Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Giving Tree

At the risk of seeming churlish, I was never a Shel Silverstein fan.  The Giving Tree, which is one of his most popular stories, struck me as deeply creepy.  It’s about a tree that gradually martyrs itself for a boy until there’s nothing left of it.  We’re supposed to admire the tree’s generosity of spirit, rather than recoil at the boy’s selfishness.  

As a kid, it struck me as missing the point.  As an adult, I can’t help but see the story as gendered, with the tree as the Mom.  And if that’s the fate of Moms, then we need rewrite.

I thought of the Giving Tree again upon reading Sherman Dorn’s kind review of my book.  Dorn and I agree on some points and disagree on others, but the question of future strategy for community colleges highlights an assumption I hold that I may need to make more explicit.

In the book, I make a pair of arguments that Dorn assumes are mutually exclusive.  First, I argue that community colleges will do well to increase their partnerships with other institutions, whether K-12 schools, four-year colleges, community organizations, or local employers.  Then, I suggest that the “all things to all people” strategy of the “comprehensive” model is unsustainable, and that community colleges shouldn’t be afraid to specialize.  Dorn notes that each new partnership will bring with it expectations of some sort of mission expansion, and asks how I can argue for both expansion and contraction at the same time.  Dorn argues:

Someone will be given the task of workforce education every X miles, and in a post-financial-crisis world where corporations have sloughed off on-the-job training, community colleges are those someones. Community colleges have joined high schools as legatee institutions–Larry Cuban’s term for social institutions that inherit a broad range of purposes. I don’t think it is easy to undo that history.

In this context, Dorn argues, the only realistic way to ensure the sustainability of community colleges is to increase their operating funding from states and/or localities.    

A few thoughts.

First, there’s a difference between community colleges as a single sector, and community colleges as 1,100 different institutions.  My reference to increased partnerships was in the context of the former, and my reference to specialization was in the context of the latter.  In other words, I don’t see a contradiction between saying that, say, Massachusetts’ community colleges as a group should partner with all sorts of employers, but that there’s much to be said for, say, Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community Colleges having different emphases.  In fact, they do.  Holyoke has a Culinary program, for example, which STCC does not, and STCC has a Dental Hygienist program, which HCC does not.  That kind of specialization allows for economies of scale on each campus, and prevents unhelpful duplication.  To the extent that both institutions are publicly funded, efficiencies like these make sense.

But that’s a quibble; I may have been too quick in my presentation of that in the book.  The more basic issue is with the assumption that community colleges should be the Giving Trees of their communities, and that saying “no” to any particular community need would damn the sector to political perdition.

The Giving Tree is many things, but “sustainable” is not one of them.  It dies in the end.  My search for alternate strategies is premised on trying to avoid that fate.

Yes, of course, more (and more reliable) public operating funding would make a world of positive difference.  I don’t think anyone in my role would disagree with that.  With the worst of the recession seemingly behind us, I hope to see -- and would absolutely welcome -- a healthy increase in state support.  Bring it on!

But it’s hard not to notice the trend over the last few decades all across the country of post-recession recoveries never quite restoring what was lost.  After several cycles of two down and one up, I can’t help but see a pattern.  The “say yes to everyone” strategy that community colleges have followed for decades has coincided with a downward trend -- bumpy, yes, but clearly downward -- in public funding for decades.  By continually trying to please everybody else, we make it politically painless to just keep cutting.  Like the Giving Tree, our own generosity becomes our undoing.

In that sense, the example of California may be revealing.  In California, colleges that have absorbed cuts have responded by just turning students away.  Dorn suggests that “ If there is a lesson other states can draw from the disaster that befell California’s higher ed system in the last few years, it is that comprehensive institutions’ turning away students is a really bad idea, politically.”  I’m not sure.  I’ve leveled my share of criticism at the California funding system over the past few years, but that was all based on the complete separation of tuition and fees from operating budgets.  One could make a pretty good argument to the effect that the waiting lists and spectacular flameouts exerted enough political pressure to result in the state finally starting to step up.  Once voters got over the shock of hearing the old “legatee” system actually say “no,” they finally agreed to pony up some revenue.

Making choices is risky.  But the alternative is worse.  The last few decades have shown strongly that the default path is to just keep hollowing out the tree until there’s nothing left.  I’d rather see educational leaders take seriously the task of pruning and use it to preserve the health of the tree than just wait for the next storm.  The doormat strategy is untenable; if it worked, it would have worked by now.  

Specialization, as one element of a larger strategy, may or may not work.  But waiting for the money fairy to come back and make everything okay again just won’t.  I’ll plead guilty to taking an unconventional view, but expecting the status quo to last is truly unrealistic.  The Giving Tree dies in the end.  We can still avoid its fate, but we’ll have to stop imitating it first.