Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Boy Selected…

The college search process is finally over.  And this is not an April Fools’ post.

It was an emotional weekend.  After months of applying to places, hearing things piecemeal, getting and weighing financial aid offers, unsuccessfully appealing one of them, getting word from the last college to report, and crunching some numbers pretty hard…

The Boy is going to UVA.  Five months from now, he’ll be ensconced in Charlottesville.

He’s excited and relieved.  The excitement is about moving to the next big life stage, getting to spread his wings, getting out of the house, and just throwing himself wholeheartedly into college.  The relief is about two things: knowing where he’ll be in a few months, and knowing that he’ll be out of New Jersey.

I knew he wanted to get out of New Jersey, but I didn’t realize just how badly he wanted out until the prospect of attending Rutgers started to look real.  Rutgers made a good offer, including the Honors College, and some of the out-of-state ones made terrible offers. He was despondent at the thought of being so close to home.

I was the same way at his age, only with “Western New York” replacing “New Jersey.”  I remember not even wanting to consider Cornell, because it was too close. That’s pretty much where he stood on Rutgers.  Great school, nothing against it, but it’s here. He wants to be somewhere else, just because it’s somewhere else. He got that gene from me.  If he’s like me, the power of that compulsion will fade later, but at seventeen, it’s compelling.

Having just gone through the process, a few observations:

  • UVA is one of the few public universities in the Eastern part of the country (along with UNC) that commit to meeting full financial need.  Admittedly, a term like “full financial need” is subject to different definitions, as anyone who lives in an expensive state and got hit hard by the loss of the SALT deduction can attest, but still.  Some places -- cough Michigan cough -- don’t even try.

  • Many of the others seem to confine meaningful aid to in-state residents, using out-of-state students as cash cows.  Michigan was the most egregious, which was frustrating because it was originally his first choice. But the offer it made was so absurd that I honestly don’t know why it bothered.  Michigan’s loss is Virginia’s gain.

  • Minnesota actually committed publicly to raising out-of-state tuition ten percent per year for the next several years.  When I saw that, we crossed it off the list. I was honestly shocked that they said that in public. My fearless prediction: Minnesota will see a decline in out-of-state enrollments.  In the age of search engines, you just can’t get away with that sort of thing.

  • Having followed news of TB’s friends, I get the impression that for some of the private universities, the waitlist is the new rejection.  I remember waitlisting being relatively rare when I was a student; now it seems like the default setting for many places.

  • The whole “Aunt Becky” admissions scandal had the unintended effect of reducing the sting of some responses.  Having empirical proof of what many of us had long suspected about using students as cash cows made the waitlist/rejections less personal.

  • “College Scorecard”-type “transparency” is utterly useless when it comes to predicting post-aid costs.  What matters isn’t the sticker price; it’s what you actually have to pay. And the two are only distantly related.  That’s especially true out-of-state.

  • The roommate selection process relies on social media.  Admitted students form (or are put into? I’m not sure…) Facebook groups or group chats to find each other.  That obviously wasn’t an option in my student days, but I was matched with a surfer dude and a football player, neither of whom I’ve seen in decades, so I can’t really stand on tradition here.

  • Finally, the formula for calculating “need” needs to be seriously rethought.  We hear a lot about “gapping,” which refers to aid that falls short of meeting the EFC.  But even the EFC is preposterously high. Price increases at this rate are not sustainable.  And as we’re regularly reminded, there’s no financial aid for retirement.

Having said all of that, and filed it for use in a few years when it’s The Girl’s turn, it’s time now to look forward.  TB is thrilled to have clarity on where he’s going next, and knowing that he’s going somewhere where he can make his own name.  He has med school in his sights, and I’m confident that UVA will give him the opportunity to step up, or not. Now it’s on him.

Charlottesville bound!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Friday Fragments

We’re living the truth of these two articles.  The first shares the results of a study finding that state-level disinvestment in public universities has led them to recruit out-of-state students as cash cows.  Judging by the financial aid offers The Boy has been receiving from out-of-state public universities, that’s really true. The post-aid prices they’re asking us to pay are wildly high, given that these are ostensibly public institutions.

The second, by Robert Kelchen, finds that universities that admit more out-of-staters as cash cows don’t necessarily use the revenue to lower prices for low-income students.  Instead, I’m guessing that they use the revenue mostly to forestall or minimize cuts.

The combination is rough.  If your kid wants to go out of state, and you aren’t wealthy enough to pay sticker price, it’s a pincer movement.  The Boy keeps getting accepted, but keeps receiving offers that make the acceptance irrelevant. Coming in the wake of the admissions scandal, I can’t blame him for being frustrated.


Meanwhile, a state that has done “free community college” the right way -- with broad eligibility and ample funding, and without post-graduation residency requirements -- is finding that community college graduation rates are increasing dramatically.


It’s almost as if large-scale improvement requires significant, sustained investment.  

I’m just gonna leave that there.


Not my usual beat, but I like this story a lot.  At one level, it’s about Fox News and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, but go ahead and ignore that; the really meaty part is about the connection between immigration policy and Social Security.

The short version is that the two issues are connected, but they’re connected in ways that run against the grain of much of our current politics.  Essentially, you can support The Wall, or you can support Social Security, but you can’t support both; the math doesn’t work. An aging society needs an influx of young immigrants to support its benefits.  As the article notes, modestly increasing legal immigration would ensure the fiscal solvency of Social Security for at least 75 years. Decreasing legal immigration would hasten the shortfall of funding.

What makes the piece so refreshing is that it connects the dots.  So much of our political discourse separates issues into silos, as if each can be considered in a vacuum from the others.  They’re connected in reality, but rarely in discussion. This article actually traces the connections, and does so in an intelligent, accessible way.

More like this, please…


Someone scrawled on a bathroom wall on campus “fight vandalism.”  Grudgingly, I had to tip my cap.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Going Off-Script

Some of my favorite moments in teaching came when students went off-script.  I’d ask a question expecting either a particular answer or an answer within a fairly predictable range, and the response would be so far removed from anything I expected that I’d have to improvise.  Those moments were fun, partly because they forced me to think on my feet, and partly because the rest of the class would immediately perk up to see if I could hit the curveball.

For example, in one American Government class, I was trying to illustrate the concept of interest-group pluralism.  I gave the class about twenty minutes to caucus amongst themselves prior to voting on who should get an extra five points added to their exam grade.  There were a few ground rules: no threats of bodily harm, no exchange of money, no sexual favors. The first few times I ran that exercise, a few students would quickly figure out -- having done the reading -- that they could form an interest group and all agree to vote for one person within the group; by pooling their votes, they could increase their chances.  We’d hold the election, someone from the organized group would win, and I’d point out that a small group that organized itself could beat a much larger group that didn’t. So far, so good.

Then came the class that wouldn’t cluster.  None of them did the “let’s form an alliance” thing, instead only bouncing off each other like pinballs.  A young woman won. When I asked her to explain her winning strategy to the class, she sort of shrugged, and said -- and this is a direct quote -- “I just sat here, looking pretty.”


After a beat of silence, I explained what I thought would happen, and why.  Then, happily, I somehow had the presence of mind to explain that in the absence of organization, candidates fall back on charisma.  Bullet dodged. Some of the sharper students seemed to appreciate the save. The moment was more memorable, and probably more effective, for being spontaneous.

I saw an off-script moment this week that could have really gone somewhere.  

Brookdale hosted a community meeting at its center in Long Branch.  Long Branch is the most racially and economically diverse location we have.  It has a large Brazilian population, as well as a large Spanish-speaking population from several Central and South American countries.  The meeting featured a panel of adult students who had immigrated as adults. Some spoke Portuguese as a first language and some spoke Spanish.  All of them visibly struggled with English, though they were able to make themselves understood. All were women, and all had gone through at least some coursework at Brookdale.  

The moderator passed the mic down the row, asking each women whether she felt like she had the same educational opportunities as her native English-speaking classmates.  He was clearly trying to highlight the extra obstacles the women faced, in hopes of spurring us to clear as many obstacles as we could for other prospective students in similar situations.

But they went off-script.  Each one said, without hesitation, that she felt like she had all of the same opportunities as their native-born counterparts.  If anything, they seemed a little surprised at the question. The moderator didn’t know what to do with that.

It was a missed opportunity for a much more interesting conversation.  At one level, of course, the women were right; nobody blocked them from enrolling, and they were able to achieve what they had wanted.  But it would be implausible to pretend that they didn’t face extra obstacles.

I started to wonder about the function served by the belief that they didn’t face extra obstacles.  The venue perhaps didn’t lend itself, but I would have liked to see the conversation go that way.
Would too much reflection on the many obstacles they faced have been dispiriting, and therefore demotivating?  Did they ascribe their extra struggles to themselves as individuals, rather than to the college? Were they consciously trying to preserve a sense of agency, or did they simply define the question differently?

Their response reminded me slightly of the different ways that students at DeVry reacted to postmodernism, as opposed to the way that students at Rutgers did.  The Rutgers students didn’t enjoy the prose style -- I couldn’t blame them for that -- but they saw some value in showing that power operates in subtler and more complicated ways than we often assume.  Some of them were able to apply it to dilemmas in their own lives. Even if it didn’t lend itself to obvious solutions, it at least offered some context for things that otherwise seemed natural and fixed.

At DeVry, though, the students saw it as defeatist.  If power is everywhere, they’d ask, then what’s the point?  Rather than making the world more legible, it made the world more overwhelming.  They needed to clarify, not to “problematize.”

The key difference, I think, is that the Rutgers students took for granted that they had some sort of agency.  They were mostly from middle or upper-middle class families, mostly traditional aged, and mostly bound for professional jobs.  The DeVry students were mostly working-class and down, mostly in their mid-twenties and up, and deeply skeptical of anything complicated.  They didn’t assume agency; if anything, they assumed their own powerlessness. One group assumed it had power, and it saw a more sophisticated analysis of power as useful.  The other group assumed it didn’t have power, and saw complicated analyses as putting it ever farther out of reach.

The students on this panel weren’t interested in telling us how hard it was.  They were interested in celebrating the fact that they got to do it at all. The moderator was trying to complicate the picture, implicitly assuming the class position of folks on the inside who are trying to throw the doors wider open.  The students were just happy that they got in at all.

We didn’t have that conversation, which is too bad.  These women were clearly bright, and could have taught us much more if we had asked the right questions.  They didn’t seem to be trolling or pranking at all; given the chance, they might have shared a perspective from which we could have learned something valuable.

Alas, improvisation is hard.  The moment passed. But the accidental revelation of a very different way of looking at the world suggested that there’s much more work to do to understand where our students are coming from.  The obstacles they face are real, but so is the need to feel powerful enough to overcome them.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

More Like This, Please

Press stories about college closures are becoming common enough to form a genre.  As with any genre, certain conventions have emerged. There’s the profile of the struggling student, the synopsis of recent questionable decisions by institution leaders, and the reference to local demographics.  In the case of for-profits, there’s a long discussion of the stock market; in the case of non-profits, there are typically profiles of newly-unemployed faculty.

It’s vanishingly rare to see profiles of newly-unemployed faculty of for-profits.  

Closures of non-profits are treated as demographic inevitabilities or human tragedies; closures of for-profits are covered as financial or legal matters.  But they have employees, too, and many of those employees -- especially on the front lines -- are just as dedicated to students, and just as abruptly jobless, as their counterparts at non-profits.  They deserve to have their stories told, too.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see this story from a Minneapolis television station about the abrupt closure of its local branch of Argosy University.  Argosy makes a great financial story because its ownership saga over the last couple of years was deeply weird; I and others have covered that at length. But it’s also a story of faculty who suddenly lack health insurance, and who suddenly are tossed onto the job market at an awkward time in the hiring cycle.

The general silencing of laid-off employees of for-profit enterprises doesn’t hold in other industries.  When an auto plant shuts down, for instance, it’s normal to see stories told from the perspectives of the displaced workers.  (As Sarah Kendzior has noted, the folks telling the stories often swoop in from the coasts, which can lead to some awkward moments, but at least they’re trying.)  The same holds in most blue-collar industries. But in this industry, not so much.

I think the blind spot comes from a few sources, each overlapping.

For one, many in traditional higher ed simply don’t take for-profit colleges seriously (or, if they do, take them only as predators).  There are plenty of reasons for that, some of them valid. But it doesn’t change the fact that the chronically bad academic job market of the past few decades meant that for some of us, a for-profit was a port in a storm, and we tried to make the best of it.  In my time as a Dean at DeVry, I saw some excellent teaching. Many of the folks I saw teach have lost their jobs over the years as the place has downsized repeatedly. I taught just as well at DeVry as I did at Rutgers, Kean, and the County College of Morris, but the former was a punchline while the rest were not.

Relatedly, many people outside of for-profit higher education think that the faculty in it are entirely adjunct and unqualified.  In my observation, the adjunct percentages were comparable to community colleges, and the qualifications were generally pretty strong.  My own department included Ph.D.’s from Rutgers, Yale, NYU, UC-Santa Barbara, and Temple, among others. None of us was entirely happy to be where we were, but compared to adjuncting at other places, well, it paid the rent.  And we worked -- hard -- to give the students good classes.

None of that is to defend the business model.  But it is to defend many of the people who worked there.  They -- we -- were worthwhile and capable people doing the best we could under the circumstances.  Some of us have found homes in community colleges throughout the state. I’m not even the only DeVry escapee to be an academic vice president at an NJ community college, nor am I the only DeVry escapee to work at Brookdale.  We’re everywhere.

So, kudos to KSTP in Minneapolis.  And to my colleagues in the higher ed press, more like this, please.

Monday, March 25, 2019

A Stumper

On Monday, the Trump campaign sent out a memo to “television producers” with a list of people it strongly suggests should be banned from any future appearances.  The enemies list “includes, but is not limited to:” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Rep. Eric Swalwell, DNC Chairman Tom Perez, and former CIA Director John Brennan.  The memo concludes with a “nice license you have there, should would be a shame if anything happened to it” style threat: “At this point, there must be...a serious evaluation of how such guests are considered and handled in the future.”

That’s one thing.  

But just last week -- I am cursed with historical memory -- the Trump administration issued an executive order to “protect free speech” on college campuses.  The idea was that students should be exposed to all sides of arguments, not just those a given faculty or administration might find congenial.

So now I am confused.

What would happen to a college that invited someone on the enemies list to speak?  Would it be upholding free speech, or declaring itself an enemy of the state? Or, to flip it around, what would happen to a college that disinvited someone on the enemies list from speaking?  Would it curry favor as a supporter of the regime, or would it run afoul of the free speech protections on which the ink isn’t yet dry?

I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised to see the enemies list circulated as a memo.  Compared to, say, the Nixon administration, that seems so...artless. But there it is.

Matters get more complicated when you take federalism into account.  The presidency may be “red,” but many states, including my own, are decidedly “blue.”  What if the blue folks started to get as aggressive as the red ones?


Call me old-fashioned, but I’m really not a fan of enemies lists or extortionist threats.  Anyone with a sense of history knows where those lead. Honestly, I had thought we were over that sort of thing by now.  The fact that the statement “my opponents should be allowed to speak” has become a partisan identifier is harrowing. It should be a ground rule.  I thought it was.

So, I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers to help me figure this one out.  If a college allows someone on the enemies list to speak, which rule applies?   The one that says we have to, or the one that says we can’t? And how do we know?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thoughts on Alder College

Admittedly, I’m late to this one, but I just saw this story about the folks in Oregon trying to create a new non-profit two-year college they call Alder College.  The idea is that it will replace the “checklist” model of general education with a tightly cohorted two-year interdisciplinary program culminating in an AA degree.  Students will have to be full-time, and will take themed clusters of courses in short blocs. It’s going to be aimed particularly at low-income students and students of color.  

I like the spirit behind it.  Very few nonprofit colleges are springing up these days, especially if you don’t count former nonprofits trying to stave off the inevitable.  The focus on liberal arts is doubly rare. It seems to have a clear educational vision, to its credit. The founder interviewed in the piece, Jennifer Schubert, doesn’t show any signs of wanting to disrupt the entire industry or go global; it looks like she just wants to create a good little college that will offer learning communities to students who have been underserved.  Nothing wrong with that.

That said, I’m not surprised that it’s having trouble getting off the ground.  

As a nonprofit without an endowment -- Schubert mentions in the piece that they haven’t any major donors step up -- it would necessarily be tuition-driven.  That’s nearly impossible in the early stages, since you have to hire people before you can start cashing checks. Let’s say they somehow get past that; if the last year or so has taught us anything, it’s that small liberal arts colleges with tuition-driven budgets are swimming against the tide.  Just ask the folks at Dowling, Wheelock, Newbury, Green Mountain, the College of St. Joseph...

That’s particularly true if you’re targeting low-income students, as Schubert suggests.  By definition, these are students who can’t pay full freight. They are also, often, students who can’t attend full-time.  They need to work, both to support themselves and often to support their families. Requiring them to be full-time students will vastly shrink the pool of students who could even consider it.

Guttman College, in New York City, has been able to do a version of this.  But that’s because it skims the relatively few students able to do it from the population of New York City.  It’s an impressive model, but it can only survive in a very specific setting. And it has public funding.

The number of private, non-profit, two-year liberal arts colleges in America is vanishingly small.  They have to compete with community colleges, which have the (declining, but still real) advantage of public funding.  That means they don’t have to charge the full cost of production. The private ones do. And although Schubert trots out the usual suspects of “bureaucracy” and “hierarchy,” Alder wouldn’t be immune to most of the cost drivers that everyone else faces.  It would need tutoring, and IT, and financial aid staff. It would need an EEO officer, and disability services, and marketing. None of those directly generates revenue, but you can’t skip any of them. And because they’re targeting Portland, Oregon, I assume rent won’t be cheap.

Honestly, what Schubert is talking about here sounds more like a really good Honors program at a community college.  There’s no shame in that. Alternately, it could morph into a network of dual enrollment programs, essentially piggybacking on high schools for the institutional support.  Or she could change the target market altogether and try to make it into something like a Chautauqua of the West Coast. But trying to revivify a dying business model for a transfer-focused degree at twice (or more) of the cost of local community colleges?  As much as I like to root for anyone trying to start something positive, I really don’t see it. The students she would want would be unlikely to be able to attend full-time at full price in sufficient numbers to keep it afloat. The local community college would undercut her on price.  

I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a way to build a non-profit, tuition-driven, liberal-arts focused two year college these days?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Friday Fragments

Jessica Calarco has a thought-provoking thread on Twitter this week about how to respond to young kids when they’re denied something they want, and scream “no fair!”  

I like it a lot because it gives kids credit for being smart.  It assumes that if you give them a thoughtful answer, they’ll rise to it.  That’s often true.

Check it out; she wrote it better than I could.


As a followup to the post earlier this week about shadowboxing with Calvin -- which may have to be the title of my next book, with a hat-tip to @Infamous_PhD for the suggestion -- it’s worth remembering that the term “meritocracy” was originally satirical.  It was popularized by the British sociologist Michael Young in a dystopian novel published in 1958.

The idea gained currency as an alternative to overt racism and sexism, and to the extent that it is, it’s certainly preferable.  But it still assumes stratification, and it conflates social rank with moral standing. That was the point of the satire, and it’s why the concept is so insidious.  It offers folks on the top all of the rewards and self-regard of the older aristocracy, but without any of that annoying noblesse oblige.

Anyone on top who doesn’t have a healthy sense of “there but for the grace of God go I…” doesn’t get it.  I’ve tried to teach that to my own kids. They’re good kids, they study, they follow the rules, and they try hard.  That’s to their credit. They were also born to educated parents in an affluent country, physically healthy, in a home without mental illness or substance abuse, and with family histories that suggest a high likelihood of long and healthy lives.  They get credit for those, too, but none of those is their doing. They just happened to do pretty well in the birth lottery.

I hope they continue to work hard, and that they’re able to live the lives they want to lead.  I hope that they’re safe, and happy, and that when the time comes, they’ll find partners who love them as much as we do.  But I also want them to understand, at a visceral level, that luck is never far from the surface. That we have moral obligations to treat people decently, and to try to nudge the world in a direction where more people are treated fairly.

Having grown up in second-tier suburbs of an out-of-the-way city, and then attended a college full of rich kids with last names some folks would recognize, I can attest that material success and moral decency are, at best, uncorrelated.  The basic myth of meritocracy is false. I know some admirable people with unremarkable careers, and I’ve met some folks who embody the term “stinking rich.” People are just people. Don’t defer to them for being rich, and don’t lock them in cages for being brown.  Just be decent, and build a decent society. The rest is commentary.


Last week TW and I decided to play “tourist” in our own city -- to the extent that NYC is our own city -- so we caught the production of “Network” with Bryan Cranston, followed by a pizza tour of Brooklyn.

I still have a hard time seeing Cranston without picturing “Malcolm in the Middle,” but he was terrific.  In the movie, Peter Finch played Beale’s “mad as hell” scene as angry; in the play, Cranston plays it almost fragile, like he’s desperately grabbing onto anger in an attempt to keep the demons at bay.  It was more affecting than I expected.

Tony Goldwyn was weirdly miscast in the William Holden role; I really don’t know what they were thinking there.  The Faye Dunaway role -- horrifically written in the movie -- was played more for laughs, which was about the only thing you could do.  

The pizza tour was more tour than pizza, which was too bad; the premise was excellent.  Imagine a barbecue tour of Memphis or Kansas City, or a cheesesteak tour of Philly. (Maybe not a garbage plate tour of Rochester, if only for fear of heart attacks…)  The Sicilian pizza at L&B in Bensonhurst was a work of art. According to the tour guide, they bake the cheese onto the crust before adding the sauce, which was cooked separately so it would sweeten; that way, they could apply enough sauce to satisfy without making the crust too soggy.  I don’t usually order Sicilian, but this was extraordinary. And it came on plastic plates with thick plastic cups of soda, like God intended.

Pizza Hut is bigger, but I’ll take this one anytime.  Meritocracy? Fuhgeddaboutit...

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When Ladders Disappear

Some costs are harder to estimate than others.  I’m not quite sure how to estimate this one, but I’m convinced it’s both real and increasingly substantial.

When organizations have multiple layers and ranks, it’s possible for employees to envision an upward career trajectory.  If enough employees actually move up, over time, an expectation forms that if you do your job well and don’t do anything egregiously awful, there’s a real possibility of promotion.  Sometimes that can become an unearned sense of entitlement, which isn’t ideal, but if the possibility hovers in that sweet spot of “plausible, but you have to work for it,” it can actually motivate people to work more or better than their immediate rank or pay level would seem to require.  They’re building credits for moving up. To use a phrase I don’t like, they see it as paying dues.

When revenues get tight, colleges will often eliminate intermediate layers.  The idea is that if you have to do triage, you want to ensure that resources go to direct service, meaning those who work directly with students.  In the short term, the logic is hard to refute. Barely a day goes by that I don’t see someone on the internet rail against “deanlets” and all sorts of imagined parasites lodged in the theoretically bloated administrative ranks, as if community colleges and research universities are interchangeable.  

But taking away those ranks takes away a career ladder.  Over time, the folks on the front lines may start to wonder why they’re paying dues in the first place.  That leads to departures, or burnout, or just a gradual reduction of effort from “proving myself” to “doing only what’s required.”  

In other words, the very measures undertaken in response to decline can actually accelerate decline.  The previous baseline included performance above what was being paid for, because the folks going the extra mile had some sense that it would eventually be rewarded.  If that sense goes away, then gradually, those extra miles go away, too.

In other words, an apparent short-term efficiency gain brings with it a long-term cost that’s hard to quantify, but that is both real and compounding.  It’s a reaction to the loss of a plausible future.

I don’t know what the term is for that, or whether anyone has quantified it.  Higher ed is prone to it even in good times, given that someone who achieves the rank of full professor in her 40’s has no higher to go for the next few decades unless she switches jobs entirely.  Outside of faculty roles, it’s often impossible to move up until someone above moves on. If that person’s job vanishes behind her, then there’s nowhere to go.

In austere times, worrying about people’s career ladders may seem like a luxury, but it isn’t.  It’s part of what motivates folks to step up.

Is there a term for that?  If so, has anybody quantified its effects?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Basic Needs and Mission Creep

It’s not the objections I anticipate that give me trouble.  It’s the ones I never see coming.

As part of the local Academic Master Plan, we’re looking at systematically addressing student basic needs.  That entails looking at the material preconditions to enable students to pay attention to their studies: food, transportation, and the like.  The idea is twofold. Morally, enabling students to study is the right thing to do. Pragmatically, getting some material obstacles out of students’ way will likely pay off in improved retention and completion numbers.  It’s the rare chance to do well by doing good.

I anticipated certain objections, mostly along practical lines.  The logistics of a meaningful intervention are not trivial. We’d have to identify spaces, funding streams, and personnel.  Those strike me as reasonable caveats, but not as deal-breakers.

The one I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have, was that addressing basic needs amounts to mission creep.  The argument goes like this: we have limited resources, there’s potentially unlimited need, and other charities and agencies already exist.  Shouldn’t we focus on teaching well, and leave those other issues to other people?

The problem with that objection, to my mind, is that it assumes a much more reasonable world than the world in which we live.  If every student were securely housed, well-fed, and able to devote herself entirely to study, then the objection would be correct.  Alternately, if the existing external safety net programs were sufficient to meet the need that exists, then it could make sense to leave that task to them.  

But that’s not our world.  

It’s hard to focus on, say, microbiology when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.  It’s hard, too, when you’re working forty hours a week for pay just to keep the lights on. That difficulty makes it hard to get the training to get the job that lifts you out of poverty.  Even if you have drive and talent, you still need to eat.

I understand the objection from mission creep.  It’s true that what counts as basic needs can be debated.  We don’t have dorms. And resources are clearly finite. But if we’re going to fulfill the mission of providing opportunity -- and more cynically, if we’re going to be held to account for graduation rates -- it’s self-defeating to pretend that material circumstances don’t matter.

At a deeper level, I wonder if concern about “mission creep” comes from a more Calvinist assumption about college as separating the worthy from the unworthy.  “Handouts” violate a cultural norm because they include the “unworthy.” Good grades accrue to the “worthy.” If we make it “too easy,” then some of the “unworthy” will slide through, and we’ll debase the currency.  That’s the argument that some prep schools are making against AP exams; now that just anybody can take them, well, just anybody can take them.

To the extent that we’re shadow-boxing around Calvinist cultural default settings -- don’t try metaphors like this at home, kids, I’m a trained professional -- it’s hard to make progress.  In shadow boxing, you can land what looks like a haymaker, yet your opponent still stands. That’s because you haven’t actually made contact with what’s making the shadow. To the extent that we, as a culture, define poverty as a character flaw -- often without even knowing that we’re doing it -- we’ll get twitchy about identifying material obstacles to education.  Part of what makes the work of public higher education both noble and really, really difficult is that it draws on underlying assumptions that conflict with each other.

I’ll cut myself some slack for not having sussed out unconscious Calvinism when I innocently suggested that feeding students might be a good idea.  Unconscious ideas can sneak up on you; you don’t really see them until you violate them. But that makes them particularly hard to battle.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective on-the-ground way to defuse the assumption that poverty is a character flaw?

Monday, March 18, 2019

On Political Litmus Tests

An unimaginably long time ago, I was a graduate student in normative political theory, also known as political philosophy.  It wasn’t necessarily one of my better life choices, but I didn’t know that at the time. My small and scrappy group of peers and I tried to blast our way through the canon of Western political thought -- from Plato to NATO, as we said then -- along with the then-current layers of interpretation.  I had to learn to do battle with Benjamin Barber on Rousseau, with Stephen Eric Bronner on Habermas, with Linda Zerilli on Judith Butler, with Jackson Lears on Eugene Debs, and with Carey McWilliams on John Dewey. (Peers included such current stars as Manfred Steger, known for his work on globalization; Cristina Beltran, known for her work on Latino politics and identify; and Patrick Deneen, known for his work on liberalism.)  It was a different time.

I don’t use much of that training in my day job, at least directly.  Some of the habits of mind probably come through in my writing, but only in passing.  I’m much more likely to write about budget cuts than about the relationship between consciousness and being.  That’s probably for the best.

But Florida’s proposal to commission a mandatory state survey on the political leanings of faculty draws on both sides of my background.  And as both a card-carrying political theorist and an experienced academic administrator, I can attest that Florida’s idea is a garbage fire.

It’s silly in a host of ways.  I won’t even address the free speech issues, on the grounds that they’re too obvious to address without seeming condescending.  Nor will I go to the assumption that students uncritically imbibe their professors’ perspectives. Anyone with teaching experience can see the hole in that one.  I won’t even go to legislative intent, other than to note that the folks all worked up about political leanings in universities don’t seem the least bit bothered by political leanings of the police or the military.  And they’re armed.

But never mind all that.  Let’s go instead to the core assumption of the proposal: that there are two clearly identifiable schools of political thought -- liberal and conservative -- that exhaust the universe of possibilities.  Relatedly, the two are assumed to occur in roughly equal proportions.


At a high level, other concepts include monarchism, fascism, socialism, communism, anarchism, libertarianism (known in the trade as “classic” liberalism), social democracy, populism, corporatism, and all manner of utopian separatisms, just for starters.  And within each, the varieties are endless. Does your conservatism worship tradition or the market? As Daniel Bell noted decades ago, and Max Weber decades before that, the market eats tradition for breakfast. (Today’s “disruption” is Polanyi’s “creative destruction” with a California accent.)  Is your conservatism isolationist or interventionist? Does its distrust of “bigness” extend to business, as in trust-busting, or is it confined to social programs? Is your vaunted pragmatism in the Deweyan tradition that assumes historical progress, or in the Nietzschean tradition that prefers power for its own sake?  Is your liberalism more libertarian or more social democratic? Is your socialism “scientific” or democratic?

These aren’t just abstractions.  People have taken bullets for these ideas.  And versions of them make the simple “red or blue” dichotomy ridiculous.

FDR, for instance, noted that the folks who slandered him as a Bolshevik-on-the-Hudson failed to understand that he was bending capitalism so it would not break.  He was saving it. Is that conservative -- saving the tradition -- or liberal, because changing it? (The correct answer is “yes.”) Was George Wallace a populist, a liberal, or a conservative?  (Again, “yes.”) How is it that so many former Leninists became “neoconservatives” without really changing how they thought? For that matter, how is it that someone like Bob Dole supported affirmative action?

Party registration is a terrible guide; people can just switch.  And issue questions can mislead. For example, I was much more open to the Keystone pipeline than many of the people I usually agree with.  My reasoning was that we’re going to import oil anyway, and I’d rather support the Canadian regime than the Saudi regime. Does that make my stand conservative or liberal?  

Support for public higher education used to be a Republican calling card.  Nelson Rockefeller was a great ally of SUNY. The idea was that education was a less threatening avenue of social mobility than forced redistribution or revolution; it was a culturally traditional safety valve for discontent.  Is closing off a safety valve for social mobility truly conservative, in the sense of preserving a system? It’s precisely the sort of thing an accelerationist Marxist would endorse.

On an operational level, of course, any sort of quota system or hiring preference based on ideology would be a train wreck.  People’s views change. Sometimes that happens through research, sometimes through experience, and sometimes through changes in the world.  (I’m thinking here of Brad DeLong’s recent admission that the “centrists” of the Clinton era were snookered by the right, and that today’s centrists should instead lean left.)  If I’m hired to be the local liberal, and my views start to shift, do I get fired? If so, we’ve effectively banned honest inquiry.

Besides, I neither know nor care about the political beliefs of the folks here who teach math, or automotive tech, or music.  I’ve never asked, and it has never come up. There’s no reason it would. And even in the “softer” areas, assuming that someone who subscribes to one school of thought can’t teach another is just plain false.  The folks in the “Plato to NATO” canon didn’t agree with each other -- at all -- yet a single professor can teach them all. Poll faculty in fields like sociology and political science, and I’d bet you’d find that they’ve all given good grades to students with whom they disagree.  It’s called “doing your job.”

Colleges aren’t meant to be propaganda wings of whichever party is in power.  They’re meant to help students develop the ability to figure out their own beliefs, often through confronting worldviews very different from their own.  If your worldview is so brittle and delicate that it can’t survive exposure to someone who disagrees with it, you’ll have a hell of a time participating in a free society.

No, Florida, you shouldn’t subject college faculty -- or any public employees -- to litmus tests, loyalty oaths, or Un-American Activities Committees.  Students of political history know where that leads. It isn’t pretty. As both a student of the history of political thought, and an experienced public college administrator, I implore you: don’t do this.  It will not end well.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Internal Searches and Generational Justice

This is one of those cases where my personal inclination and my organizational imperatives conflict almost perfectly.  

In a setting of declining resources, we still sometimes have to hire.  Part of that is because natural attrition doesn’t necessarily happen where it would be most organizationally convenient.  Part of it is because much of the time, attrition means dividing the same amount of work among fewer people, and that may mean reconfiguring a job enough to require a new search.  Sometimes it’s less linear than that, where a combination of attrition and reconfiguration has a snowball effect, creating a new role two or three steps removed.

As a matter of principle, I favor open -- meaning external -- searches.  That doesn’t necessarily mean favoring external candidates; it just means giving them a shot.  Occasional new blood can bring fresh eyes to old problems, and can bring skill sets that no incumbents have.  Ideally, they also bring with them experience elsewhere that can prevent easily-foreseen mistakes. External searches also open up the possibility of increasing the diversity of employees; at many places, including my own, that’s a real concern.  

Having done plenty of external searches over the years, I can attest that incumbents generally have an advantage.  They’re known, they know the local land mines, and they (usually) have the sympathetic support that comes with home field advantage.  So favoring external searches does not necessarily mean favoring external candidates.

But sometimes the gravitational pull towards an internal search can be powerful.

That’s particularly true when you’re cutting budgets.  If you’re able to move a person from role A to role B, and collapse role A behind them, then the only new cost is the difference in salary between roles A and B.  If you bring in a new person, role B is an entirely new cost, unless you pair it with firing the person in role A, which has costs in both money and morale. So the general preference for external searches on the grounds of fresh eyes and diversity starts to look expensive.  If you stick with internal people and leave old roles unfilled behind them, you conserve the morale of the existing employees, give one lucky winner a raise, and save money; if you go with a pure new hire, either you take on the entire new salary, or you lay somebody off and take the hit to morale.  

I don’t generally see conflict aversion as a legitimate basis for decisions, but I have to admit that some conflicts are easier to avoid than others.  Assuming a real cost to conflict, there’s a valid short-term argument to the effect that when resources are drying up, adding perceived insult to real injury is unlikely to end well.

From a generational perspective, this is how upward distribution works.  Defaulting to internal searches amounts to de facto discrimination in favor of those who happened to get there first.  If you’re late to the party, well, sorry. For new folks just coming out of grad school, or people in other places looking to make a change, you’re just out of luck.  And diversity takes a back seat, however reluctantly, when it costs more than it otherwise would.

(Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive” is excellent on this.  It’s a history of the 1970’s in the US. The highlight of the book for me -- I am soooooo much fun at parties -- was the discussion of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act.  Nearly forgotten now, many civil rights leaders saw it as the key to making affirmative action sustainable over time. They foresaw, correctly, that it would be hard to diversify and downsize at the same time.)

But in terms of campus politics, it’s much easier to shut out potential newcomers than it is to kick out incumbents.  Potential newcomers aren’t here yet; they don’t have any say on campus. Politically, leaving a role unfilled is infinitely easier than firing somebody.  Unions don’t grieve unfilled positions. Shared governance is not shared with them. People who lost the chance to apply don’t get to file suit over jobs that didn’t appear, or to participate in votes of no confidence.   They just...don’t show up. It is, by far, the path of least resistance in the short term.

The decision to go with an internal search may make abundant sense in any given case.  But keep doing it, and the opportunity cost sneaks up on you. Over time, your campus slowly loses touch with what’s happening in other places.  Diversity stalls. The age distribution creeps upward. And you gradually, prudently, without meaning to, leave an entire generation out in the cold.