• 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.


Friday Fragments

An overcrowded university, supply chain issues hit home and thoughts on Norm Macdonald.

September 17, 2021

This story surprised me. Apparently the University of California, Santa Barbara, keeps admitting more students than it can teach, so students are having trouble getting to full-time status.

(I still don’t know why “full-time” is defined as 12 credits. A bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits. If you do 12 credits per semester, it would take you 10 semesters, or five years, for a “four-year” degree. Finishing on time requires 15 credits per semester. Odd.)

I don’t know why it does that, and neither does the dean quoted in the story. I can understand an unexpected surge in a given semester or year, but I don’t know why it would keep happening. It could be revenue, of course, but treating your students like that tends to come back to bite you. I’d be livid if my kid were treated that way.

Reading it from the perspective of a community college in the Northeast, I’ll admit some element of disbelief. Most of the community colleges around here have been dealing with enrollment declines for years. Meanwhile, a school that can’t even offer its students classes is bursting at the seams.

Even around here, we’ve seen a (less drastic) variation on the theme. As the number of 18-year-olds has declined, many of the four-year schools in the area have maintained their enrollments by accepting students they previously would have turned away. The community colleges have absorbed the entire decline.

If the usual critiques of college costs were to be taken literally, I would have expected to see enrollment grow at the lowest-cost places and the highest-prestige places, with a squeeze on the middle. Instead, the squeeze is concentrated at the lowest-cost places. To me, that suggests that the real issue isn’t so much college costs as income and wealth polarization. Those who can afford to go can afford to go big; the rest increasingly can’t afford to go at all.


We haven’t had use of the kitchen sink or dishwasher for almost a week, and the workarounds are starting to wear thin.

Supply chain disruption seems abstract until it suddenly doesn’t.


I was sad to hear about Norm Macdonald. His perspectives often differed from mine, but on the level of craft, he was one of the best. His delivery was so utterly distinctive that many of his jokes or stories only worked when he told them. The “moth” joke on Conan was both perfect and inimitable; only he could get away with that. Parts of his album made me laugh so hard in the car that people actually stared. For all of the differences in content, he had a sense of pacing as good as Bob Newhart or Mitch Hedberg. All three were masters of setting a scene and then having a punch line land as if from another planet.

I’ve never understood why comedy doesn’t get more respect in academia. We devote entire departments to music, but comedy is relegated to the corners of the English or theater departments when it’s acknowledged at all. (I took a course on comedy in the English department as an undergrad. Unfortunately, the professor was neither funny nor insightful about people who were.) At a previous college, I lobbied for years for the theater department to put on a comedy. After about five years of trying, I finally got them to try one. They had to bring in an outside director, which I took as vindication. TB is taking a class on satire this semester; I hope his professor is better.

There’s comedy as sociology, which is probably the most academic treatment of it. But there’s also comedy as craft. If we can teach acting and singing, I don’t know why we couldn’t teach that. Students could analyze the pacing and techniques of various comedians and comic actors. Comic acting gets almost no respect, but it’s where Tom Hanks -- a community college alum -- started out. Bill Murray, too. Part of what makes Jean Smart’s performance in Hacks so amazing is that she actually passes for a comedian. Even Dustin Hoffman couldn’t do that.

Norm Macdonald did comedy at the highest level for decades, distinctively, and made it look easy. I tip my cap.


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