• 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.


Seeing What Isn’t There

A challenge in creating new programs.


September 5, 2018

Like most colleges, mine has a pretty robust process for developing and vetting new program proposals. The process starts in existing academic departments, with faculty there proposing something. It moves to the divisional level, then through Academic Council (similar to a curriculum committee), and then to the collegewide governance body for ratification.  The idea is to recognize the unique role of faculty in curriculum, while still subjecting ideas to enough scrutiny to ensure that something won’t get approved just because it’s somebody’s pet idea.

And it works pretty much as described, which is fine when dealing with tweaks to existing curricula, or logical extensions of them. 

It can fall short, though, when new needs crop up beyond what you already have. If nobody is close enough to it, in terms of training, to take ownership, then nobody owns it and it dies of neglect. (More accurately, it’s never born in the first place.) A sort of stationary inertia sets in.

Once in a while you get lucky and someone in field A, which you already have, brings a secondary expertise in field B, which you need.  If the stars align, that person can eventually put forward something for field B. That’s lovely, when it works. For example, it worked here with Hospitality Management because our Culinary person happened to have a background in it. 

But sometimes an idea is far enough from anything currently established that it needs a jump start.  That’s where things get sticky.

Grants can sometimes provide jump starts.  In fact, that’s often their stated purpose.  But competitive grants tend to reward already-strong programs, rather than helping to create new ones.  They also often require a commitment to post-grant sustainability, which may not be something a college can promise when trying something entirely new.  There’s a “you first” problem that can trap new ideas. They get funding when they show success, but they can’t get the resources to show success without funding.  A grant can help, but only after you show that it’s already working, and you’ve already benchmarked assessments several years out. Without a track record, you’d have to invent those out of whole cloth.

From a funder’s perspective, that makes sense.  If your concern is bang for the buck, you’re likelier to get it when you scale up things that have already proven themselves.  But from a campus perspective, grants that seem at first to offer hope can wind up being unattainable, precisely because they’re needed. 

In relatively flush times, if memory serves, it can be relatively straightforward to allocate internal funds towards something new.  But when enrollments and/or budgets are falling, it’s harder. And even if you can, the “you first” problem applies to curriculum.

I’ll admit that my view of the “you first” problem has evolved over time. For a while, I grudgingly accepted it as an annoying fact of academic life.  But the cost of inertia keeps rising. As I write this, one community college in my state is down 20 percent in enrollment from last year, and another has laid off 43 people and is in the process of folding itself into a larger neighbor.  We’re down for the seventh consecutive year, with a cumulative impact well into double digits. The pattern is getting harder to ignore, and the results harder to accept.

The trick is in choosing the intervention. How do you see what you don’t have, but need?

I’m thinking that the key is looking off campus. Which industries in your area are growing? What do students keep asking for that you don’t have?  Who is so desperate to hire that they’re hiring unqualified people and training them themselves? That may mean opening up curricular discussions to people who aren’t faculty, at least at the outset, but that’s okay.  Hospitality Management caught a wave, and is thriving, with more employers calling for students than we have students in the program. It’s actually growing. It’s meeting a need.

It may even involve looking farther off campus, at what colleges in other states are doing.  Yes, that can seem threatening, but it’s no more threatening than sustained decline.

Wise and worldly readers, how have your colleges or businesses gone about interrupting declines, or seeing what they don’t already have.


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Matt Reed

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