Thursday, October 31, 2013

Friday Fragments

What the hell is going on in Pennsylvania?  This week brought news of a fourth state university campus making drastic personnel cuts, including tenured faculty and multiple degree programs.  (Clarion, Edinboro, Mansfield, and East Stroudsburg, and, presumably, counting.) If this is what “economic recovery” looks like, can you imagine what the next down cycle will bring?  

That isn’t unique to Pennsylvania, of course.  (It also isn’t unique to higher education: the Philadelphia K-12 district has taken quite a beating lately.)  Michigan and Ohio have battered their public higher ed sector pretty hard, too.  California remains in a league of its own, but still.

Changes of that magnitude are scary in themselves, but they’re made much scarier by the sense that they aren’t part of a transition plan.  It’s one thing to endure a painful shift from an older thing to a newer one; it’s quite another to just give up the older one.  

Academics as a group don’t like to use terms like this, but it’s increasingly clear that we need to look hard at the underlying business model.  


The Girl dressed as Yoda for Halloween, which I thought was an inspired choice.  She’s the perfect height for it, and the long, curly hair poking out from behind the mask gave Yoda a badly needed bit of flair.  The Boy dressed as an FBI agent, complete with dark suit, shades, and earpiece.  He looked like a younger, thinner version of Tommy Lee Jones from “Men in Black.”  

On campus, the most popular student costumes this year were characters from “Adventure Time,” especially Fiona.  There’s probably a great sociological work waiting to be written about what any given year’s popular costume reveals about changing cultural obsessions...


On the subject of Halloween, why does anybody give out Sugar Daddies?  I’ve never seen anybody buy a Sugar Daddy for himself.  They’re dreary, nobody likes them, and they’re impossible to chew.  And yet, every single Halloween, they show up reliably, along with Smarties and Sweet Tarts.

This will not do.  Think “Reese’s,” people.  Or Snickers.  Even Hershey, for heaven’s sake.  But Sugar Daddies?  Necco wafers?  Puh-leeze.

And don’t even talk to me about raisins.  I have nothing against them generally, but as Halloween treats, they’re just wrong.  


The Red Sox’ victory was especially sweet this year.  This was the year that the family visited Fenway for the first time.  We picked a great day for it; the Sox defeated the Padres on a walk-off pinch-hit home run by Jonny Gomes.  Having actually visited Fenway, it was easier to identify with the team.  I have a long history of loathing the Yankees, so rooting for the Sox came easily.  The Boy is a huge Jon Lester fan, for reasons of his own.  And coming in the year of the Marathon bombing, it was great to see Boston experience collective joy.  I saw a lot of very tired-looking faces on campus on Thursday, though.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You Make the Call, Version 1.2

Yesterday, I asked my wise and worldly readers to make the call in the following scenario, and I’m happy to report that many stepped up and did just that.

The Basketweaving department has a few long-serving full-time faculty, and a host of adjuncts.  One of the adjuncts has been there longer than most, and has been conspicuous in going above and beyond to help the department.  Let’s call her SuperAdjunct.

The department has a retirement, and gets the opportunity to hire a full-time replacement.  It drafts a job description, assembles a search committee, and starts the process.  But the chair openly refers to the position as rightfully SuperAdjunct’s, and seems to resent even having to go through a process when it’s clear what the outcome should be.  Meanwhile, HR is pushing for the full, open process, on the grounds that anything less is discriminatory.

Now, let’s add a wrinkle, just to make things interesting.  SuperAdjunct is white.  The college has an affirmative action policy, and it has identified diversifying its faculty as a goal.  In these circumstances, do you side with the chair, or with HR?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You Make the Call!

Readers of a certain age who are also baseball fans will remember Mel Allen’s This Week in Baseball.  Back when we were lucky to get one game a week on television, TWIB was a highlight show that set the stage for, say, SportsCenter.  

My favorite recurring feature was “You Make the Call!,” in which they would show a complicated or rare play that occurred that week and ask the viewer how the umpire should have called it.  It gave me a new appreciation of how difficult umpiring actually is.

In that spirit, I’ll outline a hypothetical case, derived from a composite of things I’ve seen and/or heard about over the years.  This is not based completely on any one case.  I just want to get a sense of how wise and worldly people see this.  As context, let’s assume that this is taking place at a publicly funded community college.

The Basketweaving department has a few long-serving full-time faculty, and a host of adjuncts.  One of the adjuncts has been there longer than most, and has been conspicuous in going above and beyond to help the department.  Let’s call her SuperAdjunct.

The department has a retirement, and gets the opportunity to hire a full-time replacement.  It drafts a job description, assembles a search committee, and starts the process.  But the chair openly refers to the position as rightfully SuperAdjunct’s, and seems to resent even having to go through a process when it’s clear what the outcome should be.  Meanwhile, HR is pushing for the full, open process, on the grounds that anything less is discriminatory.

You make the call.  Is it absurd to bother running an open search when there’s somebody clearly deserving in-house, or is it unethical to assume a right answer before even running the search?  Is the chair or HR closer to right?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Hofstadter's Bees

Richard Hofstadter, the great American political historian, famously said that third parties in America are like bees: they sting once, and then they die.  As far as third parties go, he was basically correct -- the last one to really take off was the Republican party, which filled the void left by the collapse of the Whigs.  It’s been a while.  But many of the parties that “failed” actually shifted the terms of discussion within the major parties, leaving a larger policy impact than their brief organizational lives would lead you to expect.  The bee may have died, but its stinger left a lasting imprint.

The demise of Ivy Bridge, a highly touted effort at disruptive innovation, reminded me of Hofstadter’s line.  And it suggests something that incumbents should take seriously.

You can read the details here.  But the short version is that a thirtysomething who knew nothing about community colleges except that “the U.S. system of community colleges is completely dysfunctional” decided to compete with them, only to crash and burn when the success rates he wanted proved more difficult, and more expensive, than he had thought.  Which nearly anybody who works at a community college could have told him, had he bothered to ask.

It’s easy, and tempting, to chuckle at the hubris of yet another investor who doesn’t bother doing his due diligence about an incredibly complicated sector because, hey, he’s smart and went to college.  What more could it possibly take?

But that would be the wrong lesson.  

Major parties survive, in part, by adapting.  (They also game the system, and benefit from first-past-the-post elections, but those are separate issues.)  They get caught off-guard from time to time by a third party or other candidate who makes hay of a previously neglected or suppressed issue, but over time, they shift to capture its appeal (or the appeal of opposing it).  They survive by understanding that when significant challenges keep coming from the same quarters, it would be self-defeating not to ask why.

Ivy Bridge’s failure is one lesson, but its plausibility is another.

Higher education carries the blessing, and the curse, of some uniquely high barriers to entry.  That’s one reason that academic jobs are as scarce as they are.  In most industries, all (or sometimes more than all) job growth comes from companies in their first few years of existence.  Since public higher education at this point consists almost exclusively of colleges older than that, the market would be “mature” even without other factors intruding.  Add the pyramid-scheme nature of graduate education, and you have a serious misalignment of supply and demand.  That misalignment enables the shift to adjuncts.  In allocating full-time positions among the various departments that want them, one factor that counts against a department is the relative ease of finding adjuncts to cover classes.  Supply depresses demand.  

But ultimately, the adjunct imbalance is a symptom, not a cause.  It’s a symptom of an industry in its “mature” phase.  That’s the stage at which existing arrangements are most vulnerable, because they’ve lost the sense of the possibility of something different.  

For my money, the best hope for positive change comes from neither wishing the future away nor assuming that some investor somewhere who knows not what he does will produce the answer out of whole cloth.  It comes from people within the system -- who therefore know what the issues are -- having the room to move, to experiment.  That’s why I’m much more impressed with SNHU’s College for America, or Western Governors’ University, than I am with the latest investor-driven startup.  SNHU and WGU both have the powerful combination of experience and a wilingness to try something drastic and new.  That’s how you survive, and thrive, as the world shifts around you.  You harness the talent and experience of good people in the system, and you create a setting in which they can do new things.  Google does that, Apple used to do that, and a few leaders in higher education do that.  That’s the angle to take.

Ivy Bridge turned out to be one of Hofstadter’s bees.  That’s fine by me, but let’s not miss the lesson of its sting.  The rest of us have some innovating to do.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Intern Scholarships

Internships are wonderful and awful.  They’re wonderful in giving experience to students who benefit from it, whether by getting a foot in the door or, as happened in my case, learning what they don’t want to do.  (My internship spared the world from yet another lawyer.  That strikes me as an unalloyed good.)  And they’re awful in that they’ve become de facto class barriers; to the extent that they’re both unpaid and required, they serve to screen out students who can’t afford to work for free.  That hardly seems fair.

Internships are particularly problematic at the community college level.  That’s because in addition to the usual issues, four-year colleges often refuse to take internship credits in transfer.  They prefer to honor only their own.  That’s not universally true, but it’s common enough to be a real issue.  

And that’s a shame, because the right internship at the right time can be a great learning experience.  To the extent that they can compensate for missing social capital, in the form of familiarity with various professions, they’re probably much more important for community college students specifically.  They can replace idealized images of how a profession works with a warts-and-all daily reality.  As a complement to classroom instruction, that’s invaluable.

But how to make internships affordable to students who need Pell grants just to attend school?

I’m thinking that it may be time to make a much more focused and intentional push for intern scholarships.  

That was how I was able to do my own internship, all those years ago.  Some beneficent donor gave money that paid for stipends for students to do otherwise-unpaid summer internships.  The stipend had a twofold benefit: it made it financially possible for me to do the internship, and it made me a more attractive candidate for it.  Knowing that I “came with money” reassured the folks in charge that I would be likely to show up and put forward a good effort, which, in fact, I did.  

The beauty of the scholarship was that it wasn’t attached to any given placement.  It was portable.  The student had to find something, and I’m sure there were criteria, but it could go where the student wanted to go (and could find a spot).  It leveled the playing field by making it affordable to work “for free,” since the intern got paid, but not by the employer.

This was back in the late 80’s.  Now, internship experience is far more important for students than it was then, but for some reason, the intern scholarship model hasn’t really caught on.

Scholarships are usually earmarked for degree study, which makes perfect sense.  But I could see a well-designed intern scholarship making an enormous, positive difference for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to take those positions.  

Does anyone out there know of a reason that the intern scholarship model couldn’t work?  Is there some technicality in the law that makes it unwieldy?  Or is it low-hanging fruit, just waiting to be picked?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What if We Never Cancelled Classes?

I have to admit liking this idea a lot, even though I’m having trouble imagining how it would work.  Henry Ford Community College, in Michigan, has announced that starting next year, it will refrain from cancelling classes for low enrollment.  (It will retain the right to cancel classes for lack of faculty to teach them, which seems fair.)  The idea is to ensure students that once they’re in, they’re in.  

Apparently, the mechanism will involve posting a minimal schedule first, and then adding sections as needed.  That way, students won’t have classes cancelled out from under them.  They may not get optimal schedules, but the ones they get, they can keep.  (The article refers to adjuncts being “bumped off” from sections.  Maybe it’s a regional thing, but to me, “bumped off” has a more sinister meaning.)

I understand the appeal to students (and to faculty) of knowing that once a class is on the books, it’s running.  For students who have complicated lives, shifting days and times at the last minute can be a real hardship.  For faculty, the prep time that goes into a class that never runs is essentially wasted.  I get that.  I also see the academic appeal of the occasional unusually small class.  

And it would solve a persistent, nagging problem.  Cancelling underenrolled classes is a painful and imperfect process.  On the one hand, you want to do it as early as possible, in order to give students and faculty time to make whatever adjustments they need to make.  On the other, you want to do it as late as you can, to preserve the possibility for ninth-inning rallies in enrollment.  In either case, you’re basing decisions on best-guess predictions, which are necessarily imperfect.  I’ve been told by the occasional angry professor that his class “would have made it” if it had been given a chance.  There’s literally no way to know the truth of that one way or the other, which makes the discussion frustrating for both sides.

To make matters worse, we’ve found historically that when you cancel a class with, say, ten students in it, five of them don’t re-enroll in something else.  Students have scheduling constraints of their own; some will roll with the punch, but some won’t.  And a student who might cut a college some slack the first time it happens may walk away in disgust the third time it happens.

That said, though, the painful fiscal truth is that the college could not run a bevy of small sections without going under.  Enrollment pays bills.  Start dividing the same salaries by many fewer tuitions, and things get ugly fast.  So if the possibility of just throwing everything out there and running it is off the table, and you don’t want to go with late cancellations, you have to start with pretty minimal offerings and work your way up.  I presume that’s why HFCC isn’t going with a “run everything” model, but is instead going with “we’ll add it as we need it.”

The “add it as we need it” model seems to lend itself to other painful issues.  As things stand now, late staffing for a few sections causes issues with book ordering; if late staffing became more normal, I could see the bookstore issues mushrooming quickly.  The faculty problem of the “wasted prep” would be replaced by the faculty problem of the “instant prep”; it’s not obvious to me that that’s better educationally.  Adjunct recruitment would get much harder, since I assume that full-timers would have to be staffed first.  They would probably have to go with “tiers” of likelihood of backup classes: the most likely, the next most likely, and so on.  But getting good adjuncts is tough already, without trying to get someone to commit to a “fairly likely” section to run.  I foresee some defections from the ranks, as adjuncts rationally decide to take more concrete offers from other places rather than vaporous ones from HFCC.  Even room scheduling would have to be rethought.

Even as I struggle to comprehend the operational issues, though, I have to admit liking the concept and the spirit behind it.  I’ll be following this one with interest.  Henry Ford revolutionized the production process; maybe Henry Ford Community College will revolutionize the scheduling process.  I’m rooting for them.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tuition Remission? Really?

Over at the Chronicle, Jeff Selingo has a strange little piece calling for getting rid of tuition remission benefits for “faculty brats.”  The argument is twofold: tuition benefits for the children of faculty are regressive, he asserts, since they apply to full-timers but not to adjuncts; and they contribute to a certain blindness on campus to the reality of tuition increases.  In his words, the benefit “smacks of an entitled ivory tower,” and therefore offends a sense of fairness.

To which I say, it’s a case of asking the wrong question.  

Selingo never uses or acknowledges the term, but “employee discounts” are common across many industries.  They aren’t considered elitist or scandalous there.  

Tuition remission is an employee benefit like any other.  In union shops, it’s subject to collective bargaining; elsewhere, it’s a tool management can use to recruit and retain people in lieu of salary increases.  I’ve heard of really elite institutions in which tuition benefits are portable up to the equivalent of the employer’s price; that’s the gold standard.  If you’re at Snooty Private U which charges $50k a year, that benefit should go a long way pretty much anywhere.  At public institutions, the benefit is usually smaller because the tuition is lower.  If your employer charges $15k instead of $50k, the benefit shrinks along with it.  

(Massachusetts has an annoying quirk in its tuition remission.  The state sets tuition, which it hasn’t raised in forever, but colleges set fees.  At this point, “fees” outstrip tuition by factors of five or six across the state.  But the employee benefit only covers the “tuition” part, so the benefit has been essentially frozen for decades, becoming much more like a coupon than a waiver.  It still exists, but it’s much less relevant than it used to be.)

I’ve heard of summer camps that allow employees’ kids to attend for free.  I’ve heard of daycare centers that do the same.  It’s not weird.

Yes, tuition benefits are unevenly distributed.  So are salaries, teaching loads, and prestige.  That’s the industry in which we work.  If you want to argue that, say, basic fairness dictates equal per-student funding across community colleges and flagship universities, I’m right there with you.  
But to attack tuition remission while leaving all of the other inequities intact just seems odd.  

I’ve written before about the two-body problem in higher education.  It’s a real, and rapidly growing, issue that strikes at the heart of work-life balance.  A national market with scarce opportunities for entry -- and even scarcer opportunities for advancement within the role once you’re in -- wreaks havoc on family life.  Tuition remission for dependents may be a bit of a holdover from an earlier time, when faculty were harder to find, but it’s a welcome holdover.  It’s an increasingly rare acknowledgement that people aren’t just, or always, monads.  Some of us have children, and that’s not a lifestyle choice on the same level as, say, flying model airplanes.  

The problem with colleges as employers, or with higher education as an industry, is not that it is excessively family-friendly.  That is not the issue, by a long shot.  

Tuition remission may gradually fade away as the business model of twentieth century higher ed comes under increasing strain.  But I wouldn’t call that progress.  Whatever its origins and its flaws, it’s a rare gesture recognizing that academics are actually three-dimensional people.  Let’s not attack some rare residual decency when there are real problems to solve.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

California Raisins and Community Colleges

Readers of a certain age will remember when the California Raisins singing “I heard it through the grapevine” were the hottest thing on tv.  They were the stars of a series of commercials sponsored by some sort of consortium of grape farmers in California, selling the idea of raisins.  Even at the time, I remember being sort of amazed that a consortium of farmers would pay for a series of commercials selling the concept of fruit.  It just seemed a little...abstract.  Catchy, but abstract.

In this, as in so many things, dancing raisins may show us the way.

Yesterday’s piece about GWU not really being “need-blind” hit me the wrong way.  You know who’s really need-blind?  Community colleges.  But nobody applies that label to community colleges, because we’re considered a different category.  

Well, why is that?  

Financial need is a very real thing, growing more so as incomes become more polarized and tuition and fees more expensive.  One of the very easiest ways for students to keep costs down is to start at a community college and then transfer.  Compare:

Four years at Private U: $50,000 x 4 = $200,000

Two years at cc and two years at Private U: ($4,000 x 2) + ($50,000 x 2) = $108,000

Savings with same highest degree = $92,000

Nitpick the numbers any way you want; the math is still basically the same.  Yes, there’s aid at Private U, but there’s aid at the cc, too.  (You know the median student loan debt of our graduates?  Zero.  Combine Pell grants, work-study, and low tuition, and that can happen.)  And even if the annual percentage increases in tuition are the same, PU is starting from such a higher base that assuming four years at the same cost is really cutting a lot of slack.  Add transfer scholarships to the picture, and the savings get even greater.   The path may not be for everyone, but it’s probably good for many more people than currently use it.

Which is where the California raisins come in.

No single community college has the advertising budget to get this message out on any sort of scale.  Each college is (rightly) concerned with its own local visibility and brand awareness.  But there’s a common interest across the sector in raising public awareness of the transfer option as a way around increasing student loan burdens.  No individual raisin farmer could afford to advertise the entire industry, but the industry as a whole could.

In other words, in addition to the message that “your local community college is a good school,” we need to send the message as a sector that community colleges can be good launch pads for higher degrees.

On a popular level, that will involve getting past the limits of local marketing budgets and inter-institutional competition.  On a political level, it would involve expanding the discussion around community colleges beyond just remediation and workforce development, as important as both of those are.  On the level of elite commentary, it would involve getting otherwise-intelligent people to see beyond the common fallacy of moving from “x community college has a 20 percent graduation rate” to “therefore, you have a 20 percent chance of graduating if you go there.”  That’s just simply not true, but it’s widely stated.  (Just for the sake of clarity, if you break out the grad by some really basic demographics, you start to see huge variations on that percentage.  Full-time students graduate more, part-time less.  Women graduate more, men less.  Race, income, and previous level of academic preparation play out in predictable ways.  Unless you’re perfectly average in every way, the 20 percent figure does not apply to you.)  

In the meantime, we pay the price for failing to market ourselves as well as dried fruit.  It’s time to send a different message through the grapevine.

Monday, October 21, 2013

You Didn’t Hear This From Me…

Every so often I’ll hear something that doesn’t especially resonate in the moment, but that won’t let go of my brain.  It sort of sinks its claws in until I finally deal with it.  That happened a little over a week ago at a conference at UMass.

The topic of the panel was helping transfer students succeed.  It featured a speaker from HCC -- Mark Broadbent, our transfer counselor -- as well as transfer counselors from several nearby four-year colleges and universities.  Much of the discussion was pretty much what I had anticipated: the importance of aligning coursework as early as possible, helping students set reasonable and realistic expectations, and the like.

But one comment stuck with me, and I haven’t been able to shake it.  One of the folks from a four-year school -- and I didn’t write it down, so I won’t attribute directly -- mentioned that transfer recruitment is harder than you’d think, because she can’t just set up a booth at other universities around the state and poach students.  She mentioned that she likes working with community colleges because they’re the only places where she doesn’t have to be…”sneaky” is probably too strong a word...discreet.  We like it when our students graduate and move on to higher degrees, so we have no problem hosting destination schools.  But she mentioned that traditional transfers like that are a minority of the students she gets; most of them are “laterals,” and it’s tough to market to them directly.

We have our own versions of “lateral” transfers, and they’re subject to similar sensitivities.  The most literal is the student who transfers from one community college to another.  It’s more common than you might think.  Sometimes it’s driven by the availability of a particular program at one campus and not the other, which is pretty straightforward.  But it’s also frequently driven by life issues, relationship issues, changes in outside jobs, and even sports.  

We also get “reverse” transfers, which are students moving from four-year schools to two-year schools.  In those cases, we face similar political sensitivities.  It would be frowned upon to set up a table in the student union at, say, UMass with a sign saying “Homesick?  Struggling?  Try HCC!”  Students in those categories absolutely exist, and many of them find their way here, but we aren’t supposed to be too direct about reaching them.  What I didn’t know was that the four-year schools face basically the same issue with each other.

(Recently, the idea of the abstract reverse transfer has caught on.  In that case, a student who leaves a community college a few credits short of a degree, and transfers to a four-year school, has the remaining credits transferred back to complete the associate’s on the way to a bachelor’s.  The idea is to give the student something to fall back on if she drops out, and to help cc graduation numbers come closer to reflecting reality.  That’s a different category than what I’m addressing here.)

We all know that students who transfer don’t only transfer “up.”  They move up, down, sideways, and back again, for a host of reasons.  But the systems we have in place -- whether graduation calculations, performance funding mechanisms, or even marketing agreements -- assume that transfer goes only in one direction, when they acknowledge transfer at all.  (Lateral transfers count against the sending school in IPEDS, for example, but they don’t count “for” the receiving school.  That’s a significant, and basic, distortion.)  Politically, we assume that the academic hierarchy reproduces itself in student pathways, like a Great Chain of Being.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.  But we haven’t developed the capacity to discuss what happens when it doesn’t.

So colleges quietly, discreetly, indirectly, deniably, kinda-sorta reach out to other colleges’ students, hoping to provide better fits for those who need them.  But not so anyone would notice.  And not in ways that the students with the least implicit knowledge of the system would understand.  We’re so discreet about it that the folks who make policy -- the folks who control the purse strings -- don’t even know it’s happening.  Like Poe’s purloined letter, these students are hiding in plain sight, unintentionally wreaking havoc with all manner of higher ed policy.

Not that you heard it from me...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Piloting Ourselves to Death”

It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Kay McClenney for a long time.  She puts together brilliant panels, encapsulates the obvious in useful and valuable ways (“students don’t do optional”), and bases her findings on wide-ranging empirical research.  She even wrote the introduction to my book, which I considered a genuine honor.

That said, a quote of hers last week landed funny and deserves a response.  In an article about the gap between what community colleges know they should do, and what they have done, McClenney notes that colleges are “piloting ourselves to death” and need to focus on scaling up.

Concur in part, dissent in part.

It’s certainly true that any “high-impact practice” won’t have much impact on the people it doesn’t touch.  Improving graduation rates within a cohort of fifty students won’t make a tremendous difference in a population of thousands.  And it’s also true that just crying “we don’t have money” is an easy copout that doesn’t explain how some equally strapped institutions have managed to move forward.

But for certain interventions, it isn’t as simple as that.

On my own campus, for example, we’ve made new student orientation mandatory, and we’ve blocked new students from enrolling in classes once classes have started.  These changes seem to have helped with retention rates, and internal disagreement over them has been minimal.  Academic planning and tutoring have been here forever.  We have a learning communities program, though in that case our local insistence on running it in the most expensive possible way has limited its size.  

But a change like accelerating developmental sequences is far more complex than just making new student orientation mandatory.

It’s a curricular change, which means that it needs to be faculty-driven.  For that to happen, faculty have to be on board with the concept, and need to develop their own version of what it means.  Once that happens, they have to convince enough of their colleagues to get it through governance.  For good reasons, many colleagues are willing to take a flyer on something new, but don’t want to abandon the old until they’re convinced that the new is better.  Hence, the pilot.  

That’s what we’re doing with developmental math.  We have two versions of acceleration going, both devised entirely by the math faculty.  They’re waiting for enough results to come in to ensure that what seems to work nationally actually works here.  Sometimes it does, sometimes not.

In other words, pilots aren’t necessarily copouts.  They can allow for balancing shared governance, faculty ownership of curriculum, research-based innovations, and local assessment.  

That’s not to say that pilots are always the answer.  A pilot that can’t scale isn’t really a pilot; it’s a boutique.  And I absolutely agree with the critique of boutiques.  (“Critique of Boutiques” sounds like a twee indie band.)  But I’ve seen promising pilots fail, and I’ve seen them help either avoid mistakes or make strong ideas stronger.  Even with interventions founded on strong national research, it’s important to get the local flavor right.  As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for lunch; if a given intervention doesn’t work with the local culture, it doesn’t work.  

None of this directly contradicts McClenney’s point, but it suggests some nuance.  Yes, pilots can be copouts.  But they can also be part of a much larger process that balances multiple needs.  From a central policymaking standpoint, the pace of change with pilots may be frustrating; I get that.  But on the ground, they make change sustainable.  A little more time upfront can lead to a much bigger payoff later.  I’ll take it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Friday Fragments

- Tressie McMillan Cottom is on fire this week.  Her latest piece in Slate, about community college “dropouts,” should be required reading for anyone who wants to discuss the “completion agenda” or “performance funding.”  Among other things, she points out that the porousness of the American system of higher education is a feature, not a bug.  Community colleges are in the second-chance business.  That’s not always as pretty or clean as the business of credentialing the already successful, but it matters.  

The very porousness for which we’re routinely attacked these days is exactly what is attracting other countries to look closely at the American community college model.  There’s a reason for that.  Mobility is messy, and stasis can be clean.  Second chances are inefficient, by definition.  But they’re the reason that community colleges exist.  Let’s not forget the point of the enterprise.

- She also wrote this lovely, if bittersweet, piece about the NACCE conference.  Her reflections on the impact of visible difference are well worth reading.  I also crop up in the piece, in a very gracious portrayal that nonetheless makes the painful point that even in 2013, a white guy actually listening seriously to a black woman is still considered noteworthy.  It shouldn’t be.

For the record, she owned the room when she spoke, and brought a perspective that enriched the discussion.  I learned from her, which is exactly why I wanted her there.  The fact that she’s also funny as hell was a bonus.

- Josh Kim’s post yesterday about EDUCAUSE makes a nice companion piece to Tressie’s post about NACCE.  Josh makes the point that the talk at EDUCAUSE is getting a bit same-y, because nearly everybody there plays the same roles on their campuses and looks at the world the same way.  He suggests that it would be helpful to get some provosts and presidents to attend, to offer context and different perspectives.

I couldn’t agree more, and not only because I’m curious about what goes on there.  Conferences often attract the like-minded, and easily fall into a sort of groupthink.  Making a point of bringing in people with different perspectives can enliven the discussions all around.  And visiting a conference that’s outside your usual realm can be eye-opening.  Last year I had the chance to attend the CASE conference on community college fundraising, where I was one of the only academics among hundreds of development officers.  Seeing through their eyes for a while was disorienting, but in a good way; now I notice things I didn’t notice before.  Talking to entrepreneurs at NACCE had a similar effect.  

Casting against type can lead to some great performances.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere...

- Astute readers with a sense of western Mass geography may have noticed my careful silence about the goings-on at Westfield State.  (The President there, Evan Dobelle, has been placed on paid leave by the Board of Trustees in light of a series of issues.)  I’ll reserve comment on the substance of it until the dust has settled, in the interest of inter-institutional comity.  But I will mention that I know some good people personally over there, and that they have been put in an incredibly stressful position for the last several weeks.  It has been painful to watch the drip-drip-drip of negative information that has become a sort of background noise while good people attempt to continue to do their work.  As it moves toward resolution, I’ll be free to say more; for now, though, my sympathies to some good folks working under a very dark cloud.

- Actual conversation with The Girl, this Thursday:

TG: Daddy, what’s a philosopher?

Me: Someone who studies philosophy.


Me: (laughing) Sorry.  Someone who asks really big questions, like “what’s the meaning of life?” or “is there a God?”

TG: You mean like, what if the entire world is an illusion in my head?


Me: Yes!

Bless her, she inherited that gene.  Here’s hoping she uses her powers for good...