• 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.


Meanwhile, in Washington…

Eyebrow-raising proposals on shared governance and lab classes.

April 6, 2020

It’s tough for anything not coronavirus-related to get airtime right now, but some of those other things are pretty important.

No doubt as penance for something, I spent a chunk of the weekend reading through the Federal Register (Vol. 65, No. 64, April 2, 2020) proposed guidelines for Distance Education and Innovation. It’s a notice of proposed changes to the regulations promulgated under the Higher Education Act, with public comments due by May 4. At this point, I’m about halfway through.

Some of it is unobjectionable. I was glad to see that rather than listing the various technologies that can be involved in distance ed, they’re simply referring to “media” instead. References to videocassettes don’t age well. Given that the specific medium really isn’t the point, moving away from naming them makes sense. So far, so good.

But I noticed two proposed changes that gave me pause and that I haven’t seen attract much attention. (The obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.)

The first has to do with shared governance and faculty ownership of curriculum. On page 18,639 -- seriously -- the DOE proposes to “provide flexibility to institutions to modify their curriculum at the recommendations of industry advisory boards and without relying on a traditional faculty-led decision-making process.” (It’s an amendment to section 668.5, for those keeping score at home.) On page 18,658, it elaborates: “This flexibility to account for established industry standards in designing programs would extend to institutional governance or decision-making changes where an institution looks to such standards as an alternative to allowing or requiring faculty control or approval.”

So for programs that have industry advisory boards -- meaning career and technical education, such as those covered by Perkins -- we no longer have to “allow … faculty control or approval.” That seems worth a mention.

It’s buried in bureaucratic language, but the change is potentially dramatic. By my nonlawyer reading, a college, if it were so inclined, could establish two parallel curriculum-approval processes. The one for programs without industry advisory boards -- the liberal arts, say -- could remain within the purview of faculty-led curriculum committees or similar. (We call ours Academic Council, but it’s the same idea.) Programs with industry advisory boards could be directed by college leadership to align with feedback from industry advisory boards, regardless of what faculty say.

I’m a fan of advisory boards as a source of input, and I won’t deny for a minute that curricular debates can be taxing. But giving colleges the option to simply bypass shared governance altogether is a pretty fundamental change. At the most basic level, it shifts ownership of curriculum to the administration. I would have expected that proposal to attract more notice.

The second, which is just ambiguously written enough to spawn a thousand lawsuits, comes in the section discussing the credit hour.

Much of the discussion of the credit hour (section 600.2) is around competency-based education, direct assessment and subscription-based programs, as one would expect. The proposal calls for maintaining the “seat time” standard for classroom-based classes, largely for fear of abuse if that standard went away.

But in the “reasons” section on page 18,646, the discussion turns to labs. The language cites “ample evidence that most students do not spend anywhere near the amount of time doing homework that they are given credit for in the credit hour definition.” (That is, most students don’t spend two hours on homework for every hour of class time.) However, students doing labs often receive only fractional credit, typically one credit for every two hours.

Here’s where it gets either revolutionary or toothless, depending on how you read it.

On page 18,647, it delivers one of the weirder passages I’ve seen in a proposed regulation.

“The Department wishes to call attention to the need to be consistent in the way that institutions and accreditors measure a credit hour, and that it may no longer be justifiable to treat lecture and laboratory classes differently when assigning credit. The new definition of a credit hour demands equitable treatment of student work; therefore, the amount of credit awarded for laboratory classes should be equivalent to that awarded for lecture classes.”

I can’t help but notice the words “may” and “should,” as opposed to, say, “is” and “shall.”

If this is meant as a mandate -- if it meant to use “is” and “shall” -- then we have a massive upending of curriculum on our hands. If credit hours have to equal contact hours, then either we have to give more credits for studio and lab classes, or we need to shorten them. (Or we need to wipe out the rest of general education for science majors.) Coming on the heels of a recent state mandate to reduce degree requirements to 60 credits, applying credit inflation to science labs would squeeze the rest of the curriculum even more.

Of course, that assumes that it’s meant as a mandate. The language waffles on that. One doesn’t mandate a change in practice to “call attention to” a concept. And words like “may” and “should” are conditional.

So this section is either a curricular earthquake waiting to happen or a head fake. The former should attract much more notice than it has; the latter is just weird.

Anyway, if you have thoughts to share on these proposals and you’d like to go beyond the comments section to this piece, the federal e-rule-making portal is at www.Regulations.gov.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled virus news.


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