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.