• 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.


Online Enrollment and Campus Culture

A growing tension.

January 14, 2020

This is a “thinking out loud” piece. It’s not advocating for a particular point of view, because I haven’t landed on one. I’m trusting my wise and worldly readers to engage in that spirit.

As a community college, we’re unapologetically focused on teaching. Research and athletics take much smaller roles here than they do at, say, a flagship state university. That’s by design.

Much of the life of the campus occurs in classrooms, in offices and in hallways.

That culture now is being pulled in contradictory directions, and the force in each direction is getting stronger. The tension is getting harder to ignore.

On one hand, the percentage of classes taught online is continuing to grow. Even as other forms of enrollment have shrunk, online has either held or increased. (The other area of increase is dual enrollment.) Online sections used to be the last to fill, but that’s not true anymore. While it’s true that most of our online students are also on-site students -- they mix and match to optimize their schedules around family, transportation and paid work -- more of them are taking multiple online classes at once. The balance of on-site and online classes continues to tip more in favor of online.

Given both the mission of access and the need for enrollment, we need to accommodate that shift. As we reach out more to working adults, online makes tremendous sense. And as an added bonus, the shift to online has helped to solve our parking problem. Nobody talks about building a parking deck anymore.

On the other hand, though, it’s hard to convey a welcoming campus culture when fewer faculty are around at any given time. The feel of a department starts to change. If people who used to be on campus four days a week are suddenly here only two days a week, areas that used to bustle with activity start to feel like ghost towns. The culture starts to fray. Shared governance becomes harder when fewer people are around for meetings. Those serendipitous hallway or office conversations that form the social glue of the place start to fade away.

Research universities have been like this for a long time, which I think may partly explain why the culture of so many graduate programs is so toxic. Departments lack the cohesion, or at least the common courtesy, that has to form when people are around each other regularly. The old notion of a collegium is sacrificed.

That’s not just an aesthetic or nostalgic issue. Students can tell the difference between a bustling area and a dead one. They draw a message from an entire hallway of closed doors and empty offices.

When online classes started, the numbers were small enough that they didn’t much affect the larger culture. But now they’re reaching the point at which further accommodation of the online trend will mean acceding to a whole lot of empty offices much of the time. That’s new, and it’s at cross purposes with the message we’re trying to send students.

We don’t have the resources to have two separate faculties, one for each modality. Instead, we’re trying to maintain the old, build the new and improve outcomes, while shrinking. To call that a challenge would be understating.

Wise and worldly readers, I know we aren’t the only place dealing with these issues. Have you seen them handled especially well somewhere? If so, how did they do it?

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Matt Reed

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