• 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.


The Mad Scientist Vision

Answering a great question

September 20, 2019

I gave a talk at the Michigan Student Success Summit in Lansing on Thursday.  It was a chance to reconnect with my Aspen colleague Bill Pink, now the President of Grand Rapids Community College, and a chance to talk to folks doing the same kinds of work that we’re doing, but in a different context.  It reminded me of why it’s helpful to switch contexts every so often.

Michigan and New Jersey are similar in certain ways.  Both have very decentralized community college governance, with strong traditions of “home rule.”  Both have tenure systems and strong unions. Both are facing economic transitions as some of the old “blue-collar aristocrat” jobs fade away.

The highlight for me, though, was when a young sociologist in a followup session asked me a direct question. Okay, he said, you’re not a fan of the credit hour; I get that. But that aside, what’s the positive vision? What would you want a college to look like?

I liked that question a lot.  It forced some honesty, and, because I was visiting, I didn’t have to worry about inadvertently sending any coded messages.  

I answered with the “mad scientists” vision.  

The point of tenure, for me, is not validation or membership in some sort of secular priesthood.  The point of tenure is to allow experimentation. If you have job security, this view holds, then you have the opportunity to try different approaches and not worry about getting fired if some of them don’t work.  Rather than enabling stasis, it should enable initiative. (To my mind, the same argument holds about social democracy. If, say, healthcare comes with citizenship, rather than with a job, then it’s safer to walk away from a bad job and start something new.  That’s why the Scandinavian countries harbor so many startups.)  

A college is a gathering of scholars (“collegium”).  A community college, at its best, offers the tantalizing possibility of being a special place in which diverse people with wildly different professional backgrounds work towards a common purpose, constantly tweaking and trying stuff as they go.  To the extent that community colleges focus especially on the first two years of college, they can focus their experiments tightly on those two years.  

The Accelerated Learning Program, which came out of Peter Adams’ work at the Community College of Baltimore County, would be an example. Concerned faculty in the English department focused hard on English comp, tried some stuff, and came up with a model that has been successfully adopted all over the country.  (Brookdale has ramped up ALP a little bit more every year; at this point, the majority of students in foundational English takes it.) The “cli-fi” learning community at Holyoke was similarly nifty -- an Environmental Science professor and an English professor teamed up to teach a class on dystopian climate disaster fiction.  The students loved it, and I was proud to have it on the schedule. When the professors are passionate about the subject, their enthusiasm is contagious. There’s no substitute for that.

In the “mad scientists” vision, the job of administration is a blend of traffic cop, provider of resources, advocate, and occasional referee.  It’s about fostering an environment in which people can do their best work.

If you have this vision of a college, then your greatest fear isn’t the occasional face-plant. That’s just an occupational hazard. The greatest fear is stasis.  

A vision like that requires a high level of trust, both internally and externally.  It requires folks to exercise some forbearance before passing judgment. It requires humility.  Very much like lab science work, it requires subordinating personal opinions to the facts as discovered.  

Done well, though, it can lead to wonderful outcomes.  It’s based on a normative conviction that there is far more talent out there than we’ve harnessed, and that some of that talent is hiding in neglected corners.  I believe that. Probably many of us do, even if we don’t always act on it.

On campus, I don’t often get the chance to step back and take the longer-term view; there’s always some detail that needs tending Right Now.  So thank you, Michigan, for offering me the chance to spell out some ideas that have remained implicit for too long. Now, back to those details...


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Matt Reed

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