Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Award I’d Like to See

The AACC named its finalists for excellence awards this week.  I read the list, noting with pleasure that I know personally both of the presidents who are finalists for “best CEO/Board relationships.”  (They’re both great.)  But then I noticed the geographic distribution of nominees.

Going down the list, the nominees for the various awards come from:

North Carolina
North Carolina

With the arguable exception of one nominee from Maryland, the entire Northeast got skunked.  On the map of awardees, everything from Delaware and Pennsylvania northward and eastward could be marked “there be dragons.”

I doubt that it was a conscious snub; that’s not how these things typically work.  And I don’t deny the merits of any of the nominees.  But the pattern was striking.
At the same time, the Chronicle featured an article detailing the demographic challenges facing Maine specifically, and New England generally.  In a nutshell, it comes down to a declining number of 18 year olds.  The piece notes that the birthrate fell off a cliff in 2008, so the slow decline of 18 year olds should become a precipitous drop in 2026.  Add to the demographics the fact that this region tends to have highly unionized faculty and staff, and administrations are squeezed between inexorable trends and inflexible rules.

As I mentioned recently to a colleague from the South, only half-jokingly, her colleagues are playing the game on the “easy” setting.  We’re playing it on the “black diamond” setting.  

That’s not to deny that other states have challenges; certainly, Illinois should get full credit there.  But it’s also easier to excel when you aren’t fighting accelerating demographic headwinds and an abundance of private colleges.  Growth forgives many sins.

As a sector, we’re good at noticing how measures like graduation rates tend to favor institutions that screen out anybody high-risk.  But we don’t seem to apply that lesson to ourselves.  I’d like to see serious attention at AACC and the League to colleges that have coped well with negative demographic trends.  

So, the award I’d like to see: “Best Management of a Significant Enrollment and Funding Drop in a Collective Bargaining State.”  The winners of that one could really teach us something useful.

Your move, AACC...

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Whose Skin? Which Game?

The hot policy topic around higher education right now is “risk-sharing,” or what sometimes gets called “skin in the game.”  It’s the idea that colleges should bear some of the risk for payback of student loans, so they’ll have an incentive to turn their back on risky students.  Sorry, I misspelled “do a better job.”  

I’ve mentioned before that for open-admission institutions, the concept is inherently silly.  We don’t control who shows up, and we don’t control access to student loans.  (We also don’t control recessions.)  Given those ground rules, “accountability” is merely punitive.

In discussion about a student today, though, I realized an even more basic objection.

Most students attend more than one college.  Many attend several.  Transfer is normal; “churn,” or transferring more than once, is common.  

Take “Lisandra.”  She starts at St. Someone College, and leaves within the first semester because she feels like it just isn’t the right fit.  She comes home and attends Nearby Community College for a couple of semesters to save money and get her confidence back.  Before graduating, she transfers on to Compass Direction State, where she finishes her bachelor’s.  She borrows money for all three schools.

Which school should be held accountable for her post-graduation results?  

Lisandra is fictitious, but her path is common.  Any serious proposal for risk-sharing would have to be able to answer the question.  

If St. Someone is on the hook, it might rightly object that it’s unreasonable to pin four years’ worth of loans on it for less than one semester of attendance.  Nearby CC might object that it charged far less than the other two places, so its contribution to the debt was far smaller, and she’s not an NCC alum.  Compass Direction State might well claim credit for her eventual degree, but a good chunk of Lisandra’s credits weren’t from there.  (Nationally, about half of bachelor’s degree holders have significant community college credits.)  

One could propose pro-rating, but that wouldn’t work, either.  Recall that Lisandra left St. Somewhere before finishing a semester.  Unless it’s progressive enough to have compressed courses within the term, that means she left without any credits.  That would let St. Somewhere entirely off the hook, despite its contribution to her debt.  That doesn’t seem right.

And as any community college administrator can tell you, credits don’t always transfer.  Suppose she took 50 credits at NCC before transferring to CDS, but CDS only accepted 39 of those credits.  (By national standards, that’s actually pretty good.)  Should NCC be on the hook for 50 credits, or 39?  What happens to the 11 orphaned credits?  

Again, any serious proposal for risk-sharing needs to be able to answer these questions easily and clearly.  I have not seen that, even once.

And that’s before getting into, say, AP credits, credits by examination, remedial credits, or ESL.  All of which are commonplace.

So, my question for proponents of “risk sharing” is based on Lisandra’s story.  You want skin in the game?  Whose skin?  Which game?

Monday, February 26, 2018

Procrastination, Good and Bad

Someone emailed me this week with a question about procrastination in administrative roles.  It got me thinking.

From what I've read, written, and lived, I see several different forms of procrastination (granting upfront that there may be more):

- The "I don't want to deal with this problem" kind.  This is completely unproductive, and often makes things worse.  The experience of failure actually helps with this, though; once you've face-planted a couple of times and still lived to tell the tale,you realize that "the worst that can happen" may not be so bad.  At that point, you might as well just rip off the band-aid and be done with it.  

- The "my brain needs to process this" kind.  This requires a certain confidence, self-awareness, and the ability to reflect.  Occasionally, when things are coming at me way too quickly, I make a conscious decision to put something aside for a day or several in order to let the cognitive dust settle.  Sometimes a breakthrough comes when I'm walking the dog or folding towels.  Leaving space for that to happen can be useful, if that's actually what's happening.  Be aware, though, that to external observers, what you perceive as “letting the dust settle” may resemble “not doing a damn thing.”  With time-sensitive issues, there’s no guarantee that the breakthrough will meet the deadline, either.

- The "program already in progress" kind.  Some problems take care of themselves, if given the chance.  I've even seen this in conversations, when someone comes in complaining, then gradually solves the complaint for herself while speaking.  Alternately, sometimes a course of action depends on something external happening (or not) and there's not much to do about it until then.  As a former manager of mine once told me, "don't just do something; stand there!"  There are times when that works.  (This version an also be expressed negatively as the “maybe it will go away” kind.)

- The "I forgot that I put that aside" kind.  I'll admit having done this myself.  Sometimes if a task falls low on the to-do list for a while, it sort of falls off.  It isn't so much procrastination as forgetfulness, but from the outside, they can look the same.  The danger of this one is that it sneaks up on you.  Holiday shopping often falls into this category.

I remember being awed, in my first days of administration, when I watched my boss keep his cool during somebody’s angry meltdown and respond to a pointed question with “let me get back to you on that.”  In the heat of a moment, it can be difficult to see the more reasonable third alternative to a dilemma; buying time can sometimes allow for clearer perception and, ideally, a better answer.

The key difference between useful and destructive procrastination is strategy.  Are you delaying out of a general sense of “I don’t wanna,” or is there reason to believe that delay will actually lead to a better result?  

The self-awareness piece is often the trickiest.  Nobody is at her best all the time.  Knowing when you’re just not in a position to make a good decision takes some trial and error, but once you know your own “check engine” lights, they’re worth watching.  When I can feel myself leaning towards a bad decision out of fatigue or spite, I’ve learned it’s best to step away and regain my bearings first.  The cost of a slight delay is far less than the cost of a stupid decision.

Even if you’re buying time for the right reasons, though, be aware that the rumor mill abhors a vacuum.  It will fill the silence with alternative explanations, many of which will be far more salacious or malicious than the truth.  Why people feel the need to do that isn’t entirely clear, but enough of them do that it isn’t surprising.  Choose those moments carefully.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found effective ways of getting around the bad kind of procrastination?  Have you found other ways of using the good kind well?

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Civic Engagement as a High-Impact Practice

As both a parent of teenagers and an educator, I’ve been both appalled and impressed over the past week.  The massacre in Parkland was horrifying, both in itself and in context of a long string of mass killings in schools, colleges, theaters, concerts, and other public venues.  But the response of the students there -- their poise, purpose, and moral force -- in confronting political leaders has been absolutely heartening.

Katherine Wheatle, from IHEP, hit the nail on the head on Twitter.  She asked whether protests and student activism will be recognized as “high-impact practices” in student engagement research.


In higher ed research, “high-impact practices” are proven ways to get students more involved in their education.  Examples include first-year seminars, common readings, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and capstone projects.  The common thread throughout that diverse list is an emphasis on moving students from a passive mode to an active one, and connecting course content to something larger.

The kind of political engagement the Parkland students are doing fits the bill.

It reminds me of an exercise I used to use in American Government classes.  The students had to write letters to an elected official who represented them, whether at the local, state, or national level.  The deadline was relatively early in the term.  They got extra credit if they brought in a written response.  I remember many of them being shocked that they got responses, and in some cases, the responses involved concrete actions.  Being acknowledged was empowering.  

These students, though, have taken it to another level.  They’ve been remarkably adept at confronting political figures on camera.  I was impressed at the teenager who went toe-to-toe with Marco Rubio in front of a full auditorium and a live national television audience.  Say what you will about their respective political positions, but that student was obviously both engaged and markedly well-spoken.  In some cases, the students have been so well-spoken that political opponents have charged that they were actors.

Nope.  They were trained debaters.

According to the Miami Herald, “every public high school and middle school in [Broward] county has a debate program, along with more than two dozen elementary schools.”  In fact, many of the high school students had worked on gun control debates this past Fall.  

If anyone doubted the relevance of training in debate and extemporaneous speaking, this should settle the argument.  The students are running circles around adults who speak publicly for a living.  (And that’s not to mention their mastery of social media…)

As the father of a debater, and a frequent judge in Jersey Shore Debate League tournaments, I can attest that poise on stage is a learnable skill.  I’ve seen remarkable progress, even by middle school students.  Students who could barely stand in front of the room in their first tournament lay waste to the opposition by their fourth.  The teams at the tournaments have a refreshing gender balance, and they’re typically more diverse than the schools from which they come.  My only disappointment is that they’re small segments of their schools, and most schools don’t have them at all.  

Debate involves overcoming stage fright, making arguments with evidence, mastering rhetoric, and thinking on your feet.  These are _exactly_ the skills that enable effective civic engagement.  

The Parkland students are combining years of training with obvious moral capital and a clear sense of purpose.  They will not be taken lightly, and should not be.  They are taking their roles as citizens, even before they’re allowed to vote.  I don’t think they’ll stop at 18.

They’ve given me hope in a dark time.  Is political engagement a high-impact practice?  Absolutely.  And kudos to them for showing us how it’s done.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Optimism or Gallows Humor? You Make the Call…

Wednesday was uncharacteristically hot for a Northeastern state in February.  A few of the classrooms actually become uncomfortably hot, and we couldn’t turn on the air conditioning because the college had previously decided -- reasonably -- that February should be a good time to take the cooling towers offline to repair them.  

It seemed like a safe bet.

Whoever said April is the cruelest month was wrong.  February is.  It’s the time of year when it feels like it has always been winter, it will always be winter, and the sun will never come back.  It doesn’t have a major holiday to distract you from the cold.  Sometime around early February is when I feel like winter has made its point and can leave anytime now, thank you very much.  

So a weirdly warm and sunny day in February means finding excuses to go outside.  

People who know me know that I walk faster than most people.  But I’ll admit a certain lack of urgency when walking between buildings on Wednesday.  It was just too glorious not to pause for a moment and take it all in.

Students, characteristically, adapted to the heat in milliseconds.  I saw one young man in a t-shirt, khaki shorts, and boat shoes.  In New Jersey, in February.  I don’t know his name, but I salute him.  

The moment that gave me pause, though, came when I overheard a couple of young people I assume were students chatting outside the student center.  One of them said:

“Global warming really takes the edge off February.”

I couldn’t decide if it was optimism or gallows humor.  Maybe a little of each.  And I could see a basis for both.

Yes, the idea of weather getting progressively weirder over time is scary.  My own area got hit hard by Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, so this isn’t an abstract proposition.  But a beautiful day in February is a beautiful day in February, even if it suggests something disturbing.  Guilty pleasures are still pleasures.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hugging? Really?

If you live long enough, some of your quirks wind up being vindicated.  

Coming from a long line of Swedes, my family wasn’t particularly huggy.  The first time I heard the expression “God’s Frozen People” I laughed out of recognition.  Growing up in very Italian areas, a mode of being that was considered appropriate at home sometimes got read as aloof or standoffish when out in the world.  It wasn’t; it was respectful distance.  But that didn’t always translate.

In college the Scandinavian way was fine; I went to college in New England, in a pretty WASP-y place.  A certain distance wasn’t considered weird.  In grad school, though, it often was.  Older male professors often liked to greet people with the arm around the shoulder from behind, or the solid back-slap.  Every single time someone did that, I bristled.  It wasn’t threatening, exactly, and certainly not in a sexual way, but it still felt inappropriate.  It was like claiming ownership.  I didn’t care for it, which actually annoyed a few of them.  I respect others’ boundaries, and prefer that they respect mine.  Fair is fair.

Finally, the culture is starting to catch up.  Sweet, sweet vindication is mine…

IHE’s story about college presidents greeting people with hugs, and sometimes hugging them against their will, struck a chord.  

In work settings, a certain distance is often appropriate.  I see that as part of a larger philosophy of what should come with positional authority.  Positional authority -- workplace power, if you prefer -- should be understood as entrusted.  It’s about the institution, not the person, and the point of the authority is to help the institution meet its goals. Holding a position of authority involves being entrusted with power for certain kinds of purposes.  Using it for other purposes is violating that trust.  

In collective bargaining negotiations about ten years ago, I had a revealing colloquy with a professor.  The issue at hand was the “community service” expectation in the contract.  She suggested having each professor prepare a lengthy portfolio for the administration to review, encompassing all of the community service work they had done.  Her line, which I remember to this day, was “don’t you want to know the whole person?”  I surprised her with a “no,” saying that it’s not up to me to judge the whole person.  My job was to evaluate job performance.  The rest of a professor’s life wasn’t any of my business, as long as it didn’t interfere at work.  She looked surprised, and perplexed, but I think the basic stance makes sense.

(The point of that is to allow space for a personal life, not to sacrifice a personal life to work.)

I wouldn’t support some sort of blanket ban on hugging, obviously.  Some people have known each other forever, and there’s a context of a much thicker relationship.  And sometimes awful things happen.  I remember people hugging and crying in the hallways on 9/11, for instance.  In moments like that, it makes sense to loosen certain rules for a bit.

But those moments should be understood as exceptions.  Because the feeling of being claimed against your will -- even if the other person doesn’t consciously realize that’s what’s happening -- is degrading.  It shouldn’t be a part of work.  And that’s without even addressing the sexual side to it, which I’ve been spared but many people, especially women, haven’t.  That is not okay.

My advice to presidents?  Handshakes are fine.  In exceptional cases, hugs from the front can be appropriate, but be attuned to any sign that this isn’t an exceptional case.  And don’t sneak up on people and grab them from behind, ever.  Just don’t.  

If you aren’t sure, err on the side of respect.  It may lead to a few awkward moments, but over time, it wears well.  You don’t even have to be Swedish to appreciate it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Services Go Up, Stuff Goes Down (Except Textbooks)

This chart makes quite the inkblot test.

It shows rates of price increase, adjusted for inflation, for a set of goods and services in the United States over the last twenty years.  Among the costs that dropped: cars, furniture, clothes, software, toys, and tv’s.  Wages, food, and housing were basically flat (though housing is spikier across locations, I’m guessing).  Costs that rose included medical care, childcare, college tuition, hospital stays, and textbooks.

With the exception of textbooks, an easy way to summarize the chart is that stuff got cheaper, and services got more expensive.  It’s Baumol’s cost disease in action.

Notably, the commentary on the economics site that posted it missed that point completely, instead veering into some snark about socialism.  I’m guessing that’s why the chart didn’t include international comparisons; we’d notice quickly that jackbooted socialist dystopias like Canada and Norway have cheaper healthcare and education than we do. But never mind that.  Instead, the site posits a vague conspiracy by which “bread and circuses” distract the masses.  Sigh.

Textbooks bucked the trend, and although they aren’t on the chart, I’d bet that prescription drugs did, too.  They’re both basically unregulated for-profit monopolies, and they behave accordingly.  The little squiggle at the end of the chart for textbooks may represent some overdue and very welcome competitive pressure from OER; I’m hoping to see a lot more of that.  Prescription drugs are another blog post entirely.

The reason that costs of services go up while costs of things go down is the relative difficulty of productivity increases.  It’s easier to increase the number of tv’s produced per hour than the amount a student learns per hour.  When both of those enterprises are in the same economy, the cost of the former will drop more than average, and the cost of the latter will rise more than average.  To the uninformed voter, or economist, or blogger, that will look like superior management in the former sector, and a lack of discipline in the latter.  It’s neither.  

I knew someone in college who had perfect pitch.  Not perfect relative pitch, but the real thing.  I commented that it must have been nice.  No, she said; it was awful.  She could hear every little flaw in everything.  Life was full of fingernails-on-chalkboard sounds for her.  

If you know about Baumol’s cost disease, that’s what a lot of our political and economic arguments feel like.  They’re so far off base that they’re actually painful to hear.  

Why is the public sector chronically squeezed?  Because it consists mostly of services, most of which are time-bound.  Education is measured in years (K-12) or hours (higher ed).  Measuring in units of time defeats productivity increases, by definition.  Incarceration is measured in time, too.  Police, fire, and military protection are 24 hours.  Closer to home, my daughter is in the 8th grade.  The 8th grade takes as long now as it did when I was in it, heaven help us all.  Meanwhile, the opportunity cost of what that teacher could have produced in manufacturing has gone up exponentially.  That’s not the fault of the school board, the teachers’ union, or school administrators.  It’s the nature of the enterprise.

Look at the graph.  Healthcare, education, and childcare (especially if you count the K-12 system in that category) draw heavily on public funds.  Furniture and television production don’t.  Public funds aren’t the critical variable -- again, note the lower cost of healthcare in single-payer systems -- but voters often see a correlation.  They see themselves getting squeezed on necessities, and blame the people who provide the necessities.  It’s understandable, if false.

In the regular calls for increased civic engagement in higher ed, I almost never see calls for explaining Baumol’s cost disease before anyone goes and votes without knowing about it.  We should.  If we don’t, we’ll keep getting blamed, punished, and cut.  The graph speaks for itself, whether its producers know it or not.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Accountability for What?

About fifty years ago, the sociologist David Riesman -- famed for The Lonely Crowd -- published a compilation of essays he titled “Abundance for What?”  It’s hard for contemporary readers to imagine, but at the time, serious American scholars were focused on what they considered the dangers of affluence.  At the height of the postwar economic boom, they were concerned that the central organizing principle of the economy -- scarcity -- was losing its pull, and that the culture would fall victim to entropy if it were not held together by material need.  Many of his cohort took the subsequent seeming chaos of the counterculture years as evidence for their thesis: with material scarcity a thing of the past, all hell broke loose.

In retrospect, the postwar observers’ faith that the gains of affluence would be evenly shared comes off as naive, even cute.  They couldn’t see the assumptions on which they based their analyses.  In the last forty years, the gains from increased productivity have gone almost entirely to the very top, with scarcity becoming much more real for most people.  As seriously as their work was taken at the time, now it reads as a dispatch from a forgotten era.

I was reminded of Riesman’s cohort in reading Robert Kelchen’s new book, Higher Education Accountability.  Kelchen is a scholar of higher education at Seton Hall, and his book is both an overview and an argument.  As an overview, it provides a valuable and concise introduction to many of the accountability regimes to which higher education has been subjected.  As an argument, it holds that whatever the flaws of existing regimes, we’ll gradually get better at measurement, to the eventual good of all.

As with Riesman, I can see where he’s getting it, but the larger issues underneath it all make me wonder.  

Kelchen’s historical overview is clear and helpful.  He calls attention to a long-forgotten effort at a federal ranking of colleges by the Taft administration (!), and traces the evolution of the American systems of regional, national, and programmatic accreditation.  His account of the last ten years or so is particularly strong, with nuanced readings of the increased scrutiny on for-profits, the trials of the City College of San Franscisco, and the relationships among various accrediting agencies and the Federal government.  I would have preferred more attention to the “outcomes assessment” movement as applied to individual courses, but that’s a quibble.

The argument is trickier.  In outlining theories of accountability, Kelchen helpfully lays out the principal/agent distinction and calls attention to its various dangers, but glides over the fundamental conflict over who is who.  In the context of public higher education, who is the principal?  

That’s not an abstract question; it’s at the heart of most of the issues I deal with daily.  

The “shared governance” model on which most colleges are run are built on the assumption (or aspiration) that a college is a closed system.  It was built specifically to blunt the influence of funders, and to allow academic freedom and relative institutional autonomy.  Kelchen correctly notes that autonomy can cover a great many sins, but the idea was that the faculty delegated operational authority to administrators while maintaining curricular authority to itself.  In that model, the faculty are the principal.  But Kelchen’s approach starts with the assumption -- defensible, but unargued -- that the state is the principal.  To the extent that we take the state as the principal, then matters like shared governance have to be profoundly rethought.  If the state is the principal, then faculty preferences become far less important.   As I’ve argued elsewhere, what may look to policymakers like accountability may look to faculty like usurpation.  There’s an intelligent argument to be made to the effect that the state should be the principal, but it goes unmade here.  

Kelchen does note in passing that increased state accountability has come at the same time as decreased state funding, which makes the “principal/agent” frame that much harder to sustain.  If he who pays the piper calls the tune, then states should be getting more circumspect, rather than more directive.  

Clearly, something else is going on.

“Accountability” implies both a clear judge and a clear task.  Kelchen notes correctly that many existing accountability systems, such as performance-based funding, are subject to predictable pathologies.  Colleges can game systems, such as by structuring remedial curricula to ensure that any students who place into remedial courses are removed from the “first-time, full-time” cohort that determines headline graduation rates.  He cites Campbell’s law, noting that any single quantitative measure used as a proxy can take on a life of its own and lose its validity as a proxy.  (For example, if pass rates are taken as the sole measure of success, then grade inflation will look like real improvement.)  Data aren’t always verified, which allows for cheating, and even good-faith analysts can define the same term differently.  

That’s all correct, as far as it goes.  Kelchen is admirably thorough and careful in delineating the ways that measures can go awry.  Full credit there.

But even as we refine the data -- and I agree with Kelchen that the analytics are improving -- we’re still left with the questions of judge and task.  

I’ll provide an alternate reading.

Kelchen notes in passing that most federal aid to colleges, especially outside of the research university sector, comes in the form of voucher-ized financial aid.  But he leaves that observation hanging out there.  I think it’s key to the whole thing.

As public college budgets have moved from mostly-subsidy to mostly-tuition, non-elite higher education has shifted from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market.  In other words, enrollments drive decisions.  Any countervailing force that pushes back -- whether it be regional accreditors, faculty unions, state governments, or anyone else -- quickly learns that the power has shifted to the students.  

The students are the principal.  Not just morally, but financially.  They pay the bills.

As a sector, we weren’t built for that.

The for-profits figured that out first, and demonstrated the dangers of taking that logic as far as it would go.  But now we see much of traditional higher education adopting perspectives and tactics that for-profits pioneered.  The economic incentives are too powerful not to.

For institutions to maintain academic integrity and improve performance, they need some autonomy (there’s that word again) from the marketplace.  They need to be able to take a long-term perspective, meaning that they need the material resources to survive a short-term hit.  That’s the logic behind endowments, reserves, tenure, and trustees.  But a more market-based system discounts the long term much more severely than our systems were built to do.

That’s at the root of much of the suspicion around performance-based funding, risk-sharing, and the other accountability schemes gaining currency now.  They all discount the future, and raise the cost of short-term risk.  They’re about increasing the power of the market, and doing away with any buffers.

In the case of performance-based funding, for instance, what happens if your college is identified as underperforming?  It’s deprived of resources.  Apply that same logic to, say, fire departments.  If we respond to an outbreak of arson by cutting resources for fire departments, what do we think would happen?  What starts as an effort to prod can quickly become a death spiral (or, as Kelchen notes, would if not for political leaders intervening).  PBF schemes almost never involve significant new money; they’re zero-sum at best.  That means they rely on creating death spirals to work.  To its supporters, that’s not a bug of PBF; it’s a feature.

That’s why I find Kelchen’s faith that internally generated measures will head off more interference unconvincing.  We’ve been generating measures internally for the last twenty years, yet the demands keep accelerating, even as funds flatline or drop.  The strongest supporters of PBF are also the strongest supporters of the student-as-consumer model.  We aren’t going to assess our way out of this.

At its base, the issue is political.  Graduates’ earnings are much more a function of the economy than they are of the English department.  And decisions about how to pay for higher education -- whether by shifting ever more of the burden to students, or by recognizing the need for actual operating funding -- are inherently political. Just like the decisions made over the last forty years to let all of the gains of productivity accrue to a lucky few.

Shortly after writing about endless abundance, Riesman co-wrote a classic book on higher education, “The Academic Revolution.”  It was about the emergence of a self-contained world of higher education, relying on the abundance of the time.  That world is gone, replaced by one in which we’ve adopted the market as a judge of all things.  The self-contained world of higher education is struggling in the more hostile setting, and has been for some time.  It can change, and I share Kelchen’s hope that it will find intelligent ways to do that.  But let’s not lose sight of the setting itself.  He who pays the piper calls the tune.  If we don’t like the tune, we know what we have to do.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Friday Fragments

One of the tougher parts of parenthood is seeing your own kids whenever you see footage of something awful.  I was too shattered to write Wednesday night after having seen clips from Parkland.  Those kids are my son’s age.  There but for the grace of God.

On Thursday The Boy reported that the teachers at his school seemed much more upset than the kids.  I told him that made sense to me.  The kids are confident that nothing bad could possibly happen.  The adults know that it can, and are old enough to remember when it almost never did.  Now, mass killings happen several times a week.  The kids take that as normal.  The adults still don’t, and I hope we never do.


From the “finally, some useful research!” files: a study at a large public university found that students perform better in classes that meet two or three times per week than they do in classes that meet once per week.

Colleges may be at the mercy of all sorts of outside forces, but they do have some control over class schedules.  

The findings are certainly consistent with what I had found in my own teaching days.  My favorite class ever was an intensive summer class that met four days per week, but I also had good luck with classes that might twice per week.  Once per week sometimes led to a third hour that wasn’t necessarily as productive as it could have been.  Attention spans are finite.  Besides, it’s easier to learn names when you see people more frequently.

I haven’t seen this particular question researched in a community college context, but I’m hopeful that perhaps some wise and worldly readers have...


This week’s piece in IHE about what provosts and deans actually do was fascinating in an anthropological sort of way, but it bore little resemblance to my world.

The key difference is that it was written in the context of major research universities.  
In my world, the typical difference between a vice president and a provost isn’t level.  It’s scope.  A vice president might oversee academic affairs, but a provost might be responsible for academic affairs, student affairs, and non-credit courses.  And there’s nowhere near enough money for “responsibility-centered management,” or the “every tub on its own bottom” structure.  Budgets are more tightly controlled, because, well, they’re tighter.  That may be an accidental blessing -- I’m emphatically unsold on RCM -- but we really don’t have the option.

Still, I enjoyed reading that one definition of a provost is “the chief dignitary of a collegiate or cathedral chapter.”  “Chief Dignitary” isn’t a bad title…


We had a death in the family last week.  My wife’s uncle died, so we went up to North Jersey for the wake and the funeral.

After the internment the family hosted a luncheon at a local restaurant.  The priest who officiated the funeral sat with us, along with my wife’s parents.  TW leaned over and whispered “the priest was Grandma’s prom date.”

I’ve been on this planet nearly half a century, but I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d ever heard that sentence.  It’s too good not to share.  The priest was Grandma’s prom date.  It sounds like a writing prompt.  Interwebs, have at it...

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

“But Mom Said…”

Folks on my home campus may be relieved to know that sometimes I read innovative, out-of-the-box ideas and actually _don’t_ like them.  This is one.

Karen Gross wrote a piece for the Aspen Institute arguing that many colleges would be better off with co-presidents.  The job is too big for one person, she suggests, and having someone else either to split duties or take turns would make the task easier for an actual human to carry out.

To which I respond by quoting my kids when they were younger: “But Mom said…”

Like most kids in two-parent families, The Boy and The Girl got pretty good at exploiting any sign of daylight between Mom and Dad on any given issue.  Our parenting styles are close enough that it didn’t usually get too bad, but the kids are both observant and smart.  “But Mom said…” became a counterargument that was hard to defeat without undermining the authority of the other parent.  

I can’t help but imagine something similar happening with co-presidents, even if they’re well-matched and in broad agreement about the direction they want to go.  Not having one person to give the final word would mean too many issues would get stuck in limbo.  Given how nuanced some issues are, it would be easy for misunderstandings to mushroom.

From a community-relations standpoint, it could get awkward.  Part of the job of a president is making connections with persons of influence and affluence to help support the college and its students.  Donors like to deal with the president.  A co-president would be unlikely to carry the same prestige.  The job would actually be harder to do well.

And that’s assuming that the pair is well-matched.  As one leaves, finding a new one would get even more awkward.  

None of which is to discount the argument that the job requires an unrealistic range of expertise in one person.  But there’s an easier solution to that.

Hire smart senior staff and let them be effective.  That requires two key skills: talent scouting and self-discipline.

The talent scouting piece comes into play in assembling a good leadership team.  Having very capable people in the various “chief (blank) officer” roles frees up the president from having to attend to a barrage of issues that can take the bandwidth that should be devoted to the tasks that only a president can perform.  If you have a team of experts in various things, you’re freed from having to be an expert in all of them yourself.

The self-discipline piece comes in allowing those smart folks to do their jobs.  That means giving them some room to move, as long as it’s in the right direction, and not rewarding end-runs around them.  And sometimes it means allowing them to shine.

I once reported to someone whose talent scouting was strong, but whose self-discipline was not.  Over time, it became a real issue.  Anyone who got too much attention had to be taken down a notch.  “Excel, but in moderation” is a tough rule to follow.  When I moved to a new boss who took her people’s successes as confirmation of her own good taste, the difference was palpable.  Combining good talent scouting with real self-discipline gave her people room to move.  

The combination of strong talent scouting with real self-discipline is rare, but I suspect it’s less rare than a dynamic duo that won’t get in each other’s way eventually.  Co-parenting is terrific, but I’m a fan of single presidencies.