• 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

Affinity Groups

Cross-campus collaboration by functional area should be easier now.

July 13, 2021
 
 

“I’ll check with my counterparts around the state.”

I trot out that sentence probably every month or two in response to a question about how to accomplish something. The academic vice presidents of the community colleges in my state have an affinity group that meets monthly during the academic year, and that has an email list in which we can fire off questions to each other.

It’s helpful. Many of us face the same or very similar dilemmas, and nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. A question that stumps one college may have been solved years ago at another one; having a low-cost way to float questions can save a lot of time.

Massachusetts had something very similar, although it also had a group for deans. Each college would send one dean each year, and they’d engage in collaborative professional development. It was probably even more helpful there than it would be here, because in Massachusetts the faculty union for community colleges had a single statewide contract. Everybody was dealing with the same contractual issues. Here the contracts are local, but many of the challenges are still common.

The discussions at the monthly meetings regularly introduce perspectives quite different from my own. Even when I don’t find them persuasive, I find them provocative. And perhaps most importantly, they assure me that some of the issues I face are simply part of the scenery in the sector. Nobody else on my campus has (or had) the job I have; being surrounded by people doing the same job I’m doing, and seeing some of the same things I’m seeing, offers a kind of reassurance.

Faculty have their union, at which colleagues from different areas of the curriculum come together to share common concerns. (The NJEA also hosts a statewide conference annually, so faculty from around the state can talk to each other.) But many folks in administrative roles really don’t have regular, structured ways to talk to each other across campuses.

For a while, I’m told, part of the issue was cost. Campuses had to provide lunch, and depending on where you were in the state, some people would have to take an entire travel day. But Zoom has changed that, and it never applied to email lists. Now an hourlong meeting can take only an hour, and nobody has to worry about parking or providing lunch. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as it used to be.

If anything, the value now is probably greater. With enrollment declines come funding shortages. Dealing with those in ways that still uphold our academic values is no small challenge. Collaboration across campuses can be a low-cost, low-risk way to help everyone in a given role understand the possibilities of that role more fully.

Some roles already have affinity groups, such as the financial aid directors and the student affairs officers. But many still don’t, and I’m not sure why. Even academic deans don’t (here), though they certainly could. Some of the folks we sent from Holyoke appreciated the perspectives they could gain by talking to counterparts from other places; I don’t know why that wouldn’t be true here, too.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a downside to affinity groups that I’m not seeing? It seems like we could make tremendous gains at minimal cost, just by choosing to try.

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