Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When You Get Flamed

If you haven’t seen Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s column this week, check it out.  It’s about email as a venue for escalating conflict.  I’d add a friendly amendment and say that any quick electronic form of writing can do the same thing -- facebook, twitter, whatever.  Poorly thought through messages can take on lives of their own, and quickly escape their intended or original contexts.

Rockquemore addressed the issue from the perspective of junior faculty, because that was who asked the question.  I’ll add an administrator’s perspective.

The low cost of electronic communication often leads to an oversupply.  That shows up in “reply all” emails, or diatribes with twenty unnecessary recipients on the “cc” line.  When you’re on the receiving end of one of those, it feels like a declaration of war.  The temptation to hit back can be powerful.  Most of the time, though, the first task at hand is de-escalation.

Typically, that involves at least three steps.  First, take several deep breaths, and try -- really try -- to suss out the kernel of truth in the cascade of nonsense.  I’ve seen wild misinterpretations and extrapolations, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen something entirely fabricated.  There’s usually some nugget of truth in there somewhere, even if it’s highly embellished.  The reason to bother with this step is that if you don’t, the third step won’t work.

Second, step away from the keyboard.  If you must resort to it, respond only with “let’s discuss in person.”  

The third step is meeting with the person face-to-face, and usually one-on-one.  Get away from an audience, and you reduce the temptation to grandstand.  It’s easy to demonize from a distance; face to face, it’s hard not to notice the humanity of the person in front of you.  If you’ve been demonized, face time matters.

If you don’t do step one, step three won’t work; you’ll go in on the assumption that the person needs to be diagnosed, rather than confronted.  Admittedly, there are times when that’s true, but that should be a when-all-else-fails conclusion, rather than an opening bid.  Too quick a move to that can prevent getting to the real issue, even if only by coming across in your body language.

In my early days of deaning, I sometimes feared being accused of stonewalling, so I answered those diatribes point by point.  That only led to more, usually involving a tendentious parsing of language.  It took a while -- and some trial and error -- to realize that it’s about playing the long game.  Fly off the handle at the daily provocation, and they’ll never stop.  Some people actually enjoy drama, and go out of their way to generate it; once they’ve identified you as an easy mark, you’re in trouble.  Over time, it’s really not about a few chronic complainers with theatrical tendencies; it’s about the vast majority in the middle.  Stay professional and appropriate, and over time, the contrast with the hotheads will become clear.  The majority may not stand up to the hotheads, but it won’t stand behind them, either.  

The vast majority consists of people who want to be able to do their jobs without unnecessary drama.  They usually know who the complainers are.  They’ll watch you to see if you’re a hothead in a suit, or if you’re able to see the big picture and maintain poise.  Part of leadership involves setting a tone.  

All of this assumes, of course, that the basic issues are somehow addressable.  Sometimes they aren’t.  The Great Recession wasn’t the doing of any one college, but its ripple effects forced many administrators to make decisions they would rather not have had to make.  Attacking the administrators for doing what had to be done misses the point.  When decisions happen in a context of force majeure, they’re barely decisions at all.  At that point, attacks on local administrators amount to shooting the messenger.

Rockquemore is right that switching the medium frequently improves the message.  My hard-learned lesson was that the same holds true for the response.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Small Section Shuffle

“How many students does a section need to have to run?”  

Even after all these years, small-section triage is one of the worst parts of the countdown to a new semester.  It’s complicated and probabilistic, and nobody notices when you get it right.  

It’s based on both economic and educational realities.  A section has an instructor, and the instructor has to be paid.  Beyond that, the college has all sorts of indirect costs that have to be amortized over all of the sections: those range from basic overhead (utilities, physical plant maintenance, snow removal) to the parts of the college that don’t charge their own tuition (the library, advisors, counselors, IT, administration, etc.)  Covering those indirect costs requires that most sections pay not only for themselves, but contribute towards paying for everything else.  

In olden times, when tuition was a relatively small portion of the budget, this didn’t matter as much.  Decades of disinvestment have made it matter a lot more.

Additionally, a small section requires as much instructor time as a large one.  In most cases, it occupies a classroom that could have been used for a larger one.  So in addition to direct and indirect costs, there’s also opportunity cost.  Commit to too many small sections, and you crowd out bigger ones.  That impacts both student options and the budget.

Internally, disparate section sizes can raise issues of workload equity.  A professor with five sections of 30 students each may look askance at one with five sections averaging 15 each.  Even if total in-class time is the same, the amount of grading and informal student guidance scales approximately with enrollment.  Grading 75 papers takes less time than grading 150.

On the flip side, in some courses, too low a number becomes a quality issue.  If a Public Speaking class has four students, it doesn’t work.  Depending on the course, you may need critical mass to make it educationally worthwhile.

In a more perfect world, we’d have relatively steady enrollment from year to year -- ideally, maybe a steady increase of two percent a year or so -- so we could optimize sections.  When enrollments fluctuate more than that, especially in the downward direction, it’s a lot harder.  And declines aren’t evenly distributed.  

Here, we don’t have the luxury of knowing months in advance who has registered for what.  Students can, and do, register up to the last minute.  That means that if your standard cutoff is x, you’ll get to a week before classes start with sections showing x-2 or x-3.  You have to make your best guess as to which ones will make it.  Some of those guesses will be wrong, and some people with elephant memories will use those in future semesters to argue for smaller classes for themselves.

What factors matter?

  • If the class is cancelled, what happens to the students?  Is there another section at the same time (ideally) or a compatible time (less ideally) that could take them?  
  • Is it the only section of a required class?  That happens sometimes with 200-level classes in smallish programs.  
  • Is it the only evening section?  The only section at a given location?
  • For full-time faculty, is there something else for them to teach?  When you get down to the wire, a new prep is generally a terrible idea.  We try not to put full-timers in dicey sections, but again, fluctuations aren’t evenly distributed.  Sometimes a shortfall comes as a shock.
  • What precedent are you setting?

The chronic dilemma is that sometimes the factors conflict.  After the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the obvious solutions implemented, and all sorts of staffing decisions made, there are always a few judgment calls to make at the end.  Indeterminacy can be bounded, but it can’t be eliminated.  Will the Thursday afternoon section climb, or is it stuck?  As Yogi Berra put it, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

With enough of a fiscal cushion, we could run a few small sections as treats.  But that’s not where we are.

If we had more lead time, steady-state enrollment, and a reasonable fiscal cushion, these wouldn’t be nearly so difficult.  As it is, well....

Monday, August 29, 2016

Safe Spaces at Commuter Colleges

I’ve been reading some of the commentary on “safe spaces” at elite universities with a sense of remove.  The straw man versions of the extreme sides of the issue look like this:

Conservative: Students are lily-livered cowards who know nothing of the real world.  Give them a cold-water splash of reality, and then another, before they start failing at jobs!

Liberal: Stop blaming the victims of your many biases.  If we’re going to make progress, we need to get stupid barriers out of the way.

What the two sides share is a sense that students are constantly exposed to hot-button issues, and that the lived environment of students is substantially, maybe even primarily, subject to the social engineering of college leaders.  The dispute is over how to charge the engineers.

That’s not how it works here.  Not at all.

At most community colleges, student diversity is a visible fact of life.  (Brookdale is in an affluent area, but its student body is more diverse than the population of its county.)  So are part-time or even full-time jobs off campus.  We don’t have dorms.  A slim majority of the student body is part-time.  Many have children, and/or extended family obligations.  More than I’d like to believe are only precariously housed.  Steady and sufficient food can’t be assumed.

For many students, college is the relatively safe space in their lives.  It functions the way that Arlie Hochschild described work functioning for adults in The Time Bind: it’s the island of relative stability and sanity in otherwise chaotic lives.  It’s where they can find some peace, and raise their sights above the day-to-day.  

At Holyoke, I had the library establish a quiet study room for students who needed one.  It quickly became both popular and self-enforcing.  We couldn’t assume that students have a quiet place at home to study.  Libraries as social centers may make sense elsewhere, and group study rooms serve a purpose, but sometimes you just need some quiet, a chair, a table, and a lamp.  For students at elite places, that may be redundant; here, not so much.

Students’ home environments are entirely out of our control.  This is not a “total institution” in the same sense that a residential college or university can be.  And some students come to us as fully formed adults, well into their thirties or beyond; at that point, talk of ‘character formation’ comes off even more arrogant than it usually does.  We have students who already have degrees from elsewhere, and plenty of students with previous college experience.  The “tabula rasa” assumption simply doesn’t hold here.

That said, the social fissures that are sometimes treated as controversial in other places simply slap you in the face here.  Some students grasp for ways to make sense of those fissures.  Our job is to help them develop the vocabulary, the historical context, and the theoretical chops to do that.

(“Theoretical Chops” would make a great name for a band.  But I digress.)

At this level, the major issue around students and social issues isn’t bias in one direction or another.  It’s a lack of perceived standing to address the issues at all.

That lack of perceived standing -- of what the poli sci literature calls “efficacy” -- is learned from a thousand sources.  We try to help students un-learn it here.  A few do, but judging by the almost complete absence of discussion of political issues, I’d say the numbers are small.  

Put differently, I’d love to see and hear heated theoretical debates among students about broad social and political issues.  The problem that elite places are trying to solve with “safe spaces” -- a shelter from politics -- is the wrong issue here.  My great fear for our students isn’t that they’ll take political positions different from my own.  It’s that they won’t take any positions at all.  They’ll ignore the larger questions altogether, in favor of the immediate demands of the present.  Given the intensity of those demands, it’s an understandable response.  But it cedes power to those who already have it, and whose agendas may be very different.

Here, the need is for enough felt daily safety that students feel capable of venturing into slightly unfamiliar ground.  Students here aren’t shrinking violets, and they aren’t dorm-room socialists.  They’re struggling with the demands of daily life.  If we could find ways to give them time, and reasonable security, we could probably nudge more of them towards the bigger questions.  How they answer those bigger questions is entirely up to them.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Borrow or Work?

I know that back-to-school advice often falls on deaf ears, but I feel honor-bound to give it a shot.  I’ll outline a very common scenario, offer some thoughts, and ask my wise and worldly readers for theirs.


Ashley is a pretty good student.  She’s fresh out of a local high school, and still not sure what she wants to do.  She’s attending community college to explore, to “get her gen eds out of the way,” and, frankly, for lack of any better ideas.  She knows that a college degree will help her get a better job, and she has no interest in waiting tables for the rest of her life.

Her Mom is helping her, but not very much.  She has two younger sisters who also plan to go to college, so she can’t take too much from her Mom.  Dad is out of the picture.  She can scrape together some money towards school, but on her own, she’s thousands short.  She’s in that frustrating gray area where she’s too affluent for Pell, but not affluent enough to cover her own costs.

She has crunched some numbers and found that she has a choice.  She can work 30 or so hours a week at the restaurant and attend college part-time, or she can take out loans, work 10-15 hours a week, and attend full-time.

What should she do?


I tried to build a scenario that reflects a fairly representative real life.  Should Ashley avoid loans and attend part-time, or cut back her work hours, borrow, and attend full-time?

It comes down to weighing risks.  If she goes part-time and works a lot for pay, her odds of actually finishing her degree drop dramatically.  If she bites the bullet and goes full-time, the odds of finishing the degree are markedly higher.  

I’d recommend biting the bullet, taking out the loans, cutting back on work hours, and jumping into college with both feet.  Yes, there’s a risk, but the chances of a better life -- of life with the kind of job that a degree can help you get -- are much higher with this strategy.  

Part of that is because of a variation on the old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person.  Students who immerse themselves in college get the hang of it faster.  They’re likelier to make connections, both personal and professional, which will help them get through.  

Part of it is because going full-time means finishing sooner, which means there’s less chance for life to get in the way.  If she finishes in two years instead of four, she has cut the odds of a catastrophic interruption in half.  Students often have complicated lives, and well-intended advice about hedging bets often results in half-baked efforts and eventual surrender.  College is hard enough when you’re actually focused on it; when your attention is divided, it’s that much harder.  When your attention is divided for years and years, it’s harder still.  Better to plow straight ahead.

I know the “jump in with both feet” strategy can be a difficult sell.  It’s a risk.  But it’s far likelier to end with both a degree and a higher-paying job than the “hedge your bets” strategy.  Our task as educators is to make sure that both students and parents know that.

Wise and wordly readers, what do you think?  Is this good advice for Ashley?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Friday Fragments

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Hooray for Herb Alpert!

He just donated over 10 million dollars to fund free tuition for music students at Los Angeles City College.  I’m guessing he made most of his money from A&M records, as opposed to “Spanish Flea,” but I can’t prove that.

Anyway, he’s giving this extraordinary gift in the name of providing sustained access to a quality program that reaches students of all races and income levels.  Nationally, community colleges enroll over 40 percent of all undergraduates, but receive less than 2 percent of the philanthropic support in higher education.  Alpert is bucking a terrible trend.  Philanthropy has such greater dollar-for-dollar impact at this level, but it’s a well-kept secret.

So yes, Hooray for Herb Alpert.  Kenny G, the ball is in your court…


The Feds cut off access to Title IV financial aid funds for students at ITT Tech.  Barring an immediate reversal, that should have the same effect on ITT that it had on Corinthian.  I’m expecting a formal death notice soon.

ITT won’t be particularly missed.  But it would be a mistake, I think, to jump from “for-profit colleges are closing” to “for-profit higher education is closing.”  

Those are not the same thing.

Instead, investors have switched vehicles.  They used to either build or buy colleges that resembled traditional ones. Now they’re likelier to invest in “boot camps,” training providers, publishers, ed-tech vendors, and all manner of support services.  Instead of trying to copy and adapt the college model, they’re breaking the model into pieces and running each piece separately.  Instead of many paths to one destination, now it’s many paths to many destinations.

The move to “boot camps” strikes me as interesting, but ripe with danger.  Some boot camps are partnering now with public colleges in the name of gaining Title IV eligibility.  At the risk of showing my age, I’ve seen this movie before.

I’m not theologically opposed to for-profit higher education, but I’m thoroughly convinced it can only work in the presence of “patient capital.”  That means resisting the temptation to sell stock. Venture capitalists aren’t known, as a breed, for patience.  

Watch this space.  The sector is morphing, rather than shrinking.


Meanwhile, in happier news, TW and I caught the Springsteen concert on Tuesday.  If I’m counting right, it was her fifth and my sixth; my first was in 1984 in Buffalo, on the “Born in the USA” tour.  This was his best show since then.

Catching Bruce in his natural habitat -- New Jersey -- is the way to do it.  The crowd responded to several Jersey references in the lyrics, and even to a monologue mention of the ice cream stand “Jersey Freeze” in Freehold.  (He actually laughed when we did that.)  

The concert was just shy of four hours long, without an intermission, including a fifteen-minute-plus version of “Shout” in which he did the old James Brown routine of being too tired to continue, having his bandmates wrap a shawl over him, retreating, and then coming back at full speed.  The crowd ate it up.  I’d forgotten how much of a showman he is.

TW is a born-and-raised Jersey girl, so she sang along, with gusto.  “Sherry Darling” may be her favorite Bruce song ever, so she was thrilled when he did it.  Later, he even did “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” which I’ll admit I hadn’t expected at a show in August.

He made a few minor concessions to age.  There were more monologues than in the past, which presumably allowed for rest.  I noticed several slow songs in a row towards the middle, which I assume was for the same reason.  During “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the reference in the lyrics to Clarence Clemons (“When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band…”) triggered a photo montage of Clarence on the jumbo screens, followed by a few pictures of the band’s late organ player, Danny Federici.  Clarence’s nephew Jake handles the sax duties now.  He’s a better player than Clarence was, but he isn’t the comic foil Clarence was.  I was touched when the screen focused on Steve Van Zandt during “Bobby Jean,” though I don’t know how many people caught the reference.  Steve seemed to, judging by the look on his face.

The setlist wasn’t all hits.  He didn’t do “Thunder Road” or “Born in the USA,” instead doing “41 Shots” and “Because the Night.”  “41 Shots” remains depressingly relevant after all these years, though the frat boy in the row in front of me rocking out to it didn’t quite seem to catch its meaning.  The version of “Because the Night” was the best I’ve ever heard.

Inevitably, and perfectly, the concert closed with a cover of “Jersey Girl,” and fireworks.  

Okay, Boss.  You win.  We’ll toast you with our milkshakes at Jersey Freeze.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Yaz Problem

My grandfather was a long-term baseball fan.  In the 70’s and 80’s we used to visit him and Grandma in Michigan once or twice a year, and he and I would usually spend some time watching games in the living room.  Back then, baseball on television was relatively scarce: you’d have the local team, maybe, and then the network “Game of the Week.”  One “Game of the Week” in the early 80’s featured the Red Sox.  Carl Yastrzemski was batting cleanup.  

“Yaz,” as he was known, was at the tail end of an impressive career.  In the 60’s he won the triple crown (batting average, home runs, and runs batted in), which nobody else did for decades.  He remained a fearsome power hitter well into the 70’s.

But by the early 80’s -- I’m thinking ‘83, but I could be wrong -- he wasn’t that anymore.  He was pudgy, and slow, and at the time of the game hitting about .240 with minimal power.  (For non-baseball fans, I’m saying he wasn’t good anymore.)  He had outlived his talent, yet he continued to occupy the spot in the batting order that would normally go to someone at the peak of his game.  I remember the announcers fawning all over Yaz, and being puzzled at the disconnect between what they said and what I saw.  When I asked Grandpa, he muttered something about what Yaz used to be.

The manager and the announcers were so in love with the past that they couldn’t see what fresh eyes easily could.  Yaz had hung on too long.

He wasn’t the only athlete to do that, of course.  The end of Muhammad Ali’s career wasn’t pretty.  Rickey Henderson and Steve Carlton’s careers outlived their impressive talents.  For whatever reason, it can be hard for former greats to know when it’s time to go.  For the ones in team sports, hanging on too long can actually hurt the team.  The team winds up wasting a valuable spot on a non-producer; meanwhile, there’s no room for someone new to break in.  

I think of the Yaz experience from time to time, but it came up twice this week.  The first was the strange blurb about Louis Agnese Jr., the 30-year President of the University of the Incarnate Word.  The Board there is pushing him into a mandatory leave to address “uncharacteristic behavior;” his profanity-laced response offers unintentional insight into what they may have had in mind.  The second was the story of Bard College’s finances, which are struggling mightily; its President, Leon Botstein, has held that office since 1975.  Yaz was still good then.  I was seven years old.

Administration is a very different thing from baseball, of course.  You can have mediocre eyesight and bad knees in administration, and still be effective.  In fact, the folks at Aspen found that nearly every president of an Aspen-prize winner had been in office on that campus for at least ten years.  Higher ed being higher ed, change takes time; some level of continuity of leadership allows for sustaining focus long enough to bring positive changes to fruition.

But honestly, the Yaz problem is real.  Sometimes the good ones hang on too long.

What does the Yaz problem look like in higher ed?  I’ve seen a few versions of it.

  • Loss of boundaries between the role and the person.  This can lead to inappropriate behavior, whether financial, sexual, or just general.  
  • A too-smooth homogeneity bordering on groupthink, as “awkward fits” have been either worn down or kicked out.  
  • Sporadic memory loss, increasing impulsiveness.  The quality of decisions starts to drop.
  • Applying old playbooks to new situations without knowing it.  This is the “still bat him cleanup in his 40’s” move.  Sometimes the person hasn’t changed, but the world has.  

It’s a tough problem to fix, because the people closest to the problem are often the least equipped to do anything about it.  And reputations earned in one era can linger into another, preventing accurate perception until the damage is done.

We hear a lot about succession crises in higher ed; Boards often respond by choosing presidents who have already been presidents for decades, on the assumption that a good track record is a valuable predictor.  And it can be.  But too little appreciation of the Yaz problem can lead to shutting out the next generation, and to declining before anyone realizes it’s happening.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, or Denial?

Sometimes, she said, she has been encouraged to tell a horror story or indicate that the university will close if it doesn’t receive enough state funding, but few leaders are eager to talk down their own institutions.
The paragraph above, from a Chronicle story about public higher ed in Illinois, is specifically about a dilemma faced by Elaine Maimon, the President of Governors State University.  But it could be applied to administrators in most of public higher education around the country.
College presidents and senior leaders have to balance imperatives that are sometimes in tension.  They’re supposed to present the best possible public face of the institution at all times.  And they have to communicate difficult, unpopular truths, such as the impact of budget cuts.  As the gap between what is and what ought to be continues to widen, that tension gets worse.
Public statements, or even tones, that are wide of the mark can become self-fulfilling.
A leader who is too candid or blunt about the challenges an institution faces can trigger a death spiral.  If the external community starts to believe that the college is declining, enrollments will drop, political support will drop, and a death spiral may very well ensue.  Internally, too much crisis talk from leadership can lead to a siege mentality, which rarely leads anywhere good.  
But too much optimism has costs, too.  Several years ago a well-meaning state official visited the campus where I worked and, thinking he was being supportive, expressed amazement that after years of cuts, we were still doing such good work.  The message we heard on campus was “we can keep cutting you without pushback.”  It was incredibly demoralizing, and this was from someone who actually meant well.  Constant positive messaging can mask the negative effects of years of sustained fiscal neglect, thereby licensing more neglect.  Legislators are always looking to feed the insatiable beast of health care costs; any cuts they can make without evident pain, they’ll make.  Too much optimism hides the evidence.
(Health care costs deserve a post of their own.  Suffice it to say, until we get those under control, they will crowd out nearly everything else.  When your aid is flat and your benefit costs go up ten percent per year, the math is inexorable.)
Internally, too much optimism can lead to either a credibility gap or, more commonly, a culture of denial.  It’s difficult to sell the message “we’re outstanding, and we desperately need to change.”  Too much focus on the need to change tends to offend incumbents, who are often quite skilled at wars of attrition; too much happy talk encourages people to ignore the need to change at all.
Many presidents handle the challenge by resort to verb tense: the present is fine, but the future is in doubt if trends continue.  Sometimes it’s true, and it offers a way to alert outsiders without offending insiders.  But over time, it’s hard to sustain.  With notable exceptions, such as Illinois, the issues are usually of steady erosion over time, rather than abrupt catastrophe.  Is a single cut of two percent devastating?  No, not really.  Are ten consecutive years of two percent cuts devastating?  Yes.  But the context of the ten-year view isn’t always top-of-mind.  And forever pushing back the moment when consequences will strike both takes previous cuts as natural, and starts to sound like crying wolf.  
From the top, in public, it’s usually best to default to optimism.  To the extent that prophecies are self-fulfilling, that’s the direction I’d rather fulfill.  It’s a bit like Pascal’s wager: the upside only points in one direction.  But the underlying urgency is only getting stronger.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Homeless in College

I don’t think I’m the target demographic for Glamour magazine.  I’ve never bought an issue.  Until the last month or so, I don’t know if I ever saw any content from one, other than a cover.  But recently, two articles took on lives of their own.  The first was President Obama’s piece about men and feminism, which has been amply discussed elsewhere.  The second was about Brooke Evans, a student at the University of Wisconsin, detailing her experience with homelessness while in college.

Her piece is well worth reading, if you haven’t already.  

She conveys several truths that are easily ignored or forgotten.

First, and most basically, “homelessness” is a blunt term.  The article uses the phrase “off and on” to describe her housing situation, and I think that’s far more common than we usually assume.  Something like “precariously housed” or “couch surfing” probably comes closer to the truth for many students.  They stay with one friend for a while until that becomes untenable, then a relative, then a friend of a relative, then wherever they can.  With every move comes missed mail, missed contacts, new stress, and the need to figure out transportation.  When those things are unsettled, it can be unrealistic to hold down a job long enough to climb out of the situation, even assuming a job is available.  Even many social benefits require either a stable address or “proof” of homelessness, however that might work.  (How would that work?)  If you’re sort of in-between -- you have a place to stay tonight and maybe a week, but nothing stable -- you fall between the cracks.

That’s an amazing amount of stress to pile on to the normal academic stresses of student life.  

Second, as Matthew Desmond’s excellent book Evicted and Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s $2 a Day noted, precarious housing also often brings with it unwelcome, untoward, and/or inappropriate expectations from those who open the door.  The compromises people have to make to stay alive can be demoralizing, which can make escape that much harder.  It’s easy for the otherwise admirable impulse to feel like you’re in control of a situation to lead to blaming yourself for the least-bad choices you had to make.  Sometimes, other people will pile on, hoping to assure themselves by their harsh judgments that it couldn’t happen to them. But the core of the problem is the situation, not the person.  

Third, and I haven’t seen much comment on this, Evans notes that being selected for an “honors” track early in life offered her hope that wasn’t otherwise plentiful.  It suggested that despite a challenging family circumstance, she was going to go to college and do well there.  That selection provided a sort of validation that was otherwise largely absent, and that she appreciated deeply.

That part sounded very right to me.  Especially in areas in which college-going isn’t simply the assumed background condition, there’s real value in the “tap on the shoulder.”  I’ve seen students perk up and improve drastically after nothing more than an acknowledgement that they’re doing great work.  It’s a kind of signalling that I’m not sure we appreciate as much as we should.  Sometimes students just need some sort of acknowledgement, or permission from an authority to succeed.  Done right, at the right time, that can be powerful.  I know we’re supposed to praise effort rather than talent these days, but sometimes being noticed as talented can provide an encouragement that can get someone through tough times.

Evans’ experience was at two residential campuses of the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse and Madison), but it’s recognizable at community colleges, too.  She mentions relatively callous treatment from counselors when she first mentioned her circumstances.  I can believe that, and I don’t mean that as a shot at any counselors; our collective understanding of student economic precarity lags reality by a longshot.  That’s exactly why articles like Evans’ are so useful.  We’re only beginning to understand just how many non-academic factors get in the way of student success.  Seemingly little things like moving to Open Educational Resources instead of commercial textbooks, or working with the local transit authority to get better and more frequent bus service to campus, can tip the balance.  When you’re skipping meals because you don’t have money, saving a few hundred dollars on books and being able to get to class reliably can be life-changing.

Evans is leading a charge to get EBT cards (food stamps) accepted for food on campus.  It’s a great idea, as is broader adoption of campus food banks.  Housing is a tricky issue at a commuter campus, but to the extent that we can help get other costs down, we free up more resources for housing.  

Conceptually, none of this is new.  Machiavelli wrote of the oak-lined study in which he could escape the chores of the day to commune with the ancients, and Virginia Woolf wrote of a room of one’s own with a lock on the door.  We know that study requires reasonable material security.  But I want to thank Brooke Evans for reminding us of what that looks like now, and why it matters.  There’s far more talent out there than is dreamt of in our political economy.  Hell, sometimes some good writing even pops up in Glamour.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Prior to this month, I hadn’t taken a vacation in two years.  It was time.

When we lived in New England, we made a point to take a week each summer to take a vacation in one of the New England states.  (TW’s fave was Maine, but I was partial to Vermont.)  Last year we didn’t get a vacation, with the summer consumed by moving.  So this year we doubled down and did a massive trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

None of us had ever been to either, so it was a bit of a leap of faith.

The kids, bless their young hearts, looked forward to flying.  Our New England trips didn’t require it, and they hadn’t flown recently enough to remember it.  We made sure to get them window seats.

A few thoughts and observations on Yellowstone and the Tetons:

If you ask most people to name a landmark at Yellowstone, they’ll name Old Faithful.  We saw Old Faithful, but it wasn’t all that interesting; as one nearby onlooker put it, “we came all this way to see...steam?”  The Grand Prismatic Spring, on the other hand, is worth it.  It’s sort of a cross between a mall wishing well and a portal to hell.  It’s an otherworldly blend of colors with a sulfurous steam on top from which you don’t want to be downwind.  (Trust me on that one.)   It features shades of orange and blue that don’t usually occur together, especially in nature.  The water is supposed to be highly acidic, which explains the colors along the sides.  It’s crossed by a series of narrow pedestrian walkways that don’t forgive much; we were collectively mystified as to how those walkways even got built.  (“I’ll just put this heAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!”)  

Moose were mostly missing, but the bison were out in force.  Several times we had to stop and wait for them to cross the road directly in front of us.  One bison took up shop just outside our hotel room -- we were alerted by the sound of grass ripping from the ground as he ate it.  We named him Bernie.  Bernie hung around for a couple of days before moving on.  TG bought a stuffed Bernie to commemorate the trip.  He joined the menagerie in her room, apparently without incident.

We did an hour-long horseback ride, during which we collectively discovered that “saddlesore” is a real thing.  And that’s all I’ll say about that.

We set the alarm for 1:00 one morning to catch the Perseid meteor shower.  Living in New Jersey, light pollution, trees, and buildings reduce the quality of stargazing, but out there, you can really see a show.  We were concerned when it rained early in the evening, but the weather cleared in time for a perfect view of the meteors.  And they didn’t disappoint.  It was weirdly cold at night, and you’d be surprised how quickly your neck can start to hurt from craning it backwards to look up.  But the meteors with tails were worth it.  I even saw the Milky Way for the first time.  It was one of those rare and cherished moments in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram covered by both “nerdy” and “cool.”

The food in the park of an earlier time.  The cafeteria featured variations on shrink wrap.  

Pro tip: if you tell a 15 year old boy the translation of “Grand Tetons,” be prepared for two solid days of giggling.  Just roll with it.

Apparently -- and I consider this a sign of the Decline of the West -- other people aren’t nearly as fascinated as I am by the fact that Evel Knievel once tried to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle.  We took a rafting trip on the Snake River, and when I asked the guide about it, he brushed it off with a curt “that was in Idaho” before changing the subject.  Even TW and the kids rolled their eyes!  Idaho, Wyoming, whatever -- it was a Rocket. Powered. Motorcycle.  

Sigh.  Without Evel Knievel, would Gonzo the Great have even existed?  Nobody appreciates the classics.  But I digress.

The eastern side of the Tetons lacks foothills, which makes for a striking visual.  The real issue there was parking, which was weirdly scarce, considering that we were in Wyoming.  You’d think the one thing that wouldn’t be lacking in Wyoming would be parking.  Alas, no.  But once we found spaces, the hiking was glorious.  Highly recommended.  

We met a couple from northern Iowa on the rafting trip; they called themselves “simple farm folk.”  (Seriously.  That’s a direct quote.)  When I mentioned our meteor shower adventure and how much bigger the sky seemed here, the woman from the couple mentioned that she felt confined there by having mountains on either side.  She was used to being able to see clear to the horizon.  She was also amused by my reference to Jackson Hole as “small.”  She found it intimidatingly large.  Perspective, I guess.

We spent the last night in Bozeman, Montana, which is a pretty artsy place.  It had a “music night” downtown while we were there, so we checked it out.  I was charmed by the banner for “The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.”  It turned out to be a sort of bait; anyone who took a picture of the banner got hit up for a contribution to the local food bank.  I considered it a fair exchange.

The kids discovered that views from airplanes can be great fun, but that air travel as an experience can be a bit of a nightmare.  By the last leg of the journey home, TG announced that she was done with flying for a while.  We all agreed.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog, and regularly scheduled job.  It’s time.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Friday Fragments

August 5 is Kay Ford’s last day at work.  I mention that because she’s my mom.  She’s retiring from Drexel University, where she has run the MBA Career Services office for the last ten-plus years.  

When she arrived at Drexel, the MBA Career Services office was an afterthought.  She got it to the point that it was ranked #1 in the world by the Financial Times, twice.  She knows what she’s doing.  At this point, Wharton steals ideas from her.  

I learned from the best.  She was even the first community college administrator in the family; she did corporate and workforce training for Monroe Community College in Rochester in the 80’s.  

Characteristically, she’s leaving Drexel in far better shape than she found it.  She’s leaving with the respect of her colleagues, and of the students she has helped.  

At her retirement reception on Monday, her dean quoted her saying “I don’t do drama.”  She doesn’t.  She does clarity.

So I’ll say this clearly.  Well done, Mom.  I’m proud of you.


True confession: I’ve never been a fan of “forced fun.”  Rope exercises, “field day” retreats, voluntold karaoke: they all feel more demeaning than exhilarating.  

Now the New Yorker says science proves I’m right.  Woo-hoo!

The “forced” part is the key.  Coerced emotions -- even allegedly positive ones -- bear the imprint of the coercion.  If you want people to be happy at work, apparently, you need to give them the autonomy to be themselves.  

Yes, yes, yes.  I’ve long thought that relative autonomy is one of the strongest attractions of the professoriate.  Most people don’t get superstar salaries, if they get salaries at all, but they get uncommon autonomy in what they do and how they do it.  Yes, a class may have a given day and time that it meets, and it will have certain goals, but how you achieve those goals is largely up to you.  

In administration, I’m more an enabler of autonomy than a beneficiary of it.  But that’s okay.  The goal is worthy, and now I have science to back it up.


Program note: for the next couple of weeks, the family and I will be dodging bears and watching meteor showers in Yellowstone Park.  The blog will be back on August 22.