Sunday, March 31, 2013

Comparative Perspectives

Next week I’m doing my first accreditation visit.  I’ve been on the receiving end of three ten-year visits in my career -- you’d think that wouldn’t be mathematically possible, but it is -- but this will be my first time on the visiting side.  I spent a chunk of this weekend plowing through the self-study, pen in hand.

Already, I can see the value in it as a professional development exercise.  The college I’m visiting is in a different state than my own, so it has a different set of political variables to manage.  It has its own history, its own local quirks, and its own challenges.  Yet much of what it’s facing is simply a variation on what nearly everybody in public higher education is facing.  And that’s where the professional development value comes in.

Unless you make a conscious effort not to, it’s easy for people on a given campus to think that its issues are unique to it.  That’s true because most of the time, most people on campus aren’t made privy to, or interested in, comparative perspectives.  They’re too busy focusing on their own work -- to their credit -- and it’s easier just to assume that whenever someone in administration makes some sort of reference to an external force, it’s just cover for a personal agenda.  

But much of the time, it isn’t.  And that becomes really obvious when you look beyond a single campus.

In many industries, people move between employers frequently enough that some level of comparative perspective can develop almost without trying.  Marissa Mayer brings a perspective to Yahoo that an insider probably would not.  Consultants make entire careers out of bringing comparative perspectives to bear on local situations.  In many industries, there’s nothing weird about the idea that companies have things to learn from each other.

In higher ed, though, it’s commonplace for faculty to spend decades at a single college.  When the last time you worked somewhere else was in the 80’s, and that was in a grad student role, it can be hard to know where local quirks stop and industrywide developments start.   

Scholarly associations allow for some level of comparison, but only within a single discipline.  In the years when I routinely attended the American Political Science Association conferences, I got a fair sense of which departments were hot.  But I had no idea about the larger universities or colleges within which they operated.  That’s not a criticism of APSA; that isn’t its mission.  But even after years of that, the first time I heard about outcomes assessment I assumed it was a personal interest of my dean.  

At the conferences that deal specifically with community colleges as institutions -- I’m thinking here of the League for Innovation and the AACC, primarily -- most of the research presented is case studies of single campuses.  There are some blessed exceptions -- I’m a huge fan of the CCRC, for example, because it does exactly this -- but most of what gets presented is success stories from a single college.  Rigorous comparison is left to the audience.

That lack of a comparative perspective probably contributes to much of the conflict on individual campuses.  To the extent that some folks think that major external shifts are somehow optional -- that is, subject to refusal -- they’ll miscalculate the options.  They’ll mistake the messenger for the message, with unhelpful results.  

A few years ago, I had hoped that the blogosphere would do more to foster comparative perspectives than it has.  But supply doesn’t necessarily create demand; even thoughtful writing doesn’t mean much if it goes unread.  Those who think to seek out other perspectives are already ahead of the game.  

An accreditation visit pushes the comparative perspective even deeper.  In this case, the information is pretty thorough and specific.  I don’t know what I’ll find when I get to the campus, but I’m already looking forward to it.