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Liveblogging the League, Part II
March 3, 2008 - 11:29am

One of the purposes of conferences, I think, is to facilitate serendipity. Like when a not-very-enlightening presentations leads, almost despite itself, to a very enlightening Q-and-A. Or when two very different takes on the same concept help you nail down what makes you uneasy about both.

After an earnest but not terribly helpful discussion of one college's attempt to move to the "Learning College" model - again, an entire session based on one college - a surprisingly lively discussion ensued in which I saw that the critical mind is not dead.

Several folks mentioned that their colleges had made efforts a few years ago to adopt the "Learning College" model, but that it died on the vine for lack of buy-in and, sometimes, open hostility.

(As near as I can tell, the "Learning College" model is a codified approach -- a checklist, almost - that colleges can implement to re-orient their energies to putting students first. For example, one of the folks there mentioned that at his college, faculty annual performance reviews (!) include data on how many students in a given professor's class achieved the
'learning outcomes' they were supposed to. If the students don't succeed at an appropriate level, the presumption goes, then the professor has some serious work to do. Faculty promotions ride on student success. It's an interesting theory, though I imagine its reception at my cc would be, um, let's go with *chilly*.)

It's easy to imagine how something like this could fail. After all, one could reasonably protest, cc's are open-admissions. Faculty have little to no control over who shows up in their classes, especially at the remedial or intro levels. And basing faculty promotions on student success rates would have to lead either to some sort of standardization to measure success -
mostly anathema in higher ed - or grade inflation.

But there's nothing like experience. According to the folks from colleges where this approach had been introduced but failed, several other objections arose:

1. The name. When the faculty were told of the "Learning College" model, some responded with something along the lines of "what do you think we've been *doing* all this time?" I have to admit there's some validity to this.

2. Lack of follow-through. Simply having the President announce that "we're going to be a Learning College" doesn't get it done, especially if the college doesn't follow through with realigning its budget. Words with money are persuasive; words alone aren't.

3. Lack of clarity in how to execute. Several people openly disparaged the "copy-and-paste" model that suggests that you can just do what others did elsewhere, and expect it to work.

I got a better sense of what they were trying to do when Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia CC in Orlando, Florida, gave the keynote address. Valencia is well-regarded among the "Learning College" crowd, and President Shugart gets a lot of credit for that.

I'll admit, I was on my guard as he started. He stepped on stage in an untucked shirt and black jeans, and immediately strapped on a guitar. I immediately had flashbacks to painfully earnest 'youth sermons' back in the seventies. He launched into a song called "You Don't Know Me," which I thought was a bizarre choice to introduce a keynote address. My douchebag alarm was beeping.

It got better, though. He showed a series of film clips featuring teachers - the audience responded most strongly to Ben Stein's star turn in *Ferris Bueller* and John Houseman in *The Paper Chase*. He suggested that the common denominator to all the clips was the theme of the heroic teacher struggling to overcome the insanity of the organization. I perked up a bit.

Most of his talk was devoted to explaining ways in which colleges inadvertently block students from succeeding. It ranged from romantic/squishy/creepy -- "they won't care what you know until they know how much you care" -- to contrarian -- "'buy-in' is paternal, dishonest, coercive with a smile" -- to laugh-out-loud accurate -- "we're in the process of killing our committees. Committees are about advocacy and politics."

As he put it, he saw the method of the Learning College as starting with changing people's hearts; in his words, the rest is tactics. Rather than starting with the checklist that may or may not survive a transplant, he started with an attitude and suggested that the checklist would eventually take care of itself.

Seldom have I felt more like a social scientist.

The talk was engaging, and the results on the ground have apparently been impressive. (He mentioned a Fall-to-Spring retention rate of 86 percent, which is astronomical by cc standards.) But the combination of doing away with standing committees and trying to change hearts struck me as dangerous on a good day, and disastrous on a bad one. Yes, doing away with safeguards against administrative overreach - which, themselves, often overreach quite badly - can make it possible to accomplish great things. But it can also make it possible for folks on top to get carried away, to write off
substantive disagreement as personal shortcoming, and to set up a mild version of a cult of personality. The kind in which the maximum leader feels free to take the stage with a guitar and sing about how we don't know him.

Talking about hearts makes me nervous. I prefer to manage my own emotions, thank you very much. Talk about incentives, and we're getting somewhere. Work to be done, work to be done...


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