Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ask the Administrator: Putting on a Happy Face

A longtime reader writes

Faculty in my neck of the university recently hosted a visit from our new Vice Chancellor. In preparation for his visit, our programme (one of several in a "school" which functions as a unit only in administrative spheres above my pay grade) sat down and briefed itself, and our full professors with administrative interests or knowledge gave us marching orders: we were to put on a positive face, talk about our brilliant research, our terrific retention numbers, etc. etc., and most importantly: utter no complaints. "This is not the venue" for disaffection, we were told. When His Illustriousness descended from on high, the head of school gave a talk about how great the school is, and then the heads of the programmes talked about how wonderfully everything is going in their respective programmes.There was a Q and A in which the Vice Chancellor said some reasonable things at some length, and then our hour was up. The Vice Chancellor departed for a meeting with the chancellor, and faculty were left to mill about. Discussing how it had gone, the head of programme and the full professors conferred, congratulating themselves on their glowing presentations. The Vice Chancellor will have left the meeting thinking that our house is in order, the wise heads concluded, will think that we are positive and put together, and thus not a problem, which means that our programme and school "won't become a target." Heads were also shaken at the foolishness of another programme, whose faculty members had apparently aired their grievances.

Well, I don't really understand how my institution functions, and don't have any administrative ambitions, so what do I know? Nevertheless, the whole incident  seems highly dysfunctional to me. If individual heads of programme see the Vice Chancellor's visit primarily as a potential threat to be avoided, doesn't that speak poorly for the relations between administration and individual programmes? I don't know whether the administration is that arbitrary and tyrannical, or whether our programme is just craven, but either way, it seems a poor indication about the university's internal culture. I suppose that heads of programme have more chance to have their voices heard behind closed doors, but our department has had some serious internal divisions in the past. When and how are grievances supposed to be raised, if not when the vice chancellor visits once every four years, or however often it is? I've been in other situations where everybody is all smiles, for example my job interview, but the meeting I attended struck me as even less candid than a job interview.

Maybe this sort of thing is normal? I repeat that I don't understand how my institution really functions. Nor do I have any any other point of comparison: I've had other one-year temporary positions, but this is my only full time academic job. What do you make of this story?

Context matters.  In this case, it matters a lot.

I wouldn’t advise putting too much significance on a single occasion.  To me, “[w]hen and how are grievances supposed to be raised” is the real issue.  I don’t see a problem with a culture that allows for robust discussion in a variety of venues choosing to hang “not now, please” signs on a few.  But if “not now” applies to every occasion, you have a problem.

I’d advise separating the grievances themselves from the issue of venues, and first focusing on the venues.  Do venues for discussing contentious matters exist?  If not, can they be created?

That isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds, especially in the early stages.  Assuming that some folks have been burned before, you’ll have to overcome some initial skepticism.  You’ll need to be willing to focus the venue on solvable issues, and to set a goal of providing solutions, rather than blame.  That may involve disappointing some of the more ardent True Believers.  But if you’re able to set a constructive tone, you’ll quickly gain credibility.  (That is, unless the dysfunction runs so deep that nothing would work. Again, context matters.)

On my own campus, for example, there was no faculty-only venue for discussing academic issues when I arrived.  To some raised eyebrows among my administrative colleagues, I worked with some interested faculty to establish the Faculty Council.  For the first couple of years, discussions there were frequently pretty rough.  The backlog of frustration was greater than I had initially guessed.  Over time, though, it has become a respected and useful part of campus dialogue, and it has made its mark on multiple policies.  

If that middle way is hopelessly blocked, whether because of history, personalities, or culture, then your choices are more stark.  In those settings, it’s easy for dysfunction to become self-reinforcing.  The sane ones decide that dissent isn’t worth the trouble, so they walk away from public venues, leaving only the True Believers.  The True Believers monopolize what venues remain, reinforcing each other’s fixations and giving the entire enterprise a bad name.  If you have the energy, it’s worth trying to interrupt the circuit.   I’d advise testing the waters with something relatively focused, and building upwards from there.  

Good luck!  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way, or should the correspondent simply settle for enduring?

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

If Michael Bloomberg is Looking for Ideas…

I’ve written before about my distrust of the “undermatching” thesis.  (Quick review: “undermatching” refers to talented, low-income students choosing colleges that are easier to get into than they could have.)  Defining “undermatching” as a significant problem writes the academic prestige hierarchy into nature, ratifies resource inequality among institutions in the name of “meritocracy,” writes off the institutions that most people attend as irredeemable, and assumes an independent effect of selectivity that empirical social science suggests doesn’t exist.  It assumes that the solution to mass drowning is a few life preservers.

But it holds a strong intuitive appeal in some quarters.  This week, the Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a project -- in collaboration, surprisingly, with the Aspen Institute -- to steer high-achieving, low-income students to what it’s calling “top colleges.”  The Times even quotes Michael Bloomberg buying wholeheartedly into the myth: “If we really believe that America is the world’s greatest meritocracy -- and I do…” said the billionaire.  Well, yes, he probably does.

It’s disappointing, but hardly surprising.  The Calvinist streak runs deep in American culture, even among folks who would never call themselves Calvinists.

At the very same time, though, EDMC -- a struggling for-profit higher ed chain -- announced that it will be “going private” once again.  In other words, management will buy back enough stock to take control of the company, thereby freeing it from having to meet the expectations, and reporting requirements, that come with external shareholders.  

And I thought, hmm.

DeVry was publicly traded when I worked there.  (It still is.)  It had a frustrating habit of making changes so quickly that people on campus were constantly on the far left side of the learning curve.  There wasn’t enough time to get good at one thing before the next one came along.  When I asked why that was, the answer I got was “market responsiveness.”  When you have quarterly estimates to hit, you can’t wait several years for a given experiment to play itself out.  You need to take decisive action again and again, even if the cascade of changes reduces the chances of any particular change succeeding.  At one point, three different versions of College Algebra were running alongside each other, reflecting consecutive curricular changes crashing into the reality of irregular student schedules. It was a nightmare.

At the time, I wondered if what economists called “patient capital” could make the model work.  What if someone with very deep pockets were to invest with a long-term perspective?  What if someone were to try to compete with traditional higher education without falling prey to the tyranny of the quarterly report?  

What if, say, a Michael Bloomberg type were to pour a pile of funding into a for-profit and see if, with enough time and the right internal incentives, it could become a respected and contributing -- if somewhat threatening -- member of the higher education world?  What if it could combine high quality with sufficient scale to exponentially increase the number of life preservers?

Yes, I’d still prefer a more robust funding scheme for public higher education, but this is something one high-minded billionaire could do.  It wouldn’t require swaying entire states.  

The idea has a certain “put up or shut up” appeal.  And it wouldn’t rely on perpetuating destructive messages about the colleges most Americans attend.  Instead, it would offer an alternative.  

The willingness to offer an actual, concrete alternative is why I’m such a fan of SNHU, and why I’m fascinated by Western Governors University.  Whether they wind up getting it right or not, they’re at least trying.  They’re making new visions concrete, and inviting comparisons.  In a way, for a while, that’s what publicly traded for-profits did.  If Bloomberg wants to make a difference for more than just a lucky and talented few, here’s his chance.  Even if it doesn’t work, the failure could be instructive.  

Or we could just keep casting most of public higher education as something that the talented few need to be rescued from.  

I’d rather test an interesting new idea than feed a destructive old one.  Bloomberg Philanthropies, do you have the courage to be patient?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Call Waiting

I was happy to see yesterday’s report on the latest from the Center for American Progress, calling for a new round of public investment in higher education.  I was particularly taken with the idea of focusing the largest increases on community colleges, which have absorbed the largest proportional cuts over the last decade and a half.  The report suggests using progressive taxation to fund a drive by the Feds to get the states to reinvest in public higher education.  But the report skips a crucial step.

There’s certainly no shortage of damning data.  Although the trend of state disinvestment in public higher education goes back decades, it accelerated radically with the Great Recession.  As a result, colleges increased tuition and fees at exactly the moment that students could least afford to pay them.  The impact was most dramatic at community colleges, which serve the most economically vulnerable students.

For the record, the idea of a return to meaningfully progressive taxation, with the proceeds being used to help public institutions adapt to changing needs, strikes me as excellent and well worth trying.  It’s also pretty unlikely for the foreseeable future, outside of a few pockets.

Which is why I was so disappointed at the conclusion of the report.  It concludes with a call to action.

Well, yes.  But if that were going to work, it would have worked by now.  The issue is not a lack of awareness that funds have been cut -- those of us on campuses are pretty well-versed in that -- or a lack of awareness that a well-educated public is a good thing.  The issue is the lack of a strong political constituency behind it.

As a political theorist, by training, I’m well-acquainted with the temptation to finish with a call to something.  I’m probably guilty of it myself from time to time.  It offers an easy answer to “so what?,” and it feels like doing something.  

But it skips a step.  Who should do something, and how does it serve their self-interest to do it?

The most successful programs tend to serve multiple needs for multiple constituencies.  Good program architecture requires, among other things, careful thought to political coalition building.  

An easy example would be workforce training programs for companies or industries that are struggling to hire.  The company wants employees.  Local political leaders want a thriving economy.  Residents want jobs.  Colleges want students.  When the program matches the need, everybody wins.  And they win not just in an “enlightened self-interest” sense twenty years out, but right now, and in concrete ways. It’s sustainable because it doesn’t require special farsightedness or self-sacrifice on anybody’s part; it simply requires everyone to do what they want to do anyway.

Of course, “wants” aren’t always transparent.  I mentioned yesterday that employers’ needs are actually much more nuanced than they’re typically assumed to be in our political discourse.  The skills often derided as “soft” are crucial to success in most workplaces. (Along similar lines, Jeff Selingo noted correctly that the preferences of senior managers often don’t align with the practices of HR departments or hiring managers.)  Speaking of “employers” as monolithic will obscure those issues; successful coalition building will require awareness of those fissures, and a willingness to engage with the possibilities they offer.

The comments to the IHE story were illustrative.  Some of them simply assumed that colleges are hotbeds of critical theory and cultural subversion, and suggested that if they weren’t entirely consumed by women’s studies and suchlike, they’d be fine.  Others suggested that education is an individual good, rather than a social good, so shifting costs to students was reasonable.

The first answer fails to explain why community colleges would take the most severe hits.  Do you know how many women’s studies majors we had in 2008?  Zero.  Not a single one.  Did that protect us?  Nope.  If women’s studies had anything to do with it, we would not have been cut.  In fact, women’s studies had nothing to do with it one way or the other.

The second strikes me as mistaken, but more understandable.  It’s basically asking for a reason to care.  Although some of us might wish that the question would answer itself, a basic respect for democracy suggests that it’s fair to be asked to justify a position to the public.  That’s a winnable argument, if we bother to show up.  We need to show up with more than just data.  We need to offer reasons for people outside the industry to care, and offer plans that recognize those reasons.  Without that, we can keep calling to action, but nobody new will answer the call.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Bossypants Conundrum

In this, as in so many things, we can learn from Tina Fey.

There’s a passage in Bossypants that got relatively little attention, but that stood out for me.  It was in her SNL years.  She wrote a sketch set in a restaurant and noticed, in rehearsal, that some of the prop people had drawn Osama bin Laden on a tablecloth.  (It’s something like that; I neglected to highlight the passage at the time.)  She asked them why, and they replied that they thought it would be funny.  She objected that it was distracting, and that it interfered with the direction of the sketch.  She made them remove it.

For a single vision to work, other visions had to be sacrificed.  

Following the tech industry as I do, much the same is true there.  Apple is rightly celebrated for bringing remarkable and groundbreaking products to market, and Steve Jobs was revered as one of the great creative minds of our age.  But the creative products it produces are only possible because of a remarkably repressive production regime.  Cupertino may be home to a host of “creatives,” but Foxconn assembly lines are not known for being warm and fuzzy.  (A few years ago, Foxconn responded to a spate of workers committing suicide by leaping from the roof of the factory by...installing nets to catch jumpers.  I am not making that up.) Tightly controlled production makes design innovation possible.  

Higher education is starting to experience that tension, but it rarely names the problem.

In many ways, higher education’s mode of production is still artisanal.  Each professor sets her own standards for grading, selects her own materials, and to a significant extent reigns supreme in the classroom.  The apprentice-journeyman-master structure of grad school makes some sense in the context of an artisanal model.  The artisanal model has its own dogma, in which academic freedom and shared governance are supposed to ensure that the artisans are substantially left alone.  As with any working dogma, it has its own internal contradictions -- shared governance can work against the autonomy of dissenters, for example, which is why dysfunctional department meetings are endemic to the industry -- but it has held up for long enough that some people think it’s natural.

Over time, the economic limitations of the artisanal model led to a wave of unionization based on the industrial model.  Unionization had clear benefits, although it introduced a whole new set of tensions.  For example, the artisanal ideal that every professor is a special snowflake sits uneasily alongside payscales determined solely by seniority.  “Master” status relies on being somehow special; collective bargaining relies on solidarity.  And the boundaries between curricular decisions, which are subject to shared governance, and economic decisions, which are subject to collective bargaining, aren’t always clear.  Is program elimination curricular or economic?  (The correct answer is “yes.”)  Still, to the extent that the unionization drive reinforced the artisanal ideal of faculty being substantially left alone, most of the contradictions could be contained.

Now a new logic is emerging, and it’s bringing new tensions.  State governments, often following initiatives from national foundations, are starting to look more intentionally at community and state colleges as branches of state workforce development systems.  In so doing, they’re working to shift the locus of decision-making from the campus, where shared governance remains the preferred method of decision-making, to the state.  Instead of deferring to faculty, whether individually or collectively, they’re looking at student behavior and employer preference as guiding factors.  Student behavior -- discerned through data analytics, or Big Data -- increasingly trumps faculty preference.  And employer preference, rather than faculty judgment, is increasingly dispositive.

In a sense, the latest shift is from a producer-centered model to a consumer-centered one.  (That’s true whether you construe the student or the employer as the consumer.)  Colleges are increasingly referred to as “pipelines.”  In states with strongly centralized systems of governance, the shift is relatively straightforward; in states like my own, the tension between home rule and statewide coherence is palpable.  Seen in that light, the move in Massachusetts a few years ago to shift appointing authority for Board chairs from the Boards themselves to the Governor makes sense.  If colleges are to function as organs of the state, they need to be accountable to the state.  The tensions on campus between local preferences and state demands are mediated by administrators, whose jobs are becoming exponentially more complex.

If you like, of course, you can construe the latest shift as simply an expansion of “shared governance” to include the body politic.  As long as state governments are elected, there’s an argument to be made that subjecting colleges to legislatures is, in fact, more democratic than deferring to a self-perpetuating priesthood.  Expertise and democracy have never been entirely comfortable together, and public higher education is no exception.

In a sense, the for-profits were ahead of their time.  They got to ‘centralization’ and a consumer-centered model before everyone else, and in many cases, followed the logic of those models to their logical conclusions.  Faculty whose professional expectations reflect a blend of the artisanal and industrial models regard the new direction with skepticism and some hostility, and it’s easy to see why.  (Of course, for-profits’ governance was by shareholders, rather than citizens, which brings an entirely different set of issues.)

The latest model has its own contradictions, naturally.  Too strong a focus on getting students through a pipeline can lead to grade inflation and a general lowering of standards, which would defeat the purpose.  Part of the reason that so many highly-qualified people are willing to teach for very little money -- adjuncts most obviously, but junior full-timers, too -- is that they enjoy the autonomy the role has historically allowed.  To the extent that the new model chips away at that autonomy, it slowly corrodes its own economic underpinnings.  (How many students go to grad school with the dream of eventually teaching at DeVry?  I’ve never met one.)  And employer preferences are often more complex than policymakers imagine.  Anyone who has attended as many Employer Advisory Board meetings as I have can tell you that the “soft skills” that politicians often deride usually make it to the top of employers’ wish lists.  The stereotype of “hard” employment skills being opposed to “soft” academic skills is factually incorrect, but that nuance is often lost in translation.  The model is still new enough that it’s not clear whether the contradictions will be containable.

I offer this historical sketch not to advocate one vision over another, but to try to get a handle on some recurring issues.  Last week the Chronicle reported on a simmering conflict in Minnesota, in which a statewide faculty union objects to the Chancellor’s strategic plan on the grounds that they weren’t included in writing it.  They don’t take issue with the contents of the plan as much as the process of making it.  From a short-term, pragmatic perspective, that can seem silly; if you don’t object to the content, what’s the issue?  But to the extent that the process stokes simmering anxieties about a shift in the locus of power, it makes sense.  Giving up home rule feels like a loss, even if the statewide policies enabled by giving it up are unobjectionable.  

In the case of Tina Fey’s sketch, the resolution was quick and clear; she made the call, the sketch went on as written, end of story.  In the case of higher education, I see the resolution, if any, being gradual, uneven, and sometimes jarring.  But we’re smart people, generally.  Hegel famously noted that freedom is the insight into necessity.  I’m hopeful that some insight into necessity will allow us to stop being buffeted by external forces, and to discern ways forward that preserve the best of what we do even as the world changes around us.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Friday Fragments

My brother sent me this.  Apparently, Williams College -- my undergrad alma mater -- made the list of the top ten colleges producing the most dateable alumni.  Rutgers University -- my graduate alma mater -- made the list of top ten colleges producing the least dateable alumni.  If statistics are to be believed, my stock dropped enormously when I went to grad school.

To which I say, pshaw.  I met TW in New Brunswick.  It’s all about disaggregation, people.


I’m happy to report that HCC signed an articulation agreement with the Commonwealth Honors Program at UMass/Amherst.  Now our Honors students are guaranteed admission into the CHC, assuming certain GPA and course selection requirements have been met.  Special thanks to Provost Katherine Newman, of whom I’ve been a fan ever since reading No Shame in My Game.

Honors programs at community colleges and public universities often don’t get the attention they deserve.  The political discourse around community colleges is so strongly linked to workforce development, remediation, and underdog stories that you rarely hear about the many students here who are as strong academically as their counterparts at better-known places.  To its credit, UMass saw HCC’s strength, and made a move to capture more of our high achievers.  For a student with more talent than money, a strong honors track from a community college to a public university can be an excellent choice.  


Lumina’s new clearinghouse project for reverse transfer strikes me as promising.  

It’s planning to put together a national system to allow students who have transferred from community colleges before finishing degrees to reverse-transfer credits and get Associate’s degrees while pursuing Bachelor’s.  That way, if life intervenes and the student has to stop out, s/he leaves with something to show for it.  From the community college’s perspective, it offers the prospect of giving cc’s the credit they deserve, but currently don’t receive, for launching students on academic pathways.

Some states have done some work on systems like these, but Lumina has the resources to capture students who cross state lines.  In a geographically small state like mine, that matters.  And it’s offering to provide the data for free, which means we could actually use it.

Presumably, a clearinghouse like that would allow for the kinds of Big Data studies that would show, for example, that cc-to-four-year transfers are only a fraction of the transfer picture.  We actually get a surprising number of cc-to-cc transfers, as well as a significant number of four-year-to-two-year transfers.  I assume that the clearinghouse would address those, too.  

And that’s my real institutional hope.  So many policy decisions are made on the basis of unexamined assumptions; it would be lovely to base more of them on actual facts.  To the extent that Lumina’s project makes that easier, I’m happy to welcome it.


The Girl has started a blog.  I’m beaming with nerdy-dad pride.

Reader, consider yourself warned.  There’s another one!  Early indications suggest that hers will focus less on educational administration, and more on fluffy animals.  No word yet on whether I’ll appear as The Dad, but I’m hoping...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hope Helps

IHE reported that Senatory Patty Murray, of Washington, has proposed a limited reintroduction of the Ability to Benefit rule in the latest draft of the Higher Education Act.

This is one of the better ideas I’ve heard from the Senate.  And no, I don’t mean that as damning by faint praise.

Students without high school diplomas really got squeezed by a pincer movement over the last couple of years.  On one side, the old ATB rule -- under which students who lacked either a high school diploma or its equivalent (usually a GED) could get into college if they could demonstrate the ability to benefit through a test score -- was repealed.  On the other side, the GED was made both more expensive and more difficult.  So if you didn’t already have a high school diploma, the GED became considerably more difficult, and the end-run around it was blocked.  

I don’t know that the moves were coordinated, but the effects were mutually reinforcing.  It became much harder for prospective students without diplomas to get into community college.  Some responded by giving up -- it’s probably no coincidence that community college enrollments have dropped nationally since the changes were made.  Other students responded by pouring into Adult Basic Education classes that were never funded to handle the influx.  (At my own college, we responded by substituting the HiSet test for the GED.)  

To the extent that the changes were supported by actual arguments, they derived from success rates.  (ATB students graduated at lower rates than diploma students.  To the extent that community colleges are judged on graduation rates, keeping them out actually helped colleges “perform” better under currently popular definitions.)  But here, probably more than anyplace else, it’s important to keep in mind the “access” mission of community colleges.  For people in unstable, low-wage jobs, the prospect of improving your lot through a community college isn’t just one option among others; in a really basic way, it’s a kind of social safety valve.  It’s a concrete cause for hope.  Even if you don’t take advantage of it at a given time, just knowing it’s there for the taking can offer some sense of an alternative future.  Taking it away, and not replacing it with anything, shuts off a safety valve.

Hope serves a crucial social function, even beyond the content of what’s hoped for.  It gives people a reason to keep trying.  

I fully agree with those who argue that higher education should not be the only avenue to the middle class.  Some people are able to start their own businesses and do quite well.  But if you’re starting with little access to capital and little sense of the rules of the game, it’s a tall order.  Even if your eventual goal is to start your own business, spending some time first learning the basics of the business world can make the path a lot easier.  And not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur.  

Saying that college shouldn’t be the only route is very different from saying that it shouldn’t be a route at all.  Over the last couple of years, for many people, it has effectively moved out of reach.  I can’t help but think that the long-term effects of sustained fatalism can’t be good.

From the IHE piece, it’s unclear how likely the new rules are to be enacted.  They have some level of bipartisan support, though, which is encouraging.  Even if the HEA has to stay in limbo for a while, ATB may still find its way back.  I certainly hope it will.

So, a tip o’the cap to Senator Murray.  Here’s hoping that enough of her colleagues understand the importance of hope that they sign on.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Defense of Low-Hanging Fruit

A couple days ago, Sara Goldrick-Rab posted a tweet that I haven’t been able to shake.  (In the world of Twitter, a tweet that lasts a couple of days is a classic.)  She asked if anyone has done work looking at the consequences of change efforts always focusing on “low-hanging fruit.”  

It’s easy to see where that critique could go.  Some problems are easier to solve than others, and if we mostly focus on the easy ones, we’ll leave the hard ones unsolved.  Over time, the hard ones may just get harder.  And if you come to it with a sociological bent, the people whose problems are the easiest to solve are usually the ones with more significant resources -- cultural, social, or monetary, or some combination thereof -- which means that a “low-hanging fruit” strategy will tend to benefit those who least need it, and ignore those who most need it.  It’s easier to see results when working with someone who has one problem than when working with someone with six.  

There’s a lot of truth in that.  When you have limited resources, you have to be choosy about which problems to attack.  Pick something too big, and you might as well pick nothing at all.  But the temptation to rack up quick wins can allow harder problems to fester indefinitely.

Or not.  And that’s where I’ll start a limited defense of low-hanging fruit.

From an administrative perspective, I’m much less bothered by failure than by fatalism.  Failure can be remedied by trying again using a strategy refined by the information gained by the first attempt.  But fatalism, once it gets going, is tough to shake.  It can become self-perpetuating, both by discouraging positive effort and through a sort of confirmation bias, in which any bad news, however partial or irrelevant, is taken as confirmation that all is hopeless.  (“It’s raining again?  THANKS, OBAMA!”)  In practice, the difference between an experiment and a disaster is whether you get to try again.  In a fatalistic culture, you won’t.  Maintaining a sufficiently positive climate that people will keep trying may not guarantee success, but it will make success a lot likelier.

Scoring some early, conspicuous successes can inoculate against fatalism.  It can buy the credibility to allow for subsequent riskier moves with longer-term payoff.  It can keep a team moving in a positive direction, and provide a better likelihood of continued resources.  

If you do it right, and catch a break or two, those early successes make it possible later to attack the Big Hairy Tenacious issues that would have eaten you alive if you had started with them.  A few years ago, Theresa Amabile made a similar argument in her book (with Steven Kramer) The Progress Principle.  She found that organizations get better results over time when they allow employees to accumulate series of small wins, rather than always waiting for the one big one.  The emotional momentum of a winning streak binds people together, and encourages intelligent, if escalating, risks.  Skip the buildup, though, and the odds of success drop.  

The danger, of course, is losing the narrative line.  The point of small victories is not to run up the score; it’s to build the momentum for bigger ones.  That requires some level of patience, and, relatedly, low turnover.  Given the political and demographic winds many of us are facing, that kind of patience is becoming rare.  Moves that everyone would recognize as “impulsive” in better times might pass for “decisive” when folks get desperate.  Pull a few of those, and all of that carefully-built momentum is squandered.  When an impulsive move ends badly, you’ve just handed live ammo to the fatalists.  

To be fair, it’s also possible to lose the narrative line through complacency.  Small wins can become ends in themselves, especially in the absence of a larger vision.  Some people are good at visions but impatient with small steps; others are good at small steps but lack vision.  For the low-hanging fruit strategy to work optimally, you need people with both.  

None of this is to dismiss Goldrick-Rab’s concerns.  She’s right that it’s easy sometimes to dodge difficult issues by pleading pragmatism.  (“We can’t ask for funding parity.  Be realistic!”)  But an initial focus on smallish victories may not imply a lack of vision, or political cowardice.  It may be part of a wise, if difficult, long-term strategy in the service of a vision.

Monday, October 20, 2014


When Michael Dukakis ran for President, his slogan of “competence, not ideology” didn’t exactly stir the blood.  But I saw competency stir the blood of some smart people on Monday, and it gave me hope.  NEBHE - the New England Board of Higher Education - hosted a conference in Boston on Competency-Based Education, and it was one of the best I’ve attended in years.

Competency-Based Education doesn’t have a standard definition yet -- which several speakers noted over the course of the day -- but it generally refers to programs in which student learning is measured in accomplishments, rather than time.  The idea is to invert the credit hour.  Under a credit hour system, time on task is fixed, and learning is variable.  Under a CBE system, learning is fixed and time is variable.  

CBE has existed in various guises for decades, but has hit its stride only in the last few years.  Many colleges allow students to “test out” of certain courses, whether through CLEP, AP, or departmental exams, for example.  Clinicals, in Nursing, are largely competency-based, as are co-ops.  Self-paced developmental classes are a variation on competency-based, as are practicum courses.  Licensing exams, such as the bar exam or the NCLEX, function as a competency-based form of quality control.  For that matter, outcomes assessment is a close cousin to CBE.  So the basic idea isn’t new.

The new twist is remaking entire programs without reference to seat time.  Online education makes that much easier, since it eliminates the need for classroom scheduling.  (Try making a schedule without any reference to time, and you’ll see the challenge.)  By allowing students to move at the speed their talent and drive will take them, we can remove the barriers that slow down the highest-achieving students artificially.  

From a policymaker’s standpoint, the shiny promise of CBE is that, under the right circumstances, it promises good, fast, and cheap education.  (Readers of a certain age will recognize the old joke about home contractors: “Good, fast, and cheap: pick any two.”)  If students are able to blaze past the stuff they already know, or which come easily, then they can finish more quickly.  Baumol’s cost disease can be vanquished, the opportunity cost of education can be reduced, and everybody wins.

And that actually happens for the top tier of students.  As several speakers noted, though, the more common case is the student who moves more slowly.  As Paul LeBlanc of SNHU put it, in traditional classes, it’s possible to pass even while remaining weak on certain topics.  Requiring a student to show strength in every topic before moving on may take longer upfront, but will position the student better for success in later courses (and eventual employment).

The “slow success” model will probably create some legislative panic, as the savings from fast finishers are more than consumed by the added expense of gradual completers.  At that point, the seeming “win-win” will show itself as a more complicated choice.  But we’re not there yet.

I was heartened by the candor and thoughtfulness of most of the presentations.  The opening panel, of which I missed the first few minutes due to Mass Pike traffic of Biblical proportions, was one of the best I’ve seen since Kay McClenney retired.  Amy Laitinen, of the New America Foundation, was characteristically nuanced in her description of the political drivers of CBE, as well as the likely abuses that would follow a too-abrupt opening of the financial aid rules.  Paul Fain, from Inside Higher Ed, set a positive, thoughtful tone, and kept the discussion moving.  But the breakout star was Alison Kadlec, of Public Agenda.  In the context of noting that “shared standards of quality and practice” haven’t emerged yet, she moved fluently from political critique to detailed implementation tips to a rousing bit of democratic theory and back again, all while cracking jokes.  Color me impressed.

Paul LeBlanc gave the keynote, offering an update on College for America’s version of CBE.  I was struck by the stronger focus on peer mentoring than I’ve heard before; either I just didn’t notice previously, or it’s evolving as a more important part of the College.  I had to smile at his discussion of the question he usually asks at employer advisory boards: “Show of hands: how many of you have hired someone with a bachelor’s degree who has horrible writing skills?”  He made the point that insisting on hitting every competency, including writing, will ultimately result in fewer hands going up when he asks that question.  As degrees gain greater credibility, he argued, some of the more pointed questions about cost will have less resonance.  I hope he’s right.  To his credit, he also acknowledged that some faculty fears about the “unbundling” of the faculty role in a CBE setting are well-founded, and that advocates of CBE should stop dancing around the issue and address it directly.  My guess is that the truth is far less scary than some folks’ imaginations.  He also noted the frustrating reality that current financial aid rules allow for all-CBE programs or all-credit-hour programs, but don’t allow for hybrids.  It’ll be hard to make progress on back-office systems if the only option is to jump in with both feet.

CBE has shown promise in small programs; its next challenge will be to perform at scale.  I don’t know if it will succeed, but it strikes me as one of the most promising avenues we have.  If the caliber of discussion can remain this high, and this thoughtful, I like our chances.  Well done, NEBHE.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


On Friday I attended a statewide meeting of public colleges and universities dealing with transfer issues.  The meeting consisted primarily of faculty from two-year and four-year public colleges, although a few stray administrators (hi!) managed to sneak past security.  The goal of the meeting was to have the two-year folk and the four-year folk come to agreement on what the first two years of each of several different majors should look like, so students could choose courses at community colleges with confidence that the courses will count towards their eventual major.  The purpose of the meeting was to identify, and knock down, arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.

It was one of those “why haven’t we done this before?” ideas that brought to the surface a host of issues that nobody really anticipated.

I sat in on the poli sci discussion, since that’s my academic background.  (The poli sci professor from my campus was also there.)  It quickly became clear that everybody teaches Intro to American Government, everybody takes it as a transfer course, and that was all we needed to say about that.  It was ubiquitous and uncontroversial, so that was easy.

After that, though, things got more complicated.

The most basic issue was that the four-year schools didn’t agree with each other.  To the extent that community colleges are supposed to mirror the first two years of four-year curricula, it would be nice if the four-year curricula matched.  I can’t say I was surprised, but it did strike me as a skipped step.

Some of the discussion reflected the quirks of the discipline.  Political science in America usually consists of four or five subfields -- American, International Relations, Comparative, Theory, and sometimes State/Local, Judicial,or Administrative/Policy -- that don’t talk to each other very much.  (Even “theory” is divided into “formal” and “normative.”)  Each subfield typically gets its own introductory course. That means there’s no consensus on what a generic “Intro to Political Science” would look like.  Would it be a theoretical overview?  A sampler platter?  A “topics” course in which each instructor would choose a substantive emphasis?  In the absence of consensus about content, many of the four-year schools wouldn’t take the Intro course in transfer.  I can’t blame them.  It would be like an “Intro to Languages” class.  Would it be three weeks each of Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Farsi?  Or would it be a linguistics class?  The former makes no sense, and the latter really needs its own name.  “Spanish 101” makes a lot more sense than “Languages 101” would.

But the more embarrassing part was the courses the four-year schools expected community colleges to teach, that most just don’t.  Several of the cc faculty let it be known, with varying degrees of exasperation, that they were one-person shows.  In several cases, even that one person has divided loyalties, typically splitting time between poli sci and history.  No one person can cover everything.  Sometimes adjuncts can fill in gaps, but if the enrollments aren’t there, even that won’t save you.  So being told that, say, “Intro to Comparative Politics” would transfer successfully isn’t all that useful if the class rarely runs.

The upside, in a sense, was seeing that so many colleges are in the same boat.  What started out as a discussion of curricular matching quickly became a discussion of resources.  Without the resources to staff, and run, a wider range of classes, it simply won’t happen.  That will leave transfer students with relatively little to bring with them.  What manifests as a curricular issue is really, at its base, a resource issue.  If we’re serious about mirroring curriculum, we need parity of resources.  Unsurprisingly, much of the large-group discussion at the end of the day consisted of community college people talking about budgets.  

If this becomes the unintended avenue through which we finally start talking seriously about per-student funding parity, I’m all for it.  That wasn’t the stated goal of the meeting, but we won’t meet the stated goal until we acknowledge that classes aren’t either free or infinitely fungible.  

The other option is to drop courses entirely and go entirely with competencies.  That’s another discussion altogether, and one that did not come up in this context.

Yes, by all means, let’s knock down arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.  We just need to be willing to acknowledge barriers beyond what the meeting initially had in mind.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nerdy Dad Strikes Again!

I try not to subject the kids to too many of my pet obsessions.  Last weekend, though, I just couldn’t resist.

How often do you get to see the Magna Carta?

We took the kids to the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, to see the “Radical Words” exhibit.  It’s there for a few more weeks, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.  

The exhibit includes the Magna Carta, a working draft (“sloppy copy”) of the Constitution with handwritten notes by George Mason, an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of the Rights of the Women of the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  (TG: “Universal?  Were other planets involved?”)  The sequence gave me a great excuse to orate in the car about the spread of citizenship rights, and just how recently many of them came to pass.  The kids indulged me, and had the good grace not to note the irony of being a captive audience on a lecture about freedom.

It was political-philosophy-nerd heaven.    

The kids were remarkably good sports about the whole thing.  We met up with Rebecca Townsend and her family and made a day of it.  Rebecca got the “line of the day” award for noting that it was nice to see people lining up for something other than a superhero movie.

I had forgotten how impressive the regular collection of the Clark is.  It started as one family’s private collection, so it reflects a particular time and taste, but it does what it does well.  TG was taken by the Monets and the way that they come into focus as you get farther from them.  (“How did he DO that?”) TB preferred the Winslow Homers, and even caused some excitement when he noticed a seemingly anachronistic heart on the t-shirt of one of the men in the “Two Guides” painting.  It looked, for all the world, like someone had penciled it in later.  We had something of an art history emergency.  (Subsequent Googling suggested that Homer actually put it there; it was the symbol of a fire company.)  

The Clark has grown since I last saw it; now it has a beautiful outdoor series of pools and waterfalls, along with some walking trails out back.  The trails featured plenty of tree-climbing opportunities, which came in handy when the kids had had enough of their inside manners.  And this time of year, the colors on the trees are a show in their own right.

Kids of academic parents have certain burdens, but this one felt light and right.  I wanted them both to get a sense that Big Historical Documents They’ve Actually Heard Of are real, and are important only because of their effects on actual people.  Even better, I want them to have a sense that they’re entitled to have opinions about art, and politics, and all sorts of intimidating things.  And that there’s no contradiction between expressing opinions about art and politics, on the one hand, and climbing a tree on the other.  

The day ended, as such days must, with burgers, root beer, and general silliness.  There’s no shame in that.  

Soon the Magna Carta will be off on its way, and the leaves will be gone.  In a few years, the kids won’t let me orate in the car, even out of a sense of bemused superiority.  They may not remember the day, or very many specifics of it.  But if they retain some sense that they’re part of a much larger story, and that they’re fully entitled to take part in it, I’ll call it good.  Superheroes are fine, but I’d much rather they see themselves as contributing authors in a much larger story.  Even if that involves indulging an occasionally overenthusiastic narrator in the car.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Dog That Isn’t Barking

Sometimes, the dog that doesn’t bark is more telling than the dog that does.

Massachusetts has a gubernatorial election next month.  The incumbent is term-limited out of office, so in terms of incumbent effects, it’s an open seat.  

But from walking around campus, you wouldn’t know it.

I’m not the only one to notice the odd silence.  Last week I had a wonderful conversation with someone from the student senate.  I asked him whether, in his travels around campus, he ever heard students discussing politics.  He indicated that he hadn’t -- ever -- and even seemed surprised at the question.  Later, when I asked about campus wifi coverage, I got an enthusiastic and detailed response.  I couldn’t help but notice the contrast.  And that’s not intended at all as a criticism of him; I think he accurately reported what he has seen.  It’s the accuracy that concerns me.

I don’t buy the oft-heard argument that students are “apathetic.”  They do a lot of community service, for example, and they often go to great lengths to help each other.  Yes, some students are far too burdened with paid work, classwork, and family obligations to look up, but that’s hardly universal.  Other student organizations do quite well, so I can’t just write off lack of engagement to lack of time.  

Granted, neither of the major-party candidates has the entertainment value of, say, a Rob Ford.  But that’s okay with me.  Besides, over the years, I’ve seen students get worked up over candidates as tepid as Mike Dukakis and Al Gore.  I don’t think that entertainment value is the critical variable.  And the outcome of the election is very much up for grabs, so it’s not a matter of tuning out an election that amounts to a formality.  Although it votes Democratic at the Presidential level, Massachusetts has frequently elected Republican governors.  (The incumbent, Deval Patrick, is the first Democrat in that office since Dukakis.)  The polls I’ve seen indicate a close race.  If anything, that should increase interest.

Political disengagement is nothing new, of course; political scientists have built careers studying it.  (The best treatment I’ve seen was by the sociologist Nina Eliasoph, whose book Avoiding Politics is simply genius.) The surprise for me is that it seems to have gone from commonplace to dominant to ubiquitous.  In the past, I could usually find at least a few small groups of activists.  Not any more.

I suspect ,though I can’t prove, that political discussion is more common at places with students largely from the upper middle and upper classes.  (Readers who work at places like that are invited to confirm or reject this idea.)  Even there, it’s probably a small minority of students who pay much attention, but at least some do.  Here, if anyone does, they’re awfully quiet about it.

It seems to be largely a sense of ownership.  Students whose backgrounds suggest that they wouldn’t be taken seriously in the political world tend to tune out, thereby fulfilling the prophecy. They think of politics as something that applies to other, and usually older, people. Education can help with that to some degree, but ‘knowing’ and ‘being moved to action’ are very different things.  The second one is harder to convey if it isn’t already there.

It’s a missed opportunity.  If students voted in large numbers, they could affect budget priorities.  Because they don’t, and others do, they cede authority to people with other interests.  The results of that are clear.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found successful ways to encourage a sense of civic ownership in students?  Or should I just stop being surprised that the dog doesn’t bark?