• 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

College niches, defending a generation, human nature.

September 4, 2014

Maybe it’s me, but this story seems obvious. Colleges with distinctive niches, whether demographic or academic, will punch above their weight in terms of applications. If you’re the most prominent campus in your region for a given denomination, or program, then you have an automatic “in” with a given set of prospective students. Maybe you can’t compete with Harvard across the board, but you can offer something Harvard can’t. 

Community colleges are based on the opposite model.  They’re mostly “comprehensive,” which typically implies covering both transfer-focused and workforce-focused programs.  (I’m not a huge fan of that division; it strikes me as largely outdated.  But it’s the coin of the realm.)  As far as I know, most states haven’t looked closely at having different community college campuses specialize to any great degree.  That’s rooted mostly in the idea of geographic access, which remains more relevant than one might expect.  But to the extent that public higher ed becomes more tuition-driven, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it start to embrace specialization more aggressively.  It’s a way to punch above your weight.


Libby Nelson defends the honor of her generation. Well worth a read.


This is uncomfortable, but I think it’s true.  Over the past couple of weeks I’ve approached people at home at night, asking if I could leave traps or run through their yards to recover my dog. (It was at night because that was when the sighting reports came in, and when I wasn’t at work..) People have been remarkably generous, often going beyond giving permission and actively helping.  In my undergrad days I did some door-to-door canvassing for various environmental groups, so I’m familiar with the skeptical look and the slammed door.  In this case, when they see the flyer and understand what I’m doing, I haven’t seen any of that. People have been great.

The uncomfortable part came to me as I was reading my Twitter feed. Some very smart people I take seriously have been writing some thought-provoking stuff about what Ferguson teaches us about American culture, and I started to wonder. Has part of the generosity of reception been a function of being white?

I don’t mean to impugn anyone who has helped. That’s not the point at all. But I can’t help but wonder if a black man in the same situation and location would get the same reception.  I’d like to think so, but I can’t say with a straight face that it’s a given. “Balding middle-aged white guy in polo shirt, khaki shorts, and boat shoes” elicits a different visceral reaction on the porch at night.  I’ve gone to local police stations without giving a second thought, assuming -- correctly -- that they’d be sympathetic and helpful.  And they have been.  Some people have really gone above and beyond, devoting many hours to chasing a dog they’ve never met.  I’m grateful to every single one of them.  And I really hope that these misgivings are misplaced.

The difficulty in addressing racial privilege, in many ways, is that it’s often invisible when you’re in the middle of it.  I didn’t go out as some sort of sociological experiment; I went out to find my dog.  When I knock on doors, I try to look as non-threatening as possible.  I just happen to have a head start on that with some people, for unearned reasons.  To make matters murkier, it’s impossible to test the counterfactual directly.  Maybe I’m overreading.  But somehow, I doubt it.

I’m writing this down not to inflame the usual wars on the interwebs -- I have no appetite for that at all, and I salute the brave souls who endure more hostility in a week than I do in a year -- but to remind myself to tell the kids about it when they’re older.  It’s not about “guilt,” exactly; I have no guilt about trying to find my dog.  It’s about taking that extra moment to stand back and notice.  And then taking some extra moments to nudge positive change, somehow.  At some level, I have to believe that starts by acknowledging reality, even when it’s uncomfortable. 


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