College Dean Confessions

Graduation, from a Different Perspective


Over the last twenty years, I?ve been to over 30 college graduation ceremonies, always in some sort of official role.  DeVry had three ceremonies per year, so in those years, the numbers added up fast. Brookdale does two ceremonies back to back on the same day, since the arena can?t handle everybody at once.  I?ve done them indoors and outdoors, in gyms and reception halls and theaters and tents and a hockey rink, with speaking parts and without. One year, at Holyoke, the platform party was attacked by a swarm of bees; if nothing else, it added some suspense to the proceedings.  The ceremonies are always rewarding, but there?s always a vague undercurrent of stress, too -- what if something goes wrong?

On Monday, for the first time since the 90?s, I get to be in the audience at a graduation.  The Boy is graduating high school, and I?m there entirely and only in my role as a parent. Decisions about running the ceremony are entirely up to other people.  TB is actually in the platform party, in his capacity as NHS president, so he?ll get a taste of that. I?ll happily sit in the stands. It will be my first graduation on a football field.

As any seasoned veteran of graduation ceremonies can tell you, it?s fun to watch the parade of shoes as the graduates pass.  You?ll see a remarkable range of choices, just from the shins down. Outdoor graduations can wreak havoc on shoes, though. One year the outdoor graduation came after several days of rain.  The field was still muddy. From direct observation, I?ll just say that mud and ambitiously high heels are not a good mix. Mud doesn?t work well with wheelchairs, either.

I don?t remember noticing messages on mortarboards when I graduated high school, though I was nervous enough that whether I would have noticed is an open question.  Now, at least at TB?s school, the students have to submit their caps for approval on the morning of the ceremony, getting them back just before it starts. That seems a wee bit draconian to me, but there it is.  Mortarboard decoration has become almost expected.

A couple of weeks ago someone I knew in college DMed me on Twitter: ?HOLY CRAP! Your kid is eighteen??  That seemed about right. TB is discovering now what I discovered at his age: graduation isn?t really about the student.  It?s really about the family. We have all three surviving grandparents coming, and The Girl is playing in the band. (?Great.  I get to play ?Pomp and Circumstance? over and over and over again??) It?s a way that the grownups mark the passage of time. We need those markers, because time seems to accelerate just a little bit more each year.  Even Google Photos got into the act, sending me a ?15 years ago today? juxtaposition of TB celebrating his 3rd birthday with him celebrating his 18th. The poses are similar. It took me a few minutes to recover from that one.

He has decorated his mortarboard in the UVA colors; he really can?t wait to go.  To him, this is just a moment of getting his hand stamped so he can get on with it.  I?m glad he feels that way. He?s all about the future, and he should be. But I?m also glad he?ll be up on stage, hundreds of feet away, where he won?t be able to see those moments when there?s something in my eye.

Program note: I will be in no emotional shape to write anything for Tuesday, so the blog will be back on Wednesday.









Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 24 Jun 2019 00:44:00 +0000

Yes, But: Humanities at Community Colleges

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) just issued two reports on the state of the Humanities at community colleges in the US.  One looks at the proportion of students who major in humanities, and also at the percentage of overall courses taken that fall under what the reports call ?HLA? (humanities and liberal arts -- a serious misnomer, given that the liberal arts also include the social sciences, math, and the natural sciences, but whatever).  The other looks at humanities course enrollment and performance as a predictor of degree completion, vertical transfer, and completion upon vertical transfer.

The short version is that they mostly convey good news.  While enrollments in the humanities have sagged at four-year colleges, they?ve actually increased at community colleges.  GPA?s in community college humanities courses prove admirably strong predictors of overall GPA at subsequent four-year colleges.  The reports single out the visual and performing arts as the largest gainers over the last decade or so, which I?ll admit surprised me.  

Having said that, though, the reports left me feeling like the point had been missed.  

To be fair, they appear to have been conceived as answers to a different question.  They set out to illustrate, with some success, that the apparent ?crisis in the humanities? -- at least in terms of enrollments -- is unique to the four-year sector.  Humanities enrollments at community colleges are doing well overall, even though almost nobody outside of community colleges notices. I saw a bit of that myself a couple of years ago when I co-presented at the AAC&U conference with Kate McConnell; although the organization and the conference don?t specify a sector, community colleges were badly underrepresented, and most of the discourse there took the four-year sector as the norm.  McConnell and her colleagues recognized that, to their credit, but the national discourse around the humanities is still very much dominated by a narrative of decline.

So, okay.  But why do the humanities feel besieged here, too, if all is actually well?  Why does the narrative of decline resonate so strongly here, if it isn?t founded in the data?

Reflecting my own background in the social sciences -- an important part of the liberal arts, thank you very much -- I think it?s due to which variables you consider.  

For example, the reports acknowledge in passing, but don?t pursue, the difference between general education requirements and electives.  Enrollments in ?English? don?t tell us much about ?humanities,? to the extent that those English classes are the required composition classes.  At my own college, for instance, engineering and business majors have to take six credits of Engliish comp. It?s a state requirement. Lumping in mandated courses with, say, literature electives doesn?t tell us much.  For instance, one report notes that English is the one humanities discipline with a significant decline over the last few years. That would seem inscrutable unless you connect the dots to degree requirements. If every degree student has to take comp, and overall college enrollments drop, then we?d expect comp enrollments to drop.  What that tells us about literature is unclear at best.

The reports don?t address faculty numbers, either.  Over the last decade, throughout the sector, it has become commonplace for full-time faculty who leave to be replaced by adjuncts.  So even when enrollments are reasonably strong, remaining members of departments feel under attack as the work of coordinating all of those adjuncts falls to progressively fewer people.  An eager grad student in the humanities might see the reports as rays of hope, but the connection between enrollments and the ranks of full-time faculty is increasingly tenuous.

Even the Guided Pathways movement, depending on how it?s carried out, can feel like an attack.  Part of the goal of Guided Pathways is to provide simple, clear, prescriptive routes to degrees.  In practice, that often translates to reducing the number of choices provided for students. Instead of saying ?take any one of the following ten courses,? it might reduce the options to two or even one.  If you?re a professor of one of the courses that was streamlined into oblivion, that can feel very much like an attack. On my own campus, part of the resistance to guided pathways has come from a sort of professional courtesy -- arguably misplaced, but still -- in which nobody in, say, the business department wants to irritate anyone in sociology or poli sci by specifying psychology as the preferred social science elective.  Accordingly, streamlining is a hard sell.

That isn?t just a matter of local resistance, either.  One report notes that humanities majors at community colleges often don?t align well with majors at four-year colleges, but it fails to ask the next, obvious, question: do four-year colleges align with each other?  For example, some of our transfer partners require US History and won?t take World Civ, while others require World Civ and won?t take US History. Some require freestanding ?diversity? courses, while others allow one course to meet a discipline and a diversity requirement at the same time.  Some have a foreign language requirement, and some don?t. Some business programs will accept ?calculus for business,? while others want the ?real? thing. In a target-rich environment, such as the Northeast, the presumption that we can just ?mirror? the four-year sector rests on a false assumption.  The four-year schools don?t mirror each other. What the reports disparagingly call a ?patchwork? is, at least in part, an adaptation to a heterogeneous and fluid environment. Ignore the environment, and that?s easy to miss.

Finally, of course, there?s the sheer weight of the constant external drumbeat of ?workforce and STEM, STEM and workforce.?  Whether those drumbeats are well-intended or not, they sound to the humanities (and some social science) folks like nails in a coffin.  To the CCRC?s credit, these reports seem to be aimed at reducing that drumbeat a bit. I hope they work.

None of this is intended to slam the reports.  If anything, I?m glad to see the CCRC turn its attention to a major part of the curriculum that has gone largely ignored up to this point (even if it gets the name wrong).  The reports show clearly that, for instance, good grades in community college courses are excellent predictors of good grades in four-year college courses, putting the lie to the classist snobbery that likes to cloak itself in the language of rigor.  They show that the national discourse around the ?crisis? in the humanities is blinkered, which it is. And they provide some good baseline information for the next set of studies that will, I hope, pay a bit more attention to context. First drafts don?t have to be perfect; they have to be done.  I very much look forward to the next round.




Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 21 Jun 2019 01:00:00 +0000

That First Life Preserver

What does a good first outreach to a struggling student look like?

I have a pretty good idea of what it shouldn?t look like.  In my own freshman year of college, I was surrounded by affluent prep school graduates on a pretty campus in the middle of nowhere.  For reasons lost to the sands of time, I decided it would be a good idea to try to study Russian. As longtime readers know, it did not go well.  

About halfway through the semester, as I sweated bullets trying to get both the college experience and that class under control, I got an intimidating-looking letter from the college, informing me that I was doing badly in Russian.

Ya think?

The letter added fuel to the fire of self-doubt, without offering any practical advice about what to do to turn it around.  My already tenuous sense of belonging there took a hit, and my performance in Russian continued to underwhelm. Eventually, the class came to an end, and I decided that it was time to try a different path.  So the most I can say for the warning letter is that it inflicted insult, but no measurable injury. At best. I?m quite sure I would have been at least as well off, if not better off, had they simply skipped it.

I discovered this week that the letter we send to students who have been identified as struggling in a given class isn?t much different.  (Cough) years later, it?s the same idea, and I?d guess that it has much the same effect.

So we?re looking at re-envisioning the initial outreach.  Instead of sounding an alarm, which presumes that the student doesn?t know something is wrong -- they almost always do -- it should be more like tossing a life preserver.  Base it on the assumption that most students who are struggling would rather be doing well; they are more often overwhelmed than indifferent.

That vision, as basic as it is, lends itself to a few obvious steps.  Initial outreach should include contact information for the tutoring center, for instance, as well as Disability Services, the Veterans Center, Financial Aid, and several other offices that can help address common issues.  (Ideally, initial outreach would be by a human being, but we don?t have the staff to do that at scale.) I don?t know if tutoring would have helped me much, but I would at least have seen the relevance of offering it.

That?s at the most basic level.  I?d guess that stopping there would make a minimal difference, if at least a positive one.  I?m looking for the next level up. What kind of outreach -- message, method, or both -- would be likeliest to achieve a positive academic outcome?

Again, I?m writing within a context in which ?hire 50 coaches and offer concierge service? is not an option.  We can?t Harvard this. And for reasons both ethical and economic, I reject out of hand the idea of outsourcing the job to headhunters working on commission, like some sort of for-profit truant officer.  I?m looking for something ethical enough that I could run across the student years later and defend what we did with a straight face.

I know that mine isn?t the only college working on trying to save struggling students.  That?s why I?m hopeful that my wise and worldly readers will have seen some nifty, practical ideas that actually work.  

Assuming we can?t just hire a cadre of people, what does a really effective life preserver look like?

Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 20 Jun 2019 01:02:00 +0000

Creative Uses of Philanthropy

What?s the most (constructively) creative use of philanthropy you?ve seen at a college?

I say ?constructively,? because most of us have heard stories of featherbedding, corruption, and ?side door? admissions.  That?s not the point at all. (Happily, community colleges have large enough front doors that side doors are unnecessary.)  And I say ?creative? because most of us are already familiar with scholarships and naming rights for buildings.

Community colleges, as a sector, are late to the party when it comes to private philanthropy.  That?s a function of many factors, ranging from relative age of institutions to the relative lack of need in the early years.  But after decades of public sector disinvestment, the sector is starting to appreciate that the private sector can offer opportunities that wouldn?t otherwise be available.

That said, while many donors respond -- and I?m glad they do! -- to calls for funding scholarships or buildings, some prospective donors may respond more enthusiastically to ideas that are slightly off the beaten path.  They want to support something that captures their imagination. And I?m not above imitating good ideas...

So, what?s the most constructively creative use of philanthropy you?ve seen at a college?

Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 17 Jun 2019 23:27:00 +0000

In Which I Try to Decipher our First College Bill

So I received the first bill from UVA for The Boy.  It covers his first semester.

As an object of interpretation, it?s remarkable.

I won?t even address the total amount, other than to say, the decimal point is obviously misplaced.  But sticker shock isn?t the half of it.

Among other things, it doesn?t have a topline figure.  It just starts listing deductions. It deducts the deposit we?ve already paid (sure), the grant aid he?s getting (yay!), the subsidized loan (hmm), and the unsubsidized loan (ugh), to wind up with an improbably high number we?re supposed to pay.  It then says that the due date is listed below.

It isn?t.

I tried calling the number on the bill to ask, but it put me on ?your call is very important to us? hold for longer than I thought decent.  A subsequent scour of the website suggested August 21, which is odd, because the ?payment plan? they offer -- for the low, low price of $45 -- breaks payments into June, July, and August.  Which means that I?d be paying extra to be allowed to pay early? Um, I?ll pass, thanks?

The Wife pointed out a more basic issue.  ?Does the bill cover room and board, or just tuition??

Who knows?  The absence of a topline figure brings with it the absence of a topline label.  I actually don?t know. It?s not a trivial question, either; I?d hate to pay it, thinking I?m covered, only to get an additional ?room and board? fee in a few weeks.  

Yet I did find other, more peculiar details.  For instance -- and I didn?t know this until now -- apparently 529 plans require that whatever is spent from them be used that same calendar year.  (529 plans are the tax-sheltered college savings plans that legislators decided could substitute for actual operating funding.) For the fall semester, that?s not a big deal; we take money from it in the summer to be applied to the fall.  For spring, though, bills are due January 6. Assuming that New Year?s Day is a holiday, and assuming there?s a weekend in there somewhere, that means the window to draw down 529 plans for the spring semester is open for about twenty minutes.  To use a technical term, that?s silly. I know they know that, because I read about it on their website. You?d think they would have made an adjustment by now.

It?s also unclear to me how 529 funds could be applied to off-campus housing, should that matter, but that?s mostly theoretical for us; the tuition charges are high enough to absorb everything we?ve set aside and much, much more.  File that one under ?problems that only apply to people with far more money,? like when the dowager in ?Gosford Park? complains that there?s nothing worse than breaking in a new maid. I?ll just take her word for that.

You?d think that billing would be relatively straightforward.  Standard practice would include information like ?here?s what you?re paying for? and ?here?s when it?s due.?  Having paid my share of bills over the years, I?ve come to expect versions of those. Instead there?s a figure covering who knows what, due at some mysterious point, unless I want to pay extra for the option of paying it early.  But early payment doesn?t apply to 529 plans, which is the one time it might actually make sense.

I work in the industry, have a doctorate, and obsess over college economics, and I can?t make heads or tails of this.  

It?s gonna be a long four years...


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 17 Jun 2019 00:31:00 +0000

The Illusion of Solidity

If you haven?t seen Brendan O?Malley?s piece on the closure of Newbury College, near Boston, it?s well worth reading.  Apparently O?Malley taught history there, as a full-time professor, for a few years, including the college?s final year.  The piece is mostly a firsthand account of what it felt like to get through that last semester, after the closure had been announced.

It?s haunting, but in the gentle way that sticks.  The part of it that made sense to me was the visceral sense that the college can?t possibly be closing -- it?s right here!  Just look at the buildings! It?s a thing that exists!

Physical reality, especially when it?s right in front of you, can seem permanent.  How can a college just go away?

Newbury did, of course, as have Burlington, Dowling, and Green Mountain, among others.  A few in my own state are rumored to be on life support, though I?m not at liberty to name them.  Many more are dealing with long-term decline; they aren?t at death?s door yet, but if something doesn?t change within the next few years, they will be.  Speaking with colleagues, the single biggest obstacle they face is denial. Too many people on campus think like O?Malley?s piece suggests. How can the college go away?  It?s right here!

By the time it?s indisputable, it?s irreversible.

Denial can be useful, in some ways.  To the extent that it prevents panic, and allows people to continue to do good work, it?s helpful.  (I?m drawing on denial to deal with The Boy?s impending departure for college.) Freaking everybody out isn?t likely to be helpful.

But an unwarranted belief in permanence can make it deceptively easy to dismiss changes that could?ve helped, had they been adopted in time.  The sheer physical reality of the place seems to contradict abstract-sounding warnings, and to reduce a sense of urgency.

I don?t know whether Newbury was saveable.  The economics of a tuition-driven private college without a prestigious name in the Boston area are an uphill battle on a good day.  O?Malley?s piece doesn?t mention any major efforts in which faculty were enlisted, other than to keep on keeping on until it was done.  But the habits of mind looked familiar.

Of course, even physical reality can change before you know it.  Through the miracle of Google Earth, I recently found out that the house across the street from the house I grew up in -- a house that used to have a family with three kids who used to do 270 degree dives off the roof into snowbanks -- is boarded up.  As is the house my Dad lived in before he remarried. As is the house my grandparents lived in. The car industry?s troubles hit the Michigan side of the family, and Kodak?s troubles hit the Rochester side. Houses that were parts of my childhood, places that I remember clearly, have gone dark.  Their sheer physicality couldn?t save them. The economic undertow was too strong.

On a day-to-day basis, concerns that seem abstract can be easy to ignore.  But buildings are, to use a 90?s term, not merely physical constructions but also social ones.  They fulfill their roles only as long as their roles exist. The solidity they offer is illusory.  Kodak Park couldn?t save Kodak; in fact, what?s left of Kodak had to implode Kodak Park because it no longer served a purpose.  

O?Malley?s piece offers a humane, thoughtful, and absolutely believable glimpse into a reality that I hope never to experience directly.  It also inadvertently shows how easily such a reality could happen, and how quickly a campus can go from refuting warnings to memorializing them.

 


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 13 Jun 2019 01:38:00 +0000

Intergenerational Justice

(Thanks to @BryanAlexander for highlighting this.)

A month or so ago, I was walking with a few colleagues back to our offices.  They were all older than I am, and all of them have worked here much longer. They were discussing the possible phase-out of a retirement benefit that?s only available to people hired before a certain year.  If you were hired after that year, no benefit for you. They were strategizing when to put in their retirement letters so as not to miss the benefit.

It was all I could do not to tell them all to go pound sand.  The benefits available to folks of my generation and younger (Gens X and beyond) are reduced so theirs won?t be.  

I try not to dwell on that sort of stuff.  I make a good living, and my family is fine.  Yes, we?re staring down some impressive tuition payments, but still.  The point isn?t ?poor me.? It?s that the ratcheting-down of living standards by generation sometimes gets so blunt that you can?t not see it.

That happened Tuesday on Twitter.  NBC News tweeted out a story about a program at the University of Minnesota, but it isn?t all that different from programs everywhere.  The university allows senior citizens to take classes for $10 each. The story presents it as a feelgood tale. The comments took it differently.  ?Boomers gonna Boomer? was one of the less inflammatory ones. My personal fave, from @SL8RGirl:

?Wait.  Those bootstrapping, I did it myselfers are getting to take classes for the price of two shitty lattes...and probably still complain that the reason current students are in debt is avocado toast and participation trophies.?

The objection, in a nutshell, is that the group that got a college education for much less, even after correcting for inflation, is getting to return for much less again.  Meanwhile, each succeeding generation has had to pay more, take on more debt, and graduate into an economy less likely to offer full-time salaries that align with local housing costs.  Worse, now, the strapped young are actually subsidizing the rapacious elders. We see it in labor contracts in which older workers are ?grandfathered? into higher wages than their younger counterparts will ever receive.  We see it in tuition levels. We see it with the increasing geographic concentration of higher-paying jobs into a few areas, in which the cost of housing has skyrocketed, producing windfall gains for the folks who bought when wealth was more evenly spread at the expense of younger people trying to start their adult lives.

The social scientist in me feels compelled to point out that the missing term from that critique is ?politics.?  As blunt as it is, though, there?s enough truth to the critique that it?s hard to dismiss.

A few months ago, David Leonhardt published a piece with a statistic that should have received far more coverage than it did.  Drawing on Federal Reserve data, it showed that since 1989, in the US, the median net worth of the age groups from 65 on up has increased dramatically; for those over 75, it nearly doubled. The 55-64 group has held relatively steady. Folks under 55 took double-digit declines.  That is to say, everyone after the Boomers got hit, and hit hard. (My own cohort took a hit of about 30 percent. Outside of a natural disaster or massive war, that?s extraordinary.) When you account for those changes, the snark aimed by younger people at the University of Minnesota program makes sense.  For that matter, so does the increasingly pronounced political divide among generations. Combine a dramatic divergence in economic outcomes with a dramatic change in the racial makeup of each successive generation, and you get a recipe for two camps talking past each other. The baseline assumptions each group makes are different, because their lived realities are different, and becoming more so every year.

Colleges are on the front lines of these conflicts.  Our students are overwhelmingly from the age groups that have been hit hard.  The median age of a student on my campus is 19. The college hasn?t had an increase of state funding since before our median student was born.  And, like so many others, we allow senior citizens to take classes for next-to-nothing, even as the cost for credit-seeking students increases inexorably.  It?s a goodwill gesture.

In this light, calls for free community college are hardly radical.  They?re a bare minimum, a small down payment for a much larger set of changes that need to be made.  

Some statistics give me hope.  In 2018, for the first time, Gen X and younger voters outnumbered Boomers and up.  And that wasn?t just a function of aging and death. It was largely a function of increased turnout among Millennials.  A group that has been hit hard is starting to hit back. It?s a sign of life.

I don?t begrudge older citizens the chance to sit in on college classes for cheap, again.  I?d just like to see everyone else get that same chance.

Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 12 Jun 2019 01:10:00 +0000

Alumni as Voters

Honestly, I?m embarrassed that I haven?t asked this sooner.  But here goes.

Public funding has been so flat for so long that it?s easy to forget that it?s a choice.  It?s a choice that could be made differently. So...

Are there any community or state colleges out there that do a good job of mobilizing their local alumni as a voting bloc?  If so, how do they do it?


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 10 Jun 2019 23:47:00 +0000

The DeVry Reunion Picnic

For the past few years, some former employees of the North Brunswick (NJ) campus of DeVry have organized a reunion picnic at a local park each June.  I went again last week.

It?s a strictly unofficial function, which is to say, it?s not sponsored or sanctioned by the company.  It?s just a bunch of former colleagues getting together socially. A few current employees show up, but it?s mostly folks who either left (hi!), retired, or were pushed out through the various waves of downsizing.  

It?s great fun to see old friends again.  While I had no love for the organization, some of the people who worked there were great.  We caught up on family news, career news, comparative aging, and the things that people usually catch up on when they haven?t seen each other in more than a decade.  (As far as the ?aging? point goes, it?s one of the last places in which I?m one of the youngest people there. That used to be common?) Teaching 45 credits per year as a regular load led to a certain battlefield camaraderie.  I took it as a personal victory that even my foray into administration wasn?t held against me.

Sociologically, though, it?s fascinating.  These are folks who rode the first tech boom up, and then down.  For the ?general education? faculty, as we were called, DeVry served as a port in a storm.  It?s mostly forgotten now, but for a while in the late 90?s, for-profits were on a full-time hiring spree.  Public colleges weren?t, except for adjuncts, so the place was able to build up a surprisingly strong faculty for a while by virtue of being the only game in town.  

At the picnic, I heard a slew of stories about people trying (or having tried) to guess when was the best time to take a retirement incentive.  It reminded me of the way that airlines bid up offers for passengers to get bumped, except that the bids went in reverse. The first round of buyouts offered 18 months of salary.  Then, 12. Then, 6. Some folks were planning to retire anyway; they chortled at being offered a large check to leave shortly before they would have left for free. But most would have preferred to hang on longer.  They didn?t have the option.

Among the ones younger than retirement age, there was plenty of job seeking.  I had to bear the bad news that most of the local community colleges aren?t doing much hiring these days, either.  There?s a little, but plenty of competition for the jobs that exist. Last month I wrote a glowing -- and truthful -- recommendation for a former colleague who was applying to another community college; she didn?t get it.  It?s their loss -- she?s outstanding -- but also hers. The same enrollment decline that hit the for-profits first is hitting the community colleges now. And as with the for-profits, the internal denial is so strong that I?m concerned that some folks will be left stranded.  I feel like I?ve seen this movie.

To return to the nautical metaphor, I jumped ship in 2003, when I got the offer to work at CCM as the liberal arts dean.  Several other folks of my generation left around the same time, usually for a parallel job at a community or state college.  The ones who did are mostly doing well. The ones who hung on much longer, and aren?t yet at retirement age, are mostly in tougher spots.  That includes some folks who were terrific at their jobs, and likeable on top of that. Some of them were highly respected on campus, and considered leaders, in their way.  But when the ship takes on water, it doesn?t really matter which seat you?re in.

When I reflect on the demographic time bomb that Nathan Grawe has identified in the Northeast and Midwest -- 2008 plus 18 equals 2026 -- I wonder if DeVry is less of an outlier and more of a canary in the coal mine.  When I moved to CCM, I commented that it felt like going back in time. In some ways, DeVry was about ten years ahead. It moved into online coursework faster. It targeted working adults in a serious way earlier. It boomed around 1998-2000, as opposed to the 2008-10 boom for community colleges.  Now it?s a shell of its former self, and I wouldn?t bet on its continued existence in five years. Community colleges in the area have sustained significant enrollment declines for several years now, and most have had at least one RIF, if not several. One has even folded. The trend lines aren?t subtle.

The picnic was a lovely blast from the past.  If it?s not also going to be a glimpse into the near future, we?ll need to learn some lessons from it.  It was hard to see good people stranded. I?d hate to see more good people meet the same fate.







Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 10 Jun 2019 01:06:00 +0000

Purges

Admittedly coming from a different context, I was fascinated by the article in IHE on Thursday about new presidents starting with purges of senior staff.  The article takes the position that purges are always bad. I?d replace ?always? with ?almost always,? and would expand the scope to include continuing leaders as well as new ones.

Having walked into a college as a vp a few years go that had a long history, and a history of hiring almost exclusively from within, I was quickly faced with having to suss out which direct reports had which strengths, whom I could trust, and who needed to move on to the next phase of their career.  It?s difficult, not least because when you join a college already in progress, it doesn?t stop and wait for you. You have to get up to speed while everything is moving.

The most difficult part, especially in the early going, is figuring out where the unspoken land mines are.  They?re different at every college. Sometimes it?s a long-simmering feud based on reasons nobody can quite remember.  Sometimes it?s status anxiety around ?only? being a community college. Sometimes it?s a pervasive nostalgia. Worse, people often don?t know where their own buttons are until they?re pushed, at which point you find out abruptly and gracelessly.  Some level of that is probably inevitable, but it?s a challenge.

Below the president?s level, there?s the ever-present issue of folks? already established relationships with the president.  More than once, in more than one setting, I?ve stumbled across moves that would have made perfect sense if not for somebody?s abiding loyalty to someone else.  In a more perfect world, people would be self-aware enough to give you a heads-up about that sort of thing. But often, they aren?t even aware it?s there until it?s threatened.  Self-awareness is not evenly distributed.

Ego is, of course, an ever-present threat.  Some presidents like to make impulsive decisions just to show that they can.  That makes life difficult for the folks who report directly to them. It?s hard to build trust when the folks above you have a habit of turning on a dime.  I?ll just say I?ve seen it personally (?keep them on their toes!?) and leave it at that.

Over time, even without purges, teams evolve.  The ideal is a relatively steady pace, so at any given moment, the team has a good mix of newer and more established.  Too much change brings obvious issues; too little brings issues less obvious, but just as real. The outside world is changing at an accelerating rate; if you have too many people who are too content with ?that?s how we?ve always done it,? you?ll lose ground.  It can also lead to folks tuning out, as they perceive a lack of opportunity to try anything new. Stability can become stagnation before anyone realizes it.

Sometimes your hand is forced.  Someone falls ill, or dies, or takes a long-planned retirement.  In those cases, the need for change is obvious, and there?s really nobody to blame for it..  Sometimes there?s misconduct or incompetence; those are the hardest cases. You?d be surprised how hard, or dirty, some people will fight to keep jobs they have no idea how to do.  The fight gives them a distraction from their self-doubt. Their friends will rally to their aid; many others, who agree with you, will sit on their hands to avoid getting dirty. It?s frustrating, but if you think of it from the perspective of individual incentives, it makes some sense.  It?s one of those things nobody tells you before going into administration.

The other side of the ?purge? is the ?mass exodus.?  That?s when folks voluntarily abandon ship at an alarming pace.  That should be a red flag, but I?ve seen places tolerate it at levels I consider mystifying.  It?s usually a sign of toxic leadership, finances circling the drain, or both. Some leaders actually take pride in it, congratulating themselves on creating a new day.  Color me skeptical. One or two people leaving when a new leader comes in is normal; an entire cohort leaving is a sign that something is wrong. Multiple exoduses (exodae?  Exodi?) are even brighter red flags.

I don?t recommend that new leaders start with purges.  I didn?t with my direct reports, either at Holyoke or at Brookdale.  That?s not because change is always bad, though; it?s more a matter of pacing.  It takes a while to learn who?s who, and they?ll do the same back at you. Over time, good leaders will find the right people.  Bad ones will purge, and purge, and purge.




 




Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 06 Jun 2019 23:55:00 +0000

Inheritances

The Girl is wrapping up her freshman year of high school this month.  She?s a ?band kid,? happily playing trumpet in the marching and concert bands even though her first musical love is the piano.  She was able to play piano in the pit orchestra for the high school production of ?Hello Dolly,? but otherwise, school playing means the trumpet.  (Pianos are heavy and clunky, as far as marching goes.) My own musical talents go only so far as listening, so it?s great fun watching her develop her own playing styles.  

For her, the draw of band is mostly the social element of it.  Each instrument section does some bonding, and each has its own personality.  The trumpet section -- more girls than boys -- has a sort of goofy charm; this is the group that, thirty-odd years earlier, would have giddily quoted Monty Python to each other.  Band Camp, in August, is the highlight of her year; it?s the reason she won?t be heading to Charlottesville when it?s time to drop off TB at UVA. (Still need a new pseudonym for TB?)  As she put it, when Camp was over last year, ?we all got emo about it.? We don?t have the heart to deprive her of that for a twelve-hour round trip that involved a lot of packing. The grandparents will hold down the fort.

I bring this up as context for explaining why she cares so much about being the section leader for the trumpets next year.  Section Leader status is only partially about playing ability. It?s also about working well with other kids, coordinating/hosting practices over the summer, and setting the cultural tone for the section.  It?s a chance to define her clique. She has locked her sights on it.

The band director requires any students who want to be considered for section leader to write a 1 page essay explaining why.  The requirements for the essay are fairly specific: the students have to include future academic and career goals, among other things, and connect them to leading their peers.  

This is where she shows some family inheritance.

She drafted the piece herself, spending a few days on it.  Before hitting ?print,? she asked to me proofread for typos.  That seemed reasonable, so I did. And reader, I saw the family resemblance.  I bet you can spot it, too After several 5-8 sentence paragraphs laying out her argument -- she wants to be a writer, which means she needs to hone her communication skills -- she went with this:

I intend to write.
And to write well.

The short paragraphs!  She syncopated her paragraph rhythm, just like her Dad.

She writes like she talks, and talking involves changing speeds.  The trick is maintaining a human voice while also sticking to a subject longer than you might in conversation.  Not yet fifteen, and she already has it.

Some Dads pass along money or property.  Some pass along athletic talent, artistic talent, or political connections.  I pass along a taste for using simple sentences as a form of punctuation.

I?ll take it.  

We don?t know the result yet, but I feel like I?ve already won.







Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 05 Jun 2019 00:25:00 +0000

Comparison Ads

I had a conversation on Monday with someone on campus about reaching out to some of the populations that for-profit schools tend to target.  I made the obligatory reference to Lower Ed, then noted how much lower our tuition is -- even for online courses -- than the major for-profits with whom we compete.

My interlocutor, who shares my concerns, didn?t know that.  As she put it, she assumed the for-profit must be fairly cheap because so many people from her church go there.  In fact, its tuition is more than double what ours is.

Which is when it hit me.  For all of the rhetoric about competition and following the marketplace, colleges don?t really act like competitors when it comes to advertising.  Readers of a certain age -- hi everybody! -- may remember the Pepsi Challenge, in which civilians were given ?blind? samples of Coke and Pepsi, and asked which they preferred.  I sort of liked the Pepsi Challenge, because it made its point effectively without actually bashing the competitor. (The point was made so effectively that Coke introduced New Coke, one of those 80?s moments that?s hard to explain in retrospect.)  But I haven?t seen a version of the Pepsi Challenge for higher education, at least from the non-profit side.

There are admirable reasons for that, of course, but it tends to leave the door open for for-profits to fill the information void.  And they do.

Obviously, it?s harder to judge the quality of a college from a ten-second taste test.  But relying on people to ?just know? that nonprofits are better only works when they just know it.  The ones who just know it tend to be the ones who already come here. We can?t rely on tacit knowledge and expect to reach new populations.  That means, at some level, working on making that knowledge explicit.

I?m not looking to unleash a Hobbesian war of each against all.  Transfer is a core function of a community college, and transfer, by necessity, involves cooperation between institutions.  And the idea of the same taxpayers paying for public institutions to bash each other is just silly. But drawing accurate, valid, verifiable contrasts with for-profit competitors doesn?t strike me that way at all.  As McMillan Cottom?s book notes, for-profits specifically target African-American women and load them down with debt. We offer a more affordable and respected alternative. The trick is getting the word out. From a taxpayer?s perspective, a little bit of advertising upfront is a lot cheaper than subsequent loan bailouts.  

My background isn?t in marketing, so I?m not sure how a campaign like that would work.  Some of it probably has to be by word of mouth with trusted ambassadors, which is great when you can do it.  But some of it may need to be more systematic than that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen cases in which community or state colleges have gone after for-profits directly?  If so, what worked? I?m thinking that we?ve hit the limits of the payoff from the ?the difference speaks for itself? strategy.  What would our version of the Pepsi Challenge look like?


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 04 Jun 2019 00:53:00 +0000

Entry Level Pay

This weekend Will Simpkins, from Metropolitan State University - Denver, posted a great question on Twitter:

Been thinking about salary lately - and how (particularly underfunded) institutions can raise the bar for entry level pay. Without new $, seems like only choice is not filling vacancies and apportioning that money?which just leads to overwhelmed staff. Any other ideas out there?



To which I say, it?s complicated.

I?ll start with some context.  I?m writing from a community college with tenure and unions, in a state that hasn?t increased its aid since the Clinton administration.  Private institutions with enrollment increases have options that we don?t have.

Low entry-level salaries make recruitment harder.  That?s especially true in fields where people have options within industry, such as computer science or Nursing.  The local hospitals don?t care about our internal salary scales; they pay what they need to pay to get staff. If that means we have trouble competing, then that?s what it means.  When salaries are collectively bargained, any deviation from the standard salary schedule becomes dangerous.

So, one might reasonably ask, why not direct what resources you do have to entry-level salaries?

The first and most basic issue with raising entry-level pay is salary compression.  If newbies make more than people who have been here for a few years, the latter group can be expected -- reasonably -- to ask for a compensatory bump.  Which, in turn, creates pressure for a bump for the group above them. In essence, raising entry-level pay requires raising pay all the way up the scale.  What looks at first like a relatively small amount (?what?s a few thousand dollars out of a budget of 81 million??) into a much larger one, and one that compounds over time.

In the last faculty collective bargaining agreement, we agreed to take the pool for raises and distribute it as a dollar figure, rather than a percentage.  That way, the folks on the bottom got bigger increases than they otherwise would have, and the folks on the top got smaller ones to compensate. It didn?t create any compression issues, since the entire union went up by the same amount.  It was like a flat tax in reverse. (In essence, instead of everybody getting 2%, the folks on the top took 1% so the folks on the bottom could get 3%.) Given that health insurance premiums don?t vary by salary, it seemed only fair to direct more help to the lower end.  I was glad that we did that, and I?m hopeful that we?ll be able to do it again. The folks on the top of the scale are doing fine, but the ones on the bottom have a legitimate beef; dollar-figure raises offered a politically acceptable way to do something about that.

Still, that?s just a different distribution method.  It doesn?t solve the problem of the pool of money being too shallow.

Sometimes it?s possible to get by with fewer people, and to use some of the savings to address salaries.  But at this point, most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Besides, there are limits to what you can ask the remaining people to do, and to do well.  Technology occasionally helps, but it brings costs of its own, and some tasks still require human beings. (See the Baumol?s Cost Disease post from last week for details.)

Grantsmanship can help fill in gaps, in some cases, but it has limits.  Grant funding for positions tends to be temporary, although it often comes with ?sustainability? or ?matching? requirements that commit the institution to using its own dollars beyond the grant.  That limits the usefulness of grants, and tends to favor institutions that don?t need them as much. (Despite having by far the best arguments for philanthropy, community colleges are badly underrepresented in the higher ed philanthropy world.)  

Public/Private Partnerships (?P3?) are fashionable now, and sometimes they can help.  But remember Coase?s theory of the firm. Firms exist to reduce transaction costs. As you go outside a single firm, the transaction costs increase dramatically.  Direct funding is far more efficient, but it?s out of fashion politically.

Traditional private philanthropy is valuable, but folks on campus often misunderstand how.  You don?t want to pay ongoing salaries with soft money. Well-endowed private institutions can make such high returns on endowments that they can fund operations out of those returns, but we can?t.  Instead, philanthropic dollars tend to go to scholarships, buildings, or programs. All of those are useful and valuable, but none of them funds regular salary lines. For those, we need operating dollars.

Honestly, the two most powerful moves we could make to fund salaries at a more realistic level both exist beyond the campus level.  The first is increased operating funding from states and/or localities. The longer we let that leg of the stool decay, the more tilted we?ll be.  The other is some sort of major structural change to health care. The rate of cost increase for health insurance is catastrophic, and it?s squeezing out everything else.  Single-payer health care would be an excellent boost to higher education funding. People don?t usually connect those dots, but they?re connected. As long as we?re paying twice-inflation increases for health insurance on zero-increase subsidies, we?ll be squeezed.

The bottom line is that it?s hard to pay more money when you don?t have it.  There?s no non-political solution to that.









Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 03 Jun 2019 01:17:00 +0000

Agreement from an Unlikely Source

I?ve followed political debates in the US long enough to have a pretty reliable sense of who will line up on which side of a given issue.  That?s why I was surprised to see this blog post at The Grumpy Economist, drawing on the new book ?Why Are the Prices So D*amn High?,? by by Erik Helland and Alex Tabarrok.  It?s published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which identifies itself as ?advanc[ing] knowledge of how markets work to improve people?s lives.?

Working from a basically libertarian perspective, the book tackles the question of college tuition increases.  Given the source, I would have expected the usual villains in the libertarian narrative: ?rent-seeking? liberal academics who use their sinecures isolated from the market to feather their own nests, or some variation on the theme.

But no.  To their credit, they specifically exonerate three of the usual villains.  It?s not administrative bloat, the regulatory state, or even unions. (Reader, I have lived long enough to see libertarians exonerate unions.  I am older than I thought.) Looking at the relative increase in the cost of goods over the last several decades as compared to the cost of services, and then breaking out different sorts of services based on the degree to which they can be automated, Helland and Tabarrok land on the real culprit:

Drum roll, please?

Longtime readers can see this one coming?

Baumol?s Cost Disease!

I?m particularly enamored of figure 24 on page 42.  It?s just about as plain as they make ?em.

The ?solutions? section of the book looks like it was written in 2012 and left on a shelf for a while, but the ?diagnosis? part holds up.  (I say that having written about BCD in 2012 myself - see here. Check out the ?Occupy? reference! It was a more innocent time?) When the productivity of some sectors -- say, manufacturing -- goes up much faster than others -- say, teaching -- then the latter will become more expensive relative to the former.  The trend is inexorable, insidious, and mostly inscrutable in the moment.

Baumol?s disease, named after economist William Baumol, wasn?t even originally postulated to explain tuition.  It was originally applied to live music. It takes just as many musicians just as long to play a string quartet piece as it did 200 years ago, but they get paid much more than they did 200 years ago.  Meanwhile, over the last 200 years, farming has gone from the majority occupation in the country to a percentage in the low single digits, and food has gotten cheaper, even as the population has exploded.  Different rates of productivity increase explain the divergence. The cost disease explains why health care, education, live theatre, and law enforcement have grown more expensive over time, but televisions, cars, and clothes have gotten cheaper.  Lazy rivers and climbing walls have nothing to do with it.

Baumol?s is a tough case to solve, but getting the diagnosis right is the first step.  Seeing folks from a very different political orientation land in the same place gives me hope.  Let?s dissolve the circular firing squads and address what?s actually happening while we still can.


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 30 May 2019 23:34:00 +0000

The Start of a Necessary Conversation

Every year at the AACC, I make a point of attending the Community College Research Center reception.  The CCRC folks are terrific people doing crucial work; I?ve been a fan of theirs, publicly, for years.  They?ve always been gracious enough to let me in.

And every year I nudge them about the same topic.  ?What about ESL?? Whether I had anything to do with it or not, I?m happy to report that they?ve taken up the topic with a new report that I hope is the first of many.

Developmental education reform, guided pathways, and ASAP-style programs have been the (deserving) subjects of study for years.  But when it comes to ESL, many of us who aren?t specialists in that field have been flying blind for a long time.

That?s because it?s ?sorta? like many things, but not really.  It?s sorta like remedial or developmental English, except that some of the students are much more fluent in another language than they are in English, and that those other languages may differ from each other in significant ways.  (For example, Russian doesn?t have ?articles? in the way that English does. There?s no equivalent of ?the.? Try to explain why we go to college, but we go to the university. Why the article in the latter case but not the former?  It?s harder than you?d think.) It?s sorta like American students taking French classes, except that there?s more urgency to it, given the location, and it?s much less likely to count for degree credit or to transfer.

It comes in different flavors, too.  There?s basic life English, which is often taught by local NGO?s.  There?s contextualized occupational English, such as what might be taught in a CNA program.  (In three years of high school French, I don?t think I was ever taught the word for ?gauze.? But a CNA probably needs to know that right away.)  And then there?s academic English, taught with the goal of enabling a student to get an academic degree here. That tends to mirror the remedial model most closely, though sometimes with more emphasis on American culture and idioms.  

ESL students aren?t all the same.  As the report notes, some are illiterate in two languages, some (?Generation 1.5?) are fluent in spoken English but shaky in written, and some are college-educated in other languages, but weak in English.  Some may have grown up here and even graduated high school here; others may be new arrivals to America. That mix presents both a teaching challenge and a management challenge. Interventions that work for one student profile may not work for another.

The report notes, too, that there?s no broadly accepted placement tool for ESL.  Some tools exist, but there?s no consensus around one or two. That can make large-scale comparisons difficult.  It also may explain why there?s such variation in the number of levels of ESL offered at various colleges. In my observation, the range is much broader than it is with remediation.

The report doesn?t cover financial aid, but I hope its sequel will.  Financial aid and ESL are a tricky fit. That trickiness forced many colleges to move the lowest levels of ESL to the non-credit side, and to pay for them differently.  Anecdotally, financial aid has had more direct impact on ESL than on remediation. When the current wave of xenophobia passes, I?d like to see some policy clarity on it.  But given where we are, for the moment, ambiguity may not be the worst thing.

I commend the report to your reading.  It?s complicated, and it doesn?t offer any quick fixes, but it does some much-needed groundwork to start an intelligent conversation that we desperately need to have.  My thanks to Julia Raufman, Jessica Brathwaite, and Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian, the authors of the report, whom I hope to meet at the next conference, and to the CCRC generally for stepping up.  This is exactly the sort of thing community colleges need to get right.


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 30 May 2019 00:46:00 +0000

Who Should Control Faculty Lines?

?departments are best positioned to understand their particular needs, and yet the vast majority of a department?s budget is controlled by those above them. Rather than lines, imagine instead a structure where departments are given full control of the budget, including salaries ? recognizing that some of those salaries are controlled by rank ? but which still leaves a chair room to move funds towards immediate needs while also planning for those equally necessary enduring tenured positions.? - John Warner, ?Harvard is Bad at Management?

John Warner published a think piece in IHE this week in which he argued that part of the reason that most academic management is terrible is that the structures of academia are set up to defeat them.  As part of a potential alternative, he suggested no longer allocating full-time faculty positions centrally, but having each department manage its own salary budgets. That way, at least in theory, dollars would go where the needs are, based on the assessments of people on the scene.

To which this longtime academic manager says, no.  

I?ll start with a couple of stipulations.  The first is that I usually agree with John Warner, and I have a high opinion of his work generally.  The second is that I fully assume that he means well. The third is that I?m writing from a community college, which is a very different environment from Harvard.  I?d argue it?s actually much more representative of American higher education than Harvard is, but it?s certainly different.

All of that said, this is a terrible idea.

First, and at a basic level, it assumes that the existing distribution of positions among departments is optimal.  That?s rarely true, and even when it is, it?s temporary. People leave, die, or get sick. Enrollments fluctuate unevenly across departments.  Some require subspecialities (such as languages), while others don?t. (Here?s a sentence I never want to hear the chair of Languages say while staffing: ?Ah, Spanish, Japanese, same thing??)  Some have an easy time finding excellent adjuncts, and some don?t.

Given those parameters, and finite resources, freezing the existing distribution would be like a sailor never adjusting the sail, no matter what happens with the wind.  It?s unlikely to end well.

Having the ability to move lines from one department to another as things change is necessary to keep the ship afloat.  If departments ?own? their lines, I can?t imagine them giving them up. (?I?ll give you one this year in exchange for a first-round draft pick next year.?  It doesn?t work like that.) The figure in the middle who reallocates may be resented for doing it, but it?s far better than the alternative.

Second, it assumes that most funding is fungible.  It isn?t. Moving the salaries of tenured faculty from a central account to a departmental account does literally nothing to increase the authority of the department chair.  Those salaries aren?t discretionary. (In a collective bargaining environment, chairs wouldn?t even have control over raises. I don?t.) To the extent that departments try to take control of the ?breakage? that happens when a high-salaried senior professor retires and gets replaced by a newbie, you?re locking cost increases into the model.  I?ve heard plenty of critiques of higher ed administration, but ?you aren?t raising costs fast enough? isn?t one of them. Reabsorbing that breakage into the general budget helps moderate tuition increases and prevent layoffs.

Third, it assumes plenty of resources.  Um, no.

Fourth, it assumes that the ability to manage people is either universal or evenly distributed.  It?s neither. In the course of my travels at multiple colleges, I?ve seen enough instances of the chair-by-default (?nobody else wanted it!?) to be wary of assuming that devolution is always good.  There have been times in my career -- the plural is accurate -- in which I had to defend innocent but unpopular faculty against malicious chairs or colleagues. Take out that option, and every department becomes susceptible to petty tyranny.

Fifth, it assumes either overall stability or overall growth (?anticipated needs?).  What about overall shrinkage? That?s the situation most colleges in the US, and especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are facing.  If you want internal politics to get really ugly, tell individual departments that they have to vote someone off the island. We?d hit ?Lord of the Flies? territory pretty quick.  Designating a central administration as the necessary evil allows everyone else to continue to feel like they?re the good guys. As any political scientist knows, nothing fosters cohesion quite like a common enemy.

Yes, being the designated bad guy can get frustrating. That?s especially true when you know that the decisions you make, and get attacked for making, are the only reasons some of your angriest critics still have jobs.  But that?s the gig. If HR would let me, I?d put a phrase about ?must have a healthy sense of the absurd? into every managerial job description.

Finally, it assumes that every academic manager is bad.  I simply don?t believe that. Some are, of course, but all?  Every single one? I?ve worked with some pretty terrific people over the years, some of whom would have been described as terrible by folks who took issue with this decision or that one.  Belief in the ?dark side? may be politically or culturally useful, but let?s not jump from that to assuming that it?s actually true.

One of my tests, when confronted with someone doing the ?Administration Sucks!? litany, is to go back through a list of predecessors.  If you don?t like your current dean, okay. But you didn?t like the previous one, either? And the one before that, and the one before that?  In the words of despair.com, the one common denominator of all of your failed relationships is you.

Warner is clearly correct that part of the challenge of academic management is the shocking lack of tools that other managers take for granted.  But that would be true of chairs, too. And their incentives -- necessarily local -- would be far more damaging to the institution as a whole.

As unpopular as it is to say, institutions have needs beyond those of any given department.  They need folks who are empowered to say to a heavily staffed department that the line for its recent retiree is moving over to a badly understaffed area someplace else, or even going unfilled to manage enrollment decline.  The people who make those decisions will make some folks unhappy, but the alternative would make everyone unhappy.








Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 29 May 2019 00:54:00 +0000

The Boy Turns 18

The Boy got his first sample ballot in the mail last week.  It?s for an uncontested primary, but a ballot is a ballot. He has mentioned that he?s paying more attention to politics now that he?ll have a say in it.  Coming back from Massachusetts last week, we took the ?Mario Cuomo Bridge? (the new Tappan Zee). I mentioned that the first time I voted was for Mario Cuomo?s second term.  He asked me if Mario was related to Andrew Cuomo.

Sometimes you forget that what counts as common knowledge shifts over time.

I remember when he was born.  He was our first, so we were scared out of our minds.  I was watching Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN when TW stood at the edge of the room and announced unambiguously that it was time to go.  The next day, Memorial Day, he was born in the middle of the afternoon.

He was tall for his age from birth; he was the longest baby in the nursery.  When the nurse put him on the scale to weigh him, I was right next to him and said something like ?hey, big guy.?  He turned towards me. It may have been reflex or coincidence, but I prefer to think it wasn?t.

We still have a photo of me holding him in the hospital the day after he was born, reading him a board book of The Runaway Bunny.  At the time, the prevailing theory was that children as young as three could benefit from being read to. We considered that silly; they can benefit from shortly after birth.  They might not know what?s going on at first, but gentle lap time and a soothing voice can only be positive. By the time he was two, he had a stack of board books that he kept in the living room; he?d swipe through the stack, scattering books everywhere, until he found the one he wanted one of us to read to him.  It got so repetitive that sometimes we?d hide a favorite under the couch, just to break the monotony. He especially loved the picture books about construction vehicles. To this day, whenever I see or hear a reference to a backhoe loader, I hear his little voice calling it a ?backhoe Yoda.?

We discovered, too, that stories worked well as discipline.  The bedtime routine involved three stories. But if he did something that day that he wasn?t supposed to, he?d only get two stories that night.  ?You?ll lose a story?? became an effective threat, because he knew we weren?t bluffing. I figured that if someone called Family Services on us to report that our kid was only getting two stories that night instead of three, we?d be okay.  It also drove home that reading is a reward.

He was a live wire.  We had an ?exersaucer,? which is a sort of suspended seat held up by springs in the hole of a donut the size of a hula hoop.  He bounced in that so loudly that you couldn?t have a conversation. There were nights that we unplugged the baby monitor because he was loud enough that it was little more than an amplifier.  He hated going to bed -- the FOMO was strong, even then -- and would cry for nearly an hour many nights. I lost track of the number of nights I spent lying on my back by the crib, my hand holding his through the slats, until he?d finally fall asleep.  

We were lucky that he was always good to his sister.  She?s three years younger. She used to treat him as a sort of traveling circus, watching him and laughing at his antics.  He was gentle with her, which may be why we?ve been spared much sibling rivalry.

Even as a little guy, he was great with smaller kids.  When he was five, the two-year-olds flocked to him. He hasn?t lost that.  He recently got an award from the local running club for helping with their family fun runs -- he?d be the ?rabbit,? setting a pace for the little kids to follow.  His youngest cousin adores him. I think it?s the ?gentle giant? thing he has going. He wants to be a surgeon, but I wouldn?t be shocked if he found his way to pediatrics.  Kids just love him. When the time comes -- and there is noooooooo rush -- he?ll be a great Dad.

One of the best parts of parenthood is having a front-row seat to watching children grow into themselves.  He?s a young man now, and a good one. He?s as prepared for leaving for college as he can be: he knows what he wants to do, and he?s smart, hardworking, confident, funny, charismatic, tall, handsome, and considerate.  Admittedly, my sense of the dating market stems from the previous century, but that combination can?t be a bad thing. When he hit junior high, I advised him not to try to compete with the ?bad boys? on their turf; that?s just not who he is.  Instead, be a gentleman. There?s less competition, and it suits him. I?m glad to report that he did, and it does.

He knows where he?s going this Fall, and he can?t wait.  Our theory of parenting was always that it was our job to get them to the point that they could leave the nest and thrive.  He?s eager to spread his wings. That?s what?s supposed to happen.

The house will be weirdly quieter without him.  But that?s supposed to happen, too. In the meantime, I?ll need a new pseudonym for him...





Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 28 May 2019 01:07:00 +0000

The Most Useful Observation Feedback You Ever Got

Part of my job involves reading the evaluations of full-time faculty as they come in.  (Admittedly, between graduation, the gas leak, and this week?s OER conference at UMass, I?m a bit behind.  But still.) I don?t actually write the evaluations or do the observations; the deans do that. But I read them and, when everything seems in order, sign off on them before they get filed.

In my teaching days, I got observed by deans.  In my deaning days, I did observations. Now I read hundreds of them.  But I?m still not completely sure what kinds of feedback faculty find most useful.

To be clear, usefulness to the professor isn?t the only function of observations.  If someone is going badly off the rails, they can provide documentation to support some sort of intervention.  On the flip side, if someone?s fitness has been called into question, an observation can help exonerate. They?re written in the third person for a reason.

That said, though, most are only read by the professor, the dean, and me.  Presumably, they?re usually read most closely by the professor; that?s who has the most at stake, and they only have to read one.  

So, this one is particularly for the faculty out there.  What?s the most useful observation feedback you ever got?

?Useful? doesn?t necessarily mean ?positive,? although it could.  I mean it in the sense of ?helping you improve.? What helped you get better?

Thinking back to the feedback I got as a teacher, the most useful stuff usually came from students.  The evaluative ones from deans were sort of...fine...but not terribly useful. Given how much time these take, and how many of them we do, I?d like them to be better than just fine.

So, wise and worldly readers, I (and the deans) look to you for guidance.  What?s the most useful feedback you?ve received on an observation? Alternately, what would be useful to receive?


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 21 May 2019 00:43:00 +0000

The Best Laid Plans...

On Friday morning, a construction crew that was installing a backup generator on campus hit a gas main, forcing an evacuation.

As dramatic as that was, at least it happened on Friday.  We had both of our graduation ceremonies on Thursday. An evacuation then would have been much worse.  Friday was a relatively light day, as far as people on campus go. It was ?Scholars? Day,? which is an annual professional development day on which faculty and staff present to each other some research or projects they?ve been working on.  It?s a relaxed, collegial day between graduation and the start of the first (and highest enrolled) summer session the following Monday.

That means there weren?t any students on campus, and even the staff was light.  That made both the evacuation and the subsequent communications easier.

The problem with a gas leak is that the danger is mostly theoretical until it very much isn?t, at which point the damage is done.  I saw that as folks gathered in the parking lots on the opposite side of campus. They (we) were discussing when and whether to actually leave.  People were still showing up, so there was some redirecting to do. The president was off campus, so I was the ranking person on campus, and I noticed people looking to me for cues.  When I told them to get off campus, they stayed put because I did. When I figured that out, I set the example by driving across the street to the parking lot of a neighboring church; that seemed to open the floodgates.  Folks arrived quickly at the church.

The most frustrating part of the enterprise was the partial information and spotty communication.  I was in touch with the president, who was being briefed by county officials and, presumably, campus police.  For a while, it wasn?t clear how quickly the leak would be plugged. Had we known immediately that it would take as long as it did, we could have made the call to close for the day much more quickly than we did.  But at first, it seemed like it could be a relatively quick fix.

Worse, there wasn?t really a single designated area.  We were advised to go to the church; a subsequent RAVE alert directed everyone to a nearby park.  Others set up base camp at nearby Dunkin? Donuts or McDonald?s. I was with the group at the church, which included a few dozen people.  Happily, the folks working in the church were welcoming, and allowed us to use the facilities as needed. And the weather was perfect, which made hanging out much more pleasant than it could have been.

Initially, I had hoped that some of the discussions could happen outside.  (Fellow Williams grads know the old line about Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.)  But most of them required PowerPoint or similar tech, which wasn?t really an option. And with the prospective audience scattered among multiple sites, there wasn?t really critical mass in any one place.  

As phone calls bounced back and forth, it eventually became clear that even after the leak was fixed -- and nothing exploded -- there would still be an odor of gas lingering in various parts of campus.  Aside from the obvious aesthetic issue, it was a safety issue in itself; if there?s an ambient odor of gas anyway, nobody might notice a new leak. We closed for the day.

We postponed the presentations until the day after Convocation in the fall, which is usually devoted to meetings.  Because staff from the various branch campuses and offsite locations had previously been directed to close for the day and come to the main campus for Scholars? Day, we just wound up sending everybody home.  

In moments like those, you discover certain things that you might not know otherwise.  For example, while it?s easy to send a ?broadcast? email from my desktop, it?s impossible from my phone.  The communications team struggled a bit with notifications. And while people want immediate answers, sometimes those answers aren?t immediately available.  I?ve also never been quite as grateful that we have a non-smoking campus. One idiot with a lighter could have ruined the whole day.

The good news, aside from the fact that the leak was fixed without anything blowing up, is that people were generally on their best behavior.  ?Disasterologists? -- people who study the responses to disasters, a field that I totally would have studied if I had known it existed -- like to point out that the stereotype of people immediately devolving into a Hobbesian war of each against all isn?t true; in fact, disasters tend to bring out the best in people.  (Rebecca Solnit?s book ?A Paradise Built in Hell? details that.) That?s what I saw. Everybody wanted to be helpful, and even the complaining was mostly in the spirit of offering solutions.

I had been slated to be the opening speaker for Scholars? Day.  When I got the call that we were officially closing for the day, I stepped up on a curb and announced ?we?re closing for the day.?  As soon as I stepped down, someone walked up and told me it was the best speech she?d ever seen me give. And entirely without a script!

Shortly after getting home, of course, the detail-y messages started coming in.  ?Could this still count as a day on the annual faculty professional development report??  Yes. ?Some people couldn?t get to their offices. Could we have another day to turn in the grades??  Yes. There?s always a loose end somewhere. I expect to discover a few more over the next few days.

Still, while there?s no such thing as a good gas leak, this was probably one of the least-bad kinds we could have had.  Nothing blew up. No students were around. It was the day after graduation, rather than the day of. The weather made waiting outside reasonably pleasant.  The neighbors were kind. Everybody was on their best behavior.

This week will bring the ?what happened?? discussions.  I?m thinking step one will be figuring out how to do mass emails from my phone...




Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 20 May 2019 00:38:00 +0000

Scenes from Graduation Week

Graduation week is the most affirming, and most tiring, week of the year.  A few scenes from this year?s version, all true:

  • At the morning ceremony, as one student crossed the stage to get her degree, a voice boomed from the stands: ?That?s my Mom!?  The whole place muttered ?awww?? in unison. Moments like those get me every time.

  • At the afternoon ceremony, as another student crossed the stage, the unmistakable squeal of a gaggle of young girls rang out.  I looked to my right and saw a row of three girls, probably ranging in age from about three to about six, screaming and waving at who I assumed was their Dad.  He acknowledged them, and they squealed again.

  • At the post-ceremony reception in the morning, as I was chatting with a professor, a student who had just graduated walked up and asked his parents to take his picture with her.  She obliged happily. He mentioned his plans for moving on to a local four-year school with a major in finance, and he thanked her for reaching him.

It wasn?t all sweetness and light, of course.  This time of year can draw on some pretty specialized skill sets.

For example, walking back from a governance meeting, a faculty colleague related this with juuuuust a little too much gusto: ?This time of year, grading is like battlefield medicine in the Civil War.  Take a shot of whiskey, bite a bullet, and saw off the leg!?

As an administrator, it can be helpful to have selective hearing.  Sometimes, dark humor is just dark humor. You have to know when to let it pass.

Happily, I?ve been in training for that since childhood.  As part of a devious plot to encourage me to read, Mom got me a subscription to Mad magazine as a kid.  I devoured every issue. The movie satires taught me about genre long before any English class did. Later, I discovered movies like Grace Quigley, Heathers, and Brain Candy, each of which -- especially the latter two -- consistently evoke belly laughs from objectively awful situations.  (The Addams Family movies are probably the best mass-market version of those.  Christina Ricci?s character fires off some instant classics.)   And my brother is one of the funniest humans on the planet, with a genuine talent for balancing the absurd with the morbid.

Dark humor, done well, can offer solace when situations are overwhelming.  It can cut down terrible obstacles to manageable size, even if only for a while. It also translates very, very badly into bureaucratic settings.  That?s where the selective hearing comes in. Imagine taking the above quote literally:

?I?m sorry, I?ll have to report your plans of giving students whiskey and chopping off their limbs to HR.?

?Huh??

?We can?t have that sort of thing around here.?

(bang head against wall)

Institutions don?t do dark humor well.  Actual humans have to pick up the slack.

Remarkably, the first summer session starts on Monday.  I tip my cap to the folks who can turn it around that quickly.  Social mobility waits for no one. There are more kids out there waiting to squeal for their parents crossing a stage.  

Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 16 May 2019 23:02:00 +0000

Red Flags

I don?t know the details of the Portland State presidential resignation beyond what has appeared in the press.  Having said that, one line in the IHE account jumped off the screen for me:

?In 18 months on the job, he went through four provosts.?

Flags don?t get much redder than that.  That, in itself, is alarming.

Some level of turnover is normal when a new president arrives, and some level of turnover is normal generally.  But four provosts in 18 months is preposterous. Absent some sort of natural disaster, it suggests something has gone badly awry.

Some presidents use provosts or vice presidents as shock absorbers, much the way that President Trump uses Cabinet secretaries.  (?I like ?acting.? It gives me more flexibility.?) In other cases -- not that these are mutually exclusive -- presidents (or Boards) create such toxic environments that people start bailing.  

Neither is positive.  In both cases, after a while, it becomes difficult to attract good people to those roles.  And even if you do, they become paralyzed, both because it?s impossible to build trust when people don?t expect them to last more than a few months, and because it?s hard for them to find their footing when they keep getting cut off at the knees by the folks above.  

Having stepped into vice presidencies following people who had burned bridges, I can attest that rebuilding them is a challenge on a good day.  Add mercurial or toxic leadership from above, and it becomes impossible. If the president or Board makes a habit of moving the goalposts, nobody will be able to be effective.  And it will play into existing narratives of distrust, making them that much harder to dislodge.

There?s a narrative popular in business circles of the ?take charge/take no prisoners? leader.  That leader -- usually male -- ?tolerates? no ?excuses? in pursuing the ?bottom line.? He often casts himself as a ?change agent,? and casts existing employees as obstacles.  Trustees who come from the business world may find that style familiar, or even identify it as the only true form of leadership. But it?s a remarkably bad fit for education.

In this setting, much of what happens depends on people being willing to go above the minimum.  They have uncommon autonomy in how they work. Power is decentralized at a level inconceivable in many businesses.  Yes, there are rules, but much of what makes a college succeed or fail happens in how people view those rules. Are they ceilings or floors?  Is the college worth extra effort, or have you been burned enough times that you only feel like working just hard enough not to get fired? (And any self-proclaimed ?change agent? is in for a rude shock the first time he tries to fire somebody with tenure.)

For a Board to let a president go as far as that one did suggests either inattention or a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the institution.  Undoing that damage will take time, but not only that; it will take some folks rethinking what it is they?re trying to do. After a rogue president, the temptation will be to clamp down and micromanage, but that?s exactly the wrong thing.  To the folks who?ve stuck around, it adds insult to injury. They need to bring in someone who understands the big picture, and then back off and let them work. That?s a tall order for people who think of themselves as hard-charging leaders, but it?s the likeliest way to get a good, sustainable outcome.

Or they can churn through another half-dozen provosts, looking for magic, and wondering why everybody seems angry all the time.  Their call.






Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 13 May 2019 23:48:00 +0000

Arkansas Steps Up

College affordability comes in different flavors.  An alert reader just sent me a new one from Arkansas, and I have to tip my cap.

The red state/blue state divide can obscure as much as it explains.  For example, Tennessee has the gold standard ?free community college? program, doing a much better job of it than such blue strongholds as New Jersey and Massachusetts.  Now, Arkansas is stepping up with a remarkably simple vertical transfer program that recalls the best of what California was able to do back in the days of its Master Plan.

The Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship allows any in-state community college graduates to transfer to the University of Arkansas, at the same tuition rate that they paid at the community college.

This is so simple, straightforward, and retrospectively obvious that it might actually work.

It?s a pretty powerful incentive for prospective students to start at community college: not only are the first two years cheaper, but the last two are as well.  And it requires graduation prior to transfer, thereby encouraging the behavior we?d like to see.

I?m a fan of the ?earned benefit? model, because it strikes me as more consistent with our political culture than anything that smacks of ?handout.?  To get the discount for years three and four, you have to complete years one and two successfully; that?s no small achievement. We?ve long considered a decent jump shot to be a form of achievement worthy of reward.  Why not look at academic achievement as worthy, too?

Part of the elegance of the plan is its simplicity.  By changing the list price, the starting point from which financial aid is subtracted moves downward.  Moving below the Pell maximum means that some Pell money can be directed towards living expenses. For higher-income families, the lower list price means that even folks who aren?t eligible for financial aid will see a benefit.  That can go a long way towards political sustainability.

Anyone who has experienced the joy of FAFSA lately knows about that yawning chasm into which most of the country falls: too ?rich? for much help, but too broke to cover the costs without much help. The folks who fall into that valley get mad about it, with good reason.  Yes, in theory, a high tuition/high aid model could work. But in practice, tuition goes up a lot faster than aid does, and has for decades. That?s why student loan balances have exploded. Applying an across-the-board discount to the ?top? line benefits everybody, but particularly that large majority in the uncanny valley.  Politically, that makes a difference.

I don?t know how the program is being funded, which may be a concern.  If it?s funded out of general appropriations on a year-to-year basis, then it will probably be underfunded when the next recession hits.  The double whammy of decreased tax revenues and increased demand (driven by the reduced opportunity cost of education when nobody?s hiring) could lead to people being stranded, thereby reducing political support.  If the state is basing its cost estimates on current enrollment and funding levels, it may be in for a rude surprise when the next recession hits. Tennessee set aside a separate, dedicated funding stream. I hope Arkansas either did or will, too.

Yes, it could cover more.  But it?s a hell of a good start, and it might actually last.  Well done, Arkansas!


Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 13 May 2019 00:11:00 +0000

When Inclusion Just Makes Life Easier

I have to hand it to Twitter; it has changed my mind on a few issues in the last month or so.  And no, I?m not referring to politics, at least in the usual sense of the word. I?m referring to some ways in which making a conscious choice to be more inclusive benefits not only the newly-included, but even the ones doing the including.  It makes life easier for everybody. It?s like applying ?Universal Design? to daily life.

One is the third-person singular pronoun ?they.?  I rejected it for a long time, on the grounds that it was plural.  Defaulting to the impersonal ?she,? as opposed to the impersonal ?he,? seemed sufficiently progressive for me.  And ?s/he? always felt a little forced.

But some folks pointed out that both ?he? and ?she? exclude people who identify as non-binary.  I hadn?t made that connection, but when I read it, I really couldn?t disagree. So now if you catch me using ?they? as a singular, know that it?s a choice.  It still doesn?t sound quite right to me -- old habits die hard -- but I?d rather err on the side of inclusion than inadvertently deny the existence or humanity of a bunch of people.  

(Somewhat less dramatically, I?ve also started using ?y?all? a bit more than one might expect from someone who grew up in New York.  It?s not an attempt to pass as Southern. It?s because distinguishing the second-person plural from the second-person singular can be really useful, and the all-purpose ?you? doesn?t do that.  If embracing ?y?all? also helps bridge the red state/blue state divide, even better.)

The second is mandatory microphone use in public meetings.  I?ve been generally pro-microphone for a long time, both because I?m relatively soft-spoken -- not a character flaw, thank you very much -- and because I associate shouting with anger.  But recently, some folks have made the point that microphone use isn?t just for the people in the back of the room. It?s also for people who are hard of hearing. Asking a roomful of people ?can you hear me?? puts the burden of self-identification on people with trouble hearing.  That?s not fair to them. And from a speaker?s perspective, microphones level the playing field between the naturally blustery and the rest of us. I?ve gone from ?generally in favor? to ?strongly supporting.?

Microphones are also getting both better and cleverer.  Last year I gave a talk at a college in Kansas at which the audience had a microphone embedded in what looked like a plush beach ball.  When someone wanted to ask a question, the person with the ball would throw it to the one with the next question. It made the ?pass the mic? ritual much more festive.  

The next frontier in microphones should be improving on the lapel mic.  Their audio can be uneven, and they?re designed on the assumption that the speaker is wearing a man?s jacket.  That can lead to some awkward moments. But I have faith that sooner or later, someone will figure out a better way.  The potential payoff is too great not to.

Most recently, someone tweeted out support for captioning of movies in theaters.  The major goal is to make viewing friendlier for people with trouble hearing, but it can also help everyone else when the dialogue is muddy, or overlapping, or whispered, or unfamiliarly accented.  At home, when we watch ?Sherlock? on Netflix, we turn on the closed-captioning. It helps more than I care to admit. There?s even some occasional bonus comedy when the captioning says something like ?jaunty music,? which is more entertaining than the music itself.  

Each of these is a variation on the benefits of inclusion.  Using ?they? means not having to specify a gender, which is both inclusive and sometimes helpful.  (Guessing wrong is mortifying;
?they? means not having to guess.)  Microphone use makes it easier to everyone to hear, and for everyone to be heard.  And while captioning may be most useful for people who are hard of hearing, it can be helpful for everybody.  Making it universal would get around some awkward moments about deciding what needs to be subtitled and what doesn?t, and would make it easier to follow complicated plots when characters are mumbling.

As long as changes like these are presented as impositions, they?ll generate resistance.  But in each case, after the initial adjustment, they actually make life easier for everyone.  There?s a lesson in there somewhere...



Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 10 May 2019 00:58:00 +0000

Against Application Fees

Why do most colleges charge application fees?

I?m not referring here to the selective places that operate in a different world.  Presumably, they have to pay people to comb through applications and try to sort out the actual coxswains from the ersatz ones.  (Apparently that?s harder than it seems.) I?m referring to community colleges and open- or nearly-open-admissions state colleges, where the applications are straightforward enough to lend themselves to instant decisions.

I?m at a loss to explain why we do that.

Yes, there?s the obvious answer of ?we need the money.?  But the amount of money raised is relatively trivial compared to what comes from tuition and course or lab fees.  And I?m guessing that the applications deterred by a fee would more than make up the difference. (Quick Q for readers -- has anyone studied this formally?)  

Worse, application fees tend to be flat, regardless of the number of credits taken.  For someone who just wants to take a single class, either as a self-contained goal or to test the waters, that seems regressive.  Application fees aren?t typically covered by financial aid (unless they?re applied later to tuition, like a deposit), and qualifying for a fee waiver involves jumping through hoops that can be intimidating to many of the folks for whom fee waivers were intended.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom?s ?Lower Ed? makes the point that for students on the edge of economic disaster, thousands of dollars in tuition and loans can seem like Monopoly money, but a $25 cash-on-the-barrel application fee represents a week?s meals.  That?s why most for-profits never charged application fees. But we do.

A few years ago, at Holyoke, the admissions office asked to be allowed to assess an application fee for applicants from outside the United States; they said that there was a huge group of students in China who blanketed the US with college applications wherever it was free, with no intention of actually attending, and that a modest fee would deter frivolous applications.  I don?t know if they were correct, but it sounded plausible; to the extent that?s a thing, I wouldn?t object to a modest fee for international applications. But for folks here, I don?t see the argument.

Community colleges are often ?backup? options for students who expect or hope for a better financial package at a four-year school than the one they receive.  Inevitably, some of them go trundling off to four-year schools, leaving us behind. That?s frustrating, but I don?t see it as worth excluding people to avoid.

Cynically, the presence of application fees allows for waivers of application fees for special programs.  But if we accept the top 100 percent of our applicants, why discriminate? Why not give everyone the same chance?

Admittedly, application fees are a much smaller issue than, say, allowing late registration.  But that also makes them easier to change.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a good argument for application fees at community colleges that I?m missing?  Or should we just recognize them as cases of unconscious imitation and consign them to the dustbin of history?






Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 09 May 2019 00:14:00 +0000

The Annual Extra-Credit Warning

This one is somewhere between a blog post and a public service announcement for faculty.

Yes, I?ve mentioned this before, but it?s final exam season, and some things bear repeating.

This is when some panicked students have been known to start asking about extra credit.  It usually comes in the form of ?is there anything I can do to improve my grade??

There?s an understandable human impulse to take pity on a penitent soul.  In some contexts, that can be admirable.

But if you aren?t careful, a favor done for a sympathetic student can look to another student like discriminatory treatment.  ?Why did he get a chance I didn?t get??

If you don?t have a good answer for that -- one you could defend under oath -- it can get ugly.

So, some free advice from someone who has seen this movie enough times to know:

If you must offer extra credit, do it in writing, to the entire class.  Otherwise, don?t do it at all.

?But wait!,? I hear you thinking.  ?You?re an administrator! Don?t you want high pass rates??

Yes, but.  I want high success rates.  I don?t want failing performances dressed up as successes.  There?s a difference. The difference shows when students move on to the next semester, or the next school, or the next job.  

Over the years, I?ve presided over plenty of grade appeals.  When the professor sticks to their own rules, and enforces them evenhandedly, there?s never an issue upholding the grade.  The issues come when Mike gets a break that Michelle doesn?t, or when the professor veers wildly off the syllabus and starts improvising.  Those cases have been blessedly few in my career, but they?ve happened, and they?re not pretty. Worse, they?re entirely preventable.

If the extra credit assignment wasn?t built into the syllabus from the outset, don?t do it.  It will not end well.

Mercy is admirable, but so is fairness.

(climbs off soapbox)







Author : noreply@blogger.com (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 08 May 2019 00:12:00 +0000