Sunday, April 26, 2015


Don't Gloat When the Canary Dies

Robert Kelchen won Twitter yesterday with his observation that Corinthian Colleges’ move to close all of its remaining campuses will strand 16,000 students, in contrast to the closing of Sweet Briar College, which will strand about 700.

The coverage given Sweet Briar, as opposed to Corinthian, is telling.  And Corinthian isn’t the only one.

On Friday, DeVry announced that it will close 14 campuses, moving those students (or at least, those willing to move) to its online programs.  The University of Phoenix recently announced its fifteenth consecutive quarter (!) of enrollment declines.  Given that for-profits are more purely enrollment-driven than any other sector -- they don’t have endowments or subsidies -- they feel every single percentage point of that drop.

Within the higher education world, it’s easy to look at the for-profits’ recent struggles as just desserts.  In some cases, that’s substantially true.  But it misses some key points.

First, and most basically, for-profits found ways to serve students that nobody else bothered to serve.  Some of those ways were unseemly or unethical, but some were just practical.  For obvious reasons, for-profits have powerful incentives to enroll students, so they tend to take a cold, hard look at student success.  After all, a retained student is a repeat customer.  In my time at DeVry, for example, I noticed a distinct lack of application fees, a small number of majors, and a real reluctance to consign students to developmental or remedial courses.  It took the rest of higher education another decade to catch up to some of those ideas.  

Second, just because the organizational logic of for-profits is often coldly mercenary, it does not follow that everyone who works there is coldly mercenary.  Some of my erstwhile colleagues at DeVry were wonderful, dedicated educators who honestly tried to do right by their students, even when it involved butting heads with upper management.  They (and I) found their way there because nobody else was hiring, at least at the full-time level.  Given the choice between adjuncting at a traditional college and making an adult living at a for-profit, there’s a pretty good argument for the latter.  That’s especially true when the for-profit in question actually does a decent job at what it says it does, as DeVry did during the tech boom of the late ‘90’s.  In 1998, you could do a lot worse than graduating with a degree in telecom or CIS.

Third, for the most part, the for-profits aren’t in trouble because of stellar performance by publics or private non-profits.  They’re mostly in trouble due to varying combinations of regulatory issues, demographics, and flawed business models.  Many non-profits are struggling for similar reasons.  If the failure of the for-profits happened because the publics and non-profits raised their respective games and made for-profits unnecessary, I’d be the first to celebrate.  But for the most part, that’s not it.  I wish it were.

An already-awful academic job market just gets that much worse when entire swaths of campuses close.  In Corinthian’s case, announcing on a Sunday that it would close within 24 hours just adds insult to injury, for both students and employees.  To the extent that its former students are pushing for loan forgiveness, such treatment gives them ammunition.  I wish them success.  For its soon-to-be former employees, though, the picture isn’t pretty.

For-profits are more volatile than their public counterparts.  They charge more than the cost of production, which means that in good times, expansion more than pays for itself.  But their income is entirely enrollment-driven, so in bad times, there’s no cushion.  To the extent that publics’ budgets become more enrollment-driven, they’ll become more volatile, too.  Don’t gloat when the canary dies.

I won’t mourn the loss of Corinthian, but I won’t gloat, either.  Some very good people lost their jobs this week, at both Corinthian and DeVry, and I’d guess that some of the survivors at DeVry are running scared.  Sweet Briar was shocking, and a real loss.  In their ways, these are real losses, too.  My condolences to the employees.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


ASU and EdX, Further Thoughts

A day later, I’m still puzzling out the ASU/edX partnership.  I took a first crack at it yesterday, but since then, some others have added some worthwhile points.

  1. Prior learning assessment -- the mechanism by which credit is granted -- is not covered by financial aid.  It probably should be, but that’s another post.  Which means that not only is ASU charging more than the local community college, but ASU’s prices are entirely out-of-pocket, while the community college’s courses are eligible for financial aid.  For low-income students, this is no small thing.

  1. As a commenter correctly noted, there’s nothing stopping someone now from taking a MOOC in a “gen ed” area and then taking a CLEP exam to get credit.  CLEP fees are often lower than even community college tuition.  The ASU model is a more expensive and clunkier version of CLEP.  The MOOC-to-CLEP option has existed for a couple of years now, but students haven’t taken advantage in significant numbers.  

  1. The contrast between ASU and LSU may be instructive.  LSU took a nasty funding cut from the state, and responded by declaring fiscal exigency.  ASU took a nasty funding cut from the state, and responded by growing its reach.  For that, ASU has been roundly condemned, while LSU has been given a free pass.  One could easily imagine a counterargument to the effect that partnering with private sector providers has prevented layoffs.

  1. Kevin Carey suggested that the ASU model offers the “freedom to fail” for free.  That’s true, I suppose, though it brought back memories of the old “right to fail” argument that was largely cast aside when student success became the imperative.  More cynically, the edX partnership allows ASU to move failures off-book, thereby keeping its success rates high.

  1. As another commenter noted, many of us in higher ed think of it as an ecosystem.  ASU may have decided that it’s actually a Hobbesian war of each against all, and it’s determined to win that war.  The contrast with LSU suggests there may be something to this interpretation.  If that means cannibalizing community college enrollments, then that’s what it means.  

  1. Some commenters suggested that the partnership is a desperate attempt to provide something resembling a business model for MOOCs.  That may be true from EdX’s perspective, but it doesn’t explain ASU’s motive.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there another, better way to understand what ASU is doing?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


What Problem are ASU and EdX Solving?

Maybe it’s me.  But I’m just not grasping the ASU/edX MOOCs-for-credit thing.

According to Carl Straumsheim’s piece in IHE, a student who enrolls in one (or more) from a specific set of MOOCs offered through edX will have the option of paying a $45 fee for identity verification, followed by a $200 per credit fee to Arizona State, to have the MOOC performance translated into academic credit by and for ASU.

Or, that same student could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college.  It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course.  The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU.  Tuition at Maricopa -- the community college local to Phoenix -- is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC.  Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit.  And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC.  That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

I’m just not sure which problem they think they’re solving.

To the extent that MOOCs were going to disrupt higher education, I thought the argument was that they’d undercut incumbent providers on cost.  But with over 1.100 community colleges in America routinely undercutting the MOOC on cost, I don’t see it.

I guess there’s a presumption about prestige, but at this point, community college credits are far more widely recognized than MOOC credits are.  ASU is offering to launder the currency, in a sense, but if you’re going to jump through extra hoops anyway, why not work with a real professor?

Maybe in a few places, the local community colleges are oversubscribed.  But online, you aren’t necessarily tied to a local college.  

Scheduling might be the issue, to the extent that MOOCs start whenever you want.  (I couldn’t tell from the article if that applies here.)

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something?  Does the ASU/edX solve a problem I’m not seeing?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


The Online Completion Agenda

Dear Big Foundations,

I’ve got an idea for you, and it even has a catchy name.

The Online Completion Agenda.

Hear me out.

We’re hurtling into two different futures at the same time.

In one future, colleges provide more hands-on guidance, fewer options, and more personalized attention to students, all in order to improve graduation rates (or whichever student success measure you prefer).  This is the “guided pathways” vision, and it’s built on the need to increase the number of graduates.

In the other, colleges move more instruction and programs online, offering the promise of a low-friction, convenient experience for people with complicated lives.  This is the “anytime, anywhere” vision, and it’s built on the need to increase the number of enrolled students.

The challenge is that the two are at cross-purposes.

We’re getting good data now showing that across some very large populations of students, students who take online classes retain at lower rates than students who take traditional classes.  In any given year, gains in success in onsite classes could be cancelled out by increased migration to online classes.

Obviously, some of that is probably a function of self-selection.  People with the most complicated lives are likelier to find their way to online classes.  The striking gender split among online students -- about two-to-one female, and generally older -- suggests that the format draws a disproportionate share of working Moms, whose lives are the definition of complicated.  The students who are most attracted to online classes are the least capable of bending their lives to fit tightly-defined campus cohorts.  

That said, though, most students who take online classes are also, simultaneously, taking onsite classes.  They mix-and-match in order to build schedules that make sense in their lives.  That’s why I want clarification when people refer to “online classes” and “online students” interchangeably.  They aren’t.  A student who adds an online class to three or four onsite classes isn’t really an online student in the sense that people usually use the term.

From an institutional perspective, doing better on one measure makes it that much harder to improve the other.  I suspect that the next great breakthrough will be in figuring out effective ways to move student support online.  Those parts of the college experience that help glue students to the institution mostly haven’t moved online yet.  According to the study in IHE, online course completion rates lag onsite by about 8 percentage points.  On my own campus the gap is smaller, but it still exists.  A few places have managed to close the gap, but at dramatic cost.  

I’ve been to discussions of online education, and I’ve been to discussions of the completion agenda, and the two rarely meet.  But on the ground, they meet every single day.  That’s where the Online Completion Agenda comes in.

Gates, Lumina, Kresge...let’s talk.

Monday, April 20, 2015


AACC, Part Two: Innovating While Broke

The unintentional theme for Monday at the AACC was “what we can do with no money.”  

The high-profile panel for the day was the group from the CCRC who wrote Redesigning America’s Community Colleges -- Tom Bailey, Shanna Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins -- along with Karen Stout, Ken Ender, and Rolando Montoya.  They discussed the ideas from RACC, focusing largely on what could scale relatively painlessly.  

RACC is an argument against the “cafeteria college” -- Tom Bailey suggested it might better be understood as the “food court college” -- in favor of a model with fewer options and far more guidance for students.  Shanna Jaggars suggested that curricular streamlining could form the basis of larger structural change, since advising and other student supports would have to be organized around the guided pathways.  Davis Jenkins noted that clearer structures make advising easier, and he advocated embedding advisors in academic departments or programs so they could learn a particular area well.  Even then, though, he admitted that to do pathways right, per-student spending would have to increase.

Karen Stout, from Montgomery County Community College, noted that it took MCCC about eight years to scale up to a comprehensive college-wide reform.  Ken Ender, from Harper College, got knowing laughs with his discussion of taking the idea of curricular streamlining to the liberal arts faculty.  (“I still have welts.”)  The highlight for me, though, was Rolando Montoya, the operations provost from Miami Dade.  He noted a disconnect between a macroeconomic perspective -- more community college graduates are a net ‘plus’ for the economy as a whole -- and a microeconomic perspective, in which improving the numbers of graduates costs individual colleges money.  Until our politics change, that disconnect is likely to lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Montoya offered a few freebies or cheapies -- mandatory new student orientation, FAFSA marathons in high schools, credit for prior learning -- but then dropped the bomb that the new ERP system they needed to track all their new programs cost a cool sixty million.  Then you add the cost of twenty-five new full-time advisors, eleven new financial aid officers, two prior learning assessment officers (!)...

So, yeah.  Reducing the cost per graduate is not the same as reducing the cost per student.  As long as we’re funded on the latter, addressing the former will be a serious challenge.

A session on Generation X presidents and vice presidents followed, and I have to admit that I didn’t realize how much I needed that until I went.  Among other things, the panelists -- Amy Morrison Goings, from Lake Washington Institute of Technology; Jo Alice Blondin, from Clark State Community College; and Tim Stokes, from South Puget Sound CC -- noted a major and consistent difference with their mentors in how they view capital projects.  They put a much higher premium on IT infrastructure upgrades, and a much more skeptical eye on building construction.  As Blondin noted, with enrollments moving online, why build now?  For this group, concerns about economic sustainability weren’t confined to operating budgets.  

My own panel followed.  Anne Kress, from Monroe Community College, put it together and emceed.  Michael Stoner, from mStoner, gave an overview of social media in higher education; I followed with a discussion of academic blogging; and Anne focused on Twitter.  The common denominator, as Anne noted, is that social media are fast, easy, and free.  They offer ways to have conversations across rank, institution, and geography, and they can help humanize authority figures and institutions.  As forms of professional development, they can be remarkably useful in our day jobs, particularly when travel funds are scarce.

The day ended with an optimistic and practical panel on OER.  Like blogs and Twitter, OER materials are free, and they offer to level the playing field.  The panel confirmed my sense that we’re on the right track at Holyoke with the OER working group, and that on any campus, the library will have to play a key role in any large-scale OER rollout.  Open resources are what libraries have always been about; OER fits the culture.

What can we do with no money?  Among other things, we can tell our stories.  If we tell them right, we might be able to do something about that whole “funding” thing...

Sunday, April 19, 2015


AACC, Part 1

Greetings from San Antonio, where I’m attending the American Association of Community Colleges annual conference, and rethinking the choice to wear wool suits in a humid climate.

As longtime readers know, I have two ironclad rules when I go to conferences.  These rules have never failed.  

  1. When you get to your hotel room, immediately locate the coffeemaker.  You do NOT want to be looking for it, half-awake, in the morning.  Trust me on this one.

  1. If Kay McClenney is moderating a panel, go.  It will be well worth your while.

Both rules still hold.


According to the scrolling video shown at the opening plenary, this year’s American Association of Community Colleges conference is brought to you by, among others, Kaplan, McDonald’s, the University of Phoenix, Pearson, and DeVry.  You may make of that what you will.

On the bright side, the resources made it possible to bring in Malcolm Gladwell as a keynote speaker.  Say what you will about Gladwell, but he can tell a story.  And he did, drawing on family biography, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side, and economics.  He organized the talk around what economists call “the capitalization rate,” which he loosely defined as the degree to which a society takes full advantage of its potential.  He argued that as a society, America has a far lower capitalization rate than it could, largely because too many people believe, falsely, that talent is naturally scarce.

Instead, he suggested, talent is naturally abundant, but we’re terrible at cultivating it and allowing it to flourish.  Rather than allocating resources where they might allow the most new talent to flourish, we tend to use it to reward talent that is already manifest.  For example, he noted that in New Jersey, Essex County Community College gets about $2400 per year per student in public support.  Essex is an open-admissions college in a very diverse area.  Rutgers, the state flagship university, gets about $9000 per student per year.  And Princeton, with the most exclusive and affluent student body, gets over $100,000 per student per year.  (He was counting both direct aid, such as Pell, and tax expenditures, such as tax exemptions on real property and capital gains.)  

If we were serious about cultivating talent, he suggested, we wouldn’t spend twenty or more times more on students at Princeton than on students at Essex.  If anything, there’s a stronger argument the other way around.

Given that he was talking to an auditorium full of community college people, that went over big.  He flattered the audience, noting that community colleges are built to improve a society’s capitalization rate, but only if they’re decently funded.  

Oddly for him, though, he hit a sour note in his discussion of “undermatching.”  I don’t know if he thought about how that would sound to this audience and miscalculated, or if he just didn’t think it through, but telling thousands of community college folks that it’s tragic that Harvard leaves so much low-income talent on the table comes off as a bit of a slap in the face.  Gladwell is usually more people-pleasing than that, so I don’t know if he quite understood the implications of what he said there.  

Still, despite a conspicuous and somewhat awkward moment in the middle, Gladwell offered an accessible and upbeat kickoff to the conference.


Sunday morning started, too early, with a panel on “Measuring Up,” or a progress report on degree completion goals.  It was a Kay McClenney panel, which is to say, it was beautifully run, informative, lively, and on-point.  She remains the undisputed master of the form.

Kent Phillippe, from AACC, presented stats on national enrollment figures and the unemployment rate, essentially showing that enrollments are counter-cyclical to the economy.  The economic recovery of the last few years has led to a steady drop in community college enrollments across the country.  A drop in the number of 18 year olds has produced a double whammy in many regions, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.  David Shapiro, from the National Student Clearinghouse, noted a significant rise in the number of community college students who already had four-year degrees.  As one commenter tweeted, community college is the new grad school.

The stage set, several presidents and provosts offered insights from their own colleges on how they’re addressing the completion agenda, particularly when budgets are tight.  (William Serrata, from El Paso CC, mentioned that instead of looking for the “silver bullet,” we should look for “silver buckshot” -- in other words, lots of little solutions that add up to a big improvement.  Not a bad metaphor...) Most of the solutions are fairly well known at this point: guided pathways, reverse transfer, intrusive advising, mandatory new student orientation, and the like.  Gail Mellow, from LaGuardia CC in New York, returned several times to the theme of funding parity among sectors of higher education.  She noted -- correctly -- that while a program like ASAP at CUNY gets great results, it’s also far too expensive for most cc budgets to handle.  If we’re serious about capitalization rates, we need to reallocate some capital.  Mellow even took up Wick Sloane’s challenge, though not by name, and connected the dots between inadequate funding, over-reliance on adjuncts, and student outcomes.  

Mellow also fired off the most tempting “quote this out of context” line, saying that she tries really hard to lower her college’s graduation rate.  She clarified that she meant that she intentionally recruits many low-incomes males of color, including those who need to work on high school equivalencies, even though they lower the college’s aggregate completion rate.  She does it because she believes it’s the right thing to do.  I thought it made a nice distillation of the perverse incentives that simple-minded performance funding can engender.

The afternoon was devoted to catching up with people I hadn’t seen in a while, and a couple of smaller panels.  Christine Nowik, from Harrisburg Area Community College, and Elizabeth Stearns-Sims, from Helena College University of Montana, discussed their experience using Starfish software to improve college communication with students.  Nowik organized her discussion around a host of internet memes -- Condescending Wonka, Grumpy Cat, and the like -- and managed to walk the fine line of being funny and candid without getting snarky or negative.  I was impressed.  The core of the idea involved using early alert systems to generate “kudos” as well as alerts, and to incorporate that into a larger process of positive culture change.  Kudos, indeed.

Finally, Gail Mellow had her own solo panel on an online faculty development platform they’re using at LaGuardia, Maricopa, and Valencia.  I was struck by the number of faculty in the audience who openly pined for a president like her.  Note to self…

On to Monday, when -- shameless plug alert -- I’ll be presenting along with Anne Kress, from Monroe Community College, and Michael Stoner, from mStoner inc., on using social media to get the word out about your college.  The panel will be at 3:15.  I’ll be the guy in the wool suit.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


An Honest Question

I know that questions like these often bring out the very worst in internet trolling, but I’ve been consistently impressed at the judgment of my wise and worldly readers, so I’ll take a chance here, because I’m really struggling with this one.

How do you explain structural racism to a thirteen year old?

The Boy is thirteen and The Girl is ten.  They’re great kids -- good-hearted, smart, considerate.  They’re uncommonly courteous for their respective ages.  

I don’t want them to only get the approved public school version of American race relations.  It’s well-meaning, in its way, but so reductionist that it tends to lead to some serious misunderstandings.  

Racism is usually presented as a character flaw.  It can be that, of course, but if that’s your only understanding of it, then it’s easy to take discussions of structural racism as some sort of personal attack, and to respond either in kind or dismissively.  I’ve seen it too many times.

That said, though, something like “social structure” is a tough concept for an eighth grader, even a bright one.  And while I want to convey a sense of reality as I see it, I want to leave enough room for their own interpretations to develop.  I’d like to convey a sense that there’s something beyond individual attitudes, but to be open-ended enough that they don’t just hear it as dogma.  

So far, the best approach I’ve been able to come up with has been to discuss context around certain news stories, like police shootings.  That way it doesn’t seem forced or contrived.  But those stories can also fit under the “character flaw” narrative, and they necessarily focus only on a narrow slice of life.

I’m asking because as they get older, I want the kids to be able to apply their sense of decency to larger issues, and not to commit some of the sins of obliviousness (and defensiveness when called on it).  

Age-appropriate sociology is tough enough.  Focus on race and it’s that much tougher.  But I don’t think that ignoring it, or defaulting to the “character flaw” narrative, solves the problem.  

So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your help.  What’s an age-appropriate way to introduce the idea of structural racism to a thirteen-year-old?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


The Fights of Spring

As a dean, what do you do when everyone on campus is cranky?

My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that.  With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year.  It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change.  Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress.  She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in.  “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way.  They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages.  Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving.  In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions.  If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy.  That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter.  If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views.  It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking.  In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them.  Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.”  I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending.  Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand.  The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Getting Back on Track

Some people I’ve known over the years are moving into deanships or similar positions.  Beyond praying for their souls, every so often I like to offer some helpful tips.  

Let’s say that you have a long-term professor with a generally solid-to-strong history, but he’s starting to go off the rails a bit in class.  You’re starting to get credible student complaints, and you know the professor well enough to suspect that the complaints are at least grounded in truth.  (For the sake of argument, let’s say the issues are about effectiveness, rather than ethics.  We’re not talking about anything criminal, dangerous, or salacious here.)  And let’s say that you have a faculty union contract that’s pretty prescriptive in terms of evaluation processes.

What do you do?

Yes, you talk to the professor.  But if you’re responsible for evaluating that professor, there may be limits to how candid the conversation will get.  In the best case, maybe you learn of something either easy to fix or clearly temporary.  But maybe the professor knows something isn’t working, doesn’t know why, and doesn’t want to admit anything.  For various reasons, you don’t want to resort to any nuclear options first.  What do you do?

I’ve had good luck with the “honest broker” intervention.  Here’s how it works:

I invite the professor to identify a senior colleague he trusts, whether in his own department or another.  I offer to pay the senior colleague the usual hourly rate to do an observation of the professor’s class, but on the strict condition that the results are not reported back to me.  (I only need to know when it was done, to authorize payment.)  The idea is that the senior colleague will sit in on a class and watch the professor at work, and then later have a private conversation offering constructive feedback.  With the strict precondition that nothing from that observation is used in any evaluative way, it’s at least possible for the conversation to become usefully honest.  And since the observer is a fellow instructor who deals with the same students, there’s no credibility issue.  

The “honest broker” method has worked well several times over the years.  Some capable people had fallen into some self-defeating habits, for various reasons, but when called on it by someone they trusted, were able to right themselves.  At that point, from a management perspective, all is well.  A seasoned instructor has bounced back at minimal cost.  The mentor was flattered by being identified.  The students get good instruction.  And the professor himself gets back on track without any sort of long-term damage to his standing in the institution.  From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s almost a no-brainer.

Of course, it only works under certain conditions.  You need enough credibility as a manager that the promise of confidentiality will be believed.  The professor needs to have some respect for at least some colleagues, and needs to be open to constructive feedback.  The senior colleague needs to have a good eye.  And the issue being addressed needs to be realistically fixable.  If the issue is that the professor gets too easily flustered, that’s probably fixable.  If the issue is that the professor is struggling with a severe but unrevealed medical condition, that might not be.  It’s not foolproof.

But I like it a lot, and I recommend it to my colleagues.  It assumes goodwill, which strikes me as an excellent place to start.  It rewards honest effort.  It respects the faculty as intelligent people who want to be effective.  And in bracketing the formal evaluation process, it gives room for improvement before performance becomes an employment issue.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen similarly low-cost, goodwill-based methods to help struggling professors or teachers get back on track?

Sunday, April 12, 2015



I finally got the chance to read Robert Putnam’s latest, Our Kids.  

In the world of political theory, Putnam’s work on “social capital,” especially in Bowling Alone, was inescapable for about ten years.  Putnam argued that voluntary belonging to groups in civil society had been in long decline, and he pinned most of the blame at the time on television.  The decline in “belongingness” mattered, he argued, because “civil society” was where most people learned and developed political efficacy.  It was where you learned to be a citizen.  In putting together, say, a Little League schedule, you form broad-but-weak ties with other adults in the community.  Those ties -- beyond the family, but still local -- form the basis for collective action, as well as for professional networks.  In the shift from bowling leagues to bowling alone, he argued, we lost capacities we didn’t know we needed.

As with any Big Idea, there was plenty to attack, and people did.  But there was a recognizable glimmer of truth to the idea, which is probably why the term stuck long after anyone still read the book.  For years, political theorists were compelled to grapple with the idea of “social capital,” whether they wanted to or not.  (My own, somewhat skeptical effort can be found in the September, 2001 edition of “New Political Science.”  I came away much more impressed by Nina Eliasoph’s work in Avoiding Politics than by Putnam’s.)

His new book, Our Kids, attempts to be similarly agenda-setting.  This time, the goal is to highlight the effects of class polarization on the lives of young adults.  His thesis is that during his own childhood in the 1950’s, there was enough social capital in many places that kids who grew up in working-class homes were often able to climb economically over time, and to avoid serious deprivation or danger.  (To his credit, Putnam recognizes that his nostalgia is racially specific.)  But in contemporary America, the gulf in life circumstances across economic classes has grown so large that people in any given class really don’t recognize the reality that others experience.  The cultural tailwinds that used to propel many people forward are largely confined to the upper classes now.  Worse, while the tailwinds are effective, they’re also largely invisible, especially to those who benefit from them.  As a consequence, people who have political clout don’t understand the roots of their own success, and falsely attribute it entirely to their own (or their family’s) merit.  And people who don’t have clout are so turned off and mystified that they don’t even try.  So the political discourse, and resulting action, is based on a myopia that becomes self-reinforcing over time.  As the classes pull farther apart, we collectively lose sight of our common humanity, and we enact policies that accelerate the polarization.

Putnam is careful throughout not to come across as polemical, taking pains to note when a politically conservative lens is useful for understanding an issue.  The book never really identifies villains, per se, and its policy prescriptions fall far short of anything that would make a meaningful difference.  For a book on a crucial political conflict, it’s strangely apolitical.  

From the perspective of someone at a community college, Putnam’s treatment is both revealing and unsatisfying.  He asserts that “for most kids (!), community colleges are not really a rung on a taller ladder, but the end of the line, educationally speaking.” (p. 185)  Leaving aside his sense of community college student ages, Putnam leaves entirely unaddressed the “middle skills jobs” that require education beyond high school, but that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.  Instead, he leaps quickly to “more selective institutions, which for better or worse offer the best prospects for success in America…” (p. 186).  Well, yes and no.  I would have expected a more thoughtful and detailed take from someone this prominent on an issue this important.

Putnam mentions in passing that Jennifer Silva assisted in his research.  Her recent book, Coming Up Short, is a much smarter and more incisive take on similar issues.  She works without nostalgia, and her interviews are far more insightful and revealing than his.  If you like to read about the effects of class polarization on the ground, I’d recommend going directly to her book instead.  In this case, at least, the research assistant has surpassed the big name.

Still, Putnam offers an unintentionally helpful insight into the ways that well-meaning, progressive-ish elites view community colleges, and how they get them wrong.  Most people who work in community colleges -- Putnam doesn’t cite a single one -- see their mission as helping struggling students of all ages improve their lot in the world.  They’re about creating a middle class for a country that has forgotten how to do that.  Putnam seems to share that goal, but has moved so long in elite circles that he has forgotten how it’s done, too.  To the extent that he has the ear of the powerful, he’s unintentionally sending messages that will make our mission even harder than it already is.  

“Our” kids, as a phrase, presumes the existence of a coherent group behind the first-person plural.  Putnam’s view, sadly, reflects a relatively narrow group, despite his best intentions.  If he’d like to get a sense of social mobility on the ground, I’d be happy to host him on campus.  We’re only about 90 minutes from Harvard on the Mass Pike, though from his telling, you’d think we were a world away.  It might even be faster if you catch a tailwind.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


Friday Fragments

Greetings from Seattle!  I’m here, fighting off some serious jet lag, for the Chair Academy conference.

It’s my first time in Seattle since 1996.  The place is a lot wealthier than I remember it.  Less flannel, more beards, but it still seems like a much larger (and richer) version of Burlington, Vermont.  That’s not a bad thing; I like Burlington a lot.  But the money difference is striking.

When I got on the plane in Boston, it was gray, rainy, and freezing.  When I got off the plane here, it was sunny and warm, and the trees had leaves.  When Seattle is the sunny and warm destination, you know New England has gone too far.

I had hoped to catch the Replacements concert, but between a sellout and jet lag, it’s not happening.  Adulthood has its flaws.  Still, I tip my cap to those brave souls venturing out to see Paul and Tommy.  For my money, “Left of the Dial” and “Answering Machine” remain two of the most honest love songs ever written, even if kids today have no idea what either a dial or an answering machine were.  Adulthood has its consolations, too.


The Chronicle had a good piece on Connect2Complete, a project of Campus Compact that uses service learning as a tool to engage students in developmental classes.  The idea is that students in developmental classes often feel insulted by the need to take them, and detached from the college, so they walk away.  Getting them engaged in service learning is a way to increase their sense of belonging.  Early results are encouraging, though the grant that funded its creation is going away.

It reminded me of a discussion I’ve had a few times with our service learning coordinator.  She mentioned that many colleges treat service learning as a sort of charitable anthropology: send the upper-middle-class students into neighborhoods they’ve never seen, so they can “give back.”  But that formation, as problematic and patronizing as it is, really doesn’t fit many community college students.  Many of our students came directly from the communities service learning programs serve.  They don’t need exposure.  Their lives are exposure.

The whole rhetoric of “giving back” doesn’t resonate with people who haven’t really taken anything yet.  At this level, the lessons are very different.

Still, I’m happy to see any high-impact practice actually succeed with developmental students.  I’ll be intrigued to see if they can scale when the grant goes away.


I arrived at the conference in time to catch a presentation by Richard Strand on building a culture of leadership.  

Strand is the executive director of the academy, and a retired Army colonel.  I had to smile at his description of the culture shock in moving from the military to higher education.  (“It used to be that when I walked into a room, people saluted!”)  It reminded me of Dwight Eisenhower’s claim that the hardest job he ever had was being president of Columbia University.  Higher ed is its own, distinct culture.

At one point, we broke into groups, and discussed moments of leadership we had either observed or exhibited. In my group, all three of us told essentially the same story: a leader saw potential in someone who had been typecast as something else, and acted on that potential. “Talent scout” doesn’t often get discussed as a leadership trait, but it should be.  


Finally, a pure parental brag that I just can’t pass up.  The Wife was taking a shower and I was writing when the phone rang, so The Girl picked it up.  It was for TW.  The Girl responded, in an even tone:

“I’m sorry, she’s indisposed right now.  Can I take a message?”

A ten-year-old used “indisposed” appropriately.  Word-nerd Dad that I am, I high-fived her afterwards.  

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


Danger! Obstacles Missing!

Speed kills.  Or so it’s starting to appear.

Last year, in an effort to make it easier for students to register themselves for classes, we lowered the credit threshold beneath which they had to check in with an advisor first.  The idea was that students who are well on their way and know what they’re doing (there’s also a GPA requirement) shouldn’t have to check in for a perfunctory appointment before signing up for classes.  When enrollment dropped a few years ago, we thought that inconvenient registration procedures like that might be a factor.  So with the best of intentions, we decided to make registration easier.  With a speedier process, we assumed, students would sign up earlier and we could plan better.

Now with the new system in place, we’re finding that without the “prod” of an advisor’s appointment, students put off registration longer.  Removing the obstacle removed the sense of urgency.  The seemingly perfunctory conversations served as reminders, if nothing else.  When it got too easy, it became easy to ignore.

Cracking the code of student behavior sometimes involves thinking like Yogi Berra.  Yogi-isms like “nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded” are both absurd and sort of intuitive.  He famously claimed, in reference to baseball, that 90 percent of the game is half mental.  That’s ridiculous, but you know what he means.  Guessing student interpretations of policy changes can be like that.

I learned that the hard way in my first semester as a teaching assistant in grad school.  A student whose first paper was pretty terrible, and graded accordingly, asked for the option of an extra credit assignment.  Not knowing any better, I said yes.  Naturally, the extra credit assignment also turned out to be terrible.  I had painted myself into a corner.  I couldn’t just ignore the extra work, but at the same time, I couldn’t reward something so awful.  Two bad papers do not equal one good one.  I had thought that the student would use the opportunity to raise his game; it simply didn’t occur to me that he thought I graded entirely by the weight of the stack.

I never made that mistake again.

Predictions are that much harder when the student body is as heterogeneous as you’ll find at many community colleges.  Thirty-year-old single parents may respond very differently to a new registration process than eighteen-year-olds who attend full-time.  A process that strikes one student as micromanaging will be just what another one needs.

Perceived scarcity, even though it’s an awkward fit in a college that prides itself on access, can actually be useful.  Certain “prime time” classes always fill first, and students know that, so students who really want those sections have an incentive to register early.  If prime time seats were available right up until the last minute, they might wait that long.

The trick is in finding a system that conveys just enough urgency to motivate, without actually creating unnecessary crises.

How hard can that possibly be…?

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