Monday, June 30, 2014

CUR, Day Two: Translation

Monday’s theme at the CUR conference was translation.  How can people with very different vocabularies, assumptions, and interests talk to each other productively?

I was glad to see it wasn’t just me.

The day started with a panel of provosts, on which I felt like a bit of an imposter.  (HCC doesn’t have a provost.)  It featured Ellen Junn, from Cal State Dominguez Hills; Kathryn Westcott, from Juniata College; Philip Rous, from UMBC, and me.  For those keeping score at home, that’s two from public universities, one from a private liberal arts college, and one from a community college.  

The institutional differences were apparent quickly enough; it’s one thing to include undergrads in the research that you need to do anyway, and quite another to come up with an extra project in the context of a 5/5 teaching load.  But the gist of the discussion was helping the faculty in attendance come up with the most effective ways to garner administrative support (and funding) for their projects.  And the answers were remarkably consistent across the board:

- Build in assessment mechanisms from the start.  What would constitute “success,” and how will you know if you achieved it?

- Connect the project to larger institutional goals.  In a context of limited funding, “boutique” projects -- those that direct a large amount of money at a very small number of students -- are difficult to sell.  Internal funding is already largely committed; shifting it to something new usually involves moving it away from something else.  That means the burden of proof is much higher than “this is a good idea for the six students it will affect.”  Lots of things meet that description.  The ones likelier to win favor are the ones that stand to affect lots of students, preferably either across multiple programs or in some really large program.  

- Even if it starts small, it should be scalable.  Pilot projects as “proof of concept” are great and relatively cheap, but what if the pilot succeeds?  Could the institution support it at scale over time?

- External funding is a major plus, since it gets around the “who should I rob to pay for this” problem.  But grants expire, and often require commitments to maintain programs after the external funding goes away.  Even in the context of something fundable, be sure to address issues of scalability and sustainability when the external funding goes away.

Jenny Shanahan, from Bridgewater State University (MA), led a discussion of UGR projects in the humanities; that, too, quickly became an exercise in translation.  CUR was started by chemists and biologists, and it still leans pretty hard in a STEM direction.  Defining UGR projects as producing “original knowledge” works pretty well if the undergrads are taking soil samples; it’s not as obvious how to create original knowledge in a literature class.  

Translation even came up in the discussion.  In a discussion of the “flipped classroom,” one professor noted that students absorb her mini-lectures much more thoroughly and effectively when they’re in video format than when they’re live.  That’s true even when the video is nothing more than her talking head.  Nobody had a convincing explanation at the ready, but for whatever reason, that format seems to make an otherwise opaque lecture clear.  If it works…

Finally, I caught a presentation by Heather Bock, of Finger Lakes Community College, about the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative.  It’s a loose network of a couple dozen community colleges that trade tips on ways to make UGR projects sustainable on their campuses.  Unsurprisingly, given community college teaching loads, the consistent answer seems to be to embed the research projects within already-existing courses.  That way you don’t have to deal with issues of transfer credit, financial aid eligibility, or faculty workload (beyond the initial redesign).  Translating the ambitions of UGR into the aggressive schedule of a community college requires a willingness to read the spirit, rather than the letter, of the guidelines.

For all the translating going on, though, I was struck again by the goodwill here.  It’s conspicuous, particularly when compared to most other conferences.  Community college folk are few and far between here, but obviously welcome, and the organization clearly wants more to join.  It’s much easier to muster up the patience for translation when people are actually listening.  Here, they are.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Undergraduate Research, Part One

“It’s easier to collaborate dance-science than dance-dance.” -- Liz Lerman

I’m at the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) conference in Washington, D.C.  It’s devoted to faculty at colleges and universities across the country who find ways to include their undergraduate students in their own scholarly research.  And it’s a fascinating bunch.

I noticed a distinct character immediately.  The opening plenary on Saturday was held in a huge ballroom, with restricted access.  When they started shepherding people in, I heard a lot of “excuse me” and “after you,” none of it apparently sarcastic.  People were largely welcoming, and the general feel of the place was that people were just happy to be there.  At the League for Innovation or the AACC, the ratio of Alpha egos is much higher.  At APSA, there was always plenty of nametag-checking to see if you were important enough to bother talking to.  Here, people just seem happy to be able to share what they’re doing and learn from each other.

The group appears to be primarily faculty from four-year colleges, and mostly from STEM fields.  I was invited to speak on a panel of administrators on Monday to discuss ways that faculty can speak to administrators so the admins will actually hear what they’re saying.  That gave me Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday morning to do see what people are up to.

The opening plenary was by Liz Lerman, a choreographer, who discussed the research process as a form of creativity, and placed it in the context of other forms of creativity, such as dance.  In both cases, the idea is to bring something new into the world.  She focused on the productive collisions between different ways of seeing the world, such as a dance she put together based on the concept of “protein folding.”  When you bring entirely different frameworks into contact, you can generate questions like “how does the universe clean itself?”  Being clearly out of your element gives you license to ask basic questions; as she put it, you could be humble without being humiliated.  That’s part of the payoff of including undergrads in creative work; they haven’t been completely inculcated into a field yet, so they still see with fresh eyes and ask basic questions.  

Sunday morning kicked off with a speech by Muriel Howard, who is the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.  She’s an experienced college president, and it showed; she gave a speech that managed to include a lot of potentially dispiriting information while still being basically upbeat.  The core of it was a list of the challenges that presidents and chancellors face, to give some context for how they hear the arguments that come to them.  She noted, I think correctly, the increasing trend towards centralization in many state systems, and the consequent shift in presidents’ roles from strategy and vision to implementation.  She also acknowledged the very real enrollment pressures faced by many colleges in the Northeast and Midwest, noting that “[f]or the first time, [she’s] seeing vice presidents of enrollment management become college presidents.”  In that context, faculty who are able to couch undergraduate research projects as retention and completion initiatives are more likely to garner administrative support.

The rest of the day was devoted to hearing faculty -- and in one case, their students -- discuss undergraduate research projects they’ve done.  One was a “digital humanities” class in American history led by Jeff McClurken, from the University of Mary Washington, and a colleague whose name I didn’t catch.  They had thirteen students from nine colleges around the country working on a history of American life during the First World War.  (You can see their work at  The students did archival research in their various locations, and put together a collaborative website sharing their findings.  They reported that it was far more work than a regular class, and the logistical challenges were real, but they loved what they did.  Prof. McClurken mentioned later that some of the issues arose simply from having nine different academic calendars running alongside each other; so many different Spring Breaks made coordinated discussion difficult.  It’s one of those things that you wouldn’t think about until you suddenly had to.

A set of faculty from several Maryland community colleges, along with an outreach person from UMBC, presented on ways to use UGR to encourage students to transfer to four-year schools.  I learned a whole bunch of new acronyms in that one -- REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates); NIST (Naitonal Institute of Science and Technology); and CURE (Classroom-Embedded Research Experience) seemed among the most useful -- and quickly realized that an entire discourse has developed around this stuff.  The moment that seemed familiar came when two faculty from Carroll College mentioned a wonderfully innovative, intensive two-credit summer UGR course they developed that “unfortunately doesn’t transfer.”  Yup.  If we want to see undergraduate research projects flourish in community colleges, four-year colleges will have to accept them in transfer.

After a social-science panel that didn’t particularly work, I caught a couple of lifetime achievement award speeches.  The highlight there was a challenge thrown by a chemist, Mitchell Malachowski, who declared that faculty who do research and don’t include students in its production are actively harming the learning environment of their students.  So we have a need for a labor-intensive intervention, a difficult funding climate, serious logistical challenges, and a transfer issue.  I hope the administrators on the Monday panel are smart...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Friday Fragments

Ever the optimist, I’m glad to see the Republican and Democratic versions of the proposed next Higher Education Act both include restoring Pell to year-round availability.  If we want to decrease time to completion, making summer available should be a no-brainer.

The previous interlude of summer Pell was brief, and announced at the last minute; colleges didn’t really have time to ramp up programs to take advantage of it.  A longer-term commitment to a twelve-month calendar would provide a tremendous spur to innovation.

That may sound like special pleading, but on the ground, it’s real.  We’re trying to develop accelerated degree programs, but the lack of Pell in the summer presents a real issue.  It raises an obvious issue of equity, on one level, but it’s also a pragmatic issue.  Two-thirds of our students are Pell-eligible.  Take them out, and many classes would be too small to run even for folks who pay cash on the barrel.  The numbers only get viable if Pell-eligible students can attend.

It’s entirely possible that neither party’s version will pass, and a good idea will die of inertia.  But given that both sides see merit in year-round Pell, here’s hoping that at least that much makes it through.


This week some faculty did a nifty presentation on technology they’d like to have in classrooms.  One popular one involved having Apple tv (or Chromecast, or something similar) connected to a flat-screen tv in the front of the class, so a professor or student could magnify something for the whole class to see.  Professors could even do “live remote” sessions from wherever, making field trips much more manageable for students with mobility issues.

Someone brought up the very real possibility of hacking, though.  If all it takes to put something on the screen is a device and a willingness to broadcast, then a student could easily prank a class by throwing inappropriate stuff up there.

Has anyone out there found a reliable, low-maintenance way to get the benefit of setups like that, without either opening up the system to hacking or relying on each professor to have do go through time-consuming manual logins every single time?


The Boy and The Girl finally wrapped up their school years this week.  The Girl is moving up from elementary to middle school, so she had a “graduation” ceremony along with her class.

I have to hand it to the organizers; they really know how to tug at heartstrings.  They had a slideshow of candids, but the candids started with kindergarten and went all the way up.  There, up on the screen, was the five-year-old version of The Girl.  Seeing the kids move from kindergarten through fourth grade so quickly really brought home just how much they’ve grown.

I was okay, though.  There were a few “awww”s, but all was cool.

Then the music teacher came out.

He had the kids sing “Time of Your Life,” by Green Day.  Still, I maintained.  The Wife was dabbing at her face, but I was still fine.

I knew the new music teacher was good, but I wasn’t prepared for his next move.

He played a cover of “In My Life,” by a woman singer who really stretched it out.  He and the kids did a series of silent dance moves in time to the music, reacting to the lyrics.  Sweet, but I was still okay.

During the piano bridge, though, he motioned them to squat down.  They did, and came up with handwritten signs that they flashed to the parents.  Every sign was a variation on “I love you, Mom and Dad,” usually with something customized to the kid who held it.  TG used the nickname that only we call her.  “I’ll be your (nickname) for life.”

I’m not made of stone, people.

The Boy was with us in the audience.  He mentioned later that he was fine when TW was crying, because she cries at emotional moments.  But when he saw me dabbing my eyes, he had some trouble too.

As the bridge ended and the singer came back, the kids flipped the signs.  The signs on the left side of the stage said “I,” the ones in the middle had a heart, and the ones on the right said “U.”  The parents were reduced to quivering masses of jello.

The Girl is excited for her next school.  She’ll have her own locker, which means a lot at this age.  She’s more than ready.  She’s already looking forward to it.

We are, too.  But we’ll miss the little girl who blazed her way through elementary school.  She doesn’t know what the fuss was about yet.  She’ll find out when it’s time.

Congratulations, TG.  The fifth grade won’t know what hit it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Power of Giant Sticky Notes

This week I had one of the more satisfying creative experiences I’ve had in a while.  It involved about a half dozen people and a few giant sticky notes.

No, I’m not setting up a punchline.

Without revealing too much, I’ll say that several of us from different functional areas are up against a shared -- and short -- deadline.  We had to come up with a relatively detailed plan in a short time.

We had done some preliminary discussions over email, and some subsets of the group had met previously.  But this was the first time the entire group was in the same room at the same time.

We put two giant sticky notes -- maybe two feet high and a foot-and-a-half wide -- on the wall, and drew a very basic chart.  (My handwriting has been described as “distinctive,” so I can’t take credit for that piece.)  We were all standing, probably nobody more than four or five feet from the wall.  Knowing we were under time pressure, and knowing that we had a common interest in getting this done well, we were all constructive.  Each suggestion built upon, refined, or improved upon something that was already there.  As happens in the best conversations, people actually put aside their own suggestions when a better idea came along.

It was one of those wonderful cases in which somebody’s suggestion would either trigger a thought in someone else, or solve a dilemma in which someone else had been trapped.

The particular case is all well and good, but I’ve been thinking about how to generate more moments like that.

Some of the elements are at least partially external.  There was a tight, non-negotiable deadline that was out of our control.  The stakes were significant.  The problem was real.  

But others were internal.  The size of the group was big enough to generate worthwhile exchanges, but small enough that everybody could stand within a few feet of the sticky notes.  It wasn’t the usual mix of people.  A couple were my direct reports, but others were not.  One was from a university in another state.  This was not an established group with well-worn grooves.  It had some rapport, and a healthy sense of mutual trust, but had never worked as a single unit before.  

Since there wasn’t much choice but to get right to it, we did.  We’re not done yet, but the progress on a great idea in a short time has been amazing.

The Boy figured out a while ago that he’s most effective as a pitcher when he doesn’t always throw the same pitch.  Follow something fast with something slow, then change locations, and each pitch will be more effective than it otherwise would have been.  The contrast is the key.

I’m thinking there may have been a similar lesson here.  Mixing the membership, changing the format, and replacing the usual protocol with standing in front of sticky notes energized the interaction.  If that became the new normal, it would lose its effectiveness; sticky notes can become as hackneyed as anything else.  But as a change of speeds, it worked wonders.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found equivalents of the giant sticky notes?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Teach-outs and Bailouts

I was disappointed to see the discussion on Twitter when the news broke that the federal Department of Education was putting together a “teach-out” for Corinthian Colleges.  Several people who should have known better described it as a “bailout,” and went on the attack against for-profits in general and Arne Duncan in particular.  

A teach-out is not a bailout.  A soft landing is still a landing.  

Teach-outs are terminal semesters during which students who are within shouting distance of finishing their programs are allowed to finish, but nobody new can start.  (The IHE story refers to some campuses still accepting new students, which I’ll admit is puzzling.) The idea is that being turned away from an institution is far less painful than being cut loose just before getting the degree.  It’s substantially the same logic behind choosing hiring freezes over layoffs, but in this case, it’s applied primarily to students.  

Since someone has to teach the remaining classes, teach-outs also provide some continuity of employment for the remaining faculty and staff.  When a teach-out applies to an entire institution, rather than one program within it, I can only imagine the psychological state of the last people standing.

I haven’t seen formal research on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has.  My guess is that a slow death spiral leads to a sort of adverse selection of personnel, in which the people with the most options in other places start taking them, leaving behind only those without any other options.  That can’t be pretty.  (I saw some of that at DeVry in 2002-3, when enrollments dove.)  But a fast death would skip that step and catch almost everyone flat-footed.  I would imagine that the cultural dynamics of a teach-out semester would be very different under a fast-death scenario than a slow-death one.  If I had to guess, I’d imagine that many of the employees at the various Corinthian campuses were caught flat-footed.  (Internal employee communication in for-profits tends to be, uh, selective.) I’m open to rebuttal on that by anyone who worked there.  

From what I can tell, the Department of Education is taking the most hard-nosed position it can while still respecting the students who have been attending Corinthian.  An abrupt, scorched-earth closing might have satisfied those who see profit as sin, but would have left both students and employees marooned.  

I hope that the DoE, and interested folks in the worlds of higher ed journalism and policy, watch the unwinding of Corinthian closely as a case study.  Given the overcapacity of higher education in much of the Northeast and Midwest, we’ll probably see progressively more teach-outs and closures in the next several years.  I’d love to be wrong on that, but the demographics and economics are pretty compelling.  As a sector, we’ll need to decide how we want teach-outs and closures handled.  If they need to happen, we should at least get good at them.  

The first step is recognizing what they actually are.

I won’t mourn Corinthian, but I question anyone who celebrates a massive loss of jobs, or the relatively abrupt abandonment of tens of thousands of students.  Complaining that they didn’t suffer enough on the way out is petty, if not cruel.  

Let’s learn from Corinthian’s case.  It won’t be the last.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ten Years and Counting

I started this blog ten years ago this week.  

It started as a personal adventure in 2004.  I went to five days a week (most weeks) in 2005, just to see if I could.  InsideHigherEd picked it up in 2007.

What follows is the first post, from ten years ago. It was just a few weeks before the birth of The Girl. I would write it differently now, but as a time capsule, it’s pretty accurate.  Longtime readers, enjoy!


Having done the politically-aware-graduate-student-of-the-1990’s thing (no money, but enough moral snobbery to more than make up for it), my 30’s have been a series of rude shocks. Physical decline (who has time to go to the gym with a three-year-old and a working wife?) is part of it, but financial reality has been the real killer. I had simply taken for granted that professors make enough to be comfortably middle class – all the professors I’d ever seen were! Sure, they bitched about money, but to someone pulling in a big $12k (before taxes), what did that mean?

The Wife, bless her, had already experienced sticker shock before I met her. She lived at home for several years after college, saving money for a condo. The appreciation on that condo made it possible for us to buy our house four years ago. Had she taken the route I had, we’d be renting.

I emerged from grad school in 1997, with a real doctorate in a real field from a real university, but with no real job. I cobbled together the rent by teaching SAT prep courses to 14-year-old Korean kids in a storefront operation an hour away. My hatchback’s air conditioning had gone the way of vinyl records, so I arrived home from those days a sweaty mess. I made just enough to get by if I didn’t buy much, and nothing broke, and I didn’t think about my student loan deferments running out.

That obviously offered no future, nor was it where I wanted to be, so I plied my trade as an adjunct at two local colleges – the respected state university where I had just graduated, and a local for-profit technical college. The technical college was in a growth spurt (the internet bubble was in its early stages) and it needed Ph.D.’s to keep the state licensing agents happy, so I was hired to full-time faculty within a few months.

I worked there as full-time faculty for slightly over three years. It wasn’t a sweatshop, in the strict sense of the term; the air conditioning was actually pretty good, since the computers had to be kept cool. Still, a teaching load of 45 credits per year (15 per term, 12 months per year) with students who had gone there specifically to avoid the liberal arts, did a number on my efforts at writing. I was just too beat at the end of the day to think about any kind of serious scholarship, and too impatient to get what I considered a real job at a real college to spend very long on any one thing. For the first time, I developed a kind of scholarly ADD. Getting lost in research was a luxury available to people who don’t have 45-hour loads.

It wasn’t all bad. The growth spurt there, and the catastrophic lack of hiring in the rest of academia, meant that I had a pretty good cohort of young faculty colleagues. We all shared a sense of grievance that we were reduced to working there, but at least we validated each other as talented. I used to refer to it as The Island of Misfit Toys.

More importantly, the paycheck (such as it was) allowed me to move into the adult world for the first time. At age 28, I was finally paying my own freight. I was stunned at how much the tariff was – despite earning triple what I had made in grad school, I still had to keep a running tab in my head at Stop’n’Shop. My furniture was still ratty and secondhand, the hatchback wasn’t getting any younger, and singlehood was starting to get a little old.

The Wife and I got married in 1999. The wedding and honeymoon were lovely, and I gave myself permission not to obsess over their respective costs. I moved into her condo, which was, to me, unimaginably luxurious. It had central air! A pool! A dedicated parking space!

The hatchback threw its mortal coil (actually, a rod) within my first month there, so I traded up to, wonder of wonders, a new car. Always forward-thinking, it’s a four-door sedan, ready for the eventual kid.

We started house-hunting, which is probably when the trouble started. We picked a target price out of the clear blue sky, and started shopping with it in mind. Then we bumped it up, and bumped it up again. I think we both saw a house as a badge – once we lived in a real house, we would be real adults. We would have clawed our way back to the class into which each of us was born.

Also, a one-bedroom condo isn’t the best place to have a baby. We didn’t know much, but we knew that.

As I crunched numbers and we saw more places, I started to wonder how we’d ever do it.

We finally found a newish house in an older neighborhood, well-located relative to our jobs. We bought it, stretching our resources farther than I knew at the time.

Without daycare costs, we could sort of do it. I was concerned, but not overly so, because my employer had an onsite day care center that was subsidized and, from what some other parents told me, not bad.

As the internet boom peaked, my employer decided to evict the daycare center to make room for more computer classrooms. The daycare shuttered the same month my son was born.

We had to look to private daycares in our area. We discovered that most of them were unsatisfactory (if not simply awful), and yet, every last stinkin’ one of them charges the same rate. We picked the least offensive one, and started paying $250 a week for daycare. That was more than I had made as recently as four years earlier.

Shortly before The Boy was born, but after we had bought the house, an administrative position opened up at my employer. I had seen that we would be fiscally strapped when The Boy arrived, and I had finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to write my way out of there while teaching 45 credits. I decided that since I couldn’t teach my way out (since teaching doesn’t count in your favor after the first year), and I couldn’t write my way out, maybe I could administrate my way out. Get that Dean title, and go on the market for deanships.

I spent a year and a half as Associate Dean there, followed by a little over a year as Dean. I arrived at work each day at 8:45, and left, on good days, at 6:00 (except for the one night a week I taught, or anytime my boss felt chatty). The work was grueling, long, frustrating, maddening, sometimes-immoral, and generally hellish.

The college was one location of a national chain, with a central command-and-control center (Home Office) in another state. Home Office liked to change policies on a dime, and demand immediate compliance. Home Office’s dictates frequently conflicted with the regulations in our state, so the deans’ jobs involved constructing increasingly baroque compromises to satisfy two mutually-indifferent masters.

To make matters worse, the boom started turning south just as I got into administration. I got to manage decline, which is much less fun than managing growth.

I’d get home around 6:45, by which point The Boy was impossible and The Wife at her wits’ end. I was wiped, and in desperate need of quiet; The Wife was wiped, and in desperate need of rescue; The Boy was an infant.

Things started looking up when my manage-my-way-out strategy finally worked. I escaped the technical college for a deanship at a community college 45 minutes away. The pay was better, I got home much earlier, and we were both able to calm down somewhat, since I was able to relieve her earlier (and in a better frame of mind) than before. That, and The Boy’s maturation, lowered the daily stress level palpably.

Now, we're taking the next step. With The Girl due in another month or so, The Wife is staying home. (We're reserving the call on whether she goes back until her FMLA deadline hits.) The Boy is reducing his daycare to two days per week -- the reduction will partially lower our costs, but will still give The Wife some breathing room. When The Girl arrives, she'll need it desperately.

Ironies abound. As the son of a divorced Mom, a card-carrying veteran of feminist theory seminars (ovulars?), I'm the sole breadwinner with a wife and two kids. When did this happen? How did this happen?

The cultural winds blow strong. If this were Sweden, we wouldn't have to make some of these choices -- daycare would be highly subsidized, parental leave would be paid, etc. Here in America, even cultural-studies vets like me are pushed into Ward and June territory, pretty much by default.

I'm hoping that staying home will relieve some of The Wife's sense of guilt. If it does, we'll all benefit. We may have to subsist on mac and cheese for a while, but hey, I used to be a grad student. Grad school didn't prepare me for being a suburban dad, but I make a mean mac and cheese.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Corinthian and CCSF

As a veteran of both the for-profit and community college sectors, I’ve been struck by the different ways in which the higher ed world has viewed the struggles of Corinthian Colleges and the City College of San Francisco.  They’re facing existential crises at the same time, and they have nearly the same number of students; we have a natural experiment.  What can we learn from it?

At a really basic level -- poli sci 101 -- the distribution of those students matters.  Spread 72,000 students all over the country, as in the Corinthian model, and they aren’t massive enough in any one location to exert serious political strength.  Concentrate 77,000 in one city, as at CCSF, and you have a major political force on your hands.  Having a Congressional delegation in your corner helps.

There’s also a branding issue. “Corinthian” is an umbrella name for several different institutions; the “Corinthian” name itself doesn’t resonate with very many people. (Students attend, say, “Everest” or “Heald,” rather than “Corinthian.”)  CCSF is a single institution with a place-specific name; even people who have never heard of it will understand what it is as soon as they hear the name.  Ironically enough, the non-profit did a better job of branding.

But the potential lessons are deeper and more interesting than that.

For-profits charge more than the cost of production; the difference is profit.  Publics charge less than the cost of production, using subsidies and philanthropy to make up the difference.  

That means, all else being equal, that for-profits handle growth better and publics handle decline better.  Put differently, for-profits are more viciously cyclical; publics are comparatively stable.  During growth periods, for-profits find it relatively easy to add capacity, since growth more than pays for itself.  Publics often struggle to add capacity.  That was particularly true in California a few years ago, when many community colleges resorted to waiting lists.  I have never heard of a waiting list at a for-profit.  It may exist, but I’ve never heard of it.  Publics grow only to the size their external funding allows; for-profits grow as large as the market wants.

For-profits did brilliantly in the 90’s, and did well again for a while in the mid-aughts.  Enrollments went up, regulatory scrutiny was muted, profits were everywhere, and investors were happy.  

During periods of enrollment decline, though, the publics are in a better position.  Since some amount of their funding is separate from enrollments, they have an easier time maintaining basic operations when tuition revenue falls.  Publics are often criticized for having diffuse missions, but that’s a saving grace when one element of the picture starts to suffer.  For-profits live and die entirely by enrollment; if tuition revenue drops, there’s no cushion.  Everything is on the table.  The picture is worse when the for-profit is publicly traded, like Corinthian (and Phoenix, and DeVry, and…) rather than privately held.  Stockholders tend to have short-term concerns; they want quarter-by-quarter growth.  When that growth happens, private investment capital flows in generously.  When it doesn’t, the capital dries up, and pressure from upper management increases exponentially.  Desperate people do desperate things; when survival is at stake, sometimes ethics become optional.  But add increased regulatory scrutiny to a downward spiral, and the usual go-to moves are suddenly unavailable.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Corinthian collapse entirely; its business model is not built to handle that kind of pincer movement.

In Corinthian’s case, much of its growth came through acquisition of places that previously had been privately held.  For a while, it was able to trade on the reputations for integrity that the previous brands had earned.  Its relentless focus on shareholders has come back to bite it.

CCSF has its own issues, but is in considerably better shape than Corinthian.  When the news broke last year that CCSF might close in a year, I fearlessly (and accurately) predicted that it would not.  I won’t make the same prediction about Corinthian.

For those of us at publics, the moral of the story should be that we should be careful about treating public colleges too much like for-profits.  To the extent that, say, subsidies constitute smaller shares of budgets and tuition constitutes larger shares, the institutional incentives start to look more like those of a for-profit.  As go incentives, so will go behavior.  Public colleges have diffuse missions, and that should be understood as a feature, rather than a bug.  They need diffuse and stable funding streams to serve those missions ethically.

I won’t mourn Corinthian, but I hope we don’t consign its abandoned students to oblivion.  In many ways, they’re the same groups that would otherwise attend community colleges.  And let’s not miss the teachable moment ourselves.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fair is Fair

When discussions get heated, sometimes people dig in their heels, even as they suspect that their own position has become untenable. (Maybe _because_ their position is untenable.)  I’ve made a point on campus of trying to move the culture away from that, to create an environment in which people can admit when they’ve goofed without losing face.  Ultimately, it’s better just to admit the mistake and get closer to truth.  But it’s easier said than done.

Fair is fair.  If I want others to admit when they’re wrong, I should do the same.

I got it wrong on the Starbucks tuition deal.  I started writing before doing the digging that needed to be done.

Over the past few days, enough details have come out that I really can’t embrace it anymore.  And if I had put in enough time upfront, I probably would have noticed at least some of them.  My thanks to Sara Goldrick-Rab, Anya Kamenetz, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Rachel Fishman, and many others who actually did their homework first.  

The benefit that Starbucks is offering requires hourly workers without two years’ worth of college credits to front over ten thousand dollars on their own before getting any help.  For most, that’s unrealistic.  It’s also strange, given that most Starbucks workers live within reasonable distance of a fully accredited community college that specializes in the first two years and charges much less.  For most hourly workers, doing two years’ worth of credits at a community college and then transferring for the bachelor’s makes far more financial sense.  Enough community colleges have enough online courses at this point that the objection from convenience mostly doesn’t hold anymore; students whose schedules require online delivery can find it inexpensively.

For the third and fourth years, the deal gets better, but it’s still oddly restrictive.  It only covers a single institution.

I don’t fault Starbucks for making an online option available; given the shifting hours characteristic of the industry, online classes may be the best option for many students.  And depending on where you live, transportation can be a significant cost in terms of both time and money.  But there’s a difference between making an online option available -- which I support -- and making it the only option available.

In the original post, I praised Wegmans for the scholarships it offers students.  I’m sticking by that, precisely because their scholarships don’t restrict students to one place.  They’re portable.  They allow students to pick the programs and places that make the most sense for them.  If a given student wants an online program, that’s fine; if she prefers to go to campus, and can make that work, she can do so.  The Starbucks deal offers one delivery method, from one institution, take it or leave it.  That’s...peculiar.  Surely ASU is not the only university in America that’s up to snuff.

In my perfect world, employer sponsorships wouldn’t be necessary at all.  We’d have generous public funding that would make high-quality public options truly available to everybody.  That’s not as utopian as it sounds; it actually describes CUNY until the early 1970’s.  It can be done.  But politically, we’re so far from there that I’m happy to see employers step up to help.  In this case, I let my enthusiasm get ahead of me.  Grading on a curve for too long can do that.

In the meantime, there’s work to be done.  Back to the trenches.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ask the Administrator: What Skill Sets do Deans Need?

A newly-tenured longtime reader at a regional comprehensive writes:

While I enjoy research and  teaching, the problems I'm finding really interesting are on the admin side: I've been doing some external relations and curricular development stuff for my faculty, I've  realized I've got a decent head for looking at student data, and can run a reasonably functional committee. My question is: if you were in my position and thinking, over the next four or five years at getting ready for a serious admin role, like a Dean, what skill set would you work on developing? I know you've covered the different career pathways before for those , but I wonder what skills or experiences you wish you had.

Context matters quite a bit, so I’ll speak to the types of deanships I’ve seen at community colleges.  In some university settings, many of these tasks might go to associate deans, to free the dean up for fundraising.

In colleges with “division deans,” the dean’s role is largely about working with faculty. You need to be the kind of supervisor who brings out the best in the people you supervise. (In an academic context, that usually involves a light touch, especially with solid or high performers.)  That means learning how to translate between faculty concerns and the needs of central administration.  It means being at least passably good at internal politics.  It means dealing with student complaints in ways that don’t sound awful two weeks later when they’re quoted out of context.  It means setting, and holding yourself to, a defensible standard of ethics.  And it means finding ways to encourage cooperation among people who don’t have to, at least in the short term.

Your personal style is your own; I’ve seen deans with very different personalities succeed, each in her own way.  But some basics hold regardless of personality.

Patience is a plain necessity. As a professor, you frequently get to be the smartest person in the room. In administration, you have to be willing to let that go.  And not in a disingenuous way, either. You won’t be a subject matter expert in every discipline; when working with faculty in disciplines outside your own, they will have a depth of understanding of their subjects that you will not.  That’s to be expected.  But you can still bring real contributions to the table, based on your access to and ability to interpret the institution as an institution. When you can interpret the institution to the professor and the professor to the institution, you can be of real service.

Patience matters a great deal with student complaints. Students who make their way to you are often pretty upset by the time they get there. If you’re dismissive or snarky, you will just make matters worse by provoking the student.  On the other side, if you’re too credulous, assuming that every complaint is true, you will quickly lose the respect of the faculty.  Instead, you need to be aware of process.  That means being empathetic enough in the moment to defuse the immediate emotions without getting sucked into someone else’s drama.  Boundaries can save you.

My recommendation would be to start gaining the sort of experiences that both show and help develop the skills you’d need.  Accreditation self-studies can be good for that, since they necessarily involve working across silos and with people in very different roles.  If your department chair position opens up, go for it; nothing shows the ability to work with faculty like working with faculty.  Really, anything that involves working across silos and building rapport to work together on difficult tasks will make you appealing.  Some of those “college service” tasks that people often disparage can actually be great places to show that you have the skills that many others do not.

When I moved into my first deanship, I was struck quickly by how differently former peers behaved.  Some didn’t really change, except as appropriate for a given task.  Some suddenly wouldn’t give me the time of day.  And some suddenly found my jokes much funnier.  I wasn’t entirely ready for that, since that’s not my style.  Be prepared, especially if you move up in the same institution in which you taught.  It can be disorienting.

Honesty forces me to admit that others have very different conceptions of the dean’s role, even within the same sort of institutional context.  But I’d say patience, awareness of process, and skill at working across silos should serve you well.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

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

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Keep Out the Poor, the Huddled Masses…

I don’t often do this, but I’ll devote two posts to the same book.  In this one, I’ll respond to the larger conceptual issue highlighted in the IHE account of the book.  In a week or two, after having actually read the book itself, I’ll respond to its specifics more closely.

Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson have written a new book, Community Colleges and the Access Effect, in which they apparently argue that community colleges would be better off if they adopted selective admissions.  From the IHE account -- and again, stipulating that a detailed reading has yet to come -- they argue that open admissions policies and a focus on degree completion have contributed to a sort of false hope among the truly incapable that they’ll be able to get a degree.  As a result, community colleges post disappointing statistics, students drop out with useless debt, and time and money are squandered on what are essentially fool’s errands.  If community colleges were to screen out those least likely to succeed, they could do better by the ones who do get in.  As a bonus, high school students would lose the perceived safety net of community college and would try harder in high school.

Arguments can be made well or badly, so I’ll reserve judgment on Scherer and Anson’s execution of the argument until I’ve read it.  But at the conceptual level, it’s hard not to react.

I’ll start with conceding an easy piece.  Yes, we could get graduation rates up if we screened out the highest-risk students.  Selective four-year colleges have known that forever.  We wouldn’t even necessarily have to set the bar terribly high.  Just requiring that students place directly into college-level coursework upon enrollment would, by itself, do wonders for our graduation rate.  And a few basic demographic queries to IR reveal quickly who we should target.  If you know anything about racism in America, you won’t be shocked.  Catering to the middle class is easier than catering to the poor.  This is not news.

That said, the idea of simply writing off entire swaths of the population raises some serious questions.

First, where would they go?  It’s easy to say “Adult Basic Education,” but much of that is provided either by, or in partnership with, community colleges.  And most of it is badly underfunded.  It would be possible to break one institution into two, but how that saves money is beyond me.  

One could easily say “they would go to work,” but the economy has changed.  My grandfather was able to get a good unionized job with a ninth-grade education.  He was able to send his kids to college, from which they graduated without debt.  That used to be possible.  But it’s not 1950 anymore.  College degrees are imperfect means of social mobility; no argument there.  But replacing them with nostalgia is not a serious answer.

Alternately, one could say “they could get vocational certificates.”  Again, guess where many vocational certificates are awarded.  Hint: community colleges.  In fact, the major trend among “comprehensive” community colleges -- that is, those that focus on both transfer education and vocational training -- for the last ten years or so has been “stackable” certificates.  “Stackable” means that they stand on their own, but they also count towards degrees.  (For example, our Culinary certificate counts towards our degree in Hospitality Management.)  So offering certificates as an alternative to community colleges is to get community colleges wrong.

I was struck in the IHE interview when one of the authors referred to students being required to show some “ability to benefit” from college-level instruction.  I don’t know if that was a knowing reference or a fortuitous turn of phrase, but in the trenches, “Ability to Benefit” referred to an alternate route into community college for students who didn’t have either a high school diploma or a GED.  That avenue was closed off by Congress in 2012.  Now, students who don’t have diplomas have to jump through the hoops of GED testing or whatever test a given state takes as a substitute.  (We’ve adopted HiSET.)  You could look at that as raising standards, or you could look at it as exclusionary.  

At a more basic level, though, I have to hang my hat on the ecological fallacy.  Let’s say that 50 percent of young, middle-class white women graduate, and only 25 percent of young, low-income black men do.  From an efficiency perspective, then, should we only admit young, middle-class white women?  After all, they’re twice as likely to succeed.  Shouldn’t we get the most bang for the buck, and tell the rest to hit the bricks?

No, and not only for the blazingly obvious moral reasons.  Knowing the percentage of any given group tells you precisely nothing about the chances of any one member of that group. Making the inference from group to individual is called the ecological fallacy.  It’s a fundamental truth of statistics, though it’s often ignored in policy discussions.  (That’s why, for instance, it’s false to equate a college’s graduation rate with a given student’s chance of graduating.  Every time I see columnist do that, I wince.)   We lack the epistemological basis to say upfront who will succeed and who will fail.  We can’t know until their performance reveals it.

And that’s where I have to part company with those who would just throw up their hands and declare entire groups of people unreachable.

If you start with the moral position that everyone deserves a chance to chart their own course, then paternalistically writing off entire populations, even if it’s “for their own good,” is offensive.  
The only way it would be defensible would be if we knew with certainty who would fail.  But we don’t.  And the surprises matter.

If you ask people on campus what they like about working here, you won’t hear many wax rhapsodic about 1970’s brutalist architecture.  You’ll hear about the thrill of seeing students redeem second chances.  The whole point of second chances is that the first chances didn’t work.  The second chance has long been one of American culture’s most endearing qualities, and we’re at our very best when we broaden the circle of people who get those chances.  That’s probably why community colleges were invented in the United States.  For all of their quirks -- longtime readers may have seen me mention one or two -- they reflect an admirable moral position that says that nobody gets to tell me I can’t go to college.  Nobody.  

Besides, we already have selective colleges.  They’re called “selective colleges.”  Reducing community colleges to public clones of private enclaves would render them redundant.  

The real issue with student debt isn’t community colleges anyway.  It’s a combination of high tuition places, state disinvestment, and a sustained, crummy job market.  Fix those, and we’ll make real progress.  Tightening the circle to exclude the huddled masses is not the answer.

In my darker moments, I wonder if community colleges are too egalitarian, or utopian, for a culture that has forgotten that a significant middle class is a human construct, rather than a natural law. I’d be up for a principled moral argument about whether we want a political economy that’s more like Sweden or more like Brazil.  Let’s have that argument, and have it honestly.  But let’s not pretend that protecting the poor from their own ambition is for their own good.  It isn’t. They know better.  That’s why they’re here.