Monday, June 16, 2014

Calling Visionary Philanthropists

I follow a fair number of academics on Twitter, and I’m consistently amazed at the travel schedules of those who don’t work at community colleges.  They go to far more conferences than their community college colleagues do, even when the conferences are focused on teaching.  That tends to lead to a certain insularity at conference discussions; when the only people there are people with the travel budgets to be there, a certain frame of reference goes uncontested.  This explains a lot.

That’s unfortunate on several levels.  Obviously, it’s unfair to the community college faculty, who are denied opportunities to see what others are doing.  If conferences are of any value at all, then over time, that has to lead to missed opportunities, missed improvements, and the like.  It’s also unfair to their colleagues, who lose valuable perspectives.  It stunts the discussions at many conferences, which means that certain questions don’t even get asked.  

The major reason for the lack of travel, of course, is money.  Earlier this week I had a conversation with a student from Amherst College.  He mentioned that Amherst spends something like $100,000 per year per student.  We spend approximately one tenth of that.  It’s true that we don’t have dorms or football, but even allowing for those, we can’t come close to the kind of professional development budgets that other places can.  It’s mathematically impossible, given the dollars we have to work with.

Which is where philanthropists could come in.

Here’s what I’m thinking.  A philanthropist who wanted to help community college faculty join the larger discussions around teaching innovations, student success, the completion agenda, and the rest of it could sponsor a travel fund specifically for community college faculty.  To have maximum impact -- and I know this is counter to the major trends in philanthropy, but a guy can dream -- it should not be competitive or program-specific.  It could, and probably should, have rules about a maximum per person per year, disallowed expenses (i.e. alcohol), and the usual safeguards.  But beyond that, it should be open to folks who aren’t used to competing for travel funding.  

The beauty of a program like this is that it’s almost infinitely malleable.  If the Big Muckety Muck Memorial Travel Program only wants to run for, say, five years, then it can.  If it wants to include adjuncts, it can.  If it wants to focus first on a few key disciplines, it can.  Unlike publicly funded programs, it has a great deal of freedom in how it defines its mission.

But wait, I hear you thinking, that wouldn’t be transformative!  It wouldn’t be disruptive!

I respectfully disagree.

It’s much easier to get innovations to stick when faculty are involved.  They’re the folks on the front lines, and they’re the ones who dominate curriculum committees.  With them on your side, you can accomplish quite a bit.  With them indifferent or hostile, you have much more of an uphill battle.  And they have a vantage point that can inform many proposals in useful ways.

At this point, waiting for community colleges to fund them directly is a fool’s errand.  With budgets as tight as they are, significant increases in travel funding simply aren’t going to happen.  But a philanthropist with a vision could move mountains by moving professors.

Philanthropists, what say you?  Is anyone up to the challenge?  If you are, I’d be happy to discuss it offline in more detail...