Tuesday, April 08, 2014

AACC, Day Three: Choose Your Own Message

The final day of the AACC conference was incongruous in the way that big conferences usually are.  It had a high-profile speaker -- in this case, Colin Powell -- and it had panels relegated to Scheduling Siberia, or 7:30 in the morning on the final day.  It followed Vice President Biden’s announcement of the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium, which is intended to spread the apprenticeship model to health care and IT, with a panel on the RACC that barely mentioned health care and ignored IT altogether.  So it was inclusive, but with some relegated to the margins; it was a followup, but forgetfully.  You could choose your own message.

I’ll start with the good stuff.  At the sendoff brunch -- once they finally set up enough tables and chairs to accommodate everybody -- they gave a series of awards to distinguished alumni of community colleges.  I always enjoy those moments, since they’re reminders of why we do what we do.  Dr. Toshiko Abe was the most memorable; she’s a Japanese politician who got her nursing degrees in the United States, starting at a community college in Alabama.  it’s hard to imagine why an aspiring nurse in Japan would decide that what she really wants to do is attend community college in Alabama.  (Her answer: “God sent me to Alabama.”)  But she did, and it worked out well for her -- she got her Ph.D., and is now a member of the Japanese parliament.  

The keynoter, Gen. Colin Powell, is a polished conference speaker who knows how to deliver a laugh line.  He flattered the audience, testified to the importance of higher education, cracked several self-deprecating jokes, attacked the opponents of Obamacare, waxed nostalgic about growing up in the Bronx, and told a few stories about Reagan that allowed you to see the Gipper as either a Zen master or a real-life Chance the Gardener.  It was a thoroughly professional performance.

Powell ended with the assertion that “optimism is a force multiplier,” claiming that exuding optimism is one of the core elements of leadership.  I couldn’t help but contrast that to Jim Collins’ speech on Saturday, in which Collins quoted James Stockdale saying that the optimists were the first ones to break in prison camp.  Choose your own message.

Even the scheduling sent mixed messages.  

My intrepid colleagues from HCC were bumped by Biden to Tuesday at 7:30, but they went ahead gamely and did an upbeat and funny presentation to a diminished audience. The time-shift effectively deprived everyone else of a discussion that many would have found valuable.  (I’m sure the same could be said of everyone else who got bumped to that slot, as well.)  They were included, but in a timeslot that defeated the purpose.  Maybe if they could have replaced the comedian...

The subsequent panel on the RACC was much better attended, and I have to give it credit for surprising me.  After Biden’s talk, in which he plugged the RACC by name, I assumed that the room would be bursting with people curious to hear about how you apply apprenticeships to the IT industry.

Not so much.  The room was full, but small, and the panelists spoke almost entirely about construction trades.  (I’ve heard the word “pipefitter” more in the last three days than in the last three years.)  It was as if everyone had tacitly agreed to ignore what Biden had actually said.  Not that that’s always a bad idea, of course.  I heard some grumbling about his crack about “sleeping with a community college professor every night.  The same one.”  But people don’t usually forget proposals as clear as the IT one.  

Still, the session had value.  The highlight there came during the q-and-a, when someone asked about the percentage of students in the various apprenticeship programs who were women.  In every case, the answer was less than five percent.  I filed that nugget, since men over 25 have consistently proven the most difficult demographic to attract.  (Locally, over 70 percent of our students over age 25 are female.)  If there’s a way to structure a program that draws adult men, it’s worth some thought.  That wasn’t the angle they intended, but you get to choose your own message.

Back to campus, where theories that sound so easy and great in presentations confront messy reality, and students choose their own messages every single day.  I choose to believe that we’ll do right by them.