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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Job training
November 16, 2009 - 3:14pm

A commenter on a previous post accused me (on what evidence, I can't discern) of wanting to turn all of higher education into "job training and vocational skills workshops." Would only that I did -- I could have saved all that money I spent sending three kids through private liberal arts colleges (albeit with the help of generous financial aid).

Truth be told, I do consider a well-rounded liberal arts education the best preparation for the kind of jobs my kids are likely to want. Each of them may, in the fullness of time, go on to get one or another advanced degree which -- call it vocational or professional, it doesn't really matter -- will be designed specifically towards a single area of economic or cultural endeavor. But before they head down that road, they need to learn how to navigate, to plan, to think and to question. Questioning is probably the most important of the four.

One of the most interesting (in the sense of "may you live in interesting times") elements of doing sustainability work on campus is that you get to (have to) work with people of varying mindsets. Perhaps these discrete perspectives were developed at an early age; perhaps they were set in place by job training and vocational skills workshops. By the time I get to deal with them and their hosts, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that each mindset carries with it a different set of values and expectations, a different (often implicit) pay-off algorithm.

The simplest to deal with (and sometimes, surprisingly, the most supportive of sustainability initiatives) are the business/facilities management staff. A lot of the heavy lifting of emissions reduction is currently being done on the facilities side, and the get-it-done attitude Greenback's facilities departments have generally shown is refreshing. Sure, the bottom-line orientation of some managers can be annoying at times but, on the whole, these folks take a pragmatic approach to the problem of the moment. They're generally experienced enough to know more than one way to do any job and, thus, the suggestion that there might be some better way yet to be discovered or tried (particularly when the operative definition of "better" has explicitly changed) doesn't seem to threaten them.

Staff who report to the Dean of Students are also, generally, easy to get along with. They seem well prepared to do their jobs, whether it's supporting students who need it or facilitating co-curricular education in competency at life. On occasion, I run into one who's a little too much into "rescue mode", a little too eager to coddle kids who could benefit from a little reality-based feedback. But the pattern seems to be that those folks are the newbies -- well-intentioned but inexperienced. Their sense of borders seems to get better as they age (or maybe it's just that the ones who don't develop a sense of borders tend to burn out and leave).

Faculty are a far more mixed bag. Some, I know I don't understand in terms of what makes them tick. Others, it's pretty obvious: sometimes, a combination of intellectual curiosity and a pride of authorship; other times, a true love of teaching. But I've also seem faculty members who (to the extent I can figure it out) seem to be driven primarily by a need for acclaim coupled with a disinclination to do real work. These (and they're relatively few) seem bent on being 'best friends forever' with the current cohort of students, as they were with the one just past, and as they will no doubt be with the one next to come.

Why do I pay attention to what makes folks tick? My job is (in large part) to instill change in their behavior. Since I can't force behavioral change, I need to incent it (or cause the system to incent it). That means, I need to know what each group would recognize/react to as an incentive. When enough behavior changes, the campus culture begins to shift. And Greenback's campus culture (while definitely shifting) still has quite a ways to go.

So unlike the facilities managers who, left to their own devices, would define "desirable change" as anything that helps them attain the traditional result at a decreased cost -- unlike the student affairs folks whose professional focus is on creating desirable changes one student at a time -- unlike the faculty, many of whom seem to resist change and others who measure it only within the bounds of their discipline (and I know I'm leaving out a lot of folks there), it's part of my job actively to look for change opportunities. I need to be constantly questioning, constantly skeptical. Greenback's like an aircraft carrier -- it doesn't change direction quickly nor without constant pressure. Probably, from time to time, the stress and frustration of applying that pressure spills over onto these pages. But when things eventually work out, it can be immensely satisfying.

And that's a satisfaction level I couldn't achieve were it not for my undergraduate education at a four-year liberal arts college. Vocational skills workshops are for specialists.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.


-Robert A. Heinlein


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