Thursday, May 29, 2014

Growing Into Himself

The Boy turned 13 this week.  We officially have a teenager in the house.

Nothing really brings home the speed with which time passes than an adolescent boy in a growth spurt.  As of this week, he’s six feet tall, and wearing a size 13 shoe.  (I wear a 12; the shoe salesman helpfully told us that if the 13 feels tight, he could wear a 14 comfortably.)  He’s the kind of young-skinny that makes him invisible when he turns sideways, despite inhaling food at every opportunity.  Sometimes, on a quiet night, you can hear him growing.

He’s navigating junior high with far greater aplomb than I ever did. He’s tall, athletic, and handsome, so he gets to be relatively well-mannered without incurring the social cost that non-defiant young men otherwise incur.  At that age, that’s no small thing.  We’re encouraging him to go for the “gentleman” niche, since it’s pretty uncrowded.  (The “knucklehead” niche is already saturated.)  He has the instincts, and having a strong-willed younger sister has taught him not to get flustered when girls have minds of their own.  This is a valuable life skill.

Although the logistics can get tiring, it’s great fun watching him play baseball or basketball.  As a baseball player, he’s at his best as a crafty pitcher: average velocity, but enough technique to get inside hitters’ heads.  He told me recently that he realized that baseball is as much a psychological game as a physical one, which I thought was pretty good for a twelve year old.  Baseball was the only sport at which I ever showed anything resembling capability, so sometimes I play catcher for him in the backyard.  It can be humbling -- after one recent outing, when I stood up, he declared that “I can hear your knees from here” -- but it’s great fun.  He throws a devastating sinker that really does a number on overconfident young hitters, and he’s developing a knuckleball that -- when it works -- is spooky.  It has the same effect on hitters that the roadrunner has on the coyote.  

As a basketball player, he’s at his best on defense, playing center.  When he’s in the paint, none shall pass.  He simply takes away the center lane.  It took him a few years to get confident enough to really get in other players’ faces, but he’s there now.  I don’t know basketball from quidditch, but the games are always worthwhile.

Luckily for him, he inherited a visual sense from his mother’s side.  He plays Minecraft aggressively, and has been known to disappear for hours at a time with new Lego kits, only to emerge when they’re completely built.  (He did the entire London Bridge set single-handedly.)  From both of us, he got the writing gene.  Last year he wrote a multi-page manifesto explaining why he and TG should get more “tech time.”  It was so good that TG’s teacher actually used it in class.  The kid has chops.

It’s fun watching him grow into himself.  As he gets older, hints of his own style are emerging.  His sense of humor is his own, with an eye towards pranks that nobody else in the family has.  He’s a great student, with clear interests and tastes, and some serious ambition.  He’s the kid -- young man, really -- who voluntarily helps the older couple down the street shovel their driveway, and won’t accept anything more than a cup of hot chocolate for his troubles.  

Once when he was about three, he spent a long time helping to clean up the front yard.  When I told him he didn’t have to, he looked up and said earnestly “I want you to be proud of me.”

I am.  Welcome to the teen years, TB.  It’s an honor to have a front-row seat, watching a good man grow into himself.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

It’s the Little Things…

Having worked in the community college world for the past eleven years, I’m used to a certain tone-deafness about community college from “opinion leaders” in and around higher education.  I’ve heard it referred to in lists of “alternatives to college.”  I’ve read the pieces on “undermatching” that equate community college attendance with failure. And normally I content myself with simple rebuttals, because I see the admirable truth on the ground every single day.  Most of the time, I’m content to put the information out there, and let it make its way on its own merits.  

But once in a while, I just can’t.  This one really grinds my gears.

Yesterday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece detailing the new MLA report recommending that Ph.D. programs in the humanities make it easier for students to complete more quickly. (Hat-tip to Anne Kress, from Monroe CC, for pointing it out.  I would have skipped the article completely.) In an attempt to parry criticism for rushing students more quickly into an already oversaturated market, the MLA is trying to raise awareness and acceptance of alt-ac positions.  In that context, the article said:

"The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong," said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. "What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths."Departments should be more clear with students from the start that tenure-track jobs are becoming harder to find, Mr. Berman said, and should also explain to students what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector.
It’s worth a close read.  “Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges…”


Many states (including both Massachusetts and New Jersey) have tenure systems for community college faculty.  For that matter, many states have tenure systems for high school teachers, too.  Let’s get the basics right.

I don’t necessarily blame a professor of comparative literature at Stanford for not knowing that, but I would expect a chief author of an MLA report on the academic job market to know that.  If the folks proposing radical changes to graduate education in the name of the job market don’t know that, well, good luck with those changes.

To be fair, it’s not clear from the article whether that exact construction came from Professor Berman or from Vimal Patel, the author of the piece.  But either way, I would have expected someone at the Chronicle to catch it.  Covering higher education is what they do.  The fact that many community college systems have tenure should not be news to them.  It should be just as commonplace and obvious as the knowledge that IPEDS graduation data only covers a small minority of community college students in the first place, so basing any sort of policy decisions on it would be preposterous.

I would expect anyone grounded in the realities of higher ed to know that.  

Or, at the very least, to say what they actually mean.  

Your move, Chronicle.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Parsing “Is College Worth It?”

One of my favorite classroom exercises -- I didn’t invent it, but I used it -- involved a close reading of “Mary had a little lamb.”  It’s a surprisingly ambiguous sentence, if you pay attention.  For example, what does “had” mean?  Does it mean “once, but no longer?”  “Ate?”  “Gave birth to?”  “Copulated with?” And in “a little lamb,” what does “little” mean?  Just a few bites?  A lamb that was itself small?  Or modestly endowed?  Shorn of context, it could mean that she owned a small lamb, or that she ate a few lamb mcnuggets, or that she gave birth to a baby lamb.  Context matters.

In the case of Mary and the lamb, the implications of getting it wrong are probably trivial.  Maybe she’s a sympathetic shepherd, or maybe she’s a gourmand, or maybe she’s a sick puppy in her own right.  She’s fictitious, so it doesn’t matter.

But in looking at “Is college worth it?”, the possible meanings matter.  Getting this one wrong would have real impact for generations.

What do we mean by “college?”  How do we measure “worth?”  What are the alternatives?  And who are we talking about, anyway?

From what I’ve seen, the answers to each of those will inform the answer to the original question.

Does “college” refer to a completed degree at a public institution, or to a year with nothing to show for it at an expensive private institution?  Does it refer to all post-secondary education, whether a medical billing certificate or a Ph.D.?  Does it refer to a well-known, accredited, national for-profit?  Perhaps to an obscure, unaccredited, local for-profit?  Or do we really mean “someplace prestigious” (as in the angst-ridden pieces written by kids dreading the prospect of having to settle for, say, Bucknell)?  If we know what we’re talking about, frequently, we’d use the plural, since so many students attend more than one college before graduating.  But I’ve never seen the plural used in this context.

“Worth” is usually assumed to refer to money, though it’s also sometimes used to refer to “the college experience.”  I haven’t seen it used to refer to occupational preferences, which is weird, since so many occupations require a degree, or sometimes several.  Yes, it’s possible to make a good living without a degree, and some people do.  But some of us choose occupations because they allow us to do the work we want to do.  That’s both a privilege and a sacrifice.  It’s why so many people go into academia, even though the chances of making the big bucks are low.  It’s the work they want to do.  If the work you want to do requires a degree (or several), and you’re able to do that work by virtue of those degrees, then it may well be “worth it,” even at salaries that wouldn’t initially impress.

And “worth it” for whom, exactly?  Are we talking about students, employers, or taxpayers?  And which ones?  How do we account for indirect benefits, such as show up in the typically higher property values in college towns?  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, compare house prices in, say, State College, PA, to house prices in any of the surrounding towns.)  If I remember my Econ 101 correctly, higher property values suggest greater interest in living there.  Those expressed preferences must be based on something.  If education were a purely private good, we wouldn’t see those spillover effects.  Hint, hint.

At this point, we have the most highly educated population we’ve ever had, and the job market is both weak and stratified.  Blaming the latter on the former is just sloppy thinking.  If the real root of the question is frustration with high student loan burdens in the face of a weak job market -- and it is -- then address the weak job market and state support for higher ed.  Hell, while we’re at it, let’s take a good long look at the stratification element, too.  Why, exactly, do degrees “pay off” more for white people than for African-Americans, on average?  And if we don’t think that’s okay, what, exactly, are we going to do about it?

Is college worth it?  Be specific.  Otherwise, the answer will be no more real than Mary’s lamb.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ask the Administrator: Resources for New Department Chairs

A new correspondent writes:

I was just appointed the Department Chair position for my medium sizeddepartment starting this summer. Would you recommend any good books onbeing a chair? I see several specific to the Department Chair role -- is there a specific one you would recommend to start with? I should note I am at a large community college (about an hour and a half away from yours) and am a long time professor moving up

First, congratulations!  Chairs have the chance to make the kinds of differences that add up over time.  They’re often unappreciated, but they matter.

The role of the chair varies dramatically by context.  In many settings, chairs evaluate full-time faculty; in some, they even allocate merit raises.  Where those responsibilities come with the job, you need to be well-versed in your college’s rules around promotion and tenure.  By that, I don’t just mean the “what every faculty member knows” version.  I mean the HR version.  They’re often different.  

In my own setting, though, chairs don’t evaluate full-time faculty.  That function sits with deans.  Chairs are much more active in working with adjunct faculty.  Depending on context, your mileage may vary.

My first recommendation -- and this holds for anyone moving into an academic administrative role for the first time -- is C.K. Gunsalus’ The College Administrator’s Survival Guide.  It’s a great combination of structural analysis, handy helpful tips, and social psychology.  I found it most helpful for its treatment of “victim bullies,” her term for people who parlay elaborate claims of victimhood into weapons to beat into submission anyone they don’t like.  For whatever reason, this personality type seems to thrive in academia.  (I have my theories, but that’s another post.)  As someone newly in a position of some authority, you should be prepared to be blindsided by people who claim that this decision or that one is REALLY just the latest variation on a longstanding campaign, and they’re onto you.  It can be disorienting, since it implies a reality other than the one with which most of us are familiar.  They rely on that sense of disorientation to exhaust your patience, and thereby to outlast you.  Better to be prepared. And learning that no, it’s not just you, can help, too.

(I just finished Positive Academic Leadership, by Jeffrey Buller.  I’m still chewing on it, though.)

If your tastes run more to fiction, you can’t go wrong with Straight Man, by Richard Russo.  It’s funny and humane, and its portrayal of academic culture manages to be both affectionate and unsparing.  (“I’ll kill a duck a day until I get my budget!”)  It’s less about administration than about academic culture, but I find myself drawing on it from time to time.

There’s a newsletter from Jossey-Bass called “The Department Chair,” though it’s expensive enough that many community college people couldn’t if they wanted to.  

On the blogosphere, I’m consistently amazed at the dearth of voices addressing issues that chairs and deans face.  To the extent that they’re addressed at all, it’s usually from either a faculty perspective or from a perspective completely outside academia.  Both have value, but neither really helps with the day to day reality of the job.  I would have expected to have more counterparts by now.

In concrete terms, I’d strongly recommend keeping a box of tissues in the office at all times.  And have a discussion or two with your dean about mutual expectations before things get rolling.  

Good luck!  I hope you’re able to be the kind of constructive leader that departments need.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those who are, or have been, chairs or deans -- was there a particular resource that you found helpful?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Friday Fragments

The Girl won the town-wide fourth grade spelling bee!  

It came down to a two-girl battle, with TG and her opponent slugging it out for what seemed like forever.  But TG was the last one standing.  She won on “emergency.”

I go to softball games, baseball games, basketball games, and lacrosse matches, but spelling bees are way more intense.  And much more satisfying to win.  

As a family, we may be mostly mediocre athletes, but do NOT mess with our words.


In yesterday’s post, I asked if there had ever been an actual, empirical study of which kinds of on-campus budget cuts did the least harm.

Apparently, the answer was ‘no.’

Alright, Education graduate programs.  Your move.  


There’s something redemptive about attending scholarship award ceremonies.   Seeing students in their thirties, with young children, receive recognition for academic excellence while supporting their families -- with their kids cheering for them in the audience -- is cleansing.  And a little humbling.  


The New Yorker had a worthwhile piece last week on the fate of school reform in Newark, New Jersey.  Newark is a difficult case from any angle.  Its per-student funding is among the highest in the country, yet its results are generally abysmal.  

Depending on your politics, you can read it any number of ways.  But the line that jumped out at me came from the failed quasi-Progressive superintendent, Cami Anderson.  She was quoted as saying that school reform is sixteen dimensional chess.  She followed that by saying that she had developed a master plan to win that chess match, but that the plan had to be adopted wholesale if it would be expected to work.  Make piecemeal compromises, and the whole thing would fall apart.

But chess isn’t a one-person game.

I couldn’t get through the piece without thinking of the Progressive Era.  Many of the reforms the Progressives enacted were good and right, substantively.  But they were rooted in a semi-conscious classism that left a bitter aftertaste.  And a subsequent century of history has shown pretty clearly that elites may be experts at certain things, but they are never neutral.

Politics isn’t like solving math problems.  In politics, the variables have independent will.  If your solutions can’t handle that, they aren’t solutions.


Much the same could be said about Tim Geithner, if Heidi Moore is correct.  Moore’s piece in the Guardian about Tim Geithner is careful, observant, and quietly devastating.

I’ll admit that I was disappointed when Moore left Marketplace, because she has one of the best radio voices I’ve ever heard.  But if articles like this are the fruit of her move, I withdraw my objection.  

Even more than Cami Anderson, the portrayal of Geithner suggests a conception of power that mostly ignores politics.  She paints a Geithner who’s far too deferential to powerful bankers and almost entirely indifferent to everybody else; the description rings true, because it explains how he can admit that his policies were incredibly one-sided, and yet not see why so many people object.  

The Progressive temptation is real.  It’s easy to divide the world into Those Who Get It and everybody else, and to write off the protests of the latter as ignorant, provincial, or corrupt.  And sometimes they are.  But those who are written off tend to push back, and even people who get important things wrong can still sometimes see things that Those Who Get It miss.  

Process matters.  Reforms are easy to present in PowerPoints, especially among the like-minded.  But actually getting stuff done requires letting people draw on the slides.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Study I’d Like to See

I’m hoping that someone has already done this, but if not, it would be incredibly useful if someone did.  Education doctorate students, I’m looking at yoooouuuu…

College administrators everywhere are faced consistently with difficult budget decisions.  In some cases they’re driven by flat or declining enrollments; in some cases they’re driven by cuts in state support; in some they’re the fallout of unfunded mandates; and in some they’re the predictable side effect of low productivity growth relative to the rest of the economy.  Mix and match to suit the local context.

Given the realities of fixed costs, external mandates, and constant technology upgrades, other areas have to absorb disproportionate impact.  Since state allocations and enrollment figures are often uncertain until the very last minute, and meaningful slack was consumed long ago, these decisions often have to be made quickly. It would be lovely if that weren’t true, but it just is.  In public higher education in much of the country, that is simply a given.

Has someone done a serious study of which short-term cuts do the least damage?

I recognize that “the least damage” requires some definition.  There’s educational damage, long-term fiscal damage, reputational damage, and the like.  And some short-term cuts have a way of becoming permanent, while others tend not to.  

But still.  Assuming for the sake of argument that there are college administrators around the country who find themselves in this spot more than occasionally, is there any actual scholarly research that evaluates plausible alternatives against each other empirically?  I’ve seen plenty of lamentations about neoliberalism, privatization, and the like, but those don’t address issues within a given administrator’s scope of control.  

Has anyone done that?  Does anyone care to?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Walla Walla Wows World

I was raised on Dr. Seuss.  Sometimes it shows.

I’ve enjoyed the name “Walla Walla” since childhood.  When I lived in New Jersey, I ran across a convenience store called “Wawa.”   (There’s a town in North Jersey called Mahwah.  I don’t know if there’s a Mahwah Wawa, but there should be.)  The Princeton Wawa was located near a shuttle train the locals called the Dinky.  Educated adults would say “you catch the Dinky by the Wawa.”  (I am not making this up.)  Putting all of those together, if we imagined Wawa expanding westward, and a shuttle train popping up in the right location, we could have the Walla Walla Wawa Dinky.  

Maybe it’s me, but I can’t say Walla Walla Wawa Dinky without smiling.  Try it.

So I was primed to see this piece from the Seattle Times about Walla Walla Community College, and the measures it has taken to improve its success rates.  (You can’t go wrong with an article about student success that quotes “completion coach Max Weber.”)  While some of WWCC’s measures are unique to its region -- such as viniculture, which is not a historic strength of Massachusetts -- some of it is useful elsewhere.

The completion coach idea, for instance, seems ripe for the picking.  Completion coaches, of which the aforementioned Mr. Weber was one, spend their time tracking down students who left the college just a few credits shy of graduation.  They encourage/cajole/recruit the students to come back and finish.  (As the article puts it, “they divide up the names and then go on the hunt.”)  When it works, the student benefits by replacing a collection of various credits with an actual degree and some sort of plan to move forward, and the college benefits by both higher enrollment and a higher graduation rate.

The methods of the completion coach sound more like something you’d see in the for-profit sector, but in this case, the coach is using her powers for good.

WWCC also constructs incredibly prescriptive course sequences for each student, with the goal of preventing students from putting off their most challenging subjects -- usually math -- until the end.  

I’ve seen all sorts of responses to student fears of math.  Colleges that let students put it off frequently find students dropping out late in the sequence, mostly because math didn’t get any easier through procrastination.  Colleges that force students to focus exclusively on remedial math and English in the beginning avoid that problem, but create another one.  Students often resent having to take classes that don’t “count,” and many don’t enjoy jumping right into their weakest subjects.  It brings back memories of difficult high school experiences.  As a result, colleges that force long slogs through remediation before getting to the good stuff tend to see high attrition in the early semesters.

The most promising approach I’ve seen, which is consistent with Walla Walla’s, involves a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Arrange courses so that students take at least one class in their interest area while they’re simultaneously taking the “eat your vegetables” classes.  Ideally, link the courses so that students see some of the same faces across classes.  

We’ve experimented with that over the past few years, linking sections of developmental math to Intro to Health Careers.  The students who have gone through that model tend to pass the math class at higher rates than others, mostly because they pull each other through.  They see the point, since they have the Health Careers class, and they have a cohort at their disposal.  

A model like that is a logistical challenge, but the early results are encouraging.  

Of course, WWCC also does some of the basics, such as mandatory orientation and very early career advising.  We’ve started those, too.  The trick with mandatory orientation is deciding what, exactly, “mandatory” means.  If they don’t show up, then what?  If you don’t have an answer for that -- and students will ask -- then it’s not really mandatory.  The first time we actually enforced it, we all had our fingers crossed.  But it worked, and now it’s just part of what we do.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve found that students who know that officially withdrawing from a class is actually an option are less likely to just walk away.  

Congratulations, WWCC, on a well-deserved Aspen Prize.  Thanks for sharing your tips.  And sorry about the wordplay.  As a grown man and card-carrying academic administrator, I don’t get to use phrases like “Walla Walla Wawa Dinky” very often.  The opportunity was just too good to ignore.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The First Base Coach Problem

In thinking over the story of the dean at Saskatchewan who was fired for publicly disagreeing with his president, I thought about first-base coaches.

In baseball, the manager usually sits in the dugout throughout the game.  But when a team is batting, it dispatches other coaches to stand by first and third bases.  The job of the third base coach is to be the eyes in the back of the runner’s head; a runner coming from second towards third may not know whether it’s safe to run home, so he’ll look to the third base coach for a ‘go’ or ‘stop’ sign.  I’ve never been entirely clear on what first-base coaches do, since “run to first” is pretty much a given.  Maybe they relay signals to batters.  

The first and third base coaches are ranked below the manager, and report to him.  While they do carry some level of authority, the major strategic decisions are made by the manager.  The lower-level coaches’ role is to carry out the decisions made by the manager.  They have to use some judgment in the process, but the judgment is understood to be in service of the direction set by the manager.  If the manager decides to downplay base-stealing to maximize the chance of the three-run homer, then the base coach needs to respect that, even if he would rather send the runners.  

The reason for that is clear.  If every coach is allowed to freelance, it will be impossible to execute any given strategy consistently.  Players won’t know which cues to follow.  (Or, just as likely, they’ll follow the cues of the person with the highest rank, leaving the lower-level folk as irrelevant as they would have been anyway.)  A base coach who argues with a manager in view of the players is asking to be terminated.  Even if the coach is right in that particular case, there’s a serious issue of the manager’s standing with the players.  

That said, there’s nothing preventing a coach from arguing with a manager behind closed doors.  I would guess that the most effective teams are the ones that combine healthy private discussion -- a form of quality control for ideas -- with disciplined execution once the decision has been made.  

Replace ‘manager’ with ‘president’ and ‘coach’ with ‘dean,’ and I think it works.  The president has to be able to set the major directions, ideally in consultation with the Board.  (Replace ‘Board’ with ‘owner.’)  Deans and other administrators need to be able to use judgment in the service of the major directions set by the president.  In a well-run college, I would hope that deans and others would be free to raise questions during the decision-making phase; nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, and quality control matters.  But once the decision is made, it’s made.

The alternative is chaos.  If the president says x, the provost says y, and the dean says z, to whom should a professor listen?  It’s usually better to implement a pretty good idea than to debate endlessly which one is best.

So what should the dean do when faced with a decision from above that he just can’t abide?

I’m thinking he really has two options.  She can suck it up, put aside her misgivings, and do her job, or she can leave.  Either option can make sense, depending on circumstances and the level of disagreement. (In many cases, the disagreement is real but relatively minor.  If everybody quit in a huff every time they disagreed about something, nobody would ever get anything done.) But staying on as a thorn in the side, or footdragging and sabotaging, wouldn’t be right.

I’ve faced this issue myself.  When I was at DeVry, I had hoped to see things move in a particular direction.  For a while, they did.  But then they reversed, and over time, the backwards motion got faster.  It became clear to me that staying on would mean carrying out a series of decisions that struck me as increasingly ill-advised, so I started sending out applications.  When I left, a colleague described his reaction as “surprised, but not shocked,” which seemed about right.  Based on what I heard from former colleagues over subsequent years, it was the right call.  I was able to work someplace that was more congruent with my academic values, and they were able to move decisively in the direction they wanted, for better or worse.

The idea of the heroic martyr rallying resistance from within just doesn’t square with how organizations have to work.  One person’s gadfly is another’s prima donna.  Colleges are complicated enough, with enough moving parts, without adding intramural politicking.  As uncomfortable as it can sometimes be, the first base coach has to understand his role.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Adjunct Adjustment Act

Jennifer Dalby (@injenuity) had a great line on Twitter this weekend. She noted that the Federal TAACCCT grant -- possibly the worst acronym of the decade -- provides funds to retrain workers who have been displaced by global trade and to place them into fields in which they’re likelier to be able to make an adult living.  But the very retraining provided is likely to be provided by adjuncts, who themselves are badly underpaid.  She suggested a TAACCCT grant -- presumably with a better acronym -- for adjuncts.  Call it the Adjunct Adjustment Act.

As dark as it is, there’s some real truth to it.  As with many other industries, the business model of higher education has shifted in what appear to be irreversible ways, and some good and innocent people have been left out in the cold. The extent to which that’s a result of global trade is debatable, but it’s a long-term, structural displacement either way.  In the case of higher ed, the folks who draw the short straw tend to be highly educated themselves. That’s how they got to be where they are in the first place.  People who have done that well for that long in the credential accumulation business should be highly trainable, if they’re willing.

That said, though, I’m having trouble getting past a few barriers.  Maybe some wise and worldly readers can help me see around these corners.

At the most basic level, passing an Adjunct Adjustment Act would require admitting that there’s a serious structural problem with the employment system in higher education.. “Structural” is the key word in that sentence.  If it were a matter of this administrator or that one being blinkered, then we’d see issues here and there, but not across the country, at every level, in every state, regardless of who is in charge.  But the issues are pervasive, and they outlast any given provost or president.  To my reading, that suggests that the usual pitchforks-and-torches approach misses the point. It’s simply not credible to assert that we could restore a golden age of tenure track employment if we just tried harder. The issues are far deeper than that.

But the constituency that’s willing to hear that message is thin.  Outside of higher education, “college” functions as a politically neutral way to address class mobility.  It offers a veneer of merit to an increasingly polarized distribution of wealth, and it offers an answer to people asking how the poor might escape poverty (or how the children of the middle class can remain middle class).  There’s enough truth to that story on an individual level that people can believe it, and it helps to deflect class resentment away from more radical options.  Suddenly calling the redemptive function of education into question could lead to some uncomfortable “now what?” moments that some people would much rather avoid.

Within higher education, any sustained effort to increase labor costs will run quickly into concerns about higher tuition.  An effort to equalize compensation across ranks would generate massive opposition from incumbents.  And given the rapid pace of production of new doctorates, even a massive infusion of money would only serve to feed an even larger structural problem going forward.  As long as supply and demand remain out of whack, we’ll have a problem.

(And that’s if we only look at labor costs.  Looking at my own college, for example, making everyone full-time who wanted to be would require constructing new buildings for several hundred new faculty offices.  That money would have to come from somewhere.  We’d also have to repeal the “no full-timers teach at night” rule.)

The “alt-ac” movement strikes me as one of the smarter and more hopeful developments I’ve seen in a while.  It’s an attempt to open up new job avenues for liberal arts doctorates, and to encourage graduate programs to take those alternatives seriously.  An Adjunct Adjustment Act, done right, could give the “alt-ac” movement a push, in terms of both money and visibility.  

Although the politics of it would be difficult, I can’t help but think that the chronic underemployment of so many highly educated people represents a massive social waste.  We’re wasting talent.  Surely, if we put our minds to it, we could find other uses for all that talent, beyond just yelling at colleges to metastasize.  There must be a better way.  The irony of adjuncts teaching the retraining courses is real, but there’s no conceptual reason those positions couldn’t be full-time.  They probably couldn’t be tenured, but they could be full-time.

I’m not sure what the AAA would look like, but there’s enough truth to the concept that I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand.  Thank you, Jennifer Dalby, for connecting those dots.  Now we just have to figure out what the constellation looks like.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Open Letter to Graduate Program Directors

Dear Graduate Directors,

I hope all is well with you, and that all of your charges have landed safely and happily in tenure-track positions at high salaries in desirable locations with compatible cultures, happy partners, and book contracts.

I hope a lot of things.  That doesn’t always make them happen.

Anyway, I’m still reeling from a wonderful meeting I had on Monday with some of your counterparts.  The ‘hook’ for the meeting was a sense that many Ph.D.’s aren’t landing in R1 positions, like they had been trained for, but that they weren’t well-prepared for full-time positions at more teaching-focused colleges.  As a result, even in a market with a severe labor surplus, it’s often difficult to find good people.  It seems like there’s a potential harmony of interest here.  If your grads were better prepared for teaching-intensive places, they’d be more competitive and have more options.  We’d have better candidates.  You’d have better placement records.  

For present purposes, I’m addressing programs in traditional academic disciplines.  Fields like Culinary or Nursing have different needs.  I’m focusing here on the liberal arts, broadly defined.

I have a couple of suggestions that shouldn’t be difficult to implement.  In fact, I hope you’re already doing them, and you find this redundant.

First, make sure that any grad student with potential designs on a teaching institution gets experience teaching online.  Preferably more than once, and with some sort of mentoring or support.

At my college, as at many others, online classes are the area of fastest growth.  Students are voting with their devices.  Whatever your philosophical position on online teaching, it’s where the growth is.  That’s particularly true in the parts of the country where the number of 18 year olds is likely to remain flat or drop over the next decade or so.  Given the limited number of full-time faculty lines we can afford to carry, a candidate who offers no experience in what is rapidly becoming the future simply isn’t competitive.

In some cases, your students may need to teach at other institutions to gain that experience.  I strongly encourage you to let them.  In fact, to the extent that you can, you should encourage them by building bridges to those institutions.  I will much sooner hire the Northeastern grad with online experience at Bunker Hill Community College than the Harvard grad who thinks he’s the second coming of Professor Kingsfield.  Think of that what you will, but it’s the truth.  

Second, and you should already be doing this anyway, train your people in ADAA compliance and universal design.  They should know that it’s not just a matter of sending copies of an exam to the testing center for extra time when they get a note from the relevant office.  It’s about consciously designing classes and other learning experiences to be accessible to everyone from the outset.  That means, for instance, ensuring that any textbooks used are accessible even before ordering them.  It means ensuring that any videos you use in class or online are captioned.  It means a host of small details that make a real difference to students, and that make a real difference in job interviews.

Hint, hint.

And that’s something you should be doing anyway.  Incorporating universal design into classes on your own campus -- whether onsite or online -- could only help your undergrads.  I’ve heard philosophical arguments against online instruction, but I’ve never heard a philosophical defense of excluding people with disabilities.  You can do better by doing the right thing.

Neither of these should be budget-busters.  I don’t think either would require that you completely rethink everything you’re doing.  If you aren’t already doing them, it wouldn’t take much.

It’s not enough anymore to send us people who are good in the classroom with students who are traditionally prepared to be there.  That’s an important, but decreasing, part of what we do.  Candidates who bring those other skills tend to win.

Thanks, and I hope your summer goes well.


Matt Reed

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How It Is Not Done

As one of the few academic administrators who blogs, I frequently find myself trying to shed light on how an administrative move that may seem strange or silly from the outside actually makes sense from the inside.  My goal in doing that is to clear away useless myths to make possible a more intelligent and useful discussion as a sector about the challenges we all face, and how best to handle them.

And then there’s Quinnipiac.  

Quinnipiac ordered its deans to come up with sixteen faculty layoffs in two days, at the same time that it’s doing searches for a dozen new faculty in different areas.  Broadly speaking, the cuts are mostly in the liberal arts, and the growth is mostly in professional areas.

I won’t address the shift of academic focus.  Sometimes that has to happen, and I’m capable of believing that a strategic shift may make sense.  

But this is not how you do it.  As an academic administrator, I’m embarrassed.  

This is the kind of hamfisted, capricious, secretive approach that feeds every hateful myth.  It will set back useful discussion for years.  

A shift of strategic focus isn’t something you pull off in a week.  It’s something that unfolds over time, with public discussion and probably some drama.  I’m not opposed to a college picking winners and losers -- you can’t do a resource shift without the resources coming from someone -- and it’s to be expected that the losers will not go quietly into that good night.  The pushback can get ugly; that’s part of the process.  

But you don’t short-circuit the process like that and expect good things to happen.  

I have been a dean who had to evaluate people for layoffs.  When I was at DeVry, I personally had to lay off a productive person whose only crime was being the last hired.  This is not a theoretical issue. There is a way to do it.  This is not it.

The first thing you do, after assessing the situation and determining that layoffs are fiscally necessary, is come up with decision rules and processes.  (I’ll leave aside the “fiscal exigency” issue, since it appears at first blush that none of the Quinnipiac layoffs were of people who had tenure.  I’m open to correction on this.)  What criteria will you use?  How will you document your decisions?  If someone challenges you in court based on protected class membership in something, how will you defend yourself?  Hint: it’s much easier if you can show that you applied rational criteria fairly and thoughtfully.  That presumes the existence of criteria.

And you bundle different ranks together.  As awful as faculty layoffs are, they’re somewhat less awful when they’re part of a larger package that also includes staff and administration.  One of my prouder moments at HCC came in 2009-10 when the wheels came off the state budget, and we had to do abrupt and severe cuts on campus.  I chose to reduce the number of deans to maintain the faculty at full strength.  In my estimation, it was the way to do the least harm, and to show in concrete terms that I take the importance of full-time faculty seriously.  People remember that sort of thing.

Singling out faculty to take all of the cuts leaves a bitter, bitter taste.  

Layoffs and shared governance don’t go together well, since nobody will vote themselves off the island.  But some basic level of transparency is essential if you want to maintain a sense in the larger faculty that you aren’t just making decisions based on personal likes, or political connections, or whatever racial/gender/demographic category seems to stick out.  

I would be shocked if these weren’t challenged legally.  The circumstances practically demand it.

Upon challenge, Quinnipiac will probably have to backtrack and/or pay significant compensation, on top of whatever legal fees it will face.  This is the price of thoughtless haste.  

If I were to put on my Machiavellian hat, I would guess that the shortened timeframe was chosen specifically to deprive any on-campus opposition of oxygen.  By the time folks have processed the information, the thinking goes, it would be a fait accompli.  But that assumes that the end of the academic year is the end of the issue.  It isn’t.  Courts don’t care at all about the academic calendar.  Legal challenges can drag on for years, generating billable hours and adverse publicity all the while.

Administrators have to balance budgets, handle personnel issues, and sometimes be the bad guys.  That comes with the gig.  But how you do those things matters.  Acting so arbitrarily conveys a strong impression that the decisions themselves were arbitrary.  People remember that sort of thing, too.

My free advice to my counterparts at Quinnipiac: roll it back.  Admit that you overshot, and put together a serious process on campus to make strategic decisions next year.  Either that, or get some very, very good lawyers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Crossing Over

The IHE essay on Monday about “Faculty-Administrators” got me thinking again about the difficulties of crossing over from faculty to administration.

The essay itself advocated for new faculty-administration hybrid positions, along the lines of writing center directors. The idea is to break down the silos that separate people in the different roles, with the intended result of reducing the conflict that comes from mutual stereotyping.  These positions would give faculty a seat at the table when administrative decisions are made, and would give faculty who are thinking about crossing over a chance to put a toe in the water.  

Some positions like that already exist, of course.  The paradigm case is the department chair.  Typically, department chairs get lighter teaching loads in return for spending more of their time on departmental business.  People who do well as chairs, and who develop a taste for it, tend to be the folks who move into deanships.  

Context matters.  In a unionized setting, for example, there tends to be a bright line between positions that involve supervising other people and positions that don’t.  (Here, for example, department chairs don’t evaluate full-time faculty, since they’re in the same union.)  The idea is that union solidarity would be imperiled by role confusion, so anything evaluative is delegated to administration.  As a consequence, there are real limits on what reassigned-time positions can do, since their authority is circumscribed.  As far as the union is concerned, you are either in the union or you are not; no hybrids allowed.  In a private college or university, or in a right-to-work state, this might not matter.  In a public institution in a blue state, it matters quite a bit.

There’s also the issue of the academic calendar.  Many “administrative” positions -- and to be clear, the IHE piece unhelpfully conflates staff with management under one heading -- involve a twelve-month calendar.  Faculty positions involve a nine-month calendar.  Paying faculty enough to get them to show up five days a week all summer long typically bumps their salary above what we would have paid a full-time staffer, thereby wiping out any savings.  (In many cases, twelve-month staff make the same as, or less than, assistant professors.)

The essay assumes that putting some faculty on reassigned time would result in the hiring of more full-time faculty to pick up the slack.  That rarely happens, since reassigned-time positions aren’t permanent and tenure is.  In practice, the courses from which faculty are reassigned go to adjuncts.  Increasing the amount of reassigned time assignments increases the reliance on adjuncts.  There are times when that trade is worth it, but let’s be clear on what we’re doing.  

I’d add the issue of skill sets.  Administrative work isn’t necessarily easier or harder than teaching, but it’s different.  I’ve seen people who were good at one really struggle with the other, and that’s true in both directions.  Treating administrative work, even implicitly, as something that anybody could do is both inaccurate and insulting to those who do it well.  To get a sense of that, swap “administrative work” and “teaching.”  Could just anyone teach?

The habits of mind in faculty and, say, deanships are different, too.  In my faculty days, I prided myself on my ability to find the flaws in just about anything.  But in administration, the existence of flaws is just a given.  Most of the time, the choices at hand aren’t between correct and incorrect, but between variations on “the best we can do under the circumstances.”  Critical thought still matters, but it has to be paired with a willingness to just make the call and move forward.  If you can’t stomach the prospect of making a public decision with imperfect information, and getting criticized for it, you’ll struggle in these roles.  

The impulse behind the call for hybrids seems to be a sense that faculty, staff, and administration would be less conflictual if each group actually understood what the others do.  That’s almost certainly true, and I’d like to move in that direction.  That’s part of why I keep writing: I’m trying to narrate my world for the benefit of people who are connected to it somehow, but situated differently.  But conflating staff with management defeats the purpose of understanding, and leaving out such basic facts of life as the academic calendar and collective bargaining agreements just confuses the issue.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen sustainable and productive ways to break down the unhelpful barriers without assuming that roles are simply interchangeable?