Sunday, April 06, 2014

AACC, Day One

Every so often, it’s fun to play “roving reporter.”  I’m at the American Association of Community Colleges conference in Washington, D.C.  All I need is a trenchcoat, a fedora, and a pencil.  

So far, the conference is more scold-y than I’ve seen in the past.  It seems to reflect a sort of anxiety of generational change, with the folks on their way out getting in some parting shots while they can.  That phase may be inevitable, but it isn’t much fun to watch.

The opening session on Saturday was supposed to feature Jim Collins, which it eventually did.  Collins is the author of Good to Great and several other books and monographs along similar lines.  But first, one solid hour of lifetime achievement awards -- including one to a man who retired in 1998 -- and words from our sponsors, which included the University of Phoenix and American Public University.  Yes, one solid hour.  

And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Collins made his usual arguments about what makes for great leadership, as opposed to merely good leadership.  Since it was a speech to a convention hall, there was no q-and-a period.  Had there been, and had we not lost a solid hour to acceptance speeches, I would have liked to ask how you apply the “get the right people on the bus” approach to a setting in which people have tenure.  Perhaps fittingly, time did not allow.

The Sunday kickoff was the official unveiling...drum roll, please...of the AACC 21st Century Commission Report.  

Admittedly, the title doesn’t stir the blood.  But it was a Kay McClenney panel, so the discussion was both well-directed and useful.  McClenney herself fired off the best line of the day: “when I hear people say that some students just aren’t college material, I assume they’re talking about someone else’s children.”  Yes, yes, yes.  (She also referred to some presentations as “sit and git” sessions, which I intend to steal shamelessly.)  The focus, not surprisingly, was on improving completion rates, and the ways that various colleges are working on that.  Some are “streamlining” (reducing) options, to be more directive so students don’t get lost.  Some have adopted “auto-graduation,” which seems to involve chasing down students who have enough credits to graduate but who never bothered, or something close to that.  Some have moved away from placement-by-Accuplacer to placement-by-GPA; they found that the strongest predictor of success in college-level math is whether the student took a math class in the senior year of high school.  

In other words, students who take more math seem to learn more math than students who take less math.  

So there’s that.

I was struck, too, by a repeated comment that “we [presidents] need to be ready to lose our jobs over this mission.”  The implication was left unspoken, but not unnoticed.

That vague sense of scolding intensified in a later panel with the leaders of the League for Innovation.  The ostensible topic was unexpected challenges facing community college presidents, but it took an unexpectedly dark turn.  Terry O’Banion, the eminence grise of the League, gave what amounted to a jeremiad on why community colleges will fail to achieve the graduation numbers President Obama set out for 2020.  He blasted one intervention after the next: high-impact practices are insufficient, staff development doesn’t work, campuses have “initiative fatigue,” and “we forgot to include the faculty in the completion agenda.”  John Roueche echoed O’Banion’s sentiments, noting that community colleges train everyone’s employees except their own, and pointing out that this is the only industry in which employees are free to turn down ongoing professional development.

I’ve seen O’Banion and Roueche speak many times before, so I have some sense of their usual style.  The pessimism was a new and jarring note.  “Bitter” might be too strong a word, but it was certainly bracing.  It was much more “Adorno” than anything I’d heard since my critical theory days.  The subtext, as near as I could tell, was that the next generation of leaders (nine percent of current cc presidents are interims, according to Gerardo de los Santos) will have to figure it out for themselves, since the efforts of the retiring generation have come to grief.  

Happily, the unofficial conference has been much sunnier than the official one.  As with most conferences, meeting up with old friends, and making new ones, is a highlight.  I reconnected with Scott Jaschik, which is always great, and finally got the chance to meet Anne Kress in person.  She’s the president of Monroe Community College, in Rochester, and a fellow tweeter.  Having met her, I’ll say she’s good people and surprisingly funny.  I also finally met my book’s publisher, David Brightman, from Wiley, who is funny and warm in the way that you would hope people who work in publishing would be.  And Heather Van Sickle and Karen-Michele Mirko from NACCE are always a treat.  (I also ducked out to visit my brother and his family, which is good for the soul.)

Monday’s program features Joe Biden, so I’m hoping for something a bit more “adorbs” than “Adorno.”  Now I just have to find my fedora...