Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Lump of Coal for Kansas

Earlier this week, I mentioned my suspicion that part of the reason that the Adler case in Colorado was attracting so much attention is that it’s the increasingly rare no-brainer.  

Now, Kansas decides to up the ante.  I may have to rethink my assumption that no-brainers are increasingly rare..  This makes two in a single week.

The Kansas Board of Regents has adopted a social media policy that, among other things, bans any communication that “impairs...harmony among co-workers.”  I think of this as the “more trouble than you’re worth” clause.  

I can’t imagine how that would hold up in court.  How do you measure harmony among co-workers?  To the extent that you can, how do you prove causality?  And what about when the “harmony” is either forced -- as it almost certainly would be under this policy -- or, worse, a form of delusional groupthink?  What if the groupthink involves, say, discrimination?

If the policy is upheld, it’s obviously death to any form of meaningful shared governance.  As any battle-scarred academic can tell you, shared governance relies on robust debate.  If disagreement is criminalized, good luck with robust debate.

To the extent that I can envision a counterargument, it would rely on a distinction between internal and external audiences.  A meeting of a college senate is internal to the college; a tweet can reach the world.  

That strikes me as a very good reason to ban the sharing of certain sorts of information.  For example, a tweet that said “hey world, that ratfink Dave’s social security number is…” should be out of bounds.  So should personal threats, libel, and the sorts of things that freedom of speech or of the press wouldn’t ordinarily cover.  

But moving from “don’t reveal launch codes” to “don’t criticize anybody” is a bit much.  Yes, some people can be a pain.  That’s the price of working with independent, intelligent, creative people.  Squelching any sort of dissent will drive some good people away, drive others underground, and drive many to check out on the job.  Assuming it lasted, which it won’t, it would be toxic to the functioning of the university.

My guess is that it’s somewhere between a knee-jerk gesture and an opening bid.  Public universities in many states are (rightly) afraid of what legislators on a tear are capable of doing.  By preventing public scandals, the regents are probably trying to avoid provoking the state government.  Even overshooting as badly as this policy does, they’re probably hoping to make a statement and get folks to think twice before doing something they’ll have to try to explain.

I get that, but this is so cartoonish that it’ll surely backfire.  The secret to an effective opening bid is some basic level of plausibility.  This policy is so absurdly broad that it can’t help but blow up.  In fact, I suspect some canny faculty are already devising a really good test case to bring to federal court.  If all it takes is a tweet, it shouldn’t be hard.  This is a battle the regents can’t win.

So a lump of coal for the Kansas Board of Regents this week, and a genuine hope that they reconsider this policy before actually enforcing it.

Program note: This is the last post before the break.  See you in 2014!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Philosopher in the Back Seat

This actually happened earlier this week.

The Girl and I were in the car, driving home after a school event.  She’s nine, and she was in the back seat.

TG (unprompted): How do philosophers make a living?

DD (laughs): Where did that come from?

TG: Well, if I want to be a philosopher, how will I make a living?

DD: Well, lots of them have a hard time with that.  Some of them teach philosophy to support themselves.

TG: I don’t want to teach!  I want to do it myself!

DD (laughing): Okay, well, sometimes they have other jobs to support themselves, and then they write in their spare time.

TG: But I’d be too tired!

DD: Yeah, that’s a problem.

TG: I mean, you never see signs saying “Wanted: Philosopher!”

DD: That’s true.

TG: And if you did, what would they do all day?

DD: Ya got me.

TG: You can’t really sell philosophy.  People don’t buy philosophy books like they buy Harry Potter books.

DD: No, they don’t.

TG: They don’t make movies about philosophers.  It would just be people asking “why are we here?”

DD: Well, sometimes they do, but they’re not very popular.

TG: Exactly!  They’re not like Thor.

DD: No, they’re not.

TG: Maybe I could be a veterinarian first, and then be a philosopher.

DD: Sounds like a plan.

So there you have it.  Philosophers are not like Thor.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Changing Threats

The story of Patricia Adler, the sociology professor allegedly pushed out of UC-Boulder for a lecture on prostitution (in the context of a course on deviant behavior), felt like a throwback to an earlier time.  Assuming the popular accounts are correct, it looks like a textbook case of a dean clamping down on a non-conformist professor, just to avoid potential conflict.

It’s almost comforting.  It’s a case of the sort I expected to encounter when I went into this profession.  It’s old-school.  Side with the professor, rally around academic freedom, and call it good.  We know the drill.

Threats don’t usually come in such unambiguous and well-worn shapes anymore.  The major threats now are different than they were, and we’re only starting to catch up.

I’m old enough to remember when “emergency preparedness” on campus referred to fire drills.  Now, my children do “lockdown” drills at school, because school shootings have become common enough that “best practices” exist.  I hope that never stops striking us as wrong.

Anyone remember the threat of Soviet hegemony?  The communist bloc?  

At one time, the great threat to popular culture was the few gatekeepers at the major corporations that controlled distribution of music, television, movies, and books.  Now, the great threat to popular culture is that there’s such an oversupply of product relative to demand that almost nobody can get paid anymore.

(Speaking of, I’d like to put a bug in the ear of the “genius grant” people to take a good look at Kristin Hersh.  Read “Rat Girl,” listen to “Purgatory/Paradise” and “Sunny Border Blue,” and check out her self-generated distribution model.  If that’s not genius…)

For that matter, remember the “great wave of retirements” that was going to lead to a catastrophic shortage of college faculty?  That threat has been thoroughly inverted, too.

At one time, the great threat that college students represented was rebellion.  Things got so heated that an urban myth developed to the effect that brutalist architecture was somehow designed to thwart public demonstrations.  The rebellion is gone, and the flat roofs that are the legacy of the brutalist era mostly thwart efforts at keeping carpets dry.

Now, college students themselves are threatened by economics.  They don’t have the leisure for rebellion.  They routinely work thirty or more hours a week for pay while attending class full-time, and often while also shouldering family responsibilities.  As with musicians, students now aren’t so much censored as they are drowned out.  At this point, colleges are less concerned about students walking out than they are about students walking away.  

When the rules change so quickly and fundamentally, the occasional throwback comes as a sort of relief.  It’s a sign that not everything has been upended, that some old truisms still hold.  

I’d like to think that cases like Adler’s would be no-brainers by now.  They aren’t, apparently, and that’s a useful reminder of work still to be done.  

But the new threats are so different from the old ones that we’ll need an entirely new playbook to deal with them.  When venues were scarce and rewards high, the issue at hand was putting parameters on how the gatekeepers operated.  (That’s still true at the very most selective colleges, which is why they’re still fighting battles around affirmative action.)  When venues have become plentiful and rewards scarce, though, the threats change.  I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason that the Adler case attracted as much attention as it did is that it’s one of the rare cases in which most of us feel like we understand which side to take.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Selling the Springboard

I’m torn on this one.

A for-profit company, American Honors, is offering a package to high-achieving community college students with the goal of helping them transfer to selective institutions.  The article even quotes a transfer coordinator at Mount Holyoke, just up the street, saying that students who went through that program will be at an advantage in the transfer process.


I’ll a big fan of Honors programs at community colleges.  If you believe, as I do, that the correlation between parental income and student ability is less than total, then it follows that some students from economically modest backgrounds may be quite strong academically.  Those students may not be able to afford -- or believe that they’re able to afford -- to start at an elite four-year college.  But the best of them are quite strong, and they deserve the chance to show it.  My own college has a history of sending Honors students to Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, Cornell, Hampshire, and Brandeis, among other places, and I think it’s one of the best things we do.  

That said, it’s not entirely clear to me what value the vendor is proposing to add, beyond what a college ought to be doing already.  The website isn’t terribly expansive, and the Times story doesn’t shed much light, either.  But it appears that the vendor will supply a curriculum, which will apparently be delivered partly or entirely online.  It will also set up a sort of social network -- “the quad” -- where students will interact with each other.

I have no qualms about offering the strongest community college students a curriculum worthy of their talents.  But I do have qualms about colleges outsourcing curriculum and instruction.  Those are core functions.  It’s not like hiring an outside vendor to run the cafeteria.  

I suppose I could see some argument if it targeted very small, rural colleges that couldn’t afford to run Honors courses on their own because they couldn’t fill them.  But the initial group doesn’t reflect that.  Ivy Tech, one of the initial participants, has a larger enrollment than Indiana University.  It isn’t small.

How does shared governance work when the instruction comes from outside?  Who does the quality control?  Are exclusive liberal arts colleges suddenly taking online courses in transfer?  And how, exactly, does American Honors propose to make a profit?  

Community colleges lose money on instruction, by design.  Although that’s frequently understood as a bug, it’s actually a feature.  The point of community colleges is accessibility.  They underprice their core service in the name of that mission.  The difference is made up through a combination of direct (aid) and indirect (tax exemption) subsidies, plus some income from ancillary operations.  (Most of the community colleges that have foundations don’t use the money they raise for operating expenses.  That money usually goes either for scholarships or for capital projects, like buildings or equipment.)  I’m guessing -- and this is really just a guess, given how sparse the website is -- that American Honors will run its courses as loss leaders, and try to make a profit through advertising on its own social network.  Given the mortality rate of such things, I’d be wary of basing a college’s curriculum on that.  Anyone remember Friendster?  MySpace?  Ping?  

The “springboard” function of transfer is valuable and worthy of much more public attention than it gets.  I’d rather see community colleges own that, and highlight it, than outsource it.  The springboard should be the last thing we sell for a mess of pottage.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The “Anyway” Argument

The academic internet has been abuzz about Rebecca Schuman’s essay against essays.  Schuman, who has made quite a splash with her “pan kisses kafka” blog, takes her usual advocacy a step farther here.  Instead of advocating for more room at the inn for prospective faculty, here she takes on what happens at the inn.  In short, she argues that students hate writing essays and therefore do half-baked jobs of it; professors hate grading essays and therefore become bitter and surly; and the outside world cares not at all about essays.  Therefore, she suggests, let’s do away with essays as general requirements, and keep them only in the specialized fields in which they actually matter.

You can decide for yourself how literally you want to take her argument.  Plenty of people seem to read it as either Swiftian satire or an exercise in cathartic venting, and there’s warrant for either.  I see it as a variation on what I’ll call the “Anyway Argument,” which has been gaining ground lately in other parts of the academy.

The Anyway Argument goes like this: requirement X is widely loathed, and causes all manner of angst among both students and faculty.  Outside of a few specialized fields, most students will never need the skills built by requirement X anyway.  So why not just drop it?

The Anyway Argument is at the core of the Statway project, for example.  In the community college world, developmental math is increasingly seen as a sort of quicksand from which few students escape.  Most developmental math sequences are built on the assumption that students move through algebra to pre-calculus and calculus.  That makes perfect sense for students who want to go on in fields that require calculus, including most STEM disciplines.  But most students don’t do that.  Most of them go into fields in which they’ll never use much advanced algebra, let alone calculus.  

The Statway project, and others like it, take as the starting point the idea that if the algebra track is a major attrition generator and largely irrelevant anyway, why keep it?  Instead, why not channel non-STEM majors into Statistics (or something similar), and streamline the remediation to cover only the stuff they need for that class?  If the rest is just frustrating and wasteful, why require it?  You may need calculus to be an engineer, and that’s fine.  But if you don’t need it to study, say, history, then why sacrifice a degree to it?

The Anyway Argument has the great virtue of recognizing efficiency as a valid goal.  If a requirement can’t justify itself in any coherent way other than tradition, and it comes at an increasingly obvious and distasteful cost, it seems fair to call it into question.  In the case of Statway (and similar projects), it’s fair to ask why a prospective commercial artist needs to be able to calculate second derivatives.  In the case of Schuman’s argument, one may well ask whether a prospective business major really needs to be able to delve into a nuanced subject for ten pages with MLA citation format.  Most businesses don’t require that; in fact, I’m always a little surprised at the unedited prose of powerful people.  Let’s just say that for many, it appears not to have been a priority.

Of course, efficiency cuts two ways.  It’s easy to imagine a soulless administrator using Schuman’s argument as a way to reduce drastically the size of an English department.  At the community college level, most of what English departments teach falls under the umbrella of either developmental reading/writing or freshman comp.  Yes, there are some literature electives, but not many, and they often run small; it wouldn’t require many faculty to cover them.  And the credits freed up by dropping the composition requirement could be used for other things, whether it’s public speaking, personal finance, more credits in the major, or even shorter paths to degrees.  Think of the savings!

The problem with the Anyway Argument, I think, is that it works best in hindsight.  If you know from the outset what you want to do, and you’re right, then it’s possible to identify requirements that seem extraneous.  (My alma mater made every student pass a swim test as a graduation requirement.  Your guess is as good as mine.)  Looking back, I can see some academic choices I made as having been blind alleys.  Had I known that at the time, I would have chosen differently.

But I didn’t know that at the time.  Realistically, I couldn’t have.  They weren’t blind alleys for everybody, and I couldn’t know which camp I’d fall into until it was too late.

Many of us can tell tales of a sort of academic serendipity.  They tend to go like this: I wandered with some vague sense of needing direction, and then something clicked in a random and unforeseeable moment in a class from which I didn’t expect much.  It’s a sort of vision quest, but usually without the self-awareness.  Weber captured it nicely by saying that you can’t decide to have an accident, exactly, but you can make yourself accident-prone.  You do that by putting yourself in situations in which lightning is likelier to strike.  

That’s the justification for unpopular, across-the-board requirements.  As a college, or as a sector, we’ve made a judgment that students just don’t know themselves, or the academic world, or both, well enough yet to rule out certain options from day one.  You can make the “conservative” version of that argument by appeal to tradition, or the “liberal” version by noting that “preferences” taken as “given” are often, in fact, artifacts of constrained circumstances.  (The strongest ethical argument I’ve heard against the Statway model is that the students likeliest to self-identify as “bad at math” will come from economically segregated schools.  If we let them cut down the future to the size of the present, we’ll miss real potential.)  Either way, though, allowing students to bypass any sort of sustained writing rules out a host of options for them, and relies on 18 year olds to self-identify accurately.  That flies in the face of what most experienced educators know.

The Anyway Argument has a certain visceral appeal, and I enjoyed Schuman’s version of it tremendously.  But any argument that relies on applying hindsight upfront strikes me as shaky.  And I’d hate to reduce what colleges do to what 18 year olds can envision.  On my better days, I like to think that expanding their vision is kind of the point in the first place.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Top Ten Overused Words on Campus in December

An alert reader -- hi Mom! -- sent me Linkedin’s top ten most overused words.  In the spirit of customization, I’ll take a shot at applying that to college campuses in December.

1. Please!
2. finals
3. extension
4. WHAT?
5. grading
6. registration
7. complaint
8. unfair
9. tired
10. please (again)

I ruled out “coffee” on the grounds (no pun intended) that coffee, by definition, cannot be overused.

Wise and worldly readers, which words would you nominate?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Stepping Up

I loved Nate Kreuter’s column yesterday.  It was about several issues, but the one that grabbed me was the most immediate one.  His department grants master’s degrees in history, and its constituency, over time, has mostly been K-12 teachers.  The state (in his case, North Carolina) just changed the rules for teacher salaries, taking away the pay bump that used to accompany a master’s degree, so graduate enrollments have plummeted.  Now he’s facing the dilemma of whether to take on more of a recruiting role, in the name of saving the program, or of refusing, in the name of workload.  

I’d like to add a third option.  It’s time for the department to have a difficult internal conversation about its long-range purpose.  

In the absence of a conversation like that, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying ever harder to make an obsolete vision last just one more year, and then one more again.  As the conditions under which the old vision made sense fade farther into the distance, the efforts required of the survivors grow ever more extreme.  Nobody wants to be the first to throw in the towel, for fear of cascading consequences, but everybody feels the strain.  

Been there.

Vision discussions can be painful, because they can bring into the open a bunch of unexamined assumptions, and not all of them survive the sunlight.  Generally, the longer an organization has gone without discussions like that, the more unexamined assumptions people make.  Eventually, those assumptions start bumping into each other, and conflict ensues.  Take away material resources, and conflicts that could be bought off with money suddenly can’t be, anymore.  

In other words, I agree that the members of the department need to step up.  I’m not convinced that stepping up involves simply replacing the work that others used to do, in order to sustain the previous vision.  It may involve defining a new vision.

That’s uniquely difficult in public higher education, since by definition, public higher education serves multiple masters and multiple purposes.  Departments have some autonomy, but they also have to take into account larger institutional priorities, public needs, political pressures, and, yes, personalities.  Discussions of “shared governance” often fail to include discussions of jurisdiction, leading to disappointment.  If a department decides to move in one direction, but the state then decides to move in another and it budgets accordingly, angst will ensue.  That’s the nature of the beast.

And that’s before getting into questions of self-interest.  If a university requires higher teaching loads of faculty in bachelor’s degree departments than it does in master’s-granting departments, I could imagine the department faculty taking the position that the university can pry the master’s program from their cold, dead hands.  We don’t like to talk about self-interest, but it’s real.  

That said, I just don’t see denial as a viable long-term strategy.  If the future will happen anyway, better to have a hand in shaping it.

That could mean focusing on a different definition of the program, whether as a specialization or a delivery method.  It could mean giving up the master’s.  It could mean forming some new interdisciplinary something-or-nother with real appeal.  It could mean any number of things.

But one thing it should not mean is asking everybody to burn the candle at both ends indefinitely.  It’s better to have the tough conversation while you still have the energy to have it successfully.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Yesterday in a meeting, a colleague referred to fractions as “fractures,” without realizing she had done it.  I liked the mistake, since it captured the experience that some students have with fractions.  Now I need a similar term for percentages.

Apparently, the two youngest members of the United States Senate, Chris Murphy (40, D-CT) and Brian Schatz (41, D-HI), have decided to tackle college costs through price controls.  They”re co-sponsoring legislation to reduce or eliminate federal funding to colleges that increase their tuition by too high a percentage.  The article quotes Senator Murphy:

“If a school is raising tuition at 8 percent a year and 50 percent of their students are defaulting on their loans, they probably shouldn’t continue to get Stafford loans and Pell grants,” Murphy said.


Where to start?

It probably wouldn’t be sporting to point out that colleges lose eligibility for federal student loans now at a much lower threshold than that.  (It gets a little complicated, but the maximum before losing eligibility now is 25 percent for three years under the old “two years out” rules, or 30 percent for three years under the new “three years out” rules, or 40 percent for one year.)  In other words, the hypothetical case he’s trying to solve is already solved under existing rules.   But let’s write this one off to hyperbole and let it slide for now.

One could also argue that reducing Pell grants will invariably drive up reliance on private loans, which are far more expensive than Stafford loans.  If one is truly concerned about student debt, the last thing to do would be to cut off the “best” aid and drive students to the worst aid.  

Or, one could point out that in the public sector, one of the primary drivers of tuition increases has been state disinvestment.  Punishing a college for trying to offset some of what its state legislature has done to it is quite literally adding insult to injury.  Without a robust “maintenance of effort” requirement -- actually, a robust “step up your efforts” requirement -- a focus on “list price” increases merely compounds the error.

But never mind that.  That’s just basic.

Take, instead, the use of a percentage.  “If a school is raising tuition at 8 percent a year…”  

8 percent of what?  

A name-brand college that charges $50,000 per year raises its sticker price by four percent.  A community college that charges $5,000 per year raises its sticker price by eight percent.  Which is worse?

The name-brand college, by a long shot.  A four percent increase off a base of 50k is $2,000.  An eight percent increase off a base of $5000 is $400.  If you look at percentages, you would praise the name-brand college.  But if you actually do the math, the name-brand college increased costs by five times more than the community college.  Without some sort of intervention, setting percentage-based ceilings across the board will simply increase the gaps between the well-funded and the rest.  In this example, in one year the gap went from $45,000 per student to $46,600.  And that’s assuming that the community college was aggressive!

If you set a maximum percentage -- in the case of a “freeze,” it would be zero -- then you are assuming that the existing base rates are correct.  I know of no reason to assume that.  Those who overcharge now can keep overcharging.  Those who have made a point of keeping costs down will be consigned to penury for having failed to get while the getting was good.  That’s not just counterproductive; it’s perverse.  “No good deed goes unpunished” should not be a guiding principle for public policy.

Community colleges fly so far below the radar of national discussion that policies like these get dropped on us because somebody is angry at what Yale charges.  I would hope that Senators Murphy and Schatz figure that out before they do real and lasting damage.  Fractions may hurt, but percentages can be poisonous.

Monday, December 09, 2013

If You Were a President...

Ry Rivard has been on a roll lately.  If you haven’t seen his latest at IHE, check it out.  It’s about the increasingly perilous state of many private colleges, particularly in the Northeast.  It makes an effective, if depressing, companion piece to the one from last week about public universities in Pennsylvania.  

In both cases, a combination of awful political choices, difficult demographic changes, and long-deferred economic dilemmas threatens the survival of many small, private  colleges.  A declining population of high school graduates in the region, particularly from higher-income families, is really starting to bite.  And with increasing numbers of options and increased marketing of those options, it’s harder for high-priced colleges to get by on local kids who see that college as the only option.  

There’s no painless and elegant way to correct regional overcapacity.  That’s especially true in an industry like higher education that is both labor-intensive and built on the assumption of growth.  

If you were the president of a small, struggling, not-terribly-prestigious liberal arts college in a region without much population growth, what would you do?  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve hit the practical limits of tuition discounting (“presidential scholarships”) as a strategy, and let’s further assume that you’ve already done a decent job of marketing.  And let’s say that your budget is mostly tuition-driven, so you can’t rely on a hefty endowment to bail you out. The freebies have already been taken.  And keep in mind that presidents can’t act alone; they have to work with trustees, alumni, faculty, students, faculty, and staff, among others.  Each of those has its own interests, and if it perceives those interests as threatened, will respond accordingly.

You could try to cut your way out.  In the very short term, this is probably the path of least resistance, at least if it starts with cutting by attrition.  But over time, this strategy has natural limits.  Beyond a certain point, it threatens the ability of the college to compete.  

You could try to counter population decline by importing students from countries that export them, like Brazil or China.  I’d love to hear from readers in colleges that have done that.  How well has it worked?  

You could branch out into the working-adult and online markets, though in most cases, it’s safe to assume that you already have.  Your competition probably has, as well.

You could try to grow your way out.  This was a favored strategy in the 2000’s.  If you’re already suffering declining enrollments, though, you’ll need first to figure out the “hook” that will bring in new students, and you’ll need to be able to spend money on it.  If you’re already struggling, this may not be an option.

You could try merging with another college.  

You could try high-risk financial shenanigans, and hope for the best.  This tends not to end well, but sometimes lightning strikes.

You could ramp up your alumni campaigns, though again, I’ll assume you’ve already done that.

Or, and this is where I expect to see much of the action in the next five years or so, you could decide to specialize.  It’s one thing to be an average liberal arts college among many.  It’s quite another to be a national leader in Nuclear Basketweaving, or Applied Widgetry, or whatever the distinctive local industry is.  

The specialization option is both costly and risky.  It’s costly internally, since it involves picking winners and losers.  The losers will not go gently into that good night.  And it’s risky externally; if you pick the wrong winner, you’re in trouble.  But some level of specialization offers the possibility of owning a distinct niche, and thereby of distinguishing yourself from the competition.  If you’re charging thirty thousand a year in this economy, you’d better offer some sort of value proposition that’s easy to explain.  

Some colleges achieve niche status through demographic identity, whether religious or racial.  (I don’t see a market for moving a coed college to single-sex, though I guess it’s conceptually possible.)  Others achieve prominence in a tentpole program, and rely on that.  A unique location can do the trick, if you have it.  A few have even adopted self-consciously conservative politics as their core identity, and have made themselves famous that way.  

If this is the direction of the next several years for small private colleges, and I think it will be, I expect to see escalating conflicts over shared governance and presidential powers.  It’s hard to pick winners in a shared governance setting, and it’s hard politically to do layoffs in some programs while actually growing others.  My guess is that we’ll see more stories about governance, process, and institutional identity.

Of course, I could be wrong.  Wise and worldly readers, if you were a president at a college like that, what would you do?