Tuesday, June 20, 2017

States or Departments?

Who should control curriculum at public colleges?  States, or individual departments?

Each answer has a pretty clear implication for transfer.

I’m facing this one because some of the four-year schools in my state -- not naming any names -- have recently declared that they’re each unilaterally changing the rules for which courses they’ll take in transfer.  In at least one case, the impetus seems to have come from one department within the receiving institution before spreading.  This in a context of a state with a law mandating transfer, but with asterisks that seem to grow over time.

If you’re a believer in the autonomy of academic departments, this act of nullification may strike you as a blow for freedom, or standards, or some other good thing.  If the Basketweaving department at Compass Direction State U wants to hoard credits for itself, it can simply declare ex cathedra that similar credits from community colleges supported by the very same taxpayers that support CDSU just aren’t good enough.  Or similar enough.  Or whatever enough.  

If each college -- hell, each department within each college -- is permitted to nullify statewide agreements, though, it won’t be long before the requirements of the different four-year schools start to conflict with each other.  (That’s already happening.)  If you’re a community college with a strong transfer function, whose curriculum do you mirror?  To put it differently, whose curriculum becomes your default choice?

I understand the temptations of devolution.  A few weeks ago I got into a colloquy with Richard Florida about devolution in the context of the power relations between the Federal government and cities; broadly speaking, he favors more local autonomy, and I consider it a trap.  His argument is that many cities are far ahead of national governments in addressing some very real social problems, and they shouldn’t be hamstrung by an agglomeration of rotten boroughs from doing what needs to be done.  My argument is that in actual historical practice, locally oppressed groups have sought to socialize conflicts for a very good reason; it’s no coincidence that the rhetoric of “states’ rights” was deployed in the service of systematic racism.  The smaller the venue, the easier it is for local tyrannies to reign.  

The stakes are juuuuust a bit smaller in this case, but the basic logic is the same.  If we conceive of public colleges as entirely freestanding, then yes, the argument from devolution makes sense.  But if we see them as part of a larger ecosystem, then the idea that any department can go rogue at any time, for any reason, quickly becomes ridiculous.  Assuming that the taxpayers would prefer not to subsidize the same student taking the same course twice at different schools -- a safe assumption, in my experience -- there’s a compelling argument for some sort of central authority to be able to override local preferences.  

That can be done with varying degrees of grace, of course.  In Massachusetts the state did it right, starting with a series of statewide gatherings of faculty from both sectors, clustered by discipline.  It basically locked each discipline in separate rooms and told them not to come out until they had the outlines of a workable agreement about what everybody would teach and what everybody would accept.  The state mandated that the colleges agree, but remained neutral as to the content of the agreement.  That struck me as a smart way to do it.  I sat in on the poli sci discussions, during which it quickly became clear that the expectations of the two sectors were almost entirely distinct.  (Intro to American Government was the only point of consensus.)  And while it would have been easy for a given department on a given campus to tell a dean who asks too many questions to go pound sand, it was much harder for a professor at Compass Direction State to tell a counterpart at Local Community College that he didn’t count.  

Because at the core of these battles are students who lose credits in transfer.  We know from the literature that credit loss upon transfer is a powerful predictor of attrition, and for obvious reasons.  We also know that neither legislators nor taxpayers relish paying for the same thing twice.  If we want to provide “guided pathways,” it would be much easier if the pathways upwards were consistent with each other.  Otherwise, we’re left with an advising task of such complexity that it guarantees failure at scale.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way than the Massachusetts model?  Or are we stuck with a choice between centralized dictatorship and entropy?