• 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.


Code-Switching and Professional Development

Going outside comfort zones.

September 29, 2014

Travel funding is even harder to come by these days than it used to be.  In the community college world, that’s saying something.

I mention it in light of this piece in the Chronicle about the Aspen Institute’s recommendations for search committees looking for community college presidents.  In a nutshell, the Aspen Institute recommends that search committees de-emphasize their usual focus on fundraising and networks, and instead focus on people who’ve shown the ability to improve student success, to take risks, and to get people to experiment. 

I agree strongly with the Aspen Institute, for reasons that won’t surprise anyone who knows me.  But in thinking about what it takes to cultivate both student success and the spirit of experimentation, I’m thinking we might need to look at a different kind of professional development.  Specifically, future leaders might want to think about conscious cross-fertilization in choosing which conferences to attend.

I’ve walked some of that walk, having attended the Council for Undergraduate Research national conference, as well as NEACRAO, NACCE, and the first CASE conference on community college development.  From personal experience, I can attest that the initial sense of the surreal fades after an hour or so, and before long you find yourself considering issues from perspectives that otherwise might never have occurred to you.  For future leaders of change, this is not a bad thing.

Because I have some pretty nerdish tendencies, one of my ‘bucket list’ goals involves attending the American Educational Research Association annual conference. I’m a big fan of Institutional Research done well, and I can’t help but think that if top management at community colleges were more fluent in data, it might be a good thing.  (Putting the people who make decisions in touch with the people who have information seems like it has some potential.)  But in 2015, the AERA conference and the AACC (American Association of Community Colleges) conference overlap almost completely, in cities pretty far apart.  Grr.  Looks like AERA will have to wait at least another year.

Along similar lines, I’ve noticed that Educause doesn’t seem to draw much overlap from the non-technical side of colleges, either.  It should; making resource allocation decisions without being conversant in technical trends is high-risk, at best.  There, too, I see a pretty compelling argument for senior administrators to travel outside their fields to see what’s going on.

The first time I traveled outside my comfort zone was as faculty.  My dean sent me to the AAC&U conference to hear how other colleges were handling the issues around ‘general education.’  That was where I discovered that DeVry’s habit of using “general education” and “liberal arts” interchangeably was actually idiosyncratic; when I first heard liberal arts faculty complain about having to teach “gen ed” courses, I had no idea how to make sense of it.  After discovering what they meant -- and how most of higher education uses those terms -- suddenly much more of what I had to do around accreditation made sense.  I just needed immersion in someone else’s frame of reference.

Reading around -- by which I mean, reading outside your own industry -- can help, to some degree.  (Blogs and Twitter are great for that.)  But the immersive and disorienting experience of being surrounded by people whose assumptions and frames of reference are different is qualitatively distinct from just reading outside your field. 

The ability to shift frames of reference, and to hold them up against each other, is a key leadership skill.  Public education leaders need to be fluent not only in faculty-speak, but in media-speak, lawyer-speak, politics-speak, business-speak, and donor-speak, among others. It’s a kind of code-switching.  (The best leaders go beyond code-switching and reach all the way to translation, which is a radically inclusive act.)  It requires practice.  And the best language practice is immersion. 

That’s a hard sell in an era in which every travel request triggers strict scrutiny.  But as expensive as travel can be, it’s cheaper than the failures rooted in provincialism.

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever been to a conference outside your normal circles that made a real difference for you?


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