• 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.


Virtual Conferencing, Day 1

The Middle States conference, online.

December 15, 2021

This week the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)—our “regional” accrediting agency—is having its annual conference. The conference is being held virtually.

The virtual conference experience has its virtues beyond preventing contagion. It saves travel time and cost, most notably. But the networking piece is missing, and without it, the conference feels more like a series of webinars.

I put “regional” in quotes because a couple of years ago the previous administration rescinded the rule that gave each regional accreditor a geographic monopoly. Heather Perfetti’s opening address mentioned that MSCHE now has member colleges in Montana, Virginia and Florida. To my mind, this is a vastly undercovered story. If colleges are able to accreditor-shop without giving up the prestige of “regional” accreditation, then the various agencies have an incentive to compete with each other for members. Under conditions of local monopoly, they could be pretty challenging; now, a college that doesn’t like, say, SACS, could try its luck with MSCHE or NECHE. Over time, I anticipate shenanigans.

My erstwhile Aspen colleague Michelle Asha Cooper, now with the Department of Education, gave the opening address. She focused on the Biden/Harris agenda for higher education and on the need for conscious attention to equity both in federal policy and in local decisions. She correctly anticipated that many of us in the community college world were frustrated when “free community college” got compromised down to “increase Pell by $550,” but she framed it as positively as one reasonably could. I’ll admit being relieved when I saw that she was a keynote speaker; she’s always thoughtful, compelling and purposeful, and the streak continued.

The afternoon keynote was by Adrianna Kezar. She is a well-known scholar of higher education who writes frequently on issues of shared governance and academic labor. Her talk, “Leading Out of the Pandemic and for Racial Equity,” reflected its title.

I’ll admit being a little twitchy when she started by using the term “decline” several times in discussing shared governance. I’m not a fan of “golden age” narratives generally. They tend to rely on selective memory, or on convenient fiction. It wasn’t necessarily central to her argument, but it wasn’t a promising start. She turned to a binary distinction between shared governance (good) and top-down governance (bad). The political theorist in me started tapping my pen on the keyboard.

When she went from diagnosis to prescription, though, she got much better. She offered a template for “liberatory design” as a group decision method. It includes eight steps: organize, empathize, redefine, ideate, choose, prototype, get buy-in and test.

It’s easy enough to quibble with that, of course. “Get buy-in” is not a discrete step, for instance. And some ideas are big enough that they can’t really be “piloted” (or “tested”); you have to jump in with both feet, or not at all. But as I mulled it over, I realized that quibbling with a specific step was sort of missing the point. The point is the open-ended inclusive conversation that precedes concrete proposals.

Those are challenging when people are busy and information is unevenly distributed. “Transparency” helps, to a point, but it assumes both a frame of reference and the time to spend digesting the information. Democratic theory offers parties as solutions to distracted voters, and a judicial branch to check the tyranny of the majority. Campus shared governance typically lacks either parties or a judicial branch. That makes the task of providing context all the more important.

Kezar’s contribution is in pointing out the need to expect the task of providing context to take a while, and for it to involve a lot of give-and-take. I think that’s right. It’s probably more iterative than linear, but that’s okay. And at some level, the fact that I’m still mulling it over hours later probably suggests there’s something there.

On to day two. At least the parking is easy.


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