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Brookdale had a student speakout this week, as it does a couple of times per year. Student government organizes it, with support from student activities. I attended, along with the president, the deans and the folks from IT and student affairs. We attend every year.

The speakouts are pretty well advertised on campus, and the students tend to be candid. Speakouts have happened often enough and long enough, at this point, that they’re expected. They give students a chance to ask whatever they want, in a context in which enough people are physically present that there’s no excuse for giving the “why don’t you talk to …” runaround. And we don’t get the questions in advance, so there’s an element of working without a net.

Most years are a mix of evergreen questions -- “why don’t all of the professors use Canvas?” -- and ones reflecting recent campus events or proposals. Some of each came up this year, too, even including one about parking. I would have thought years of declining enrollment would have solved that. Sustained enrollment declines aren’t good news generally, but they do tend to free up parking spaces. Let’s at least acknowledge that.

One asked whether tuition would go down once campus renovations were done. The president pointed out that the money for those renovations comes from the state and the county through a special program that earmarks the money specifically for renovations. We can use it or not, but we can’t repurpose it for, say, salaries or tuition reduction. I couldn’t blame the student for asking, though; public-sector budgeting isn’t terribly intuitive.

This year, though, it appeared that some students were much more in touch with national trends than I’ve seen before. That was new.

One student mentioned that there’s a national trend toward the use of more adjunct faculty and asked if we were going in the same direction. I was impressed that he knew about the national trend and cared about it. I acknowledged his point about the national direction, but pointed out that our adjunct percentage is actually dropping. That’s not because of hiring, though; it’s because when enrollment drops, adjunct sections are the first to go. It’s an irony of austerity that a measure usually taken as a sign of wealth actually moves up when funding goes down. (Before the fiscal hawks out there take that as a sign of administrative cowardice, I’ll just point out that state law requires us to prioritize the incumbent full-timers.) That’s what happens when you subtract from the denominator.

Another asked about measures we’re taking to attack textbook costs. That gave me a chance to discuss OER and the progress we’ve made in OER adoption. When I asked for a show of hands of students who’ve had classes with OER, though, the proportion was disappointing. I suggested that students share their concerns about textbook costs with their professors, and even ask their professors who aren’t using OER why they aren’t. My colleague from student affairs, Yesenia Madas, added that there’s actually a search field in the student scheduling system that allows students to look specifically for sections using OER. I wouldn’t mind at all if that little nugget went viral on campus. If more students vote with their feet, I suspect the rate of OER adoption would increase quickly.

I came away from this one, as from most of the previous ones, energized. The realities that the students conveyed were very much the ones we’re working to address. Knowing that we’re focused on the same things, and that the solutions we’re working on make sense, gives me hope. And hearing them ask thoughtful and informed questions -- even if sometimes seasoned with a hint of vinegar -- suggested that we’re doing something right. They were the kinds of questions that smart people who care would ask. That’s all I can ask of them.

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