.  A-B Tech will have to give serious thought to how it defines and measures ‘soft skills’ if it’s going to offer formal certifications, but that’s okay.  It’s a task worth doing.  The students are worth it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When Laws Crash Into Each Other

Legislators are masters of compartmentalizing.  This law addresses this, and that law addresses that.  And much of the time, it’s possible to construct a reasonable argument for a particular decision, taken in complete isolation.

But the world doesn’t work like that.  Sometimes “this” and “that” crash into each other, and create an untenable situation on the ground.  That’s happening right now.

Two major legal trends are on a collision course, and nobody in a position to stop them seems to be talking about it.  

The first trend is a long-overdue opening up of public higher education to undocumented students who were brought to this country as children.  Depending on the age at which they came, these kids may have gone through years of American K-12 education. In other cases, their experience of the K-12 system may have been inconsistent, for various reasons.

The idea behind the opening is a recognition of the reality that someone who came here with her parents at age seven really didn’t have much say in the matter.  And making someone a lifetime pariah -- uneducable and unemployable -- is both grossly unfair and unlikely to result in good outcomes.  There’s much more to address there, of course, but the recent trend makes sense as a first step.

The second trend is a clampdown on financial aid.  For example, this summer the lifetime limit for Federal financial aid for any given student was reduced from 18 semesters (or the pro-rated part-time equivalent) to 12.  That covers all credit-bearing study.

Students with significant ESL and/or developmental needs -- such as many of the newly eligible undocumented students -- often require several semesters of work beyond the usual four for an associate’s, or eight for a bachelor’s.  They need to get up to speed in some key academic areas, and that takes time.

The idea behind the clampdown was twofold.  At one level, it’s a cost-saver that allows the Obama administration to maintain the maximum Pell award.  At another level, it’s a response to perceived abuses of financial aid in the for-profit sector.

In isolation, both the “open to immigrants” trend and the “clamp down on financial aid” trend have some rationality behind them.  (I’m much happier with the first than the second, but that’s another issue.)  But they clash pretty directly on the ground.

The message being sent to colleges is to open up more to undocumented students, but not to spend too much time teaching them English or addressing other academic gaps.


Opening up and clamping down at the same time is bound to create some weird issues.  I’d expect that anyone who put the two next to each other would see that pretty fast.  But the discussions around each issue were completely independent of the other.  

As a country, we have some difficult choices to make.  But we aren’t going to make them well until we acknowledge that they exist.  These laws -- each defensible on its own terms -- are crashing into each other, and they’re doing it on campus.  I know I’m asking a lot, but it would be lovely if we could use reality-based conversations to make these decisions.  Reality doesn’t come in neat little compartments.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Praise of Niches

This blog doesn’t address car repair, the Twilight series, Hungarian food, or speculation about the next Secretary of State.  Its set of topics is relatively defined, as regular readers know.

That’s not because I adjudge those other topics unworthy or uninteresting; if any of them strike your fancy, there’s no shortage of other places to read about them.  It’s just that there’s a limit to the number of things I can address thoughtfully, and I don’t see much point in covering topics just to cover them.  I’ve found a niche, and that’s where I work.  People who are interested in this niche sometimes find their way here; people who aren’t, don’t.

I thought about that in reading about the University of Phoenix’s  (Phoenix’?) lobbying to prevent community colleges in Arizona from expanding to offer four-year degrees.  The angle the article took was that it was exposing a “plot to corner the cheap education market.”  The U of Phoenix was cast as the evil, money-grubbing mastermind behind a lobbying campaign to prevent the heroic and virtuous community colleges from doing more to serve their students.

Well, maybe.  The motive is certainly there, as are the means and the opportunity.  I doubt that Arizona’s legislators needed to be pushed to champion the private sector -- they seem pretty far right on their own -- but that’s a matter of judgment.  

My issue with the article isn’t so much the idea that the University of Phoenix hired lobbyists to pursue its self-interest in the legislature.  I assume that’s true, and find it unremarkable.  It’s with the idea that community colleges offering four-year degrees is an unalloyed good.  That’s not obvious to me at all.

Admittedly, my view may be influenced by my location.  Western Massachusetts has no shortage of four-year colleges and universities, both public and private.  From the main HCC campus, it’s a half-hour drive or less to UMass-Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, Elms College, Springfield College, Western New England University, American International College, and Westfield State University.  (On the two-year level, you also reach Springfield Technical Community College.) Go a little farther East and you hit Worcester and Boston, both of which have a few colleges of their own.  From here, the idea that the first order of business should be to offer bachelor’s degrees just doesn’t make sense.  If anything, from here the first order of business should be -- and is -- transfer.

But my misgivings go beyond a particularly fertile location.  They’re rooted in the idea of a niche.

Community colleges already have broad missions.  They provide non-credit courses in workforce development, personal enrichment, and adult basic education.  They provide developmental courses for people who want college degrees but whose academic preparation has gaps.  They provide terminal degrees in workplace-ready fields, and they provide associate’s degrees that are built for transfer.  

That’s a pretty big niche now.  It’s why over forty percent of the undergraduates in America are at community colleges.  By any reasonable measure, it’s a full plate.  With increased public pressure to improve graduation rates -- and shoestring budgets with which to do it -- improving the quality of delivery across such a wide range, with open admissions, will require sustained focus.  It will require the willingness and ability to reap the fruits of what specialization we still have.

Adding bachelor’s degrees to the portfolio, particularly in the absence of bachelor’s tuition and funding levels, would make improvement that much harder.  Suddenly the faculty would have to pick up the entire 300- and 400- level curriculum, on top of the heavy pre- and intro- level teaching they already do.  We’d suddenly have to scale up facilities for upper-level science courses, which don’t come cheap.  We’d have to increase tuition dramatically, with predictable political consequences.  And our entire marketing and public profile would have to change.  Instead of being a feeder for so many four-year colleges, all of a sudden we’d be a direct competitor.  Resources currently directed to such useful but unsexy purposes as tutoring would have to be redirected to sales.  

A college that has to be everything to everyone seems unlikely to do it all well, just as a blog that tries to address every topic under the sun seems destined to get much of it wrong.  I’d rather do a two-year mission well than multiple missions badly.  Let the four-year colleges handle the upper division; they do it well, and our students thrive when they get there.  Our successes aren’t because of magic or money or superior ability; they’re due to focus.  Take that away, and we’d be lost.  

The University of Phoenix probably wasn’t thinking this way when it worked to stop community colleges from offering bachelor’s degrees.  Its motives were probably a good bit more self-interested.  But it may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons.  Let the four-year colleges do what they do well; community colleges already have a niche, and an important one.

Monday, December 10, 2012


December is a cruel month for academics.  More accurately, the stretch from Cyber Monday until Christmas is uniquely difficult.

It’s the end of the Fall semester, which brings with it all of the usual end-of-semester student crises.  Final papers and projects are due, deadlines are suddenly real, grandparents drop like flies; some things are predictable.  It’s the climax of the semester, with all of the tension that implies.

But it’s also the midpoint of the year, which means it’s the time when yearlong projects should be getting the most attention.  This is when those projects can least afford to be ignored.  Just arranging meeting times becomes an issue at this time of year, since most people are booked solid, but hitting the pause button for a month or more often isn’t an option.

And it’s holiday season, which brings stresses -- time, family, and money -- of its own.  I’ve never heard of a college that gave holiday or end-of-year bonuses, and thoughtful shopping is tough when you’re stuck in grading jail.  

Layering those stressors on top of each other tends not to bring out everyone’s best.  I’ve learned over the years that when it’s at all possible, it’s best not to introduce anything new in the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas rush.  People just aren’t in the frame of mind to deal with it.  An idea that might get a thoughtful response in September, and a snarky one in October, will get a full-blown attack in December.  

And of course, there’s the ever-present possibility of a conflict of snow days with final exams.  In my neck of the woods, there’s nothing unrealistic about snow in December.  

The traditional academic calendar has its virtues, but December isn’t one of them.  

When I was at DeVry, the “fall” semester started in early November and run through late February, with Christmas break stuck in the middle.  (I don’t know if they still do that.)  Since Christmas was basically the middle of the semester, there was a midterm rush right before break, but it was considerably less crazy than the end-of-semester rush here.  

The upside of that was that the holiday crush was slightly less severe, since faculty weren’t at the most stressful point of the semester just as the holiday hit.  The downside was that classes lost a significant amount of momentum over the break, and the first week back in January was often lightly attended.  It usually took a solid week to get the classes back on track.

Online shopping certainly helps, since it can be done whenever, from wherever.  Even travel plans can be done online, although again, at this time of year any travel plans have to have plans B and C built in.  But as welcome as these innovations are -- and I’m just old enough to still think of them as innovations -- they’re palliative at best.  When you’re booked, you’re booked.

Those of us with kids know that the usual holiday issues are compounded with children.  Not only are there the Santa visits and gift selections to make, but there are also the various recitals, performances, celebrations, and competitions.  This week TB has something every night, and all day Saturday.  Since Massachusetts is picky about letting eleven year olds drive, that means parental time too.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those on academic and/or parental schedules -- have you found graceful ways of getting through December?  

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Why Searches Take So Long

It’s entirely normal for a tenure-track faculty search to take the better part of a year.  The same holds for upper-level administrative searches.

Within higher ed, it’s easy to take that for granted.  It’s the way things have been for a long time, and some of us have never seen it any other way.  But in most industries, a timeline like that would -- rightly -- be considered insane.  So why do our searches take so long?

The short answer is inclusiveness.  The longer answer starts with inclusiveness and adds to it.

In much of the rest of the economy, firms have “hiring managers” whose job it is, among other things, to fill slots.  They “network” to find out where the hot prospects are; they raid competitors; they hire at whatever level they need to; they compete using salaries, perks, and titles; and when they find someone good, they’re empowered to pull the trigger.

We don’t do any of those things, at least with full-time positions.  (Adjunct hiring is a very different process.)  Our approach, I think, is rooted in three assumptions.

1. If input on hiring is good, then more input is better.

2. Talent is not scarce.  Everybody wants these jobs, so we can be picky.

3. The world is litigious, and process can keep us safe.

Each of these is debatable and context-dependent, but we don’t usually treat them that way.  They’ve become unspoken, and largely unconscious.  We treat them as inevitable.

The “input” assumption has a lot going for it.  Nobody is a subject matter expert in everything, so it makes sense to include people on searches who have specific knowledge of the discipline being sought.  (Alternately, if looking for a dean, it makes sense to have input from current deans, since they understand the daily reality of the role.)  It also safeguards against cronyism and individual blind spots.  We all have our personal tastes; putting multiple people on the committee makes it less likely that any one’s persons quirks will be dispositive.

But anyone who has ever tried to put a committee meeting together knows that scheduling is not a trivial issue.  The bigger the committee, the fewer the common available meeting times.  That’s especially true when you combine staff, administration, and faculty on the same committee, since all three run on different annual (and weekly) rhythms.  When you need meetings to draft the ad, set the schedule, screen the applications, decide on an interview list, run 8-10 interviews, and decide on a set of finalists, the scheduling alone is a big deal.  And that’s before allowing time for the ad to run, time for candidates to travel, snow days, and the like.

(The sheer size and heterogeneity of search committees also makes it hard to know what a committee is actually thinking.  Introduce enough variables, and it’s impossible to say with any certainty.)

The assumption about a surplus of good candidates works pretty well in certain disciplines, but it isn’t universal.  It certainly does not seem to hold for most administrative positions.  When good candidates are scarce, too much delay can be fatal; somebody else snaps up the best people.  

Oddly, in mainstream higher education -- outside the elite research institutions -- it’s unusual to hire faculty above entry level.  “Raiding” is surprisingly rare.  That’s both good and bad, but it certainly stands in contrast to most other professions.  Raiding relies on speed, so the relative absence of raiding allows us to focus less on speed.  

The point about litigiousness is largely correct, as far as it goes.  When good candidates far outnumber openings, there’s always a danger that a good candidate who didn’t win will claim that it was for some untoward reason.  Following process and documenting carefully adds time, but it makes it easier to prevent untoward reasons from carrying the day, and easier to rebut them in court.  

I’d love to see searches move more quickly, but it’s hard to get around these constraints.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially in higher ed -- have you seen ethically defensible ways to speed up searches?  

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Fiscal Cliff Diving

I have to admit finding the “fiscal cliff” debate a little bit silly, given that the “cliff” in question is entirely artificial.  But if you start pulling that thread, it’s not clear where it ends.  And even if the cliff is a figment of the collective political imagination, the harm that cliff-driven decisions could do is very real.  If you swerve your car to avoid the unicorn you’re hallucinating, the tree you crash into isn’t a hallucination, and the damage done is real and potentially terrible.  

Apparently, one of the possible consequences of the latest “cliff” debate would be to put a cap on charitable deductions.  Conceivably, that cap could put a severe dent in higher ed philanthropy.

This piece from Business Week, of all places, does a nice job of surveying the philanthropic landscape for higher education.  Broadly speaking -- and yes, there are praiseworthy exceptions -- the largest donations tend to go to the wealthiest schools with the wealthiest and best connected students.  And even there, the bulk of the money comes from a small group of high rollers.  (The article claims that at Colgate, 90 percent of the money comes from 10 percent of the donors.)  Folks with that much money tend to be quite savvy about it, and they plan their giving with full awareness of the tax implications.  If those tax implications change, their giving may change.

Reading that, it was hard not to be struck by the gap between politics and economics.

Most undergrads in America go to colleges at which philanthropy is a relatively small part of the operating budget.  (For present purposes, I’ll define philanthropy to include the interest income thrown off from endowments.)  Most donors to higher education give smallish amounts of money.  The major sources of income at most community colleges and four-year public colleges are tuition/fees and state (and sometimes local) government support.  Philanthropy comprises a hefty chunk of the operating budget only in a rarefied tier of institutions.

But at the top end of the prestige hierarchy -- the part that gets the most coverage -- a smallish number of megadonors exert tremendous influence.  One major outcome of that influence is to ensure that the prestige hierarchy remains exactly as it is now.

The philanthropic impulse is praiseworthy and worth encouraging; I’d hate to see the tax deduction for charitable contributions just go away.  

But I wouldn’t necessarily mind if the discussions occasioned by the fiscal cliff started steering policy in a different direction.

At one level, obviously, this is really about income polarization, which is a much larger issue.  But it’s also about aspiration.  People don’t generally donate because of perceived need; they donate to be part of something they consider successful and admirable.  That’s why development offices love to tell success stories.  

Put differently, that’s why it’s important to maintain tax deductions for middle-class givers (and tuition payers).  Once you lose the middle class, and an institution becomes identified in the public mind as intended only for the poor, then the institution gets kicked to the political curb.  In the public mind, poverty equates to failure.  The way to get support is to show success, and it’s easier to have success when you have support.  Put up a barrier to that support -- say, by taking away a tax deduction -- and you could start an unfortunate dynamic.

But if rates on the wealthy were to increase, and some of that revenue used to help shore up the lower-cost institutions, then we could reap the best of both worlds.  Higher rates would increase the relative worth of deductions -- the higher your tax rate, the more a given deduction pays you -- and a more realistic and predictable funding stream for community colleges and four-year colleges would make possible the kind of success that tends to draw voluntary private money.  Let’s not lose the forest for the trees here.  We could get a virtuous cycle going if we do this right.

The fiscal cliff may be silly, but the opportunity it presents isn’t.  Here’s hoping that we don’t get distracted by political unicorns.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Best Idea I’ve Heard All Week

As regular readers know, I have a bone to pick with the “credit hour.”  Although it’s nearly ubiquitous in American higher education, its origins were pedestrian and it tells us nothing about actual learning.  Worse, in many of its applications, it defeats any efforts to increase productivity, since it denotes learning in units of time.  When you denote learning in units of time, it becomes impossible -- by definition -- to become more efficient in instructional delivery.  If you need 45 hours of seat time for three credits, then that’s what you need, whether you could have picked it up faster or not.

For a while, I thought it was just me.  Over the last couple of years, a few voices in the wilderness -- Jane Wellman and especially Amy Laitinen -- have made similar (if more thoughtful and focused) arguments.   Now I read that the Carnegie Foundation itself has received a grant to look at redesigning the Carnegie hour!

Yes, yes, yes.  

The stars are aligning for some serious progress.  

Until recently, it was possible to argue that the credit hour was, like Churchill’s democracy, the worst possible system except for all the other ones.  But that’s changing.  

At one level, a decade of outcomes assessment has taken many colleges away from a purely artisinal model of evaluation -- grading -- and has encouraged/forced them to develop more systematic approaches to measuring student learning.  There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do -- and some serious workload issues to confront in doing it -- but the direction is clear.  It’s now normal for degree programs to specify student learning outcomes, and to be able to measure them.  That’s huge.

Online education has thrown the whole concept of “seat time” into question, too.  Since most online instruction is asynchronous anyway, it’s becoming harder to say with a straight face that learning has to happen in 75 minute chunks.  

Now, MOOCs are starting to raise issues about the notion of “credit” itself, even independent of the “hour” part.  Alternative credentialing methods -- “badges” -- are starting to pop up among serious people, and showing signs of acceptance.  They’re still in the early stages, of course, but they have both momentum and logic.  

At the same time, the federal financial aid programs are actually getting more persnickety about the most backward-looking elements of the credit hour, in response mostly to abuses in the for-profit sector.  At the very moment that people and institutions are starting to entertain the possibility of something new, the agency charged with ensuring access to higher education is tightening the reins.  

So there’s a need for some sort of system or measure that prevents a Wild West of colleges doing whatever the hell they want and charging the government for it,  Given how many financial aid policies, internal policies, and even faculty union contracts are based in part on credit hours, a serious alternative will need to be multifaceted and thoroughly vetted.  This may be the chance for that to happen.

I know a lot can go wrong, but this is the best idea I’ve heard all week.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Question for my Readers

This one’s a little bit self-indulgent, but I hope my wise and worldly readers will bear with me.  I think the answers will be of wider interest.

For the folks who crossed over from faculty to academic administration: when you settled into your new role, what surprised you the most?

Monday, December 03, 2012

Thoughts on an Innovation Fund

What could public higher education do with a significant, sustained funding source dedicated specifically to innovation?

Jeff Selingo asked this question recently, and I like it a lot.  

if we assume that many of the issues facing higher education are structural and long-term, then it makes sense to focus on solutions that are both structural and long-term.  

That’s not how funds like this are usually used.  Typically, an RFP goes out inviting proposals from small groups to “pilot” something small, isolated, and measurable.  The idea is that it’s easier to gauge outcomes if you keep the project small enough to measure, and the intended outcomes modest enough to fall within the temporal frame of a short-term grant.  (Anything longer than five years is relatively rare.)

The problem with the “start small” approach is that it tends to favor “boutique” programs.  Give a group of, say, fifty students an extraordinary array of “wraparound” services for several years, and yes, you can improve their outcomes.  Some methods are more effective than others, and some effects longer-lasting than others, but it’s pretty well established that if we could, say, triple our per-student spending, we could get better results.

Which is almost as useful as saying that if we could fly, traffic jams would be easier to avoid.  It’s probably true, but it doesn’t help.  

There’s no realistic prospect of being able to scale up such high per-student spending to entire colleges or systems.  It’s just not in the cards right now.  Which means that boutique programs, whatever their merits on their own scale, are not system solutions.  And there’s an argument to be made about the fairness of concentrating resources in a few boutiques when so many classes are taught by adjuncts, and costs to students continue to climb.

We’ve been thinking much too small.

Rather than encouraging a half-dozen people on a campus to form some pilot with a few dozen students, I’d like to see projects on the scale of, say, New England, and measured over, say, ten years.  If we’re serious, we have to think big.  What would happen if several states moved entirely to a competency-based system for awarding credit?  What if several states moved simultaneously to eight-week semesters?  What if entire states devoted themselves to finding innovative and scalable ways to integrate MOOCs into, say, tutoring?  What if states had meaningful IR capacity?  What if neighboring campuses started to specialize programmatically in more systematic ways?  What if we developed ERP systems capable of doing what needs to be done, instead of letting ourselves be limited by what, say, Banner or Datatel can do?

This would require a much more farsighted approach to grantsmanship.  It’s always easy to put out RFP’s for microprojects, to highlight a few local successes, and to ignore the larger issues.  There’s still room for that, obviously, but it’s getting harder to keep ignoring the larger issues.  I’m happy to have support for local experiments; we have several on my campus, and I’d like to have more.  But at some level, the issues are far larger than any one campus can handle.  That’s where we really need innovation.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you like to see done with a large-scale, long-term innovation grant?

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Zuckerberg as Example? Really?

This just in: well-connected rich white kids who drop out of Princeton can still do well in life, and the New York Times is ON IT.

Well, that’s a relief.

It’s also hugely unrepresentative.  Worse, the popularity of the story may well serve a corrosive political agenda.

This week’s version of “who needs college, anyway?” comes to us from the New York Times.  The Times profiles several Ivy League dropouts in their twenties who have started high-tech companies, and uses their stories to cast doubt on whether college is really necessary or helpful.  

In a vacuum, I have no issue with a claim that college isn’t for everyone.  It isn’t.  If the thought of structured education gives you hives, and you can’t wait to light out for the territories, then by all means, have at it.  Part of what makes college different from high school is the fact that it’s voluntary.  If you desperately want out, you can get out, and people do.  And yes, some of those people wind up spectacularly successful.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg -- hyperintelligent, well-connected white guys who drop out of high-toned institutions and hire lots of people with computer science Ph.D.’s can occasionally hit the jackpot.  

But that doesn’t change the fact that the typical college dropout faces dramatically worse life outcomes than does the typical college graduate.  The typical college dropout isn’t dropping out of Harvard.  For every Zuckerberg, there are thousands of students from more modest backgrounds, whose real-world economic options are relatively sparse and unforgiving.  The reasonably well-paid blue collar aristocracy isn’t what it used to be, and outside of North Dakota’s drilling encampments, it generally isn’t hiring.  (Or if it is, it’s hiring at a permanently lower wage than a previous generation was able to get.)  And even moving beyond strictly monetary measurements, college graduates tend to vote more, to stay married at higher rates, to live longer, to own homes, and to be more likely overall provide the kind of lives for their children that social conservatives tend to embrace.  This suggests a non-abstract public good that widespread higher education serves.

The “who needs college, anyway?” meme draws on several sources.  One, obviously, is the Great Recession; it’s no coincidence that skepticism towards college has spiked just when job prospects for college grads have withered.  (Of course, good job prospects for folks without degrees have suffered even more.)  The emergence of online education and its variants -- MOOCs, most recently -- has made possible options that simply weren’t possible a few years ago.  Student loan debt is a real issue, especially for dropouts, and the recession has done a real number on both cost (through aid cuts) and ability to pay back (through the job market).  And the underlying march of Baumol’s cost disease is getting harder to ignore.

But taking the occasional “free agent” as somehow representative is as absurd as suggesting that LeBron James shows us that we need to encourage more kids to play basketball.  The Times article quotes someone saying he knows people with six figure incomes from dog-walking businesses.  I don’t.  And I bet you don’t, either.

A few years ago, in a review of Anya Kamenetz’ DIY U, I issued a challenge that still stands:

Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."

Kamenetz, Peter Thiel, and the various other partisans of the Brave New World of empowered dropouts celebrate the “unbundling” of the services that colleges offer, but they neglect to mention that part of the “bundle” is economic opportunity.  It’s a form of civic investment.

Public higher education -- and, indeed, indirect public support of private higher education through Pell grants and subsidized loans -- reflects an ethical position that holds that education should not be the exclusive province of the wealthy and powerful.  That ethical position, in turn, rests on an epistemological humility, a recognition that we do not know where the next great minds are.  Yes, some of them are born into privilege, but many aren’t.  The son of the Brookline attorney is no more morally worthy than the daughter of a Chillicothe waitress.  And sometimes, the next great breakthrough comes from someone from Chillicothe, or East St. Louis, or Buffalo.  

For years, the great political battle involved bringing the institutions that serve Brookline into Chillicothe.  Now, apparently, the great political battle will involve getting the Brookline kids not to abandon them.

Left to its own devices, the unbundling that technology enables can easily lend itself to greater class polarization.  If you already have money and contacts and a solid education and access to all sorts of high-tech stuff, you may be able to top it off with some MOOCs and still come out fine.  But if you’re a more typical American, you need much more than a disaggregated set of catch-as-catch-can DIY options can offer.  You need legibility, and advisement, and contacts, and time.  You need a college.  And it would be a mistake, if not a crime, to let the daring exploits of a few well-placed high flyers provide political cover for destroying the best hope of the many.