Monday, June 11, 2018

The Persistence of Procrastination

I’m in Monterey, California, where I was invited to give a talk to some up-and-coming community college Career and Technical Education folk on procrastination.  No, I didn’t write it on the plane.

Monterey is a beautiful, if offbeat, place.  In the midst of a row of ice cream shops, seafood joints, and souvenir stands, it has a Salvador Dali museum.  He lived here for about ten years. Apparently, he was a big supporter of high school art programs while he was here.  (“When I’m taking a break from firing bullets of paint at canvases to depict the unspeakable psychosexual horrors of hell, I like to give back to the community.”)  He also threw a legendary surrealist party here, in which the guests included Gloria Vanderbilt and Bob Hope. Yes, that Bob Hope. (Old joke: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?  The fish!)

Monterey is also home to Rosine’s, a restaurant whose original cookbook has been a mainstay at home for many years.  I was tickled to see that the restaurant is still here. It’s excellent.

But the point of the trip was the talk about procrastination, which forced me to give the subject more thought than I usually do.  I’ll skip the self-help part and go straight to the larger issue.

As an industry, public higher ed has been procrastinating on dealing with certain issues for a long time.  They’re catching up to us, but the politics of addressing them in a serious and substantive way have been largely prohibitive.

The most obvious is probably deferred maintenance.  “Deferred” is another way of saying “put off,” so it fits the definition pretty well.  Most community colleges in the US were built in the 1960’s or shortly thereafter, so most campuses have significant numbers of buildings built during the low point of American architecture.  Back then, there was no architectural problem that couldn’t be solved without concrete slabs and flat roofs.

Except, of course, for water.  And ugliness. But mostly water.

Money for maintenance and renovation is often harder to find than is money for new construction.  The latter has a donor/politician appeal that the former simply doesn’t. But repairs delayed tend to get bigger and more expensive as the “patches” keep failing.  

In any given year, of course, there’s a prudent short-term argument for the cheap patch.  But over the long term, we’ll only see real improvement when somebody is willing to step up and break the pattern.  There’s always a political argument against that -- more money for building repairs means less money for other things -- but ultimately, water leaks care not about internal politics.  

The same could be said of the trend towards replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, and full-time staff with hourly staff.  (For that matter, you could even add replacing full-time administrators with consultants.) In any given year, there’s a prudent short-term argument for nudging up the percentage another point or two.  But over time, you hollow out your core. Breaking the pattern requires a conscious decision to break the pattern, which will necessarily strike some people as arbitrary. It will generate controversy. But the alternative is a long, gradually accelerating decline.

I don’t think either case is based on a real expectation that things will get dramatically better soon.  Buildings aren’t getting any younger, and I don’t see many community colleges growing their full-time faculty ranks.  In both cases, procrastination is based on incumbents riding out the clock. That’s not what leadership is supposed to mean.  I read recently that the sociologist David Riesman claimed that the role of trustees is to protect the future from the present.  It’s an elegant line, and it strikes me as true. Right now, the future is endangered by widespread procrastination, based largely on an unwillingness to fight the battles that need to be fought.

If the persistence of memory involves melting, the persistence of procrastination involves drowning; either we’re drowning in leaky buildings or we’re drowning in red ink.  As with more mundane procrastination, breaking the habit may require some unpleasantness. But I’d rather endure that than see community colleges relegated to museums.