Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Collision Mix

A friend of mine in college, who had a radio show, used to specialize in “collision mixes.”  They’d be sequences of songs that made absolutely no sense next to each other, even if each was fine on its own.  Yesterday’s news brought a collision mix of its own.

First, I read about the new report from Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown decrying the ever-increasing rate of racial and economic polarization in American higher ed.  The short version is that higher education is increasingly both reflecting and ratifying existing class stratification in American society.  Exclusive colleges take students whose parents were able to afford to raise them in good school districts, or to pay for private schools.  Students who didn’t have those advantages are far less likely to get accepted into exclusive schools, assuming they apply at all.  Since the schools present themselves as substantially meritocratic, the net effect of competitive admissions is to gloss the existing distribution of wealth with a patina of merit.  

In this view of the world, it’s a shame and a scandal that community colleges are serving much larger percentages of students of color, while exclusive colleges are not.  

Then, that very same day, I got word that my own college was getting recognition for its success in attracting and serving a growing population of Latino students.  

And I thought, hmm.

Strictly speaking, the two news items aren’t contradictory.  One measure of the success of a community college is how well it serves the people who need it.  If the service area in which the college is located is becoming more Latino -- as is happening here -- then serving that population well means we’re doing our job.  I’m glad that we’re doing a good job of offering higher education to the community.  And I’m proud to be able to report, truthfully, that our Fall-to-Spring retention rate has improved steadily over the last four years at the exact same time as our student population has become more Latino.  

But I couldn’t help but notice the different value given to the same fact from each perspective.

Carnevale is certainly right that American society is increasingly class-stratified, and that the roots of that stratification show up on the ground in a myriad of mutually-reinforcing ways.  Good school districts -- frequently, those in which it costs more to live -- do a better job of preparing students for college.  Selective colleges know that.  Students who have the family resources to work for free can take unpaid internships that get them in the door in exciting places; students who need to work for pay don’t have that option.  And so on.

So from that standpoint, the news that a community college’s student body is becoming more Latino is just another sign that something has gone horribly wrong.

But from the standpoint of those of us actually working in the community college, the news that we’re successfully reaching a population that stands to benefit greatly from higher education is an unalloyed good.  We’re extending opportunities where they need to go.

And honestly, from inside a community college, the whole “undermatching” thesis is patently offensive.  If you accept the premise that only ten percent of colleges are academically worthwhile, then the arguments about the judicious allocation of spots in the freshman classes for those ten percent become crucial.  But what if you reject the premise?  Instead of trying to pry the “low-hanging” (!!) talented students of low income out of their communities, wouldn’t it be better to improve the colleges they actually choose?

I don’t disagree with Carnevale’s concern about class stratification.  But I’m more than a little perplexed that the solution is to toss life preservers more accurately.  We’d do better to make sure that every ship is seaworthy.  Multiply choices, improve the options, and make sure that community colleges and public four-year colleges can do right by students wherever they are, and celebrate successes where and when they happen.

Most collision mixes on the radio didn’t achieve much more than some forgettable laughs.  But this one might just offer more.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Keynesian Community College

We are all Keynesians now, for better or worse.  At least in the community college world.

When the wheels came off the economy in 2009, enrollment at many community colleges -- including my own -- set records.  Parents who had hoped to send Junior off to Valhalla U suddenly couldn’t afford to, and the local community college abruptly made a lot of sense.  And others who might have preferred to work couldn’t find the opportunity, and going back to school made more sense than just doing nothing.  Put differently, when the Great Recession was in full swing, the opportunity cost of college dropped precipitously.

At the exact same time, the state had to reduce its support of public higher ed in order to reflect lower tax revenues, so we faced double-digit percentage increases in enrollment at the exact same time that we faced double-digit cuts in support.  For a few months, we were the darlings of the local news media, since we were basically the only “growth” story in town.  The pressure showed up even in small ways; campus work-study jobs that had been hard to fill in normal years were never more popular, mostly because they were the only available jobs in town.

As the recession slowly, slowly, slowly recedes, and the private sector starts to show signs of life, community colleges are seeing enrollments level off or slide.  (This piece from Illinois is pretty representative.)  State support is starting to return, too, though not at levels of, say, five years ago.  

You’d think this would be a good thing.  And in certain ways, it is.  In some states, including my own, increased state support has made it possible to freeze tuition and fees for the coming year.  After the rapid increases of the last few years, that’s great news.  

But it comes with an asterisk.  Since state support is a much smaller percentage of the budget than it was even six or seven years ago, even a healthy-looking percentage increase isn’t enough to help the college get ahead and invest in improvements when enrollments slip.  

Being the countercyclical balance wheel means veering from one direction to another.  It’s hard to plan for, and maintain, the kind of healthy, steady growth that allows for sustained innovation when the two major sources of revenue keep cancelling each other out.  Just when you start to get good news on one front, the other one disappoints.

It could be worse.  For-profits are much more subject to booms and busts, precisely because they have only a single revenue source.  When enrollments boom, life is good.  When they shrink, there’s no buffer.  That’s why some of them are closing abruptly, leaving students in the lurch.  But the fact that someone else has it worse doesn’t make this better.

In my perfect world, the news that enrollments are off from their peak would be a relief.  We’d be able to move from all-hands-on-deck to more experimentation and targeted improvement.  It would be a chance for us to address some longstanding issues, and to move forward in areas in which quality improvements require investment.  Grants enable some of that, which is terrific, but they’re sporadic and time-limited.  Philanthropy is helpful, too.  And efficiencies that can be gained internally can free up resources, but most community colleges are already running pretty lean at this point.  This is not where you find climbing walls, palatial dorms, or highly paid football coaches.  This is where you find cinderblock construction and crowded tutoring centers.

Keynesianism -- the idea of the public sector investing countercyclically -- has much to be said for it on a macro level.  But it’s hard to appreciate its wisdom on the ground when your momentum keeps getting interrupted by shifts in direction.  

Monday, July 29, 2013

Henry Ford U?

Would a major private university have staved off disaster in Detroit?

Justin Pope says it might have in a new article in the Atlantic.  And I have to admit that since reading it, I haven’t been able to shake the idea.  Usually when an idea sinks its claws into my mind like that, there’s a reason.

Pope notes, correctly, that many other major Rust Belt cities have also felt the pains of deindustrialization: Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, even my old hometown of Rochester.  But while every one of those cities has faced economic challenges, each one has a major private university or two in it.  Detroit does not.  Think of the role of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Washington University in St. Louis, or even the University of Rochester (and RIT) in Rochester.  Detroit doesn’t have anything comparable.  Wayne State is public, smaller, and not nearly as lucrative in its research.  The University of Michigan is public and thirty-odd miles away, in Ann Arbor.  

Major private research universities offer significant employment; they’re often the largest employers in their host cities.  (I know that’s true in Rochester, for example.)  They bring in a steady influx of ambitious young people, at least some of whom stick around after graduation.  They bring in significant research money.  And they cultivate a separate source of power and talent from whatever local industries are hot at a given moment.

That last point, I think, is the most crucial one.  Cities that have multiple large employers across a host of industries are less subject to booms and busts than cities that rely primarily on a single industry.  When Kodak went the way of, well, film photography, the U of Rochester was still there.  Part of Boston’s success, I think, lay in its combination of a robust higher education sector and a healthy mix of other industries.  Detroit has been an economic monoculture.

I don’t mean any of this to diminish the role of community colleges, of course.  They serve a set of crucial purposes, and in cases where they’re necessary but missing, the absence has consequences.  (Mandy Zatynski has done some great writing on Erie, PA, which lacks a community college.  She suggests that the lack of a trained workforce was part of what drove the GE train assembly plant out of the area.)  But because they’re both thrifty and public, they don’t bring the kind of external money to a city that elite private research universities can.

Of course, Detroit has issues of its own.  Over the break I read Charlie LeDuff’s book on it, which is both fascinating and frustrating.  LeDuff comes off as an unreliable and unsympathetic narrator, getting arrested for domestic violence himself at one point in the tale, but even a self-important jerk can get a few things right.  Yes, Coleman Young was a demagogue and a disaster.  Yes, Kwame Kilpatrick was even worse.  Detroit’s racial politics have been ugly for generations, and have driven away people who had the option of leaving.  Its municipal government was dysfunctional in the best of times.  

But you could say many of those same things about Chicago, which, for all of its issues, is in much better shape than Detroit.  Chicago’s history of race relations isn’t all roses, and its municipal government, uh, let’s say has been on speaking terms with corruption for significant periods.  I’d be hard-pressed to say that the University of Chicago is the key to Chicago’s relative success, but it doesn’t hurt.  Since the stockyard days, though, Chicago hasn’t been the monoculture that Detroit was.  

Wise and worldy readers, what do you think?  If Henry Ford had followed the example of Leland Stanford, would Detroit still be viable today?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ask the Administrator: A Fresh Start?

The break was a blast -- I’ll share highlights on Friday -- but when we came back I found this in my inbox,and it seemed like it needed a quick answer.  Some of it goes well beyond my expertise, so I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers with different sorts of training will chime in helpfully in the comments.

A frustrated young correspondent writes:

After graduating high school in 2008, I went straight to community college. I knew the cost of a 4 year was too high for a part-time working student, didn't want my parents to pay for anything past one book, and was in limbo over what career or sort of degree I wanted to work towards. In the end, I decided a business degree was the best choice to work for since it possessed endless career possibilities. Upon starting, I did very well as I always did. However, I slipped fast halfway through; I'm a perfectionist to a fault. I was so ashamed of myself I couldn't even show up for my finals. It was already too late to drop as well. The reasons why I couldn't cope well with any sort of mistake and school life in general was because of my own personal problems. I was a loner and found it hard to fit in anywhere, life was emotionally difficult at home, and it felt like none of my classmates or acquaintances understood what I was going through. Eventually, I left my sales job from my mother's demands to find a more stable, "real" job. I found it difficult to find even minimum wage jobs at this point. The ones I was offered never went through and what little confidence I had left fizzled out. I knew what my problems were but the lack of support made me fall every time I made a meager attempt to stand up again. It kills me to say that I'm a very weak person deep down despite my appearance.
One day though, I ended up meeting the love of my life and finally received the kind of emotional support I had been looking for all my life. I began to regain my confidence and had goals again; I had something to work for. For a year, I moved out and my state of mind cleared up. But then my worst fear came back to haunt me. He had to move away for work where I couldn't follow. Although I found another job to help out, it wasn't enough to support myself so I regrettably moved home. I will be able to move out again in a year's time but right now, I want to make something of myself. Moving out gave me the fresh air I needed to deal with the suppression at home. I feel like I've wasted a lot of time but I still believe it's never too late to continue. The only thing stopping me right now is my hesitation over my past and the timing of my motivation. Honestly, I want to attend another community college but because gas is expensive, I feel forced to attend the same college from years ago. So these are my questions:
          1. Is it possible to reapply to the same college I never formally left?
2. Who must I talk to particularly to assess my situation?3. Will I still be eligible for financial aid for the first time even though I have a fully failed semester from 5 years ago?4. I intend to pursue a different career. In most cases, will I have to retake the classes that pertained to my previous degree choice, or any for that matter?5. I have less than a month to get things in order before fall classes start. Is it too late to attempt to reapply and sign up for at least 2 classes with my situation?6. In the case that I do get accepted to continue studying, will I have to retake assessment tests?7. If I have to go to the other college instead, must I get a transcript from the previous school? Or is it unnecessary because I have no credits to transfer? 
Thank you for reading this. I really appreciate any answers you may have for me. Although, you may be unable to precisely answer questions #3-7 because of different school policies, I figure you could help me out with the first two questions.

I’ll tackle specifics first.

Yes, it’s possible to reapply to the college you never formally left.  You’d be surprised how many students just walk away without giving formal notice; it’s something that every community college has seen before, plenty of times.  We have processes for dealing with that.  It’s okay.

Financial aid merits a discussion with the campus financial aid office.  Although some colleges have “academic bankruptcy” policies, in which you can wipe the slate clean and start over again, the federal regulations don’t recognize that.  It would be a good idea to make an appointment with someone in Financial Aid to ask about “Satisfactory Academic Progress.”  The way the rules are written, an earlier, “fully failed” semester could cause issues for you after your first semester back, just because your cumulative gpa would still look low.  Different colleges have different ways of handling that.

Assuming that you passed some classes before the disastrous semester, some of them may still apply to your new major.  On my campus, for example, every degree program requires English 101.  That means that if you took and passed English 101 as a business major, then switched to, say, a Psych major, you don’t have to retake English 101.  It carries over.  Anything you failed wouldn’t carry over, though, so if you failed English 101, you’d have to retake it.

For most campuses, it’s not too late to reapply.  (If you live in some California districts, it may be.)  Whether or not you have to retake assessment tests depends on local campus policy.  If you switch campuses, you’ll have to get a transcript sent over, but that’s remarkably easy.  I wouldn’t stress about that.  People do it all the time.  Even if you don’t have any credits to transfer, it will matter for financial aid purposes.

In terms of the price of gasoline, I’d suggest considering online classes.  Many community colleges offer them, and they can help with transportation issues and constantly-shifting job hours.  Of course, they require consistent internet access and considerable self-discipline.  But if you have those, online courses could allow you to start at your own pace and avoid a lot of driving.

All of that said, though, I’m a little worried about what sounds like helplessness.  This is where I’m hoping some of my wise and worldly readers can chime in.  

If you go in with the belief that you’re “a very weak person,” you’ll find ways to confirm that.  I’m wondering if the first order of business might be to find a way to engage the world that makes you feel stronger and more confident, entirely independent of what a boyfriend or parent does.  Staking everything on a boyfriend who will save you is awfully high risk.  If you can take care of yourself, instead of needing to be saved, you’ll be in a better position with guys anyway.  Being capable and confident can be attractive in itself, and it can help you contain the damage if someone lets you down.

Different people find that sense of capability in different ways.  If home is toxic, then look outside it at other options.  Some people find it at work.  Some find it through their church.  Some get involved in social or political causes.  Some become intensely involved with others who share an arcane cultural interest, whether that’s Star Trek or great country singers of the 1940’s.  Some like to build things.  Whatever stirs you, jump in.  You’ll find affirmation from other people, and you’ll have something that’s specific to you.  

The issues may go deeper -- I’m hoping some of my readers are more insightful on this than I am -- but sometimes it’s okay to start shallow.  Find affirmation where you can, and build on it.  Once you feel like you’re on a mission, instead of just waiting for the next external event to throw you around, you’ll be in much better shape to benefit from college.  

Good luck!  I hope you’re able to find something that stirs you, and that interrupts that inner voice that keeps telling you that you’re weak.  As the writer Annie Dillard once put it, the inner life is frequently stupid.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Vacations at Various Ages

0-11: I hope we get to go to the zoo/amusement park/grandma’s house!

12-18: Great.  Parents.

18-27: Vacation?  Vacation?  I’m broke as ^%#)^#.  What’s a vacation?

28-30: Finally!  Let’s see the sights we’ve always wanted to see!

31-40: Is it kid-friendly?  Where will we eat?  Don’t forget the pack’n’play, exersaucer, sippy cups, umbrella stroller, portable changing pad (it’s a thing), baby wipes, medical records, strategically chosen stuffed animals, animal crackers, and LeapPads.

41-:  Screw it.  Get in the car.

We’re loading up the family truckster and heading west for a while, so the blog will be on a break.  See you on Monday, July 29.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Armadillos and Marxists

This should be so painfully obvious as to not need saying.  But judging from yesterday’s story about Mitch Daniels and Howard Zinn, and much of the commentary it generated, it still needs to be said.

You don’t have to be an armadillo to study armadillos.  You don’t have to be an ancient Greek to study ancient Greece.  And you don’t have to be a Marxist to study a Marxist.

As governor of Indiana, apparently, Mitch Daniels sent a series of emails declaring that nobody should teach the writings of Howard Zinn at any public university in Indiana on his watch.  After all, Daniels seemed to assume, Zinn was a lefty and a skeptic.  Teaching him would be corrosive of the morals of the youth.  And the only people who would ever teach a subversive must obviously be subversives themselves.

Predictably, though dishearteningly, many of the comments either sided with Daniels or extolled the virtues of Zinn.  

At one level, it’s an easy case of a politician failing utterly to understand academic freedom.  But it’s more than that.

Whether the book in question is by Howard Zinn or George Will isn’t the point.  Studying a text does not imply agreeing with it, whatever “agreeing” means.  In fact, learning to keep a critical distance on a text is one of the most important skills that higher education can impart.  (I’m using “critical” here in the academic sense, meaning “evaluative,” rather than in the popular sense, meaning “bashing.”  Any idiot can bash.  But a serious evaluation requires actual thought.)  Reading texts that take different points of view can force a student to get beyond simply repeating what they’ve read, or falling back on whatever cliches are handy.

In my radio days, one of my favorite tricks was to play back-to-back versions of the same song by different artists.  (That’s easy with jazz, since there’s a widely accepted set of standards.)  Hearing Billie Holiday’s version of “God Bless the Child,” and then hearing Keith Jarrett’s version, you couldn’t help but notice what each musician brought to it, and how much the song had to offer.  When you knew how the song was “supposed” to go, and then it took a left turn, you noticed the turn.  It allowed for a fuller appreciation of the possibilities of the song.

In teaching history or politics, the same idea holds.  How many ways are there to interpret the industrial revolution?  If you say “one,” you’re badly wrong, no matter which one you pick.  Walking students through some of the alternatives, and getting them to grapple with the strengths of each, builds their analytical skills.  It’s hard, but it’s worth doing.  And it presumes the freedom to teach material that does not necessarily reflect the professor’s own view.

With ideologically loaded material, sometimes a certain distance could go a long way.  I struggled with teaching the civil rights movement the first couple of times, because students were so eager to reduce it to “MLK good, racists bad.”  That wasn’t wrong, but it was facile.  It didn’t require any actual thought, and it lent itself to a smug and unhelpful attitude that located racial conflict safely in the distant past.  The discussions got far better when I reframed the question.  “Why did the civil rights movement happen when it did, as opposed to twenty years earlier or twenty years later?”  At that point, students couldn’t just fall back on cliches.  They had to come up with, and evaluate, alternative answers.  They had to think.

Equating an object of study with a political position is absurd.  Assuming that a professor agrees uncritically with everything in every text she assigns is absurd.  I’d be concerned if she did.  Lefties can study conservatives and vice versa.  The best paper I wrote as an undergraduate was on the George Wallace presidential campaign of 1968.  I was no fan of Wallace, and that hasn’t changed, but taking a sustained, close look at what his appeal was for a certain segment of the population forced me to think a little harder about my own views.  I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that some conservative undergraduate is doing a paper on Ralph Nader now, and asking himself some uncomfortable questions.  At least, I hope so.

The relative merits of Howard Zinn aren’t the point.  Yes, it’s about academic freedom.  But it’s also about recognizing the difference between teaching a book and espousing a doctrine.  It’s about respecting students as thinkers, and faculty as craftspeople.  Education isn’t just about transmitting content; it’s about developing the critical skills that enable people to confront ideas with which they disagree and come away smarter.  Otherwise we’re robots.  Or armadillos.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


In grad school I had a professor who styled himself a sort of Kantian, but with New York attitude.  Whenever anyone started spouting then-fashionable postmodernism, he’d bark at them “what are your categories?”  It soon became a running joke among some of the grad students.  (“Guinness or Bass?”  “What are your categories?”  “F--- you.”)

I thought of him yesterday, driving back from helping my Mom recuperate from surgery.  Since I had plenty of car time, I caught up on my podcasts, one of which was the episode of the Diane Rehm show that discussed the cost of college tuition. (The guests were Kevin Carey, Kim Clark, Terry Hartle, and Brian Rosenberg.)  Within about ten minutes, I was channeling my old professor, screaming at the podcast about categories.

The discussion was actually relatively good, as mass media discussions go, which made it all the more frustrating.  Even in a comparatively slow and deliberate setting, in which everyone was reasonably bright, the discussion quickly devolved into a confused, hopeless mess.  It’s little wonder that the public at large, and many political leaders, have no idea what to think.

Some suggestions for anyone who wants to engage a serious conversation about higher ed costs:

- Are you talking about public, private non-profit, or for-profit?   Lumping the three together only serves to mystify.  

- Are you talking about flagship universities, regional universities, liberal arts colleges, or community colleges?  Hint: if you refer to football coaches, resort-like dorms, or million-dollar presidents, you aren’t talking about community colleges.

- Do you understand _why_ the higher ed sector largely experiences technology as a cost center?  Hint: it’s because we have to teach it.  Higher ed and health care both experience technology as a cost center.

- Is the anxiety about costs really anxiety about jobs after graduation?  If it is, then the real issue is the economy.  When the job market for new entrants is healthy, student loans are easier to pay.

- Do you know the difference between what a college charges and what it spends?  (Hint: among publics, long-term disinvestment has driven up charges much more quickly than spending.)  

- For that matter, do you know the difference between sticker price and actual cost?

- When you hear about “administrative” costs, ask for a definition.  The real growth hasn’t been among supervisory people; it has been in IT, with some in services for students with disabilities and financial aid.  If you still want to condemn costs, specify which of those you would cut.

- On a more philosophical level, what do you see as the purpose of colleges?  It’s harder to make “tough choices” when you have multiple missions.  Publics, and especially community colleges, are often tasked with multiple missions at the same time, and those missions can bump into each other.

- Finally, and for extra credit, do you know what Baumol’s cost disease is?  

I don’t mean for any or all of these to shut down the discussion; if anything, I’d like to see them inform it.  But in the absence of these basics, the discussion quickly becomes vapid and mystifying, leaving people to default to the stereotypes with which they began.  Higher education is too important to sacrifice to shorthand and slogans.  As much as it pains me to acknowledge my old professor, he had a point; without categories, we have no way to distinguish good arguments from silly ones.

Monday, July 15, 2013

BREAKING: Funders Have Agendas

The Chronicle of Higher Ed just ran a set of articles with inflammatory headlines threatening to blow the lid off the Gates Foundation and its secret agenda.  It turns out that...hold on to your hats, people...the Gates Foundation is using money to encourage colleges to help students complete degrees.

Shocking, I know.  Next we’ll discover that money influences politics, too.

Maybe it’s because my original training is in political science, where the idea that money and power are intertwined is, um, let’s say “well worn,” but this doesn’t strike me as particularly groundbreaking.  

Had the articles revealed some sort of hidden agenda, that would have been something.  But as near as I can tell after repeated readings, the Gates Foundation stands accused of forwarding the same agenda that it claims in public.  

Which, I assume, it is.  

Its ideas may be right, wrong, or some mix of the two, but they aren’t secret and they aren’t -- as far as I can tell -- stalking horses for something else.  

The most radical ideas -- competency-based education and using financial aid to encourage completion -- both strike me as conceptually sound.  Yes, the details matter, and yes, it’s possible to get either one wrong.  (I’m actually more wary of the latter than of the former, but that’s me.)  But revealing that, say, Amy Laitinen’s work on the credit hour was supported by a foundation -- a fact she already revealed -- doesn’t speak to the validity of the work.  Is Baumol’s cost disease a fiction?  Does seat time really make sense after all?  For that matter, is multi-year remediation really the best that can be done?

The pieces come off as a frustrated attempt at an ad hominem, but with little mud to sling.  

As someone who isn’t on a Foundation payroll, I can say that I find the competency-based degree that Southern New Hampshire University is developing through its College for America exciting and groundbreaking.  It’s version 1.0 of something that will evolve and improve, but the basic idea -- that what you learn matters more than how long it took you to learn it -- is right.  Baumol’s cost disease is real, insidious, and entirely independent of the Gates Foundation.  And for heaven’s sake, anyone who thinks that the success rates of long-term remediation programs is worth defending has a lot of work to do.

Yes, there are valid critiques to raise.  The articles suggest two, and I’ll raise a third.

First, as the articles correctly note, Gates is enormous.  By virtue of its size, it can drown out other voices.  That’s true, and it’s an argument for diversifying the funders out there.  To the extent that people are afraid to raise issues for fear of alienating a funder, the best solution is to multiply the funders.  That’s especially true when you think about what happens when Gates shifts its focus to something else.  To the extent that higher ed policy innovation becomes dependent on one or two funders, it’s fragile.  But the solution isn’t to get rid of those one or two.  It’s to find more.  Diversify the portfolio.

Second, as the articles note, Gates has blind spots of its own.  I’ve been a little puzzled at its seeming indifference to people who actually work in higher education.  But there, too, the way to improve it is to get those other ideas out there.  As the Gates projects evolve, if they want to ensure sustainability, they’ll have to recognize some of the realities of higher education that those of us in the trenches know well.  

Finally, it’s certainly true that a hamfisted focus on completion could easily work to the detriment of the students with the least resources.  That is a real danger, and one well worth preventing.  But to the extent that, say, current practices around remediation are likelier to damage low-income students at community colleges than legacy admits at Yale, then improving those practices should disproportionately benefit those same low-income students.  I certainly don’t see the argument against trying.  We need to keep the mission of inclusion and social justice in the forefront of our thinking as we innovate, but I refuse to believe that what we have now is the best of all possible worlds.  

Go ahead and rail against the concentration of wealth in America; I’ve done that myself.  And I’m entirely behind a call for developing a more robust and diverse set of funding sources to support reflective and innovative work in higher ed.  Hell, go ahead and attack Gates for following its agenda if you disagree with it.  But I don’t see a scandal here.  The Foundation is trying to make a difference, just like it says it is.  If you want to show it up, offer something better.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why Searches Fail

There’s a taboo in higher ed circles about examining failure, since there’s no way to do it without admitting some proximity to failure.  That’s a shame, since we can often learn as much by seeing what went wrong as we do by seeing what went right.

Last week’s piece about the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and its difficulties in filling faculty positions got me thinking.  My first response, which I posted last week, noted that the salaries that UW is identifying as unrealistically low are actually higher than you’d find at many community colleges, particularly at the assistant professor level.  If they’re scandalously low at UW at that level, then we need to take a serious look at community college faculty salaries, especially at the entry level.  (Admittedly, there’s significant variation by state: the faculty salaries in New Jersey were far higher than they are in Massachusetts, for example.)

But then I started thinking about the faculty searches that I’ve seen fail.  They’re a minority of the searches we’ve done, but they happen.  Given the well-publicized surfeit of good candidates in many fields, why do faculty searches fail?

In no particular order:

- Demand isn’t necessarily where the supply is.  The evergreen academic disciplines tend to have the highest numbers of candidates, but we don’t only hire in those.  We also hire in fields like nursing, accounting, computer info systems, and engineering.  The fact that the market in English is flooded doesn’t make hiring for CIS any easier.

- Two-body issues.  When love and money go together, life is good.  When they diverge, things get tricky.  And we just don’t have the loose resources (or policies) to create positions for partners.  We can only hire where we need to, and sometimes not even there.  It’s hard to compete with someone’s beloved.

- Salaries.  In fields in which industry demand exists, this can be a real issue.  We also get outbid for strong candidates from underrepresented groups.

- Immigration issues.

- Expectations.  Some candidates come in with preconceived notions about the salary and workload that just don’t match the reality of what we do.  They come in with great enthusiasm, but then get the offer, blink in disbelief, and turn it down.  For a whole host of reasons, I can’t just offer more money when someone says no to the initial offer, so that can lead to a failed search.

- Late changes of mind.  I’ve had this happen.  A candidate accepts the position and gives every indication that she will be here in the Fall.  Then, in the middle of the summer, she calls and says that she received a better offer and won’t be here after all.  By that point, we’ve already sent the other candidates away, so it’s not like we can just move to number two on the list.  I’d much rather get rejected upfront than a few months later; at least when it’s upfront, the second-choice candidate is still a very real option.  Some second choice candidates turn out to be rock stars.  

- Timing.  Sometimes another college beats you to your first choice.  Then the second choice chokes on the salary, and the third choice really isn’t a choice at all.  It happens.

- Reference checking.  Once in a great while, something alarming comes up.  And that’s all I’ll say about that.

From a hiring standpoint, most of these are beyond our control.  Salaries are collectively bargained statewide and subject to a pretty strict grid, so we can’t just go beyond them because somebody wants more.  Two-body issues would require the resources and freedom to just create positions on the fly; I’m not holding my breath on that.  Immigration laws, surprising references, and certain elements of timing are entirely external.  (Admittedly, we could work on speeding up our internal processes, which could help somewhat.)  And while it would be lovely if our hiring needs aligned perfectly with where the supply of candidates is, ultimately, we hire based on what we need to cover.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found elegant, legal, sustainable ways around some of these issues?