Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Question for the Statisticians

In a recent exchange with one of my favorite higher education peeps, I realized that I’ve been stubbing my toe on the same issue for years now.  I’m hoping that some very smart readers have found an elegant way around it, the better to spare my theoretical feet.

Let’s say that you’re trying, for whatever reason, to measure the average earnings of graduates from a particular college or set of colleges.  And let’s pretend that actually getting the data is relatively easy, just for the sake of argument.  (“In theory, there’s data.”)  

What do you do with the students who transfer to the next level of education, instead of getting a job?  

For community colleges, the issue is students who move on to four-year colleges.  If you measure earnings a year after graduation, they’ll look markedly low, but that’s artificial.  If you count those students as they are, you’ll get a misleadingly low average.  If you exclude them from your count, you’ll essentially exclude the highest-achieving echelon of graduates.  We have grads who have gone on to medical school and done quite well for themselves, but they don’t show up in our numbers because the gap between graduating community college and making big money as a physician is too long.  

Four-year colleges face a related issue.  How do you count the students who went on to law school, med school, or, heaven help us, grad school?  In the first year out, or even the second, they’re making peanuts.  But they’re on a track that historically has done quite well, other than certain flavors of grad school.  The future cardiologist will do fine, eventually, but by then it’ll be too late for your numbers.

Again, factoring them out means discarding the cream of the crop, which hardly seems fair.  But leaving them in builds a systemic distortion.

Many of these issues go away if you assume a long enough timeframe.  Look at earnings twenty years out, and get a much clearer picture.  But if the point is to hold colleges’ feet to the fire, using data from twenty years ago isn’t likely to work.  The lag is too long.

I could understand the “just don’t count them” solution for, say, grads who drop out of the workforce to have children.  They’re playing a different game.  It isn’t necessarily as clean as that, of course; dropping out may be more appealing if your job is low-paying and dead-end.  But for the sake of simplicity, I could understand assuming choice.  

Graduates who join the military may also bring some low numbers initially, which I would argue are also misleading.  

For the sake of simplicity, let’s leave out students who “swirl” among several different institutions.  If a student transfers three times before graduating, which college should get credit for the earnings?  

It’s tempting to just throw up one’s hands and declare the entire enterprise a fool’s errand, but politically, that’s a non-starter.  If there will be “accountability,” how should we count?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Code-Switching and Professional Development

Travel funding is even harder to come by these days than it used to be.  In the community college world, that’s saying something.

I mention it in light of this piece in the Chronicle about the Aspen Institute’s recommendations for search committees looking for community college presidents.  In a nutshell, the Aspen Institute recommends that search committees de-emphasize their usual focus on fundraising and networks, and instead focus on people who’ve shown the ability to improve student success, to take risks, and to get people to experiment.  

I agree strongly with the Aspen Institute, for reasons that won’t surprise anyone who knows me.  But in thinking about what it takes to cultivate both student success and the spirit of experimentation, I’m thinking we might need to look at a different kind of professional development.  Specifically, future leaders might want to think about conscious cross-fertilization in choosing which conferences to attend.

I’ve walked some of that walk, having attended the Council for Undergraduate Research national conference, as well as NEACRAO, NACCE, and the first CASE conference on community college development.  From personal experience, I can attest that the initial sense of the surreal fades after an hour or so, and before long you find yourself considering issues from perspectives that otherwise might never have occurred to you.  For future leaders of change, this is not a bad thing.

Because I have some pretty nerdish tendencies, one of my ‘bucket list’ goals involves attending the American Educational Research Association annual conference.  I’m a big fan of Institutional Research done well, and I can’t help but think that if top management at community colleges were more fluent in data, it might be a good thing.  (Putting the people who make decisions in touch with the people who have information seems like it has some potential.)  But in 2015, the AERA conference and the AACC (American Association of Community Colleges) conference overlap almost completely, in cities pretty far apart.  Grr.  Looks like AERA will have to wait at least another year.

Along similar lines, I’ve noticed that Educause doesn’t seem to draw much overlap from the non-technical side of colleges, either.  It should; making resource allocation decisions without being conversant in technical trends is high-risk, at best.  There, too, I see a pretty compelling argument for senior administrators to travel outside their fields to see what’s going on.

The first time I traveled outside my comfort zone was as faculty.  My dean sent me to the AAC&U conference to hear how other colleges were handling the issues around ‘general education.’  That was where I discovered that DeVry’s habit of using “general education” and “liberal arts” interchangeably was actually idiosyncratic; when I first heard liberal arts faculty complain about having to teach “gen ed” courses, I had no idea how to make sense of it.  After discovering what they meant -- and how most of higher education uses those terms -- suddenly much more of what I had to do around accreditation made sense.  I just needed immersion in someone else’s frame of reference.

Reading around -- by which I mean, reading outside your own industry -- can help, to some degree.  (Blogs and Twitter are great for that.)  But the immersive and disorienting experience of being surrounded by people whose assumptions and frames of reference are different is qualitatively distinct from just reading outside your field.  

The ability to shift frames of reference, and to hold them up against each other, is a key leadership skill.  Public education leaders need to be fluent not only in faculty-speak, but in media-speak, lawyer-speak, politics-speak, business-speak, and donor-speak, among others. It’s a kind of code-switching.  (The best leaders go beyond code-switching and reach all the way to translation, which is a radically inclusive act.)  It requires practice.  And the best language practice is immersion.  

That’s a hard sell in an era in which every travel request triggers strict scrutiny.  But as expensive as travel can be, it’s cheaper than the failures rooted in provincialism.

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever been to a conference outside your normal circles that made a real difference for you?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Different Way to Count

Last week’s report on the many failures of IPEDS data to reflect reality struck a chord.  Community colleges generally aren’t huge fans of IPEDS, since IPEDS focuses entirely on first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students.  That’s a smallish minority of community college students, and with the growth of dual and concurrent enrollment programs -- in which high school students take college courses while in high school, thereby losing their ‘first time’ status -- it will get smaller still.  

The recent report adds several categories in which IPEDS struggles mightily to get it right: online courses, accelerated semesters, “continuing education,” and the like.  The common denominator to each variation is that it’s a departure from the traditional semester-based, full-time, eighteen-year-old student that the system assumes.  The farther you get from that model, the more the system struggles.  

Unsurprisingly, the system does best by the most affluent institutions, with the most traditional and affluent students.  It does poorly by community colleges and colleges with multiple formats and non-traditional students.  When “accountability” or “performance” systems are based on data like that, the results aren’t hard to predict.

It’s easy enough to nitpick this flaw or that one, but ultimately, those are rearguard actions.  In an era in which we get judged by headline numbers, parrying with asterisks is not a winning strategy.  

Instead, we need to design new measures that assume the community college setting as normal.  

That might involve paying less attention to “semesters,” and more to progress.  It shouldn’t matter whether a student makes progress in a regular semester, an accelerated semester, or even an intersession.  With competency-based programs starting to catch on, the entire ‘semester’ edifice is making less sense anyway.  

We shouldn’t conflate stopping out with dropping out, as the current system does.  Students who need to work full-time while going to school often have to take time off along the way, both to make money and to get some rest.  Instead of understanding that as institutional failure, which the IPEDS system does, we should judge institutions on how easy it is for the student to resume progress upon re-enrollment.  The trend towards “stackable” credentials is based on an overdue recognition that students move in and out of college for economic reasons, and it’s better to give them something useful before they go.  But in the current data, those stopouts count as attrition, and are held against us.

In the community college world, many adult students arrive with a grab-bag of credits they’ve accumulated over the years, and with various skills acquired through years of work.  How well does a college address those?  How well does it work with time-limited funding for students, such as unemployment or trade adjustment assistance?  If a student only has a year of funding for education, the job of the institution should be to provide something useful within that year.  Judging it as a failure for not generating a two-year or four-year degree misses the point.

Taking the community college student as “normal” is radical in the best sense of the word: it gets to the root of the issue.  As long as the “norm” is assumed to be eighteen, full-time, living on campus, and supported by Mom and Dad, then community colleges will look defective.  They have their challenges, like any institution, but openness to different kinds of students is a feature, not a bug.  If the data collection system can’t recognize that, then we need a new data collection system.  Let the old one die under an avalanche of asterisks.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Friday Fragments

Writing is good for you, says science.  “Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results.”

I’d rather blog than jog, myself.  Easier on the knees.


Higher ed wonks have been abuzz this week over adjustments to the ways the Feds calculate Cohort Default Rates for colleges.  CDR’s refer to the percentage of student loans issued for students at a particular college that have gone into default in the first three years after they were issued.  If a CDR for a particular school is too high, the school could lose its eligibility for Title IV financial aid.

The feds changed the way that they calculate the CDR, with the apparent effect of sparing some schools the ax.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it dodges the larger issue.

Let’s review.  A community college cannot turn anybody away who has a high school diploma or its equivalent.  It cannot deny loans to any student the feds deem eligible.  Students who only attend for a single semester, or even less, are counted in cohorts.  We are in a devastatingly slow recovery from the worst recession in 80 years.  And the best answer we can come up with is to crack down on colleges?

If you want to reduce default rates, reduce the percentage of college budgets paid for by students.  And maybe do something about a top-heavy economy that simply refuses to provide entry-level jobs that pay very much.  But punishing colleges because students they can’t turn away can’t find jobs is just bizarre.

That should be obvious, but it cuts against the grain of much current political discourse.  The conceit that colleges can be ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ with student financial aid is based on false premises.  It assumes that colleges have control over the most important variables.  They don’t.  Did a spike in defaults in 2009 reflect a sudden and unprecedented indifference to teaching, or a catastrophic global economic collapse?  


Speaking of reality, this piece by the president of Western Governors University really requires a response.

“Students are no longer place-bound.”  That would come as a surprise to most students at most community colleges.  Geography still matters.  Yes, online instruction offers an alternative, and there are times when that makes a lot of sense.  But actual students have situated lives, with family and work obligations that tie them to particular places.  Not all students, sure, but enough that simply waving them away in a rhetorical flourish is irresponsible.

We’ve found that the most vulnerable students are often the most place-bound, and the most responsive to in-person, high-touch services.  That makes them expensive to serve, even though the colleges that serve them get far less per-student funding than the colleges that serve the scions of the upper middle class.

I say that as a fan of what WGU has been able to do.  To me, the challenge worth facing is how to adapt some very real advances to the needs of actual students in actual places.  The epic failure of Udacity’s model at San Jose State University is instructive; Udacity’s first response was to blame the students for being too “needy.”

The challenge is to meet the needs, not to wave them off.


A few days ago:

The Boy: Dad, what made you decide to get a smartphone?

Me: Email, mostly.  Not having access to email when I’m out and about started to become an issue.


TB (incredulous): Email?  Really?

Me: Yeah.  Now I mostly use that, Twitter, navigation, and texting.  What do you use the most?

TB: Minecraft, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, the camera, and texting.  I never use email!

I am officially old.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why Faculty Searches Take So Long

Rebecca Schuman did a characteristically smart and funny piece this week on the sheer agony that higher education faculty candidates go through in the job search.  (She focused in particular on candidates in the humanities, where the issues seem to be the most pronounced.)  That said, though, it struck me that some of the reasons that faculty searches take so long that are obvious from an administrative perspective may not be obvious from the outside.  So in the spirit of an attempted good-faith answer to a serious question -- and hoping not to be guilty of “mansplaining” -- here goes.  Why do faculty searches take so long?

I’ll clarify here that I’m working from the perspective of a teaching-focused, public institution.  Searches at research-intensive places may be very different; I simply don’t know.  Any wise and worldly readers who can shed light on that are welcome.

The easiest contrast is to hiring in just about any other industry.  In most businesses, either the “hiring manager” for a given area, or the human resources department, does the hiring.  That tends to happen quickly, because it’s relatively simple and the relevant players are few.  

But in higher education, we have “shared governance.”  In the context of hiring faculty, that means that faculty and staff are entitled to significant input.  We typically accomplish that through a “search committee,” which in itself would be a foreign concept in most industries.  A search committee has to be chosen, has to meet to schedule itself, and has to agree on the wording of the job posting.  That posting has to be reviewed in HR, among others, to ensure that it’s in compliance with the many, many, many regulatory and contractual rules to which we are subject.  For example, designating a given qualification as “required,” rather than “preferred,” puts real limits on the discretion of the committee.  And we have to avoid strenuously any language that smacks of favoring one demographic type over any other.  (For example, a reference to “fresh perspectives” could be read as coded age discrimination.)  

As public employers, we have to post each position for at least a set minimum amount of time, and we don’t start screening until the deadline has passed.  

Anyone who has assembled committees around teaching schedules knows that getting groups together repeatedly is a task in itself.  (On my own campus, we count search committee membership as meeting the “college service” requirement.  In other words, they’re excused from other committee work, to open up time to do it.)  The committees need to be large enough to be representative, without being so large as to be unwieldy.  And they can’t be entirely of one demographic type.  Given the gender breakdown here, it sometimes takes conscious effort to avoid all-female committees.  

The search committee goes through the applications and decides, in consultation with the campus affirmative action officer, who to invite for first-round interviews.  Each interview has to be scheduled, which involves finding open slots not only for every committee member, but also for each candidate.  Our first round interviews involve teaching demonstrations, and we routinely invite people from outside the geographic area, so the time commitment is significant.  It’s not unusual for the first round of interviews alone to take two weeks.

After that, the committee decides on a few finalists to send forward for second round interviews, which again have to be scheduled.  The second round includes the dean, the academic vp, the affirmative action officer, and the chair of the first round.  We include the first-round chair in the second round, so there’s someone at the table who saw the first round interviews and teaching demonstrations.  Finally, the reference checking, salary calculations, and initial offers get made.  If the first-choice candidate is balky, which sometimes happens, it might be another week before the second-choice candidate gets a call.

It would be possible -- hell, it would be easy -- to construct a much faster process than this.  We could simply designate one person whose job it is to hire.  Maybe that’s the dean of each area, or the CAO, or someone in HR, or the department chair.  We could do away with requirements to post, and just hire on the spot.  We could even establish a take-a-number system among incumbent adjuncts, and hire entirely on autopilot.  Any one of those would be significantly faster, and in other industries, would not be considered weird.

But culturally, we aren’t willing to do that.  Defaulting to a single hiring manager across disciplines would make it difficult to insure content expertise, since nobody is an expert in every discipline.  Defaulting to department chairs would make inbreeding entirely too likely.  Defaulting to any one person, no matter who that person is, would ensure that the one person’s blind spots would be coded into the DNA of the organization.  Search committees and multiple rounds are exhausting, but they also offer the prospect of cancelling out any one person’s hobbyhorse.  

For many positions, especially in the evergreen academic disciplines, qualified applicants far outnumber available full-time positions.  That tends to dampen the urgency to streamline the process.  If we have to balance concerns about field coverage, fluency with new technology, sensitivity to student needs (such as students with disabilities), demographic diversity, affirmative action, contractual guidelines, and shared governance -- all while assuring both content expertise and solid teaching skills -- we can, but it won’t be quick.  Or we could privilege speed, but only at the expense of some of those other considerations.  As long as the market price of moving slowly is low, and the legal/cultural costs of speed are high, searches will take a while.  

None of which mitigates the real frustration that candidates feel as the months go by.  Been there.  The shortage of positions is bad enough without adding insult to injury.  And committee members have an ethical obligation to do what they can to respect candidates’ dignity, such as getting down to business as quickly as possible after the application deadline passes.  (We don’t do conference interviews, which are an issue in their own right.)  But even if everyone in the process performs her role well, it will still be slow.  To get around that, we’d have to abandon some pretty core assumptions about how academia works, and start acting like just about every other industry.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ask the Administrator: What are Four-Year Colleges Up To?

A new correspondent writes:

Do you think that the growing number of non-selective private and public 4-year colleges that are going test-optional for admissions (or even transcript-optional as Goucher is doing) are in some sense trying to become 4-year versions of community colleges?  Or maybe not trying, but drifting in that direction anyway?  Back in the day  there were quite a number of private 2-year colleges, in the East.  But then, 4-year became the gold standard for middle class and  upper middle class students, and the 2-years seem to be gone.

I don’t know about Goucher specifically, so I won’t comment on what it’s doing.  For what it’s worth, my vague sense -- and I’m open to correction on this by people who are in a position to know -- is that the move by some selective places to go test-optional is less about lowering standards than about finding more relevant standards.  Test scores tell you a little, but mostly on the extremes.  In the vast middle, they don’t mean much at all.  Basing admission decisions on other, more variable criteria could allow for a more interesting and diverse class, as well as a potentially larger one.

Some of us at community colleges have wondered whether some of the four-year schools are getting a little less choosy in filling their seats.  That would tend to have a ripple effect lower on the food chain.

That said, if four-year schools were lowering standards to fill seats, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them.  Institutions do what they need to do to survive.  If you want to change the behavior, change the incentives.

The easiest and most powerful way to change the incentives, unfortunately, is the most politically challenging: make tuition a smaller part of the budgets of state colleges and universities, and state support a larger part.  (Private colleges can do what they want, except, apparently,in New Jersey.)  As long as tuition is an ever-increasing proportion of the budget, the drive to fill seats will know no bounds.

In a perverse way, over time, part of me wonders if going head-to-head with community colleges for the most academically challenged students wouldn’t actually benefit community colleges.  Right now, four-year colleges justify their considerable cost premium by pointing to greater prestige.  Take the prestige away -- since prestige often rests largely the exclusivity and/or median family income of the student body -- and suddenly cc’s greater specialization and lower tuition become hard to beat.  

Of course, that presumes little or no lag between change and perception.  That may prove unduly optmiistic.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those at lower-tier four-year schools -- have you seen four-year colleges start to draw more on students who would typically have attended community colleges?

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Earnings and Asterisks

I’m convinced that this Hechinger Report piece is a prank by someone who likes to see me get worked up.  It’s hard to explain it any other way.

According to Hechinger, a new CAPSEE (Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment) report claims that

the large proportion of community-college students who major in the liberal arts, humanities, and general studies receive little or no financial advantage at all in exchange for their time and tuition. Nor do recipients of many newly trendy professional certificates.

But there’s a pretty significant asterisk.  Notably, the data

doesn’t track whether those humanities majors ultimately transfer to four-year universities and colleges and boost their income by earning bachelor’s degrees.


If you count students who transfer as juniors as underemployed -- since full-time students generally don’t make very much -- then yes, you’ll wind up with low numbers.  The same holds true for exclusive four-year schools; if you count all of Williams’ recent grads who are in law school, med school, or grad school as underemployed, you’d get some weird figures there, too.  It’s a bad measure.

It would be one thing simply to exclude students who transferred on to the next stage of education.  That would still distort the picture somewhat, but at least it wouldn’t penalize colleges for sending students onward.  But to fail to sort out transfers from the underemployed or unemployed is actively misleading.  

At the community college level, liberal arts majors are geared specifically for transfer.  Many students choose liberal arts majors for exactly that reason.  They’re readying themselves for transfer in an inexpensive and convenient way.  Not because, as the report would have it:

Researchers speculated that students at community colleges may end up in the liberal arts because there’s not enough room in nursing or technical programs, or because they’re not aware of the earnings implications.


People choose majors for all sorts of reasons.  Yes, sometimes they choose by default, or because their friends or siblings chose something.  Sometimes they change majors because they find that the first choice didn’t work out for them, for whatever reason.  And sometimes they choose a major because...wait for it...they like it.  

It’s entirely possible that a “terminal” liberal arts Associate’s degree spells trouble.  Then again, it might not; since the study doesn’t exclude all those college juniors, we can’t even infer that.  From this research, there’s no way of knowing.

I wouldn’t mind so much, except that the headline will attract most of the attention.  It has that superficially brave “saying what everybody thinks” frisson that cloaks prejudice in a thin layer of courage.  It’s clickbait.  It’s also potentially damaging.

If student debt is a serious concern, we should be looking at liberal arts transfers from community colleges as part of the solution.  Denigrating them as part of the problem will only feed the desperation to get into places that charge thousands of dollars for freshman comp.  

If a research design is as fundamentally flawed as this one, it has no business being published.  This isn’t the brave telling of difficult truths.  This is trolling.  I just hope people read past the headline before ratifying any prejudices.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bringing the States Back In

The hot topic in higher ed policy circles right now is the idea of tying federal ratings of various colleges to their eligibility for higher or lower levels of financial aid for students.  In theory, the availability of potentially greater amounts of financial aid would act as an incentive for colleges to do the things that would make them look better in the ratings.  If that happens, obviously, then getting the ratings right matters a great deal.  If you do something as stupid as simply tying eligibility to graduation rates, then you’re encouraging grade inflation and/or leaving high-risk students behind.  

Some smart people published pieces this weekend attacking the concept.  Susan Dynarski pointed out, correctly, that it makes no sense to punish or reward colleges for factors they can’t control, such as the economic means of their students.  Andrew Kelly pointed out that it’s much harder to measure “value added” than to measure raw outcomes, but the latter is largely a function of who shows up.  If we want to incentivize the addition of value, we need to reward it.  (This critique could also apply to Paul LeBlanc’s proposal for a free, national, competency-based online degree.  In the absence of incentives to add value, I foresee many states defaulting to the freebie and reducing their community college spending to zero.  Arizona has already come close.)

I agree with much of Dynarski’s and Kelly’s arguments, but I’d add another factor.  Although the really big money in financial aid comes from the federal government, community colleges in particular are actually run more by states (and, in some states, by counties or districts).  Any attempt to work around the states is bound to create perverse incentives.  We need to bring the states into the analysis.

Over the past few decades, as Dynarski pointed out, states have disinvested substantially in community (and state) colleges.  Colleges have responded in part with internal austerity, and in part by raising tuition and fees.  

But wait, you say.   If per-student spending has been essentially flat, why the austerity?

That’s where Baumol’s cost disease comes in.  If your spending is flat, but your real costs increase every single year, then you have to exercise the austerity you can.  That’s the primary driver behind the shift to a heavily adjunct faculty.  Paying the real salary and benefit cost increases for full-time employees against a flat total requires underpaying others.  Since labor is the bulk of the budget, labor has taken hits.

In any event, though, states remain the missing variable.  If we leave states to their own devices, and offer to increase financial aid for students at certain public colleges, what do we think will happen?

My guess is that states will use the new federal money to replace their own.  They’d treat it as a windfall.  Colleges would only be able to capture the new money by raising tuition and fees.  Colleges that do well in the ratings would basically hold steady; colleges that do less well would suffer.  So we’d have increased federal spending, increased tuition, and increased student debt.  This is not a happy picture.

Instead, I’m thinking we need to knit the states into the system.  If we want to incentivize colleges to keep students’ costs down without just resorting to chronic austerity, one way to do it would be to incentivize states to reverse the trend of disinvestment.  A clean and simple way would be to offer to match operating aid to public colleges, contingent on certain basic controls.  If a state knows that money spent on public colleges brings in “free” money from the feds, and cuts to public colleges mean leaving federal money on the table, then the incentives are finally aligned for states to do the right thing.  The actual multiplier could be adjusted, but it should be high enough to make a material difference.

Performance, I would argue, is better assessed on the state level anyway.  Nationally, the states with the highest community college graduation rates have the weakest four-year sectors, which makes sense; when the local high performing high school students attend the community college by default, its graduation rates will naturally be higher.  In contrast, a state like Massachusetts, which has a robust four-year sector, doesn’t have any community colleges with graduation rates approaching those of, say, South Dakota.  Punishing Massachusetts for having a strong four-year sector would be silly, and would do nothing to incentivize performance.  Better to judge performance in more defined contexts, so we’re actually measuring what we intend to measure.

Obviously, this proposal is only a start.  But at least it recognizes states as relevant actors with their own interests.  And it gets us away from the shallow and unproductive comparisons of colleges in different regions of the country, with substantially different needs.  Let the Feds set some basic guidelines to avoid perverse incentives, but situate performance within each state.  And let the states that step up get more help than the states that don’t.  Until then, we’ll be stuck rewarding all the wrong things.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Friday Fragments

The Boy is in First Tech Challenge, which is the junior high version of Lego League.  He’s on a team of eighth graders.  I picked him up the other night; I got there a few minutes before the meeting broke up.  The kids were sitting around a table, trying to come up with a team logo.  I noticed that TB was leading the discussion.  On the ride home:

TB: Dad, do you think I’m too controlling?

Me: No.  Why do you ask?

TB: Well, it seems like whenever there’s group work, I take charge. If I don’t, it doesn’t get done.

Me: Were you chosen, or did you just step up?

TB: I just did it.  I like being in charge.

Me: Why?

TB: Because when people do what I say, things work.  

Me: (laugh) Well, do you make them do things they shouldn’t?

TB: No…

Me: Do you steamroll the other kids so you can be in charge?

TB: No, they just look to me for it.

Me: You’re fine.


Every year I have conflicted feelings about Constitution Day. On one side, the political theorist in me loves the idea of moving questions about how the country should be organized to a more conspicuous place in campus culture.  Constitutional amendments make absolutely wonderful studies in unintended consequences, as well as in critical thinking.

But every year I have the same misgiving.  Students at more affluent and exclusive campuses, in my observation, feel much more entitled to discuss public affairs.  Students at community and state colleges generally don’t, judging by behavior.

I don’t expect everyone to be a poli sci major, but I do think there’s a serious argument to the effect that educating citizens -- which is to say, voters -- is a core function of public higher education.  Some of that involves content knowledge, but much of it, I think, involves helping students develop a sense that it’s right, proper, and normal for them to discuss politics.  In that context, attention to skills of rhetoric and persuasion would follow naturally.

Has anyone out there seen a successful, large-scale, sustained culture shift in a community college in which students became more politically active?  Preferably absent an external cataclysm?


Quote of the week, on campus:

“In theory, there’s data.”

Well, yes...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What the Artists Said

“Learn a trade.  Something you can do part-time, or seasonally.  If you work forty hours a week, you’ll be too tired to work on your art.”

That was the advice given by some art faculty at a gallery opening on campus this week.  We have a small gallery supported by some generous donors, and the current exhibit is a show of art by our faculty, both full-time and adjunct.  

At the opening, a couple dozen students showed up, along with the ten or so faculty who had works on display.  The curator of the show organized a brief q-and-a, during which the students could ask questions of the faculty.  One student asked what advice the faculty would give to young artists.  The opening quote jumped out at me, but several others echoed it in various ways.  One simply shrugged and said “money helps.”  Another counseled learning to live on very little money.  They weren’t bitter or cynical in their delivery; they seemed to be trying earnestly to answer the question that was asked.  The students seemed to take it in that spirit.

To be fair, some also mentioned passion, hard work, persistence in the face of failure, and the need to be true to your own voice.  Those, I expected.  But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”

It was striking.  On the one hand, I thought, such straightforward answers were to the considerable credit of both faculty and students.  The faculty respected the students enough to tell them the truth straightforwardly, and the students respected the faculty enough to hear it as it was intended.  Nobody appeared offended, and nobody got overly theatrical; it came across as a matter-of-fact recognition of, well, fact.  

On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help but feel the generational shift, and mourn a bit for the sense of possibility that has been lost.

Lately, I’ve noticed a spate of pieces about the loss of clear markers of adulthood.  A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times suggested that the proliferation of man-children in popular culture reflects a deeper sense of loss of the grownups.  Heidi Moore’s characteristically smart piece in the Guardian on the markers of financial adulthood drew some thought-provoking responses; I was struck that everyone understood the question, but so many gave different answers.  Last year, Jennifer Silva published a brilliant book claiming that in the absence of the economic prerequisites for the traditional markers of adulthood -- marriage, buying a house, that sort of thing -- millenials have made a virtue of necessity by turning to tales of triumph over adversity.  Stories of addictions or abusive relationships overcome now serve as markers of adulthood, in the way that home purchases once did.  

I see a lot of truth in each of those.  Moore’s and Silva’s pieces, in particular, are thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling.  They get a lot right.

But I’m starting to wonder if we’ve missed something more basic.  

The discussion among the faculty and students was admirably mature.  It was adult, in the best sense of the term: people acknowledged a difficult reality and offered the most practical suggestions they could for dealing with it.  And the students took it in stride.

I didn’t see a man-child anywhere in the room.  I saw a room full of adults of various ages.

What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers.  

In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.

But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.  It sets the unreasonable expectations that drive unreasonable effort.  That’s true whether the expectations and effort are directed towards art, technology, politics, or anything else.  Yes, in the cold light of adulthood, some of those teenage ambitions can be mortifying.  But some of them hang on, and serve a real purpose.  

I wonder if the ubiquity of “man-child” characters in popular culture is more a sort of wistful wish-fulfillment than a reflection of reality.  In reality, I see millenials being much more “adult” at early ages than my own generation, which, in turn, was much more “adult” at early ages than its predecessors.  Several decades of stagnant wages and economic polarization took away the base of economic security that made earlier generations of “teenagers” possible.  People who had to grow up too fast may find a poignant comfort in man-child characters that would have struck earlier generations as either unreadable or ridiculous.  

None of this is meant as criticism of the faculty or students at the opening.  Honestly, I was impressed by the maturity of both.  It’s meant as a suggestion that before we get too focused on the real or perceived “failure to launch” of a strikingly mature generation, we should probably ask some different questions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

First Timers Teaching Online

You know how there’s a special circle of hell reserved for people at conferences who stand up during the q-and-a and start with “this is really more of a comment than a question”?  This is really more of a question than a post.  I hope that doesn’t consign me to the flames.

For the folks who recently taught online for the first time: what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Selfish motive disclosure: I’m hoping to improve the ways we prepare new faculty to teach online.  Any constructive, helpful feedback would be appreciated.  Thanks!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Administrative Lessons from the Salaita Disaster

I’ve been avoiding the Steven Salaita disaster as a topic for the same reason I avoid discussing Middle Eastern politics.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s mind changed, and so much depends on where you start.

That said, I’m thinking that my counterparts can take the Salaita experience as a teachable moment.

For those who haven’t been following the case: Steven Salaita held a tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech, which he gave up to accept a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois.  At the last minute, the Chancellor of UI contacted him to let him know that the offer was off the table, since she believed that the Board would never approve the hire.  It seems that several of his tweets offended some powerful people.  The last few weeks have been devoted to a back-and-forth around academic freedom, with most claiming that Salaita’s academic freedom has been violated, and a few claiming that his tweets were so extreme as to call his professionalism into question.  

For the record, I don’t see anything in Salaita’s tweets that I would consider disqualifying.  I’ve certainly heard and read worse.  And I think he had warrant to take the offer as an offer, based on longstanding practice; legally, I think he has a strong claim on “promissory estoppel.”  But those are contingencies of the particular case.  The lesson for those of us in administration elsewhere is that divided and ambiguous authority is an accident waiting to happen.

The ambiguities are several, starting with the timeline of the UI hiring process.  If the Board wants to have substantive input, instead of essentially delegating hiring to the administration, then it needs to have that input with some lead time.  Reports have indicated that people have started teaching at UI weeks before they were ever formally “approved” by the Board.  If the Board is willing to delegate that function, then timing doesn’t matter.  If it isn’t willing to delegate, then it needs to be timely.  Refusing either to delegate or to get around to it promptly can only lead to disaster.

Issues like that are surprisingly common in higher ed.  We have multiple traditions in which it’s generally understood that x makes the decision, even if x is officially only advisory to y, who has the actual, legal authority to make the decision.  It works until x and y disagree strongly enough that y is unwilling to defer to x.  At that point, typically, x becomes indignant and starts claiming that y is overstepping; y responds by saying that it was y’s right all along.  Depending on where you start, they’re both right.  Generally, neither side really wants to push too hard; x knows that, when push comes to shove, its power depends on y’s allowing it.  And y knows that the cost of alienating x is often much higher than the cost of abiding a distasteful choice.  Both know, too, that the public would find the whole thing bizarre, and neither wants to involve legislators in what had been internal processes.  

In the Salaita case, read “x” as the administration and ‘y” as the Board (or, more accurately, the Chancellor’s perception of the Board).  If you believe that the Board’s authority was effectively delegated, then the offer was inappropriately rescinded.  If you believe that the Board retained the right to make the final call, then there was no offer to rescind.  

The argument that Salaita’s academic freedom was violated rests on the assumption that an offer was rescinded.  But that presumes that the offer existed, which is to say, that the Board had no authority to do what it did.  If it had the authority, then no offer existed in the first place.  In the absence of an offer, it was within its rights to change direction for any reason at all.

That may sound persnickety, but it matters.  I’m guessing it’s why many of my administrative colleagues have maintained a careful silence in this case.  Deciding not to offer someone a job is meaningfully different than rescinding an offer previously made.  We do the former all the time, because we have to.  For any given faculty position, we typically get anywhere from ten to a couple hundred applications.  Assume that half meet the qualifications for the position.  In the case of a popular discipline, that means saying “yes” to one person out of a hundred or more qualified applicants.  Did turning down the others violate their academic freedom?

Of course not.  The alternative would make the doctrine so expansive as to be meaningless.

From the perspective of the applicant, that distinction may seem trivial.  But it isn’t.  Otherwise, anyone who didn’t get an offer after applying for a job would have grounds to sue.  Legislators would let that happen for about ten minutes before imposing a blunt and unhelpful solution.

I suspect that much of the anxiety around the case isn’t as much about academic freedom per se as it is about the academic job market.  That’s understandable -- the academic job market has been terrible for a long time -- but it’s really a separate issue.  The University of Illinois is not single-handedly responsible for the job market.  But it is responsible for untenably ambiguous lines of internal authority.  And to the extent that someone used that ambiguity as a loophole to squash someone strictly for his politics, then yes, it’s guilty of violating academic freedom.