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  • 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.

February 28, 2011 - 3:58am

(Filed from the conference of The League for Innovation in the Community College, in a surprisingly chilly San Diego.)

I missed last year’s conference of the League for Innovation, so with a little distance, I’ve noticed some changes. The most striking is the sudden omnipresence of for-profits. The lanyards for the nametags bear the logo of Cappella University. Terry O’Banion, the former President of the League, did plugs for Walden U and Cappella U during his talk. Panels that are listed as if they were the fruits of research turn out to be designed to hawk software from a given vendor, which is the presenter’s “secondary” affiliation. It used to be that clear commercialism was mostly limited to the exhibition hall, where it was expected; now it’s becoming the content of presentations.

I’ve also been struck by the virtual disappearance of the phrase “community college movement.” In years past, I heard that a lot. This year, the only people who’ve used the phrase have been folks with “emeritus” in their titles. During the keynote, by Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation, I heard instead discussion of a “reform movement” for community colleges. The distinction is generational, and it gives me hope.

Anyway, a few observations thus far:

-- At a wonderfully informative panel geared towards people applying for community college presidencies, I noticed that the audience was more than two-to-one female. That’s consistent with what I’ve seen at statewide meetings in my own state at every level below the presidency. Change is coming, and it’s coming soon.

-- Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal a lot. Both of the speakers at the “future presidents” panel referred to “applying for your first presidency,” as if a second and third are simply assumed. It was a little jarring. One speaker recommended targeting a single campus of a multi-campus system for a first presidency, since the chancellor offers a buffer with the Board. Kind of a “starter” presidency. It had never even occurred to me to think of that.

-- Judging by the discussion, the quality of Boards of Trustees varies pretty widely across the country. I can honestly say that I’m lucky on that count.

-- Terry O’Banion spoke of the “New Normal” for community colleges. He got off one great line -- “we accept the top 100 percent of our applicants” -- but otherwise did a fairly predictable discussion of declining funding, rising enrollments, and the rise of the for-profits. I was a little taken aback when he used statistics about a forthcoming great wave of retirements from college administrations -- I could swear I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before -- to plug the for-profit educational leadership graduate program he runs. So it goes.

-- The highlight thus far was a panel on developmental education. It featured two women from the Community College Research Center at Columbia, and one woman from the math department at Los Medanos College in California. Nikki Edgecombe, from the CCRC, is clearly a rising star; expect to hear from her in the future. She mentioned that one study the CCRC did of community colleges in Virginia in 2009 that showed that students who managed to evade developmental classes, even though they had “placed” into them, did just as well in college-level courses as students who actually did what they were told. She also pointed out that failing classes and dropping out are two different things, and that national data suggests that a surprising number of students drop out after passing developmental classes.

-- Prof. Myra Snell, from Los Medanos, coined a wonderful word: “stupiphany.” She defined it as that sudden realization that you were an idiot for not knowing something before. The major “stupiphany” she offered was the realization that the primary driver of student attrition in math sequences isn’t any one class; it’s the length of the sequence. Each additional class provides a new exit point; if you want to reduce the number who leave, you need to reduce the number of exit points. If you assume three levels of remediation (fairly standard) and one college-level math class, and you assume a seventy percent pass rate at each level (which would be superhuman for the first level of developmental, but never mind that), then about 24 percent will eventually make it through the first college-level class. Reduce the sequence by one course, and 34 percent will. Accordingly, she’s working on “just in time” remediation in the context of a college-level course. There is definitely something to this.

-- The keynote was a talk-show style interview by Mark Milliron of Allan Golston. They’re both working with the Gates foundation. The audio was godawful -- it sounded like the old 16 mm movies we used to see in elementary school when the sprockets skipped -- but from what I could actually hear, the content was heartening. Golston noted that developmental ed is the “Bermuda Triangle of higher education,” especially for adult students, for whom “time is the enemy.” He (correctly) noted the irrationality of measuring learning in units of seat time, calling for diagnostic exams that are diagnostic enough to allow students to take only what they actually need. The highlight for me, though, was at the end, when he addressed the need to be “radically practical.” In that context, he noted that a failure to address cost when discussing possible improvements actually does real harm.

Past conferences have featured more nostalgia, more swing-for-the-cheap-seats idealism, and more clubbiness among members of the founding generation. This one is notably more focused on cost and practicality. It seems more lightly attended -- the keynote audience was more than half empty -- but the questions far more relevant and useful. On to day two!


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