• 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.


Such As…?

Different ways of leading colleges.


April 20, 2017

Yesterday’s post, a call for new approaches to leading colleges, lead to a round of questions that boiled down to “such as…?”  

Fair enough.

If growth won’t save us anymore, and shrinkage won’t save us either, what will?

I’m thinking that student success is a really good place to start. It would fulfill the college’s mission and rescue its budget at the same time. It would help the community, and put the college in good standing with legislators. 

But how to do that when resources are tight and getting tighter? What if you can’t hire an army of counselors and success coaches?

I’ve challenged my own campus to come up with possible approaches, but the challenge came with criteria:

  • Any change has to be academically sound. Reducing quality or integrity is a non-starter.
  • It can’t rely on a massive infusion of new money.
  • It has to be consistent with the social justice mission. We could easily improve our graduation rates simply by focusing recruitment only on areas with high incomes. But that would defeat the reason the college exists.
  • It has to work at scale. For a college of about 13,000 students, a program that reaches 50 people may be great for those 50, but it won’t reach enough to save us.

The criteria strike me as reasonable. The first and third are basically moral positions. The second and fourth are more pragmatic. We can’t replicate ASAP, as successful as it is, because we just don’t have the money to hire the people to provide those services. And while we have some wonderful targeted programs for small groups, the ratio of staff to students in those programs can’t be duplicated for large numbers.  

To get the discussion going, I provided two examples.  

The first, and the easier of the two, involves going to split semesters. Instead of having students take, say, four courses over four months, have them take two over two months and then again. The idea is to reduce the number of balls to juggle at any one time, and to reduce the damage done when life gets in the way. Odessa College and Trident Technical College have had some notable success with this approach, particularly with students who had struggled in a traditional semester.

The idea struck some as radical, which surprised me a bit. It still relies on classrooms, credit hours, and the curriculum we have now; the only change is scheduling. There would be some cost in shifting some back-office operations to a new cycle, but once that’s done, it’s done. Courses would have to be adjusted once, but then they’d be set.

The second involved moving to a competency-based format, in which we’d abandon credit hours and classrooms altogether. That would get around Baumol’s Cost Disease, which lies at the basis of many of our economic issues. It’s a more radical approach than split semesters, since it gets away from idea of semesters and credit hours entirely.  

At the end, though, I invited others to suggest ideas that meet the four criteria. I’m hoping some folks respond with ideas I’ve never thought of, or with refinements to take rough concepts to a new level. A few related to scheduling came up; I’m hoping to hear more, especially in forms or formats that haven’t occurred to me.

Part of the message here is pragmatic: we need to find ways to become more successful academically and financially. But it’s also performative. Leading, in this approach, isn’t just about declaring; it’s about conveying the parameters of a challenge, and then working with people to find and forge solutions. That means being willing to go out on a limb in front of people. If I want others to do that, it’s only fair that I start by doing it myself.  If all goes well, I’m hopeful that we’ll move from the usual pinata approach to new ideas to something more constructive, and we’ll benefit from having many smart sets of eyes on it.

That’s a different skill set than the one involved in getting new buildings built, but that’s okay.  The challenge now is success, not space.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have some ideas that would fit the four criteria?  


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