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  • 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.

Friday Fragments
January 3, 2014 - 3:50am

Snow days for the first couple of days back after vacation are an odd treat. After the October storm a few years ago, I’m relatively content with any storm that leaves the power on. 

The unexpected time has given me a chance to work on some longer-term writing, which is nice. It has also forced me to deal with the mixed blessing that the appearance of writing on a laptop is indistinguishable from the appearance of goofing off on the internet. 

I bet people didn’t have this problem in the era of typewriters.

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Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen a couple of thoughtful posts about higher education reform that have given me hope. They’re both about placing short-term issues in larger philosophical and historical contexts.

The first, by Tim Burke, nicely outlines the different motivations that various groups bring to the discussion, often without realizing that they’re doing it. 

The second, by Josh Kim, focuses more tightly on higher ed technology, but again places the short-term issues in larger contexts.

In the midst of a Twitter battle -- Dr. Seuss would have loved that phrase; it evokes the “puddle paddle battle” at the end of Fox in Socks -- it’s easy to either brush off those issues or to take them as smokescreens.  But they matter. 

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@Injenuity raised a good point earlier this week about enrollment planning and adjunct hiring.  Briefly, she noted that the relative absence of fine-grained -- that is, section-level -- enrollment planning in many colleges tends to exacerbate the uncertainty of staffing, with unpleasant consequences for the adjuncts who wind up bearing most of the cost of that uncertainty.

She’s right, but it’s a tough problem to solve.  That’s particularly true at community colleges, where Institutional Research staffs tend to be thin and enrollments variable.

To make matters worse, the enrollment spike of 2009, and the subsequent regression to the mean, were a sort of force majeure that simply overpowered fine-grained enrollment planning. 

It’s easier in tightly-structured “cohort” programs, like Nursing.  Within the Nursing sequence, we can predict confidently what will run, and when.  But in the larger “gen ed” area -- the area with the largest percentage of adjuncts -- enrollment fluctuations are significant. The “sure thing” sections go to the folks to whom sections are owed, whether that means full-timers or adjuncts with “seniority.”  (Our adjuncts have a collective bargaining agreement with a “seniority” clause.)  But contractual obligations don’t make uncertainty go away; they just shift who has to bear it.  Those who don’t have some sort of prior status necessarily bear the lion’s share of the uncertainty.  Uncertainty can’t be bargained or legislated away.  It can only be reallocated.  Less uncertainty for veterans means more for newbies.

If we had greater predictability -- that is, less uncertainty -- it would be easier to offer consistent and predictable assignments to everybody.  In that sense, the relative volatility of resources is nearly as important as their absolute level.  That’s why the shift in funding from states to tuition is so insidious.  Even if the overall number of dollars doesn’t change, the increased volatility of those dollars works as a damper on full-time hiring.  It can’t not. 

And that’s why elite private colleges have been able to maintain higher percentages of full-timers.  Their fiscal cushion is big enough to absorb even terrible years.  We pay as we go.

On campus, I think we’ve made great strides towards predictability, given the context in which we’re working.  But the drive to be responsive, open, available, and inexpensive conflicts with the drive to lock everything down into predictable, tightly controlled cohorts.  We can be flexible, or we can offer guarantees.  We don’t have the resources to do both, planning or no.

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The Dog loves Miles Davis.  A few nights ago, I played Steamin’ and Kind of Blue from my phone while we played Monopoly, and The Dog immediately stretched out and fell asleep.  Yesterday, we did the same thing.  TD doesn’t usually notice music, but something about the muted trumpet puts her right out. 

In a related development, The Boy asked later if he could borrow “the Miles phone” to play something else.  I liked that.  “A phone with the voice quality of Miles Davis!”  Uh, no…

 

 

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