• 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.


“A Known Issue”

Could higher ed benefit from more candor?


March 19, 2015

For the last couple of weeks, the home printer/scanner simply refused to communicate with the laptop. I’ve been trying to deal with some travel receipts, and it has been a real headache. A few days ago, I got a popup message on the laptop noting that the driver wasn’t compatible with the latest version of Windows, and that the incompatibility was “a known issue.”  

Well, yes. I know it quite well by now.

But at a certain level, just seeing that it was a “known issue” actually helped a little. It suggested that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, that my frustration wasn’t just mine, and that I wasn’t losing my mind.  It was validating. Not as validating as the thing actually working, but more than nothing.  

The concept seems portable. What might it look like if schools acknowledged “known issues”?

“Sorry there aren’t enough computers in lab. Lack of funding is a known issue.”

It’s not the usual way. Higher education is largely a reputational industry. There’s a real reluctance to put anything that could be construed as bad news out there. Given that colleges rely on friends to stay afloat -- alumni, donors, legislators, and community partners, most notably -- it’s important for those friends to see the impact of their support. When speaking with the people whose support makes up the gap -- or doesn’t -- between what colleges cost and what they charge, it’s important to speak the language of success, rather than need.  As I learned early on in my bachelor days, neediness is not attractive.

(That was one of the cultural differences in for-profit higher ed. The for-profit world doesn’t have donors, and it doesn’t rely on community support. It turns a profit from tuition. As a result, it spends far less time and energy reaching out to anyone who isn’t a prospective student. Of course, that inattention to cultivating allies can become a problem when enrollments drop.)

But from a student perspective, a persistent disconnect between upbeat messaging and obvious issues on the ground can lead to a sense that your perspective doesn’t matter. It feeds cynicism, which makes it difficult to form a sense of attachment to the institution. I’ve seen something similar with faculty at places where the leadership falls for the flavor of the month, month after month, without ever owning up to it. After a while, even the good sports start to maintain a distance. When the happy talk is persistently and palpably divorced from observed reality, people don’t respond well.

Finding the sweet spot between protection of reputation and acknowledgement of specific issues isn’t easy, but it’s worth trying. Over the past few years, I’ve heard of doctors starting to move away from the old “never admit anything, for fear of lawsuits” advice to actually apologizing to patients for errors. Apparently, in practices or hospitals where that has become common practice, lawsuits have actually become less common.  Patients who receive apologies feel respected, and are less likely to feel the need to retaliate. It’s a different setting, but I wonder if something similar might hold here.

Students may have a wide range of levels of academic preparation, but nearly all of them are quick to pick up on how they’re treated. A little candor might go a long way. As with the scanner, sometimes it’s helpful even just having your reality validated.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen that kind of institutional candor used with students? If so, how did it go over?


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Matt Reed

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