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I haven’t been able to attend this year’s #RealCollege conference, but I’ve been following it on Twitter, and I was struck by a line there delivered by DeRionne Pollard, the President of Montgomery College.  She implored reformers to “fix systems, not people.”

She’s right, and it sounds easy. It isn’t.

You’d think that a focus on systems, rather than people, would be an easy sell.  A focus on systems suggests that many of the issues a college faces can be solved by the people already there.  It allows for the acknowledgement that most of those people are hardworking, well-meaning, and professional. In a sense, it lets incumbents off the hook.  You’d think that would be popular.

Often, though, those discussions fall flat.  They fall flat for a few interconnected reasons.

The most basic, and frustrating, is the inability to see those systems in the first place.  “Why can’t students get to class on time?” Well, why assume that all students have reliable cars?  “I can’t help it if students have complicated lives.” Partly true, but we can make them a little less complicated by replacing expensive textbooks with OER, following the principles of Universal Design for Learning, and recognizing the academic calendar as a human construct that can be reworked in other ways.  Many of our basic operations are predicated on the assumptions that students are well-prepared, live at home with families that support them economically, have reliable cars, don’t work many hours for pay, know what they want, and can devote themselves full-time to their studies if they’d just buckle down.

With the students who fit that profile, we have spectacular success rates.  But those aren’t most of our students. That doesn’t make our students defective.  It means we need to be willing to rethink some of our basic assumptions.

Relatedly, many people use concepts that fit individuals to explain organizations.  But the two are fundamentally different. I’m old enough to refer to this as the sociological imagination, but it  goes by other names, too. I think of it as the difference between psychology and sociology.

The unit of analysis in psychology, generally, is the individual person.  The unit of analysis in sociology is a group of people. (Yes, social psychology sits in between, but the basic point holds.)  Groups aren’t simply the sums of their parts; they take on dynamics of their own. Add organizational and political dynamics to that, and analyses that start with individuals can go badly wrong, even with good intentions.

Take professional development, for instance.  When the funding for it exists, it’s often understood to mean conference travel for individual faculty within their own disciplines.  That’s obviously important, given that faculty need to be current in what they’re teaching. But it’s also only one piece of the puzzle.  I’ve had conversations with engaged, intelligent people who honestly don’t see why professional development would be any more than that.

I’m trying to push the idea of sending groups -- four or five at a time -- to conferences that address community colleges as institutions, like the League for Innovation, Moving the Needle, and the AACC.  It’s a harder sell that I would have expected. Some of the ideas floating around those places require getting other people to change what they’re doing. Depending on local context and the way those ideas are framed, they can come off as insulting, even though they’re actually suggesting that the same people can get better results.  Properly understood, they’re empowering. But that involves a willingness to take a leap.

Dr. Pollard is right, but the challenge is much greater than a quick line suggests.  I hope that the folks at #RealCollege do more than just appreciate a good line when they hear one.  Putting it into practice, as difficult as that is, is probably our best hope.

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