Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Missing Middle

James Jacobs published a great piece earlier this week in IHE, and almost nobody noticed.  That’s a shame, but in a way, it validates his thesis.  

Jacobs, himself a community college president (of Macomb Community College, in Michigan), noted that implementing large-scale organizational change isn’t just the work of the president, or of the president and the faculty.  It requires mid-level management if it’s going to get done.  But mid-level management gets very little attention in most discussions of leadership and organizational change.  As he noted, staff and middle administration often hold their positions far longer than, say, presidents usually do.  They know where the bodies are buried, and they know -- often having built -- the workarounds that make the local ERP system do things it wasn’t originally built to do.

(Someday, higher ed consortia will sponsor the development and support of an ERP system that actually makes sense.  Someday…)

Community college travel budgets being what they are, it can be difficult to send very many mid-level managers to conferences.  As a result, the discussion at many national conferences of community colleges -- I’m thinking here especially of the AACC and the League for Innovation -- tend to be dominated by presidents and trustees.  Presidents and trustees rightly attend to the big picture, but the folks on campus who would be tasked with implementing the transition to a new big picture generally aren’t there.  

This year, by dint of timing and geography, HCC was able to send a significant contingent to the League for Innovation.  (It was held in Boston, so we didn’t have to pay airfare.)  The effects were dramatic.  When some deans and faculty saw some of the innovations happening elsewhere, they jumped into action.  I wondered how much more action we could have had if we’d had the travel budgets to send teams to places that require flying.

I’ve mentioned before that the next philanthropist who wants to make a massive difference in the performance of teaching-intensive public colleges -- whether community colleges or the smaller four-years -- could do it by underwriting conference travel.  Right now, most colleges are lucky to send one or two people to most conferences.  When an entire team attends the same presentation, it’s much easier to get what chemists call activation energy.  I’ve seen it personally.

In the absence of funding, though, we can at least start to include the middle levels of administration in our theories of academic change.  Thanks, President Jacobs, for reminding us of what should have been obvious.