Thursday, February 04, 2016


Thoughts on Cluster Hiring

A few days ago, IHE had a story about UC Riverside’s efforts to move to a “cluster hiring” strategy for hiring faculty. It sounds like they’ve had a bumpy ride, with one initiative trying to serve a host of different goals.  All politics is local, so I’ll stay out of the particulars of that one, but having seen the aftermath of a cluster-hiring binge, I can offer some thoughts on it generally.

Cluster hiring is the practice of concentrating hires in one or a few departments or areas for a year, as opposed to spreading hires around.  

It has its virtues.  

For one, it helps with diversity.  When a department gets to make, say, four hires in one shot, it’s much harder for folks to object to a non-traditional candidate or two.  Everybody can get their favorite.  

Relatedly, it can help with issues of critical mass.  When a given department is entirely fifty and above, a thirty-year-old newbie can feel very much on the spot.  But when that newbie has a few counterparts starting at the same time, she isn’t so isolated.  Having a cohort can make it easier to avoid being bullied, and can shift the culture of a department that has grown a little too entrenched.  A single hire might be overwhelmed, but a group has power just through sheer numbers.  

Cluster hiring can allow a department to attain critical mass in a curricular area in one fell swoop, too.  For a college trying to start a program in a new area, a single hire might not be enough.

It can also offer ways around zero-sum conflicts.  Instead of having to choose among the loyal long-serving adjunct, the minority candidate with a new degree, and the techie who loves teaching online, why not hire all three?  For a department chair, that’s a remarkably elegant solution.

All of that said, though, I’ve seen the downsides, and they aren’t pretty.

The most obvious one is that cluster hiring only works if you know you’ll be able to repeat it year after year, with departments taking turns.  If the money goes away after the first or second round, you’ll be stuck with some pretty glaring imbalances among departments, and those imbalances could last a while.  I walked into that at Holyoke.  When I got there, the English department had just hired a bunch, and math was waiting its turn.  Then the money went away.  Although the FTE’s were similar, English had twenty full-timers while math had ten.  It took me years to get back to something more balanced, adding one or two at a time to math as the opportunity arose.  In the meantime, the strain on the math department was considerable.

If money is inconstant, better to spend it more evenhandedly while it’s there.  Otherwise, you can get frozen in a bad spot for years.

Cluster hiring can also lead to internal resentment.  “You have enough money for them to get five new people, but I’m down two positions in two years?”  Unless the money fairy dropped by -- and she has been seriously slacking for some time now -- you cobble together a cluster for one area by shaving positions from a bunch of others, usually by attrition.  If those other areas are already struggling, which many of them probably are, then you’re hurting a lot of people to please a few.  Do not take that lightly.

Finally, and I know some people don’t want to hear this, the fifth hire in a batch often isn’t quite as strong as the first.  I’ve seen plenty of searches where we wished we could have hired the top two instead of the top one; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one where we wished we could have hired the top five.  Given the scarcity of funding for full-time positions, I’m not a fan of hiring the fifth-best for one area while starving out other areas entirely.  I’d bet that if a department hired five people in one year, the average quality would be lower than if it hired one person a year for five years.  Measured strictly by attrition, that has been true.  And in the meantime, the multiple other areas that would have been starved for years would be able to hire the best, too.  

I get the temptation for cluster hiring, and under some very narrow and specific circumstances, I could be persuaded.  But unless you know the money will flow for years, nobody is shorthanded, and you can’t achieve diversity any other way, I’m skeptical.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever seen it done right?  Is there a way around the “imbalances frozen in amber” problem?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


Postcards from the Provinces

This is a sensitive subject for me, because I grew up in a region that most of the country has no idea even exists.  It’s called “Western New York,” and it is not New York City.  It’s closer to Michigan than to Manhattan, both physically and culturally.  But in the rest of the country, “New York” refers only to the city.  The western part of the state makes news only when a blizzard strikes, or the Bills make it to the Super Bowl.  The region has its charms, but in an era of “spiky” distributions of wealth and the growth of the top ten major metros, it struggles for recognition and resources.  If you aren’t from there, you may never give it a moment’s thought.  In policy discussions, it almost doesn’t exist.

A new study shows -- brace yourself -- that people who grow up in out-of-the-way places often stay there.  When they go to college, they tend to stay close to home.  Not all, but most.  

That matters on a number of levels.  

For one, as the IHE article suggests, it means that the “undermatching” thesis is even less useful and valid than it seems.  Partisans of the “undermatching” thesis believe that talented but isolated or low-income students from the provinces would flock to selective, elite universities in Boston or New York, if only they weren’t so darned ignorant.  Put a scorecard online, and just watch the brain drain from the provinces to the cities.  What happens to the provinces, well, that’s their problem.

But that’s not how it works.  Talented students often stay close to home, and restrict their college choices to places nearby.  And that’s not because they don’t know any better.  It’s because they want to.  Believe it or not, people consider factors beyond what shows up in scorecards.  Family obligations, regional tastes, and a sense of being at home matter.  

Performance funding schemes that operate at a statewide level are remarkably poor fits in regions like that.  Tell someone in Lockport that, say, Guttman Community College has a higher graduation rate than Genesee Community College.  What, exactly, do you expect her to do with that information?  Putting Batavia and Manhattan on the same grid, as if they were essentially interchangeable, gets both places wrong.  Guttman and Genesee don’t compete with each other for students.  But in a performance funding system, they would compete with each other for resources.

(In my previous job, I saw the same thing in reverse.  Holyoke had a much higher graduation rate than Bunker Hill, in Boston.  They competed with each other for state funding, though I never met a single student who chose one over the other.  They’re 90 miles and a world apart.)  

The intuitive appeal of the “undermatching” thesis to many policy types is that it accepts hierarchy and polarization as inevitable.  Its logic leads to inevitable death spirals for the weaker locations, which would lead to even greater inequality of opportunity by region.  If you’re of a Darwinist bent and living in an elite metro, that may sound perfectly fine to you.  But if you live in one of the forgotten parts of the country, the callousness and elitism are hard to miss.

If we assume that the point of higher education is to pluck out the few worthies from the great mass and to siphon them to the few places that matter, then the undermatching thesis is the way to go.  But if we assume that people who choose the Batavias of the world -- for reasons of their own -- also matter, then we need to reject it out of hand.

Community colleges are increasingly countercultural in a geographic sense.  As Richard Florida likes to point out, the geographic distribution of wealth and opportunity is becoming increasingly spiky.  But community colleges’ distribution is flat.  They’re built on the assumption that the Batavias of the world matter.  

They do.  Students know that; they’re telling us with their feet.  I hope policymakers figure that out before they do even more damage.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Lessons from Kathie Lee

A few years ago, on a snow day, my bride had the tv on in the morning and was watching Hoda and Kathie Lee.  I walked in to ask her something, and heard Kathie Lee set up the next bit: “How to get your man to eat better.”  

“My man?”  I asked.

“I don’t think this is aimed at you,” my bride responded.

In that case, no harm, no foul; Kathie Lee and I have ignored each other for this long, and it seems to work for both of us.  But sometimes I read things that are supposed to encompass the world of American higher education, and I have that same sense of being invisible.  But in these cases, it isn’t just me, and it actually matters.

For example, Kerry Ann Rockquemore had a pair of excellent essays in IHE about the challenges of attracting and retaining minority faculty.  In the second essay, though, in a discussion of efforts to discern why faculty of color leave, I saw this:

“...the failure to extend a counteroffer only reinforced and served as a further push factor to a faculty member leaving.”

And I thought, hmm.  That presumes that it’s possible to make counteroffers at all.  In some collective bargaining environments, it isn’t.  

That’s because in many settings, salary schedules are rigidly prescriptive.  Ironically, the argument for a system like that is precisely to ensure that members of underrepresented groups are treated equally.  By reducing salaries to a formula, it’s possible to ensure that candidates of equal credentials will be treated equally.  (The more cynical formulation would say that incumbents would start screaming “salary inversion!” as soon as you deviate from the schedule for any reason.  That, too, is true.)  A dean who makes an offer beyond the schedule, even trivially so, effectively tapes a “grieve me” sign to her back.  It’s not an option.

Formulaic salaries have arguments pro and con, but if you’re in an institution that has them, don’t take the absence of a counteroffer personally.  It’s not about you.  

I had a similar sense reading Karen Kelsky’s latest, about whether negotiating a job offer could cause it to be rescinded.  Contrasting a candidate with an offer from an Ivy with one from a “small public college,” she wrote:

“Your startup offers will differ by a factor of 10 -- $4,000 for you, $40,000 for your friend.”

I spat my coffee.  No, you won’t get a “startup offer.”  We don’t do that.  We can’t.  That’s not how this works.  And hearing that doesn’t mean that you’re being disrespected; it’s not about you.  It’s how the entire system works.  Whether that’s good or bad is a debatable point, but it’s structural.  

I mention these not so much for myself -- the points aren’t about me, either -- but because I’d hate to see early-career faculty draw inferences from the absence of perks that we simply aren’t allowed to give.  That’s not how it works here.  We hire, too, and candidates from outside the community college world may not know the ground rules.  Better that they know, and not take them personally, then not know and take offense.

Kathie Lee probably didn’t intend to snub me with her comment; I just wasn’t on her radar.  I hope that candidates get these issues on their radar before they draw unhelpful or depressing conclusions from offers that can’t, and won’t, happen.  

Monday, February 01, 2016


MIT 2?

So an MIT Dean, Christine Ortiz, is taking a leave of absence to start a new university in a city that badly needs one: Boston.


She wants the Boston campus to be the size of MIT, and to open other campuses in other cities over time.  It’ll be nonprofit, and the fundraising hasn’t started yet.


Her vision, as outlined in a brief Chronicle interview, sounds like a whole bunch of research labs.  She says it’s “more toward the graduate-education model,” with the entire campus basically becoming a huge interdisciplinary lab.  “Lecture” will be virtual and modularized, with the model “very much moving away from tenure.”  

That’s not how I remember graduate education, but never mind that.

Whether the idea is audacious or delusional will become clear over time.  But it did get me thinking.

For the past forty years or so, most new colleges were for-profits.  The public sector mostly threw in the towel by the mid-1970’s.  More community colleges were established in the 1960’s than in the five decades since.  More private colleges are going under than starting up. The non-profit sector of higher ed, as a sector, is mature.  It has moved from the exciting phase of investment and growth to a more difficult phase of austerity and scrutiny.  Expectations formed during the growth phase can’t be fulfilled.  “Kludge,” defined as sedimentary layers of workarounds and adaptations around processes and even personalities, is the normal state of things.  

The prospect of a shiny new kludge-free setting is enticing.  

For a while, the for-profits offered a version of that.  They grew quickly, opening up opportunities for a generation of Ph.D.’s that non-profits had largely sacrificed to the convenience of incumbents.  For a time, they offered an unlikely port in a storm.  But after a while, the compromises built in to the need to meet stockholders’ earnings expectations became unsustainable.  Eventually, the mission devoured most of them.

Now, with the for-profits either laying low or circling the drain, the space for innovation is wide open.  MOOCs held promise for a bit, though they’ve largely settled into a role of supplementing, rather than supplanting, traditional providers.  Western Governors University and College For America developed to offer intriguing new ways to offer degrees, with very different structures for delivery.  But at this point, the green shoots are relatively rare.  

In other words, whether Dean Ortiz’ vision comes to pass or not, it’s a good time to try something new.  Somebody has to.

My own vision?  I’ll let Dean Ortiz work on the elite end, filling in the yawning chasm between Harvard and MIT.  I’m obsessed with helping the students who would never be admitted to either.  That means addressing a different set of needs.  “Unbundling” may make sense for the student with plenty of cultural and educational capital, but to the first-generation student, it’s disempowering.  The key is to start with student needs and build the institution around it.  That’s not how it has been done in the past.

The piece I’ll be watching closely is the funding.  Dean Ortiz allows breezily that she hasn’t started fundraising for her MIT-sized university yet, which I found either disingenuous -- Zuckerberg or the Defense Department in her back pocket, say -- or discrediting.  But hey, maybe she knows something I don’t.  Research universities are her world, not mine.

For the non-elites, the funding question is paramount.  The DeVrys of the world addressed that through selling stock; the limits of that strategy have become apparent.  Community colleges have relied on public funding, but the past few recessions have shown the limits of that.  Philanthropy helps, but rarely at scale.  Even Cooper Union had to start charging tuition.  If there’s another, better way, I’m all ears.

So good luck to Dean Ortiz.  It’s a longshot, but I’m glad to see someone stepping up.  I’ll be taking notes...    

Sunday, January 31, 2016


What Will the Neighbors Say?

If you work in the public sector long enough, you start to think this way.  Someone comes to you with an idea that makes sense on its own terms, and would be great in the context of the institution.  But it includes a single detail that you know, taken out of context, would make the place look bad, usually by playing into an existing negative stereotype.  So you either ask to amend the one detail, or shoot down the whole thing, for fear of how it would look in the press.

It’s frustrating, because good ideas get left behind for fear of what the neighbors would say.  And you know that what the neighbors would say would be based on having about three percent of the relevant information, but it would be the three percent that looks silly without the other 97.  

For example, I once had to delete popsicles from the lunch menu for a campus event.  The group had proposed popsicles because they’re cheaper than cookies, and they seem festive.  But I couldn’t get past the image of some reporter making great hay about popsicles.  I’ll admit muttering something sarcastic about the usefulness of my doctorate when I sent back the request, but I also know that a single image can become iconic and do damage for years.  (“Your Tax Dollars at Work” next to a photo of a rocket pop, followed by a “send popsicle sticks to the president” campaign, followed by punitive funding, thanks.)

In a more reasonable world, we wouldn’t have to worry about such things.  But in this world, you have to keep the “optics” in mind.  

If handled badly, “15 to Finish” could become a version of a popsicle.  It’s a good idea on its own merits, but it could do damage if it’s improperly framed.  Which is very well could be.

“15 to Finish” is a campaign to encourage students who can take 15 credits or more per term to do so.  It’s based in part on basic arithmetic: 12 credits x 4 semesters = 48 credits, which is 12 shy of a degree.  Financial aid rules define “full-time” as carrying 12 credits or more, so a student can be “full-time” for four semesters, pass everything, and not finish the degree on time.  

The arithmetic is correct, as far as it goes.  But “15 to Finish” is based on more than that.  It’s based on data that show that students who attempt at least fifteen credits per semester graduate at much higher rates than students who take twelve.  Part of that is probably due to reducing the size of the window through which life gets in the way.  But part of it comes from the basic truth that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  A heavy courseload can force a certain focus.  It may even push students away from working too many hours for pay, which we know can get in the way of completion.  

Obviously, not every student can take fifteen credits per semester.  (For the record, I agree with Mark Milliron that “30 a year” is a better measure than “15 a semester,” because it allows for the strategic use of January and summer terms.  The possible return of summer Pell will help.  But the basic idea is the same.)  At many community colleges, including my own, more than half of the students don’t even take twelve credits at a time, let alone fifteen.  “15 to Finish” needs to be a nudge, rather than a mandate.  It it nudges some part-time students to go from six credits per term to nine, even that would help.  But turning our backs on students who can only go part-time because of work and/or family obligations would defeat our mission.  We’d need to be clear that fifteen is a recommendation, as opposed to a requirement.

Which brings me back to the popsicles.  In the IHE piece on Friday, Karen Stout (President of Achieving the Dream, and former president of Montgomery County Community College) noted that policymakers might be tempted to rewrite financial aid rules to make 15 the new 12.  In other words, they might miss the context and nuances, hear nothing but “15 is the new 12,” and write that into rules that would actually punish students who strain even to reach 12.  

So we have a choice.  Is “15 to Finish” the equivalent of a popsicle -- nice to have, but easily sacrificed for a larger good?  Or is it important enough to be worth some risk?

Again with the caveat that I’d go with “30 per year” rather than “15 per semester,” I’m thinking that completion is important enough that we shouldn’t be shy about it.  Yes, there’s always a risk that a low-information politician will mistake a rule of thumb for a basic truth.  But they do that now with IPEDS completion rates.  I understand and respect the argument against, and I’m open to persuasion on it, but at this point, let’s err on the side of improving student success.  I’ll sacrifice the popsicles, but degrees seem worth the risk.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Save the Bunnies!: A Response to Rebecca Schuman

By now, you’ve probably heard about Simon Newman, the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, and his statements about the need to throw out high-risk students in order to improve his school’s retention numbers.  He memorably goaded reluctant employees with “You just have to drown the bunnies...Put a Glock to their heads.”  I responded in this space a few days ago.

I was glad to see Rebecca Schuman take on the same topic, since I’ve been a fan for a while.  But her response was badly off-key.  She correctly identified President Newman’s core motivation as improving student retention numbers, and rightly criticized him for trying to cook the books.  She followed, though, with suggestions for better ways to improve student completion rates:

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place.

I don’t know if she intended to write off the entire community college sector in one fell swoop, or if she just didn’t realize she was doing it.  But either way, I must object.  

Although Schuman’s piece is supposed to be a rebuttal, she and Newman actually share a core assumption: capability is a discrete quality inhering in individual students, and it can be sussed out and measured quickly and easily.  They disagree only on timing: Schuman prefers to sort out the unworthy or incapable before admission, while Newman waits until a few weeks into the first semester.  Either way, though, success comes from exclusion.

The founding assumption of community colleges as a sector is that the epistemology behind exclusion is false.  We don’t know who will succeed until they have a chance.  Ability sometimes wears disguises.  The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do.  

In fact, one of the student-success practices gaining currency at community colleges across the country involves moving away from single placement exams in favor of considering high school performance.  The goal is to place students in the courses in which they’re likeliest to succeed.  I’m a fan of that shift, since it recognizes that student ability shows itself more fully over four years of day-in, day-out work than in a single standardized test.  But whether a given college uses a test, transcripts, or whatever else, admission is a given; placement refers to the level at which they start, rather than to whether they’re allowed to start at all.

The willed naivete of open-admissions requires effort to sustain.  It increasingly cuts against the grain of a culture that seems to have made peace with economic polarization.  It requires tolerating failure -- neither denying it nor punishing it -- in a culture that believes in “performance funding.”  It means embracing economic and racial diversity in a culture that increasingly defines a “good” neighborhood or school by the absence of poor and/or brown people.  Sometimes it even means choosing to disregard Big Data and give some longshots a chance, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Choosing ethics over data feels almost radical these days.  Efficiency is great, but it only makes sense against some larger goal.  It’s not a goal in itself.  

Schuman makes exclusion “the most important of all possible suggestions.”  That’s where we disagree.  The beauty of an unglamorous sector is that it takes inclusion as a positive good.  It dares to spend resources on people nobody else will.  It doesn’t just take the cutest bunnies; it takes all who show up.  And it achieves real successes with them, despite budgets a small fraction of what their exclusionary counterparts get.

Epistemological humility is a choice, but it’s a choice rooted in a larger truth.  People will still surprise you, given the chance.  Arguing over whether the bunnies should be drowned in their senior year of high school or first month of college misses the point.  We don’t really know who will succeed until they show us.  Let them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Four Percent (or, my foray into “explainer” blogging)

If a college’s enrollments drop by four percent, should we expect its instructional costs also to drop by four percent?

Nope.  But I keep running into well-meaning people who don’t know that, or don’t know why.  And some of them are in positions to do real, if unintended, harm if they don’t understand it.

So, in the interest of educating the public about public education, here goes, in Q and A form.

“Leaving inflation out of it, why don’t instructional costs track enrollments proportionally?”  

At a really basic level, instructional costs are per section, not per student.  If a section that ran with 30 students last year runs with 29 this year, the enrollment is down a little over three percent.  But it costs the college just as much at 29 as it did at 30.  The room is the same, the instructor is paid the same, all of the support services are the same.  Enrollment is down, but cost is not.

“But wait!  Wouldn’t the drop average out over a large number of sections?”

Not really.  Most courses don’t have all that many sections.  We might see slight declines in the number of sections in a few of the “greatest hits,” like English Composition or Intro to Psych.  But
most courses don’t run enough sections to make a four percent drop meaningful.  Most courses run fewer than ten sections a semester, scattered over different days of the week and times of day.  Student schedules are not infinitely fungible; a student who could take the Tuesday morning section of a given course may not be able to take the Thursday afternoon section of the same course.  That makes it impossible to “optimize” enrollments the way you might optimize a hard drive.  Online sections are easier to swap, since they aren’t bound by times and rooms, but they’re still a minority of what’s offered.

“Okay, I get the distinction between sections and students.  But if you manage to cut the number of sections by four percent, you should still realize savings of four percent, right?”

Nope.  That’s because full-time faculty are paid more than adjunct faculty, and full-timers have to “make load.”  

If you have fifty sections to cover in a department in a given semester, and you have five full-timers teaching five sections each, then you need 25 covered by adjuncts.  Then enrollment drops, so you run two sections fewer than before, or a cut of four percent.  You still have five full-timers teaching five sections each, but now you’re down to 23 sections covered by adjuncts.  

For the sake of argument, let’s say the average full-timer makes three times what the average adjunct makes, once you account for benefits.  (That’s a pretty realistic number.)  That’s 25 sections at 3x plus 25 sections at x, for a total pre-drop cost of 100x for 50 sections.  Drop two adjunct sections, and your post-drop cost is 98x. Reducing sections by four percent reduced costs by only two percent.  And that’s assuming you were able to reduce sections by four percent, which would be pretty impressive.

“That’s frustrating.  Wouldn’t single-payer health care drive down the cost of benefits?”

That’s another post entirely.

“Maybe the problem is administrative bloat!”

Nice try, but no.  In the community college sector, spending on administration is on a long-term decline.  The decline accelerated with the Great Recession.  That argument may or may not hold water at research universities, but it’s false here.

“Well, at least you’re making big profits on all those remedial classes you make students take!”

Nope.  We run foundational skills classes with smaller class sizes and more tutoring support.  We lose money on them.

“What the hell kind of business plan is that?”

Community colleges are non-profits with a social mission.  We’re here to serve students and the community.  We serve all comers, including the risky students everyone else turns away.  

“So if you serve the neediest members of the community, why do you get the least public funding of any sector of higher education?”


(crickets chirping)


Tuesday, January 26, 2016


A Different Kind of Diversity Fear

This week I heard a comment that brought me up short.  

In a discussion of diversity on campus, and the various ways that it can be expressed and supported, a younger professor helped me understand why diversity discussions often stop right where they need to start.  He mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity.  Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I hadn’t put it together quite that way, but it sounded right.  

It’s a tough one to solve, because it’s based on an understandable fear.  I apply the same logic to Middle Eastern politics: since I know I’m no expert, I have no power to change anything, and almost anything I offer will set somebody off, I just don’t swing at that pitch.  Anyone with politically mixed families who gather for holidays knows the drill.  You don’t mix it up with Uncle Larry at Thanksgiving because there’s no “winning” with him.  You just let him air it out until someone changes the subject.  

In grad school, I did my fair share of cultural studies and postmodern theory, both of which addressed race and gender (among other things) in myriad ways.  They “interrogated” all sorts of things, often revealingly.  But I remember getting terribly frustrated at the constant refrains to reflect on your own subject-position; it struck me as leading inevitably to paralysis.  We’re all flawed and we’re all complicit in all sorts of things, just by being here.  Letting a sort of secular Original Sin overwhelm you forecloses any possibility of acting for positive change.  

I had to relearn that lesson when I went from faculty to administration.  It’s easy to criticize almost any decision, policy, or practice, and some folks spend a lot of time doing that.  In the absence of information about constraints, or in the presence of information that wasn’t available at the time, it’s tempting to contrast a flawed reality with an imagined perfection.  But when you actually have to make decisions -- almost always with limited resources, imperfect information, and conflicting goals -- there comes a point when you just have to jump in with both feet.  It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than doing nothing.  Over time, those improvements add up.  Taking the criticism, gleaning what’s useful in it, and moving forward is part of the job.  If you’re allergic to criticism, you won’t get anything done.  

I think that diversity is like that, too.  Although some people like to behave as if perfection were possible, it isn’t.  People have blind spots, hobbyhorses, and emotional histories.  That’s the starting point.  But getting beyond the starting point requires a certain willingness to be publicly awkward.  On a charged topic, that’s a tall order.  I’ve had the no-fun experience, more than once, of realizing in the middle of a public exchange that I was wrong.  It’s humbling and awful.  But it’s also an opportunity for improvement.  And it offers the chance to affirm the value of debate and discussion as tools for clarification, rather than just domination or rationalization.  If we’re going to engage each other meaningfully, that strikes me as a good start.

To my mind, the difference between diversity on campus and Uncle Larry is that we can actually make progress on diversity on campus.  That will involve some awkward moments, some partial improvements, and some human failings.  But it’s worth it.  The point of a community college is to be there for everyone, including those who haven’t been treated fairly.  Some will criticize, with varying degrees of accuracy.  But letting the critics win means letting students down.  This pitch is worth a swing.

Monday, January 25, 2016


When Mondays Become Thursdays

Is there a more elegant solution to academic calendar equity than turning Mondays into Thursdays?

Folks in the trenches know what I mean.  For in-person classes, it’s helpful to have the same number of Tuesdays as of Fridays in any given semester.  That seems like it would be easy enough, but it isn’t.  Labor Day always falls on a Monday, and Thanksgiving on a Thursday.  (Canadian readers are invited to substitute their own holidays; the same principle applies.)  Depending on local policy, the Friday after Thanksgiving may also be gone.  Some places take Columbus Day, which, again, falls on Mondays.  

But that’s just the beginning.  Some schools take Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which fall on different days in different years.  Christmas is always the 25th, but the 25th can fall on any day of the week.  If you’re in a location where starting before Labor Day is culturally unthinkable -- such as the Jersey Shore -- then years with late Labor Days create issues. If you’re trying to fit 15 weeks in between Labor Day and (shortly before) Christmas, without making any classes lopsided, it takes some doing.  In the Spring, Martin Luther King Day is always a Monday, and Passover falls on different days in different years.

(Snow days are a separate issue.  They can come at any time, and almost by definition, can’t be predicted usefully. I’ve had years in which we lost three consecutive Wednesdays; it’s annoying, but short of going entirely online, there’s no practical way to prevent it.  The same principle applies to natural disasters.)

I’ve worked in places that tackled the problem by picking a week and switching around its days, so Thursday classes were held on that Monday.  The beauty of that solution is that it evens out the number of days for each day of the week.  The problem is that the rest of the world still thinks it’s Monday.  Faculty who teach in other places suddenly face schedule conflicts.  Students whose kids’ childcare arrangements vary over the course of the week have schedule conflicts.  Students with outside jobs have schedule conflicts.  And yes, some people just get confused and miss the change entirely.  The Monday-as-Thursday solution solves one problem on paper, but causes a bunch of other ones on the ground.

There has to be a better way.

One way might be to junk the idea of parity altogether, and to just accept that some semesters will have, say, 13 Mondays and 15 Wednesdays.  But when classes are just one or two days a week, that doesn’t work.  That’s especially true of the high-enrollment classes that have multiple sections.  If Jen’s section of Psych 101 has two more weeks in it than Jane’s, then you can expect issues.  Even worse, if Jen has two sections and they’re on radically different schedules, you’re asking for mistakes.

Alternately, we could use blended/hybrid formats to even out the rough spots.  If every onsite course has a Canvas shell (or Moodle or whatever you’re using), then theoretically, the folks with the gaps could use the online component to make up for them.  That solution offers the same elegance as the Mondays-as-Thursdays, with the added bonus of not necessarily messing up schedules for outside commitments.  It also adapts well to snow days.

But the adoption of, and fluency in, online learning remains uneven among faculty.  Some do it really well and would do a great job; some would be okay with some help; some assume that it’s of the devil and want nothing to do with it.  Until nearly everybody is in either group one or group two, I’m not sure it’s the way to go.

All of that said, I know I’m not the only one facing these issues.  So, wise and worldly readers, have you seen reasonably elegant ways to even out the days of the week?

Sunday, January 24, 2016


What Do You Advise Amy to Take?

The blizzard this weekend forced some serious “inside” time, so I was able to be slightly more attentive than usual to Twitter.  (I also learned firsthand that “slippery plus steep plus snowblower equals big fun,” but that’s another post.)  On Saturday, Lee Skallerup Bessette got a discussion going about some of the issues that get in the way of successful community college to four year transfer, and it became clear quickly that some of those issues are more complicated than 140 characters can convey.

“Transfer” is one of those things that many people think they understand, but few actually do.  To the extent that most people think about it, they imagine students at community colleges getting the associate’s degree in two years, and then getting the bachelor’s in two more.  And that does happen.  But the picture is much more complicated than that.

For example, lateral and reverse transfers are much more common than most people think.  Lateral means cc-to-cc or four-year-to-four-year; reverse refers to a student moving from a four-year to a two-year.  Many programs aren’t meant to transfer; they’re intended to be two-and-out, leading directly to jobs. Those aren’t what policymakers imagine when they refer to transfer, but they’re significant parts of the picture, and each part brings its own needs.

Within the realm of the more traditional vertical transfer, though, I get twitchy when I read about “leaky pipelines” and community colleges.  That language assumes that it’s essentially an engineering problem; it isn’t.  It’s largely a political problem.

Here’s a riddle we face every single day on my campus.  (I’ll change the names and details for the sake of decorum.)  Amy wants to get her degree at the community college and transfer on for a bachelor’s, but she isn’t sure yet where she wants to go.  Hypothetical State U wants her to have taken US History, Pre-calc, and a year of a foreign language.  St. Somebody wants her to have taken European History, Statistics, and a separate diversity course.  Meanwhile, Respected Private College wants her to have taken World Civ, Calc I, and a service learning course.

What do you advise Amy to take?

Multiply that dilemma by more receiving institutions, chains of prerequisites, student preferences, and majors, and you begin to get the idea.  

Although we try to work around it, this issue will not, and cannot, be solved only at the community college level.  We twist ourselves into pretzels to try to satisfy the idiosyncratic and frequently-changing preferences of four-year partners.  But when each four-year partner wants different things, it’s impossible to satisfy them all.  That’s especially true when entering students don’t have a single destination in mind.

(Last year I saw a presentation on the very successful “pipeline” from Maricopa community colleges to Arizona State.  It works because over 90 percent of the students who transfer from Maricopa go to one place.  When you have multiple destinations, it’s much harder.)

The internal politics of many four-year colleges make matters worse.  Admissions offices will frequently defer to receiving departments for decisions on the acceptance of transfer credit.  Receiving departments are frequently willing to accept gen eds, but unwilling to “give away too many credits” in the major.  They want those FTE’s for themselves.  They can do that and still comply with statewide transfer mandates by reclassifying classes as 300 level, rather than 200 level, and/or by awarding “free elective” credit for transfer classes, rather than credits in the major.  In the absence of some sort of master list of what belongs at what level, a 300 level class is whatever the receiving department says it is.

In most professions, such an obvious conflict of interest would have been blocked years ago.  But in higher ed, it’s so normal that most of us don’t even see it.  

In parts of the country with relatively robust private college sectors, there’s a limit to what legislative mandates can do.  But even on the public side, where mandates can exist, it’s easy to evade their intent while staying within the letter of the law.  Every exception becomes a new “leak.”  

The politics become obvious when you start trying to engineer a solution.  If every college agreed on what belongs at which level, and what the transfer requirements should be, then it would be far easier to ensure that students would transfer and get full credit.  But that would involve a central authority, outside of the four-year colleges, making academic decisions for them.  Departments would have to live with the decisions others made; they would lose their power to make those calls.  Experience tells me they’d fight that bitterly, invoking “academic integrity” to protect their own enrollments.

The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” assumes that the system is basically well-designed, and just needs some fixes.  I’d argue that the system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.  If you want different results -- as I do -- the changes will be a lot more drastic than fixing leaks.  The issue isn’t Amy or her community college; the issue is that there’s no obvious answer to her question.  Until there is, we can expect the “leaks” to continue.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Friday Fragments

The quote from the president of Mount Saint Mary College about “drowning bunnies” went viral for the obvious reason that it’s almost cartoonish in its apparent villainy.  For full effect, I have to picture him twirling the ends of his handlebar mustache and cackling as he says it.

But aside from his catastrophic choice of metaphor, he’s trying (gracelessly) to do something that many places do.  He’s trying to game the numbers.

The “bunnies” to whom he referred were students whom he considered high-risk, and the reference to “drowning” them (or “put[ting] a Glock to their heads,” if you prefer that one) was about kicking them out of college before they’d count in the denominator of the college’s retention rate.  It’s a variation on the well-worn high school strategy of suspending the low-achieving kids right before a statewide standardized test.  

Any performance-based funding system will create incentives to game the numbers.  I’ve heard of community colleges that build schedules specifically to preclude students who need developmental courses from taking a full-time schedule; that way, they don’t count in the “first time, full time” graduation rate, which is the rate that ‘counts.’  Ethically, I consider that cheating, but it isn’t breaking any rules.  In this case, as in so many, the scandal isn’t that someone is doing something illegal; the scandal is that it’s legal.

In a zero-sum performance-based system -- which they tend to be -- those who successfully game the system effectively starve the honest ones of revenue.  Over time, that leads to declining performance among the honest ones: they get sucked into a death spiral of funding cuts leading to worse performance leading to more cuts leading to even worse performance, until either something breaks or the whole thing crashes.  

Mount Saint Mary’s is a private, Catholic institution, so it isn’t subject to performance funding in a direct way. (Though it does raise the question: who would Jesus drown?)  But that doesn’t make it immune to pressure to show the numbers.  

I hope that anyone in a position to influence the shaping of performance funding systems keeps the drowned bunnies in mind.  Mount Saint Mary’s president may have been uncommonly stupid in the way he did it, but what he did isn’t rare at all.


Sherman Dorn has a thought-provoking post up about questions he’ll ask candidates for deanships.  But the one that jumped out at me was:

“What can you tell us about ourselves that we cannot see from the inside?”

How to put this delicately…

People often don’t really want to know the answer to that.  They’re looking for praise, possibly coupled with a variation on “and you could be even better if…”  Old habits may not make much sense from the outside, but in many cases, incumbents consider them sacred.  They may be dreaming, but a candidate wakes the sleepwalker at her peril.

I can see what Dorn is getting at; he wants to know what new thing the prospective hire would bring to the party.  That’s a worthy goal, but this question is radioactive.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way to ask that?


We’re bracing for a repent-your-sins level storm, which highlights differences in perspective.  Upon hearing that the “winter storm watch” was upgraded to a “blizzard warning,” we reacted as follows:

The Girl: It’ll be fun!

The Boy: Sweet!  I hope I can go sledding with my friends.

The Wife: Cool!  So far this winter has been a big, dull dud.

Me: Ah, %^#*!%&#%

I suspect it may have something to do with who has to clear the driveway...

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