• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

“Be Uncomfortable”: Live from the AACC

Two organizations within one.

April 30, 2018
 
 

The AACC is really two organizations.  There’s the one on stage at the plenary sessions: self-assured, stately, sometimes a little stuffy.  And then there’s the one in the smaller meeting rooms: critical, restless, sometimes a little snarky.  The distance between the two is wider this year than I’ve ever seen it.

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The AACC does a lot of award presentations, which are what they are. I’ll admit, though, that this year one of them affected me a little. It gave a posthumous award to Sueanne Roueche, honoring her diversity work. Her husband, John Roueche, was on stage behind the podium while their son Jay gave a thank-you speech. Whether by accident or forethought, the giant screens captured John’s face as Jay spoke.

As antiseptic as these ceremonies can be, that was a very human moment.  John tried to remain stoic, and mostly succeeded, but you could see the struggle as his son paid tribute to his late wife.  He maintained a dignified pose, but the effort was visible. He didn’t speak.

Sometimes silence says it all.

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The opening keynote, by John Maxwell, seemed to be from a forgotten time. He referred to millennials as “kids,” and made an extended joke about travel agents that assumed that the audience remembered travel agents. And his stage persona -- let’s go with “not lacking in self-esteem” -- walked a fine line between smarmy and charming, like the Rat Pack in repose.

The focus was on leadership as a general category. Maxwell played his role well, flattering the audience, dropping famous names of a previous generation (Lou Holtz?), and cracking corny jokes that he acknowledged as corny, much as Johnny Carson once did.  He plugged a few of his books, repeatedly, and did the step-by-step reveal of a list (“the five levels of leadership”) that gave him enough structure to riff freely.

The list struck me as too abstract to be helpful for much more than reassurance, but reassurance seems to be his strength.  And so we began.

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Sunday morning featured a spotlight session on apprenticeships.  Labor Secretary Alex Acosta had been scheduled to present, but couldn’t, so he sent a deputy, Rosemary Lahaskey.

Much of what she offered would have been unremarkable in a previous administration.  She noted the distinction between “registered” and “recognized” apprenticeships, and suggested that the Trump administration was supportive of expanding the latter to new industries, such as IT and healthcare.  She advocated for “portable, stackable credentials,” and noted support for allowing Pell grants to be used for short-term training.

All of which was positive and well-received, and all of which was consistent with the last couple of years of the Obama administration.  (A few years ago, Joe Biden appeared at AACC to make similar points.) The major news, to my mind, was that her proposals and language were far more conciliatory to community colleges than the President has been.

Several community college presidents participated in the discussion, during which a few useful nuggets emerged.  Apparently, in Germany, the chamber of commerce acts like an accreditor for apprenticeships, so someone who has an apprenticeship with, say, BMW can take the credential to Mercedes and have it honored.  (I didn’t know that, but was immediately intrigued.) Several presidents mentioned combining apprenticeships with dual enrollment, to get high school students on track for middle-skill jobs. Steve Johnson, from Sinclair Community College, referred to apprenticeship and certificate programs in prisons to target “pre-ex-offenders,” which sort of makes sense when you think about it.  The idea is that people with skills that can get them jobs that pay decently are less likely to re-offend. Ken Ender, from Harper College, mentioned sending 12 employees of the College to Germany to see the model firsthand. Lahaskey herself mentioned possibly allowing work-study money to be used for work experience in private industry settings.

Out of context, the session was moderately useful.  In context, it was striking.

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The CCRC and the Aspen Institute collaborated on a panel on best transfer practices, with a special focus on the emerging joint-enrollment program between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University (GMU).  

The joint program was designed to get around the problem of “excess” credits, or credits taken at a community college that don’t survive the transfer process.  Those represent a significant cost in time, money, and effort, and they can be profoundly demoralizing. I was struck by Davis Jenkins’ observation that since the Great Recession, the economic return for bachelor’s degrees has gone up, but the economic return for short-term certificates has gone down.  As he put it, the job growth has been at the high and low ends, with very little in the middle. That stood in unacknowledged contrast to the panel about apprenticeships, but there it is.

To make the program work, NOVA and GMU faculty were brought together physically, around tables, to hammer out agreements in 21 different majors for the first year (with an expectation of growing to 50 by the second year).  I participated in something similar in Massachusetts a few years ago, which also had encouraging results; there may be something to the model. GMU is also replacing outright rejection letters with conditional acceptances, using NOVA as a sort of farm team; students who apply to GMU as freshmen and don’t get in will be given the offer of joint admission, as long as they complete at NOVA with a GPA of 2.5 or better.

Jenkins noted that the strong transfer/joint program with GMU, the number of students taking 200-level courses at NOVA has increased dramatically.  That gave me hope that the new presence of Rutgers at the main Brookdale campus may have a similar effect.

The NOVA/GMU program is still in the early stages, with some rough edges, but it sounds like a promising model.  I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

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If you’re serious about equity and diversity, sometimes you have to be willing, as Lisa Skari put it, to “be uncomfortable.”  So I went to a panel on the glass ceiling, women, and leadership, at which I was (for a while) the only man in a room of about sixty women.  My mission was to listen and learn, even at the cost of feeling juuuust a little conspicuous.

It was well worth it.  Elizabeth Pluhta, from South Seattle College, Kristen Jones, from North Seattle College, and Lisa Skari, currently of Highline College but soon to be the new president of Mt. Hood College, talked about their own career paths, and the help and hurdles they faced along the way.

The entire feel of the discussion was very different from some of the “how to move up” panels I’ve seen in the past.  For instance, after giving brief thumbnail autobiographies, the panelists had the audience break into groups to analyze the stories to look for commonalities among them.  I’ve never seen that technique before, but I may steal it. It felt a bit like a literature class, and I mean that as a compliment.

I noticed that each of them had jumped silos, moving from (say) academic affairs to fundraising, or from IT to facilities, and that the sideways movements actually helped with vertical movements.  Relatively accidental moments of picking up a new skill set became a de facto form of professional development.

At one point, discussing specifically gendered obstacles that women face, one of the panelists absolutely killed when she mentioned “when someone has to take notes…” and the room erupted in laughter.  Point taken…

Skari also struck a chord when she mentioned that an ideal mentor is “someone you’d be okay with taking criticism from.”  A thick skin is a key leadership skill.

As a leader, I want the folks who report to me to be able to thrive in their roles.  If that means feeling just a little awkward from time to time, well, there are worse things.  My thanks to Skari, Pluhta, and Jones for letting me sit in. The moments of snark were worth it.

On to Monday...  

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