Wednesday, October 26, 2016


The Big Sort and Local Control

As longtime readers know, I was impressed by Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort when it came out a few years ago.  It argues empirically that the United States is sorting itself geographically according to political and lifestyle preferences to a much greater degree than it had been in the postwar era.  According to Bishop, counties now are far more likely to be solidly blue or red than they are to be purple, even within states they don’t match.  For example, my own Monmouth County is red, even though New Jersey is blue.  Austin is blue, even though Texas is red.  And the distinctions are growing.

Richard Florida has a new piece arguing that the polarization is intensifying.  From a quick glance, his diagnosis looks right.  

(Obligatory poli sci note: don’t just look at presidential votes.  In a year like this one, they can mislead.  Look at local representation.)

Community colleges are in an awkward spot as political polarization writes itself onto the landscape.  They were (mostly) built in a different era, when one-party counties or districts were far less common.  Nearly half of the community colleges in the country were established during the ten years between the early 60’s and the early 70’s (including my own).  They were part of a larger social justice movement -- hence the open admissions -- but they were also politically ambiguous and inconspicuous enough that they flew under the political radar for a long time.

As politics have become more polarized, though, the radar has become more sensitive.  It’s harder to stay above or out of the fray.  

With political polarization -- some of us suspect, driving it -- is economic polarization.  The economy has changed in fundamental ways since the era in which community colleges were born.  The economy doesn’t produce as many middle-class jobs as it once did, which makes our mission trickier.  Community colleges are built to create and sustain a middle class.  But that presumes an economy that does the same.

To the extent that counties or districts are becoming more distinct from each other, the demands being placed on a sector that assumed one economy are becoming more disparate.  For example, the growth in jobs that require bachelor’s degrees or higher suddenly erases the distinction between ‘transfer’ and ‘workforce’ degrees.  Is an associate’s in teacher education transfer or workforce?  Well, yes.  On the other side, some jobs that require post-secondary training pay barely above the minimum wage.

I was struck, at the Aspen gathering, by the chasm between people who worked in unionized settings and people who don’t.  Local economies were strikingly different, too, and becoming more so.  But the temptation to customize can inadvertently cut down students’ future opportunities to the size of the present.  

The Big Sort and local/community control don’t go together easily.  But it’s where we are, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.  The trick is not to let local conditions override those universal educational needs on which community colleges were founded.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


That Is One Ugly Metaphor

Brookdale recently ratified a contract with its faculty union, after a bit of a bumpy ride.  I was on the management negotiating team, so I had a front-row seat for most of the process.  

I can’t disclose anything confidential, but I don’t need to.  Here’s what it boiled down to:

Union: Health insurance is eating our raises!

Mgmt: Health insurance is eating our budget!

Insurance Company (in the corner): Nom nom nom nom (burp) nom nom nom (chair collapses) nom nom nom

The bulk of the conflict was over how to divide the rapid increases in the cost of health insurance.  The rest of it was relatively straightforward.

I suspect we’re not alone in this.

The catastrophic cost -- and rate of increase -- of health insurance is the 800 pound gorilla of higher ed finance.  It’s the primary driver behind adjunctification.  It’s increasing faster than any of our revenue sources, and it seems to be picking up steam.  In negotiation sessions, it’s the sun around which every other issue orbits.  

(For those keeping score at home, that makes it a nuclear fusion powered 800 pound gorilla that knows how to drive a steam-powered car, and anchors a series of satellites.  Scary stuff.)

To make it concrete, we have three major sources of operating funds: the state, the county, and students.  State and county funding have been flat for years, and enrollment is dropping.  Meanwhile, the cost of health insurance goes up by at least ten percent per year.  Do the math, projecting out a few years.  It’s not pretty.

Labor negotiations are difficult because one of the parties -- the one getting the best deal -- isn’t at the table.  It just jacks up prices, and the rest of us pay them.  Internal disputes are over how much of each year’s cost jump is borne by whom.  Nobody internal comes out ahead.

Of course, over the long term, unsustainable trends aren’t sustained.  This one clearly can’t be.  

Our health insurance system, if you want to call it that, was an accident of history.  It emerged in its present form as an end run around wage and price controls during World War II.  With pay levels frozen, companies that wanted to recruit workers had to find other enticements, so they developed packages of benefits.  By the time President Truman (!) got around to proposing national health insurance, the AMA was able to argue that it was largely unnecessary.  Add some red-baiting (“socialized medicine!”) and the racial politics of the New Deal coalition, and the end run became the new normal by default.  

That’s why literally no other advanced country has anything like it.  

Postwar prosperity made the system tenable long enough for it to start to seem natural, but it never really made sense.  Now we’re seeing the flaws in the system get so large that they start to deform or consume other sectors of the economy.  Prospective entrepreneurs don’t start companies because they can’t afford to pay for their own health insurance.  Employers everywhere pay careful attention to maximum hours for part-time status, because the marginal cost of going over is prohibitive.  If you don’t believe me, ask your HR office what the monthly premium for COBRA is.  

Locally, we managed to piece together a deal that puts off the day of reckoning for a few more years.  I’m glad we did -- really, really glad we did -- but the basic underlying trendlines are still there. That’s not something we can solve locally.  That requires a national solution.  Absent that, I foresee the rides getting bumpier and bumpier until something breaks.

Monday, October 24, 2016



In a conversation last week, I had one of those "duh" moments that can make way for a thought.  I'm still working on the thought -- and hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me with it -- but I can share the "duh."

A colleague and I were discussing some programs at our respective campuses in which students often leave before graduating because they find work in the field quickly and don't see the point of staying.  We lamented that what the student considers success -- finding a well-paying job -- shows up in our graduation rate as failure, and we started with some of the usual proposals about short-term certificates.

We then turned to a discussion of student completion generally, and the literature on it.  Some of the literature focuses on a sense of "belonging" to the college specifically and in college generally.  Helping students feel like they belong can pay off in greater rates of retention and completion. 

And that's when the "duh" moment hit me.  What if we're applying "belonging" to the wrong thing?

Community colleges aren't generally considered "destinations" in the same sense that exclusive four-year places are.  That's partly a function of openness, but largely a function of time.  Relatively few community college students come in defining the associate's degree as the destination.  Generally, they either want something quicker -- get me a job and I'm outta here -- or something longer, involving eventual transfer.  If they're planning on a bachelor's or higher, the community college isn't a destination; it's more of a pathway or a stopover.  (Admittedly, some states allow community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in select fields.  I'm in a state that doesn't yet.)  

To the extent that community colleges are bridges or pathways, the language of "belonging" is an awkward fit.  It also creates a frustrating reality when policymakers look at wage data: a student who started at a community college and then transferred for a bachelor's and completed it shows up as a bachelor's graduate, and the wage gains are attributed exclusively to the four-year school.  That, despite the fact that nearly half of the bachelor's degree grads in the country have community college credits in their degrees.  The lack of attribution plays out in very different levels of public funding per student, and even sometimes in alumni giving.  

But what if, on the front end, we encouraged students to focus on a sense of belonging not to the institution, but to the future profession?

We already do that with pre-med (or nursing) students.  No matter where you go, they're uncommonly driven, and that's because they identify strongly with the future profession.  They know what they want, and they're unapologetic about using colleges as tools for getting what they want.  At my own campus, I see something similar in the automotive tech and culinary programs.  Students who take automotive tech know what they want; if they're able to get what they want after a year of courses, rather than needing to wait two years for a degree, well, that's what most of them will do.  And I can't blame them.  

But in most programs, we're chary of identifying programs with career goals.  What if we weren't?

I don't think it's a coincidence that attrition rates at most community colleges are highest in the "undeclared" or "liberal arts transfer" majors.  Those are where students who don't know what else to do are steered.  And that makes sense; to the extent that those majors cover the gen ed classes likely to be found anywhere, they can allow undecided students to make headway even while still making up their minds about what they want.  When it works, it's great.  But it's almost perfectly designed not to.  Students who don't know what they want are unlikely to discover it while checking off boxes.  They're likelier to figure it out when they're immersed in the meat of a major.  Until then, they're mostly guessing.  Judging by attrition rates, many of them aren't guessing very well.

I can understand the reluctance to identify majors too closely with career paths.  At a basic level, it risks reducing education to training.  But the objection strikes me as partly manageable and partly misplaced.  It's only education if they show up.  If they walk away because they don't see the point, it's nothing at all.  And to the extent that students have a clear goal, it's not that difficult to build in true educational moments.  Even at DeVry -- which was unapologetically vocational -- I was able to sell students on the utility of a debate course.  I just pointed out that they're likely to confront situations in which they need to try to convince a skeptical boss to spend money on something; if they can marshal evidence in service of an argument, they're likelier to win, and even if they lose, they'll make themselves look good.  "Soft skills" matter on the job, and there's no shame in saying so.

Better, being upfront about career matching and identification may force some badly needed campus conversations about which areas to grow and which to shrink, drift, or close.  If the careers for which a given program prepares students are largely unavailable in the local area, or obsolete, then we need to ask some hard questions.  I don't plan on building any new darkrooms soon, and I'd question anyone who would.  As a colleague of mine pointed out, AI is likely to do to truck driving in the next few years what craigslist did to print journalism over the last decade.  I don't want to prepare students for the jobs of the past.

Making the shift in "belonging" would require a pretty radical rethinking of career services and academic advising on most campuses.  It would take some doing.  But it would have the benefit of meeting students' needs in a way that they can and will understand.  Over time, that will pay off in the internal measures that we prefer.  We just have to be patient in the meantime.

Wise and worldly readers, does this sound right to you?  I'm not at all sure about the mechanisms, but the general direction seems like it might fit our students better than pretending to be something we're not.  What do you think?

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Ask the Administrator: What If They Decide Wrong?

A longtime correspondent (and fellow administrator) writes:

Students at our community college struggle with math, a phenomenon common to many students, community college and otherwise. Recently, our math faculty completely revamped the curriculum and implemented a new placement test (the latter with disastrous results and the exam was pulled). Some of the parameters within the new curriculum are antithetical to student success. For example, in order to move from one 7-week class to the next, a student must pass an exit exam with a score of 70%. If she does not, she will earn a D or F in the course, regardless of her status prior to that test.

Faculty own the curriculum; that point is never questioned. However, what if the faculty decisions stand to do tremendous and potentially irreversible harm to both students and the institution? If other faculty approve the curricular changes in the shared governance process, what are the reasonable options that can also avoid irreparable damage to the relationship between faculty and administration?

This one’s tricky, because both sides are partially right.  I think it comes down to different definitions of “student success,” as well as different accountabilities.  And it points to a fundamental issue of ownership.

From an institutional point of view -- the view an administrator is supposed to adopt -- student success means more students completing the program, graduating, and finding either jobs with decent salaries or relatively clean transfer to good four-year schools.  

From an individual instructor’s point of view, student success could mean students doing well in her class.  

In a perfect world, there’s no conflict between the two perspectives.  And on the high end, there isn’t; honors students, for example, tend to succeed in both courses and programs, and then tend to do well after that.  But on the lower-GPA end, the conflict becomes real.  For example, if you replace a two course developmental sequence with one course, this might happen:

Old system: 60% pass level one, some walk away, 60% pass level two, some walk away, you wind up with maybe 25 in college-level math.

New system: 50% pass the only level, some walk away, you end up with 35 in college-level math.

From an in-the-classroom perspective, the new system is an obvious failure; it went from 60 percent passing to 50 percent passing.  Why is the administration ignoring academic preparation?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

But from an institutional perspective, the new system is a raging success; it went from 25 percent getting to college-level to 35 percent.  That’s a game-changing increase.  What are the faculty carping about?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

From what I’ve heard from colleagues in Florida, that’s a pretty good approximation of what happened there when the state banned mandatory placement into developmental classes.  Pass rates in the first college-level class dropped, but more students got through it because more students got into it.  Whether that’s success or failure depends on your definition.

It sounds like you’re facing the clash between immediately visible, in-class success, and success over the sequence.  

The good news for you, I think, is that as the proposal makes its way through the governance process, you will have faculty from other departments weigh in.  They may be more amenable to the institutional-level view, since they don’t teach the math classes themselves.  If you argue from the perspective of helping the most students succeed, I’m guessing you’ll be on solid ground.

If that doesn’t work, you have some other options to minimize the damage.

One is a pilot or phase-in period.  The change being proposed is pretty radical, and the results speculative.  There’s a respectable argument based on prudence that would suggest starting small to see what the results are.  If they’re unexpectedly positive, then the conflict goes away and you can scale up.  If they’re what you think they’ll be, you will have restricted the damage to a smaller group.  Sometimes “less bad” is the best option on the table.

Alternately, you could move to a multi-factor placement system to reduce the number of students who need to take developmental classes in the first place.  (Think of this as the “soft” Florida option.)  Using multiple screens -- add high school GPA, say -- to filter students out of developmental classes may more than offset the losses from the proposed new system.  To the extent that multi-factor placement leads to greater accuracy, the more intense new system may actually benefit the much smaller number of students who would take it.  

The larger issue of “ownership” of curriculum is likely to come up more often in the next few years as various reform movements gain traction.  I’d prefer to replace a term like “ownership” with something closer to “first say” or “primacy,” just because there are too many variables to default to anything absolute.  If a state decides to ban developmental classes, can local faculty overrule it?  No.  If federal financial aid rules change and make an existing practice untenable, can local faculty choose to ignore the change?  No.  If a college lacks the money to support a new curriculum, can the faculty dictate it anyway?  No.  In a context of performance funding, with performance defined as credit accumulation and graduation, it’s ludicrous to prevent administrators from having a say in how to improve performance.  Like it or not, the artisanal model of production is not sustainable.  We’ll need to adjust the model.  

But that’s a larger issue.  In the short term, I’d focus on working with faculty in other departments, and having a discussion of multi-factor placement.  The longer term, well, will take longer.

Good luck!  I’ll be curious to see how this plays out.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a more elegant way around this dilemma?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Friday Fragments

Math parable: Did you know that subtracting a negative number has the same net effect as adding a positive one?  


The Boy has become a fan of the University of Michigan teams, so we took the opportunity to catch the Michigan-Rutgers game last Saturday.  It was my first college football game since college.  (I still haven’t been to a pro game.)  

I remembered why I never attended Rutgers games in grad school.

Michigan won, 78-0.  When we left, late in the third quarter, I think it was 57-0.  At that point, it seemed like the only decent thing to do was to look away.  At that point in the game, Rutgers had yet to make a first down.  We were rooting for Michigan, and even we were embarrassed.

The students on the Rutgers side left en masse after halftime.  I couldn’t blame them.  Half the stadium was wearing maize and blue.  

I know that teams have ups and downs, but this wasn’t even competitive.  The previous week Rutgers lost to Ohio State by more than 50 points.  Rutgers simply has no business competing at that level.  If it had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight.  I actually wished for a mercy rule.  After a while, the Michigan fans even stopped singing the fight song after each touchdown; by the eighth time, it just seemed mean.

The stadium was nice, and it was a blast walking with TB through New Brunswick and giving him the tour.  He’s getting close to the college search, so it made a nice rough draft.  I even got him a “fat cat,” a New Brunswick delicacy in which the french fries are part of the sandwich.  I’m well past the age at which a fat cat appeals, but he’s right there, and he loved it.

We had a great time despite the game.  But I really wonder why the game even happened.


Okay, I’ll admit being a little obsessed with electoral college maps.  This week, Twitter cut loose with some brilliant ones.  Here’s what the electoral college would look like if it wore pants.  Here’s what it would look like if only Florida voted, and Illinois had fraud.  Here’s what it would look like when “all the stars in the universe burn out and matter decays into nothingness.”

At home, we’re planning to do electoral maps of our own, to see who comes closest.  I’ve found that it’s possible to create a semi-plausible tie, if you manipulate Maine and/or Nebraska right.  (The electoral college being an even number probably isn’t our best idea, as a country.)  Kristin Soltis Anderson, from The Pollsters, even found a way to make a 269-263 vote, with Evan McMullin carrying Utah.  That one’s actually more interesting, since a dead tie would go to the House and thereby to Trump, but a 269-263 Clinton plurality would raise issues.  One “faithless elector” and that’s that.

This is how poli sci nerds have fun on Twitter.


Program note: next week I’ll be at the Aspen fellowship, so I won’t be filing dispatches from there.  I’ll be back in the saddle on October 24.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


A Target-Rich Environment

I’ve been struggling with the details of a guided pathways concept lately for a really basic reason that I’m guessing many others struggle with, too.  I’m hoping that someone has found a reasonably smart way to handle it.

Maricopa Community College has been able to implement guided pathways relatively cleanly, in part because the overwhelming majority of its students who go on for bachelor’s degrees go to the same place (Arizona State).  With a single target at which to aim, it’s easy to know where the pathways should go.  I don’t mean to minimize the work involved in constructing the pathways, or the usefulness of the achievement, but it’s easier to hit one target than to hit several.

My own college has the mixed blessing of being in a relatively target-rich environment.  On the upside, that means we have more options to offer students.  It also tends to correlate with more highly educated populations, as it does here.  But a target-rich setting has challenges of its own.  The most basic one, of course, is competition for students.  As the number of 18 year olds in the area declines, that competition is getting fiercer.  For purposes of guided pathways, though, the issue is complexity.  A pathway implies a destination, and the entire point of the guided pathways approach is clarity.  WIth multiple destinations that disagree with each other on admissions and transfer requirements, it’s much harder to achieve that simplicity.

Some states handle the issue by having a relatively prescriptive (or dictatorial, if you prefer) state system.  I’m told that Florida does that, for example.  The advantage of a state system is that it can mandate consistency across campuses.  If every public college and university in the state defines the same majors by the same courses -- even using the same course numbers -- then you can build pathways without worrying overly much about whether students are transferring more to Northern Campus or Eastern Campus.  

But we don’t have that.  Each public college here sets its own course numbers, course descriptions, and definitions of majors.  (To be fair, there is some statewide coordination of general education requirements, which helps.)  Rutgers alone has several campuses that operate separately from each other, and that define the same degree differently.  And that’s before counting the private colleges, which are more common in the Northeast than in much of the country, and which can each set their own policies.  

Two community colleges in New Jersey solved the dilemma by merging with a single public university.  One of them, Rowan at Burlington, has gone so far as to ban other four-year colleges from coming to campus to recruit.  The merits of that strategy are debatable, and that debate is for another day.  But for a college like mine that wants to give its students more options for transfer, the question stands.

One option is to build a separate pathway for each destination school.  That’s de facto what we’ve done over the years.  University A requires U.S. History for its Psych program, but College B requires World History.  One has a foreign language requirement, others don’t.  Addressing each destination school separately is labor-intensive and complicated, and it tends to defeat the simplicity that’s the selling point of guided pathways.  

Another is to default to the most rigorous destination school.  That’s better, to the degree that it simplifies things and ensures that students will be well-prepared.  But sometimes the differences aren’t really a matter of rigor; they’re just differences.  And forcing our own students to meet higher standards than their destination schools do can wind up being exclusionary, often along the usual demographic lines.  That defeats our mission.

We could try to bend the destination schools to fit us, but there are obvious political limits to that.  Any system that involves giving up autonomy tends to fall prey to the “you first” problem.  Massachusetts convened some statewide meetings across sectors, calling together faculty by discipline to harmonize curricula that way.  It was a bold and clever step; we haven’t done that here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the dilemma of trying to build simple and clear guided pathways in a decentralized, target-rich environment?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


States and Cycles

Anyone remember Keynesianism?

Bueller?  Anyone?


At its core, Keynesianism was a branch of macroeconomics that assumed that recessions or depressions were caused by periodic and inevitable dips in demand, and that governments could deliberately adjust their spending to counteract those dips.  During recessions or depressions, governments could borrow money and spend it in ways that would stimulate demand.  That new demand would create jobs, which would stimulate demand among the newly employed, whose new spending would generate more demand, and so forth.  When the economy got going too fast, it could siphon off the excess in taxes to pay off what it had borrowed.  The idea was to make the cycles less extreme, and thereby prevent both suffering and revolution.

To put it in a single word, it’s about being countercyclical.  When the economy goes down, public spending should go up.  When the economy goes up, public spending should go down.  Having a counterweight would prevent the economy from tipping over.

Unemployment insurance is a Keynesian program.  Spending on unemployment goes up when the economy goes down.  That spending enables the unemployed to keep consuming, thereby preventing more people from losing their jobs.  Wars are sometimes Keynesian, though Keynes himself wasn’t a fan; military production helped pull us out of the Great Depression, for example.  President Obama’s “stimulus” spending (ARRA) was Keynesian, as has been the steady decline in deficits as the economy as recovered.

Community colleges are profoundly Keynesian, but most higher education policy proposals don’t account for that.  They should.

Community colleges rely primarily on variations of combinations of state, local, and student funding.  (There’s often some ancillary income from facility rentals, bookstores, summer camps, and the like, but it doesn’t come close to the big three sources.)  Student funding -- tuition and fees -- comes from a combination of private funds and financial aid, which is mostly federal.  

State and local governments generally aren’t allowed by law to run deficits.  That means that when tax revenues go down, as they do in recessions, state and local governments have to cut spending.  Their spending matches the economic cycle, albeit with a delay.

But community college enrollments are countercyclical.  They go up when the economy goes down, and they go down when the economy goes up.  

Cyclical funding and countercyclical enrollments go together like hot fudge and tunafish.

Any plan for “free community college” needs to take account of the function of tuition in the current system.  State and local aid are cyclical at best.  (Sometimes they don’t come back as the economy does; the cycle only moves in one direction.)  But the federal government has the borrowing authority to spend countercyclically.  That means that when enrollments go up and state and local funding go down, the only way for a college to make the numbers work is to shift more of the expenses to the feds, via tuition.  That happens both through pricing and through volume.  Tuition is the countercyclical stabilizer.  It’s the counterweight that keeps the institution from tipping over. Whatever replaces it would have to perform the same function.

New America is pushing a solution that it thinks would solve the federal/state problem, though it fails to address the Keynesian issue.  (Still, points for the Hamilton reference in the title.)  My concern with proposals like the one from New America is that they rely on the federal government nudging the states, often through “maintenance of effort” requirements.  That assumes several things.  First, it assumes that states are the most relevant actors.  That’s not always true; for example, at my own college the county’s allocation is much larger than the state’s.  (By contrast, the Massachusetts system has no local funding at all.)  Second, it assumes that states have the discretionary funding during recessions to meet maintenance of effort requirements.  Recent history suggests that they don’t, or won’t.  When tax revenues fall off a cliff, states aren’t going to increase discretionary spending.  Third, it doesn’t account for the sheer political spitefulness of states that will turn down free federal money to make a point.  The fate of Obamacare in red states should have taught us that.  

To its credit, the New America proposal ties federal support to enrollment, much like a tuition-based system does.  But then it adds a requirement for state funding to do the same.  In the context of a nasty recession, the odds of states doing that are close to zero.  As states fall short, one of several bad outcomes would happen: states that step away would be forgiven, thereby creating a race to the bottom; colleges would take brutal cuts; or states would opt out of the system altogether.  It’s too fragile.

Yes, federal-state relations matter.  But if you leave local funding out, you miss an important piece.  And if you leave recessions out, you’re setting it up to fail.  Depending on the results of the election, free community college may get some attention; let’s not waste our shot.

Monday, October 10, 2016


When Departments Falter

When you go from graduate school to working at a community college -- or from one college to another -- you’ll quickly notice that departments are configured differently from place to place.  But almost every college thinks its own idiosyncratic arrangement is right, if not holy.

One college will merge history and poli sci.  Another will merge sociology and anthropology.  Sometimes ESL will be in English; sometimes in Languages; sometimes alone.  Some break out Reading from English.  I’ve seen geography as its own department, as a subset of sociology, and as a discipline that doesn’t even get its own designation.  

Coming out of grad school, the sudden reconfiguration of departments can be disorienting.  Graduate programs are resolutely discipline-focused, and departments tend to follow.  But at teaching-focused institutions, especially smaller ones, sometimes there isn’t critical mass in a given discipline to make a freestanding department practical.  Over time, disciplines get mashed together out of a mix of scholarly propinquity -- you’re more likely to see poli sci with history than with automotive tech -- and local personalities.  

Discipline-based departments offer clear advantages.  They’re consistent with industry-wide practice, so people tend to find them intuitive.  They consist of a group of people engaged in a relatively common project.  They make it easy to know who to put where.  They concentrate content knowledge in one place, so we can have confidence that new hires will know their stuff.  By the time faculty job candidates get to me, I can assume they’ve been vetted by the department for content expertise.  For fields in which I don’t, that’s no small thing.

But they fall prey to a predictable set of dangers, too.  Robert Weisbuch’s piece in IHE offers a few, though he doesn’t really get to causes.  I’ll take a shot.

At a really basic level, smaller departments are subject to the issues that plague any small group with minimal change over time.  A single toxic personality can dominate the climate.  Interpersonal feuds based on who-knows-what can last for years, often growing tendrils that envelop other issues.  Groupthink can trump critical thought, allowing dogma to go unchallenged for decades.  

Size can help, which is why departments of two people are suboptimal.  Take chairing.  Chairing a department requires a different skill set -- and a different tolerance for bureaucracy -- than teaching.  Some people have both sets of skills, and that’s great, but many don’t.  I’ve seen some excellent teachers really crash and burn in administrative roles, and I’ve seen some merely competent teachers do quite well in them.  In a large department, there may be several people who are good at both, so it’s possible to have a good chair most of the time.  In a really small department, though, someone who really shouldn’t chair may be pressed into service by default.  That leads to poor performance, frustration, and rippling consequences.  

Even with greater size, though, there’s a danger of siloing.  Academics seem especially prone to that.  If the members of a single department talk mostly to each other, they can easily misread the larger institutional picture.  It’s accidental, rather than malicious, but in some ways that makes it harder to stop.  From the outside, the distinction between “this is right for the students” and “this is what I personally prefer” may be obvious, but from within the silo, it may be hard to see.  A small group of smart people telling each other how persecuted they are for years on end can construct a pretty tight box for itself.

When I went from Rutgers to DeVry, I went from a poli sci department with several large factions (IR, Comparative, Theory, and Theory had its own subdivisions…) to a single “general education” department that encompassed everything in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science.  Department meetings included the resident physicist, the English folk, the math people, the historian, and the various social scientists.  It was a different world.  While I sometimes missed having others around who knew what I was talking about, it was an amazing opportunity to get outside of my own training.  It proved to be effective, if accidental, training for administration.

Since then, I’ve been a bit agnostic on the configurations of departments and divisions.  They weren’t handed down from the mountain.  They’re administrative contrivances to get certain kinds of work done.  To the extent they help with that, and don’t cause too many side effects, call any given arrangement good.  To the extent the silos have hardened, some occasional silo-busting is probably to the good.  A new set of colleagues can be like bringing a new lamp into an old room; suddenly you notice dust that you never noticed before.  It’s good for you.

I reject the idea that a dysfunctional department is the inevitable and unchangeable cost of doing business.  It can be changed.  Just going from college to college is enough to prove that.

Sunday, October 09, 2016


Disaster Recovery

Last Friday, I had a planning conversation with the senior leadership of the college around contingency plans for what to do if Hurricane Matthew struck New Jersey hard.  It’s not an entirely theoretical discussion; a few years ago, Hurricane Sandy did major damage here.  

With Matthew, we were luckier than many colleges in the Southeast.  Flagler College, in Florida, apparently sustained major damage, and many colleges and universities in the region had to do evacuations.  For a university that draws students from around the country, that’s no small task.

Every disaster is local, in certain ways, and some of the dangers vary by region.  In the Northeast, we worry about ice storms and blizzards, and, in coastal areas, hurricanes.  In the Midwest, it’s blizzards and tornadoes.  In the South, hurricanes and floods probably take the top spot.  Along the west coast, I’d guess that earthquakes are the greatest fear.  (I still haven’t recovered from the New Yorker piece last year about the Cascadia fault line, and its possible effects on the Seattle area.  Scary stuff.)  

Those are just the natural disasters.  Manmade ones are even worse.  Abrupt violence is a fear everywhere.  What happened at Umpqua Community College could happen anywhere, at any time.  

And yet, disaster management and recovery tend to get neglected in most leadership development programs.  The people who abruptly find themselves needing to make decisions in a crisis are generally forced, by default, to wing it.

I mentioned last Spring a panel featuring some of the people who helped Umpqua in the immediate aftermath of the killings.  It was extraordinary in both senses of the word: it was excellent, which is great, but it was also uncommon.  I’ve attended conferences of the League for Innovation and the AACC for years, but have seen very few presentations on disaster management and recovery.  I’d rather learn some of these lessons in advance from people who have learned them the hard way than make preventable mistakes myself.  

Let’s say that an evacuation-level disaster strikes just before the tenth day of the semester.  What do you do about financial aid reporting?  Or a similar event happens during exam week.  How do you get back on track?  Or my singular nightmare, a killing on the order of Umpqua happens.  How do you decide when to come back?  What’s the best way to work with a college full of people who handle grief and fear in different ways?  

Obviously, context matters.  But having a sense of where to begin can only help.

As colleges grow more complicated, and budgets grow tighter, the questions get harder.  How do you do an abrupt evacuation when you have students or employees with limited physical mobility?  What about students who rely on public transportation, which may or may not be able to adjust quickly?  

I’d rather have provisional answers to these questions before I need them.  

I haven’t found much in the way of “how-to” resources.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found anything helpful?  

Thursday, October 06, 2016


“But What About”s

As a kid, I remember the frustration when, say, a football game would run long, and the network wouldn’t adjust the shows that came after.  Instead, you’d hear the dreaded “you are now joining the (name) show, already in progress.”  Depending on the show, it could take a while to get up to speed on what was happening.

That’s how management works in a mature organization.  At whatever point you start, you’re joining a program already in progress.  

That’s inevitable, at some level, and it can be a great time-saver in certain ways.  But it also means you never really face the blank sheet of paper that people tend to assume is the starting point for planning.  Instead, you face a bunch of moving parts, and any new plan necessarily involves getting some of those parts to move differently, to stop entirely, or to be replaced.  That’s much more complicated than a flow chart.  

It typically entails dealing with a series of “but what about”s.

BWA’s are references to pre-existing moving parts, and the potential effects that a given change could have on them.  The idea is to prevent unintended consequences.  They’re necessary, but they can also be paralyzing, because they’re potentially infinite.

BWA’s fall into several categories.  First, the mostly good ones:

The Obvious.  Depending on context, being reminded of the obvious is either insulting or life-saving.  

The Prudent.  These are the best ones, and I try not to cut these off.  

The Clarifying.  It can be easy to conflate different ideas in the heat of battle.  Sometimes taking a moment to step back and make sure we’re talking about what we actually mean to talk about is well worth the time.

The Obscure But Important Technicality.  These are the “that would be great, but subparagraph seven, section a, of the latest state reg says we can’t.”  I’ve found the accuracy of these objections to be pretty uneven, but when they’re right, they’re right.

Then, the less-good ones:

The “I Don’t Wanna But I Don’t Want to Own It” objection.  Often presented through passive aggression, this is a form of evasion.  It attempts to hide a mood behind a reason.  Sometimes the speaker’s body language will give it away.  You’re dealing with this when you get a series of objections, defeat them all, yet they still keep coming.  After a while, you realize you aren’t really talking about what you’re talking about.

The Third Derivative, or The Reach.  These can be well-intended or not, but they rely on the assumption of omniscience.  “If we do that, and this happens, and then that happens, and so-and-so sees it this way, and Jupiter aligns with Pluto, then AWFUL STUFF will happen!”  Yeah, maybe.  But followed to its logical conclusion, this mode of thinking is paralyzing.  It also fails to consider that inaction is a choice in itself.  It’s close cousin to…

The Clean-Hands Fantasy.  This is perfectionism applied to a complex moving machine.  It usually starts with Prudent or Obscure objections, but then keeps going.  Eventually, you realize that the person bringing them up is trying to think of every single possible permutation that could ever happen.  The exact boundary between conscientiousness and paranoia is disputed, but it exists.  In my experience, this is the mental habit that academics have to break when they move into administration.  Anything can be nitpicked; the idea of a completely airtight proposal coming to fruition is a fantasy.  If you want to get something done, at some point you have to cut off the BWA’s, make the best call you can, and move on.  Accept that retroactive self-righteous criticism is a cost of doing business.  For people highly trained in criticism, this can be a daunting challenge.

Administration is a never-ending exercise in joining programs already in progress, and the right blend of BWA’s can be valuable in minimizing the damage that comes from not knowing everything.  But there comes a point where you just have to accept that you’ll never know enough, and have to act anyway.  The BWA’s will change, but they’ll never go away.  With a long-running show, there’s no such thing as a clean start.  But there is such a thing as stagnation.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Useful In-House Professional Development

I have to confess to deeply conflicted attitudes about in-house professional development programs.

In theory, I like the idea a lot.  Everyone working at the same place means you can tailor the content to the realities of that place.  There’s already a comfort level among the group, since people already know each other.  And you don’t have to deal with flying.  I’m old enough to remember when flying was merely a nuisance, as opposed to the soul-crushing nightmare it has become.  At some level, it still surprises me every single time.  The ability to learn something of professional value without having to deal with airlines is not to be sneezed at.

But empirically, in-house professional development can be terribly uneven.  In my DeVry days, the campus once brought in a motivational speaker.  I endured the morning so I could have lunch without guilt.  After lunch, he started laying down ropes in the cafeteria for some sort of ropes exercise.

No.  Just, no.  I walked out.  My dean asked me why.  In my calmest, politest, most measured Bob Newhart-y mode, I told him that I didn’t get my doctorate to do rope tricks.  He smiled and let it go, which was the right response.  But sheesh.  

Workshops led by internal people are usually better, since they feel a moral obligation to their colleagues to provide something of value, and they’re coming from the same environment.  But sometimes there’s a topic on which nobody internal really has expertise.  

When the topic is relatively specialized, I’m a fan of roadtrips.  By that I mean sending a department -- whether an academic department or an office -- to meet its counterparts at another college within driving distance, to learn about something interesting that they’re doing.  The key is to have peers meet with peers.  It’s a low-cost, high-payoff approach, because peers will find the right level of detail almost without trying.  

On academic topics, it’s always fun to have faculty present to the college as a whole.  Seeing professors in their natural habitat, doing what they do best, is gratifying.  It can also be striking to see how different somebody’s in-class persona may be from their walking-around persona.  Not everyone is like that, of course, but it’s amazing to see when someone who’s usually circumspect suddenly comes alive in front of a group.

Some topics are trickier, though.  A colleague recently raised a question about serving students who seem to be on the autism spectrum.  She does her best, but has never been trained in it.  That’s not the sort of thing that necessarily lends itself to grow-your-own presentations.  I don’t imagine making everyone into experts, but some basic tips there may go a long way.  Even better, they’d be relevant across most areas of the college, from faculty to financial aid to counseling.

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen or experienced particularly good in-house professional development around working with students on the spectrum.  I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with a trite or poorly done presentation -- let alone rope tricks -- but this seems like the kind of topic tailor-made for thoughtful support.  Any ideas out there?

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