College Dean Confessions

Friday Fragments

From the ?sentences I never thought I?d write? file: Earlier this week, I got retweeted by Martina Navritilova.

The possibility of that never occurred to me.

The joys of social media?


I don?t know why the story of Alaska?s evisceration of public higher education isn?t getting more coverage.  It?s bizarre. A state whose economy is tied overwhelmingly to a single, declining industry decides to gut its best instrument for diversifying.  And the decision happened, in part, because about half of the legislature bolted for Wasilla, which mainlanders remember mostly as the place Sarah Palin was mayor.

I think of higher education as an institutional bet on the future; it?s the sort of thing that pays off with interest, but only over time.  Other than as an employer itself, it?s not a quick fix. But particularly for a state on a long-term economic slide, it?s one of the few tools at its disposal to try to build a better future.  Cutting it for the sake of tax rebates is the policy equivalent of eating seed corn.

With China and India building up their higher ed sectors at rapid clips, it?s hard to come up with a more effective recipe for national decline than what Alaska is doing.  It seems worth taking a moment or two to notice.


The Girl turned 15 this week.  She already has a theory about it.  This week, in the car, on the way home from a trumpet lesson:

TG: I?ve heard that the sophomore year is the best, followed by senior, then freshman, then junior.

Me: Why?

TG: Well, sophomores already know their way around, and they don?t get picked on so much.

Me: Okay, but why is junior year the worst?

She shoots a withering glance

TG: College, man.  They?re all stressed out.  

Alirghty then.

It?s fun watching her discover her powers.  She got picked as section leader for the trumpets in marching band, so she has to corral the trumpets, including a few freshmen, over the summer and teach them the routine for the Fall.  She took to leadership like a fish to water.  

Her brother is straightforward in a host of ways.  She...isn?t. Of the two, she?s the likelier to land on the Supreme Court or win a Pulitzer.  She?s also the likelier to broadcast on a video screen from a mountain hideaway, petting a hairless cat and cackling while portending doom if her demands aren?t met.  She?s complicated.

The teen years can be rough on complicated girls.  If she can get through them without losing her sense of true north, she?ll be formidable.  And we?ll be in her corner, cheering, hoping her demands are met before we lose any major cities.

Happy birthday, TG.  I hope you use your powers for good.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 11 Jul 2019 23:47:00 +0000

MAD, We Hardly Knew Ye?

MAD magazine has announced that it?s fading away, retreating to reissues of old material.  I have to admit, that news hit me hard.

I grew up on the MAD of the 1970?s and early 1980?s (which already included generous recycling of material from the 1960?s).  That was pretty much its peak, in terms of readership and cultural weight, and it made sense that it was. As I like to tell my long-suffering kids, it was a different time in ways that are hard to reconstruct now.

At a really basic level, it was much more of a monoculture.  We had three commercial tv networks and one public one. Daily newspapers were still important, but they had already started consolidating by then; Rochester in the 70?s had two daily newspapers, but they were both Gannett, and they combined on the weekends.  A hit television show in the late 70?s might be watched by half of the television sets in the country, and all at the same time; this was before VCR?s, let alone DVR?s, on-demand, or streaming. Back then, if you missed a tv show at the moment it showed, you missed it.  At best, you might catch the rerun a few months later. ?Appointment viewing? was a thing.

I remember clearly going to elementary school on Wednesdays and needing to have an opinion on the episode of Happy Days from the night before.  Everybody in school watched it. With painfully few media outlets, each one carried weight. As hard as it is to imagine now, people actually cared who anchored the CBS or NBC evening news.  (The movie/play ?Network? comes off as a period piece now.) It was the early 80?s before Rochester finally got a fifth tv channel; it mostly played old movies and Gilligan?s Island.  

When you only had three or four channels to pick from, the reigning programming philosophy was ?don?t offend anyone.?  That led to a certain vapidity exemplified by the variety show. (To get a sense of just how awful they were, just type ?Donny and Marie? into YouTube.  You?re welcome.) In that context, there was plenty of pent-up demand for a magazine that would tell kids that yes, much of what they?re seeing is stupid.  And there were enough common cultural referents that plenty of people would get the jokes.  

In publishing, MAD was it.  (?Cracked? always came off as the lower-achieving cousin of MAD.)  In music, the old Dr. Demento show provided a weekly reality check.  It?s remembered now, if at all, as the launchpad for Weird Al Yankovic, but it was far more than that.  In trading cards, ?Wacky Packages? captured the spirit of the age. The first few years of ?Saturday Night Live? came off as much more threatening than they seem in retrospect because nearly everything else was so resolutely safe.

The preceding paragraph tells you everything you need to know about my dating life in high school.

It?s possible to reread old issues now, but the context has changed.  The country is much more racially diverse than it was, with people outside the old monopoly rightly claiming space.  The media landscape has changed beyond recognition; at this point, I literally can?t name any of the anchors of the three legacy network evening news shows.  The monoculture has fragmented. That?s a blessing in many, many ways, but it makes it harder for a satirical magazine to assume a common target. And the internet hath wrought a grand flourishing of snark.  In the 70?s, if a president mentioned Revolutionary War soldiers taking airports, Johnny Carson would have been pretty much the only one on the scene to crack jokes about it. Now, with Twitter, memes fly fast and free.  (My favorite put the ship from the ?Washington Crossing the Delaware? painting in front of a luggage carousel, with the caption ?The Battle of Baggage Claim.?) The kids who used to wait for a monthly blast of sanity from ?the usual gang of idiots? can get snark mainlined, in real time, for free.  And each can customize their timeline to the jokes that they?ll actually understand.

Still, MAD wasn?t beloved just for its snark.  People who didn?t read it much missed this part, but it was, for lack of a better word, humane.  It punched up, not down. It respected its readers -- mostly adolescent boys -- enough to trust that they could understand jokes about genre.  Its stable of writers during its glory days -- the aforementioned usual gang of idiots -- had clear patterns of what they would attack, and how.  Although it was sometimes crude, it was never cruel. It had its blind spots, obviously, but it was always anti-bigotry, pro-the little guy, and in favor of basic fairness.  (Dave Berg?s drawings of women could be gratuitously sexualized, but they tended to be the exception.) Its moral compass was better than it got credit for. For a magazine aimed at adolescent boys in the 70?s, that?s something.  Its last big hit, ?The Ghastlygun Tinies,? was in that same spirit, siding with helpless victims against a culture gone, well, mad. It was very much in the MAD tradition.

My mom recognized early on that if she wanted to encourage me to read, she needed to get me stuff that I liked reading.  I devoured issues of MAD. She kept ?em coming. When he was about eleven, I got my son a subscription for a while; he laughed himself breathless at a parody of Justin Bieber.  I smiled the same way that Mom used to.  

Farewell, MAD.  You were a lifeline of sanity in a difficult time.  May the spirit of humane snark as truth-telling continue to thrive. 

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 08 Jul 2019 00:30:00 +0000

The Business Model Problem

About twice a week I?ll see someone on the interwebs say something along the lines of ?why don?t public colleges stop messing around and just fix their business model?  It?s obviously unsustainable!? Bryan Alexander had a more thoughtful version of that this week, in which he responded to some pretty alarming demographic projections by wondering how colleges could survive when overall enrollments look to be set for long-term decline.  

There?s an obvious element of truth to the question.  The economic model of community colleges was built on the assumption of subsidies.  It was never intended to be self-sustaining. The form those subsidies takes can vary from state to state -- some have local funding and some don?t, some have millages and others have appropriations, and so on -- but the general idea is the same: students were never supposed to pick up the full cost themselves.  

And that?s not unique to the public sector.  Private, non-profit colleges typically don?t run instruction on a self-sustaining basis, either.  They use philanthropy and/or endowment income to supplement revenue from tuition. The closer they get to being purely tuition-driven, the more precarious their existence becomes.  The recent mortality rate of private colleges in Vermont and Massachusetts is a direct result of what happens when tuition-dependent colleges confront enrollment declines. In a high-fixed-cost model, relying entirely on variable revenues leaves you exposed the first time enrollment drops.  It?s the nature of the beast.

It?s hard to run education on a for-profit basis, in part because the gains to education aren?t captured by the provider, and in part because they tend to lag the provision of education by years, if not decades.  It can be done in certain niches, but the track record of for-profit colleges in the US suggests that some skepticism is in order.

Some have suggested a return to the ?indentured servant? model, through ?income-share agreements.?  But even if that model were to take off -- and heaven knows, I?d rather it didn?t -- it still wouldn?t address price or cost.  It?s just a different way of paying for it.

?Public-Private Partnerships? offer the tantalizing prospect of access to private capital, but we need to remember that private capital brings with it private agendas.  The entire idea behind ?endowments? was to separate the provision of capital (in that case, initially through donations) from control of that capital. The structure of the endowment provides a buffer.  It?s a mechanism for ensuring that academic decision-making remains within the purview of academics, who typically don?t have the money to pay for it themselves. Eliminate the buffer -- or what some like to call the ?middleman? -- and you eliminate that autonomy.  ?P3?s? can be useful, when carefully considered, but they aren?t full replacements for either private philanthropy or public subsidy.

Market-driven thinking has become so pervasive that many people see public colleges? habit of running instruction at a loss as some sort of failure.  They don?t understand that it?s a feature, not a bug. We subsidize instruction precisely because if we made every student pay in full at the time of enrollment, far too few would (could) actually do it.  The citizenry and workforce would become much less educated and productive. The highest payoff to education comes when students are educated early in life, when people?s earnings tend to be the lowest. Absent some sort of subsidy, we should expect suboptimal enrollment.  In saving pennies in subsidy, we?d lose dollars in productivity. It?s a false savings.

To the extent that there is a business model problem, it?s not because we subsidize instruction.  It?s because we denominate instruction in units of time. Regular readers are probably tired of my references to Baumol?s Cost Disease, so I won?t rehearse it here, but it boils down to the mathematical impossibility of improving ?learning/time? when learning is denoted in units of time.  That?s a business model problem, and a serious one. But it?s not the one that most people assume. The ?business model? conversation I?d rather have is around other ways of teaching, learning, and proving competency.  

The problem most people refer to is the need for subsidy.  That?s not a problem of the model, though; it?s a problem of our politics. For example, if you replace the idea of ?income-share agreements? with simpler, progressive taxation, then you wind up accomplishing the same general idea -- the folks who benefit the most pay the most -- but you do it without a generational lag, and you don?t punish the folks for whom things didn?t work out.  Even better, you don?t have to try to go back and apportion credit or blame. But that would involve admitting that the public sector can be more efficient than the private sector. It absolutely can, but that flies in the face of current dogma. In our current political culture, it?s almost a forbidden truth. FIxing that is a much larger task. Get that right, and we?ll have room for all sorts of promising experiments in teaching and learning.  Get it wrong, and we?ll keep having these same conversations over and over again.

Program Note: I?ll take a blogging break for the holiday weekend, returning on Monday, July 8.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 02 Jul 2019 23:34:00 +0000

A Neglected Variable

The Boy is trying to make money this summer to contribute to his college expenses this fall.  He?s an EMT, and he signed up with a local private EMT company to work for it. He has gone through orientation and training, and a host of hoops, but is still trying to get significant hours.  Another part-time job he holds, at a local trampoline park, gives him maybe four hours a week.

Absolute levels of pay are one thing.  Variability is another. In policy circles, we talk a lot about the former, but not nearly enough about the latter.  

Last weekend I finally read ?The Financial Diaries? by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider,  a flawed but fascinating account of a project in which hundreds of families? income and expenses were tracked for a year.  The families hailed from all parts of the country, but the findings were similar everywhere. In brief, they found that variability of income from month to month is as much of an issue for many people as the absolute level of income is. (As the authors put it, ?the noise is the story.?)  A family that has ?enough? income over the course of a year may have a couple of months in which it doesn?t. Those shortfall months cause deadweight costs of their own, as utilities get shut off and cost extra to get restored, or as unaffordable car repairs lead to late arrivals at work and eventual job losses.  Volatility is a cost unto itself.

The book includes portraits of occupations in which some variability is expected -- such as waiting tables -- along with some where it might not be, like fixing trucks.  

Variable income is a major issue for college financial aid.  The FAFSA and the programs surrounding it tend to assume relatively stable income over time.  ?Means-tested? and ?sliding scale? benefits do the same. If an income level doesn?t change much over time, it?s relatively easy to calibrate the required level of aid.  But if a weirdly flush month drives down the needed aid, and the aid isn?t there when a ?short? month hits, the student may have to drop out. As the old unionized full-time factory jobs fade away, their predictable salaries do, too.  (Yes, overtime fluctuated, but it was on top of a solid baseline.) In some cases, abrupt windfalls can look like aid fraud, and actually generate penalties; the folks in those situations, reasonably, report feeling trapped. The book notes that volatility is fairly common at every income level, though it?s most common at the lowest levels, where it does the most damage.  

Financial aid refunds are typically disbursed in large lumps, contributing to volatility.  I?ve heard of ?aid like a paycheck? programs, in which the refund for a given semester is divided into biweekly chunks and given out that way.  I hadn?t thought about it much, but it may help. (It also offers the institutional benefit of possibly reducing the ?return to Title IV? -- R2T4, in the biz -- that colleges have to pay when students drop out mid-semester.)  The book notes a survey in which respondents are asked about their level of financial anxiety. When cross-tabulated with the time of the month the question was asked, respondents at the end of the month are far more anxious than respondents at the beginning.  

Economists like to point out that ?over-withholding? of taxes, in order to generate a larger tax refund, is inefficient; it amounts to extending an interest-free loan to the government.  (These days, interest on savings is low enough to deflate that argument somewhat, but people still make it.) But people do it anyway, even knowing that, because they value the payout that forced discipline makes possible.  One woman the book follows put her ?special? money in a bank an hour away and cut up her ATM card, specifically to make it harder to fall prey to temptation and spend it without reflection. (Forced self-restraint isn?t a new idea, as readers of The Odyssey know.)  A few extra dollars every two weeks would vanish down the rat hole, but a single big annual payout makes a perceptible difference. Aid like a paycheck could accomplish something similar in reverse. It would make it harder to blow through an entire refund quickly, but it would also offer reassurance that there will still be money at the end of the semester.  That way, even if a student?s part-time job shorts him some hours at some point, there will at least be a predictable baseline of income.  

The book leans harder than I would like on ?there?s an app for that? solutions, spending much less time and focus on larger changes in the economy.  At a really basic level, it?s hard to save money you never saw in the first place. But as a reminder of the realities facing many of our students and families, it?s on-target.  

Ultimately, of course, income volatility is about more than ?nudges? or mental math.  It?s about the larger political economy and the ways that we?ve allowed jobs to be organized.  The Boy is perfectly capable of the arithmetic required to hit a savings goal, but he can?t compel an employer to give him hours.  That?s a much larger problem than any one college can solve. But it?s useful for keeping in mind when wondering why students sometimes make the decisions that they do.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 02 Jul 2019 00:30:00 +0000

Cold Front

The news from Alaska, about a possible 41 percent cut in state support to the University of Alaska, came as a shock.  The president of the university declared six-week furloughs, and may declare a state of ?financial exigency,? which is the academic-budgeting equivalent of martial law.  Suddenly, tenure is abrogated, programs are cuttable, and everything is on the table. No pun intended, but the entire picture is chilling.

Alaska is an outlier in some obvious ways, of course.  Other than Anchorage, which is about the size of Cincinnati, it doesn?t have a single city or town with even 40,000 people.  Its economy is dominated by Federal government and petroleum jobs, with a heavy focus on extraction. There isn?t a single teacher certification program in the entire state.  It redistributes profits from oil and is enormously dependent on Federal spending, but it thinks of itself as libertarian. And large swaths of the state are only barely developed, some accessible only by plane.  Physically, it?s about 76 times the size of New Jersey, although New Jersey has over 12 times more people.  

But it may also be a bellwether.  Although it has the least claim of any state to being overtaxed, lacking both a sales tax and a property tax and actually mailing checks to everybody every year, the governor is making the political calculation that reducing the annual handout would be worse than funding the university.  If higher ed can?t win in that setting, it?s in sad shape. A government that can afford to mail four-figure checks to every resident every year has no business claiming austerity, but it is.

I see the core issue here as generational.  The current voters of Alaska, assuming the governor?s political math is correct, are effectively saying that they don?t mind cutting off one of the few links Alaska?s young people have to the larger world.  Given Alaska?s geographic isolation, that?s unconscionable.  

I?m guessing that the governor?s political math goes something like this: everybody receives checks, but not everybody goes to college.  Therefore, better to cut the university than to reduce the size of the checks or, heaven forbid, develop a sales or income tax.

In higher ed, we know the obvious responses to that.  Even people who don?t go to college benefit from an educated population.  An educated population is more productive, and more ready to shift to other industries as the extractive industries slowly decline.  The more your local population loses touch with advances from the outside world, the farther behind it will fall, economically. Norway understands that; it uses oil money to sustain education, knowing that oil money is basically temporary.  Alaska apparently hasn?t figured that out.

Most of us live in states or provinces that don?t send us checks every year just for being there. But that doesn?t mean we can?t learn from the example.

At a really basic level, faculty who believe that tenure will forever insulate them should take notice.  When a college or university goes into ?exigency? mode, tenure won?t save you. In the popular mind, the argument for tenure is far from a slam-dunk, especially when it?s opposed to tax cuts or refunds.  After decades of framing education as a private good, it?s a real leap of faith to count on folks who haven?t been paying attention to suddenly ?get it.? Why would they? If we, as an industry, haven?t made the case that we offer a public good, we shouldn?t be surprised when the public responds accordingly.

In higher ed, we like to talk about ?shared governance,? but we almost never think through what it means.  We take it to mean ?shared among academics,? not ?shared with the public.? But the public has opinions, and the power of the purse.  Democracy is a form of shared governance, writ large. To the extent that we hide from the public, we?re vulnerable.

I don?t know the internal politics of Alaska well enough to know whether this particular veto will stick, or whether they?ll land on some sort of still-awful-but-slightly-less-bad compromise.  But even if a miracle happens, the fact that something like this is even on the table should jolt us out of complacency. People may have tenure, but institutions don?t. We need to make the case to the public for higher education as a public good while we still have the option.  If we don?t, folks with other agendas will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.  

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 01 Jul 2019 00:03:00 +0000

Friday Fragments

I?m guessing that others have thought of this, though I haven?t seen it done elsewhere.  Does anybody use a learning-community model for developmental reading? We?re looking at mimicking the structure of an ALP for reading, but appending the extra-help reading section to sections of courses in areas like psychology and history.  The idea is to help students in the subject areas do better by actually doing the reading (and doing it well), and to help them see the point of learning strategies for reading by embedding the assignments in subject-matter courses that count towards their degree.

Surely, someone must have done this by now.  Does anyone know? And if they have, any lessons learned that you?d pass on to folks looking at trying it?


The Boy?s graduation ceremony went well.  It was crazy-hot outside, but at least it stopped raining for a day, and the ceremony itself went quickly.  

He led the audience in the pledge of allegiance.  I know I?m biased, but I thought he sounded pretty good.

Other than focusing on my own kids, the major takeaway for me was the way they read names.  His graduating class had over 450 students in it, so reading names was a volume business (no pun intended). They had two of the officers from the student government read the names.  One young man stood on the left of the stage, and one young woman stood on the right. They alternated names as the graduates walked up middle. The alternating baritone/alto voices kept it from getting as monotonous as it otherwise could, and the entire ceremony -- including speeches -- took less than an hour.  I was impressed.

TB noted that exactly two months to the day after his graduation is his college orientation.  We?re still trying to process that one.


Last weekend, as a belated Father?s Day gift, we went to a baseball game for the local minor-league team, the Lakewood Blue Claws.  (They?re a AA affiliate of the Phillies, for those keeping score at home.) Unbeknownst to us until we arrived, it was ?Grateful Dead? night.  The stadium played Grateful Dead songs over the P.A. system, and the players and mascot wore tie-dye.

Quoth The Girl: ?What?s the Grateful Dead??

She wasn?t kidding.  Age sneaks up on you.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 27 Jun 2019 23:15:00 +0000

Revisiting a Favorite

Chuck Pearson reminded me of this piece from 2012 this week.  Reading my old stuff usually makes me cringe, but this one holds up better than some.  

The Stonewall riots happened 50 years ago this week.  In honor of that, the piece below is (was) aimed at my straight male counterparts who aren?t quite sure what to do as the world changes.  
It?s possible to learn, and to grow.  If I didn?t believe that, I wouldn?t be in education.


Why Men Should Take Women?s Studies 

Women?s studies courses were some of the most useful courses I?ve ever taken.

I?m not kidding.

Moreover, I can imagine them being incredibly useful for other men in management roles.  

That flies in the face of cultural stereotypes, I know.  Courses like those are usually held up -- by those who like to make such arguments -- as among the most self-indulgent of the purely academic enterprises.  They elicit snickers from some. I get that. But there?s a tremendous value in them that rarely gets expressed, even by supporters of courses like those.

At their best, the women?s studies courses I took -- yes, I used the plural -- helped with two incredibly important management skills.  They helped me learn to navigate complex and emotionally charged issues, and they helped me learn to depersonalize categories.

These skills are useful every single day.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was on the receiving end of an extended, vitriolic outburst.  It would have been easy, if unhelpful, to respond in kind, or to try to respond point by point. Without betraying any confidences, it was based on different sets of assumptions crashing into each other.  

Getting through that and coming out in a better place required the patience to first try to figure out where it was coming from.  It required accepting that the reason I was being yelled at was my office, as opposed to me personally. And it required emotional self-control in a charged setting that was moving pretty quickly.

Looking back afterwards, I realized that women?s studies classes were the first academic setting in which I honed those skills.  

As a clueless -- if well-meaning -- straight young white guy from the suburbs, I went into those classes without malice, but with some pretty glaring blind spots.  And back in the late 80?s and early 90?s, some of the theoretical issues were, um, let?s go with ?at an early stage of refinement.? Some discussions were conducted with appropriate academic distance, but some of them got pretty raw.  And it was easy to fall into the demonization/defensiveness spiral that we all know so well.

But it was also where I was first blindsided by arguments about things I thought I already understood.  I remember being struck dumb when someone made the point that the question of mothers working for pay registered differently in low-income communities, where the ?choice? was never a choice.  I hadn?t thought of it from that angle. And I remember repeatedly getting flustered as statements that had seemed obviously correct were parsed for unintended, but real, effects on folks I wasn?t thinking about.  

If that isn?t preparation for administration, I don?t know what is.  Everything here has ripple effects, and dealing with those ripple effects is a huge part of the job.  For some of us, the patience to take those seriously is a learned skill. (There?s always a temptation to just throw up your hands, say ?screw it,? and do what you wanted to do in the first place.)  And learning to at least think about possible unintended effects is incredibly helpful.

I won?t claim that all was sweetness and light.  There was some groupthink, and heaven knows that the prose style of, say, Gayatri Spivak, can sap the will of even the most tenacious reader.  Some of it was a bit much, and at least back then, the standards of proof weren?t always what they could have been.  

But that?s not really the point.  The point was to develop habits of mind that acknowledged that even things that seem obvious may have more to them, and to be able to separate, say, an attack on ?patriarchy? from a personal attack as a guy.  It wasn?t always fun, but it was incredibly useful.

It wasn?t marketed as vocational, but I use it on the job every single day.  For any guys out there considering administration or management, I really can?t recommend it highly enough.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 26 Jun 2019 23:47:00 +0000

An Alternate Proposal on Free College and Loan Forgiveness

It would be difficult to come up with a more destructive policy assumption than the idea that public services should be subject to income caps.  Yet even folks who consider themselves progressive -- whom I would typically expect to be supporters of public services -- fall into the trap. Support for it is taken as a marker of being Very Serious, but it?s actually a poison pill.  So, in recognition that you don?t beat something with nothing, I?ll propose a different version for Very Serious People. Interested parties are free to run with it.

Here?s a partial list of public services for which no income caps are applied:

Police protection
Fire protection
Public roads
K-12 education
Food inspection
Public libraries
Social Security

In every case, we extend protection even to the wealthiest.  We don?t deny police protection to rich people on the grounds that they?re financially able to hire private security.  (In fact, a case could easily be made that the wealthy get far more police protection, to the extent that they have more property to protect.  And that?s without even addressing disparate rates of police violence by race and income.) The fact that we don?t is part of the reason that police protection continues to get political support.  

Several presidential candidates have floated their versions of free college and/or loan forgiveness.  Leaving aside the Democrats? weird inattention to the Senate, without which none of these plans matter, they tend to assume that any household with an income over a surprisingly low level doesn?t need help paying for education.  Here in New Jersey, for instance, the current household income cap for free community college is $45,000 per year. That?s in one of the most expensive states in the country. The legislature has proposed raising the cap to $65,000, which is better, but still shy of the median household income of the state.  It?s a far cry from a universal benefit; in many parts of the state, it?s a far cry from a common one. To many families -- and voters -- it comes as a false promise. ?What do you mean I?m ineligible? I?m struggling!? That breeds the sort of cynicism that tends to destroy programs from within. Income caps invariably erode support for the programs to which they?re applied, because they rest on false assumptions about how hard it is to get by.  And experience suggests that they rarely, if ever, move up with inflation.

To the extent that loan forgiveness and free college are the questions at hand, and both political will and funding are limited (for all practical purposes), I hereby float an alternate proposal.  Any candidate of any party who wants to run with it is welcome to it. It has a few pillars:

  • Set both forgiveness and tuition vouchers at the level of public college tuition in a given year.  (Cap it at, say, in-state tuition at the public flagship university for a given year.) That way, students who attend(ed) public colleges get forgiveness or a waiver; colleges that charge more than public options are on the hook for the premium.  In other words, if State U costs x and Private U costs 4x, the voucher or forgiveness plan leaves 3x uncovered for students who went to Private U. If a private college finds a way to provide quality at a competitive price -- I?m thinking here of SNHU?s College for America as an example -- then more power to them.  This should pass constitutional muster, since it neither privileges sectarian colleges nor punishes them. It simply holds them to the same standards as everybody else. In that sense, it?s like the Pell grant, but anchored to reality.
  • Only apply it to graduates.  This is in recognition that incentives matter.  The real student loan crisis isn?t among graduates; it?s among dropouts.  Offer dropouts with debt the option of returning for free, completing, and having the debt forgiven.  That way, money spent on (written off by) wiping out debts isn?t just gone; it?s put towards improving the educational level of the country.  This will almost certainly involve increasing operating funding to public colleges to handle the new demand; that?s a feature, not a bug.

  • Exempt loan forgiveness from ?earned income? for tax purposes.  Otherwise, you wind up hitting a lot of vulnerable people with huge tax bills at vulnerable moments.

Some argue that forgiving loans now would be unfair to people, like myself, who?ve already paid theirs off.  It strikes me as weird that the argument is treated respectfully. Imagine applying it to vaccines: ?No fair that you didn?t get smallpox!  In my day, we got smallpox and liked it!? Giving the next generation a better shot than the last one had is called progress, and it?s a good thing.  Healthy societies pay it forward; declining societies eat their young. I want the next generation to do better than mine did. Given the climate issues with which they?re saddled, that?s unlikely.  Freeing them from student loans strikes me as the least we can do.

Given a smaller working-age population, investing in its productivity has gone from ?nice? to ?necessary.?  My wife?s nephew works at a car dealership in Minnesota; he reports that the buyers who are the most difficult to underwrite are lawyers, doctors, and engineers.  Their student debt is so high that finding ways to help them finance cars is harder than it should be. Anyone who wants to claim that loan forgiveness is an unearned windfall for the effete elite are invited to imagine the impact on the automobile industry if educated young folks were suddenly able to buy.  (They?re also invited to talk to our nursing grads at the local hospitals. They?re hard-working, valuable, and middle-class. They are neither effete nor elite. They work hard, support their families, and do good in the world. We should get out of their way.)

Combining loan forgiveness for grads of public colleges with free public college going forward gets the incentives right.  It challenges the private and for-profit sectors, compelling them to compete on quality. (That?s especially true if forgiveness is capped at the level of public colleges.)  If, say, SNHU?s College for America or something similar comes along and does a good job, I say, welcome. Folks who?ve dropped out would be incentivized to go back and finish, thereby improving the educational level of the citizenry and the productivity of the workforce.  With a shrinking prime-age workforce, that?s crucial. And it would force higher-cost providers to prove their value. Those who can, are welcome. Those who can?t, well, that?s where we have to be Very Serious.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 26 Jun 2019 00:48:00 +0000

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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 10 Jun 2019 01:06:00 +0000


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 : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 06 Jun 2019 23:55:00 +0000


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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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 : (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, 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 : (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 : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 28 May 2019 01:07:00 +0000