• 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.


Fault Finding

A comment that stuck.

February 26, 2020

You know how a stray comment can stick in your mind and not let you focus on anything else for a while? That happened this week.

On Monday I had the chance to return to the Bay State for Ross Gittell’s class on community college leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. David Baime, from AACC, and I were the guest speakers for the week.

The talk went well, I thought, with the students showing particular interest in OER. But the most striking part of the class occurred before either of us spoke, when Ross was going over notes from the previous class.

For context, most of the students in the class work at four-year colleges. Some had personally attended community colleges, but certainly not all. Ross’s classes are the only ones focused on community colleges specifically. So they aren’t specialists.

That said, the moment that jumped out at me was as he recounted the discussion of remediation the previous week. Apparently the students were struck by the high percentage of community college students identified as needing remediation -- no argument there -- but they took it in a different direction. They wanted to know whose fault it was.

That’s not usually where the remediation conversation goes. Sometimes it goes to the reliability of placement, sometimes it goes to acceleration and sometimes it goes to graduation rates. But the group seemed to coalesce around fault finding. Someone had to be held accountable!

On the drive back, I couldn’t stop thinking about that. The flaw in meritocracy is that it mistakes winning for deserving. If winners deserve to win, then losers must deserve to lose. A school of thought like that -- a secularized Calvinism, really -- can lead to mistaking systemic flaws for individual ones. By making systems invisible, it presumes that bad outcomes are traceable to bad people doing bad things; get rid of the villains, and all will be well. If remediation is the issue, then it must be the high schools, or the families, or the students, or somebody.

There’s just enough truth in the meritocracy narrative to make it persistent. Yes, some winners have worked hard for it, and yes, some folks on the bottom made terrible decisions that landed them there. But luck has a hell of a lot to do with it, too. Being born to the right parents gives you much more benefit of the doubt; your dumb decisions don’t hurt you as much. And meritocratic thought has a way of leading to punishment rather than solution. Taken to its logical conclusion, it tends to divide folks into the elect and the damned, with consequences following for each.

That’s a terrible fit for community colleges, even at a philosophical level. The entire point of open-admissions colleges is to allow for second chances. The underlying premise of the enterprise is that everyone is capable of learning at a high level, given the opportunity.

(It also doesn’t fit the geographic reality of community college students. Telling a student in, say, Miami that a community college in Tallahassee does a better job doesn’t help the student one bit; they’re not going to commute that far. And punishing the Miami college isn’t likely to improve the fate of the student who lives there.)

I know that in policy circles, terms like “performance” and “accountability” are taken as measures of seriousness, and they can be. But they can also naturalize or obscure the rules of the game within which performance happens. Those rules are subject to change. As Leonard Cohen put it, there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. That’s the conversation to have. The current rules label too many students as lacking. Maybe the students aren’t the problem.

Back to campus. There’s plenty to do without assigning blame.


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