Monday, December 19, 2016

On Holiday

The British expression “on holiday” has an elegance to it that “on vacation” just doesn’t.  

The blog will be on holiday for a couple of weeks, returning January 3.

Best wishes to my wise and worldly readers for a peaceful, restorative break.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Regionalist Temptation

The urbanist Richard Florida has been lighting up Twitter since the election with his advocacy of city-level political leadership.  I’m concerned that the implications are darker than he intimates.

Florida has made his bones by noting that economically and culturally, the world isn’t “flat”: it’s spiky.  A few major cities are pulling away from the rest so quickly that the gaps are straining the political structures -- nation-states, most conspicuously -- that hold them together.  Places with bright futures and Florida’s “3 t’s” -- technology, talent, and tolerance -- have relatively little in common with places whose brightest economic days are behind them.  Imagine the contrast between the stereotyped metrosexual millennial and the stereotyped rural Trump voter, and you get the idea.  Florida suggests that the red/blue divide holds more at the level of the city than of the state, and that the divide is getting too pronounced to sustain.  Instead, we should start looking to metros for political leadership.  

Florida is savvy enough to know that it wouldn’t be as simple as encouraging audacious local leaders.  The electoral college, for example, overvalues rural votes at the expense of urban votes; that’s why it has diverged from the popular vote twice in the last 16 years, both times in the same direction.  It’s an American version of the “rotten borough” problem that used to plague England.  Political power and economic/cultural power are so far apart at this point that unity is hard to sustain.

Yet, speaking as someone who works at a community college, and in the suburban orbit of a major metro, I have reservations.

At a really basic level, many local institutions rely on federal funding.  Community colleges may derive most of their operating subsidies from local (and sometimes state) sources, but the financial aid underlying their tuition is mostly federal.  That means, among other things, that the policies underlying them are mostly federal.  And that can be a very good thing.

Because if the forward-looking metros secede, either officially or effectively, they would leave the rest of us abandoned.  That means no counterweights to local majorities, to the expense of local minorities.  Anyone familiar with America’s racial history knows the role that “states’ rights” arguments have played, and the side they’ve served.  And that’s not just ancient history, either; when the Supreme Court declared “never mind!” about the Voting Rights Act, several states passed racially-based voting restrictions within weeks.  If the blue archipelago decides that it has had enough and turns its back on the red areas, those red areas are in for a rough time.

In other words, if the antidote to polarization is to double down on polarization, everyone outside the elite places -- which is most Americans -- will suffer.  To the extent that the separation spurs even greater migration to the major metros, it will place real strains on the already-high housing costs in those metros, to the detriment of most of the people who live there.  Manhattan and Boston are lovely and lively, but they’re not cheap.  At some point, if you price out the young, you eat your economic seed corn.

As someone who grew up in an out-of-the-way metro, the prospect of abandonment is scary.  When the “spiky” places are still somehow within reach -- still part of the relevant world -- they provide hope.  If they were to separate, they would stop providing that hope.  Hope matters.  Community colleges’ single greatest asset is that they institutionalize hope.  They provide second chances.  If we lose sight of the value of second chances as a society, well, that doesn’t lead anywhere good.

None of this is to defend the electoral college, which I’ve mentioned repeatedly and in public is absurd and needs to go.  But that doesn’t necessarily require retreating to what Christopher Lasch once called the secession of the successful.  

Yes, there’s an increasing and disturbing gap between metros and everywhere else.  But that isn’t an argument for separation.  It’s an argument for focusing again the value of each to the other.  

After all, winds shift; economic fortunes change quickly.  We’re all in this together; the sooner we lose sight of that, the worse off we’ll be.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Friday Fragments

This week, in a meeting, someone asked me what percentage of our enrollment I thought that online classes “should” be.  The idea, I think, was that if we had a set goal, we could build staffing and capacity around it.

I responded that what I, or anyone at the college, thought it “should” be really didn’t matter.  At this point, higher education is a buyer’s market.  We need to meet the demand that exists, and if that means allowing continued growth in online enrollment while classroom enrollments shrink, well, that’s what it means.

That’s a major change.

Much of higher education is based on the premise of a seller’s market.  In a seller’s market, the institution can decide the terms on which it will accept students.  At the very elite, exclusive places, that’s still largely true.  Swarthmore turns away far more than it admits, and it does so on its own terms.  But most of us aren’t Swarthmore.

In the world of private colleges, anxiety about enrollment tends to play out in discussions of “discount rates,” or the distance from reality that a given sticker price represents.  It’s not unusual for smallish private colleges now to have discount rates over 50%, which is pretty alarming to anyone who takes listed tuition literally.  At community colleges, where we don’t have that option, anxiety over enrollments tends to play out in layoffs and unreplaced retirements.  

The shift to a buyer’s market is more pronounced in some parts of the country than others.  The Northeast has the mixed blessing of a rich higher ed landscape combined with declining numbers of 18 year olds.  That tilts a buyer’s market even more in the buyer’s favor, much to the anxiety of the sellers.

The upside of a buyer’s market is that access should be easier.  The downside is that neither price nor quality are as straightforward in this market as in most.  Sticker price and net price are only loosely correlated, and price and quality aren’t correlated at all.  Prospective students have only vague and indirect measures of quality, and quality in any given program can shift abruptly if layoffs happen or retirements go unreplaced.  (I’ve been learning that firsthand as The Boy has started looking at colleges for himself.  He’s thinking he wants to be a doctor, so he’s looking for schools known for pre-med.  Even after years of railing in public against ratings schemes of various sorts, I immediately Google “best pre-med colleges…”)  In a market as deeply confused as this one, the standard comparison-shopping model isn’t a good fit.

What percentage of our offerings should be online?  The market will tell us, in its way.  The discount rate on my personal opinion is pretty steep.


Speaking of The Boy, file this one under “parental brags.”

He’s working on a series of letters for his girlfriend for Christmas.  A couple nights ago, he finished one that he thought turned out particularly well.  He walked into the living room, walked up to me, and said -- without snark or irony --

“Thank you for teaching me how to write well.”

Some Dads take pride in the game-winning touchdown or the rebuilt engine.  

I’ll take this one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Allocating Lines

In my first few years of deaning, the question of how to allocate new full-time faculty “lines” (positions, but they’re called lines because they’re lines in the budget) was easy.  There weren’t any to allocate.  You can’t divide by zero, but dividing zero itself is a snap.

Some years are like that.

Happily, this year isn’t.  We’ll soon be posting some positions.  This post is about how we make the allocation decisions.

There’s no single indicator that overwhelms everything else.  But the ones that count the most are:

Adjunct coverage.  How high is the percentage over time, and how difficult is it to get good adjuncts in that discipline?  By “over time,” I mean there’s some art in interpreting the spreadsheet for a given semester.  (And yes, I use an actual spreadsheet.)  In a small department, a full-timer’s absence for a semester for, say, a health issue or a sabbatical can skew the percentage pretty dramatically.  Any one semester’s data comes with asterisks.

The availability of good adjuncts in one field, as opposed to the other, will tend to favor a full-time hire in the other.  That’s because employers don’t hire to solve prospective employees’ problems; they hire to solve their own.  All else being equal, if it’s easier to get good adjuncts in English than in engineering, then the full-time position will go to engineering.  From the “micro” perspective of a single employer, that’s just common sense.  From a “macro” perspective of the industry as a whole, that suggests that the mismatch of supply and demand in certain fields can become self-perpetuating.  Supply depresses demand.  It’s Say’s Law in reverse.

Enrollments, both absolute and relative.  Although the college as a whole shows a given percentage change in enrollments from year to year, it isn’t evenly distributed.  Some departments show sustained enrollment growth and are straining at the seams; others are shrinking.  As Wayne Gretzky put it, skate to where the puck is going to be.  At one college, I had a dean argue for a new position in a department in which faculty were already struggling to find full loads.  Given desperate needs in other areas, I couldn’t justify it.

Accreditation and licensure rules.  Some areas, like Nursing, have rules specific to them that dictate certain faculty/student ratios, such as in clinicals.  Those cases have to be considered separately, as long as we value the accreditation.

Specific expertise.  This can be an issue when the one person who’s qualified in “x” retires, or when a college is trying to develop a new program or direction in “x.”  As a general rule, I like to have full-time faculty in every area in which we hire adjuncts, for the sake of continuity and quality control.  I like having someone who can vouch for subject matter expertise in adjunct candidates.  There are a few exceptions -- languages for which we can only support one section, or specific musical instruments -- but as a general rule, I think it makes sense.  Cases like those will lead to decisions that seem to contradict the spreadsheet, just because that criterion often won’t show on the spreadsheet.  Okay, the business department’s percentage is what it is, but the one person who does marketing isn’t there anymore.  You need someone to do that.  

I like to share the data with the deans and have a discussion with them before making any decisions, because they’re intimately aware of the asterisks in each program.  They invariably wind up making the final list smarter than it otherwise would have been.

What doesn’t go into the decision?  A desire to make the college more corporate.  Vendettas against individual department chairs.  Political favors.  Decanal empire building.  Life is too short to base decisions on those things.  Given limited resources -- and yes, please, I’d happily accept far more resources to hire far more full-time faculty and staff -- you do the best you can.  Given my druthers, I have a host of public policy recommendations for a more just and sane political economy, with salutary side effects on higher ed.  But internally, you play the hand you’re dealt.

These decisions aren’t automatic or easy, but I’m grateful to be able to make them at all.  Yes, I’d happily double or triple the number of new hires if we could pay for them.  For now, though, these criteria strike me as reasonable.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add, or delete, or change?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Student Life Online

Do online students want, or benefit from, extracurriculars just for them?

And if so, what form should activities take?

On Friday I saw Amanda Mulfinger and Dae Howard, from Penn State World Campus, present at the Middle States conference on what student support looks like online.  (Mulfinger offered an administrator’s perspective; Howard a student’s.)  Their presentation focused primarily on which services offered by the college made a difference for students.  They focused particularly on “success coaches,” who sound in this case like a cross between concierges (“is there anything I can do?”) and personal trainers (“you can do it!”).

For those of us old enough to remember Professor Kingsfield, from The Paper Chase, the idea of success coaches suggests a lot about changes in the industry.

Online tutoring also made a difference, particularly in the math and accounting classes.  

From the student perspective, the availability of the LMS app on the phone was crucial.  She noted that as a working mother, her time often appeared in short bursts.  If she could call up a text on her phone and read it while out and about, she could get more done.  When she got stuck, she could contact the tutors for help.

So far, so good.  I asked about student-to-student interaction, as opposed to college-to-student.

To my surprise, Mulfinger responded that alumni of the World Campus participate in the Penn State alumni association at higher rates than campus students.  She added that online students joined the economics club and the political science club at high rates, and that online students participated actively in Penn State Reads, a university-wide common text.  

Howard added that she would have found more student-to-student interaction helpful, and that she’ll be working with World Campus on ways to do that.

And I thought, hmm.

We’ve done a pretty good job of moving the curricular piece of college online, but we’ve struggled with the extracurricular piece.  I’m wondering if anyone out there has seen successful cases.

The news about alumni engagement surprised me, but it also gave me hope.  Although the interface may make the experience seem more baldly transactional, students still assign meaning to the experience.  Some of them -- you’ll never get all, but some -- would gladly take the opportunity to develop a richer experience, were it offered.  

From an educator’s perspective, anything that increases student engagement is helpful for its own sake, and learning can happen in activities as well as classes.  From an administrator’s perspective, engaged students are likelier to stick around and finish their degrees.  From a student’s perspective, activities can make the whole experience more satisfying and enriching.  It’s just a matter of getting there from here.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone cracked this case?  I know I’ve raised the issue before, but in internet time, that was ages ago.  I’m hoping someone has had a breakthrough since then!

Sunday, December 11, 2016


How hard is it to get into college?

It depends on what you mean by “college.”  If you mean an accredited institution that grants degrees, community colleges and many public four-year colleges are either open-admission or nearly so.  If you mean one of the elite colleges that occupy most of the brainspace in policy talks, then it’s considerably harder.  

Anthony Carnevale uses the language of “separate and unequal” to describe our system -- hearkening back to the language of segregation -- and he’s substantially correct.  Community colleges enroll far higher percentages of students of color than do the Ivies, but the value of the tax exemptions at the Ivies far outstrips the appropriations we get, especially on a per-student basis.  In between falls the state flagship university, which is whiter than the community colleges and better funded, but more diverse than the Ivies and less well funded.

It’s almost as if there’s a...pattern.

Ivies and flagships get caught up in discussions of affirmative action as a way to diversify their student bodies.  The assumption is that there’s a fixed number of seats, and a seat given to one student is denied to another; allocation is a zero-sum game.  WIthin those fixed numbers, setting a preference for one group -- be they legacies, athletes, racial minorities, or whatever -- means de facto raising the bar for everyone else.  The argument is hard to settle because it’s the wrong argument.

If you accept that only about two dozen colleges and universities are, and ever can be, very good, then the question of seat allocation becomes crucial.  But why accept that premise?

Historians tell us that segregation didn’t fall from the sky.  It was consciously built, and maintained, and adjusted over time.  It still is, though generally not by that name.  It’s built into the environment in ways that seem, in the course of daily life, to be natural, inevitable, and unalterable.  But it’s none of those things.
The late Leonard Cohen sang that “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”  We’ve seen cracks in the system from time to time.  The CUNY of the 1930’s and 1940’s gave rise to a generation of intellectuals that far outstripped their Ivied contemporaries in depth and impact.  In the Clark Kerr era, the California system was the envy of the world.  Until very recently, Wisconsin boasted a university that could compete with the best in the country.  

It can be done.  We can reject the logic of lifeboating (or “undermatching,” as the wonks call it), and instead decide to make public colleges and universities at all levels worthy of their students.  If we did, we could dial down the pressure on the elites to solve the social engineering problem on their own.  Frankly, they aren’t up to it.

I used to say that the root of the struggle for community colleges is that they were built to create a middle class for a country that doesn’t want one anymore.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  The country has forgotten that middle classes have to be created and recreated; they aren’t the ‘default’ setting of capitalism.  After decades of economic polarization, you’d think that would be obvious, but the power of amnesia is strong.  Ivies and elites are piling up endowments that would have been considered indecent in earlier times, while community colleges suffer cascading rounds of austerity.  It takes conscious effort to reverse that.

The narrowing of opportunity isn’t only a higher ed problem, of course, but it’s vivid and controllable here.  If the public colleges and universities were as strong for a racially mixed generation now as they were for a much whiter generation thirty or forty years ago, the affirmative action debates wouldn’t matter so much.  It’s a solvable problem.

Check out Carnevale’s piece.  It’s timely, accurate, and vital.  Don’t let amnesia claim it.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Friday Fragments

A tip of the cap to John Glenn.  War hero, astronaut, senator.  Well played, sir.


This story is really disturbing.  Apparently economist Raj Chetty, no lightweight, has done a study showing steadily declining chances for each generation in the US to surpass the previous one economically.  Birth year 1980 was the tipping point at which they became less likely to surpass their parents than not to, and the percentage has been declining quickly ever since.

That’s a political time bomb.  Politics is a lagging indicator for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the difference between the median age of an American and the median age of an American voter.  Part of that is because children can’t vote, and part is because younger adults tend to vote at lower rates than older adults.  

But as the post-1980 birth cohort becomes a progressively larger share of the electorate, which is inevitable, its sensibilities will become more politically salient.  For example, given the racial composition and economic circumstances of the under-30 set, it’s hardly surprising that they’re well to the left economically of where my generation was at that age.  It’s a reasonable response to an unreasonable circumstance.


Thursday’s morning plenary at Middle States didn’t offer much hope.  Lynne Schaefer, the Chief Financial Officer of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, gave a talk that the program indicated would be about changing the business model of higher education.

But it wasn’t, really.  It was an entertaining overview of (mostly) external obstacles facing colleges and universities.  She noted serially that the number of 18 year olds will be either flat or declining for the next decade in most of the country; that the building boom that peaked around 1970 means that many buildings are reaching the stage at which they need expensive renovations; that Medicare and Medicaid have crowded out higher education spending in most state budgets; and that the political climate doesn’t seem likely to favor substantial new taxes anytime soon.

All of which are true, but none of which is a solution.  I waited in vain for a discussion of the cost disease and the credit hour, and the potential of dual enrollment, PLA, and CBE programs to break the cost cycle.  I hoped for more insight about different ways of organizing our enterprises, or different funding streams, or even innovative efficiencies.  None were there.

I don’t mean that as a criticism of Schaefer; these things are hard.  But the fact that an auditorium full of people who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff couldn’t come up with much more than “we’ll have to be more efficient” suggests that the cost spiral will get worse before it gets better.  Today’s under-30 crowd knows how that plays out on the ground.  If we want to survive the explosion of the political time bomb, we’ll have to do better than that.


Quote of the day, from a panel on assessing mission statements: “How do you measure ‘lives enriched?’”


The best panel of the day, inevitably, was an impromptu gathering of about ten of us around a table.  No Powerpoint, no handout, no script; just a bunch of us talking, like adults, through a common challenge.

Sometimes, you just have to get back to basics.


This week The Girl asked me to explain the Trans-Pacific Partnership to her, and to tell her (and justify) my perspective on it.

Thank you, Jersey Shore Debate League.  

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Shared Purpose and Common Enemies

It’s not often that an accreditation conference triggers flashbacks to research on American pragmatism and World War One, but reader, you got lucky.

I’m at the annual conference of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, in Philadelphia.  It’s the regional accreditor for the mid-Atlantic states.  The opening plenary by Mary Kennard, of American University, glanced at a point that deserved much more thought.

Kennard gave an overview of the progress of legal inclusion of historically excluded populations in the United States.  Her primary focus was race, though she mentioned other forms of inclusion as well.  By her admission, it wasn’t the speech she intended to give, but the surprise results of the election forced a quick rewrite.  

Some people think by reading, some by listening, some by talking.  It won’t shock you to know that I think by writing.  And I think Kennard does, too, because at the end of her talk, she gestured towards a broader theory of history that I’m not sure she had fully fleshed out yet.  And that’s a missed opportunity, because it’s a hell of a theory.

She noted that the cycle of inclusion and reaction has two salient traits.  The first is that the reactions almost never go all the way back; gains made in one era may be compromised in the next, but they’re rarely rescinded altogether.  The process of two steps forward and one step back adds up to uneven but real progress over the long sweep of history.  For folks dreading the return of the redeemers, the thought offers solace.

But the second trait is the whopper.  Though she didn’t cite the early 20th century radical Randolph Bourne, she echoed his famous claim that “war is the health of the state.”  She suggested that moments of great progress in civic equality tend to coincide with wars, and moments of regress happen between wars.  As she put it, in wartime, “we need everybody,” so we’re on our best behavior; in subsequent peacetime, we retreat to our respective corners.

There’s something to that.  In the early 1900’s, William James coined the term “moral equivalent of war” in an effort to find a common national purpose around peaceful endeavors, rather than military conquest.  (President Carter later built a speech around that phrase; it didn’t go over well.)  When John Dewey equivocated over American entry into World War One, Randolph Bourne attacked him with the line that “war is the health of the state.”  Bourne meant that in a bad way -- governments use wars to consolidate their power -- but it can also be used in a positive way.  Wars offer a sense of shared purpose, and that purpose can be constructive.  Postwar American liberals drew on that line of thought to propose a “war on poverty.”  Later we got the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.”   

Actual wars led to a shared sense of civic purpose because their presence was inescapable in daily life.  World War Two was the paradigmatic case.  The shared purpose was clear -- defeat the Axis powers -- and the draft ensured that sacrifice was shared.  When everyone was in it together, arguments for inclusion resonated more.  

I’m not sure that’s still true, though.  We have smaller wars now, and an all-volunteer military that tends to draw mostly from the working class.  If you’re so inclined, and living in the US, current wars are mostly escapable.  They don’t generate shared sacrifice or a shared purpose.  And that bodes ill for campaigns of inclusion.  When we don’t look outward, we can turn inward.

The holy grail, of course, is a shared sense of purpose that doesn’t require bloodshed.  That sort of idealism, when it flourishes, tends to lead to America’s best moments.  Some of us thrill to inclusion for its own sake; we’re the ones who celebrated the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, and who think that open-admissions policies at community colleges are features, not bugs.  But for many people, a shared purpose requires a common enemy.  When the enemy doesn’t exist, it needs to be manufactured or invoked.  And once enemies start getting manufactured, it’s easy to keep making more.

Those of us -- and I include myself in this -- who believe in inclusion for its own sake are worried at some of what has happened in the last few months.  Our challenge, and it’s no small one, is to find ways to restore heroism to the progressive expansion of inclusion.  Kennard’s diagnosis is largely correct, but tough to swallow.  The idea of the moral equivalent of war may have been ahead of its time, but it wasn’t wrong.  It still isn’t.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

How Do You Prefer to be Led?

What’s your preferred leadership style?  Not for your own leadership, but for the people who lead your institution?

When we talk about leadership styles, it’s usually in the second person.  “How do you lead?”  And that’s fine, as far as it goes; self-awareness is both crucial and unevenly distributed, so encouraging its development is probably a good thing.  

But most of us have ways we, for lack of a better way of putting it, prefer to be led.  We just don’t talk about those as much, probably on the assumption that good leadership or bad leadership is self-evident.  

It isn’t.  If this election didn’t teach us anything else, it should have settled that question.  Where one person sees refreshing candor, another sees disqualifying barbarity.  Taste can feel objective because it’s so strong, but a false sense of objectivity just leads to confusion and anger when confronted by someone whose taste is clearly different.

For present purposes, though, I’ll just focus on workplaces.  

In higher ed, there’s a set of words we know we’re supposed to use to describe ideal leaders.  They’re supposed to be “dynamic,” “collaborative,” “charismatic,” “persuasive,” and “approachable.”  But in practice, I’ve seen people use those words to mean diametrically different things.  

Some people like the “football coach at halftime” model.  That’s the leader who chews the scenery, bellows with confidence, points, and is seldom seen in public without absolute confidence in whatever position he’s holding at the time.  To them, the football coach conveys conviction and strength.  He’s the Alpha Dog, and that’s that.  I’m not a fan of this one -- it confuses fear with respect, and it tends to whittle down acceptable points of view to the one the Alpha Dog holds at the moment -- but many people like it.  They like the apparent clarity, even when the words themselves don’t make sense.

Others prefer the “group therapy” model.  This is the leader who tries to get inside everyone’s head and make them feel better.  Done well, it can be nurturing, and I’ve seen some people pull it off.  But it’s a fine line between nurturing and controlling, and in a crisis, it’s easy to cross that line.  It also assumes a level of clairvoyance that just doesn’t exist.  I once had a boss in this mold who told me to my face what he thought I was thinking and why I was wrong; he was so far off-base I had to consciously tell myself not to roll my eyes.  I quickly figured out that his projections were really about him, and I was just a prop.  Again, not a fan.

For reasons I don’t really understand, the “distant and vague” leader can be successful, too.  This is the one who isn’t around much, plays her cards close to her vest, speaks mostly platitudes in public, and delegates like it’s going out of style.  My best guess here is the group therapy dynamic in reverse; the “led” can project whatever they want onto a blank screen.  The distant and vague leader also creates considerable space for empire builders within the organization, who can then be counted on to defend their territory.  When the distant/vague leader has some measure of charisma, people will actually compete to please her.  It gets weird.

For myself, I’m a fan of the “lead by example” model.  These are the ones who may not suck up most of the oxygen in the room, but over time, provide a sense of consistency and integrity that can enable thoughtful risk-taking.  The upside of this sort of leader is that internal politics tend to be minimal; what you see is what you get, and it’s usually possible to have reasoned discussions rather than just acceding to the view of the leader.  The downside is that the virtues of this sort of leadership tend to show themselves only over time; at first impression, they may escape notice entirely.  Low-information observers may miss them.  Some will never catch on.

These are just a few off the top of my head; it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.  But the larger point is that when we fail to think through how we prefer to be led, we’re likelier to choose leaders who won’t wear well over time.  The leadership literature tends not to ask this question, but it should.  Wise and worldly readers, how do you prefer to be led?

Monday, December 05, 2016

Tech as a Gen Ed

Last week I was in a discussion with some of my counterparts from around the state, when the topic of a “technological competency” general education “outcome” came up.

To translate: general education outcomes are the skills we want to ensure that every graduating student has, regardless of major.  Whether you’re a business major, a history major, or a nursing major, we want to be sure that you can communicate well in writing.  That goal supports the requirement of English composition courses.  

Some gen ed outcomes have dedicated courses or batches of courses, and others are expected to be “infused” throughout the curriculum.  Ethical reasoning and awareness of diversity, for example, make more sense in context than as standalones.  The advantage of the “infusion” approach is precisely that it opens up the possibility of exploration in context.  The disadvantage is that when a goal is owned by everyone, it’s owned by no one.  If we aren’t careful, it’s easy for “infused” to become “diffused.”

That was the framework within which technological competency came up.  In New Jersey, back in the 90’s, the statewide coordinating group (whatever that was at the time) decided to establish a requirement that all students be brought up to speed on current technology before they graduate.  Operationally, that was defined as the ability to use the Microsoft Office suite on a p.c.  And that made sense in the 90’s.  

But we’re at a point now in which my seventh grader gets issued a chromebook by her public school.  There’s no single ubiquitous platform anyone, and to the extent that there is, students tend to show up already having mastered it.  Some don’t, of course, but many do.  

Which suggests that we may have hit a tipping point.  We certainly want students to be able to work competently with current technology, and to be able to adapt as it changes.  But it’s harder to assume now that most of them are starting from scratch.  The range of competencies with which they arrive is growing, and the degree of consensus about which technologies matter is dropping.  

If that admittedly broad-stroke picture of our students is mostly right, then it suggests that competency in tech may be ready to move from a standalone criterion to an infused one.  It may not need a blanket course requirement across the board; instead, it may make sense to treat it as a basic skill that only needs remediation if they don’t already have it.

That may sound arcane, but a shift like that would have serious ripple effects.

First, and most basically, various degrees have a set number of gen ed credits in them.  If the credits previously allocated to tech are freed up, they’d have to go somewhere.  That would have effects on staffing, scheduling, budgeting, and labs, among other things.  If enrollments in the Intro to Tech class go down, and enrollments in (say) Chemistry go up, we’d have to reallocate resources over time.  In the interim, I could foresee bottlenecks.

We’d have to get a bit more prescriptive, too, about ensuring that some level of tech is covered in other classes.  And we’d need to develop an assessment protocol for it that’s independent of the class that used to be required to cover it.

For the students who show up lacking the basics, we’d need some way of bringing them up to speed.  The old “remedial course” model is very much on the way out, though, so we’d need another mechanism to do that.  Drop-in workshops are lovely, but as Kay McClenney noted, students don’t do optional.  

I know that different states handle this differently, so I’m curious.  Wise and worldly readers, especially those at open-admission colleges, how do you handle technological competency?  Is it required, assumed, or ignored?  Standalone or infused?  And has anyone figured out a way to infuse it and still help students who are far behind make up ground?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

My Inner Madisonian

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  - James Madison, Federalist #51

When I was in grad school, Thomas Jefferson was all the rage.  His notions of localist democracy were taken as aspirational counterpoint to modernity.  (Reminders of his slaveholding, or even of his doubling the size of the country in one fell swoop, were considered in poor taste.)  I never bought it, which is probably why I was so happy to see Hamilton finally get some measure of his cultural due.  

But sometimes I wonder if we should give Madison a bit more notice.  

I was reminded of that in reading this piece in the Chronicle about academic search committees and implicit bias.  It’s a well-intended piece, if a little all-over-the-place, but in trying to suggest concrete ways for search committees to overcome bias in hiring, it quickly falls back on the psychology of individual members.  It recommends implicit association tests, apparently on the theory that if people’s thoughts can be purified, then their decisions will be purified, too.

Um, no.

I’ve studied enough political history to be wary of any claims that mandatory re-education will result in enlightenment.  Those approaches typically end in tears.  And I’ve seen enough people with high-minded politics to know that it’s possible to be altruistic and kind of messed up at the same time.  

Here’s where I’m thinking a little dose of Madison could do some good.

In the Federalist Papers, Madison addressed what we call “special interest groups,” or what he called “factions.”  He noted that in any society in which people are free to associate as they see fit, people who perceive a common interest with each other will join together to form factions.  Often, those factions will try to push the whole society in directions that will benefit the faction, even at the expense of the greater good.  Factions get into what he called “mischief,” and their mischief is typically based on their self-interest.

He noted that there’s no way to extinguish the mischiefs of faction without extinguishing freedom itself, which he considered too high a price.  He considered self-interest and provincial perspectives inevitable, and the wish to transcend them futile (“if men were angels…”).  Instead, his solution for maintaining political stability in the face of factions was to multiply them.  Allow factions to form all over, and they’ll largely cancel each other out.  That method was built into the structure of the proposed government, where we call it “checks and balances,” and into the larger society.  The one area where it wasn’t -- slavery -- generated a conflict that nearly brought the entire system down.

For me, the transferable insight is that Madison came up with a structural, rather than a psychological, solution.  People may be blinkered in all sorts of ways, but if you build with that in mind, you can compensate for it.  

What might that mean for search committees?

As a general rule, it means avoiding inbreeding.  When one faction controls a search entirely, its biases will go unchallenged.  In the case of faculty committees, having someone from outside the department on the committee can bring fresh eyes.  In the second round, I like to include the campus diversity officer in the interviews; she brings a needed perspective, and often picks up on things that the rest of us don’t.  At any level, more sets of eyes are likelier to get a full picture than fewer.  

I’m not looking to perfect anybody.  I’m looking for structures and processes that assume the presence of imperfections, but that cancel them out.  Yes, there are some basic rules of the road, and they’re there for good reasons.  But I’m much more comfortable -- both ethically and practically -- focusing on conduct than on subconscious attitudes.  And I’m just Aristotelian enough to think that over time, habits inform and even shape attitudes.  Do something long enough and it starts to seem normal.  Set up processes and structures that encourage productive behavior, and over time, productive attitudes are likely to follow.  But even if they don’t, you’ll still get productive behavior, which is what you really want anyway.

Madison’s solution is a little bit messy, but it has shown itself to be durable.  As long as we’re taking a new look at the founders anyway, let’s give him a moment, too.  Hamilton may have written more of the Federalist Papers, but Madison wrote the ones we remember.

P.S. - Curly, the dog I mentioned on Friday, found a foster!  Thanks to everyone who checked him out.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Friday Fragments

I’m glad to see the ASAP project getting some traction outside of New York CIty.

In its purest form, ASAP is an attempt to make community college students fit the mold of full time students at traditional campuses.  It requires students to take fifteen credits per semester, and it provides a host of wraparound services (including very intensive advising) to keep them on track.   It covers the cost of textbooks, and fills in the gap between financial aid and the actual cost of living. In New York City, the students even get MetroCards, which are subway passes, so they don’t need to worry about paying for transportation.  

I’ve gazed upon it from afar with a mixture of fascination, envy, and skepticism.  CUNY spends about 60 percent more on a per-student basis on ASAP students than on others; lo and behold, a 60 percent spending increase leads to better results!  Brookdale’s annual operating budget is a hair over $80 million; if anyone wants to give us another $48 million per year for a decade or so, I bet we could improve our graduation rates, too.  

That’s a serious offer.  My phone works.

Its champions tout the lower per-graduate cost, which is true; it produces so many more graduates that even with much higher spending, the per-graduate cost is lower.  The catch is that colleges aren’t funded per graduate.  

Several Ohio community colleges have apparently adopted and adapted versions of ASAP, and the early results are encouraging.  They’ve kept the focus on 15 credits per semester and intensive advising; they’ve adapted the subway pass to gas cards, by necessity.  

Susan Dynarski and Meghan Oster’s writeup softpedals the fiscal sustainability issue, noting that the Ohio version is supported by foundations with the expectation that colleges will absorb the cost over time.  That absorption will require substantial new operating funding (or new donors), the source of which isn’t obvious.  

It also treads lightly on the question of who can participate.  Guttman CC, the home of ASAP, can skim the students from CUNY whose lives allow them to attend full-time.  When you have a population base the size of New York City, even a smallish segment can be pretty big.  But at most places, the cohort that could do ASAP (if it were available) would be a smallish subset of the student population.  I’d love to know how the model co-exists with a larger population of part-time students on the same campus.

Still, caveats noted, I’m glad to see that the basic concept is portable.  It’s aspirational in the best sense.


A couple of weeks ago, The Wife discovered Curly online.   He’s a sweet but troubled shelter dog whose shelter time is running out.  Her heart broke when she saw his video, so we drove up to Patterson, NY, to see if we could foster him.

As it turned out, his needs were greater than we could accommodate.  He needs an experienced foster who can provide a lot of structure.  We brought our dog, Sally, with us, to see how he’d do with another dog.  He did better when Sally was in the room than when she wasn’t.  She wasn’t afraid, and she sat contentedly while we petted her.  He imitated her and let us pet him.  He just needs structure and, ideally, a canine role model.

If you’re within driving distance of Patterson, NY (near the Connecticut line), and you know how to foster a delicate dog, please take a look at Curly.  He’ll win you over.


As a parent, you sometimes do things you would never do otherwise.

This weekend, I’m going with TW and The Girl to see a live, musical production of “Elf,” based on the Will Ferrell movie.

So, yeah.