• 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.


Monocultures and Pathogens

Why change can be so difficult in higher ed.

June 9, 2020

On Monday in Inside Higher Ed, Benjamin Reiss offered a proposal to change the academic calendar in ways that he thought would be helpful. The first half dozen or so comments pointed out a series of practical objections, some of which I thought were hard to refute. But as I read through them, I couldn’t help but sympathize. I’ve seen many an idea die the death of a thousand cuts, and many of those cuts were unwarranted.

The specific proposal was to move to three four-month semesters per year, with faculty and students picking any two of the three. That way, at least in theory, they could work around pandemics, personal health issues, family issues or other life obstacles.

The idea isn’t without precedent; it’s how DeVry worked when I taught there. I taught 15 credits at a time, 12 months a year, for years. (The “choose any two of three” part of the plan wasn’t offered. It was “do all three or quit.”) From a student perspective, it offered the distinct advantage of reducing the opportunity cost of a degree. If you could finish the eight semesters of a bachelor’s degree in less than three years (8/3), then you could be out in the labor market more than a year earlier. But the cultural and systemic inertia around summer breaks was strong. Financial aid policies are written on the default assumption of fall and spring semesters. Internships tend to be concentrated in the summer. Parents of kids in the K-12 system have to deal with summer break. The summer term was always the lowest enrolled.

From a faculty perspective, it was incredibly draining. I remember asking once about moving to a “choose any two of three” schedule; it was received about as well as you might expect.

Practical objections to Reiss’s plan were several. One persuasively noted that the pitch -- maximize student and faculty choice -- is internally contradictory. Maximizing student choice means assigning some faculty to classes they didn’t want; maximizing faculty choice means hoping against hope that students will somehow be able to stitch together coherent degree pathways when schedules are subject to hundreds of different masters. Someone has to be the bad guy, which is where administration comes in. If it didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it.

I was particularly struck, though, by the implied timeline. It would be utterly remarkable to see a change of that magnitude happen in a few months. Even a few years is optimistic.

Reiss works at Emory. I don’t know if the faculty at Emory are unionized. Brookdale’s are. The collective bargaining agreement, like financial aid policy, is written on the assumption of a fall semester and a spring semester. Changing the calendar like that would require “impact bargaining” at such a level as to essentially constitute a new contract. That would take a minimum of a year. How would professors choose which semesters to take? How long in advance? Who gets the less desirable assignment? What if a course doesn’t run in a chosen semester? What about released-time assignments, like chairing a department? Do department chairs have to be there 12 months a year, or do they have some sort of rotation? (If so, expect much authority to devolve to administrative assistants, by default.) Assignments like student club adviser would become much more complicated, with advisers cycling in and out every four to eight months.

Not to mention shared governance. I would imagine that governance would attack the idea hard and fast, perceiving it as a threat. If only two-thirds of the faculty are around at any given time, then governance would be much harder to sustain; continuity errors would abound. And since the “choose your own calendar” proposal would presumably only apply to faculty, as opposed to staff or administration, I could imagine some faculty leaders perceiving it as a power grab by the other constituencies. What was intended as humane flexibility could look, to a cynical observer, like voter suppression.

Then there’s the basic issue of schedule development. The course schedule is developed nine to 12 months in advance. It takes into account historical and projected enrollment patterns, room availability, curricular changes, graduation requirements, and known preferences. We’ve been registering students for the fall since April. Even if you manage to get the union issues settled in a year, and the governance issues settled after that, you then have to allow a year of lead time before publishing the changed schedule.

I say all of this not in condemnation, but in sympathy. Systemic changes in organizations rife with veto groups are slow, partial, fragile and rare. They’re also necessary. If we saw more experimentation, we’d be less likely to see the entire industry struggling at the same time. As any farmer can tell you, pathogens thrive in monocultures; COVID-19’s effects on higher education should settle that question once and for all. If we want the system to be resilient, we need to allow its members to try many different approaches. That may mean taking a good, long look at some of our guiding assumptions.

So I say no to the proposal, but thanks for the effort. We need ideas like these, even if not this particular one. And we need to build organizations with enough confidence and spirit to take a flier on a new idea from time to time.

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Matt Reed

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